Many doctors of the Church write that the Virgin Mary died, not of a failing body, but of an excess of love. “Retaining in her memory,” writes St. Francis de Sales, “all the lovable mysteries of the life and death of her Son, and receiving always the most ardent inspirations which her Son, the Sun of Justice, poured out on men in the noon-day ardor of His charity… she was at length consumed by the sacred fire of this charity, as a holocaust of sweetness.”
While yesterday’s fire was still building and seemingly engulfing Notre-Dame de Paris, it was easy to believe that the worst was coming to pass: that the structure as a whole would go the way of the collapsing spire, and that all of the glorious artwork and architecture that has remained as the greatest jewel in France’s tarnished crown would be reduced to rubble and ash. Even worse was the worry that the Sacrament would be consumed and many irreplaceable relics of the Passion lost forever, and this only four days before the annual memorial of Good Friday. With the recent desecration and burning of so many Catholic churches in France, it was easy to speculate about the fire’s cause; with the recent moral state of the Church, it was impossible not to see it as a symbol of things in play and of things to come.
The worst, however, was not to be. Thanks to the life-threatening efforts of many, the Crown of Thorns was saved along with relics of the Cross and of St. Louis IX of France. Confirmation also came that much of the artwork which would have been most easily threatened had recently been removed for restoration. The wooden roof burned and collapsed into the building, but many of the ancient stained glass windows have survived. There were a few injuries, but no deaths.
No doubt we will hear more about the heroism of the police, firefighters, and other first responders in the coming days. Special attention is already going to Fr. Fournier, the Chaplain of the Paris Firefighters who rushed inside to save the Eucharist and the Crown. The full story of what happened and why will take time to unfold.
Already we see lovers of culture and history stepping forward to promise funds for restoration, prompting hope but also worry. The fact that the cathedral still stands prevents the building of something new from scratch. In an age as allergic to all kinds of custom and tradition as ours, one wonders what architectural abomination might have been set in its place. Thanks be to historical preservation societies for saving the Church from herself. Even as things are, the restoration plan is uncertain. One can easily imagine a medieval Rose Window replaced by glass stained with art copied from a book of cheap clip art, as one often sees in today’s churches. The debate about religious art is more important now than ever—does God deserve our best efforts, or will we be content to offer him our worst and call it “humility”?
Daniel Mitsui made some relevant observations in a presentation from two years back,
The treasures of Christian art and architecture are today endangered: by indifference and neglect, by misguided renovation, by war and revolution. They may be preserved for a time for the sake of national identity or lofty but indifferentist notions of cultural worth. But the Lindisfarne Gospels and Chartres Cathedral are things of this world, and will not last forever: Rust and moth consume, thieves break in and steal. More tragic than to lose such treasures is to lose the ability to make them; more tragic yet is to lose the desire to make them. That desire can only be provided by religious faith. It is religious faith that animates the tradition, that makes it live rather than linger.
We live in an age when we have nearly lost the ability to make great art and almost as nearly lost the desire so to do. Can any modern restoration of Our Lady’s church be better than the failed restoration of the Ecce Homo by Cecilia Giménez? Would we do better to merely maintain the structural integrity of the building and move most the art to a museum or private collection? On the other hand, will the Church ever relearn how to build something as vast, complex, cosmological, and simple as the Notre-Dame de Paris without its living example? We are weakened by skepticism and perfidy; do we deserve to look upon its like again?
That all lies in the future. For the moment we wait. The coming days will tell us what can be done and what cannot. The days after that will be filled with argument, bitterness, and perhaps hope. Whatever the future holds for the French cathedral, it will not be identical with her past. We must remember that nothing is too good for the Mother of God. No work or effort is too strenuous for her glory. She is the Burning Bush, the tabernacle of God which was not consumed by the flames of his presence when he resided within her womb.
Beauty is unity radiated through diversity, and few religious works of art have demonstrated this better than Notre-Dame de Paris. May we make ourselves again worthy to built such a temple worthy of God and of his Mother.