When Relics Burn: A Meditation on Notre Dame, Faith, and the State of Europe

Some events are so unexpected, so momentous, they seem to distort the fabric of time. Expected patterns of cause and effect are so violated, it seems time must compress or dilate to accommodate them. On 15th April 2019, as Notre Dame burned, a near millennium of ancient trees, the ages’ gathered dust, and millions of man hours of labour were consumed in a four-hour orgy of flame. Somehow the equation doesn’t balance. The painstaking richness and sheer longevity of what is lost seems vastly weightier than the fleeting chaos of its undoing. There must, we sense, be a remainder somewhere in the sum. It was the same sense evoked by the destruction of Palmyra, when tinpot zealots, drunk on nihilism, set about the ancient wonders with sledgehammers and dynamite. The simplistic grubbiness of the demise seems too cheap compared to the masterful intentionality of the inception.

Wonders like Notre Dame are the apparently solid piers around which our fragile lives flow to and fro. They become encrusted with cultural concretions, gathered slowly over expanses of time that dwarf our fleeting lifespans.  Their loss is not like the passing of flesh and blood. We are not like them, we vibrant living things, frothing as we do for a few decades with our plans, relationships, and communication, before flickering out. Instead, relics such as Notre Dame or Palmyra stand in relation to us like ancient, gnarled oaks. We sense they have watched over us in our collective success and folly, our living and dying, our rejoicing and mourning. These edifices have wordlessly watched for so long they know better than we short-sighted mortals the complex contours of hubris, of mourning, of national shame and pride. Notre Dame has silently watched over departing crusaders, the bloodletting of the Hundred Years War, the piled heads of the Revolution, the glories of Napoleon’s empire, the shame of Nazi occupation, and the joy of Allied liberation. Ancient buildings have a form of life, but not the urgent, fleshy effervescence of our own. Instead of nucleotides, their DNA is the complex tapestry of humanity’s glory and shame, sedimented by mysterious alchemy into their wood and stone. 

The violence of the destruction feels like murder, the flames slashing at the ancient timbers with shocking abandon. Time distorted as open mouths silently gaped at the spectacle. A weighty national reference point tottered on its axis. Catholics consider Mary, mother of Jesus  Notre Dame – to be the mother of the church. It is an appropriate allusion, for the loss of a mother holds a peculiar grief alien to other human loss. Motherly love is the vital coordinate by which a child is unconditionally loved; grounded despite the uncertainties of a relentlessly changing world. A mother’s role is unique; her love an irreplaceable anchor. A reference point of silent stone like Notre Dame has not birthed nor nursed anyone in a conventional sense, yet many sensed in her the maternal provisions of solidity and certainty amid the bustle of change. Though millions arrive each year to stand and gawp in wonder at ‘Our Lady’, there is a sense in which these observers are also watched over by her in their turn. As one Parisian put it: “Our Lady saw me learn to walk, run and cycle…” Amid the varied triumphs and losses of our relentlessly unwinding lives, these timeless wonders are reference points. They make present to us a vast sweep of time, orienting us to solid realities beyond the ever-changing ripples of the present day’s affairs.

The defiant ruins of Notre Dame watch now over a civilisation much changed from the 12th Century, when craftsmen first put stone upon stone for the glory of God. As cultural and religious norms have changed and changed again, the context of this great edifice has shifted around it. During the national convulsion of the Revolution, Notre Dame was briefly rededicated to the ‘cult of reason’, her saintly statues crudely beheaded. Since that secular starting gun, the once-ubiquitous Christian faith which forged Europe’s great cathedrals has undergone radical contractions across the continent. And perhaps nowhere more than France has the inheritance of Christendom been so actively dismantled, the concept of laïcité enshrining in law the total separation of church and state. In his poem Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold wrote of the ‘sea of faith’, which had once been at the full, retreating now from the naked shingles of the world with a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”. As faith has retreated from public to private spheres, and died and withered even there, the great cathedrals now stand as relics of a radically different age. The tide of Christendom has pulled out from around these great piers of a now alienated civilisation. They stand amid the Modern Age like ghost ships beached by the retreating of a droughted sea.

At its venerable age, Notre Dame stands astride extraordinary sea changes in demographic, cultural and religious norms. It was from the unfinished shell of the 13th Century nave that the Third Crusade was launched; its soldiers taking it upon themselves to depose the Muslim Saladin from Jerusalem in the name of Christ. In an ironic turn, immigration from the Maghreb has now bequeathed modern France the highest Muslim population in Europe. And of all France, it is Paris – with its banlieus, de facto segregation and spasmodic riots – that has struggled perhaps more than any other city to answer the complex question of integration. But if these new ethnoreligious realities stand in uneasy relation to the proud secular priority of laïcité, then the age of Christendom’s pomp, evoked by the great medieval cathedrals, stands in complex relation to both. Notre Dame stands in Modern France as a promentory of a now problematised past, jutting uneasily into an increasingly pluralised present. 

But Notre Dame has also silently watched over seismic shifts in human self-understanding. As Charles Taylor has pointed out, the secularism of the West is characterised by the plurality of options for pursuing meaning outside the scope of formal religious observance. In our age, this search for the reference points necessary for human flourishing has turned away from the divine and towards the physical order. The ‘vertical’ axis of transcendence has been flattened, and the ‘horizontal’ axis of relation to the material world has consequently swelled in importance. Whereas relation to the divine and the eternal was once of overwhelming significance to individual and corporate life, the natural world and temporal flourishing have now become paramount. This has radically altered our relation to spaces like Notre Dame; edifices built to the glory of God, self-consciously defined by their vertical, heavenward orientation. In a secular age, such spaces have required radical reimagining. As the transcendent reference points which once contextualised them has been dismissed, these spaces of divine worship have been co-opted by individuals and society at large to provide a kind of ‘surrogate’ transcendence within a strictly immanent frame of reference. They now become paragons of physical beauty, icons of national identity, or symbols of endurance. They are a places of pilgrimage for the taking of selfies, rather than for meeting God. Indeed, while the embers of the fire were still glowing, there were calls for the cathedral to be rebuilt with a less overtly Christian emphasis. The very context which birthed Notre Dame has become an awkward inconvenience.

Ironically, the pain to modern France of losing Notre Dame is perhaps partly explained by this de-sacralisation. One wonders whether previous generations, with a robustly transcendental perspective, would have been better equipped to deal with such a temporal loss. Their orientation in such an event would have been instinctively vertical, in lament to God. Biblical teaching on the temporality of physical reality would have given preparation and context for such apparently profound material loss. Of course, Notre Dame has exquisite physical beauty, but it is self-consciously designed to point towards something non-physical: the triune God, who cannot be destroyed by flood or fire. To their patient masterminds, the great cathedrals were thus material means to a divine end, not ends in themselves. Conversely, to the Modern, Notre Dame has no comprehensible function beyond the response evoked in finite humans by the physical realities of its wood and stone. Thus, in our secular age, the importance of the physical has swelled in diametric proportion to the diminishing of the transcendental perspective. As such, sites like Notre Dame, places of undeniable beauty and evocative atmosphere – even if their Christian heritage is denied – now bear an almost impossible weight as mediators of a secularised form of synthetic transcendence substitute. They provide a sense of awe and wonder once reserved for God himself, and their loss is so painful precisely because there is no greater reality behind and above them to provide consolation.

Consequently, in proudly secular modern France, Notre Dame is like a strange and beautiful rune in an almost-forgotten dialect. The people, now lacking the vocabulary and perspective to understand it, are forced to construe it as something other than what it truly is. For in truth, every aspect of a great cathedral; the floor plan, the inscriptions, the artwork, the statuary, the windows; speak not of some ‘generic’ transcendence – of ‘beauty’ or ‘stillness’ – but of the glory and worthiness of the triune, explicitly Judeo-Christian God. But if this frame of reference is denied, our reference points for understanding what Notre Dame means are lost. Just as the Rosetta Stone has an alien beauty even to those who do not understand it, a cathedral stripped of transcendence does have a function, but a strangely altered one. It becomes a national possession, a relic, a mother, a precious thing to be gawped at by an un-numbered sea of tourists. It no longer speaks beyond itself, and so rather than reflecting the primary importance of the divine reference point, it becomes of primary importance in and of itself. Its loss is all the more intractable, its material reality irreplaceable, and there is nobody to turn to in lament.

The endurance of cathedrals in times of great peril is part of our continental mythology. In London, at the height of the Blitz, the Times published an extraordinary photograph, taken by night, of St Paul’s cathedral surrounded by a pall of smoke. Wren’s masterpiece is lit by the eerie flames of London burning all around. Somehow, the majestic dome threaded the needle of the deluge of death throughout those dark days, standing serene amid the chaos. Cologne cathedral could tell a similar tale. Photos show the two proud spires standing tall amidst the almost total desolation wrought by Allied bomber command. Yet there was no miraculous deliverance for Notre Dame. As Paris relaxed in the balm of an unseasonably warm April, a medieval masterpiece which had survived the destructive urges of Robespierre’s revolutionaries and the shelling of Paris in the Franco-Prussian and Great Wars, succumbed to a grubby little fire.

So much has convulsed this continent. Politically, culturally, socially, the West appears caught in a paralysis, a crisis of identity. We do not know who we are, or what we represent. In this context, it is tempting to imagine Notre Dame simply spontaneously combusted, sublimating under the un-natural expectations placed on it by a modern, secular age which has denied wholesale almost every aspect of the priorities in which it was forged. The one-time house of worship forced to play tourist trinket simply saw itself as irrelevant and burst into flames. The West into which the foundations of these great relics were sunk is passing like a setting sun, and it is unclear where we are headed. Christendom was always an uneasy amalgam; an ill-fitting co-opting of the way of the crucified Christ into the pomp and power of Western civilisation. As does every age, it had its excesses and perversions. Across its patchy history, there were those who pulled isolated phrases from the symphony of Jesus’ teachings and botched together warped, dissonant pieces in his name. Yet it was Christian teaching which infused the priorities of inherent human dignity, equality, other-centred love, charity, humility and self-denial, however imperfectly, into the fabric of Western Culture. Just as so many appreciate Notre Dame whilst ignoring the overtly Christian context from which its beauty arose, so secular humanists seek to maintain the ethical inheritance of Christianity – the equality of all people, inherent human dignity – whilst redacting the crucified Christ with whom this inheritance is irretrievably intertwined.

In the days immediately following the fire, much was made of the striking image of the cross atop Nicholas Coustou’s Pieta, gleaming within the ruined interior of Notre Dame. When so much had been destroyed, this simple symbol pointed to the imperishable reality towards which the entire cathedral, in all its grandeur, was only ever an imperfect signpost. In Easter Week, in which the fire took hold, Christians remember the crucified Jesus – God dying for the love of sinners – then risen to glory, and calling all to receive forgiveness, peace, consolation, community and a purpose extending beyond frail physical realities. Eternal life, untouchable by fire, war, flood, famine, or death itself, is freely offered to fragile, sinful humanity. More so than any stunning piece of medieval stonework, this extraordinary truth is the most precious strand of our shared continental heritage. In a febrile Europe paralysed by a crisis of purpose, of identity, of harmony, mourning another lost relic whilst uncertain of its future, its message has never been more relevant.