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Notre-Dame lived up to its destiny

17 April 2019

It reminded a people of its past, and of the hope of new life found at the foot of the cross, says Isabelle Hamley


GROWING up in France, I never really thought of Notre-Dame de Paris as the best French cathedral. Or the best example of early gothic architecture. Or even a place of deep spiritual meaning for me. It was — well, that’s it: it just was. And so I wasn’t really prepared for the tidal wave of emotion that I felt as I watched it burn against the backdrop of the city.

Within an hour or so of the news hitting the headlines, I read a grumpy Facebook post complaining that this seemed to be such big news, compared to the many parts of the world devastated by suffering that we so often ignore. And more this morning: blogs and posts sharing their righteous outrage that so much money would be used to rebuild, when it could be used for the poor. For good causes. For much more valuable human lives. Let the ruins stand, and turn the ground into a park.

And, of course, at one level, this is absolutely right. There is so much need in the world, so much misery, that we should do everything we can to combat it. The question is: are these things mutually exclusive?

Or, to put it another way, do those calls to leave the ruins to stand, to concentrate on “what really matters”, profoundly misunderstand the nature of being human? 

THERE are only a few things that distinguish human beings from other creatures. One, Aristotle says, is laughter. Another, according to scientists, is self-consciousness. Another, I would argue, is art. Art in all its forms, the creation of beauty for its own sake — not for utilitarian purposes, but because it calls to something deep within us that we cannot explain, something that connects us to a reality beyond what we can see or hear or touch or feel.

One might even suggest that it is a key aspect of the divine image within us. As human beings, we do not do things simply because we have to, or because they pass a rigorous test of usefulness. Human beings, even when facing the most desperate circumstances, make music, draw, write, tell stories. It is woven into the very fabric of who we are.

So, watching a well-known, well-loved, irreplaceable building devastated by fire calls to something within us that we may not be able to explain or rationalise — and yet something that has the potential to bring out beauty and help us recognise and rejoice in our common humanity.

The very first message of support that the Rector of Notre-Dame received, he told journalists yesterday, was from the Chief Rabbi. Somehow, something about beauty, symbol, meaning, and loss had the power to bring people together. Many of those interviewed on the streets, and personalities and celebrities speaking, talked of “our” cathedral, regardless of their faith background.

I wonder what those who had the vision to build the cathedral, and those who lavished the best of their abilities and talents on the building — to give glory to God, to draw the eyes towards heaven along the vaulted ceiling, to teach the faith to those who could not read, designed biblical stained glass — I wonder what these men and women would say, when seeing that the fruit of their labour has spoken deeply to many who would not immediately describe themselves as Christian?

Isn’t this part of what cathedrals are for? Isn’t communicating the beauty of the gospel, awe at its power, an essential aspect of mission? And, when we recognise our common humanity, and lift our eyes above utilitarianism, then, hopefully, we recognise that there are many, many other situations that we need to attend to.

BUT this is just the start. There is something even more important that makes us human: we are people who remember. We may distort our memories, we may be selective, and we may try to forget. But we remember: sometimes in words, sometimes in pictures, and sometimes in habits and symbols that have the power to bring out what we have buried deep.

The memory of a people is not held simply in history books. It is held in the very land that they inhabit, in its landscape, in its buildings. The suggestion I saw in a blog this morning — that history is always there, we do not need buildings to remind us of it — is but an expression of an old heresy, or of a destructive modern trend. It suggests that we are but spiritual beings, that the material world around us is something that we may use, but that its destruction or absence does not matter because we, supreme beings, have the power to hold things in our spiritual/cognitive memory.

It also seems to suggest that we can make ourselves what we want to be, regardless of what is, or is not, around us. Both of these assumptions are flawed. We are who we are through a complex interaction of the culture we live in, the history that has shaped it, the landscapes we inhabit, the languages — verbal and non-verbal — that we speak, the symbols that structure our ways of thinking and reasoning.

And, out of all of these elements, we weave narratives that tell us who we are, why we are here, where we have come from, and, perhaps, where we are going. Notre-Dame is a keystone of those narratives of French identity. Keystones are rarely obtrusive, but, nevertheless, they ensure that the beautiful, visible parts of a roof all hold together.

Notre-Dame holds many strands for us: all French roads are measured from its parvis; it inspired countless other cathedrals, some of which have surpassed it greatly in beauty and elegance; rulers were crowned there; it was a focus of anger in the French revolution; one of the greatest stories ever told by a French novelist, Victor Hugo, was set in its bell-tower; in living memory, our older citizens remember the bells ringing the end of years of war in 1945.

These are the visible strands. Other, less visible strands are there, too, and some of them were surfacing for the first time in many years last night. France has a deeply religious past, and a deeply ambiguous relationship to this past. It champions secularism, and religion is usually discussed with mild condescension, if not outright suspicion, in public life.

It was, therefore, immensely moving, last night, to hear journalists groping for words they had almost forgotten: words that speak of faith and what faith had meant to the nation over the years. Many of them were trying to put into words the sense of connection that they felt to the cathedral, how moved they were to hear hymns and prayers from Christians surrounding them, and to find words that would nurture hope.

This morning, journalists were tentatively using the word “miracle” as they contemplated the picture of the inside of the cathedral, the cross illuminated from the side windows, still intact, and heard of the news that many windows had survived — and the organ, maybe, too. To hear these words spoken with awe and genuine interrogation is nothing short of a miracle — and it may be short-lived.

But, as I listened, I realised that Notre-Dame had lived up to its destiny: it reminded a people of its past, and of the hope of new life that we find at the foot of the cross. France has tried very hard to push God away, and forget the faith of centuries. But, when the people fell silent, the very stones cried out.

THE question is: now that we remember, what will we do with these memories for the future? There is a small window of opportunity for the nature of public discourse to change, and for the derision and suspicion of faith to morph into respect and attentive listening. Yesterday, the French President embraced the Rector of the cathedral. Church and State in a long-forgotten embrace? It was a fleeting image, and yet a hint that new life, new ways of imagining our life together are always possible.

And, for me, this is the real question of the rebuilding. What is it that we are rebuilding? What kind of vision will animate the endless years of work ahead? Will we listen to the memory of stones, and honour the God whose cross triumphed over destruction, fire, and ashes?

Notre-Dame held memories that we had forgotten; will we accept God’s gift of memory, and reshape some of the distorted, incomplete stories that we tell ourselves, so that we can move into a better future?

I hope and pray that we do, and I believe that we can, because I believe in the God of Good Friday and of Easter Sunday, who ultimately holds all memory, all past and future, in his hand. 

The Revd Dr Isabelle Hamley is Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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