It was a death in the family. I didn’t expect to be so shaken by the footage of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, a building I had scarcely seen in tiny photographs, let alone in person, crumbling at the touch of so many flames.
By Deano Ware Jr.
16 April 2019
I never considered myself a sentimental person. My HEXACO test results said as much. In terms of sensitivity I scored lower than average. I have no secret cache of letters sent from friends I’ve since been separate from and no keepsakes from generations gone before. Yet I found myself stunned at the sight of the spire falling, just the same.
Maybe it has something to do with what happened during my conversion. I came into the Church during what many have called the worst crisis since the Arian heresy. Even my sponsor, jokingly, compared my desire to join the church to “buying tickets on the Titanic.” But I wasn’t deterred by the horror stories. The Church has no monopoly on imperfect people. It was there in the faith tradition I converted from, and it’s found in any place where fallen human beings are, be it Church or Country. I was drawn into the Church by beauty. A beauty that brought me to tears when I walked into a Cathedral for the first time, on some early weekday morning, and saw sunlight falling pale through the stained glass windows, and the faraway sound of the choir practicing. It was a beauty that even the abuse crisis couldn’t obscure. And that beauty seemed to me to be the sacrament of truth. But of all the beautiful things possessed by the church there is hardly a work of man’s hands as grand as Notre Dame Cathedral.
Notre Dame, is perhaps, the pinnacle of Catholic Gothic architecture. It is a catechism constructed in the universal language of beauty. Articulated in its stones and spires is the grandeur, and sublimity of the heavenly hierarchy. One which rather than imprisons humanity, like some terrible cosmic caste system, frees it by giving each, great and small a role in the grand design. A place in an ordered cosmos where the highest things elevate the lowest, and the lowest uphold the highest. In its sculptures of saints, and magnificent windows are portrayed the heights of perfection that even fallen humanity can attain to. A greater thing than secular humanism could ever promise, or than materialism could ever dream of, is shown forth in every life-like pose worked from lifeless stone, and every sacred scene designed on fragile glass. There depicted is belief, or rather the promise that through grace, and in cooperation with grace, humanity might participate in the divine nature, and rather than transcend humanity, will restore it and fulfill heaven’s great plan for humankind.
Notre Dame, is in a way the architectural incarnation of the truths of the Catholic faith. And to see the stone of that incarnation go up in flames, to see how close we came to losing something so sublime was perhaps more than I could bear. They have since put out the flames, but the image of a ravaged Notre Dame will remain. My fear however is that what the fire couldn’t destroy we ourselves are laying waste to. What the grand Cathedral stood for, the age of French Catholicism, and moreover a global age, though far from perfect, of faith appears to be slipping between our fingers like so much sand. And at its passing Notre Dame seems to stand as a sign signifying nothing or something lost forever.
But perhaps, rather than ruin an empty sign, the flames have created a new one. And the cathedral, and its impermanent damage might now represent the current age of the church. Its ruined spire, its charred frame, and its scarcely spared interior might be the perfect symbol for an age in which the Church has suffered, and continues to suffer similarly horrific tragedies. Yet the Church, like Notre Dame, endures, perhaps less militant than ever before, more penitent than triumphant—but indomitable nevertheless. Though scarred, the beauty of Notre Dame and the Church remains.
Despite the abeyance of the flames I may still never see Notre Dame. Time and circumstance happen to us all, as much to the human body, as to the highest achievements of human genius, but I will, by the grace of God, always be a part of that truth that the beauty of Notre Dame represents. A beauty shown forth in a Church that will, despite the present storm, someday be found without spot or blemish.
Deano Ware Jr. is a fiction writer, and freelance cultural critic from the American Midwest. He holds a Bachelors in Comparative Religion and Behavioral Science and is a convert to the Catholic Church.