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As Notre Dame Burns

I’m not Catholic. I go to a country church, with all of the plain simplicity that came with the Reformation.

Yet part of me has always admired the ornate beauty of Catholic cathedrals. They direct our attention upwards, and to a deified beauty that seems to rise above human nature, and transcend the monotonous scenes of our daily lives.

At a time when the average person lived in a mud hut and died at the advanced age of 40, the greatest architectural minds managed to design and construct such beautiful structures. It is one thing for a serf living in squalor to marvel in the presence of God as one approached Notre Dame, and quite another for a 21st century citizen to be struck with the same sense of beauty as he looks up from his iPhone, just as awestruck as his medieval ancestors.

For over 800 years people could look upon Notre Dame and reflect on the God who could inspire such beautiful and brilliant craft in the hearts of men, and how God instilled Man with the gifts to further glorify Him.

As I watch the flames engulf Notre Dame, I am reminded of Sir Kenneth Clark’s classic BBC documentary, Civilisation. The 1969 series, which serves as the model for the modern documentary, reviews the monuments of Western civilization as it barely survived the Dark Ages and managed to slowly rebuild itself over the centuries. According to Clark, civilization comes from a part of the human condition that rises above “the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear” of early humanity, and works toward “an ideal of perfection – reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium.” At some point, the spirit of a man is called to strive for a perfect ideal that will outlast his own life and become the inheritance for those who come after.

By that measure, Notre Dame is the pinnacle of civilization.

Construction of Notre Dame began in 1163, and took nearly a century to complete. So complex is the architecture, and so rudimentary was the technology that built it, that we do not completely understand how it was made. The church was handed down to one Christian generation after another. The structure survived countless riots, the French Revolution that shortly rededicated it as a Church of Reason, the execution of priests during the 1871 communist insurrection, and a Nazi invasion that caused the stain-glass windows to be removed and put into hiding. And yet humanity managed to pass it on to the next generation for nearly a millennium.

“All the great ages of civilization have seen themselves as part of history. Both as heirs and as transmitters,” Clark says during the documentary.

At this point it is impossible to determine what, if anything, can be passed on of Notre Dame. We already know that no one will ever again gaze up at the rose window, perhaps the most beautiful stained-glass ever created. This is a tragedy. (Update: It now appears that the rose window miraculously survived the fire)

Of course, nothing lasts forever. We are reminded in Scripture how everything is temporary.

“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day,” St. Peter writes. “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”

To strive for perfection, for an ideal, and to pass it on to subsequent generations is a noble goal. It is important to remember, on Monday of Holy Week no less, that everything in this world is temporary. We have no hope in anything but the finished work of Jesus Christ, which Christians will celebrate this Sunday whether Notre Dame stands or not.

My last thought, as the news replays footage of the spire falling and the roof caving in, is what will happen now? Surely, the structure will be restored to glory.

And yet, we have become a disposable culture over the last 800 years. We build stadiums only to tear them down twenty years later. We buy state of the art luxury cars, only to trade them in for a new one three years later. We purchase sophisticated smartphones, only to get the newer model the following year. We no longer create to pass on an inheritance, but for our own self-pleasure. Meanwhile, an increasingly secularized society gives no regard to God, and Man’s special role in Creation.

So can we build another Notre Dame? As I watch the smoke billow into the Paris sky, I fear it is even more irreplaceable than we realize.

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