I know that I am not the only person to see the burning of Notre Dame as having some deep metaphorical significance, so forgive me if my observations are a bit unoriginal.
But this disclaimer aside, I really couldn’t help think of how profound this event was.
First, you heard there was a fire at Notre Dame. It took you a while to process that statement, very much like when we heard a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
Then my first notion was that this was some sort of attack on one of the key symbols of Christian civilization. This too is a very unfortunate aspect of living today, that we are constantly in fear of the next terrorist attack, or that we fear certain extreme elements in the Muslim world would mean us this type of harm. It’s a truly sad fact of life these days.
But it was pretty clear from the outset that this was probably just an accident, but a horrible accident indeed.
Seeing the flames engulf the most beautiful church in Christendom (pace Chartres), it felt like all of Western Civilization was burning, like all of the sudden the whole enterprise was in jeopardy of being burned to the ground, just like that.
It was deeply unsettling and a stark reminder of how tenuous our hold is on the best and noblest aspects of our culture, a culture which is not only under attack from the outside, but most especially from within. It’s as if one day we could wake up and see the whole culture reduced to ash, that our very existence were as fragile and under threat as that beautiful old cathedral.
But then we heard the good news, that the fire had been brought under control and finally extinguished. That the damage wasn’t quite as horrible as many thought, and that many priceless artifacts, including the very crown of Christ, were saved from the flames.
Hope! Our civilization was not burning to the ground. We staved off the destruction, we preserved precious items of deep devotion and meaning, we can rebuild. And rebuild we will!
Almost immediately pledges of funds to rebuild this magnificent edifice poured in from all sectors: the government, the business world, the faithful. It was like we were all united in rebuilding this monument to our shared culture and heritage and that we were determined to protect and save the core of our civilization, that the prospect of it perishing forever was nearly too much to bear.
So, we as a people dodged the proverbial bullet. But there has been real loss. Certain elements of the building are gone forever and it will be impossible to replace the material, the artistry, and faith that went into the original building.
The West, too, has perhaps lost some things permanently, like memories that can’t be recovered, due to its mostly self-inflicted wounds. In our exuberance to achieve societal perfection, we have often sacrificed the good to achieve the perfect, or have simply forgotten what the true good was or is.
Hopefully Notre Dame can be a reminder to us all of what we share, of the beauty and nobility our forebears created and passed on to us, even if they, like us, weren’t perfect in every way.
Peachtree City, Ga.