This April will not be a month to remember. Lousy Montreal weather, only faint signs of spring, arctic winds, the CAQ tabling Bill 21, Notre Dame de Paris in flames as Parisians watch in shock, weeping, and Jason Kenney and his right-wing gangsters rolling to victory in Alberta.
When I turned on the TV to watch the horror of the fire spreading and the spire of Notre Dame going down in flames, my heart sank and I frantically searched the media for signs of hope that this great structure was not completely lost. Facebook and other social media spoke out in despair and empathy with France losing a cultural icon, but Twitter came alive with its own brand of toxic nastiness (granted, many did speak out to show their sorrow and support), headed by the centrist neo-liberals and their “fuck the Church” attitude, claiming that those mourning Notre Dame are just trumpeting their support for the “evil” patriarchy and white supremacist rule that they link to Christianity.
Christianity bashing is nothing new. It is the only faith that is constantly and openly attacked in the media; try that for Judaism or Islam, and see how quickly you will be accused of a hate crime by our “tolerant liberal” society. These are the very same neo-liberals who screamed out at Trudeau over the SNC Lavalin business saying he had betrayed the “moral trust” of the country, yet who would not dare to take Jodi Wilson-Raybould to task for taping a privileged conversation, simply because she is First Nations. They are the first to gloat thinking that they have exposed the Liberal Party as a party of deceit and corruption, yet they will also be the very ones to scream blue murder when (and, sadly, I don’t say “if”) Andrew Scheer and his PC Party — climate change deniers, women’s rights basher, and advocates for the Far Right — roll to a victory this coming fall, thanks largely to them.
But politics is politics and largely boring and, ultimately, inconsequential. Much more important is what some feel about the destruction of a cultural icon that has stood for over 850 years. Sure, some will say that it represents a monument to a corrupt institution, and no one can deny that the Church has done its share of dirty deeds in the history of humankind. However, to think only of that is to deny something more profound: our Judeo-Christian heritage, which, for better or worse, is part of our historical DNA. To see this great symbol of faith, art, and human creative endeavor burning before our very eyes is to see so much of the light fading from our western civilization. And, yes, my neo-liberal comrades, I know what you will say: western civilization deserves to burn and to disappear and give way to the New Order of a secular, politically-correct- world without real, abiding values. And, yes, you may all too soon get your wish as we stare into the gaping maw of scientific materialism that will dominate but ultimately leave our souls empty and despairing.
So, what is it about this great monument to faith that is so magical, so much so that it attracts over 30 million tourists per year? I remember the first time I visited Notre Dame decades ago. I was struck, of course, by its beauty and grandeur but also surprised at how dark it was inside, with the pews almost all in the shadows and only the votive candles in their ancient metal stands burning and emitting slivers of light. You could barely make out ethereal supplicants fervently praying, and I was struck by the nature of suffering—how so many suffer silently, yet believe faithfully—how we are mostly oblivious to and mock their pain and longing. I sat for some time in the great silence, and I thought of how many people must have worked on this cathedral over the years, and how it came to represent hope, and above all Mystery to them. Later, after learning about the Middle Ages and the concept of “otherworldliness,” I came to understand better how the marvellous stained-glass windows high above served as a metaphor for a heaven imagined or real, and how people took solace in this hope as they lived their brief, earthly lives among the deprivation and suffering that was their lot. Also, how this symbol still endures to this day, is so much a part of us, something beyond the dogma of any faith, but more the reality of our human lot on this earth.
Later, I returned, this time to see the cathedral with my partner of many years, and to see the wonder of it also through her eyes. Much had happened in our lives; we had loved and suffered, as all people do. Again, we were both struck by the Mystery of this place, the mystery of faith, of the past, of the tribulations and lives of all those who had gone before us, and of those who are to follow.
I thought of the great poem by Philip Larkin, “Church Going” and of the last stanza:
A serious house on serious earth it is
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet
Are recognized and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious
And gravitating with it to this ground
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in
If only that so many dead lie round.
This from a secular poet who did not deny the sense of awe we feel before the mystery of the Ineffable.
And I also thought of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, that great testament to 20th Century despair wherein he bemoans the loss of faith and value in the modern world. Near the end of the poem, Eliot writes:
These fragments I have shored against my ruin.
Coming shortly after the more hopeful fragment:
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
Let us all hope that Notre Dame de Paris will rise again from ruin, revived, set in order, and persist as a steadfast monument to all that is noble and gracious in the human spirit.