Though I am neither French nor Catholic, I mourn at the devastation at the Notre Dame Cathedral on the Monday of Christian’s Holiest of Weeks. Long before I was a pastor, I was drawn to churches. I’ve been inside hundreds of churches and a member of over a dozen. It’s in my DNA. My Great Grandfather twelve generations back, Elder William Brewster, was tapped to be the spiritual leader of the band of Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Elder William Brewster Society
On various trips to Europe I’ve visited numerous of the thousands of centuries-old cathedrals scattered throughout the continent. I’ve worshipped in several of them. When I’m in emotional pain I seek out a sanctuary to sooth my soul. When I’m in search of solitude I look for a chapel.
Houses of Worship Facilitate Faith
Faith communities are composed of people who gather because they share similar values and beliefs. The buildings where they worship facilitate gathering, but are not required to form a faith community. Yet damage to a faith community’s building is tragic, whether it’s a small rural church, a large city synagogue or a modern mosque. People’s faith is nurtured in a house of worship regardless of the size, age or location of the building. The Christian movement grew primarily out of sight in underground catacombs and private homes before buildings dedicated to Christian worship began to spring up. Some of the earliest Christian churches were re-purposed pagan temples.
However, being mortals with five senses, we connect to places. It is difficult to recall the major milestones in our lives without also connecting the event to a specific physical location. Ask anyone born prior to the 1960’s where they were when JFK was assassinated and they will likely tell you in great detail. We need to orient ourselves in a specific physical location; it’s part and parcel of our human beingness.
Among The Greatest of the Grand
Notre Dame is among the grandest of the grand structures humans have built. How many humans it took to build this 850-year-old symbol of Paris is anyone’s guess. It was built over a period of two hundred years. Think about that. Two. Hundred. Years. In my family tree that is about seven generations.
King Louis VII commissioned the project. All great European political powers had matching religious centers of power. The power of the throne and the church were tightly interwoven. Kings and queens are crowned in cathedrals and often buried in them. We live in a time and culture when as many citizens claim no religious affiliation as affiliation as Roman Catholic or Evangelical Protestant. It is difficult for us to fathom the all-encompassing combined power the church and the throne held over people’s lives when Notre Dame was first built. It’s been renovated several times over the centuries. The spiral I watched cave in wasn’t added until the 1800’s. Ironically, it is likely the current renovation efforts that set off the fire that soon engulfed the centuries-old timber infrastructure under the massive roof.
Humans Need to Connect
Twelfth Century King Louis VII needed something grand to demonstrate the political, economic, intellectual, and cultural dominance emerging in France. Workers began the construction knowing even their children and grandchildren would not see it completed. They began in 1183 by digging a trench 30 feet deep to lay the foundation. The dedication Mass took place two centuries later. Generations of master masons supervised peasants who hauled huge stones from far away quarries. Using a system of pulleys and wheels, they labored to move massive stones into place one by one. I spent time studying a display depicting all this when I visited Notre Dame in 2017.
Aside from its considerable religious significance, Notre Dame is also a masterpiece of art and architecture. One doesn’t have to be Catholic, French or religiously inclined to gasp at the magnitude of its grandeur inside and out. I was awe-struck from the first moment I spotted it from the tour bus. I sense that I was moving into sacred space as I crossed the bridge over the Seine. I knew I was in hollowed ground through every step I took under the vaulted ceiling, surrounded by statues, priceless art masterpieces, and stained glass windows.
Every Loss is Eventually a Gain
The Notre Dame fire brought millions around the world to tears this Holy Week. Destruction to the places people gather for prayer and fellowship leaves deep spiritual wounds. While the world watched fire destroy the iconic 19th Century spire atop the Notre Dame roof, another fire spread through the roof of the Marwani Prayer Room (Solomon’s Stables) in Jerusalem. The Islamic Waqf was mercifully able to contain it quickly and successfully. Closer to home in Louisiana, three African American congregations lost their church homes to a hate crime spree that set them on fire.
The grand gothic Notre Dame is wounded; but not gone. With the blaze still soaring, signs of hope began springing forth.
- Actress Salma Hayek and wealthy businessman husband Francois-Henri Pinault pledged $113 Million (100 Euros) toward reconstruction before the fire was even out. Less than a day later pledges doubled. By Tuesday evening the pledged amount doubled again. As of Maundy Thursday the total pledged was nearly one Billion.
- Hundreds of strangers gathered as one impromptu choir, to sing “Ave Maria” and pray.
- Priests and staff risked their lives removing as many pieces of art as they could. The firefighter’s chaplain insisted on going in to rescue the cathedral’s most precious relic.
- In preparation for renovations, statues of the apostles and evangelists had already been removed, sparing them from harm.
- Most of the interior below the roof line appears to be intact, though it will take careful scrutiny to determine the precise level of damage done. Much to the relief and joy of parish musicians everywhere, it appears the organ survived. So did the precious stained glass rose windows.
- Because this is such a global treasure, it has been measured, poked and inspected by every means available to modern people. Such research will provide architects and builders vital information for their work to rebuild.
- As we have been moving through the holiest of weekends for Christians, millions of Christians and non-Christians alike have focused together on this story of this one particular sacred place.
It is a reminder to us all that, regardless of where, when, or how we express it – we all carry within us a God-shaped hole that can only be filled with spiritual nourishment. Notre Dame is one of the more famous places to seek that nourishment. Today is Good Friday. Sunday is Easter. Two thousands years ago religious and political powers connived to execute a young man because he dared challenge the corruption and greed of his culture. They considered him just one more foolish man who challenged the system and lost. Except he didn’t. Rather, he proved once for all that the love of God is more powerful than any human institution. Death and destruction do not get the last word. They never have. They never will.
Though the Notre Dame fire has destroyed much and wounded many, it is not over. The Cathedral will be rebuilt. Natural disasters and hate-fueled cruelty have destroyed hundreds of the places of worship. Some rebuild. Some re-locate. Faith communities go on. Faith is not contingent on having a building.
The real church is, to quote our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s motto, “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Watch for the community to come together to rebuild. We need places to gather where we are inspired and awed. Our souls need nourishment as much as our bodies and minds. We need community. It’s tragic it so often takes a disaster to make us remember that and bring us together.
Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. Psalm 30:5
Want to give a donation to restore the cathedral? The French government has set up an on-line account. Click here for details. However, keep in mind, the cathedral has the support of the country of France, the entire Roman Catholic global community, and millions of others around the world.
Consider supporting another faith community struggling to restore their burned-out sacred spaces, such as St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, all burned within ten days in Louisiana. The Seventh District Baptist Association is raising funds at a GoFundMe campaign,
Thank you for taking time to read my thoughts about the Holy Week Notre Dame fire. I hope you found them interesting and inspiring. If so, please take another minute to forward this to a friend. If you don’t already receive my weekly blogs about people, projects and programs making helpful contributions to society, sign up for them at HowWiseThen. I’m currently giving away a section from the study guide of my most recent book, Asunder.