I could not believe it when told Notre-Dame de Paris was in flames. Then I could not believe it when its spire plummeted and roof caved. Then I could not believe it when it seemed the entire structure was engulfed. Then I was reminded of all the treasured art inside.
It took 100 years to build, a single day to destruct.
I wrote the above as I watched the flames on television. It seemed hopeless and I was angry and sad. Now it’s the next day and the snippets of news I’ve seen paint a picture less bleak. The two towers seem to have survived. The 8000-pipe organ is unharmed. Some of the most precious artwork was removed and will be transferred to the Louvre. Other masterpieces have been damaged but possibly could be restored. We’ll learn more of the real extent of the damage as time passes.
Why am I so upset about a building 4500 miles away that I’ve stepped in probably no more than a half dozen times? The answer is not clear.
But I am not alone. There seems to be a worldwide response of horror at the loss, sympathy for the French, and determination to assist in rebuilding. Once again tragedy brings out the best in people, making me wonder why we need catastrophe to let it show.
There is merit in icons rooted in the past. Notre Dame has been around 850 years. It has been a constant in a fast paced world in which three years is a technological lifetime. I think we need such steadiness to assure us that no matter how things change, or how difficult the current situation is, there is always an attachment to a past that will give refuge when needed.
So when the past is uprooted, it facilitates the impermanence of the present.
I felt the same loss in 2001 when the Taliban destroyed the 2600 year old Buddhas of Bamiyan. I had never seen them, hadn’t even heard of them before the destruction. But the fact they had been around for so long meant a constancy that should have been respected.
It appears at the moment that the Notre Dame fire was accidental, at least in the sense it wasn’t intentional. The smashing of the Buddhas was a disgusting act of stupidity by a group of unworthy animals.
By respecting the past, I don’t mean to imply the past was anything but what it was. It often was cruel, it embraced slavery, women were chattels. I wouldn’t want to live there. Nevertheless, these anchors of the past provide a sanctuary we can turn to when peace and security are needed.
Until they aren’t there any longer.
There’s a big difference between the Buddha destruction and the Notre Dame fire. The former is gone forever. The latter can be rebuilt.
I am convinced France will rebound from this tragedy as it has from so many others over its history. It will indeed rebuild its historic cathedral. The world will continue to visit the country and the City of Lights. It will watch the reconstructed church return. It will help in the process.
Vive la France!