Notre Dame spire on fire. Photo by LEVRIER Guillaume via Wikimedia Commons.

Notre Dame: We Were Made to Build Cathedrals

For one day, the world spoke of nothing besides a church. The sadness of people, not only the believers, revealed a strange nostalgia. It is a sign of something indelible.
Luca Doninelli

For an entire day, April 16, 2019, the world spoke of nothing other than a church. How long has it been since something similar has happened? Everyone was speaking about it: believers, non believers, people of all creeds and no creeds. For one day, the world was entirely there, with its nose in the air, disturbed and from the first moments at a loss for words, as it watched those flames devour the roof of something that shouldn’t have, that couldn’t have burned. Our Lady of Paris.

It matters little if one has ever set foot there; the question is: If Our Lady of Paris falls, what will become of us? What will become of us? The positivist part of us is reassuring: we already know that Notre Dame will resurrect, thanks to the many generous donations already made and those that will be made. France, Europe, and the Christian world cannot lose - as I’ve heard said - this central and definitive symbol. But a bit of unease remains and we are reassured only up to a certain level. Those flames threw open a thought that is perhaps irrational, but which rose from who knows where to our lips, which made us say: anything else, but not this.

For a long time now, we have spoken of the “time of the cathedrals,” referring to a period of the Middle Ages in which the very idea of Christian civilization was forged. Now, suddenly, we discover that centuries of unbelief have not cancelled that time, that that time is still with us, in some way. We discover that beneath the covers of skepticism and nihilism, and underneath the barbarism fed by bitterness towards those who promised us a magnificent and progressive lot, under a worn cynicism, nostalgia for that time burns again in us. In the cynical and bitter statement that we are no longer constructors of cathedrals we discover a thread of lie, and a suspicion arises: is it really true that we are no longer?

What happened in Paris obligates me to think about the relationship between Christianity and the human differently than the skeptical culture in which we are immersed. And we are truly immersed in it. It is a culture that does not tell us that God does not exist, that the faith is a dream; these are only its most extreme derivatives. Its true force lies in its ability to persuade us that faith is something that is superimposed on the human, so to speak. If things are this way, then we can say that man in and of himself is not a constructor of cathedrals, that the constructors of cathedrals were special men, animated by a particularly strong faith, that they were what we like to call “the crazy men of God” (with the accent on the adjective “crazy” not on a belonging to God), in the end, they are a psychologically energized folk, and surely ingenious, capable of conceived enormous dreams, which were as vast as the romanic and gothic cathedrals.

We think this way. Deep down, we think this way. They were made of different stuff, we think, and we are a bit sorry that we don’t have that same enthusiasm or even that same faith, we could say, that ingenuous irrationality that pushed those men to take up such great enterprises.

We think that the faith and that Christianity are something superimposed on the human, a surplus even if it is a splendid one. However, it is something that normally does not exist, that does not have a place in life as it is in the normality of the everyday. First, there is normal human life, we think, and then something exceptional arrives that operates, without a doubt, many changes.

What is difficult to think is that Christianity is that exceptional event that reveals man, that gives him a foundation. It is an exceptionality that is not superimposed but that, on the contrary, lies at the base, at the origin of the human being. What is difficult for us to think is that ourselves, each one of us - in his normal life of every day and every minute - is the object of an exceptional action, that creates us, that pulls us out from nothingness one by one.

And if it was this way?

If things were this way, we would have to say that building cathedrals is the expression of our nature as it is most simply, everyday, as only Christ is able to reveal and that does not deny anything of what man is, but, just the opposite, it frees him, it allows him finally to be himself: think only of that masterpiece of beauty, science, knowledge, art, poetry, music and harmony that are the great cathedrals. What masterpieces of constructive ability, of imaginative ardor and even of mathematics! If Notre Dame did not fall to the ground, this is because of the wisdom of he who structured its roof.

The dismay that struck the world when it saw those flames revealed that thread of nostalgia for something that not as much Christians and Catholics, but man in general has lost sight of. And, at the bottom of ourselves, we heard - as Proust recounts - that something arises from the profundity of time, that the possibility of each one of us being a builder of cathedrals has not truly fled from our hearts because building cathedrals is an essential task of man, in whatever he does, wherever he goes, in whatever derivate his actions and thoughts take. Man must build cathedrals because this action is the complete response of man to a full awareness of his existence.