The Symbolism of Notre Dame

It’s hard to think that Holy Week anno domini 2019 will be remembered as having created a strict demarcation in our cultural timeline: pre-Notre-Dame fire, and post. April is the cruellest month, indeed.

But here we are. Living in a world, in a West, without the full Notre Dame cathedral looking out protectively over Paris, a spiritual stone guardian. The façade remains; its sacral inside, including a forest’s-worth of 12th-century oak latticework, is smoldering and gone.

The live coverage of the fire was painful to watch, if even for the brief time it held the rapt attention of our otherwise jumpy news channels. I imagine I wasn’t alone in this feeling, which was disturbingly reminiscent of watching the Twin Towers burn and crumble. There were differences, of course. The Notre Dame inferno, from what we know, was caused by an unintentional mishap. The 9/11 attack was deliberate and took thousands of lives.

Even so, helplessly watching as a cultural touchstone vanishes before your eyes elicits a visceral reaction, one of horror, of irreplaceable loss, and, strangely, of resignation. As the cathedral burned, I couldn’t help but feel the slow slipping away of a memory -- the memory of a time when Paris was synonymous with a numinous gothic house of God. “Notre Dame’s loss is too much to bear,” writes Douglas Murray. And it is, but for an altogether different reason than that held by believers in the Virgin Mary.

For one, we’ve already moved on. The release of the Mueller report now dominates airwaves, with every pinhead, hack, guttersnipe, and extra starch-shirted jackhole spreading suppositions that the special counsel somehow missed Trump’s burner phone he used to coordinate with Putin.

For our attention-deficient punditry, Notre Dame’s burning may as well have been a lifetime ago. Besides, our new national religion -- politics -- is a faith that brooks no other idols.

Then there was my own irritation at how my generation memorializes tragedy. As the cathedral stood alight, every millennial and their toy dog shared photos of themselves in front of Notre Dame, reminiscing about how, of all the things they saw in Paris, the place where Quasimodo conversed with anthropomorphized gargoyles in a Disney cartoon made the biggest impression.

I know social media is, as Sir Roger Scruton says, designed only to mimic real life, but my tetchiness felt real enough. My Instagram feed was filed with a few hundred of my closest acquaintances turning the conflagration into an opportunity to humble brag about their European perambulations. #Heartbroken. #Prayfornotredame.

The worst is still yet to come. French president Emmanuel Macron has pledged to rebuild Notre Dame within five years, opening the reconstruction fund to international donations.

Macron’s brilliant, forward-thinking effort to jumpstart the rebuild? Launch a worldwide contest to design the fallen spire, as if he’s trying to pick a new M&Ms flavor. The grade-school-level diorama contest leaves me thinking the Marxists may be right about neoliberalism’s tendency to saturate every aspect of life.

Meanwhile, Rolling Stone ran a feature questioning why Notre-Dame should be restored to its original glory. Quoting architectural historian Patricio del Real, the article suggests the grand cathedral may be too offensive to the secularized city. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” del Real explicates, channeling his inner destructive toddler. Lord help us, the tyranny of meaning!

The Catholic writer Michael Brendan Dougherty, whom I greatly respect, is having none of the modernizing talk. “I promise right now. If you try to rebuild it as a ‘secular’ Notre Dame, reflecting the political priorities of 2019, I will do my damndest to see that the next fire takes it all down. I won’t come alone,” he tweeted, in respectable rage.

But, alas, would Dougherty, torch in hand, attempt to stop the latest Paul franchise from setting up shop in the new Notre Dame narthex, he’d be quite alone. The Catholic Church hasn’t been able to shore up its declining membership in half a century. Churches continue to close and consolidate across the West. The chances that the Notre Dame blaze ignites a renewed spirituality among the lapsed laity are small. The AP headline “Tourist mecca Notre Dame also revered as place of worship,” gives the sad game away.

Plenty of writers have already identified the symbolism of Notre Dame’s burning with the larger religious decline going on in Europe and the U.S. To that dispiriting reality, I can only add that the faith that laid the first stone foundation of “Our Lady” has long run dry. Aesthetic appreciation can only create an ersatz Notre Dame. The numinous wonder that constructed and hallowed the original cathedral is close to absent in France.

But I could always be wrong. It is the season of rebirth, both in matters sublunary and spiritual. If our Lord can rise after death, there’s no limit to what edifices built in His honor can achieve. It’s only the last part that really matters.

It’s hard to think that Holy Week anno domini 2019 will be remembered as having created a strict demarcation in our cultural timeline: pre-Notre-Dame fire, and post. April is the cruellest month, indeed.

But here we are. Living in a world, in a West, without the full Notre Dame cathedral looking out protectively over Paris, a spiritual stone guardian. The façade remains; its sacral inside, including a forest’s-worth of 12th-century oak latticework, is smoldering and gone.

The live coverage of the fire was painful to watch, if even for the brief time it held the rapt attention of our otherwise jumpy news channels. I imagine I wasn’t alone in this feeling, which was disturbingly reminiscent of watching the Twin Towers burn and crumble. There were differences, of course. The Notre Dame inferno, from what we know, was caused by an unintentional mishap. The 9/11 attack was deliberate and took thousands of lives.

Even so, helplessly watching as a cultural touchstone vanishes before your eyes elicits a visceral reaction, one of horror, of irreplaceable loss, and, strangely, of resignation. As the cathedral burned, I couldn’t help but feel the slow slipping away of a memory -- the memory of a time when Paris was synonymous with a numinous gothic house of God. “Notre Dame’s loss is too much to bear,” writes Douglas Murray. And it is, but for an altogether different reason than that held by believers in the Virgin Mary.

For one, we’ve already moved on. The release of the Mueller report now dominates airwaves, with every pinhead, hack, guttersnipe, and extra starch-shirted jackhole spreading suppositions that the special counsel somehow missed Trump’s burner phone he used to coordinate with Putin.

For our attention-deficient punditry, Notre Dame’s burning may as well have been a lifetime ago. Besides, our new national religion -- politics -- is a faith that brooks no other idols.

Then there was my own irritation at how my generation memorializes tragedy. As the cathedral stood alight, every millennial and their toy dog shared photos of themselves in front of Notre Dame, reminiscing about how, of all the things they saw in Paris, the place where Quasimodo conversed with anthropomorphized gargoyles in a Disney cartoon made the biggest impression.

I know social media is, as Sir Roger Scruton says, designed only to mimic real life, but my tetchiness felt real enough. My Instagram feed was filed with a few hundred of my closest acquaintances turning the conflagration into an opportunity to humble brag about their European perambulations. #Heartbroken. #Prayfornotredame.

The worst is still yet to come. French president Emmanuel Macron has pledged to rebuild Notre Dame within five years, opening the reconstruction fund to international donations.

Macron’s brilliant, forward-thinking effort to jumpstart the rebuild? Launch a worldwide contest to design the fallen spire, as if he’s trying to pick a new M&Ms flavor. The grade-school-level diorama contest leaves me thinking the Marxists may be right about neoliberalism’s tendency to saturate every aspect of life.

Meanwhile, Rolling Stone ran a feature questioning why Notre-Dame should be restored to its original glory. Quoting architectural historian Patricio del Real, the article suggests the grand cathedral may be too offensive to the secularized city. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” del Real explicates, channeling his inner destructive toddler. Lord help us, the tyranny of meaning!

The Catholic writer Michael Brendan Dougherty, whom I greatly respect, is having none of the modernizing talk. “I promise right now. If you try to rebuild it as a ‘secular’ Notre Dame, reflecting the political priorities of 2019, I will do my damndest to see that the next fire takes it all down. I won’t come alone,” he tweeted, in respectable rage.

But, alas, would Dougherty, torch in hand, attempt to stop the latest Paul franchise from setting up shop in the new Notre Dame narthex, he’d be quite alone. The Catholic Church hasn’t been able to shore up its declining membership in half a century. Churches continue to close and consolidate across the West. The chances that the Notre Dame blaze ignites a renewed spirituality among the lapsed laity are small. The AP headline “Tourist mecca Notre Dame also revered as place of worship,” gives the sad game away.

Plenty of writers have already identified the symbolism of Notre Dame’s burning with the larger religious decline going on in Europe and the U.S. To that dispiriting reality, I can only add that the faith that laid the first stone foundation of “Our Lady” has long run dry. Aesthetic appreciation can only create an ersatz Notre Dame. The numinous wonder that constructed and hallowed the original cathedral is close to absent in France.

But I could always be wrong. It is the season of rebirth, both in matters sublunary and spiritual. If our Lord can rise after death, there’s no limit to what edifices built in His honor can achieve. It’s only the last part that really matters.