I was in China when Notre Dame burned.
When the cathedral caught fire, it was the middle of the night in my time zone. By all rights, I should only have found out about it when I woke up the next morning, but for some reason I suddenly found myself fully awake at 2 a.m., in time to check the news and find out about the fire in real time. I stayed awake long enough to offer a prayer to St. Florian before slipping back to sleep.
As the fire raged, I saw the same comment all over social media. It was some variation of: Notre Dame burning is a symbol of what has happened to the faith in France, and in the West in general.
I didn’t respond to those comments at the time; emotions were understandably raw, and it didn’t seem like a prudent moment to make a comment that could easily be misinterpreted.
Now that some time has passed, and since by God’s grace the main structure of the cathedral has survived and people are somewhat ameliorated, let me finally react to those remarks.
The burning of Notre Dame isn’t the symbol of what’s happened to the faith in the West. If anything, it’s a judgment on what’s happened to the faith in the West: The museum-ification of cathedrals.
One of my most vivid memories of attending Mass in Notre Dame in Paris is seeing a young couple, clearly dressed for tourism rather than reverence, looking at each other about a quarter of the way through the Mass and getting up to leave.
It wasn’t sufficiently interesting to be part of their vacation photos, I suppose, and they joined the stream of sightseers who lined the walls of the cathedral peering at the art while the sacrifice of the Mass was offered to God.
Now, unlike my experience of Notre Dame in Quebec, at least the Parisian cathedral didn’t forcibly kick worshippers out its doors to make room for paying customers who were there for a tour. (We had already donated money to buy a votive candle even though we never ended up getting one, so I suppose we could have also protested that we, too, were “paying customers” rather than mere worshippers as well),
Still, the image of people strolling through Notre Dame like it was Versailles or the Louvre, nodding appreciatively at the artistic techniques but not venerating the icons or praying with the Stations of the Cross, is, to me, was the real symbol of what has happened to the faith in the West.
With the decline of Mass attendance, we see cathedrals being used to attract tourists and donors, the way a street busker or magician might try to impress people into giving them a few coins.
There is something creepy about seeing security guards herding visitors through a church when there are so many lost sheep outside of it. The implication seems to be that, even if the Body of Christ is shrinking, at least we still have pretty buildings that everyone likes to look at.
It does not take too much imagination to guess what the Old Testament prophets who accused Jerusalem of harlotry would have to say about this.
In those times, the Temple was supposed to be a place to encounter God. But the people of God began to comfortably rest in the presence of the Temple and take God’s favour for granted. Despite their spiritual unfaithfulness, they assumed they would always be fine because it was there. In response, God destroyed the Temple.
The Catholic reactionary Joseph de Maistre, who lived through the French Revolution, emphatically condemned the revolutionary ideology, but also saw the carnage of the Revolution as a judgment on the French state that had preceded it. The Book of Job and the words of Christ (Luke 13:1-5) caution us against being quick to interpret any phenomenon as God’s judgment. But de Maistre’s assessment comes to mind all the same.
I have seen a lot of relief and excitement among Catholics that there have been so many offers to pay for the reconstruction of the church. But consider why these fabulously wealthy people want to rebuild Notre Dame.
If they could rebuild it identically, but without putting the Eucharist in the Tabernacle, they would have no problem doing so. (Would they care about a parish church burning down?) They are reacting the exact same way that they would if the Taj Mahal or Big Ben caught fire. Their concern is exclusively aesthetic.
But isn’t an aesthetic appreciation alright? After all, beauty is one of the transcendentals, and Fyodor Dostoevsky said that beauty will save the world. The Church has always appreciated beauty as a path to God.
Yes, but that’s exactly the point: it values it as a path to God. Beauty can lead to God, but, like love, it becomes a devil when it becomes a god. (Consider how severe and merciless some artists, film directors, and fashion directors can be in pursuit of their idea of beauty.)
The theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, an immensely cultured and musical man in his own right, wrote volumes dedicated to proving that Christ, even in the apparent ugliness of the cross, is the true form of beauty. Human creativity can only attempt to mimic this, and to point back to it. The earthly art we create should open us up to the theo-aesthetic.
This, Balthasar stressed, was the goal of the great medieval artists. The haunting, yawning splendour of Notre Dame was meant to direct the spectators’ minds to the glory of God and the beauty of holiness.
Is that happening today? It doesn’t look like it. Millions of dollars are pouring into this cathedral, but millions of French people are not pouring into the Church. Yet people seem relieved: At least the cathedral will be rebuilt.
Something is wrong. We are making the same mistake Francis of Assisi initially made when God told him to “rebuild my Church”. He wasn’t primarily talking about brick and mortar, but about a spiritual renewal. Francis eventually achieved this. Will we?
There has been some discussion about how to rebuild Notre Dame. Proposals to make it more “green”, covered with grass and generating solar energy, have been raised.
This seems like a beautiful implementation of Laudato Si, but pushback has been predictable, especially from traditionalists who would like the reconstruction to be identical to what went before. The usual objection to any new design is predictable. There is a fear is that the rebuilt cathedral won’t be as beautiful.
That is exactly what happened when the Jews from Babylon rebuilt the Temple: The older folks who remembered Solomon’s earlier Temple wept because it was so inferior to its predecessor (Ezra 3:12).
Yet the prophet Haggai assured them: Don’t cry! This Temple may not look like much, but God will do something great there, and it will exceed the first one in glory (Haggai 2:1-3, 9).
This was fulfilled when God Incarnate came to that Temple, to be dedicated, to question the teachers, to cleanse it, to teach in it. God glorified that Temple in the humble person of the homeless Preacher who visited it.
In the same way, we should not worry so much about whether we can make Notre Dame as externally beautiful as it was before. What we should focus on instead is pursuing a spiritual revival, a re-energized evangelization, and a Christlike lifestyle that draws people to the beauty of the Church that will bring more glory to God than before.
God Himself drew attention to how we can do that by another loss that occurred in Paris: the death of Jean Vanier. Vanier’s vision of a society in which we see Christ in the weak and lowly (including ourselves) should be our real goal; a world where our example of self-denial and giving is so powerful and undeniable that it draws people into cathedrals to admire the constructed beauty, yes, but ultimately to worship the glorified and crucified Lord who is made visible in our lives and in our love.
This Church, built of living stones (1 Peter 2:4-5), will be purified rather than destroyed by any fire that comes our way.
-Brett Fawcett is a teacher and columnist. He has degrees in theology and education and is the winner of the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Social Studies Education.