God and Man at the Burning of Notre Dame
Time may be a devourer, but fire has long been the enemy of the great stone cathedrals
Before launching into a detailed description of the Notre Dame de Paris that drove literature students who just needed to summarize the plot crazy for generations, Victor Hugo bestowed this nugget upon posterity:
The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.
On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior*; which I should be glad to translate thus: time is blind, man is stupid.
* Time is a devourer; man, more so.
If we had leisure to examine with the reader, one by one, the diverse traces of destruction imprinted upon the old church, time’s share would be the least, the share of men the most, especially the men of art, since there have been individuals who assumed the title of architects during the last two centuries.
Hugo famously wrote his story to bring attention to the poor condition of the cathedral in his day. The engineering and art that mankind had somehow risen above itself to build was left hollowed out and wanting for human attention by the lesser tendencies of revolutionary fervor. Basing a love story in and around the edifice, and personifying the structure like a great writer would to make such a story all the more grand for folks who, before reading, walked by an eyesore muttering, and after demanded action to save “their” Notre Dame.
Personifying and mythmaking as we might around such a grand structure, the truth is it is an arrangement of stone, and wood, and a hundred other things. The people who built it, and lived around it, and entered and marveled at it, deemed what importance it held. Whether Mass was being recited in Latin and later French, or revolutionaries were stripping saints out and declaring reason supreme, Napoleon returning it to Rome’s control, or a dozen other instances where man steered the fate of the great stone refuge, Notre Dame stood and endured regardless. Loved or neglected, worshiped in or cursed at, for nearly a millennium since work started on the island in the Seine the cathedral stood as mankind moved, a stoic pivot point around which the affairs of men spun. And the whirling masses around Notre Dame have not seen the best of human behavior as of late. While not approaching some of the darkest days the gothic monument has survived, there has been plenty of unrest in the streets of Paris recently, with protests descending into rioting nearly every weekend.
But on the streets across the river yesterday was a showing of the other side of humanity. Onlookers gathered, most watching in horror as the church described locally simply as “our lady” was engulfed in flames. The spire that toppled before them to gasps was a relatively new addition to the history of the church, having been erected in the 19th century to replace the original that had been removed in the 18th century for fears the battered and broken flèche would come crashing down. The 750-ton new one did, it’s lead skeleton remaining after the wood burned through, alight as it crashed into the vaults below. Then the crowd gathered to witness the trial of the building who had stood witness to so many of their forebearers trials, and began to sing. Hymns mostly, the famous Ave Maria — now holding multitudes of meaning considering the name of the song and the cathedral being serenaded with it — was perhaps the strongest and most joined in. Some knelt, some covered their eyes, many prayed, all transfixed by what they saw.
Time may be a devourer, but fire has long been the enemy of the great stone cathedrals. When Old St. Paul’s burned in the Great London Fire of 1666 it was the fourth church named for the apostle to be destroyed on that same spot, a fate the current version has thus far avoided. More recently St Mel’s in Ireland burned in an accidental fire on Christmas day in 2009, and took 5 years of restoration before it reopened. That isn’t counting the multitude of churches in Europe and elsewhere damaged or destroyed in warfare. WWI saw the shelling of another Notre Dame, this one in Reims, France, that had to be restored. WW2 leveled more than a few churches along with wide swaths of Germany and elsewhere that had to be rebuilt. The mighty Cologne Cathedral, bigger and even more Gothic than it’s French cousin, overcame 400 years of suspended construction to survive repeated bombings in that war, and was even used as cover for German tanks, yet withstood it all.
Nor is destruction of the sacred confined to Christianity. China, not content to torment just Christians and Buddhist, is currently bulldozing mosques and oppressing the people of that faith at a frightening level. The marauding evil of ISIS destroyed everything from churches to ancient ruins to mosques of those insufficiently aligned to their wicked view of the world. Historically black churches in the American south have frequently, and recently, been targeted. Jewish communities in Germany and elsewhere worship under armed guard. We have in the last year seen violence at and against synagogues, mosques, and churches by bad people targeting good worshipers in their holy places. A place of worship is always symbolic, and forces of evil are quick to attack them not just for their function but their effect on the human spirit of the very people they aim to oppress. Time devours, man more so, and it is the hardness of the heart and the brutality of the latter that do the work much fast than time. But time, though longer and more patient, is undefeated, as the old saying goes.
And now Paris, France, and all of us look to the flame-scarred icon along the Seine and wonder what will be next for this mighty watcher of the affairs of mankind. Before the flames were even fully out, French President Macron vowed a rebuild, announcing a forthcoming fundraising effort. The façade and towers were saved, the outer walled stood, and despite the horror of the flames the initial images of the interior brought hope that the worst case may have been avoided. There would not be a total collapse, and the bulk of the structure, though weakened and needing attention, would see out the night.
And then comes the dawn.
The Paris skyline was different, and some lamented that even a rebuild would not be the same, but it shouldn’t be the same. History has shown that damage and destruction is part of the natural life of these great cathedrals. Time and man may devour, but man also built them in the first place, and can rebuild them if the will is there. Time and eternity are functions outside of man’s control best left to the God that Notre Dame was meant to be a place to worship, or to nonbelievers, a reminder of the power of the universe that moves regardless of man’s wishes. But the rebuilding is within our control. And it will go forward. It will not be perfect; no doubt squabbles will rise on the particulars. The same workers protesting in the Paris streets will no doubt have strong opinions on the who, what, and how of the rebirth of their great lady.
But maybe, just maybe, it could once again be the pivot point of human events, of people coming together to erect something that will stand long after they are gone. Something that both the sacred and the secular can marvel and feel inspired by. A structure that people travel the world to see, and feel, and experience. That folks can feel as close to their God as they need, or as human as is humanly possible. A symbol of something bigger than us, but left by us, for those who follow us.
When Hugo put pen to page to rhapsodize on the battered Notre Dame of his day, he laid out his thinking in the preface of his great novel the seed that became the Hunchback of Notre Dame:
A few years ago, while visiting or, rather, rummaging about Notre-Dame, the author of this book found, in an obscure nook of one of the towers, the following word, engraved by hand upon the wall: —
These Greek capitals, black with age, and quite deeply graven in the stone, with I know not what signs peculiar to Gothic caligraphy imprinted upon their forms and upon their attitudes, as though with the purpose of revealing that it had been a hand of the Middle Ages which had inscribed them there, and especially the fatal and melancholy meaning contained in them, struck the author deeply.
He questioned himself; he sought to divine who could have been that soul in torment which had not been willing to quit this world without leaving this stigma of crime or unhappiness upon the brow of the ancient church.
Afterwards, the wall was whitewashed or scraped down, I know not which, and the inscription disappeared. For it is thus that people have been in the habit of proceeding with the marvellous churches of the Middle Ages for the last two hundred years. Mutilations come to them from every quarter, from within as well as from without. The priest whitewashes them, the archdeacon scrapes them down; then the populace arrives and demolishes them.
Thus, with the exception of the fragile memory which the author of this book here consecrates to it, there remains to-day nothing whatever of the mysterious word engraved within the gloomy tower of Notre-Dame, — nothing of the destiny which it so sadly summed up. The man who wrote that word upon the wall disappeared from the midst of the generations of man many centuries ago; the word, in its turn, has been effaced from the wall of the church; the church will, perhaps, itself soon disappear from the face of the earth.
It is upon this word that this book is founded.
Scholars will debate forever whether the epigraph was real or a device. It doesn’t really matter though; Hunchback is a tragedy, very much in the vein of Greek tragedies, about loss and time and the human condition. The original builders of cathedrals thought they were building monuments to God that would last forever. Our mortality tells us that is not possible. But perhaps we now have an opportunity, as the cleanup and restoration of Notre Dame de Paris begins, to realize that when we mortals do build something great, or rather have greatness passed to us, how we will be remembered lies in how we handle that gift.
Time devours. Man is stupid. Fire burns.
Rebuild Notre Dame anyway.
Originally published at ordinary-times.com on April 16, 2019.