Notre Dame: Poetry in Stone

A crane works at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, April 19, 2019. (Philippe Wojazer/Pool via Reuters)
April 15th will not be the final chapter in Notre Dame’s long and storied history. Out of the ashes, we have hope that she will rise again.

It was not long after the spire of Notre Dame collapsed when I found myself in the basement rummaging through my grandfather’s old books. I was looking for Victor Hugo’s ode to the great cathedral. And although I was unable to find it, I remain convinced that there must be a copy stowed away somewhere among the dusty shelves. I’ll look again tomorrow, or perhaps I’ll make my way downtown to see if the library has a copy of its own in circulation. After the events of this week, I imagine I will not be the only one wandering the stacks, searching for that famous novel.

I had hoped to find The Hunchback of Notre Dame so that I might, if only for a moment, be granted a vision of the place that has been lost. Yet however beautiful Hugo’s prose might be, I also knew that words would never be able to do her justice. Words may paint a picture in the mind’s eye, they may even inspire us to wondrous acts of restoration (as Hugo’s novel did), but they cannot compete with the poetry of woodwork and stone that was Notre Dame. So much of this poetry was lost on Monday. That is why we weep.

A cathedral as great as Notre Dame is more than a backdrop for the City of Lights. In many ways, it managed to integrate itself into the heart and soul of its people. So too did the people leave a part of themselves with it. The story it shares with us is passed down from generation to generation, each making its own contribution to her construction, upkeep, and restoration. It is one told through the work of the hands, a story hewn from stone and carved in wood. That is what made her remarkable. Where many of us struggle to express ourselves in words, the makers of Notre Dame managed to express the fluid notions of the mind in a medium as solid and unforgiving as stone.

At Notre Dame, we were confronted by that which we may have otherwise believed to be ineffable. In walking among the pews, in gazing up at the cross above the altar, we were given the chance to encounter expressions of beauty, wonder, majesty, and solace that could be found nowhere else. Here was a poetry we could reach out and touch. Here the thoughts and images that flow through our minds were given form. For the doubting Thomases among us, Notre Dame extended a hand, she helped us to know that these things were real. In such a way the cathedral served to remind us that the Christian faith is not placed in some ethereal being, but in God Incarnate. Notre Dame served to reinforce the fact that God, in all His splendor, dwelt among us. This particular house of God stood as a testament to His beauty, majesty, and awe-inspiring presence, just as the lowly manger once stood as a testament to his humility and compassion.

But with the loss of Notre Dame, even if it be but a partial loss, there comes a fear that this beauty has gone out of the world forever. In an age in which what is economical seems to take precedence, we often struggle to justify the cost of the beautiful and the true. It becomes easy to forget that man does not live on bread alone. Notre Dame, while she stood, helped to remind us of that teaching. Through her many virtues the cathedral sought to edify the whole of man. In so doing she was a much-needed light in our time of trouble.

I am therefore heartened to hear, already, of the funds being raised to restore her to her former glory. It will not be the same, we know this, but if done well we may yet come to reconcile ourselves to that fact. The foundation is still there. Much of the structure survived intact. April 15 will not be the final chapter in Notre Dame’s long and storied history. Out of the ashes, we have hope that she will rise again. We need her to rise again.

In the meantime, we will find ways to remember what she once was. I will read the stories of those who visited her before the tragic fall. Others will share photographs; yet more will hold candlelight vigils. All of these things are good. It is important that we do not forget. But we will also look forward with anticipation to the day when these acts are no longer necessary. When the memories of sorrow will fade because that which was lost has been restored. Then Notre Dame might take her rightful place in our hearts once again. On that day, she will resume the good work she has been about all these years; giving form to the inexpressible, revealing the longings of our hearts, and pointing us to that which might satisfy them.