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Notre Dame: Mourning the Sacred

“Destroy this cathedral,” Jesus said to them. “Destroy it, and I will rebuild it in three days.”

“But it took epochs to build!” they protested. “It took epochs to build, and you’re going to rebuild it in three days? How?”

They began to laugh. But Jesus was not speaking about architectures of wood and stone, he was speaking about the temple of His body. Come Easter morning, once He is raised from the dead, all His faithful lovers will remember that He said this.

For the last few days, much of the world has participated in mourning the loss of a sacred thing. We have gazed together on the flames of Notre Dame, stunned by the realness of its desecration and confronted in equal parts both by our impulse to mourn and by our need to question this impulse. What does it mean, after all, to mourn an object of which we had no ownership? The nearest anyone comes to demonstrating ownership of Notre Dame is showing pictures taken on their smartphones when once, as tourists, they lingered outside the vast architecture just long enough to say that they’d been there and seen it, and now look: here’s proof. Others who say they mourn—indeed, who express such personal and emotional loss as though part of their own inheritance had been destroyed—have never even set foot in France. What gives any of us right, or reason, to mourn the loss of a thing that wasn’t ours to begin with? What precisely did we lose?

Perhaps the answer lies in the technicality that we are not mourning the loss of a building, because it was not truly ours to lose. Rather, we are mourning a truth about ourselves. What we witnessed in the fires of Notre Dame is the unavoidable truth of our existence: that everything we love and hold most sacred will one day be lost to us. To be confronted by the destruction of Notre Dame is to be confronted with the fact of desecration itself, and to witness the perfect tragedy of our loss played out in dreadful reality. In this way, we may ourselves enter into the loss of Paris by virtue (or vice) of our humanity, because loss is our perpetual state of being. This is both unavoidable and irreparable. And yet, this very fact of loss sparks in us the hope of redemption because, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

We cannot rebuild history, nor renew what was ripened and perfected in time. We cannot find consolation in the newfangled for all that we have lost in the past. How shall we turn away from the sacred things we have encountered? How shall we mourn them? How give tribute to what has burned? Shall we light candles, kindle fires of our own, to show that we too have a place in the burning?

We can afford to mourn what has been lost because in its vacancy we bear no more responsibility for it. We can weep, and our tears are light. We may lift our eyes up to the fallen steeples of our faith and see that no God presides in the heavens above, only empty space between pillar and pillar. All of us lift up our eyes, faithful and faithless alike. The faithful look up and mourn a once-sacred thing. The faithless look up and mourn what never was. Is this what will unite us in the midst of our loss, the mere synchrony of our gaze, even though our eyes behold nothing?

The cathedrals we build up today will topple tomorrow, like chess kings in resignation. But the toppling of our cathedrals should never put us off the building of them. We must “stoop and build them up with worn out tools.” We must build and build again with the diligence of children, who pile their castles in the sand though the shoreline approaches with haste. This is the faith of a child, which is not naïve credulity, as so many have preached in fatal error. The faith of a child is diligent delight in the present, in spite of the elements that destroy all that is beautiful, good, and true.

Water and fire succeed
The town, the pasture and the weed.
Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot,
Of sanctuary and choir.
This is the death of water and fire.

— T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Our faith is a phoenix smoldered into ash and rebirthed in embryonic weakness. All we like children must pass through this fire. Such is our fate—this we have long known. To encounter the sacred in this life is to simultaneously confront the loss of it because we cannot keep anything, and we cannot access every heaven we encounter. We are perpetual lookers-on. We gaze at beauties beyond us, yearning with unconsolable hearts. This, then, is the price of loving what is sacred. We may rightly fear the fires of Hell, but so long as we are confined to mortal frames, the torments of Heaven will sear us with even hotter pain. When our eyes behold the sacred, our tears fall heavy and holy, and they fall in faith for all that we have gained and lost, and all that we have yet to gain. This, then, is the redemption of mortality: our tears will splash out the fires of our hearts.

The dust of demolition has settled. Now begins construction. The frames of a new church are hoisted up. The copestone of His tomb is pushed aside. The beams of His cross are wrested from the earth and lifted up and borne upon the shoulders of His children, who remember what He said. They remember, and they believe, forever and forever.

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