Notre Dame on fire. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Notre Dame: Those Who Rebuild the Temple

“How many times have I passed it by without even seeing it? How many times have I looked at it without thinking that those are living stones?" How the fire in the Cathedral speaks to the experience of those who live in Paris.

There aren’t words adequate to describe what happened. A cathedral burned, after centuries. From at least two, she had been spared this unhappy fate. A “sacred” place has burned, some say, a “symbol” of the city, of “Christendom” for others. Notre Dame is much more: it is a dwelling place, my home.

The other evening, returning from work, everyone in the subway was looking at the screens of their smartphones. And this time it was not for playing games or chatting. Instead, everyone’s gaze was fixed on the news and they were looking, stunned, at those painful images. No speech or reminder was necessary. Everyone understood the tragedy that was happening.

This morning, praying Morning Prayer, the Canticle of Isaiah struck me. It describes my interior state:
My dwelling was uprooted, and thrown far away from me, like the shepherd’s tent. Like a weaver you have rolled up my life, you have cut me from your thread. From day to night, you have cut me down.

It strikes me how the prophet uses harsh images, but this does not impede him from addressing himself to the “weaver” with a “you.”

Everyone admires the beauty of Notre Dame, the most visited monument in Paris together with the Eiffel Tower: fourteen million visitors per year. We can associate the two monuments that are certainly not of the same epoch but that are fruit of the same mentality. In fact, the cathedral, at the end of the 1800’s, was spared by Baron Haussmann, urbanist and the designer of Paris. Instead, a different outcome was reserved for hundreds of churches and medieval chapels and cemeteries. Today, everyone admires “la ville lumière,” Paris and her spaces. But it was born as the price of a sacrifice. Notre Dame was left as a symbol of the history of France, as the president of the Republic said: “It is our history.”

For me, it is not only history. I repeat: it is a home. It is a place upon which I can place my life, as I am recognized and loved, just like the archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, reminded us. And it is not only my life that can lean on it, but the life of any man. Everyone can enter, to visit, to go to confession, to speak with a priest, to rest, to light a candle (every year, around five million are lit).

Notre Dame was is not just a past; it is a present, and, now, a painful one. Among the images that are making the rounds on social media, there is one that is particularly emblematic: three firefighters, “heroes of the fire” as they have been called, in the central nave and the golden cross placed on calvary, in the back of the choir, where everything was collapsed and blackened. She was saved, and even resplendent. It shone, even if everything else was destroyed. The “arrow,” the thirty meter spire built in the 19th century, burned like a candle. In a similar way, the treasure of the Cathedral, with all of its relics, was saved: the thorns of the crown of Christ, a nail and a piece of wood of the cross, relics brought by Saint Louis back from the crusades.

We can look for who was responsible and seek to understand the circumstances. It think that the message, in this Holy Week, is clear: the cross is saved, and saves. Ave Crux, spes unica: the cross is the only hope of the world.

Palm Sunday, during the reading of the Passion narrative, one phrase in particular remained impressed in my mind. It was when Jesus says to us from the cross: “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they do.” Jesus says it looking at those who had condemned and crucified him. But he says it to me as well. Today. When I lose sight of him, I no longer know what I am doing. In front of this circumstance, this phrase illuminated my face, above all with shame. How many times did I pass in front of Notre Dame or look at it without seeing it, without seeing that those stones are “life”? It is the first sentence of Fr. Giussani’s Why the Church: “The Church is a life.” When did I look at it with this need and this reason in my eyes? Probably only a few times. Maybe, already my gaze reduced it to ashes, obviously without my noticing it. I understand this now, in front of those ashes, in front of that mortal wound that it shows. And I can still continue to burn it if I do not understand what is at stake, if from the “story” that reality tells I do not catch the sign, or, in other words, the connection and the path that God asks me as a sacrifice. I can pass on to other things, just like a new pilgrim on the road of Emmaus, walking without a true face because there was no true gaze upon Him.

In front of this tragedy, I was struck by the reaction of the people. There were those who got together, immediately that evening, near to the cathedral, kneeling down to pray, to recite and to sing the “Hail Mary.” Thousands of persons.

There are those who think already of the “after,” like Macron: “This cathedral, we will rebuild, we will reconstruct it, all together. I promise, from tomorrow...” On the Catholic side, accusations circle that cite those statements of Jesus that cost him the accusation of blasphemy and, therefore, the condemnation to death: “You will destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” The desire to not stop oneself at the destruction and the evil is comprehensible. We see God exists because He is at work and man, in imitation of God, cannot remain in desolation. The wounded man that I am, how can he immediately set off on the work of reconstruction? Does the wound carry a “why”? How is it possible to begin again? Beginning with who and from what? In the phrase of Jesus, there is, maybe, a detail that escapes most of us. He says, “I will make it rise again.” Is each one of us conscious of that “I” of which Jesus is speaking in order to rebuild the Temple? We have the humanity and the ideal that moved those men of the twelfth century to construct a home for two hundred years, conscious that they would never have seen it completed?

Jesus, at the Last Supper, tells his disciples: “You are not of the world, but I have chosen you from the world.” Precisely in these words lies the difference from which we can begin again. Precisely at Notre Dame, in 1886, the great Paul Claudel converted. Those stones and the statue of Our Lady converted him and in time produced such fruits as the work The Tidings Brought to Mary. In this work is made incarnate our drama as men. The “world” of which Jesus speaks, in fact, does not expect other than that I become like Jacques Hury, the boyfriend of the protagonist Violane. He is a good man. He does his work well, just in the way the “world” would expect.

Instead, the historical moment in which we are needs us to be like Pierre de Craon, the cursed and leprous architect who, however, carries in this heart a vocation: the work fixed by Another. “It is not for the stone to choose its place, but to the Master of the work.” Notre Dame is precisely this, the home where I am wanted and loved, above all else, a place where my need is recognized and share, above all else.

Recently, a friend, after visiting the Duomo of Milan, cited a phrase of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that went along these lines: “Those who want to secure themselves a high place or a position in an already constructed cathedral has already been defeated. But whoever carries in his heart a cathedral that is to be built, is already a victor.”

We can thank, even if through gritted teeth for the pain, that we have received this freedom that has been given to us as Grace. We pray so that, cognizant, we can know to use it as God gave it to us.

Silvio, Paris, France