Thoughts on the Notre Dame Fire

On Monday, along with many of you and much of the world, I watched in shock and sadness as the roof of Notre Dame de Paris burned and the spire over the crossing collapsed.

Why has this fire hit many of us so hard? Those of us who are not of French ancestry nor ever a member of the Roman Catholic faith were still, many of us, deeply affected. Much of the world felt that the loss is a loss for all of us.

Notre Dame’s place in architectural history as the structure from which a particular model of gothic architecture spread through Europe and the world gives it pan-European value. The oak roof timbers that burned were cut in the 1100s from trees that were 300-400 years old. The forest is long gone.

The cathedral stood through the centuries, a manifestation of the power of the Roman Catholic Church in France. Then other histories intersected with that through line. In 1793, during the French Revolution, Notre Dame de Paris was taken from the Church and turned into a temple to Reason, its treasures plundered. Napoleon gave the cathedral back to the Church.

Then in 1905, France again and less destructively separated church and state in a complex arrangement through which the state owned the buildings but the church retained their use for religious purposes. People were attending mass in Notre Dame at the time the fire alarm sounded.

Notre Dame de Paris has stood as a testament to the complicated history of the relationship between European advancement and the consumption of irreplaceable resources. It has stood at the intersection of the struggle between Church power and the emergence of secular culture and the secular state. It has shown us the ways cultural developments emanate out and will not be contained by such artificial things as borders.

Victor Hugo brought the cathedral into world popular culture with his novel about Esmerelda and Quasimodo. And, yes, many non-Catholic non-French Americans have visited this iconic treasure on their trips to Paris. Even if we don’t care about the history, it is part of our lives.

Naturally, while the fires still burned, some people argued why we should not make such a big deal about it. Some of their arguments are important to consider. But in this moment, we recognize the catastrophic damage that hit this cultural icon this week. And we celebrate the immediate resolve to rebuild and restore.

Peace and Blessings,
Rev. Paul