Monday, April 15, 2019

Notre Dame

I’ve been inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Lots of people have, really.  It’s one of the most popular tourist sites in one of the most popular tourist cities in the world. 

We were there on a roaringly hot day in August last year, the kind of day that makes you seriously consider moving to the Outer Hebrides so you never have to be that hot ever again.  Tabitha, Lauren, Fran, Roeland, and I took the Metro there on our single day in Paris last summer – a day we were lucky to have and which we made the most of, visiting a long list of iconic places just so we could see them because life is uncertain and who knows when you might return.  You can’t go all the way there on the Metro, of course – no lines run into the Ile de la Cite – so we walked the last bit of it, across the bridge and into the big courtyard in front.

It’s an astonishing place.  Eight centuries of art, of effort, of human striving toward something larger than themselves.  You don’t have to be Catholic or even particularly religious to be awed by it.

Much of it was destroyed by fire today.  An accident, according to news reports – there were much needed renovations going on, and with wood that old it doesn’t take much to spark a fire and once it goes, it goes.  Even during my limited time as a firefighter, I understood that.  “These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn,” said Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant and former New York City fire chief.  They’re cramped, inaccessible, made of highly flammable material (dressed in stone, granted, but it’s wood underneath and all around), often too tall for fire equipment to handle, hemmed in by other structures, and generally not designed with ease of firefighting in mind.

After the initial outpouring of shock, the reaction has begun to set in because that’s the state of the world these days.  Why are people so upset at the destruction of a building when people die in fires all the time and nobody gets upset like that, people ask.  I have seen variations of this question all over social media, and frankly I find them puzzling.

This isn’t a building.  It isn’t even a set of lives.  It’s history.  It’s aspiration.  It’s centuries of humanity working to be more than what it is.  It’s greater than the individual people who built it, or used it, or visited it.  It’s a monument to who we are as a species, or at least who we can be.

If you can’t see that then you have my sympathy.  If you won’t see that then you have my pity.

But in either case you will not have my acquiescence, because you’re asking the wrong question and nobody gets to the right answer that way.

In some sense it will never be rebuilt, not as it was.  The centuries of work overlain on top of work, the fabric of history that enveloped you when you went in – those things are gone.

Yet it will be rebuilt, as it has been many times since the first stone was laid back in the high medieval period.  There will be parts of the old fabric and parts that will be new and the sum of those parts will continue to tell a simple story of people trying to be greater than their immediate surroundings and lives, of planning for their descendants centuries down the line.  The broken bits will be highlighted and become part of the larger whole, and in that way the building will reflect the people who created it and nurtured it.

And that is what the Cathedral has always been about, after all.

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