History, Architecture or Spirituality?

St. Anne’s. Built by Crusaders in  Jerusalem in 1130

What accounts for our fear of seeing Notre Dame ablaze? For the French it is the national symbol of their lives in the past, not least, its surviving World War II, but also recent births, marriages, burials, anniversaries, and Holy Days.

Do we fear losing the building itself? Its form through the last thousand years? Or will we lose our memories of walking through its doors under the vaulted roof, awed by its majesty, height, and vastness, while on a momentary stop with a ragtag group of college students on summer tour?

Does she capture the elusive Spirit who beckons each of us into communion with the holy? Is this true even for those of us who do not darken church, mosque, or synagogue doors, who claim spirituality only in being alive, who do not take time to listen to the silent heart? And true even for those who aspire to be in such a stunning, outrageously beautiful edifice that promises prayer when they cannot bring themselves to go to any old house for worship?

Yes, I was there, astonished. On first walking under the vault, I remember holding my breath, hardly able to see the roof so high above me. The vastness stunned me to silence.

How could we endure the destruction of such a place? A place that symbolizes…God? Could it be God who speaks in such grandeur? A god most of us cannot imagine, a god we blame because we attribute the state of the world today to “His” malpractice.  But could it be that the thought and sight of such a cathedral in mortal danger suggests to us the danger of losing a god we do not know at all? That something is there, even so? Some spirit?

What was it in 1160, when it had hardly a form? Or one hundred years later when it was complete. How did Parisians feel about it then? In those years, cathedrals were the center of the community…the Christian community that included nearly every person alive. Not only were prayers heard within, but just outside there were markets and celebrations, feasts and gatherings. It was where everything happened; the center of town.

I wonder how many of us understand the incredulity of the French people that such an icon could be destroyed. The dread that it really was burning. And then, how many of us can empathize with worshipers in our own country when their churches, mosques, and synagogues are burned? While not icons of a nation, they are icons of their communities, the center where births and marriages are celebrated and lives mourned, where prayers rise like incense as if we can hear them gathered in by God.

If you have no such sacred place, what symbolizes holy silence for you? Where does hope reside? How can others reach to celebrate your life and comfort you in death?

Notre Dame is all these things. The history of a nation since 1160, steadfast—like God—decade by decade, centennial to centennial. An amazement of design, creation, and story-telling for more than 800 years. And spirituality. Notre Dame captures the spirit of millions whether we worship with her or view her from afar.

Maybe church buildings mean more to us than we realize. Maybe that’s why some confused people try to burn them down.

Comments 3

  • Thank you for your thoughtful reflection. Heading into Diaconate meeting tonight with queries on my heart about our upcoming 150th anniversary conversations, wondering, ‘who’ is the celebration for, and ‘who are we here for, now, anyway?’

  • Very incisive. I like it.

  • What are we to notice and to learn surrounding this event at the start of Holy Week ? I continue to be amazed but not surprised at the timing. Life to death to life again in another form. And how those huge huge Holy Spaces like Notre Dame and San Sulpice wrap one in their arms of mysterious and holy warmth.

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