…Until you return to the ground from which you were taken: For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return. – Genesis 3:19
Notre Dame Cathedral was built of earth—of stone and wood, of glass made from sand, of metals that were mined. For better or worse, she will be rebuilt. Perhaps she will stand eight or nine more centuries before fire, flood, or neglect claims her again. But in the end, she will meet the fate of her makers. Her sooty towers stand today as a testament to tenacity, to the skill and labor of her builders and the skill and labor of the Paris fire brigade. Today, she stands as an earthly symbol of Holy Mother Church against whom the fires of Hell have not prevailed. But her scorched skeleton also stands as a memento mori to us all. You, O Man, are dust, and all your works but ashes. Notre Dame is dirt, and to dirt she shall return.
By the mercy of God, no human lives were lost in the blaze that consumed Notre Dame on Monday, though all of us who saw it, even via satellite, knew that we were witnessing a death. Much has been saved, but whatever the future holds for Notre Dame, she has lost the illusion of immortality. Anything that has stood nearly nine hundred years, through ages of careless neglect, through the French Revolution and the Nazi occupation of France, was bound to seem immortal. Notre Dame is greater than kings, greater than wars or dictators. She stood above them, reflecting the beauty of the One whom she was built to glorify. Victor Hugo called the cathedral “a sort of human Creation, mighty and fertile as the Divine Creation, from which it seems to have borrowed the twofold character of variety and eternity.”* Today we are forced to remember all too poignantly that her divinity is borrowed. All things that are borrowed must one day be surrendered.
We humans often speak of our work that lives beyond us, of art as a kind of immortality. Paintings and cathedrals can burn, but other works can be duplicated ad infinitum. The original manuscript of Beowulf could be destroyed, but the text would still remain; likewise the score for the Vivaldi Gloria or the Bach Mass in B Minor. We take the perpetuity of such works for granted. They will only die when they have been utterly forgotten. But, unimaginable as it is, that day will come. Anyone who seeks to live forever through his art is chasing after phantoms, trying to hold a ray of sunlight in his hand.
The original architects of Notre Dame sought no such earthly glory—or if they did, they sought it in vain. No one knows their names. We know nothing of their motives, their inspirations, the artistic sacrifices they made to satisfy the constraints of pragmatism or the whims of Bishop de Sully, their client. We know nothing of their faith. Were they ardent believers or closet atheists? Did they work for love or money? In the end, it doesn’t matter. It was not they who labored, but God who labored through them to lead millions of souls to Christ. This is the only glory a Christian can ever find through his creations: To do the will of the One who sent him. Our talents are all borrowed; they must all be returned.
A true memento mori must not only remind us of our earthly death, but of the heavenly life that is to come. Notre Dame is made of this earth but not for it—like you and me. The most miraculous images to emerge from Monday’s disaster are not those of the rose windows still intact (praise be to God!), but those of the faithful praying around the flames. The church blazes, but the Church is not consumed. This—the Body of Christ, the people of God—is the Church against whom the fires of Hell shall never prevail. This is the communion of saints into which we pray to enter, a communion not made of priceless statues but of men and women who comfort and console each other by the grace of God. And this, the flesh-and-blood Church ablaze with Christ’s love, is the Church that I pray will be rebuilt and renewed in the years to come, as we watch the spire of Notre Dame climb toward the heavens once again.
* I used this same quote several months ago in a very different essay. It seems a lot of sad themes lead me back to Notre Dame. Notre Dame des Douleurs, priez pour nous.