REBUILDING WITH THE SAME SPIRIT – Notre Dame of Paris as “poor people’s book”

Photo by AP.

– Maria Kwak

This year’s Holy week brought tears to millions who had to watch one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world go up in flames. Not only is it an object of beauty, it is a temple dedicated to Our Lady by believers. It is a historically valuable monument and as well as being a religious venue.

Sibeth Ndiaye, spokesperson of the French government answered in a clear message through Twitter, “It is not only a monument. It’s OUR Lady” on behalf of the French citizens.

She explains why so many hearts would suffer that very night. It is truly their national icon. 

President Macron declared, “Rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral is France’s destiny” and committed himself to pursuing it.  In his speech, he made a declaration to build the Cathedral “more beautiful than before.” He proposed the plan to be completed within five years but the public doubts whether the plan is realistic or not. While the French government’s vision is ambitious, with 800 million euros of donations from the companies and billionaires from home and abroad, a significant number of social media users criticise the amount raised in a short period of time when thousands of people are dying of poverty worldwide.

The Cathedral was, in fact, in the midst of a conservation process. As much as the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus patiently watched her own Son willingly going up to the mountain of Calvary with the cross, there was nothing much we can do but just watch Our Lady suffering from the fires.

Why did God bring such a disastrous event to his dwelling place? Fortunately, the fire did not raze the whole structure and no one was hurt. Most of the treasures and paintings were safely rescued from burning. But the conservation work was put a stop and now faces a new challenge. The latest debate is on the international architectural competition proposed by Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, to redesign the roofline of the Cathedral, whether to build a completely new structure or to reconstruct on its original shape.

Mayor of Paris, Ana Hidalgo, indicated in an interview with Spanish newspaper, El País that the power of Notre-Dame goes beyond the religious. “It is history and heritage that unite people. And there are humanist values at play, in the defense of heritage,” she explains. Today’s political and social climate gives least emphasis to the spirit of Our Lady of Paris as a sacred place. We live in times where there is a clear separation of the church and state. Since 1905, France implemented state secularism through the law on the Separation of the Churches and State. Today, Our Lady of Paris, a UNESCO World Heritage landmark, belongs to the French State. As much as it is valued as a cultural heritage, it deserves to be treated as a historic monument with Catholic origin. Before it became an object of beauty and attraction, it is a Catholic church indeed. In this regard, the current reconstruction project may be missing a philosophy.

Taking a detour into the medieval chapter of the Cathedral’s history provides a small clue to what the state’s plan may be missing. The history of Our Lady as a Gothic cathedral dates back to 12th century, initiated by Bishop of Paris, Maurice de Sully (d. 1196). Countless jewel-like sculptures were meant to transmit biblical texts in a visual format to those who could not read or did not have Bibles. Thus, it had been regarded as Liber Pauperum, “the poor people’s book.” This magnificent architecture was never designed to impress the world for its beauty. If someone says that he or she values the history of Notre-Dame de Paris but not the religion, it is not different from saying “You are beautiful but I am not interested to know where you came from.” Beauty without spirit can be meaningless.

While it requires an investigation on who is responsible for the cause of fire, the following verses may convey a message to all of us at a collective level. What does it mean to have saved through fire? According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). God will stop whatever is not true to his work. Superficiality. Common disease of our times. Heavy emphasis on what is instantly manifested in a visual form. I share the impressions from the proposals driven by materialistic values with the first word of the Seven Last Words of Jesus; “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). As the tragic incident happened while we were anticipating Easter, I could not but contemplate the suffering of Our Lady of Paris. What is God trying to tell us? I saw the incident as a prelude to Holy Week, His way of enlightening his people on earth, to seek the truth. God is the one who has the blueprint. To Him, I doubt that time matters. This is not about building another Disneyland in Paris, nor a sports competition. It is a Cathedral.

While most of the paintings were evacuated to the Louvre Museum, the painting of Saint Thomas Aquinas is missing from the fire. The painting depicts the saint and people drinking from a fountain of wisdom. Wisdom is what we may be missing in unraveling debates. While it is inevitable to see criticisms or heated debates when it comes to the state’s decision, the question points to one central theme: humanity. As I was watching the crowds singing Ave Maria paying tribute to Our Lady, I have come to question why so many, regardless of religious devotion, share the sadness? The truth that is not only shared among Christians but with all mankind: compassion. The Cathedral has been and still is a sanctuary for everyone who drops by. While I hope that the fundamental spirit of Our Lady of Paris as the ‘poor people’s book’ will shed a light on the state’s plans, I would like to share the following verse with you all. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.