Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Fire, the Lampstand, and Our Lady of All Nations: A Reflection on Notre Dame


On the morning of Monday, April 15, I felt a strong desire to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, a special prayer reflecting on the sorrows of the Virgin Mary. I try to pray this prayer every day, and I was planning to say it later in the day, but my desire was growing to start it right away. Just then, I glanced at my Twitter feed and saw that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was on fire. I quickly looked at news sources and watched in utter horror as the top of the building was engulfed in flames.

No words could describe my grief as I was witnessing what seemed like the destruction of one of the most magnificent jewels of Western civilization. So much history, culture, art, and spirituality has been connected with and has been symbolized by this one building, dating back to the 12th century. For a while, I could not stop watching the livestream of the conflagration, listening intently for the slightest bit of news. But in time, I turned off the sound and started to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, while still watching the raging fire devouring the resplendent building. At that time, it seemed that the roof had collapsed, and the interior was being completely annihilated by the flames.

My grief only grew during the day. In January, I had the good fortune of being able to visit Notre Dame on a long layover in Paris. I attended morning Mass and toured the building, taking many pictures of the priceless artwork. I climbed the north tower, where I could see the famed gargoyles from up close and could admire a panoramic view of Paris. But now this venerable old building of marvels seemed to be on the brink of complete collapse.

As I watched the livestream, I could not help but think that the conflagration was a metaphor for the state of the Catholic Church in much of the Western world today. We are facing the greatest crisis in Catholicism since the Protestant Reformation. In fact, the scale of the decline is arguably far greater than during the 16th century. In many formerly flourishing Catholic areas the Church is little more now than a burnt out shell.

A chilling line from the Book of Revelation haunted me during the day. Christ says to the Ephesians: "Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent." (Revelation 2:4-5)

The burning of this awe-inspiring gem of Western history also reminded me of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. In so many passages, he depicts the fallen buildings and monuments of a once great society that has collapsed due to its own corruption or has been destroyed by enemies. The conflagration of Notre Dame seemed to me like an apt metaphor for the fall of Western civilization which we are witnessing today.

We have abandoned our roots, we have turned away from the blessings that once gave us greatness. We have forgotten how to build a magnificent world and how to maintain it. The West is now collapsing. We are falling. We are becoming the burnt out shell of our former glory. Such were my gloomy thoughts as the fires raged in Notre Dame Cathedral.

But as the day unfolded, I found hope unexpectedly. As the heroic firefighters subdued the flames, good news started to emerge. The interior, which initially seemed to have been completely destroyed, turned out to have been relatively untouched by the devastation. The gilded cross above the main altar shone bright in the initial pictures of the interior. The beautiful statue of the Pieta, Our Lady of Sorrows, situated under the cross, her arms open, also survived intact.

If the fire was a metaphor for the state of Catholicism in the West, then the miraculous survival of so much beauty inside was perhaps a metaphor that all is not yet lost. The Catholic Church, though bruised and battered in the West, has not yet fallen. Our lampstand has not yet been taken from us. We have work to do. We have so much to offer to a world that needs so desperately the grace entrusted to us by Christ.

The spontaneous outpouring of grief, support, solidarity, and love on social media, not just from Catholics but many people from all walks of life, showed that the majestic Cathedral and what it symbolizes still resonates deeply in our society. Notre Dame embodies something that people need deep down in their hearts and still want on some level, even if they cannot articulate that desire. As the fires raged, perhaps another fire was being kindled in the hearts of many – the desire to return to our spiritual roots. So it seemed as so many on social media shared a clip of the crowd that had assembled near the building singing the Ave Maria. That beautiful clip, capturing the most beloved prayer to Our Lady, will forever be associated with the public response to the conflagration. In fact, the crowds sang and prayed for hours outside.

Notre Dame means Our Lady. She is the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The cathedral houses many beautiful depictions of Mary, among them several images of her from other parts of the world. While the building is a symbol of French culture and history, spiritually Notre Dame belongs to all the world. Our Lady is not just the Lady of Paris or of France, but, as we might call her, Our Lady of All Nations. As the world mourns for the cathedral that has so majestically honored our Blessed Mother for so long, let us invite the people of the world into Our Lady's open and outstretched arms, so that she can enfold us all in her motherly embrace and lead us to that true peace that only her Son can give.


Photo Credit: Initial picture of the interior of Notre Dame Cathedral after the fire released to the media and widely circulated on the Internet.

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