It’s not about what we can say to mark a tragedy like the burning of Notre Dame. It’s about what we can’t.
“There certainly are few finer architectural pages than this façade … a vast symphony in stone … the colossal work of one man and one people, all together one and complex, like the Iliads and the Romanceros, whose sister it is … a sort of human creation, in a word, powerful and fecund as the divine creation of which it seems to have stolen the double character,—variety, eternity.”—Victor Hugo, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Our society communicates in sound bites.
For every news flash, every major event, give us two minutes and we’ll have compressed our reactions into 280 characters, ready to share with the world. But on Monday, when the Notre Dame de Paris burned, our responses sounded flat and shallow.
They sounded flat because we no longer know how to relate to the past.
We live in a culture that idolizes progress.
This progressive mindset tells us that we are constantly improving, and that we live far better than our forebears did.
Our technology is so much more advanced, and our understanding of science and the world around us more nuanced. We cycle through popular philosophies and ideas and political theories, constantly optimizing, discarding the ideas of yesterday for the hypotheses of today.
Because, as we all know, today marks the pinnacle of human history—at least, until next week.
What we don’t realize is how tightly our obsession with progress is woven into the fabric of our lives.
Why, after all, would we want to keep anything permanent when we’re constantly improving anyway?
To hang onto the past is to miss out on a better tomorrow.
We generate content and merchandise that will disappear as quickly as we make it, and that we will supplant with something shinier, more compelling, more functional.
At home, we surround ourselves with things we know will be replaced with the new and improved versions in a couple years. We drift from city to city, following new careers and new opportunities, never growing too attached to any apartment or house, swapping out friends like sets of keys, forgetting names and addresses with every move.
Athwart the stream of progress and change are monuments like Notre Dame, a resounding contradiction to the claim that today will always be better than yesterday. World wonders like the cathedral, relics of the past, stand above and beyond the constant tweaks and improvements and ebbs and flows of the modern age.
Somehow, despite their age and their outdated architecture, they endure. And even after so many centuries, Notre Dame continues to inspire us, in ways we can’t quite put into words.
It’s a strange inconsistency in our worldview: Even as we believe we ride the cresting wave of human history, we assume we’ll never create anything as great or as enduring as the geniuses of the past did. It wouldn’t even occur to us to try.
And yet on Monday, we found ourselves face to face with an event that forced the chisel and the carving tools into our own hands.
The fire that consumed Notre Dame demanded that we say something that would reflect the scope and weight of 850 years of history, something that would describe the loss of a spire in flames.
We were called upon to acknowledge that this seemingly unchanging bulwark of time, of art, of history, at the end of the day, is just like us. It, too, is beholden to the passage of time. It, too, is transient.
But unlike everything else in our lives, we know it follows different rules. We know we can’t really replace it. And we certainly know we can’t improve it. We’d have no idea where to start.
Far be it from us to engage with the enduring.
Our ever-changing society doesn’t give us the tools or the mental framework to comprehend what Notre Dame means, or what we just lost.
It’s in that moment we come face to face with the complete failure of our culture’s worldview.
Since we have no vocabulary for the past, we have to fall back on the vocabulary we do have and understand: the language of a tragic news story or of a personal disappointment, something that feels terrible for the moment but will get fixed in a little while, or will be forgotten after a couple more news flashes and distractions.
Yet the whole time we try to talk about what happened, every time we shake our heads and murmur “terrible” or “so sad,” in the back of our minds, we have a vague, uncomfortable sense that that’s not what we mean at all. That we’re missing what’s really happened here.
But what else is there to say? When the weight of the past is thrust upon our shoulders, what are we supposed to do?
That is Notre Dame’s challenge to the progressive man.
Notre Dame doesn’t just contradict our culture by standing against the march of progress; it connects past, present, and future by expressing truths that never change.
The cathedral endures as an icon of humanity because it reaches into the past, building on the Greco-Roman tradition, and invoking the depths of the Christian faith, telling of the grandeur of heaven, and the beauty of an eternal God reaching down to show mercy to a sinful world.
Even if we don’t know the names of the craftsmen, we can hear what they’re telling us, through almost a thousand years of stonework and time.
The fire in Notre Dame reminded us that monuments of the past can and will pass away one day.
But the inverse is true as well: The transience of Notre Dame can also remind us of the transience of the craftsmen who built it.
Like us, they spoke words nobody will remember, and like us, they made things that have long been lost to time.
The craftsmen of the cathedral had the same limits we do today. The only thing that distinguishes them from us is how they drew on the wisdom of the past to express truths that never change, and how they sought to tell those truths in a way that would last for generations to come.
That is how they created a monument that endures, and how the power of Notre Dame’s message echoes through a future that its creators could never have imagined.
Temporary men told a story in stone, wood, and glass that still speaks to us. It’s up to us not to just listen to the message, but to learn how to build upon it; how to reflect in our own lives the truths that Notre Dame proclaims.
It’s our job now to maintain a connection to the past, and do our own part to extend that connection well beyond tomorrow. To learn the lessons the artists, writers, and philosophers of the past can teach us, and to do our own part to better understand and testify to the truths they tell.
Fire, war, and time may destroy the wonders of the past, but they can’t destroy the truths those wonders express. Not as long as you are there to continue the tradition that came before you.
When your heritage calls on you, as it did on Monday, you can draw your response from that well.
That is where you will find what to say.