The Notre Dame Fire Reminds Us of What Is Important

Commentary

How does one measure the magnitude of an event such as yesterday’s horrific blaze that destroyed much of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris? For me, top-tier tragedies are the ones that strike me with such force that I know I will always remember where I was when I learned about it.

Yesterday afternoon, I was in my office at my college when one of my colleagues told me about the fire. The impact was immediate: I was stunned and sad. That moment is permanently burned into my memory banks.

Smoke billows as flames burn through the roof of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on April 15, 2019, in the French capital Paris. FABIEN BARRAU/AFP/Getty Images

While we lament the awful destruction sustained by this famous landmark, we may find comfort and gratitude in the good news that has come forth since the initial report. First and foremost, so far as I know, this mighty conflagration has caused no loss of life. Secondly, we have heroes to admire: Through the valiant efforts of Paris’s firefighters, the venerable structure was saved from complete destruction. Not only were the main structure of the cathedral and its twin bell towers preserved, but also some of the perishable religious relics stored there were rescued. Bravo and Hallelujah!

The cathedral of Notre Dame is an irreplaceable cultural icon, historical landmark, aesthetic marvel, and a revered house of worship. Its total destruction would have been devastating. While the outer manifestation of this great cathedral is temporarily diminished, the underlying ideas and values of which the cathedral was the embodiment remain untouched and safely beyond the reach of the most fearsome flames.

All that Notre Dame stands for culturally, historically, aesthetically, and religiously lives on in the hearts and minds of the French people. The spirit of Notre Dame is imperishable. The great nation that gave the world Joan of Arc, Voltaire, Pascal, Victor Hugo, Beaumarchais, Dumas, Lafayette, Say, Turgot, Bastiat, Pasteur, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Ravel, Bizet, Molière, Rostand, Rodin, and so many other luminaries will rebuild and restore this great symbol of the French nation.

In contemplating all that Notre Dame represents, I am awestruck by how long it has stood there—eight-and-a-half centuries. We Americans have nothing comparable to this; indeed, the cathedral reminds us of how young our country is. If we were to march back in time to the founding of the Plymouth and Jamestown settlements, we wouldn’t even be halfway back to when the cornerstone was laid for Notre Dame. The lifespan of the cathedral is more than three times as long as the entire lifespan of the United States of America.

The existence of Notre Dame points to more permanent things. Leaders and governments come and go, faces and names change and are quickly forgotten, but something in the soul of the French nation lives on in Notre Dame, both connecting and transcending generations and centuries.

The interior of the Notre-Dame Cathedral is seen through a doorway following a major fire yesterday on April 16, 2019 in Paris, France. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Here’s a thought: If this sad event had to happen at all, perhaps it is fitting that it happened during Easter week. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave reminds us that when the material picture looks most grim and hopeless, we can take comfort from the Savior’s proof that goodness is imperishable and immortal.

The cathedral is a magnificent symbol—indeed, one of the grandest—of the faith that inspired its conception and construction. For many centuries, the enduring magnificence of Notre Dame has inspired, comforted, and reassured millions. It has uplifted people’s spirits, soothed their soul, strengthened their faith, revived their hope, and nourished love in their heart. I am confident that it will do so for many more centuries going forward.

I see a silver lining in this awful fire. Modern societies suffer from acute polarization, and political life in France is no exception. When citizens and compatriots can find a common cause around which to rally—a cause that is larger and more permanent than any political faction—this cause can negate the centrifugal forces that would tear society apart and instead bring people closer together. Restoring Notre Dame is a cause around which the French people can rally.

This impetus to solidarity is not confined to France. Millions around the world are embracing this cause. In the hours immediately after learning of the tragic inferno, several friends (interestingly, none of them Catholic) posted heartfelt messages online to share how much they were moved by their visits to the cathedral at various times in their lives.

Of the various challenges that could potentially arise to delay the reconstruction of the cathedral, lack of money will not be one of them. The love for this beautiful structure, this hallowed cathedral consecrated to humankind’s yearning to find their innate connection to the transcendent, permanent, and eternal, will be manifested in generous giving.

May the present solidarity that has spontaneously burst forth in the aftermath of this consuming blaze prove long-lasting. Indeed, such fellowship would do great honor to the spirit and underlying purpose of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Let us resolve to turn what could have been a long-term tragedy into a lasting triumph.

Mark Hendrickson is an adjunct professor of economics and sociology at Grove City College. He is the author of several books, including “The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change.”

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Author: Mark Hendrickson

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