The wooden beams of the Notre Dame cathedral provided ready fuel for the flames that leaped into the Paris sky on Monday afternoon. The building with its gargoyles and flying buttresses and its fictional hunchback crying for “Sanctuary, sanctuary!” stood there on the island in the Seine all through the French Revolution when the “woke” revolutionaries of the 1790s only removed or vandalized the religious imagery. It stood there and housed the coronation of Napoleon. That same building, or at least part of it, stood when French soldiers were mowed down by English longbowmen led by Henry V–“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” It was there when Hitler’s legions marched into Paris and when they marched back out a few years later. The Notre Dame predates Voltaire, Columbus, the Reformation, and most of the Renaissance. And tonight, it apparently sits smoldering, open to the sky, a literal shell of what it was this morning. From what I gather, the main stone structure is not at risk, but the heart and crown of the place is gone.
I’m not a Francophile and I’m not a Catholic. Still, I admire that church. I went there years ago. My last time in Paris, Penny and I could have stuck around and visited, but instead we made haste from train station to train station en route to Italy. When I saw the new coverage of the fire on the TV today, it just seemed so sad.
Of course, as human tragedies go, this one was pretty minor. At last word, no one died and a single firefighter was seriously injured. That could easily happen in a house fire in Poughkeepsie. But as a cultural loss, this was big.
The works of man, we are reminded as we see the video of the spire collapsing, are temporary. Of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only the pyramids at Giza remain, and honestly, how do you destroy a pile of huge stones?
I write this, sitting on the porch of my 110-year-old barn-house. The place seems so old, but it could go the way of Notre Dame or even more thorough conflagrations with a careless match or a spot of substandard wiring. Our works do not last, although some of them do outlive us.
Isaiah cried out when called upon:
All humanity is grass,
and all its goodness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flowers fade
when the breath of the Lord blows on them;
indeed, the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flowers fade,
but the word of our God remains forever.–Isaiah 40:6-8
The flames above Paris remind us of the transience of all our endeavors. Quasimodo is looking for sanctuary, but the sanctuary has burned up.