My heart was broken this afternoon when word of the fire at Notre Dame de Paris began to circulate. Over and over, I went to the web, checking the news, staring in horror at the images as the flames grew larger, as they spread across the roof, as the magnificent spire finally, slowly, tipped sideways and fell.
So far, the authorities are saying that no people have been harmed; for that we should be glad. It was only a building — a structure of stone and glass. But to write those words about Notre Dame de Paris makes a mockery of truth. Notre Dame was built of stone and glass, but also of hope and faith and prayer. When her architects developed the technology to break free of gravity, to craft buttresses and point arches and calculate weights and make stone soar toward heaven, they taught our spirits to soar beyond our earthbound frame as well. A cathedral may be only a symbol, but we need these signs; we need to see and touch and feel the beauty that makes us yearn for heaven. They teach us, somehow, to be more: here, now, while we are still in flesh. They show us the beauty of incarnation: what happens when something transcendent takes an earthly form.
And yet, for all their horror, there was a kind of beauty in those images of loss: the red-gold flames licking round the delicate tracery of the spire, the slow elegance of its fall. It evoked, for me, the loss we will see later this week, when a man whose beauty was beyond compare is lifted high upon a cross, then falls.
And we, what will we do with that terrible sight — with the image of beauty that perishes? Will it transfigure us, teach us the hardest thing of all? Will we learn to allow ourselves to be consumed, to let the flames burn away our dross, then that which is of some worth, then the whole, knowing that what God is creating in us — in our souls, in our hearts, in our lives — is infinitely more than what is perishing? Will we learn to trust that out of the wreckage of our sin, our broken hopes, our failures large and small, still God is creating a flame that will light the lives of those around us? Will we see, with Flannery O’Connor, that in the fire of divine mercy, which caresses and saves sinners and saints alike, that everything is grace, and in that furnace of divine generosity, even our virtues must be burnt away?
For now, we mourn: for Paris, for Christ, and for ourselves. Holy Week is the time of stripping away. It calls us to lay down our fantasies, our hope of achieving glory on our own, to come face to face with reality, with truth, with our own stunted love — which is yet love. There will be time enough for resurrection in days to come. For now,
we, who have always thought
the emotion that almost overwhelms us
whenever a happy thing falls. **
**Rainer Maria Rilke, The Tenth Duino Elegy