As I write, fire has consumed the Notre Dame in Paris. The spire has fallen, the windows have melted or been blown out, reports say the bell towers will not be long in joining the rest of the structure in a blaze. Sure, it’s just a building; but to many it is so much more than that. When a house burns down, you don’t just mourn the building, you mourn your home. This structure is the heart of Paris, a catholic icon,
It has stood for 850 years, built over 100 years, touched by so many hands. Soaring arches, quiet sequestered cloisters, incense winding smoky way to the ceiling arches, a voice raised in song, light seeping in through the rose window; dark, quiet, peaceful. A symbol of sanctuary, of hope. It is not so, now. Now, a raging fire rampages through it. The roof; gone. The Rose window; gone. The pews; gone. No more voices, no more prayer, no more quiet reflection. Just the fire burning into the night.
Media has changed the ways in which we process grief. When a natural disaster happens, or a celebrity dies, or something awful is enacted upon others we’re able to access the moment of its happening over and over again. We relive the moment of impact, the great blow, over and over again through the news, and that great blow ricochets outwards in the structure of society, shifting its surface forever afterwards. The purpose of a monument made in memorial is almost always to bring solace or closure to mass grief, yet what happens when we lose a monument itself, what does that mean?
9/11 shifted the course of events. The whole world turned on its axis after that, ricocheted off course like a stray newton’s Cradle ball.
The fire at the Notre Dame feels similarly resonant; and for it to have happened on Holy Week, right at the beginning of the decline into ashes and dust, before a rebirth feels, to me, oddly prophetic.
On Ash Wednesday, when many Catholics will have arrived at the cathedral to have crosses in ash placed upon their foreheads the line: ‘You are dust and unto dust you shall return’ will have been repeated ad nauseum. Over and over again, the thumb, into the ash, to the forehead, in the sign of the cross. ‘Unto dust you shall return’. It feels, to me, like a cycle. An act of returning, or consumption, or rebirth – it’s a terrible tragedy; but the point of cathedrals is that they’re composite totalities: layered. This is a 12th century monument of religion, begun in 1160, finished in 1260. Then, following the revolution in the 1790s, the church was desecrated with much of its religious iconography destroyed. After that, Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831, and popular interest in the church was revived, and it was restored to its former glory. The church returns to dust, and will be reborn from those ashes.
Easter itself is a great festival of mourning, or at least when I was a practicing Catholic, that is how I approached it. A whole week of the year is dedicated to mourning those you’ve lost , to mourning a lost faith and perhaps finding it again, to mourning the loss of Jesus himself, sitting in a metaphorical garden of Gethsemane every Maundy Thursday repenting of your sins, and keeping a vigil. Good Friday is the ultimate day of mourning, you know what is coming, and it comes. Holy Saturday is mourning again. The tabernacle is empty, and you enter for mass to a dark and empty church, unlit candle in your hand, no music, nothing on the altar. By the end of the Mass, your candle has been re-lit. Hope flares in the darkness. Then of course comes the Sunday, and the rebirth – but whilst that is the important bit in Catholic Doctrine, I always felt that the motion of repentance, and of mourning before you are eventually forgiven was altogether more important. What does the Notre Dame repent for? What is it to be forgiven?
I feel struck by the fire at the Notre Dame, that it should come at a time that is so important for Catholics feels like it might be indicative of some other great change. ‘Where were you when the Notre Dame burned down?’ will be a question your children might ask you – ‘where were you?’ This Holy Week more people than ever will be thinking of the Notre Dame. The whole world watching as a single building is brought to dust.
How will the cathedral be reborn, though? If it took 100 years to build it, will it take that long to restore? Will it be possible to restore it?
I wonder, though, and this might be a bit of a reach, but I am reminded of watching Grenfell burn on the news in 2017. A pillar of fire stretching into the sunrise, with people throwing their children out of windows, and hammering at them – the level of human casualty at Grenfell was so much higher than I presume is at the Notre Dame (though may live to eat these words). It seems to me to be disingenuous, the level of mourning I am seeing globally for an empty building, compared to how quickly Grenfell has been forgotten by mainstream media. How quickly will the world raise money to restore this national monument to religion, and to imperialism – when there are still people, two years later, who haven’t been rehoused…
I am also put in mind of all of the monuments, and artefacts currently being destroyed across the world that haven’t been given a similar coverage – despite the fact that they were as significant culturally. I am thinking of the Palmyra, destroyed by fire in the Syrian civil war. Or Jonah’s Tomb in Iraq. All lost, all as significant as the Notre Dame. It is possible to mourn the loss of such an incredible symbol of Catholicism, whilst still remaining aware and remaining critical of our mourning when we fail to adequately mourn sites of equal significance elsewhere.
When we are reduced to dust, what have we left to rebuild? Should we rebuild it?
Some other small thoughts on burning and fire
Fire’s symbolic undertones range from a symbol of destruction, of knowledge, of sexuality, and of purification. It is all of them, enacted on a single building, creating a wound in culture.
What of the Water they’re pouring on it? Water is also such a symbol in the catholic faith. I crossed myself with holy water every Sunday upon entry into the church when I practised , I was baptised into the faith with holy water – symbolising purification, birth and the waters of the womb, spiritual cleansing.
In other words, I can’t shake the feeling that the Notre Dame burning down is meant to be deeply symbolic too. I don’t believe in god any more, or at least I don’t think that I do. I also do not practise as a catholic anymore – but there’s something about this happening on holy week that throws me off kilter, and makes me feel out of joint.