I’m startled at how hard I’m taking the fire at Notre Dame. Maybe it’s because I have French family and friends. Maybe it’s because, as a high school French teacher, my mother took busloads of adolescent Americans to Notre Dame to witness the light and the weight of their first Gothic cathedral. Maybe it’s because this building, with its history, and its relics, and its literature, and its weddings, and its 0 km marker, is one of the hearts of Paris. Maybe it’s because I’m watching a loved one die in real time, during the equally-real melancholy of Holy Week. Whatever it is, I don’t think I’d weep as much for the demise of Mt. Rushmore, or the Space Needle, or even the St. Louis arch.
Maybe all of this is so horrible because it can also symbolize an age of endings. I’m not Catholic, and I do not believe that the true relics of Christ have become imperiled by flame. But the symbolism of this burning church, plus the symbolism in the recent burning of American southern churches, resonate with what I perceive as threats to Christianity as a whole. The world’s nationalism, extremism, hypocrisy, and hate—it’s all so shameless, and righteous, and commonplace that I can’t even watch the news anymore. That said, I realize that Notre Dame is over 800 years old. It’s seen, encouraged, and discouraged the rise of extremism, over and over again. It even housed the post-mortum retrial of Joan of Arc in 1455. But through all that, the cathedral has persisted as a witness, or a record, or even a relic in itself. As a “pillar of the earth,” it was a library of history. And in its destruction, we have lost an emblem of devotion, inspiration, error, ambition, hope, celebration and condemnation. In this article, I’ve stacked all these words to itemize what’s perished, because I’m not sure what all is gone–except that it feels both cultural and significant. We’ve lost a symbol of Christianity’s shameful and beautiful attempts to talk with God. And speaking so symbolically, I’m not quite sure what is rising to take its place. Is it the fearful tackitude of the megachurch? Trumpism and its anti-Christianity? The alternate history that springs from the alternate facts of the alternate right?
Notre Dame is a building—I know that, just as I know that its relics of Christ have more cultural worth than true, divine power. But on holy week, of this year, in this age, it all went up in flames. And this likely wasn’t a terrorist job—it wasn’t the much-touted malice of our enemies. The parable, if I may, is in how the destruction arrived simply through our own negligence.