When I heard, on Tuesday of Holy Week, that Notre Dame Cathedral was engulfed in flames, I immediately texted my oldest son, the family’s intrepid world traveler who had just returned from Paris and had visited Notre Dame only days before. (We differ philosophically, but he graciously allowed me to share his photos in this post.)
Then, like so many others who have heard him reference the years he gave tours of the great cathedral, I thought of Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron.
I searched for Barron’s commentary on NBC/MSNBC where, speaking as news of the fire was unfolding, Barron said, “I’m heartbroken…to think that it might be in danger of being destroyed is just overwhelming to me.”
On a bonus episode of The Word on Fire Show Barron gave a rich reflection on what Notre Dame means to him:
“This building which has survived world wars and revolution and eight centuries of history; it was like something very precious to the western soul was burning up before our eyes.”
Barron, one of the most articulate voices in the culture today, with his signature erudition and historical perspective, gives listeners to this episode a rich and heartfelt reflection on the cathedral he knows so intimately.
It was being built and largely complete in the time Thomas Acquinas was in Paris. When he was there in the 1250’s, 1260’s, Notre Dame would have been standing, probably gleaming white in those days, I can only imagine the splendor of the windows, especially the roses, when Thomas and Bonaventure would have seen them.
Notre Dame is also where the young Barron, when he attended the 6:30 p.m. Mass at Notre Dame, heard the great Jewish convert Archbishop Jean-Marie Lustiger preach.
A marker on Notre Dame’s floor commemorates the spot where, viewing the north rose window, the French playwright Paul Claudel made the contemplation that led to his conversion.
The podcast is so rich I listened to it twice, and I warmly recommend it to anyone wishing to reflect on the occasion of this fire, which, although a devastating loss, at least did not destroy the windows or the treasured relics it had protected for centuries.
I turned next to Barron’s Heaven in Stone and Glass: Experiencing the Spirituality of the Great Cathedrals, a little book which moved me deeply when I first read it on a Christmas vacation after I’d received it as a gift.
“A cathedral must be read,” Barron writes, taking us into the “restlessly symbolic imagination” of the medieval mind. Cathedrals “were produced by people for whom the whole world–animals, planets, insects, grasses, seas and clouds–were symbolic manifestations of a spiritual universe that cannot be seen.”
“Accordingly,” he continues, “everything in a Gothic cathedral produces a tone and then a variety of overtones evocative of a transcendent harmony.”
This jewel of a book (it’s only 126 pages) was written for Barron’s contemporaries–us–because, whether we’re boomers or millenials or somewhere in between those generational lines, whether we’re church goers or “nones” (not identifiying with any religious group), we all came of age in “a rather iconoclastic time and hence never developed the eye or the mind to read a church.”
Even if we were open to it, many of us recall childhood churches quite underwhelmingly designed in the hope that the lack of visual stimulation would help us focus more intently on the invisible realm and protect us from the temptation to idolatry.
Like the Notre Dame fire itself, Barron’s book reminds us of what we’ve lost.
Walking us through a Gothic cathedral with eyes on its architectural splendor, Barron hopes to open our spiritual eyes as well, not by employing the preachy polemics of which we’ve all grown weary, but rather with the delight of a man in love both with the buildings and the One to whom he believes they point.
Heaven in Stone and Glass reflects on darkness and light, crypts and cruciformity, gargoyles, sacred geometry and the radical communion offered as every single person in every strata of society is invited to kneel before a mystery and be both humbled and exalted by it.
But the little chapter on rose windows is my favorite. “The play of light, color, harmony and balance, all enveloped in the perfection of the circle,” Barron writes, “establishes an aesthetic energy, which can, it seems, only be described in musical terms.”
These “flowers of color” perhaps:
most fully embody what the medieval scholastics took to be the characteristics of the beautiful: integritas (wholeness), consonantia (harmony) and claritas (radiance).
Wholeness. Harmony. Radiance.
No matter how or even whether we affiliate with a faith, Notre Dame’s fire drew our attention to a great beauty, a treasure of culture, a wonder that remained splendid for eight centuries of the human story.
Those like me who’ve never traveled to Notre Dame understand that the awe we feel when we view its photos would have been immeasurably magnified had we been able to stand in its reality and look up.
Cathedrals are “the closest material approximation to Heaven that we have ever seen on earth,” writes Boston College professor of philosophy Peter Kreeft:
Cathedrals are the miracle of stone and glass singing.
Iconoclasts that we are, perhaps that miracle still resonates.
Notre Dame’s fire, if only for a moment, took us somewhere beyond ourselves as we lamented the loss.
And the next day Kevin Heider’s beautiful reflection, including a much lengthier section of this quote by filmmaker Ingmar Bergman on the legend surrounding the raising of the cathedral at Chartres: “…Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.”
All photos by Ben Haslar. Even though he differs with my perspective, Ben kindly permitted me to share these shots taken just a few days before Notre Dame caught fire. His Instagram feed is a kaleidscopic view of the world’s wonders great and small and we often agree on what’s beautiful.
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