I suspect you need to be in a very small minority to have missed the fire in Notre Dame this week. There has been a lot spoken about it: the bravery and skill of the fire services in their operation to save as much as they could; the ways in which a reconstruction might be undertaken; how long and how much; how it started.
There have been philosophical points debated, too. Why is this building deemed so important? Why spend a fortune rebuilding basically a large shed (however beautiful) when there are more compelling places to put the money? Why do people cry at a building burning?
And there are as many answers as there are people aware of the issue, I suspect. Indeed the question of the money that will be spent to restore this edifice is difficult. Millions, possibly upwards of a billion Euros will be needed. How many mouths fed, water cleansed, backs clothed, minds broadened? It feels a little trite to say the money would simply not be found for these other causes, however meritorious, true though that patently is.
But still, behind comes the bigger why question. Why does it matter so?
And reading Chelsea Owens’ blog post here answered the question for me. History.
It’s because history matters to us. This church has towered over France for centuries, at first physically and then in the National psyche. People have wandered its interior and been stilled into thoughts they might not otherwise have had; they have heard the bells and been transported to other places, given hope and had their spirits raised; eyes have stared at the exterior and a sense of place, of being present in the watcher’s now has enveloped that person in ways other buildings can never achieve; the Parisian and thus French skyline has had Notre Dame at its centre, a very physical representation of a nation and while ‘Nation’ means so many different things to different people, to each person that building has been part of their embodiment, their understanding; countless pairs of feet have tramped the narrow stairs and forest of wooden beams to stand next to those otherworldly gargoyles and look out and remember they are part of something bigger, stretching above and beyond and they will remember where they were when they sensed that larger whole.
The thing about Notre Dame, its beauty and architectural wonderment to oneside, is its longevity, its constancy and its solidity. It reminds us that we are bit players in the full sweep of the tide that has been, is and will be humanity. We know, not by being told but simply because of the stunning wonder when we first see this icon that dozens, hundreds, millions of pairs of eyes, like ours have seen this, been moved and moved on. We are connected to their lives by that shared sight, something ineffable and timeless.
I wrote this, as a comment to Chelsea’s thought provoking post
‘History gives us a context and a setting as well as a sense of flow, of being part of the human continuum. It’s not just the standing on shoulders of giants thing, but also an agglomeration of the humdrum that has paved the way to the now in the same way that we become the future’s paving, part of the foundations that stop us floating, give us some anchors from which we can rise and break away – or sometimes be weighed down by.’
The fire, therefore, represents the risk of that flow stopping, or being broken. We need our histories to run, overlapping, parallel and divergent though they will be at various times but always continuing. By looking back from where we’ve come, we can also look forward and know there is a place we are going to, although we cannot know where it is and what it will look like. That can be frightening as well as exciting. And while we contemplate that dichotomy, we can look on the Notre Dames of this world and take comfort that they are there and have been and will be.
And that’s why those special buildings, this building in flames rips at something visceral and makes us want to cry. It is as if we are being asked to consider, as we watch the potential loss of this building, if history itself matters, if keeping the past alive is relevant. And these many tears give us the answer, and for that I am grateful.