The Notre Dame Fire: Our Fault, Our Most Grievous Fault
A visual reminder of the inferno that is engulfing Western civilization.
Buildings like Notre Dame do not erupt into flames spontaneously. That’s not how God works, even to punish a civilization as deep in moral ruin as ours. My suspicions, and those of almost everyone I know, are hardly calmed when we see Fox News—yes, even Fox—repeatedly refusing to host an honest discussion of the possibility, even as experts tell French TV that eight hundred year old timber simply doesn’t burn that way without an accelerant. I mean, it’s not as though news networks restrain their hosts from wild speculation during other crises.
So, understandably, the first reaction from anyone who has been reading the news lately was: “Muslims, right?” Alas, even Right-wing newsreaders are terrified of saying the wrong thing when the perp might be a member of the Religion of Peace. Attacks on Christian churches in Europe have become so numerous that even Newsweek has had to admit it—though the magazine hilariously claims that no one knows why these attacks are happening, and the words “Islam” and “Muslim” are nowhere to be found in its reporting.
Anyway, as of now, no solid evidence has emerged, and our media refuses to discuss the context in which this fire occurred. And it’s also true that a few of these desecrations have been accompanied by Satanic imagery, more likely the work of feminist anarchists. So, in the interests of being responsible, we are compelled to say we have no idea how this particular fire began. Yet.
We can say, however, that the loss of Notre Dame is an especially Christian tragedy. It is a tragedy emblematic of the rapid destruction of Western civilization in the past few decades, a visual reminder of the inferno that has already gutted the Academy. It’s a wonder they didn’t finish off some of these churches first, though of course the cultural warriors of the Left can only squeal in excitement at the sort of brazen defacement they would never be brave enough to commit themselves. Those watching news coverage on Facebook were tormented—or delighted, depending on their wants—by a sea of Arabic names clicking on smiley faces as the jewel of Paris collapsed into ash, a spectacle that was, in turn, posted on Twitter by gloating social justice warriors.
That’s not to say that only Christians are mourning. Notre Dame wasn’t just the spiritual heart of Paris but remains its literal geographic center—the place from which distances are measured. As a cathedral school, it was the center of medieval intellectual life. Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas both taught there. Whatever the later horrors of French postmodernism and poststructuralism, the University of Paris once had a reasonable claim to be the locus of the Western intellectual tradition, leading the world in the study of Aristotle, scholastic theology and reason applied to the mysteries of faith.
Notre Dame is considered the ultimate example of High Gothic style, a popular form for churches because it symbolizes the body of Christ. It is significant and—again, to let my suspicions run amuck—surely no coincidence that this happened during Holy Week, since hope for the resurrection is at the heart of Gothic design. But Notre Dame transcended its role as a place of Catholic worship. As the recently departed Fr. James Schall once remarked about the great cathedrals of Europe, “Each of these extraordinary structures, built somehow in a way I do not wholly understand by ages far poorer than our own, incited me strangely in the thoroughly unexpected way that something which need not exist at all surprises and awakens us when, contrary to our private illusions and expectations, we suddenly discover that it exists and that it is lovely.”
He went on: “The shock and glory of unexpectedly finding such buildings touches almost the peak of human experience. The very foundations of our existence, then, are grounded in this startling realization that we do not already grasp all of reality, especially things of such exalted beauty. We cannot but be humbled by the immediate revelation of how much we have missed. And yet we are glad that, so humbled, we can now inherit what the Earth has borne to us. For we stand to all reality as we do to Durham and to Freiburg and to Litchfield [cathedrals] when we behold them for the first time, when we are given something by the ages that we could not create or even imagine by ourselves.”
For lovers of architecture, the cathedral’s North Rose window is one of the three great surviving roses from the thirteenth century. The rose has Mary at its center. As God shone through Mary, taking on the color of her human nature, so does the sunlight take on the color of the glass. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux put it in the twelfth century, “As a pure ray enters a glass window and emerges unspoiled, but has acquired the color of the glass… the Son of God who entered the most chaste womb of the Virgin, emerged pure, but took on the color of the Virgin, that is, the nature of a man and a comeliness of human form, and he clothed himself in it.”
Journalists and commentators have got most of this wrong. The reaction from Jewish conservatives to Notre Dame has been superficially sympathetic but a little self-serving. They have been anxious to remind us that Jews have suffered too, that Christianity has “Jewish roots” and that Jews have suffered terrible violence in the European countries now awash with third-world migrants. (At this risk of upsetting my fellow Jews, this is a bit like someone using the tragedy as an excuse to brag about their summer vacation to Paris.) That last claim is true, obviously—Jews have been the victims of atrocious violence at the hands of migrants—but it has escaped no one’s notice that those in the media pushing most aggressively for generous accommodation of Syrians in the West have themselves been Jewish.
Mary—the “Our Lady” of Notre Dame—is proof of the Incarnation. It is her body through which God becomes incarnate and it is she through whom the Word became incarnate and who is taken as a patron by educators. Notre Dame was built to support this understanding, a belief unique to Christianity. Jews deny that Jesus is Christ, which is why, in the story of her dormition, they attack the bier as the apostles carry Mary to her tomb and why they are described as “blind.” The Talmud is explicit about this rejection of Christ. But Mary prays for them and wants them to convert anyway. She never calls for violence against her fellow children of Abraham.
The fire in Notre Dame is a work of iconoclasm, akin to the statues of Mary being smashed in France and Germany by Muslims who also see the Incarnation as blasphemous. Coupled with the reality of living as a Jew in today’s Germany or France, the solution is obvious. This is the time for Jews and Christians to band together against a common threat to our existence and in respect of our shared history. We can unite with one another as neither of us can with Islam. As a matrilineally Jewish Catholic I am a living example of this union. Islam and social justice are an existential threat to both of us.
I sense in much of the European coverage of the past week a kind of guilt. France, perhaps more than any other country, deserved some sort of retribution from God, and I think Parisians know it. France doesn’t even record its citizens’ religious beliefs in its national census. No one has any idea what percentage of French people are Christian, though we can be sure the percentage is going down as the number of Muslims goes up. Since the Enlightenment, France has done more than any other country to wipe out Christianity. And it started early. As long ago as 1767, Voltaire described the Christian religion as “sans contredit la plus ridicule, la plus absurde, et la plus sanguinaire qui ait jamais infecté le monde.” (“Without question the most ridiculous, absurd and bloody ever to have infected the world.”)
In the West, we have lost our appreciation of Christianity as a source of reason, hope and joy, and we embrace characterizations of the faith as weak, ridiculous, superstitious and faintly sick—impressions not helped by the current state of the Catholic church hierarchy. The loss is not total, just as many of Notre Dame’s most precious relics and treasures appear to have been saved. But the trajectory is clear.
One miracle story of the Virgin, first recounted by Gregory of Tours, concerns a Jewish boy who was friends with some Christian children. He took communion with them, but when his father, a glassblower, found out, he threw the boy into his furnace. The Virgin protected him with her cloak, as with the three boys in the furnace in Daniel. I have been meditating on this story as I have watched Our Lady fail to protect herself from the flames, and while reading the news that an American university professor, apparently “inspired” by Notre Dame, was arrested entering a church this week carrying gasoline and lighter fluid.
It is characteristic of Western civilization to rise again, as even Left-wing medievalists who can’t bring themselves to acknowledge Christianity have to admit. But can we possibly restore what has been lost even if we try? The West has lost its soul, and with that soul, its craft. As we lost our understanding of God as maker, we lost our respect for making things ourselves. We therefore no longer possess either the will or the means to build something like Notre Dame, less still the technical ability to dare attempt a repair. We have forgotten how, and part of me says the Cathedral should be left to stand precisely as it is now to remind us of the fact, unfinished and unrepaired until we rediscover the purpose for which it was constructed in the first place. We don’t have the right to crassly imitate the original.
Hilaire Belloc could say, approvingly and as recently as the twentieth century, that Europe “repairs and finishes.” Could he have said that today? Would he, after hearing Emmanuel Macron’s chilling pledge that Notre Dame will be rebuilt “more beautiful than before”? In 1905, churches in France were declared the property of the state, which raises horrifying prospects for Notre Dame’s reconstruction. Will Macron suggest a “multi-faith prayer space” in order to be “truly inclusive” of France’s “multicultural society”? Don’t bet against it, folks. Already the calls are going out from elitist architects—in Rolling Stone, natch—that the rebuilding should not reflect “white European France.”
There was a sort of terrible beauty in that fire. You could see the devil dancing in it, a Balrog’s malevolence that shatters stone and glass. It was alive, and, mesmerized by it, we got a glimpse of our end, of what we have allowed to happen to our greatest institutions, of the defacement done to our curricula and the petty vandalism we allow every day to be performed upon our laws, our customs and our social mores by people who loathe everything about us. And in that acrid smoke lurked a question that haunts me today: Did we deserve this?