People gather at Notre Dame Cathedral two days after the fire in Paris, France, April 17, 2019. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
The church will be rebuilt. It is always being rebuilt.
‘Everything burns.” The Joker heard it from Heraclitus.
There are worse things that can happen to a church — to a church building; the building is not the church — than a fire. Notre-Dame de Paris will be repaired, and the French will do a splendid job of it. They are still the people who built that colossal statue that stands in New York Harbor, which combined the heroic aesthetic of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi with the engineering genius of Gustave Eiffel. As a wise friend wrote after the fire: The French are proud, and they have a great deal to be proud of — just give them time.
Other church structures will not be as lucky as Notre Dame. With buildings as with people, it is happier and more easeful to be rich, beautiful, and famous. Many other churches — in Paris, in Maastricht, in Rome — have become what Notre Dame almost (almost) became: tourist attractions, and nothing else. Or museums or bookstores or cafés. A spire can be rebuilt, pews replaced, a roof restored. But when a church in San Francisco is converted into a $7.5 million, three-bedroom private residence, what resurrection then is possible? The advertising copy is the gospel of our time: “The lower level can serve as an art gallery, a recording studio, a gym, or a wine cellar.”
From the chalice of benediction to cabernet sauvignon — from one wine cult to another. Like Walter Donovan, we have chosen poorly.
Our new viticultural faith is a good deal less demanding than the old one. Give it that. Do you remember the movie poster for Chocolat? (IMDB, 2000: “A woman and her daughter open a chocolate shop in a small French village that shakes up the rigid morality of the community,” the rigid morality of the French being the great theme of European civilization in our time.) Juliette Binoche offers Johnny Depp a mock Eucharist, feeding him a piece of candy (decorated with a pagan fertility symbol) against the background of a quaint little church. “Sinfully delicious,” the advertising copy reads. For turn-of-the-century filmgoers entirely lacking subtlety, the film is set during Lent. Translate “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” into Latin and carve it on the lintels.
Ours is a comfortable little world, snug and well-fed and risk-averse.
Why bother to repair Notre Dame? Because it is a very beautiful building? Because it is part of our “Judeo-Christian heritage,” whatever it is we mean by that? To flip Mohammed & Co. the bird? “Oh, dear, well, we’re all French Catholics today. Have some baguette.”
Why run into a burning building, as Father Jean-Marc Fournier of the Paris Fire Brigade did, to rescue the consecrated host? Cultural symbolism? “If it’s a symbol, to hell with it,” as Flannery O’Connor famously put it.
And what if it’s not?
“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
“Oh, you must find your faith very comforting.” They were not comforted. They were afraid, too terrified to speak. It begins with fear. Everything begins with fear.
“He is not here,” the angel said. Of course they were trembling and bewildered. Everything they had known, had thought they knew, was wrong. It was false, possibly a lie and, at the very least, an enormous misunderstanding. The world suddenly became as mysterious to them as if they were strangers in it — which, they must have begun to understand, is exactly what they were, and what we are. The execution they had witnessed was not the death of a criminal or a heretic, or even a mere man: A man, yes, but not only that, because there was more to man than they had known or thought possible. They were not what they thought they were, because He was not what they assumed He was, because the tomb was — is — empty, because He Is Not Here.
As Father Richard John Neuhaus put it in his Good Friday meditation, Death on a Friday Afternoon, “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.” Between the blood and misery of Good Friday and the trembling and bewilderment of the Resurrection lies a silence longer than its hours. In those hours, we are alone. And then the discovery: Heraclitus had it all wrong. As Father Gerard Manly Hopkins puts it directly in his sonnet of joyful rejoinder, “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”:
I am all at once what Christ is,
since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd,
patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
When the fire reached the altar at Notre Dame, the tabernacle was empty, because the chaplain of the fire brigade had seen to it that it was so: He is not here. It is not the case that everything burns. Buildings burn, and sometimes they are repurposed — bookstores, museums, San Francisco mansions. He is not here — not here: not confined in this burning building, not contained in this home gym and wine cellar on the lower level, not on display in this museum, not decaying in this tomb.
Yes, the church will be rebuilt. It is always being rebuilt, as T. S. Eliot knew:
The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without;
For this is the law of life; and you must remember that while there is time of prosperity
The people will neglect the Temple, and in time of adversity they will decry it.
Prosperity or adversity? The strangeness of our time consists partly in our having simultaneously too much and not quite enough: Not so much that we are free from anxiety, but not so little that we experience the kind of suffering that can give a person — and a people — some direction and focus. Direction toward, and focus on, what?