The modern world will be tongue-tied when it comes to speaking about Notre Dame’s death. There is no doubt there will be plenty of media coverage; there already has been. And in the months and years to come it will pop across our news feed as Parisian and Church officials go about the work of getting an answer for what’s left and what will eventually be rebuilt or take its place. But the west has been in a slow burn herself for the past three hundred years; the interesting cultural moment here is that she will be trying to rebuild one of her great icons while crawling, coughing, and stumbling her way through her own political, theological, and social incinerator. But Jesus is the “potentate of time,” and that means he governs what happens under the sun and when it happens. It is, therefore, a worthy question to ask, “Why now? Why us? Why this?” Why now does a rogue drip from the sun choose to dance with the stones of a great concrete poem? Of course, when my children ask these questions, even in far lesser cases, I can give some parameters and principals for the answers, but I will not be able to give the full answer that only time and eternity will give. What I can give are symbols, principals, literary themes, and a whole bunch of interesting and important ideas from great authors, and this is what I plan to give them concerning Notre Dame. And so I give it to myself, and I offer it as well to the reader:
Things burn. My wife and I visited Chicago a few weeks ago, and it is difficult to visit Chicago without hearing of the Great Chicago Fire which caused such destruction. I mourn the loss of the Library at Alexandria; it was burned by a religious fanatic who was afraid of ideas. It’s hard to see the images of the eastern pious who burn themselves; I can empathize with them, they feel pain. A burning cathedral does not. The Christians were once blamed for burning Rome. Aeneas began his heroism with his father on his shoulder and his burning city to his back. In all these instances, there is a theme on this earth, which is sustained by a great ball of fire: things burn, and God wants it that way. God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Tongues of fire descended on the apostles at Pentecost. On this earth, fire should never surprise us. What should surprise us is that God, the author and perfector of our faith, would burn the Notre Dame and not wash it away with torrential rain. The Notre Dame made it through the French Revolution and two world wars, but it didn’t make it through a beautiful sunset on the Monday of Holy Week in 2019. Things burn.
Fire matters. Fire is an important biblical theme. It matters where it shows up, what it does, and what God chooses to do with it. Fire appears 549 times in the King James Bible. The first time we see fire is in Genesis 1:3, in the form of light. God makes the sun, contains it, and commands it to rule by day (and indirectly by night). The last time we see fire is when Jesus speaks in Rev. 21:8, a fire which separates and burns the ungodly. Some boys were put into a fiery furnace and escaped unscathed (Daniel 3). God instituted fire in the burnt offering. The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost in tongues of fire. Interesting enough, Jesus wasn’t burned at the stake. He was crucified, yet the writer of Hebrews tells us “…our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:29). Fire is providence and fire is violence. Fire is warmth and fire is terror. Fire shoots heavenward and fire clings to the earth. There is lots of fire in heaven, because God is there. And there is lots of fire in hell, because God is also there. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139: 7-12). Fire is one of the great biblical symbols of both the power and providence of God, divine beauty come down. It is one of the great biblical symbols of sovereignty and separation. This is also true of all great literature. All these themes are wrapped up in the fires of Notre Dame, yet we are too weak, too depraved to see the whole narrative and every plot turn now taking place with this one fire.
Learn from Aeneas. We may have several postures toward fire. We can run from a burning building. We can crawl to escape. We can run into a burning building to save others. Indeed, some of the priests, tourists, and individuals who ran from a burning Notre Dame had the same posture as Aenaeas: their backs were to the flames and their hands were full of things they thought were worth saving. We may even say some of them had their artistic and religious fathers on their shoulders. The question, though, is whether their piety will lead them to faithfulness. It is one thing for a man to run from flames; it is quite another for him to run to build a new city, to honor his God. There is no doubt that it is difficult to watch anything architectural burn, especially something as beautiful as Notre Dame. It is like watching a great poet lose his memory. But Virgil teaches us that great things can come from a burnt past, if only our allegiance is pointed toward the heavens. This is what Aeneas has to teach us about the fires of Notre Dame:
“She hid herself in the deep gloom of night,
And now the dire forms appeared to me
Of great immortals, enemies of Troy.
I know the end then: Ilium was going down
In fire, the Troy of Neptune going down,
As in high mountains when the countrymen
Have notched an ancient ash, then make their axes
Ring with might and main, chopping away
To fell the tree—ever on the point of falling,
Shaken through all its foliage, and the treetop
Nodding; bit by bit the strokes prevail
Until it gives a final groan at last
And crashes down in ruin from the height.
Now I descended where the goddess guided,
Clear of the flames, and clear of the enemies,
For both retired; so gained my father’s door,
My ancient home. I looked for him at once,
My first wish being to help him to the mountains…
…As night waned I rejoined my company.
And there to my astonishment I found
New refugees in a great crowd; men and women
Gathered for exile, young—pitiful people
Coming from every quarter, minds made up,
With their belongings, for whatever lands
I’d lead them to by sea.
The morning star
No rose on Ida’s ridges, bringing day.
Greeks had secured the city gates. No help
Or hope of help existed.
So I resigned myself, picked up my father,
And turned my face toward the mountain range.
Now our high masters had seen fit to visit
Upon the Asian power of Priam’s house
Unmerited ruin, and the seagod’s town,
Proud Ilium, lay smoking on the earth,
Our minds were turned by auguries of heaven
To exile in far quarters of the world.
By Antander, below Ida’s hills, we toiled
To build a fleet, though none could say where fate
Would take or settle us. Then we held muster
Of all our able-bodied men.
Had just begun, Anchises gave the word
To hoist sail to the winds of destiny.
Weeping, I drew away from our old country,
Our quiet harbors, and the coastal plain
Where Troy had been; I took to the open sea,
Borne outward into exile with my people,
My son, my hearth gods, and the greater gods.”
Learn from Tolkien. I couldn’t help but watch the Notre Dame fires and think of the Dwarves, of Smaug, of another kingdom which was devastated by fire. And so those gritty faces came to mind, as did Tolkien’s pathway for how to handle fiery devastation. Tolkien provides us a few pathways for dealing with Notre Dame. Lest we waste her life and her death, lest we waste our present exile from under her buttresses, we must look at this through the eyes of the hobbits and dwarves. This is what Tolkien has to teach us about the fires of Notre Dame:
“The few of us that were well outside sat and wept in hiding, and cursed Smaug; and there we were unexpectedly joined by my father and my grandfather with singed beards. They looked very grim but they said very little. When I asked how they had got away, they told me to hold my tongue, and said that one day in the proper time I should know. After that we went away, and we have had to earn our livings as best we could up and down the lands, often enough sinking as low as blacksmith-work or even coalmining. But we have never forgotten our stolen treasure. And even now, when I will allow we have a good bit laid by and are not so badly off”—here Thorin stroked the gold chain round his neck—“we still mean to get it back, and to bring our curses home to Smaug—if we can.”
“At last they came up the long road, and reached the very pass where the goblins had captured them before. But they came to that high point at morning, and looking backward they saw a white sun shining over the outstretched lands. There behind lay Mirkwood, blue in the distance, and darkly green at the nearer edge even in the spring. There far away was the Lonely Mountain on the edge of the eyesight. On its highest peak snow yet unmelted was gleaming pale. ‘So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending!’ said Bilbo, and he turned his back on his adventure. The Tookish part was getting very tired, and the Baggins was daily getting stronger. ‘I wish now only to be in my own armchair!’ he said.”
Learn from Chesterton. One of the reasons the modern world will be tongue-tied, and perhaps even have their imaginations and hands tied on what to do about Notre Dame is because we have been curators of a great piece of architecture, but we have not been curating our souls. That is to say, for the past couple hundred years, which is now considered the golden years of Notre Dame’s life, we have pushed her to the nursing home of our minds. When we are in the area, we will go visit her. Sure, we go visit and give gifts during holidays. We remember her fondly as we look over pictures, but we have not loved her, and we have not loved the things which made her. And so God saw fit to bring her back to where she came, during Lent. “Ashes to ashes” he said, long before her first stone was laid. Practically, we have to deal with a burning cathedral as we deal with a burning candle: put it out before it spreads any further. But we are not merely practical men; we are embodied souls. And so we must deal with a burning cathedral as we deal with a burning foot. The modern world, and especially modern education, is out to make practical men, while at the same time trying to deal with all the mysteries of them being truly men. And so in the modern world there happens to be fewer men who are truly practical. If we want to make great art, to build cathedrals anew, to even put out fires while they burn inside a building we perhaps thought was invincible, we need to start creating a world of unpractical men again. This is what Chesterton has to teach us about the fires of Notre Dame:
“There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.” (What’s Wrong With the World, 20)
Learn from Schaefer. Art can be lost temporarily, or it can be lost forever. As of now, Notre Dame has been lost temporarily. And the coming years will prove whether it will be lost eternally. The difference will be whether it’s rebuilt to the glory of God or the glory of man, whether it will be given to the hands and Lordship of Christ or to the appetites and idolatry of man. Near the middle of Francis Schaefer’s Art and the Bible, he describes a work of art which ought to guide and guard how we think about what Notre Dame once was and what it will one day be. This is what Schaefer has to teach us about the fires of Notre Dame:
“In the art museum in Neuchatel are three great murals by Paul Robert which for over eighty years have borne testimony to all the people of Neuchatel that Christ is coming again. One of the murals testifies to the fact that Christ has a relationship to agriculture, another to the fact that Christ has a relationship to industry. But the third one is the greatest. It depicts the relationship between Christ, the intellectual life and the arts. Paul Robert, a Swiss artist who was a real man of God, understood this relationship very well.
In the background of this mural he pictured Neuchatel, the lake on which it is situated and even the art museum which contains the mural. In the foreground near the bottom is a great dragon wounded to the death. Underneath the dragon is the file and the ugly—the pornographic and the rebellious. Near the top Jesus is seen coming in the sky with his endless hosts. On the left side is a beautiful stairway, and on the stairway are young and beautiful men and women carrying the symbols of the various forms of art—architecture, music and so forth. And as they are carrying them up and away from the dragon to present them to Christ, Christ is coming down to accept them. Paul Robert understood Scripture a lot better than many of us. He saw that at the second coming the Lordship of Christ will include everything.
But he also know that if these things are to be carried up to the praise of God and the lordship of Christ at the second coming, then we should be offering them to God now. In the same picture he portrayed the city of Neuchatel, the beautiful lake and the art museum itself: The art museum of Neuchatel and its works of art should be to the praise of Christ now. The reality of the future has meaning for the present!
Do we understand the freedom we have under the Lordship of Christ and the norms of Scripture? Is the creative part of our life committed to Christ? Christ is the Lord of our whole life and the Christian life should produce not only truth—flaming truth—but also beauty.”
Learn from Maritain. It is fitting to end here with Jacques Maritain, one of the great French Catholic philosophers of the 20th century, for it is in his wisdom he provided for us a pathway to not only rebuilding the Notre Dame, but also building anything in the future, whether in Europe or America. The residing question for us all is not whether we will ever look upon the Parisian skyline and see that maiden steeple. Some billionaire will ensure that happens. The question is “What kind of men will this fire make of us, and will we make art, even rebuild art, because our hearts burn with sin or burn with a love for Christ?” We ought not to try to simply rebuild a Christian icon; we ought to love and know Christ and then build in such a way that loves God and our neighbor. This is what Maritain has to teach us about the fires of Notre Dame.
“By the words ‘Christian art’ I do not mean Church art...I mean Christian art in the sense of art which bears within it the character of Christianity...It is the art of redeemed humanity…Everything belongs to it, the sacred as well as the profane. It is at home wherever the ingenuity and the joy of man extend. Symphony or ballet, film or novel, landscape or still-life, puppet-show libretto or opera, it can just as well appear in any of these as in the stained-glass windows and statues of churches…If you want to make a Christian work, then be Christian, and simply try to make a beautiful work, into which your heart will pass; do not try to ‘make Christian’. Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain
We have never had an issue with fire in the Notre Dame Cathedral. Perhaps there have been billions of liturgical candles ablaze in her belly since her inception. Our issue here is that the fire touched her walls. It engulfed her beauty. It showed that its strength was far superior to hers. It was more prideful than she was, and so it brought our hearts low. But has it brought them low enough? Has it brought them as low as Calvary? Has it brought them as low as the grave? Has it brought them as low as the crucified God? The paradox amidst the fires of Notre Dame is that if we want to build something worth saving, we must build something worth losing. If we want to build something beautiful, we must build something that could appear grotesque. Great glory is never without great humiliation; and Notre Dame’s resurrection, if it be true, requires divine power. If it is to be the story of Christ, it must be the story of redeeming love and not a counterfeit affection for artifacts. The fires of Notre Dame is the story of Holy Week, but only if it is the God of life and light who raises her from the dead and not an already dead culture raising the requisite funds. If it is the former, she will be beautiful once more, perhaps even more beautiful than before. If it is the latter, she will have all the trappings of a harlot.