Notre Dame nearly burned to the ground, from neglect, and we can say the same thing about the Church in France, in Europe, and in the West as a whole. So, we can say the same thing about our culture.
On Monday, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire and nearly burned to the ground. Late into the blaze, crews managed to prevail against the flames and announced that enough remained of the structure’s integrity that it could be restored.
Anyone who’d been following the news reports would regard the structure’s survival as a kind of miracle.
The world cares about Notre Dame Cathedral, not just because it’s a treasure of art and architecture, and as such, an icon of Europe and, in particular, France, but because of what it is. It’s a church. It’s the seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Paris. It’s been there, in the middle of the city, since the time of Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure, all of whom walked the streets of that great city and taught in the University of Paris in the heyday of the Scholastic Middle Ages. Notre Dame Cathedral has remained in use through the whole history of France and Europe since that time. It’s been a place of worship and preaching through all the highs and lows of France’s history, for better or for worse. It survived the French Revolution, the two world wars of the twentieth century, and the tawdry adoption of secularism, with all its debauchery and inhumanity, a transformation that has swept through Western culture as of late like… well, like a raging fire.
Through it all, the Cathedral stood and worshippers, in ever-diminishing numbers, continued to stream through its doors and turn to God. But, over the years, true worshippers have been replaced, increasingly, by tourists—by people who came to look at the Cathedral rather than through it, and to consider Christianity as an abstract historical idea rather than to allow themselves to be converted. When we think about France, and about Europe as a whole, and about Western Culture more broadly still, where the Christian faith has been dying a long, slow death for about a hundred years, we’re reminded of the words of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Madman, who, in proclaiming the “death of God” in his famous discourse from The Gay Science, mused, “What, after all, are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”
By all accounts, the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral wasn’t an act of arson or terrorism. According to Jean-Michel Leniaud, it was the result of neglect, because for years and years little attention was paid to its daily upkeep. It was taken for granted until it grabbed our attention by bursting into flames.
If Notre Dame is a symbol of what makes France France, Europe Europe, and the West the West, by embodying the fact of our foundationally Christian heart, then it does so even in the midst of this great catastrophe. Notre Dame nearly burned to the ground, from neglect, and we can say the same thing about the Church in France, in Europe, and in the West as a whole. So, we can say the same thing about our culture.
What happened this week in one great church is a living, burning, metaphor for the rest of Western culture at every level, like a small section of a fractal, or like a chip from a hologram, containing within itself everything we find in the whole image.
But, when the flames abated, there stood the gleaming gold of the altar cross, just as before the flames had swept through. Rubble all around it, the altar and the cross remained, and a nation and a world were roused, and pledged to rebuild. Perhaps this is just the beginning—a miracle to save the Church and the culture she’s undergirded for well over a thousand years.
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