The horrific fire at Notre-Dame de Paris on Monday has captured many of us. Nearly every tourist who has been to France has visited it. Nearly everyone who has an image of Paris has Notre Dame at the center. Seemingly floating on the Île de la Cité, it actually is at the heart, sectioned off and yet pulsing through the body, in a way that is perhaps unmatched by any other cathedral.
Why are our own hearts wrecked for this church? It is beautiful, and a UNESCO site: sure. But Notre Dame is one of the world’s great sanctuaries. Its incineration hurts especially for this reason.
In the Old Testament histories, the nadir of the destruction of Israel is when the temple is set on fire. The psalmists remember it with horror: “Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins; the enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary!” (Psalm 74:3)
Anglicans and many Christians around the world hold a special place for monumental centers of worship, and we should take this moment of sadness to reflect on what Notre Dame and other cathedrals mean.
1. Christianity must build Notre Dames when it is able to do so
When King Solomon built the temple, we glimpse the biblical tension of large churches.
On the one hand, the work was directed by God, it was glorious, and it was clearly intended to be a sight to be remembered: “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other” (1 Kings 8:60).
On the other hand, the presence of God should never be confused with stone and wood. “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built?” (2 Kings 8:27)
Not every church needs to be a Notre Dame, and not every gathering of worship needs a church. Not every age or place of the church is able to build great structures. But when it can, it should build at least some of them.
The Anglican Reformers caught flak from Puritans for continuing to use and value the great medieval churches. Weren’t they institutionalizing God? God cannot be contained! As we have seen above, that is a biblical sentiment.
But the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker saw that it lacked the biblical balance.
In their bondage under Pharaoh, he observed, the Israelites were right to worship without pomp. “In Egypt it may be they were glad to take some corner of a poor cottage, and there to serve God upon their knees, peradventure covered in dust and straw sometimes.”
But as soon as they were out of the land of slavery, they built a tabernacle. And as soon as political strength amassed to King David, a fire burned in his heart (Hooker: “it grieved his religious mind”) to construct a full temple.
All these were worship. All were accepted by God and good in their own ways. And there was a time when it was right to be as glorious as possible. (Eccles. Polity, bk. IV, ch. ii. 4).
We Anglicans, like Catholics, have long seen fit to build (at least some) great churches. How ornate they can be! How transcendent. And yet, the prayers we pray in them are the same prayers by the missionary on a Pacific island, or at the hospital bed, or in the country church -building.
Transcendent and immanent. Gracious always and seeking our perfections. This is our God.
2. Christianity Bears a Load
There is much to commend Notre Dame. Some parts do not.
I visited in 2010. My wife and I were there for a noontime Mass. We were unnerved by the extent to which it was a tourist destination. While the priests were praying, droves of people wandered, talked, took pictures, oblivious to the religious service. It was hard to be there. Honestly, it felt much more worshipful when a group of five of us gathered in a small cove of a nearby church for some Taizé songs.
Subjectively, you may or may not feel the worship at a place like Notre Dame. You may or may not like the Gothic style. But that is not entirely the point. The message of Notre Dame is that Christianity is objectively true.
Not objectively true like the logic of St. Thomas Aquinas, who must have worshiped at Notre Dame when it was a new church. Not the gut certitude of a spiritual experience.
No, but in the sense of Notre Dame, Christianity is aesthetically true. It is structurally true. It is true like a beam of wood is true, or like a buttressed wall is true.
That is, Christianity is proportionate; it is measured and without bend; it bears a load. A civilization can be built on Christianity. Or a sub-culture. Or a musical genre or an architectural style.
Logical proofs cannot tell you that, and spiritual experience is not really enough for it either. But a world with Notre Dames is a world in which Christianity asserts that yes, it is not only emotionally available, it is also a load-bearing religion.
3. Worship Begets Worship
I was recently reading the book of Leviticus. I am fascinated by the intricacies of the sacrifices, the purity rules, the Levitical responsibilities. But it surprisingly opened to me the Psalms that I was concurrently reading.
Did you ever notice how much of the Psalter takes place in the temple?
“One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” (Psalm 27:4)
“Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy, when I cry to you for help, when I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.” (Psalm 28:2)
“Your decrees are very trustworthy; holiness befits your house.” (Psalm 93:5)
“Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!” (Psalm 118:27)
The worship instituted by the temple – even embodied by the temple – produced some of the greatest worship songs in the world. Many people have sat in Notre Dame and other great cathedrals and been overcome to the point of overflowing, offering to God new creativity and praise. From solid foundations spring mission and adventure. From an unmovable rock comes the impetus for motion.
We pray for you, Paris! We pray for the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. May your walls be fortified, may your roof be rebuilt. May your adornments return, and may your people bring praise to the God of heaven.
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.