If you were waiting for a sign concerning the scope and seriousness of what must be rebuilt in our age, and what will happen if not, this is it.
— James Poulos (@jamespoulos) April 15, 2019
There is no way to replace what Paris, what France, what Christendom, and indeed what humanity, has lost today. It is irreplaceable. For example, we literally cannot recreate the windows, which date from the time of Dante. We do not know how to do it. As a friend said to me, “You can rebuild the World Trade Center. You cannot rebuild Notre Dame de Paris.”
Watch this and weep:
Ave Maria pic.twitter.com/lb6Y5XV05a
— Ignacio Gil (@Inaki_Gil) April 15, 2019
Take a look at this short clip from Kenneth Clark’s monologue opening his great 1969 TV series Civilisation (all of which is available on YouTube). Standing in front of the Notre Dame cathedral, Clark asks, “What is civilization?” He says he can’t define it in abstract terms, “but I think I can recognize it when I see it.” He then turns to the cathedral, and says, “I’m looking at it right now.” Watch:
What we lost today is one of the great embodiments of Western civilization. It is impossible to overstate what this means. It will take some time to absorb. Notre Dame de Paris is at the heart of France’s identity. All distances in France are measured from kilometre zéro, in front of the cathedral. Though most (but not all!) of the French have turned away from their baptism, Notre Dame is the symbolic heart of the nation. And now, it’s gone, though firefighters may have saved its bones. It took 200 years to build, and now it was made a holocaust in one terrible afternoon.
Like James Poulos above, I cannot see this as anything other than a sign. The only church in all of Western civilization more important than Notre Dame de Paris is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The consuming fire is likely to have been started from a construction accident. I hope that is the case; if this was terrorism, then France is in for unimaginable spasms of violence. Nevertheless, if this was an accident, it still symbolizes what we in the West have allowed to happen to our religious and cultural patrimony. What happened in Paris today has been happening across our civilization.
It happens whenever we fail to live out our baptism, and fail to baptize our children. It happens by omission, by indifference, and it happens by commission, from spite. It happens in classrooms, in newsrooms, in shopping malls, in poisoned seminaries and defiled sacristies, and everywhere the truths that Notre Dame de Paris embodied are ridiculed, flayed, and destroyed in the hearts and minds of modern men. The fire that destroyed Paris’s iconic cathedral made manifest what we in the West have been doing to ourselves for over 200 years.
This catastrophe in Paris today is a sign to all of us Christians, and a sign to all people in the West, especially those who despise the civilization that built this great temple to its God on an island in the Seine where religious rites have been celebrated since the days of pagan Rome. It is a sign of what we are losing, and what we will not recover, if we don’t change course now. Here are the final paragraphs from The Benedict Option, about a similar catastrophe in the town where St. Benedict was born:
The Benedictine monks of Norcia have become a sign to the world in ways I did not anticipate when I began writing this book. In August 2016, a devastating earthquake shook their region. When the quake hit in the middle of the night, the monks were awake to pray matins, and they fled the monastery for the safety of the open-air piazza.
Father Cassian later reflected that the earthquake symbolized the crumbling of the West’s Christian culture, but that there was a second, hopeful symbol that night. “The second symbol is the gathering of the people around the statue of Saint Benedict in the piazza in order to pray,” he wrote to supporters. “That is the only way to rebuild.”
The tremors left the basilica church too structurally unstable for worship, and most of the monastery uninhabitable. The brothers evacuated the town and moved to their land up the mountainside, just outside the Norcia walls. They pitched tents in the ruins of an older monastery and continued their prayer life, interrupted only by visits to the town to minister to its people.
The monks received distinguished visitors in their exile, including Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi and Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican’s liturgical office. Cardinal Sarah blessed the monks’ temporary quarters, celebrated mass with them, then told them that their tent monastery “reminds me of Bethlehem, where it all began.”
“I am certain that the future of the Church is in the monasteries,” said the cardinal, “because where prayer is, there is the future.”
Five days later, more earthquakes shook Norcia. The cross atop the basilica’s facade toppled to the ground. And then, early in the morning of Sunday, October 30, the strongest earthquake to hit Italy in thirty years struck, its epicenter just north of the town. The fourteenth-century Basilica of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, fell violently to the ground. Only its facade remained. Not a single church in Norcia remained standing.
With dust still rising from the rubble, Father Basil knelt on the stones of the piazza, facing the ruined basilica, and accompanied by nuns and a few elderly Norcini, including one in a wheelchair, he prayed. Later amateur video posted to YouTube showed Father Basil, Father Benedict, and Father Martin running through the streets of the rubble-strewn town, looking for the dying who needed last rites. By the grace of God, there were none.
Back in America, Father Richard Cipolla, a Catholic priest in Connecticut and an old friend of Father Benedict’s, e-mailed the subprior when he heard the news of the latest quake. “Is there damage? What is going on?” Father Cipolla wrote.
“Yes, damage much worse,” Father Benedict replied. “But we are okay. Much to tell you, but just pray. I am well, and God continues to purify us and bring very good things.”
The next morning, as the sun rose over Norcia, Father Benedict sent a message to the monastery’s friends all over the world. He said that no Norcini had lost their lives in the quake because they had heeded the warnings from the earlier tremors and left town. “[God] spent two months preparing us for the complete destruction of our patron’s church so that when it finally happened we would watch it, in horror but in safety, from atop the town,” the priest-monk wrote.
Father Benedict added, “These are mysteries which will take years—not days or months—to understand.”
Surely that is true. But notice this: the earth moved, and the Basilica of St. Benedict, which had stood firm for many centuries, tumbled to the ground. Only the facade, the mere semblance of a church, remains. Because the monks headed for the hills after the August earthquake, they survived. God preserved them in the holy poverty of their canvas-covered Bethlehem, where they continued to live the Rule in the ancient way, including chanting the Old Mass. Now they can begin rebuilding amid the ruins, their resilient Benedictine faith teaching them to receive this catastrophe as a call to deeper holiness and sacrifice. God willing, new life will one day spring forth from the rubble.
“We pray and watch from the mountainside, thinking of the long three years Saint Benedict spent in the cave before God decided to call him out to become a light to the world,” wrote Father Benedict. “Fiat. Fiat.”
Let it be. Let it be.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
The flames of Notre Dame de Paris are a call to repentance and conversion. As the monks of Norcia have been doing since their church met catastrophe, so let us all do as we mourn the loss of one of Christendom’s greatest cathedrals. There can be no greater tribute to what this holy and revered temple meant to its builders and to all those faithful who worshiped beneath its vaults all these centuries than to turn, in sackcloth and ashes, back to God, and to raise again the vaults of His sanctuaries in our hearts and families and communities — while there is still time.
For you in the West who are not religious, I hope you will reflect on what this cathedral meant in artistic, architectural, and cultural terms, and that you will think hard about what we are losing as we collectively repudiate our patrimony.
If you were waiting for a sign of the times, this is it.
Maybe it is hopeful. I wrote to my dear friend Fred in Paris tonight to tell him how heartbroken I am, and to share his sorrow. He just responded:
My dear Rod,
France, as a country and a people, was probably saved tonight. President Macron was supposed to talk tonight and everyone was saying it would be too little too late.
And now “La couronne d’épines et la tunique de Saint-Louis ont été sauvées” [“The Crown of Thorns and the tunic of St. Louis have been saved”]is breaking news on television. We shall wake up tomorrow in a different country.
Confiance et espérance. Bonne nuit à tous. [Confidence and hope. Good night to all.]
God wills it!
UPDATE: Gavin Ashenden is a priest, by the way:
Christians understand what fire means. It either burns in judgement or purges in healing and preparation for restoration, healing and resurrection. The difference between them is repentance. pic.twitter.com/sAA7rK27Hz
— Gavin Ashenden (@gavinashenden) April 15, 2019
Macron just announced that Notre Dame of Paris would be rebuilt and that a national fund-raising effort would start tomorrow. Apparently it will also be open to people abroad and I hope that many will contribute. pic.twitter.com/96hfU2PArl
— Philippe Lemoine (@phl43) April 15, 2019
I will contribute! Will you?
UPDATE.2: Douglas Murray is a must-read. Excerpt:
There will be recriminations, of course. There will be disputes about budgets, and overtime and safety standards and much more. It is worth reading this piece from two years ago about the funding problems that existed around the cathedral’s restoration. But if Notre Dame can burn then all this is as nothing, because it tells us something too deep to bear. As I said a couple of years ago in a book, in some way the future of civilisation in Europe will be decided on what our attitude is towards the great churches and other cultural buildings of our heritage standing in our midst. Do we contend with them, hate them, ignore them, engage with them or continue to revere them? Do we preserve them?
Though politicians may imagine that ages are judged on the minutiae of government policy, they are not. They are judged on what they leave behind: most of all on how they treat what the past has handed into their care. Even if today’s disaster was simply the most freakish of accidents, ours would still be the era that lost Notre Dame.
It tells us something too deep to bear. This is true, and profound. The 9/11 attacks told us that all our money and power did not make the most powerful nation that ever existed safe. The Kennedy assassination told us that a single malicious man with a gun could fell the most powerful man in the world as he drove down a bland urban thoroughfare on a sunny day. The reason there are so many conspiracy theories about both 9/11 and the JFK murder was because they tell us something too deep to bear. It is easier to believe in grand conspiracies than the awful dull truth.
Whatever the cause, ours is the era that lost Notre Dame. And that is a stain that will never come out.
Crazy photo of the altar inside Notre Dame, by Reuters’ Philippe Wojazer pic.twitter.com/KjRPSVKJRA
— Stefan Becket (@becket) April 15, 2019
Reminds me of this from the ruins of the Twin Towers: