It’s fitting, I think, to be writing this particular essay on the morning of Easter Sunday, which, for Christians worldwide, is never about a return to the way things were, but about resurrection, the creation of something new, not reversion but rebirth. Easter is not about making anything great again. It’s about making all things new. I write this,
however, under the shadow of the bombings of several churches and hotels in Sri Lanka today, a loss of holy places–and more importantly, a loss of life—orders of magnitude more horrific than the loss of Notre Dame. I hope this reflection will be useful to conversations about responding to that even more significant tragedy.
In the previous post I identified three often-overlooked qualities that make Notre Dame the extraordinary place that it is.
- It’s a living organism, not a static monument.
- It’s connected across the globe and across a thousand years of time.
- It’s holy ground.
Living. Global. Holy.
I want to argue that awareness of these three qualities is vital for creating thoughtful and positive responses to its partial destruction, and for avoiding some serious mistakes that can make those responses–even well-intentioned ones–go south in a hurry.
That facts that Notre Dame is both living and global help us to avoid (and be critically aware of) the hijacking of the Notre Dame tragedy into the service of militant nationalism and white supremacism. As many medievalists have noted over the past few years, the idea of “reclaiming” a wholly imaginary version of the European Middle Ages as an era of white racial purity and uncontested patriarchy has become a cause celebre of white nationalist groups in both Europe and the United States. Other medievalists have already thought through this phenomenon more fully than I could here, but, to offer a single example, the (spurious) appropriation of the medievalism of the far right was on blatant display at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA. Awareness of the “Living, Global, and Holy” triad makes it easy to spot attempts by such groups channel otherwise legitimate public sorrow and concern over Notre Dame into the service of their agendas. A number of alt-right figures have already chimed in to this effect, but applying these concepts will send up immediate red flags about any appeals to Notre Dame as a “monument” to “Western Civilization,” or any attempt to fix Notre Dame in a single place, time, and culture. Any such attempt, at the very least, diminishes rather than preserves the real importance of places like Notre Dame, and, even if not explicitly intended to promote white supremacism or white nationalism, still works in the service of those agendas by making them very easy for such groups to co-opt.
The idea that Notre Dame is holy ground might be an even more important concept to bear in mind, regardless of whether one is a Roman Catholic or a Christian in the broader sense. It’s important because it activates the awareness that grief over Notre Dame isn’t merely grief over Notre Dame but over the loss of what, for many, is not only culturally and historically important, but sacred. For those many, there is a spiritual loss that goes well beyond the loss of a cultural artifact. For some that loss stems from connection to the place as a site of Christian worship; for others it stems from a felt connection to the place rooted in other kinds of relationships, whether it’s a love for Paris, deep connection to its art and architecture, or even just fond memories of the experience of a visit. For those for whom it is a real, living place of worship, there can be a profound sense of loss of the site of deeply personal and meaningful spiritual experiences.
Why does awareness of this spiritual quality matter? Because it activates the awareness that the grief anyone might feel over the specific destruction wrought upon Notre Dame itself creates another kind of global connection: to all those who know the grief of threat to or destruction of a place they regard as holy, no matter what brand of faith or spirituality they may practice. I’m sure that many make that connection naturally. For those who don’t, pointing out that connection is an amazing opportunity to jump-start that kind of empathy even where it doesn’t already exist. It’s a very simple, natural step from affirming an individual’s grief over Notre Dame to pointing out that that very emotion places one in connection to anyone who’s grieved over such a loss. To the parisoners of three African American churches that burned recently in Louisiana. To the Hunkpapa Lakota, Sihasapa Lakota, and Yanktonai Dakota who grieve over the ongoing destruction of sacred ground at Standing Rock. To the historical grief of those who lost not only sacred sites but enormous chunks of entire spiritual traditions to crass European colonialism, and the descendants who still struggle with the effects of those legacies. To the persons of Jewish faith who still bear the scars of genocide and thousands of gutted synagogues. To the Chinese Muslims who have witnessed the bulldozing of their mosques. To the hundreds in Sri Lanka who lost their lives when their churches were bombed, as well as those of many faiths (or none at all) whose hotels were attacked as well. To experience grief over the destruction to Notre Dame is, or at least should be, to recognize that we are all responsible for respecting and defending all holy places, of all faiths, and to realize that attention to Notre Dame should naturally direct more attention to the holy places that haven’t made the headlines.
It’s of course true that the Notre Dame fire has received a great deal more publicity than all these other examples, and legitimate to point out that this is an effect of the kind of white privilege that, in a knee-jerk and systemic fashion, favors the products of “white” European culture over others. It is essential to recognize and work to change this reality. But there’s a difference, I think, between real critiques of the brand of white privilege in play in this instance and merely shaming individuals for the crime of experiencing an emotion (grief, sorrow, etc.). In recognizing and affirming the attachment many human beings have to their own holy places, we have the perfect opportunity to combat white privilege by activating the organically empathic connection between those grieving over Notre Dame and those grieving over the places that the media has neglected.
My suggestion, for anyone feeling sorrow over Notre Dame, is to go ahead and contribute to its reconstruction, taking care, of course, not to direct such contributions toward any organization that purports to restore the cathedral to some imaginary, pristine “medieval” condition. But make it, at the least, a two- or three-way contribution, offering equal amounts to those protecting holy places elsewhere. My personal plan is to contribute to the main fund for Notre Dame, to the fund established for supporting the churches in Louisiana, and to the organization continuing the work at Standing Rock. There should be no shame in experiencing grief over Notre Dame. But such grief must always come with empathy, and it’s the particular responsibility of those profess faiths and identities that have been privileged in the past to help make sure that, in the future, no one’s holy places go unprotected.
To donate toward the repair of churches burned in Louisiana, see the GoFundMe page dedicated to that purpose.
To contribute toward the continuing defense of lands at Standing Rock, donate to their official organization here.
To support reconstruction efforts at Notre Dame, contribute to the Friends of Notre Dame de Paris.