A Church is Burning

Posted on April 17, 2019

It is hard not to see the times we live in as times of collapse. The collapse of our world. The collapse of our civilisation. The collapse of our ecosystem. We are impermanent. Individually we know it. But our species is impermanent too. There will be a time in the future when there is no humanity left. And the thought that this may not at all be a distant future is truly frightening.

When something of priceless exquisite beauty collapses then a space gets cleared for feelings of irredeemable loss. Our sense of not having taken appropriate care gets triggered. How could this disaster have been prevented? We don’t have an answer to this. We will never know. But then, “Have we taken appropriate care?” is not a question for the intellect. It is a reminder for all those moments where we fail to appreciate the beauty and complexity and vulnerability and exquisiteness of what was handed to us from the past, as a treasure for us to make use of, to handle with care, to protect.

The wish to protect what is precious to us is precious in itself. The church can be rebuilt, will be rebuilt. And rebuilding and restoring what we have lost, while attempting to make it even more glorious, is ever so precious.

To me, there is no contrast between the collapse of a beautiful building and the collapse of an ecosystem. I have memories of visits to Notre Dame, of climbing its bell tower, of strolling through its interior looking up at light filtering through stained glass windows. I have memories of the beauty of the countryside around the farmhouse of my grandparents, now lost forever, an industrial development area without any charm. Memories that are now images of loss.

The devastation of a priceless church is a pointer to the suffering of humanity. The image of this burning church that many of us know so well calls up other images. Images of hungry children in a war-torn country. A war that we did not prevent. Images of disappearing countryside. Beauty that we did not protect. Images of melting glaciers. Ecological balance that we did not preserve. All images of loss, of grief, of collapse. These images evoke one another, melt into one another, because they are all pointers to the same ailment.

Notre Dame burning is a symbol of loss and hurt at the core of our civilisation. And at the same time it is also a reminder of our connection with the Divine. Notre Dame, Our Lady, is the most important female Saint of Christianity. She is the one who reminds us, for ever and ever, that nothing is lost forever, ever. She is the one who is pointing us to the most important of all spiritual truths. She reminds us that we can heal our lives by opening our hearts, directly to the divine, or indirectly to our fellow humans who are mirrors for us of the divine. And when we open our hearts we will be transformed. And everything will be different. And we can start to make things new.

A church is burning. An ancient building collapses on holy ground. A space gets cleared. The grief we experience is carrying a message for us. May that message of Our Lady be heard in our times. Amen.