Symbols and Sanctuaries

As you know, on Tuesday the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris suffered a dramatic and terrible fire.

Millions have mourned its loss.

Of course, it shouldn’t be any skin off my back.  I’m not Parisian, I’m not French, and I’m not Catholic.  Nevertheless, seeing that 900-year-old building go up in flames made me feel like I was losing something too.

True disclosure:  I’ve been there.  Two summers ago, my wife and I spent four days in Paris.  We went through the cathedral once, but saw it in the distance every day, with its wing-like buttresses, its Fantasyland gargoyles and it’s two stately pillars dominating the neighboring skyline.

As I say, I am not Catholic, but I consider myself religious.  And walking through Notre Dame it was easy to feel what we call Spirit of God.  Maybe it was the towering vaulted ceilings.  Maybe it was the afternoon sun filtering through the extraordinary stained glass.  Perhaps it was the statuary, all so meticulously crafted that you don’t even notice the crafting—you just enjoy the message they invoke.

At any rate, the afternoon my wife and I strolled to the front of the cathedral under the arches, and past the stained glass and statuary, and despite being just two people among the several hundred others that joined us inside, while hundreds more waited outside—despite all this, the feeling of blessing and benediction we shared left us both humbled and grateful.

As humans, we have a knack for messing things up.  We start out with good intentions, but more often than not we end up fouling our own nests.  Consider all the social and political movements that begin with the highest of ideals, and after a few decades or centuries stand revealed as only the cynical shells of their former selves.

But every once in a while we get something right.  We create something for a noble purpose, and it stands as a monument to what Abraham Lincoln referred to as our better angels. The Statue of Liberty comes to mind.  Notre Dame is another.

But being human, the artisans who create such beauty aren’t as perfect as their work.  The Catholic Church has had its problems.  So has Lady Liberty.

It would, therefore, be easy to discount the moral authority of these icons of humanity, because of the failures of the people to live up to the ideals their work represents.  But it’s precisely because of our flawed humanity that these icons, and others like them, are so important.  They are a constant reminder that moral strength is worth striving for.  And if we don’t achieve it at least we are closer to our goals than if we never made the effort.

The day after the fire I was glad to hear that many of the relics inside had been preserved.  One in particular seemed to be of great importance—the Crown of Thorns, venerated by the faithful as the actual crown of thorns pushed down upon the head of Jesus prior to His crucifixion.

Non-believers may have reason to be skeptical of that claim, and, in its literalness, I might be one of them.  But whether it is Jesus’ actual crown of thorns or not, I can still revere what it represents.

In my church, and probably in yours, symbols are often used to try to connect human intellect to the vastness of what some call the Mind of God.  Symbols teach us what is worth striving for.  Like the great works of art, they give us of a glimpse of our potential.  In this struggling time, we need those reminders more than ever.

And instead, this week we lost one—a reminder that had endured for nearly a millennium.

Some say that heavy cost of rebuilding Notre Dame is a waste of money, and could be better spent in other ways.  Respectfully, I disagree.  The Notre Dame cathedral existed to remind us all of the power of true peace and divine love.  And that emptiness I felt in watching Our Lady burn reminded me of how much I needed that message—me, and the billions of others worldwide who felt Paris’s pain during this last, sad Easter week.

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