What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


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The saved and the lost

This morning there are reports listing relics and works of art known to have been saved or lost, and those whose fate is unknown, from the fire in Notre Dame Cathedral yesterday.

Astonishingly, the three great and ancient stained glass rose windows appear to have survived the fire, despite the collapse of the roof.

The name of Jean-Marc Fournier should be widely known and praised. The same report states that the priest helped the firemen to save relics and works of art and also the consecrated Host.

In the midst of a post-Christian Europe and a post-Christian West, where one is tempted to think that nobody believes in anything anymore, someone must have believed in something for men to risk their lives to save "mere" physical objects.

During the blaze and after, there is an unspoken (or, more probably, spoken) tension between those who are able to say that Notre Dame is "just a building" and those filled with grief who cannot resist the thought that the sudden destruction of so much symbolizes both the loss of Europe and the loss of many souls. Count me among the latter.

I cling to the hope (and lean toward the conclusion) that the blaze really was an accident rather than deliberately set as an act of terrorism. And if so, I can spare some pity for whoever was accidentally responsible. One can scarcely imagine how he (if there is such a person or group of people) must be feeling, knowing or even suspecting that he or they are responsible for something so awful but unintended.

"We," meaning the collective people of the first world, have the knowledge, money, and technology to rebuild and make Notre Dame look much as it did before, if that is what the people of France desire. And I would guess that it is. The fact that many real works of art were saved means that such a rebuilding would not have to mean reconstructing some truly ancient individual work (such as one of the rose windows) as a replica made from modern materials. And I commend rebuilding efforts and am relieved that the frame and much external stonework of the building survived. Still...even the soaring roof was a thing in itself, and it will not be quite the same.

The following quotation from one of my favorite little-known novelists came to mind as I read the news yesterday. I do not quote it to say that the fire was a deliberate act of destruction but because it seemed eerily appropriate that Elizabeth Goudge should have actually thought of and discussed fear for a Cathedral. Given the setting of the book, the Cathedral in question is in Ely, England:

Five minutes later they were sitting side by side absorbed in the watch. Then Miss Montague looked from the watch to the window, where she could just make out the great shape of the Cathedral towering like a mountain against the last of the after-glow. They were both so intricately, beautifully, wisely and lovingly fashioned that the only real difference between them was the unimportant one of size....How powerful they must be then, these things that had been created from the heart. What beneficence had this watch already wrought? What blessings had it yet to give before some idiot smashed it? A deep shudder went through her.

"You are cold?" asked the Dean.

"No. I just thought of destruction. Of evil. Nothing is safe, not even the Cathedral. I felt afraid for the Cathedral. I felt afraid suddenly for the world. When evil gets a grip on men it always drives them to destroy."

"Evil has hard work to get its hands on what it really wants to destroy," said the Dean. "Which has eternal value, this watch or the love that made it? The body or the soul?"

Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean's Watch

Goudge means us to understand that both Miss Montague and the Dean are right in this scene. And indeed the Dean himself later deeply sympathizes with a boy, a gifted wood-carver, whose little portraits of animals have been deliberately burned by another character. He explains to someone who is inclined to misunderstand the artist's pain, "Genius creates from the heart and when the artifact is broken so is the heart." Throughout the book Goudge continually presses the theme that love goes into the making of beautiful things to the glory of God and that in that way the things themselves come to have life and worth. There are no mere symbols.

There is no real dichotomy between physical icons and the soul of mankind, just as there is no real dichotomy between body and soul in man, the individual. The two constantly interact. Goudge asks of the watch what beneficence it has already wrought. We might ask the same of Notre Dame Cathedral. More than one real human being has been brought to faith by entering such a place where, as T. S. Eliot says, "prayer has been valid" and where the knowledge of the Holy One has been embodied in physical matter shaped in awe-inspiring form.

And more than one soul has doubtless been lost because of the lack of anything solid to hang onto that shows forth the truth in embodied form, while falsehood and lies are iconically present all around, battering at the senses. One wishes that evil had, as the Dean says, even harder work getting its hands on what it really wants to destroy. In our own day evil seems to be having all too easy a time of it.

Post-Christian though Europe is, turned into a tourist attraction and museum though the Cathedral has been, yet it has power and real worth that go beyond mere stones. The weeping of the citizens of Paris is a standing challenge to materialism and iconoclasm.

There are some who know vividly what the loss of even one soul means and who believe that right now, countless souls and bodies are lost through the destruction of Christian culture and its replacement by empty hedonism, ennui, Islam, unnatural vices, and a zoo of fanatical leftist ideologies. To us, it is impossible to see a great Cathedral burning and not to believe that it means something. It stands for the loss of something precious, of countless precious things.

May God bless the people of France, of Europe, and of the West and bring many to Himself. May He even bring good out of this evil. Meanwhile, in the midst of much destruction, let us save whatever we can from the flames.

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