Notre Dame was more than a cathedral — let's pray for its resurrection

Notre Dame was more than a cathedral — let's pray for its resurrection
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The sight of flames hungrily engulfing the spire of Notre Dame de Paris has been experienced as a physical shock by those of us Catholics who have seen it on video, on our televisions or computer screens. Far from Paris, far from France, far from personal associations of memory and experience with what is, after all, just a building, the shock of loss still is real.  

Perhaps this is because Our Lady’s Cathedral is, like other magnificent manifestations of the Christian faith in artistic action, a testament to the highest and noblest aspirations of man in his relationship to the Divine. 

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The very existence of these masterpieces reassures us. We are moderns living in the utilitarian trappings of today’s aggressively secular culture, a culture whose eyes are fixed firmly and somewhat grimly on the ground just ahead. But, the great cathedrals tell us, there was a time when life was immeasurably harder and, yet, men and women somehow were able to look up and not only see truth, beauty and self-sacrificing love but also to carve their images into stone.

The vaults and arches that rise high and higher in the center of each ancient European city were built by the onerous labor of the impossibly-poor faithful. They lived in hovels and went hungry, but their faith created the extraordinary beauty that was a foretaste of heaven on this hard earth. 

Notre Dame demonstrated, incomparably, the wild abandon with which medieval Christians lived “ad majorem Dei gloriam" — “for the greater glory of God.” When we see it in flames, Catholics from one end of the world to another mourn not only the  destruction of unrivaled artistry but also the lesson of Notre Dame. 

Right there, in the middle of aggressively secular France, where Laïcité (literally, secularity) is a state religion, stood in ineffable beauty a song of love to the Creator sung in stone, wood and glass. The ideals and values that we hold dear today — about man’s inherent dignity, about equality based only on humanity and no other attribute like race or origin — were notes in that song and transformed civilization for the better. As we drift away from our Christian  understanding of the universe, its Creator, and our place and purpose in it, our culture drifts into utilitarianism, and a man is valuable only so long as he produces more than he consumes.   

The vision of Notre Dame on fire is the stark vision of the tragic result of our spiritual apathy. If we are no longer capable of building these marvels of faith-in-action, are we now even to lose the blessing of their reminding presence? We have been sitting comfortably, assured that all the good things we have gotten from the great cathedrals would always be ours — but watching Notre Dame burn tells another story. We are losing the beauty, the truth and the good. We have sold it all for a mess of pottage, taking something that only looks attractive in exchange for something immensely more valuable. 

It is all this that strikes us Catholics like a physical blow. The lightning-fast destruction of Notre Dame is emblematic of the slow deconstruction of our shared Christian values. But we have the ultimate consolation and hope. 

This is Holy Week, and we are preparing to relive the death and resurrection of Jesus. He told us: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 

He was referring to his own triumph over death, of course. But we can also take his words in hope for the resurrection of Notre Dame and all she has stood for these many centuries. 

Grazie Pozo Christie, M.D., serves on the advisory board for The Catholic Association.