A Post-Cathedral World

I have edited this post a number of times over the past couple of days because something has been eating at me. It has taken me a while to process why I have been feeling so dispirited and to put it in words.

Today I did some reading of articles posted on blogs by other people who were grieving over the fire at Notre Dame de Paris– fortunately the damage was not as devastating as we feared it might be, but it was a loss none the less.

“There are few events these days that garners the same response from everyone. In a hyper-polarized culture, there are often several interpretations of events and even tragedies rather than a collective response,” wrote Karina Reddy-Brooks. “When the 850 year old Notre Dame de Paris caught fire Monday night, we saw one of these events that united us in our grief.”

It reminded us, wrote Brendan O’Neil, of the importance of human legacy.

What the widespread humanist concern for the fate of Notre Dame spoke to is people’s continued attachment to the ideal of legacy, to what is in many ways the founding principle of human civilisation: that we transmit culture and knowledge and art from one generation to the next. We recognised that the flames were consuming more than wood and stone; they were consuming tradition, the past itself. And for all of today’s cult of the new, most people recognise that our societies and our lives only make sense as a result of the gains of the past transmitted to us by our elders, which we then transmit to the next generation.

It was, wrote John Pavlovitz, “a reminder that we belong to one another.”

This, I think, is the crux of my ennui.  If we did have that feeling, I wish we could have held it longer.

For most Americans, Notre Dame is distant. It is a vacation destination. And perhaps this is why a burning French cathedral didn’t pull us together for as long as it might have. The feeling of unity lasted a few hours, maybe, before we went back to our regular causes and narratives and made the fire at Notre Dame a symbol of them.

Inevitably, these kinds of posts emerged on Twitter and Facebook from people I follow because I value their diverse points of view.

“Why are you grieving Notre Dame when you didn’t grieve… the burning of African-American churches, the victims of colonialism, this mosque that was destroyed, the victims of the worst crimes of the Catholic church…”

If you feel a connection to that place, to Paris and to Notre Dame, and if you have a long time interest in history and preservation, and the “angels in the architecture” of churches, (see my earlier article on the damage to the steeple of a Detroit church) then of course you grieve the loss of irreplaceable art, architecture, places of cultural and historical significance. Of course you do.

But suddenly in the funhouse mirror, being  moved by something outside of your daily life and concerns becomes evidence that you are not sufficiently compassionate or deep.

I am not the only one who has expressed this feeling.

A fellow Unitarian Universalist who I follow on twitter, Adrian L.H. Graham wrote:

“I can, and often do, hold many sadnesses within me in any given moment. I don’t share all of them; that would be tedious and exhausting. Some of my sadnesses are numbing. Some of them so sudden and unexpected that they cannot be contained and they pour out from me. I am not going to apologize for being sad about the fire at Notre Dame; and I’m not going to be bullied into feeling shame about it, either.”

Kim at Traveling with Books also felt compelled to defend her grief and to post a list of other tragedies and destruction of artifacts from other cultures and recognize that they also matter.

Ironically, Kim and Adrian and I are probably feeling this way precisely because we have tried to fill our feeds with diverse voices. It is because we actually do care that we are feeling shamed for caring about this particular thing.

And to be quite honest, while I am horrified whenever I hear about the destruction of an irreplaceable object from some other culture– a statue, a library, a Mosque, a Buddhist shrine–I do not experience it as the same visceral gut punch because I am not as close to it. I lived outside Paris for a short but significant time in my life. Notre Dame was the first place I experienced that sense of the mystic nature of places. Even though I am not Catholic, those European works of devotional art are part of my own cultural heritage. I experience the loss of it in a different way. How could it be otherwise?

This issue came up before in the wake of terrorist attacks in France and this is what I said at the time:

I am saddened when someone in my city dies. I am more saddened when someone in my neighborhood dies. I actively grieve and mourn when a friend dies. And when a member of my family dies, a part of me dies with him. How would you feel, then, if someone told you your mourning for your friend was misplaced because you were not equally mourning for everyone who had died that day in a similar fashion?

Today it seems clear that the damage at Notre Dame was not as extensive as we originally feared, and as the hope of what can be rebuilt starts to displace the grieving over what was lost, I find that I am mourning something else.

I am mourning the sense that the cathedral united us.

“…modern people are disinclined to pay for the past,” wrote Steve A. Wiggins, “and some analysts are saying that lack of funds for regular upkeep of the cathedral over many years are at least partially behind the tragedy.  Monuments that have stood for centuries require constant care, but it’s so easy to take them for granted.  Cathedrals aren’t just religious buildings.  They are humanistic in the sense that they stand for our natural tendency to create great markers of our time on earth.  So very human.  Many human acts we wish to erase, but some represent a loss to the very soul of our species when they’re gone…Symbols of the unity of a nation, demanding resources beyond what could really be afforded, cathedrals served to unite.”

Today we live “in a post-cathedral world.”

I wish we’d held on to that sense of common purpose a little bit longer.

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