In the hours that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame was burning and the flames and smoke filled people all over the world with sorrow and fear, when no one knew the fate of the masterpieces, the relics and the firefighters inside the building, many faithful Christians began to stream toward the area. Each became part of a congregation; some knelt on the ground, many joined in singing “Ave Maria.” Their faces lit by the flames, their hymn rose up like a wall against fear and despair, a gesture of solidarity and devotion to the Holy Mother and her church; they were a reference to other times, to places of conflict and sorrow in our own time, to other moments heavy with emotion and faith. They were references but they also created their own moment of personal, national and historic significance.
The threat to a symbol at once so familiar and so important to the French and to all humanity underlined the essence both of faith and of our relationship with matter: Something becomes important when our need makes it important, when our gaze sees it as sacred. When our personal and collective spirit give life to stone, to wood, to relics, when we draw strength and courage from objects because we have accepted them as symbols of something greater than ourselves.
Our need to see the divine in the works of humans was not born with Christianity nor is it unique to Western civilization. Prehistoric sculptures show the synthesis, the osmosis between matter and spirit achieved by art. In the 5th century, Heraiscus, a Neoplatonic philosopher active in Christian Alexandria, was said to be able to determine which statues of gods were inhabited by the deity and which were empty representations. Christian faith is based on the coexistence of the divine with the human, the spirit with human flesh. Christ, the mortals who were declared saints, the relics, the icons, the flames of candles are all at the point where faith ignites, where the material becomes sacred. Aside from the protagonists’ political aims, the great dispute of Iconoclasm in Byzantium in the 8th and 9th centuries was essentially about the way Christians saw matter and Christ’s human dimension.
Churches – from the most humble to Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and Hagia Sophia – are the house of God and sanctuary for humans from fear and pain. In the hours that Notre-Dame was burning, we saw people create their own sacred space for consolation, for resistance, for devotion and hope wherever they were – a roadside, a square, a cell, a desert. The essence of the church – the ecclesia – is the meeting of people. This emotion, our participation in something greater than ourselves, is expressed both by the hundreds of millions of euros pledged by tycoons for the repair of Notre-Dame and by those who were moved to donate to the crowd-funding campaigns for six churches with mainly black congregations hit by arsonists in the American South in previous weeks. After the fire at Notre-Dame, donations to these humble churches shot up from 159,000 dollars to 1.8 million dollars in 36 hours. “They burned down a building,” the Reverend Harry J. Richard of Greater Union preached at a makeshift gathering in the Louisiana town of Opelousas. “They didn’t burn down our spirit.”
[After the Easter slaughter of Christians in Sri Lanka we can only bow our heads in sorrow and express our heartfelt solidarity with all who suffer because of their faith or beliefs or identity. This is a story as old as life and always current.]
President Emmanuel Macron wants the damage to Notre-Dame to be repaired within five years, but it remains unknown how long the cathedral will remain closed. The authorities are thinking of setting up a temporary cathedral in the area, for members of the local parish and anyone else who wants to worship there. With the emotional weight that this structure will carry as a proxy for Notre-Dame, the temporary structure will most probably win its own place as a treasure of Paris. Let’s not forget that the Eiffel Tower, another of Paris’ much-loved symbols, was intended to be temporary.
What the fire of April 15 showed is that this city, this space, has the gift of inspiring emotion, a sense of being in touch with beauty and the sublime. Notre-Dame is a most beautiful building and a significant example of grand Gothic architecture, but it is not the only such cathedral in Europe. Its fame is reinforced by the role it has played in literature and in history, but also by its location. Notre-Dame reigns over the Seine and the city center’s skyline. With its stone buttresses and arches, its towers and spire (now destroyed), it is rooted in the earth and in constant dialogue with heaven; the viewer, the tourist, the worshipper who walks in small and alone becomes part of a collective self that spans ages and space.
It is this sense of awe that inspired those who dreamed of such buildings, who invested in them, who designed and built them, whatever their faith, wherever they built them. It is this awe that we feel when we seek to find our place in a universe that begins with the light of birth and drives us to death’s great unknown. It is this awe that we try to manage, either by embracing the faith of our fathers, or some other, or none at all. Our emotion at the threat to Notre-Dame reminds us that our need for a spiritual home, for collective rituals, bubbles up from within us and floods the world. So that we can turn fear into hope, stone into spirit, spirit into stone.