Thousands around the world grieved as they watched flames consume the roof and the spire of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Even in a nation as secular as France, where nearly half the population professes no religion and only 5% of self-identified Catholics attend mass regularly, people wept for the destruction of something that was seen as a symbol of the French nation and its heritage. Historians and art scholars feared the loss of irreplaceable artifacts. Almost immediately, very wealthy people all over the world pledged funding for a restoration.
Part of the shock perhaps had to do with the sense that Notre Dame has been there forever, timeless, as the world changed around her. Unlike most of the medieval churches and cathedrals of Europe, Notre Dame had never been completely destroyed and rebuilt, although it has been continuously modified and renovated over the last eight centuries. Notre Dame was also unusual in that it had been originally built in “only” a hundred years to a single design, unlike many Gothic cathedrals that continued unfinished for centuries with many changes of style and plan.
After the French Revolution in the 1790’s, though, the cathedral was intentionally desecrated and rededicated to “The Cult of Reason,” and many of the statues and relics were destroyed. When Napoleon returned the building to the Church in the early 19th century, it was in such bad shape that officials seriously considered demolishing it. The groundswell of support that came from the popularity of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris saved the cathedral, but also meant that once again the building was thoroughly restored, enlarged and modified. The slender spire or “flèche” that collapsed in the fire last month was only added as part of that renovation in the 1860’s.
All of which is to say that this timeless building has never been static. In his 1994 book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand points out that no building that lasts any length of time can be static. Buildings that are well-used are modified and recycled for their evolving purposes. Perhaps the only structures that continue more or less unchanged are those that we self-consciously set aside as historical artifacts: removed from practical use and preserved as specimens behind velvet ropes.
But even these historical specimens change in another important way, as each generation interprets and gives meaning to them as symbols. A gorgeously restored antebellum plantation or the meticulous reconstruction of Colonial Williamsburg carry different significance as we become more aware of the stories of enslaved people and others for whom these places are relics of oppression rather than quaint historical objects. This change of meaning is evident in the current discussion of how best to deal with monuments to Confederate heroes or memorials to thinkers whose ideas have become problematic.
Notre Dame began its life with the functional purpose of housing the worship of God. It also began with several overlapping symbolic purposes: to draw the eyes and souls of the faithful upward into a state of communion with the divine, to instruct an illiterate congregation in the mysteries of faith, but also to reinforce the power and authority of the Church and her representatives, and to establish the primacy of Paris among the bishops of France. More recently, worship had become less important, as the building has functioned primarily as a museum and tourist attraction, and the symbolic meaning of the cathedral has come to have much less to do with God that with a particular idea of French national glory. In the last two weeks, the world has been re-evaluating the meaning of a grandiose religious building as the symbol of a secular, multicultural, bourgeois nation.
Communities change, buildings learn, meanings change, proud towers fall. One simple message of the fire in Paris is that even the grandest productions of human culture will eventually fall into ruin and decay, and that it is dangerous idolatry to worship the work of our own hands. This, I think, is what is behind the many folks who have responded that, “It’s just a building, after all.”
This is true and important, but I think there is a deeper message. When a church ceases to learn, to change, to find new meaning in the Gospel and to preach that meaning to the world around us, the church is in danger of becoming a museum and a tourist attraction. When it is easier to raise billions of dollars to restore the barely-used Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris than to raise a few million to restore the vital Cathedral of Notre Dame in Port au Prince, Haiti, which languishes as a ruin nine years after the earthquake, one may be concerned that the devotion to grand buildings has become an idolatry.
This conversation has the potential to be slightly uncomfortable for us at St. Saviour’s. We are known for our beautiful historic building, which during some weeks of the year is known to more people as a museum and tourist attraction than as a place of worship. In town, we are often known as “the stained glass church” rather than for our faith and love. Many Sundays there are more people represented by memorial plaques than are present in the pews. The temptation to idolatry is sharp: our grand building, our beautiful glass, our rich history all seduce us to make them the static center of our life as a parish. Our center is and must be the lively, active love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord, which is timeless yet new every morning.
*Ceci tuera cela = “This will kill that” – Monsignor Frollo’s epigrammatic comment as he looks from the printed page to the towers of the cathedral in Hugo’s Notre Dame.