Humanity suffered a grave collective loss today, when Le Cathedral d’Notre Dame was destroyed by fire. The building is 850 years old. It is a blessing in my life that I minored in French and did a semester abroad, living and going to school in Normandie. I went to Notre Dame any number of times and it was always a worthwhile experience.
Walking into the building itself brought a sense of timelessness. Weddings, baptisms, funerals, Easter services, all manner of ritual took place within these walls for 850 years. The atmosphere was one of gravitas and one could feel history emanating from the stone walls. The sunlight coming through the ancient stained glass was memorable, even to a child raised in the psychedelic sixties. I can only imagine the wonder that the glass held for travelers visiting Paris for the first time. It had to have been magical.
The joy that I felt as a young college student will no longer be felt, at least not in the old Notre Dame, which today was ravaged by flames, and that is a human tragedy. Adding to this sense of morbidity and malaise today, it comes to light that in recent months, other Catholic churches in France have been vandalized. Evidently, in the politics-heavy news cycle of the present day, cases of arson and vandalism in a house of God, once front page stories, are relegated to a much lesser stature. That in itself is a surprising cultural development, when any desecration of a church used to be big news.
It must somehow no longer be the case in the new and frenetic world of the internet-driven, 24-hour news cycle. That’s because a major international story — one involving at least 10 acts of vandalism at Catholic churches in France — went largely unreported (underreported, really) for weeks. The vandalism included everything from Satanic symbols scrawled on walls to shattered statues.
That’s right, a rash of fires and other acts of desecration inside Catholic churches — during Lent, even — in a country with a recent history of terrorism somehow didn’t warrant any kind of attention from American news organizations. Even major news organizations, such as The Washington Post, were late to covering it and only did after running a Religion News Service story.
This brings us to Monday’s fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, where a massive blaze engulfed the 12th century gothic house of worship. It’s too early to tell if this incident is part of the earlier wave of vandalism, but it certainly comes at a strange time. For now, officials say the blaze remains under investigation. The cathedral has been undergoing some renovation work and the fire may — repeat MAY — have started in one of those areas.
It would be crazy to assume there is a connection between all of these fires and acts of vandalism. It would be just as crazy for journalists not to investigate the possibility that there are connections.
This is very sobering, indeed. It is tragic to imagine that the national treasure, the human treasure of Notre Dame was ravaged by arson. It may not have been, but absolutely, in light of other incidents in French Catholic churches, the topic demands investigation.
The site of the spire tipping over in the Notre Dame fire was one of the saddest and most ominous sights I have ever witnessed in my life. From having stood in the exact place as the cameras at one point, I can well understand the horror that Parisians are feeling today. They have lost a national treasure. We, as humans, have lost a part of our collective heritage. We mourn with the French for our collective loss as a species.
French officials are reporting that the towers of Notre Dame have been saved. Thank God for that. With care and reinforcement, that portion of the cathedral can continue to stand for the ages. I sincerely hope that Notre Dame, in whatever new and repaired form it takes, will continue to inspire future generations and provide them with concrete contact with a far away past. We need these treasures of human ingenuity and artistry from our past to maintain continuity with who we are and where we’ve been and to look forward into our collective future.