Suddenly, France’s sense of the sacred is burning brightly again

People gather ahead of a vigil at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Tuesday April 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Fear of the loss of transcendence hurts people most about the fire in Notre Dame cathedral, writes Victoria White

SHE was not just Our Lady of Paris. She was Our Lady of Europe.

Notre Dame was, as one of my friends put it, “the mother church”. As I sat in her immensity on Easter Sunday six years ago, I had to agree with him.

Notre Dame, big and beautiful and everlasting, felt like a mother to which you could always return.

Since Monday’s catastrophic fire, there has been a scramble to explain the world’s emotion for Notre Dame in secular terms.

The cathedral has been endlessly described as an ‘icon of Paris’ and a ‘symbol of France.’ An article this newspaper republished from theconversation.com explained the depth of emotion provoked by the fire in Notre Dame in terms of the cathedral’s familiarity to us and our knowledge of its history:

“Some heritage places may seem more symbolically important than others, because we know more about them through history, tourism, or personal connections.”

The authors contrasted this emotion with our lack of concern for monuments destroyed in Afghanistan and admonished us that “all heritage places deserve the same attention, regardless of their ‘Instagrammability’.”

I think the authors are missing the point.

“Heritage places” do not “deserve attention”: They provoke emotions.

Notre Dame cathedral ablaze in Paris on Monday. The 12-hour fire destroyed its spire and its roof, but not its twin medieval bell towers. The Crown of Thorns purportedly worn by Jesus was rescued. Picture: AP /Thierry Mallet
Notre Dame cathedral ablaze in Paris on Monday. The 12-hour fire destroyed its spire and its roof, but not its twin medieval bell towers. The Crown of Thorns purportedly worn by Jesus was rescued. Picture: AP /Thierry Mallet

A spiritual connection to the cathedral, as a place of worship, is central to the emotion that Notre Dame provokes.

This newspaper also published the comments of journalist Guillaume Goubert in the French, Catholic newspaper, La Croix: “A country such as ours, profoundly secular, de-Christianised, suddenly felt its heart shake to see a church aflame… Without anyone being aware of it, this vessel of stone and wood speaks to our rooting in a history where the Christian faith held a decisive place.”

It hardly needs to be said that the cathedral has been witness to plenty of the negative sides of Christian history, such as strenuous attempts to claim religious justification for taking temporal power. This is where Crusaders prayed before travelling to kill and pillage in the Middle East.

Napoleon chose Notre Dame as his launching pad when he crowned himself emperor there in 1804, expanding his colonial ambitions from the shores of Africa to the steppes of Russia.

Notre Dame represents what we are, in all our petty ambition and in all our longing for transcendence.

The fear of the loss of that transcendence hurts people most about the fire in the cathedral.

Notre Dame is a sacred space and most people who visit it understand that. That’s surely why hundreds of people sang ‘Ave Maria’, and other Catholic hymns, as they stood and watched the church burn. Watching them do so is incredibly moving. It feels like a funeral for French Catholicism, which has been under assault since the revolution, as has been the cathedral. It almost feels like it could bring about a spiritual renaissance in France.

A hole in the dome inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP
A hole in the dome inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP

As the Archbishop of Paris, Michel Christian Alain Aupetit, said, “I don’t have a cathedral anymore, but I have a people behind me.” The Paris-based Father Aidan Troy was quoted yesterday, saying the cathedral’s calamity had already brought church and state, as well as the country’s different religions, together. There can’t be too many craw-thumpers who are nostalgic for a France in which the church and state were not separated, but hostility to religion is the antithesis of tolerance.

Secular intolerance, as exemplified in France by measures like the ban on head-scarves in school for Muslim girls, is dangerous and destructive.

It ignores people’s longing for transcendence and does not tolerate their different means of achieving it. It is certainly possible that the tragic burning of Notre Dame may usher in a new era in relations between church and state in France.

The state owns the cathedral and people are angry that it was not better protected, though we must salute the army of firefighters that saved the cathedral’s basic structure, including the bell towers.

French President Emmanuel Macron is attempting to use the fire as an opportunity to rebuild national solidarity by also rebuilding Notre Dame, and within five years.

Instead of making a speech about the divisive ‘gilets jaunes’ protests, there he was, standing in front of Notre Dame, vowing that it was France’s “deep destiny” to rebuild the cathedral and that the French people would band together to do it, because it was what “our history merits”.

I’ll grant you it was pretty maudlin stuff, but he was visibly moved and seemed sincere.

He won’t be able to make this a “grand projet” without breaking down the walls of hatred and suspicion that exist in France between church and state.

Surely enough time has passed since the revolution to make space for religion without fearing it will take over?

But in Ireland, we are still in the throes of our revolution.

I am happy to advocate the separation of church and state, but the next stage has to be tolerance of religion as an essential part of our culture.

Do we have that here?

That was the subject I was going to discuss in today’s column before the fire broke out at Notre Dame.

I simply couldn’t pretend this was not Holy Thursday in Easter Week, the most important week in the spiritual calendar of at least 2.2bn of the world’s Christians.

Debris inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris after the blaze was quenched. Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP
Debris inside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris after the blaze was quenched. Picture: Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP

FOR me, even as a Christian who never lets a church service get in the way of a good cappuccino, time has this week entered a different phase, marked by spiritual moments. Yet, increasingly, even this level of spirituality is openly derided.

I often feel threatened and embarrassed even admitting I sing in a church choir.

So how am I to explain away this week, large parts of which have been given over to singing extremely moving religious music?

Shut up? Or stand up?

My parish is taking part in an ecumenical walk behind the cross tomorrow morning.

Do I have the nerve to be seen by my neighbours walking with them?

I was pondering this even as the news started coming in from Paris.

I don’t even know what the answer is. I’m certain, as I looked at the ruin of Notre Dame, however, that neither France nor Ireland, nor any other country, is better off with its churches burned down.

If that was the goal of the revolutionaries who attacked the cathedral in 1789, it is surely clear, by now, that they were making a grave mistake.

People of faith need their houses of God, whatever they call Him or Her and however they choose to worship. People without faith need feel no threat from religion in a civilised country.

It is, at the very least, a necessary part of our shared history.

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