A Thought On Notre Dame
Having listened to many of the opinions voiced in the wake of the fire in which part of the Notre Dame Cathedral was consumed, I’m reminded of an old line by Alexander Pope. Written in the earliest days of the eighteenth century, at the very dawn of the Enlightenment (or, as the French with superior flourish and euphony would call it, le siècle des Lumieres) Pope’s words impart upon me a lasting relevance. They reverberate in my head still. Such is the talent of the poet-sage, a man whose eloquence is timeless and whose prescience is felt every single day. Only he can capture in a moment the entirety of the life of man and write it down so that you’ll never forget.
Classically trained (his translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were of eminently high repute, both in his day and in our own) but always Catholically devoted, Pope said in his satirical Essay on Criticism, “Some to church repair, not for the doctrine, but for the music there”. Forgetting for the moment the loveliness and simplicity of his rhyme, this line, as do so many brilliantly conceived by Pope’s mind and etched into my own, greeted me this past Monday with an acute and peculiar resonance. Indeed, it leapt into my thoughts as I watched the harrowing image of the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral fall down after having been set (hopefully accidentally) ablaze. On every mounted and mourning television set in the lobby through which I passed, I saw this beautifully historic cathedral crumble into a heap. I saw the smoke of the burning wood rise to the heavens, as if it were in supplication of the Lord himself. As if some kind of bygone Pagan sacrifice, one almost expected God to sniff it and respond, the desperate message wafting to his nose.
But the sky was silent. The desperate plea dissipated in the air. From one moment to the next, very nearly instantaneously, what was once religious became fuliginous. Before the world’s eyes and presumably beneath the Lord’s gaze, some eight centuries of an otherwise resilient edifice toppled over into ember and dust.
As was I, every son and daughter of Western civilization ought to have been deeply pained by the image of the cathedral’s burning spire and the praying masses and awe-struck onlookers before whom it fell. It’s a scene, not unlike that of the ravages of Palmyra by the hand of ISIS or the attacks of 9/11 by that of al-Qaida that will remain with us for all time. Of course, that’s not to impugn the religion of Islam as the typecast culprit, but to point out two commensurately memorable events. To borrow a term once strictly possessed by the religious lexicon, the sadness we in the West feel upon realizing this immense cultural and religious loss is ecumenical. The sorrow, from France to the United States, Australia to Argentina and every intervening country whose Cimmerian status quo was helped by the West’s light, is universal. The grief and the feeling of loss is thoroughly engulfing and like the sea, it circles the world.
And I say this not as a Catholic (though I once did, much to the horror of my chagrined Jewish mother, swallow unwittingly at the age of eleven the holy Eucharist. What’s to be expected of an ingenuous, perhaps slightly rebellious little boy when offered bread as a mid-Sunday morning snack?). Nor do I say this as a Christian. However profound my appreciation for the scrupulosity and the messianic verve by which the Galilean carpenter Jesus conducted himself, his resuscitation and ascension are a bit too farfetched. They require of me a leap whose distance I can’t quite judge. I can’t yet jettison empiricism and rationalism for the unabashed supernatural. Nor, for that matter—expanding outward to capture any other potential and tenuous religious links to which I might have a claim—am I an explicitly faithful person in any traditional sense.
It’s for this reason, for the absence of my fidelity to any newfangled or ancient creed, that Pope’s line sticks with me ever more. It jingles in my head like a clever Enlightenment earworm. Of those repairing to the church, some as stated for doctrine and some for music, I’d be included in the second of these two groups. Yet as such, I’d still line up at the altar as an artistically-infatuated devotee. The first might be more solemn, the second more aesthetic, but both of us as doctrinaires and dilettantes are seeking rejuvenation through the numinous wonder, the healing powers, and the ineffable nourishment of the Church.
Yet what we aesthetes hardly notice is that the object of our affection would be impossible without the doctrine upon which it’s built. The Synoptic Gospels, the enduring epistles, the commentaries, the confessions, the summas and the like—music, art, and architecture would be disquietingly hollow vessels without them. That, of course, is taking only into account the more recent of the two Bibles—that one whose authorship is by the Christians, an originally millennial fringe-Judaic sect; the Hebrew version in which theirs is inextricably steeped offers yet more sustenance and harmony for a chaotic world.
Yes, we mourn the partial collapse of Notre Dame for its cultural and artistic significance, but we mustn’t forget about its theological side. We must remember always that it was ultimately for the sake of the cathedrals—of which, at least in their extant Gothic forms, we still number in France Chartres, Reims, Amiens, and the remnants of Notre Dame—for which polyphonic music was produced and art was given life. So too was this the case for the church constructed in the fashion of the Romanesque. It was for the adoration and the ornamentation of these buildings, of which most were built in Italy, that Michelangelo and Raphael were put to work. Because of them, the sensations of man and the visual splendors of the world would never be the same.
But always were the cathedrals the multitudinous houses of God. I suppose omnipresence necessarily requires such endless fixtures of habitation, even if He were only passing by. Music for our reparation (as a means by which we repair ourselves) is but an indirect way of accessing the divine. And so, even the staunchest secularists among us must admit, there was something spiritually and divinely moving in seeing Notre Dame fall. We may not believe in the creed, but we feel its profundity. Pope, purposefully or not, makes it clear: we aren’t merely musical beings—Homo sapiens smitten with sounds. We hear something sublime through the conflagration, namely that Notre Dame isn’t a building merely.