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Notre Dame Fire: A Sign For Our Time

Destruction of the iconic cathedral is handwriting written on the wall in flaming strokes



There is no way to replace what Paris, what France, what Christendom, and indeed what humanity, has lost today. It is irreplaceable. For example, we literally cannot recreate the windows, which date from the time of Dante. We do not know how to do it. As a friend said to me, “You can rebuild the World Trade Center. You cannot rebuild Notre Dame de Paris.”

Watch this and weep:


Take a look at this short clip from Kenneth Clark’s monologue opening his great 1969 TV series Civilisation (all of which is available on YouTube). Standing in front of the Notre Dame cathedral, Clark asks, “What is civilization?” He says he can’t define it in abstract terms, “but I think I can recognize it when I see it.” He then turns to the cathedral, and says, “I’m looking at it right now.” Watch:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6qYjisp51M?start=132]

What we lost today is one of the great embodiments of Western civilization. It is impossible to overstate what this means. It will take some time to absorb. Notre Dame de Paris is at the heart of France’s identity. All distances in France are measured from kilometre zéro, in front of the cathedral. Though most (but not all!) of the French have turned away from their baptism, Notre Dame is the symbolic heart of the nation. And now, it’s gone, though firefighters may have saved its bones. It took 200 years to build, and now it was made a holocaust in one terrible afternoon.

Like James Poulos above, I cannot see this as anything other than a sign. The only church in all of Western civilization more important than Notre Dame de Paris is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The consuming fire is likely to have been started from a construction accident. I hope that is the case; if this was terrorism, then France is in for unimaginable spasms of violence. Nevertheless, if this was an accident, it still symbolizes what we in the West have allowed to happen to our religious and cultural patrimony. What happened in Paris today has been happening across our civilization.

It happens whenever we fail to live out our baptism, and fail to baptize our children. It happens by omission, by indifference, and it happens by commission, from spite. It happens in classrooms, in newsrooms, in shopping malls, in poisoned seminaries and defiled sacristies, and everywhere the truths that Notre Dame de Paris embodied are ridiculed, flayed, and destroyed in the hearts and minds of modern men. The fire that destroyed Paris’s iconic cathedral made manifest what we in the West have been doing to ourselves for over 200 years.

This catastrophe in Paris today is a sign to all of us Christians, and a sign to all people in the West, especially those who despise the civilization that built this great temple to its God on an island in the Seine where religious rites have been celebrated since the days of pagan Rome. It is a sign of what we are losing, and what we will not recover, if we don’t change course now. Here are the final paragraphs from The Benedict Option, about a similar catastrophe in the town where St. Benedict was born:

The Benedictine monks of Norcia have become a sign to the world in ways I did not anticipate when I began writing this book. In August 2016, a devastating earthquake shook their region. When the quake hit in the middle of the night, the monks were awake to pray matins, and they fled the monastery for the safety of the open-air piazza.

Father Cassian later reflected that the earthquake symbolized the crumbling of the West’s Christian culture, but that there was a second, hopeful symbol that night. “The second symbol is the gathering of the people around the statue of Saint Benedict in the piazza in order to pray,” he wrote to supporters. “That is the only way to rebuild.”

The tremors left the basilica church too structurally unstable for worship, and most of the monastery uninhabitable. The brothers evacuated the town and moved to their land up the mountainside, just outside the Norcia walls. They pitched tents in the ruins of an older monastery and continued their prayer life, interrupted only by visits to the town to minister to its people.

The monks received distinguished visitors in their exile, including Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi and Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican’s liturgical office. Cardinal Sarah blessed the monks’ temporary quarters, celebrated mass with them, then told them that their tent monastery “reminds me of Bethlehem, where it all began.”

“I am certain that the future of the Church is in the monasteries,” said the cardinal, “because where prayer is, there is the future.”

Five days later, more earthquakes shook Norcia. The cross atop the basilica’s facade toppled to the ground. And then, early in the morning of Sunday, October 30, the strongest earthquake to hit Italy in thirty years struck, its epicenter just north of the town. The fourteenth-century Basilica of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, fell violently to the ground. Only its facade remained. Not a single church in Norcia remained standing.

With dust still rising from the rubble, Father Basil knelt on the stones of the piazza, facing the ruined basilica, and accompanied by nuns and a few elderly Norcini, including one in a wheelchair, he prayed. Later amateur video posted to YouTube showed Father Basil, Father Benedict, and Father Martin running through the streets of the rubble-strewn town, looking for the dying who needed last rites. By the grace of God, there were none.

Back in America, Father Richard Cipolla, a Catholic priest in Connecticut and an old friend of Father Benedict’s, e-mailed the subprior when he heard the news of the latest quake. “Is there damage? What is going on?” Father Cipolla wrote.

“Yes, damage much worse,” Father Benedict replied. “But we are okay. Much to tell you, but just pray. I am well, and God continues to purify us and bring very good things.”

The next morning, as the sun rose over Norcia, Father Benedict sent a message to the monastery’s friends all over the world. He said that no Norcini had lost their lives in the quake because they had heeded the warnings from the earlier tremors and left town. “[God] spent two months preparing us for the complete destruction of our patron’s church so that when it finally happened we would watch it, in horror but in safety, from atop the town,” the priest-monk wrote.

Father Benedict added, “These are mysteries which will take years—not days or months—to understand.”

Surely that is true. But notice this: the earth moved, and the Basilica of St. Benedict, which had stood firm for many centuries, tumbled to the ground. Only the facade, the mere semblance of a church, remains. Because the monks headed for the hills after the August earthquake, they survived. God preserved them in the holy poverty of their canvas-covered Bethlehem, where they continued to live the Rule in the ancient way, including chanting the Old Mass. Now they can begin rebuilding amid the ruins, their resilient Benedictine faith teaching them to receive this catastrophe as a call to deeper holiness and sacrifice. God willing, new life will one day spring forth from the rubble.

“We pray and watch from the mountainside, thinking of the long three years Saint Benedict spent in the cave before God decided to call him out to become a light to the world,” wrote Father Benedict. “Fiat. Fiat.”

Let it be. Let it be.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

The flames of Notre Dame de Paris are a call to repentance and conversion. As the monks of Norcia have been doing since their church met catastrophe, so let us all do as we mourn the loss of one of Christendom’s greatest cathedrals. There can be no greater tribute to what this holy and revered temple meant to its builders and to all those faithful who worshiped beneath its vaults all these centuries than to turn, in sackcloth and ashes, back to God, and to raise again the vaults of His sanctuaries in our hearts and families and communities — while there is still time.

For you in the West who are not religious, I hope you will reflect on what this cathedral meant in artistic, architectural, and cultural terms, and that you will think hard about what we are losing as we collectively repudiate our patrimony.

If you were waiting for a sign of the times, this is it.

Maybe it is hopeful. I wrote to my dear friend Fred in Paris tonight to tell him how heartbroken I am, and to share his sorrow. He just responded:

My dear Rod,

France, as a country and a people, was probably saved tonight. President Macron was supposed to talk tonight and everyone was saying it would be too little too late.

And now “La couronne d’épines et la tunique de Saint-Louis ont été sauvées” [“The Crown of Thorns and the tunic of St. Louis have been saved”]is breaking news on television. We shall wake up tomorrow in a different country.

Confiance et espérance. Bonne nuit à tous. [Confidence and hope. Good night to all.]

God wills it!

UPDATE: Gavin Ashenden is a priest, by the way:


More news:


I will contribute! Will you?

UPDATE.2: Douglas Murray is a must-read. Excerpt:

There will be recriminations, of course. There will be disputes about budgets, and overtime and safety standards and much more. It is worth reading this piece from two years ago about the funding problems that existed around the cathedral’s restoration. But if Notre Dame can burn then all this is as nothing, because it tells us something too deep to bear. As I said a couple of years ago in a book, in some way the future of civilisation in Europe will be decided on what our attitude is towards the great churches and other cultural buildings of our heritage standing in our midst. Do we contend with them, hate them, ignore them, engage with them or continue to revere them? Do we preserve them?

Though politicians may imagine that ages are judged on the minutiae of government policy, they are not. They are judged on what they leave behind: most of all on how they treat what the past has handed into their care. Even if today’s disaster was simply the most freakish of accidents, ours would still be the era that lost Notre Dame.

It tells us something too deep to bear. This is true, and profound. The 9/11 attacks told us that all our money and power did not make the most powerful nation that ever existed safe. The Kennedy assassination told us that a single malicious man with a gun could fell the most powerful man in the world as he drove down a bland urban thoroughfare on a sunny day. The reason there are so many conspiracy theories about both 9/11 and the JFK murder was because they tell us something too deep to bear. It is easier to believe in grand conspiracies than the awful dull truth.

Whatever the cause, ours is the era that lost Notre Dame. And that is a stain that will never come out.



Reminds me of this from the ruins of the Twin Towers:

UPDATE.4: Christopher Roberts of Martin Saints Classical High School in suburban Philadelphia sent this out to the school community this evening:

As I left school earlier this afternoon, my phone had messages from four or five faculty members: had I heard that Notre Dame cathedral was burning? I went online and looked at the pictures: the flames toppling the spire. The crowds gathered across the river, singing Ave Maria into the night.

I wept. Why? Why did a fire nearly 4000 miles away affect so many of us so deeply?

Perhaps it was partly just stress that needed to find an outlet. I’d had a difficult meeting after Mass this morning. Sometimes the practicalities of starting a school really are challenging.

But it was more than that. It mattered that it was this cathedral, this particular gem in the crown of Catholic Europe. For example, I assume that this 800 year old Rose Window no longer exists:

Receiving a classical education means, in part, learning to receive this beauty as one’s own patrimony. At Martin Saints, our students are apprentices, young men and women being cultivated so that they are capable of receiving their inheritance.

What’s on fire tonight is a piece of that patrimony, a choice portion of our inheritance. People have been worshiping on that site since Roman times, through the Carolingian and Viking ages. Eventually, two hundred years of construction in the high middle ages created the building more or less as we know it today. Thomas Aquinas would have known and recognized it. What’s burning tonight is a chapter in the story that makes us who we are.

In 1969, the British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark stood across the Seine from Notre Dame cathedral and famously said: “What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms yet.” But then he turned and looked across the river at Notre Dame: “But I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I’m looking at it now.” (Watch the whole documentary at this link; this quote occurs at 3:32.)

Civilization is a perilous thing. In that same BBC documentary, Sir Kenneth talks about how western civilization had nearly perished after the fall of Rome, and he warns that we could face similar danger again someday.

Please pray for Paris, pray for Europe, pray for the renewal of the Church, pray for the revival of classical education in our era, and pray for Martin Saints.

From the Facebook page of the classical educator Wes Callihan:

When a tragedy happens quickly, we notice and are rightly shocked. When it happens slowly, those who even notice at all are mocked or ignored. We’ve all seen the pictures in the news by now of the bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang in the interior of Notre Dame. That charred, smoking mess we see is our civilization as it has been for the last 200 years. We do not live in Old Western Culture, not even in the twilight of it. We live in the cold, charred ruins. We ought to grieve, with real tears, over the sudden demise of Our Lady of Paris. But we ought likewise to be grieving every bit as much over the long, slow, agonizing demise of the culture she watched over protectively and then sadly for so long. Notre Dame is one of many symbols of a culture that is long gone and in the surviving scraps of which we amuse ourselves daily. Before Notre Dame can be rebuilt, she needs to be mourned. And those can mourn her best who loved her best. And all these same things are true, in far greater degree, of Old Western Culture. That cathedral in the news today is Christendom. We are those figures picking through the ash.

Sources: Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum”. Richard Weaver, “Ideas Have Consequences” (at least the introduction). Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”(!). Miller’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz”. Tocqueville. The Anglo-Saxon poem “The Ruin”. The ending of “Beowulf”. Cherston, Belloc, Dawson. And of course, once again, most importantly, the opening pages of MacIntyre’s “After Virtue”. All these are the exegesis of our situation. And Notre Dame today is the metaphor.

It is most emphatically *not* too soon to be thinking this way. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. You who follow in light cockle shells, turn back. Tomorrow, we’ll all go back to our soma.

UPDATE.5: Claire Berlinski, who lives in Paris, says:

It’s devastating. To walk across the Seine and not see the spire is devastating. To some extent, you know the feeling: it’s like seeing the Twin Towers in flames. A sense at once that it cannot be happening, and yet it is. I’ve just heard that the rose windows — built in 1260 — exploded. They are lost I feel a grief I can’t describe: They won’t be there for the next generation. Passed on, and passed on, generation after generation, and now, forevermore, people will see replicas of those windows. Reconstructions. With a plaque that explains there was a fire.



UPDATE.6: A reader writes:

Notre Dame will certainly be rebuilt; even secular Europeans (not just the French, not just Christians) will feel a ferocious allegiance to the structure and want to set it right again. It is Europe’s Twin Towers. Little kids will be putting their coins into cardboard boxes handed out at school. The rebuilt structure may not emphasize Christian faith much, but it will provide a heart-stirring representation of what the European heart, mind, and vision once accomplished.

But taking pride in European accomplishment is emphatically contrary to the attitudes the elites in Europe and the US have been cultivating. They won’t be able to stop the upsurge of pride in this fine old building, with its inevitable implication of pride in one’s own European forebears; they will be helpless before a resurging allegiance to one’s own Western accomplishments and traditions, the whole noble, comforting, and appealing assortment of of them, whether extravagant examples like this cathedral, or the homey customs and recipes of our great-grandparents.

The impulse to rebuild the cathedral will express something that the left has, till now, conditioned us to treat with shame. But when Western culture is celebrated, it conflicts sooner or later with Islam. The changes coming in this wind will be unpredictable, and not necessarily safe.