“Don’t cry for me, profane people of Europe,” plaintively sings Our Lady of Paris. Notre Dame sings her Requiem as Eva Peron, dying of cancer, sings from the Balcony of the Casa Rosada. “The truth is you never really loved me for who I am and for what I stand for. The truth is you burned and destroyed my raison d’être a long time ago,” she sobs, her pearl-like tears washed away in the deluge from the fire fighters’ hoses.
Europe is weeping torrents of therapeutic tears. “People are weeping in the streets. I weep with them,” wails Bénédicte Paviot, President of the Foreign Press Association in London. “We’ve seen people sobbing, tears pouring down their faces,” says Marie-Anna Ecorchard, watching from a café. Even “the angels are weeping over the ravages of Notre Dame,” a New York Post’s headline dramatically overstates.
“We saw this at its most ghoulish after the demise of Diana. In truth, mourners were not crying for her, but for themselves,” writes Patrick West, commenting on the rituals of communal grief from the “recreational grievers” wailing the death of their goddess-princess. In Paris, while mega-congregations of “grief tourists” beat their breasts, faithful Catholics sing hymns and pray the rosary—a counter-cultural demonstration of faith the media hurriedly gloss over.
The towering inferno of Notre Dame is telling the tale of two liturgies, two meta-narratives, two Heilsgeschichte trajectories for all who will listen. Why are post-Christian, anti-Catholic, neo-Marxist, cultural relativists (for this is what much of France and Western Europe has become) ritually weeping for Notre Dame de Paris? For that matter, why weep for the destruction of any cathedral?
“In truth, mourners were not crying for her, but for themselves” — Patrick West
I visited this great Gothic cathedral in 2011. I was serving at one of the world’s largest English cathedrals and I longed to experience God’s glory and grandeur in this opus magnum of French architecture. The two-hour recital on the magnificent pipe organ of Notre Dame was the pièce de résistance of my visit and made up for the more subdued strains of the Christmas Midnight Mass (with a quartet rather than choir leading the hymn-singing). The Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, the main celebrant, wasn’t particularly persuasive in his preaching.
But as I caressed the Cathedral’s stone, Bruckner’s anthem (from Jacob’s words in Genesis) rang in my ears: Locus iste a Deo factus est, inaestimabile sacramentum, irreprehensibilis est. I recalled how Paul Claudel—an avowed 18-year old atheist—was converted in this cathedral on this very day in 1886.
It was “the gloomiest day of winter, and the blackest afternoon of rain over Paris” and Claudel came to faith in Christ as the choir sang the Magnificat during Vespers. The shadows of scientific doubt were scattered. There was nothing he could do “against this eruption… in the very depths of my entrails” he wrote.
A marker set in the floor of Notre Dame, near one of the great pillars in the choir, marks Claudel’s conversion. It reads: Ici se convertit Paul Claudel. He became a poet of titanic force, a playwright who injected into a secularised theatre the drama of salvation, an art critic and a Bible-loving Catholic. J’aime la Bible (I Love the Bible) is a good introduction to Claudel on Scripture. Nearly a third (10 volumes) of Claudel’s Oeuvres Complètes are on his reading of the Bible.
France’s heroes are no longer poets like Paul Claudel. Today, France’s icons are promiscuous sadomasochistic homosexual philosophers like Michael Foucault—the father of postmodern relativism for whom the only truth is that there is no truth and the only beauty is ugliness. So why should the postmodern French or her European cousins weep for a premodern structure which is the epitome of truth and beauty and stands for all that post-Christian Europe consciously and viscerally rejects?
Grand edifices are not built in brick or stone. They are built on a moral and metaphysical vision. The phallic structure of London’s Gherkin reveals a very vision different from neighbouring St Paul’s Cathedral. The Wexner Center for the Performing Arts at Ohio State University is designed with no design in mind—pillars with no purpose and stairways going nowhere. “If life itself is capricious, why should our buildings have any design and any meaning?” quips the architect.
Gothic architecture is the “representation of supernatural reality. To those who designed the cathedrals, as to their contemporaries who worshipped in them, this symbolic aspect or function of sacred architecture overshadowed all others. To us, it has become the least comprehensible,” notes Otto Von Simson in The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order.
So how hubristic of President Emmanuel Macron to claim: “We will rebuild Notre Dame, more beautiful than before – and I want it done in the next five years. We can do it.” Really? We can do it without a vision of the supernatural? We can do it partially blinded by the cataract of aesthetic relativism? Doesn’t rebuilding Notre Dame contradict everything secular Europe represents?
Grand edifices are not built in brick or stone. They are built on a moral and metaphysical vision.
Europe’s god is égalité. In contrast, everything about a Gothic cathedral screams inequality! It is meant to be unequal on a stratospheric scale—a Brobdingnagian edifice in the land of Lilliput. Its pipe organ itself is as big as a medium-sized Parisian parish church. A cathedral “equal” in size to an “ordinary” parish church is an architectural and theological oxymoron.
“As the ‘symbol of the kingdom of God on earth,’ the cathedral gazed down upon the city and its population, transcending all other concerns of life as it transcended all its physical dimensions,” Von Simson writes. “The cathedral was the house of God, this term understood not as a pale commonplace but as fearful reality. The Middle Ages lived in the presence of the supernatural, which impressed itself upon every aspect of human life. The sanctuary was the threshold to heaven,” and so it had to be ginormously unequal.
What about beauty? Cathedrals were built after the vision of Solomon’s Temple echoing the Psalmist’s desire to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” and to reflect God’s “strength and beauty in His sanctuary.” Cathedrals facilitated the worship of God “in the beauty of holiness.”
Contemporary Europe cringes at her aesthetic exceptionalism. When Donald Trump praised cathedrals, Chopin and symphonies, a Washington Post columnist trashed his Warsaw speech as “white-nationalist dog-whistling.” The New York Times music critic yowled like a cat on hot bricks: “Trump Is Wrong if He Thinks Symphonies Are Superior.” A Bach toccata and fugue on a pipe organ is equal to a one-string drone instrument played by a wandering Indian minstrel? Seriously?
Because cultural relativism does not distinguish between beauty and ugliness, Tracy Emin’s “My Bed” (the vile, repulsive mess that was a result of her sleeping in bed for several days without eating or drinking anything but alcohol) sells for £2.5 million and Andres Serrano’s blasphemous “P**s Christ” (a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass tank of the artist’s urine) receives sponsorship from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts.
If visitors from Mars were watching the media reporting on the Notre Dame fire, they would never imagine it as a place of worship. France’s interior minister Christophe Castaner made the absurd declaration: “Notre Dame is not a cathedral…. It is our history.” The bards of secularism were ashamed of Notre Dame as a Catholic shrine, so they began lauding its historical significance.
Isn’t this a tragic-comical farce? Europe’s scorched earth policy to our history would embarrass Stalin. Over the last few decades we’ve made every attempt to paint our history as the annals of white, racist, Christian, males who went around the world vandalising, pillaging, raping, converting, and colonising innocent natives in Edenic paradises. So why restore a monument that pays tribute to our ignoble history?
The Notre Dame conflagration erupted on the Monday of Holy Week. That Friday, Notre Dame’s Son would walk the Via Dolorosa to his crucifixion. The historian Luke reports that a lachrymose multitude followed lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Do not weep for me, daughters of Jerusalem. Weep for yourselves and for your children.”
Could it be that Our Lady of Paris and her Son are calling Europe to weep not for the burning Cathedral but for ourselves and for our children?
(Originally published in Church Militant. To comment on this column click here)