Like many I’m shocked and saddened by the fire at Notre Dame cathedral. At the same time a recurring theme of this blog has been that modern people are disinclined to pay for the past, and some analysts are saying that lack of funds for regular upkeep of the cathedral over many years are at least partially behind the tragedy. Monuments that have stood for centuries require constant care, but it’s so easy to take them for granted. Cathedrals aren’t just religious buildings. They are humanistic in the sense that they stand for our natural tendency to create great markers of our time on earth. So very human. Many human acts we wish to erase, but some represent a loss to the very soul of our species when they’re gone.
Even in this secular age the great cathedrals of Europe are on the agenda of many a traveller. My own recollections of Notre Dame have grown hazy with the years—I do recall the stolid towers and flying buttresses. Even the doubtless inauthentic but still ancient crown of thorns. The famously secular French stood in the streets and sang hymns as the fire raged.
My single trip to Paris was followed by a stop in Germany where we saw towers of cathedrals left standing even when the remainders of the buildings were gone—bombed out during World War Two. Asking a friend about it we learned that the Germans felt these skeletal churches were appropriate reminders of the horrors of war. No masses could be said in them ever again, but they stood, in their ruined majesty, as their own kind of monument to human folly.
We live in a post-cathedral world. Symbols of the unity of a nation, demanding resources beyond what could really be afforded, cathedrals served to unite. Citizens of London, it is reported, shoved bombs off St. Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz. Religion today has been turned into a means of dividing and conquering people. It builds border walls rather than cathedrals where those of any faith might be allowed in and invited to wonder. Images of that famous spire helplessly falling amid the flames suggest the shock of the twin towers collapsing. Although the structure survives, much has been lost forever. And if people react like they are wont to do, there will be outpouring of resources to rebuild and restore, but only for a while. We tend to think that looking at the past is frivolous. Yet, my photos of Notre Dame remind me that a life spent looking back may well be the only kind worth living.