I meant to write something else. I wanted to write a book review, a television review, but on Monday, April 15, the great cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was gutted by fire.
I’d just come back from lunch when a coworker gave me the news, and for the rest of the afternoon, the group of us watched the live coverage of the flames as firefighters struggled to put out the blaze and save the 850-year-old cathedral and newscasters speculated about its fate. Would the fire spread to the bell towers? Would the facade collapse like the spire did? Would the entirety of Notre Dame burn to the ground? No one knew then, but when the flames were finally put out some twelve hours later, the destruction was both worse than and not as bad as many feared. The shell of the Notre Dame was intact, the bell towers still stood, the famed 13th-century rose windows appear to be intact, and many priceless works of art, artifacts, and relics had been saved. But the cathedral is still at risk, and many relics are still unaccounted for. The rebuilding process will take years at least.
Though Paris has long been on my ‘must see’ list, I have never been there. And yet I have a deep love of Notre Dame and so many other places in the city that I have read about or seen photographs of. It looms in my imagination and I suspect that, like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral in London, my imagination falls short of the true immensity of Notre Dame. If I hadn’t been at work, I would have been in tears while watching the news feed where the fire rose higher than the bell towers. I can’t imagine what it was like for Parisians to stand there and watch while the heart of their city burned. Notre Dame is one of the great symbols of France. It has withstood the ravages of time, neglect, revolution, and two world wars. And though money is pouring in to help rebuild, it won’t be the same.
It’s a strange thing to face a building that has outlasted empires. Upon walking into a cathedral the first instinct is to look up. We are meant to think of Heaven- of God. Cathedrals were not built to be simple parish churches. They were meant to be houses for God, and even now, centuries later (and even for this unbeliever), it’s hard not to be awestruck by the enormity of these vast spaces that have stood for hundreds of years. As Katherine Arden wrote in an Instagram memorial post to Notre Dame, “you look at it and see a thousand years, the immortality of stone. You think of the people who stood on the spot before you and lifted their eyes to heaven, and you think of the people who will stand there when you are gone. You do not think of fire.”
It is good for us, now and then, to stand before something much greater than we are and realize just how small we are in the grand scheme of things. Notre Dame has stood for 850 years. It has watched the rise and fall of kings, the ruin of war, and withstood revolution. And yet it was constructed, stone by stone across two centuries, by ordinary people. Stonemasons and woodworkers and craftsmen who worked for the love of their city, love of God, or just for an honest day’s pay. But whatever their reasons, whatever their jobs or names or backgrounds, they came together to show what humanity is capable of when we come together for a common purpose: we can create beautiful things that withstand the ages.
The world watched in shock as Notre Dame burned. Many wept to see a beloved French icon burn. Others wept at the thought of the relics like the Crown of Thrones (sacred to some one billion Catholics worldwide) being destroyed during Holy Week. Others were stunned by the notion that yes, everything ends. Notre Dame was supposed to outlast us. Our Lady of Paris was not supposed to fall in flames.
With that in mind, is it any wonder that I got angry when on Tuesday morning, a Bookstagrammer complained that stories about Notre Dame were filling up their feed thanks to “white colonial privilege”. Other old buildings have been destroyed, they said, and no one seemed to care. One commenter stated that a mosque in Jerusalem caught fire while Notre Dame was burning, but that no one had heard of that one, either.
The commenter wasn’t wrong. Part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound did catch on fire on Monday. The blaze was extinguished in less than ten minutes, and the only damage was to a wooden booth security guards use when it rains. No one was injured, and no other damage was reported.
And yes, other places have been destroyed- and not by accident as the Notre Dame fire appears to have been. Extremists destroyed many ancient temples, buildings, and works of art in Syria and Iraq. They blew up their own heritage because it didn’t fit within their narrow and corrupted views of Islam. In March 2001, Taliban forces destroyed the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan because they claimed the statues were idolatrous. In 1950 a mentally ill monk burned down the beautiful Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan. I could go on and on and on describing the endless works of art and architecture that have been destroyed because of some extremist agenda. The history of the world is filled with beautiful things that have been lost, and those losses make us all poorer.
But to complain that the outpouring of grief as the destruction within Notre Dame, a beloved landmark in the very heart of Paris, is excessive even as the ashes are cooling is not simply an unpopular opinion. It is thoughtless. Heartless.
If grief over the destruction in Notre Dame seems excessive, it is because the cathedral was so loved and because the pain is so new. We are are still finding out what has been destroyed and whether or not the structure itself can be restored.
Grief is not a finite resource. My tears for Notre Dame do not lessen my anger over the destruction of Palmyra, the burning of Mali’s Sufi manuscripts, or the bombing of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
When your friend is hurting and looking to you for comfort, your answer is not: “well, that’s sad but lots of other people are hurting more than you are”. Your answer should be, “I’m sorry this happened to you. Is there anything I can do to help?”
If you want to help with the rebuilding of Notre Dame in Paris, here are a few legitimate organizations you can donate to (Via Lifehacker):
- Friends of Notre-Dame: With offices in France and the U.S., this is the primary organization that has raised money for the restoration that was underway. The U.S. branch is a 501c3 public charity, making all gifts tax-deductible for U.S. contributors.
- Fondation du Patrimoine: This French nonprofit funds preservation of historic, cultural sites throughout France. It has established a special Notre-Dame rebuilding fund.
- Basilica of the National Shrine: The largest Roman Catholic church in North America, situated in Washington, D.C., has launched its own fundraising campaign. U.S. Catholics who want to act within the framework of their faith may find this the most fitting way. (Notre-Dame is a Catholic church, after all.)
From that same Lifehacker article:
“Millions are pouring in in support of Notre Dame, but three predominantly black churches that were burned in alleged hate crimes recently in Louisiana could also use help to rebuild. You can donate to the St. Landry Parish churches through this GoFundMe fundraiser, which was set up by the Seventh District Baptist Association.
The funds will be distributed evenly among the three churches affected: St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas.”