“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Those oft-cited, immortal words from the Book of Matthew are in many cases used to extol the virtues of small groups for Christians. They took on a fundamentally different meaning for me as I watched the horrific footage emerging of the famous Cathédral Notre-Dame de Paris engulfed in flame last month.
I’ve been to Paris only once, 15 years ago. As all good tourists in Paris do, I visited the cathedral, taking in what I and so many others believed to be the building’s seeming immortality.
As someone raised Catholic, there was a familiarity with it – after all, so many other churches are modeled in the same style – but still an unrivaled majesty.
People have accepted Christ at that place. A Muslim friend proposed to his now-wife on the cathedral’s steps. Those without faith have been able to see the beauty of Notre-Dame as a product of other people’s faith.
Hundreds of years in the making and hundreds more standing. Yet only a few hours to come crashing down.
Many of the cathedral’s precious artifacts and works of art were, thankfully, salvaged. The core of the building suffered far less damage than was initially thought. But even so, the world mourned the loss of an icon, despite the hope it would be rebuilt.
I didn’t have an appreciation for the church’s history when I toured it in 2005. Though its construction commenced nearly 900 years ago, it was only in the last two centuries that sustained interest in the building made restoration and preservation priorities.
By my research, the last time it experienced such a major negative episode was during the French Revolution, when much of the space was desecrated and many of its religious symbols destroyed.
Few, if any, historic buildings have a past unvarnished by natural or human disaster. Notre-Dame is no exception.
Though I am an Evangelical, my love of history (and probably my Catholic upbringing) allows me to appreciate Notre-Dame not only for its architectural glory, but also its spiritual significance.
Returning to those words from Matthew, I’m not worried about losing that spirituality. Quite the contrary.
We may go to church, but Church is something we experience and in which we partake. When the C is capitalized, it doesn’t describe a physical space, but rather a relationship with Christ that outlasts all earthly buildings – whether centuries-old displays of Gothic beauty or tacky 21stcentury monstrosities.
Nothing earthly can, itself, be sacred – even if it has played host to the sacred for generations.
Though we lose a connection to history with the collapse of Notre-Dame, we don’t lose the history. And we certainly don’t lose our faith.
I don’t aim to rob anyone of their sorrow at the church’s fall, but simply to remind that it isn’t the fall of the Church. Far from it.
In fact, while 900 years seems like an epoch, that’s but a blip to God.
Everything in this earth is fleeting, even if it’s slightly less so than our own fleshly lives.
Outside of the spiritual aspects of this, I feel compelled to speak out about the historic ones. Churches have been built, destroyed, and rebuilt throughout the ages. Every building we regard as historic was, at one time, brand new.
History evolves and is constantly being formed. Remember the most significant buildings to Western civilization have hardly been permanent. As just a few examples, the White House, the Canadian Parliament and Westminster Palace have all been burned and restored.
I’m sure there were those who said they would never return to their once-held glory, but today we view that all as part of a fluid history contained in these structures.
Faith has always been more resilient than wood and stone, and will continue to be.
Hard as it is to square this with the feeling that something perceived to be so timeless can be lost so quickly, there’s a lesson in this that this cycle is just as much a part of something’s lifespan as a period of calm.
Our faith cannot burn to ashes, because it doesn’t exist in the flesh.
As Paris and the world mourn, and as something is rebuilt in the place of Notre-Dame, let that be our prayer.
It seems fitting to close with the words attributed to be the last of St. Joan of Arc. “Hold the cross high, so I may see it through the flames.”