Living, Global, Holy: Responding Thoughtfully to Notre Dame (Part One)

Lemme hit you with a story:

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The spire of St. Michael’s church in Linlithgow, Scotland.

A few years ago I was in Scotland for research. On a free Sunday, I took myself on an expedition to explore Linlithgow Palace, about a half-hour’s train ride north of Edinburgh. The palace is a ruin, though a majestic and fascinating one. Right next to the ruined palace, however, is the little parish church of St. Michael’s. While St. Michaels is, in part, as old as the palace, it’s still a functioning parish church. A place of regular worship for regular people. When I stepped in, the sexton came out to greet me, and immediately started explaining, almost defensively, why the church has its very modern spire. Apparently he’d had earfuls from tourist after tourist about how the spire was “incongruous” with the look of the rest of the church. How it wasn’t “medieval” enough. When I said something like, “Really? It doesn’t seem inconsistent to me–the whole church is made of components that are centuries apart,” the guy flashed the biggest smile and just about hugged me. More importantly, he proceeded to give me an amazing “VIP” tour of every nook and cranny of the place, from the blocks, once once parts of the stations of the cross, that had been incorporated into the high walls of the reformation-era apse, to what was probably 14th century graffiti on a stone doorframe, to the incredible carvings on the renaissance-era pulpit, to ways the building had been retrofitted for modern power and plumbing. We must have talked for a couple of hours about how the church was a living organism, one that carried within its very structure layers upon layers of history, of community, like the rings in a tree trunk, and that the modern spire was nothing less than a perfectly consistent continuation of that very process.

That experience was an important reminder to me that a church that’s been in continuous use for centuries, like St. Michaels or Notre Dame, while first constructed during the Middle Ages, isn’t only or merely a “medieval” building. Churches aren’t static monuments, especially for those faithful who have experienced and continue to experience them as places of daily worship and community. Such churches are living parts of their communities, and they change with the needs and desires of those communities, day to day, decade to decade, century to century. The physical changes wrought by generations of parishoners (and other influences) become embedded in the structure of both the building and the community. They’re not separate. St. Michaels is as much an Early Modern building as a medieval one, as much a Reformation building as a Catholic one; it’s a 19th and 20th century building, and even still, a modern, living part of a community of faith.

Such a reality, I think, has been lost in many responses to the fire that recently damaged Notre Dame. While it’s certainly a monument, and while parts of it date back to the Middle Ages, it’s not only or merely a medieval monument. It has always been, and continues to be, first and foremost, a holy place for a worldwide community of living, breathing people of faith, and the place is part of the life and breath of that community. One doesn’t need to share that same faith–or profess any faith at all–in order to respect the meaning of such a place to those for whom it has always been a place of worship and spiritual significance, in which the very bones of the place, the architecture, its structural mechanics, everything, were designed not only to support the physics of a large structure, but to communicate theological meaning and create a spiritual experience. To many of the artisans and workers who have built and rebuilt the cathedral over nearly 900 years, that work of construction wasn’t merely a job, but also an act of vocation and an expression of devotion. The people through the ages who have built Notre Dame did their work knowing they would never see a “finished” product, because as long as a building remains an active place of worship, it is never “finished.” Never fixed or frozen in time, but always changing, always moving, breathing.

Nor is Notre Dame merely a monument to a single time or a single culture. Buildings like Notre Dame and St. Michaels register within their very structures many different historical periods and cultures. The culture of the Paris of the 12th Century was not the same thing as the culture of Paris in the 16th, or the 19th, or the 21st. As Cord Whitaker has noted, some of the architectural innovations that saved the building from collapsing during the recent fire were the result of contact with, and adoption of engineering innovations from, the Arabic world. There are clear Islamic influences in parts of the cathedral’s design that contribute to its iconic appearance. While there’s not space to enumerate all such connections here (that would take volumes), when one really begins to look at the various components and layers of Notre Dame over time, that process reveals connections all across the (known, at the time) world. As such, Notre Dame isn’t so much a symbol of European or French or “medieval” culture as it is a testament to an amazingly complex, vibrant, and ongoing network of global connections and relationships.

As the living organism that it has always been, Notre Dame has survived damage and tragedy many times before, and will again. It was extensively altered in the 17th century. French revolutionaries ransacked it in 1789, even tearing town the original, 13th century spire. They tried to relabel the cathedral a “Temple of Reason,”

A ceremony of the new Republican Religion of Reason in Notre Dame, Paris, 1793. The effort to destroy the institutions of the Old Regime and create new, rationale, and just replacements was carried into the world of religion and the Church. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 1790) reorganized the Church, introducing such reforms as the election of priests and, more broadly, the subordination of the Church to the Revolutionary Government. During the Convention the attack on the Church went further into de-Christianization. Churches were renamed temples of reason—or de-sanctified—and a new religion of reason was introduced by the Convention.  This “civil religion” was based on the belief in a Supreme Being and secular ethics. This print depicts a ceremony in this new civil religion taking place in the famous cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  The policy of radical religious change was not popular and sometimes fiercely resisted in small towns and villages.

Notre Dame as a “Temple of Reason” in 1793.

after which it even served, for a time, as a wine warehouse before Napoleon decided it’d make a great backdrop for his coronation as a self-declared emperor. Much of the present-day (pre-fire) appearance of the cathedral dates to massive renovation efforts in the 1840’s, sparked by the popularity of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The wooden spire that was so heartbreakingly engulfed in flames a few days ago was not a medieval, but a 19th century structure.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, fire or no fire, the structure has undergone massive damage from weather, simple aging (when 856 years old you become, look so good you will not, mmm?), and also pollution and vibration from Paris traffic.

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While heartbreaking, the spire engulfed in flames here dates to the 19th century.

In many ways, then, the recent fire is simply a new stage in the history of this living building. It’ll get rebuilt, and the evidence of the fire and the later reconstruction will become yet another layer, another ring, in the physical record of its ongoing life. Any call to restore the cathedral, then, to some kind of “original” condition should be questioned–not the least reason being that “original” doesn’t mean only one thing in the case of Notre Dame. Was the cathedral as it appeared (unfinished) in the 12th century “original?” Yes! Was the cathedral as it appeared during the French Revolution “original?” Yes! Was the cathedral “original” in its post-1840’s manifestation? Yes! The way it appeared two weeks ago was the original Notre Dame. It’s damaged condition in the present is the original Notre Dame. Its appearance in the future will be the original Notre Dame.  As long as it remains part of a living community, its original form will always take place in the present moment.

Living. Global. Holy: awareness of these three qualities, I suggest, are absolutely vital to responding in productive ways to the Notre Dame fire. In the next post, I’ll explain why.