I used to travel to Paris fairly often about twenty years ago for academic and professional reasons. For I don’t know how long, the inside of Notre Dame back then was all but invisible behind a bewildering maze of scaffolding as various parts of the interior were being restored (all that, of course, years before the recent fire). But you still visited the cathedral whenever you were in Paris because it was. . .Notre Dame de Paris.
One evening after a day of work, I ducked in briefly. Evening prayer was underway near the main altar. I joined the group, about twenty people. Afterward, the priest asked everyone to stay as long as they liked but to be considerate of the staff, who wanted to lock up soon and get home to their families.
Everyone else seemed to have been local because they all immediately left. It was only then that I realized that the scaffolding was all gone. And I slowly walked back, entirely alone and utterly enchanted, through one of the most remarkable – just restored – sacred spaces in all of Christianity.
I’m hardly the only one to have had such an unforgettable, life-changing experience there. During Vespers at Notre Dame on Christmas Day 1886, the great modern poet Paul Claudel, previously a non-believer, recorded, “In an instant, my heart was touched, and I believed.”
For all its tumultuous history since the French Revolution, Notre Dame has still been, you might say, the beating heart of France. When Charles de Gaulle led the victory parade on 25 August 1944 down the Champs Élysées after the liberation of Paris from the Nazis, he didn’t just go to some government building. He went all the way down to Notre Dame, where the troops and Parisians sang a Te Deum in gratitude to God.
That attachment is not just ancient history. After the 2015 massacre by Islamic terrorists at the Bataclan Theater and elsewhere around Paris, the most unifying response was the Mass offered at Notre Dame by Cardinal André Vingt-Trois with several public officials present.
Notre Dame is hardly just a French icon. Éric Zemmour, a serious candidate for president in France (and a bit of a firebrand), has criticized the current president Emmanuel Macron for plans for renovating Notre Dame with modernist additions. “He does not love France,” Zemmour, a practicing Jew, has said. But the reactions around the world both to the 2019 fire and the news of possible “wreckovation” of the cathedral show that some sacred Christian spaces still have importance not just to one nation, but to the wider world.
There have been various reactions, pro and con, to the news that the French Ministry of Culture is planning an “interactive” restoration – some say Disneyfication – of the interior. Elizabeth Lev, usually a reliable guide to aesthetic matters, has recently written that “Fewer hot takes and more studied responses would serve the ancient church better.” She’s right insofar as the Internet and social media have made virtually everything into fodder for culture wars. Whether the result will be renewal or disaster, however, remains to be seen.
There are reasons to worry.
The restorers have spoken of making the new configurations a dialogue of old and new – which I myself favor if done well, because while we live out of an unimaginably rich past in the Church, we also live in a present that badly needs to find ways to appropriate that inheritance.
When Leo XIII called for renewed study of Thomas Aquinas in his encyclical Aeterni patris, for example, he didn’t just propose a return to the past, but a fidelity to Thomism that would also creatively be relevant to the present.
In a similar spirit, Benedict XVI – dealing with difficult questions of the liturgy – encouraged “mutual enrichment” between the Traditional Latin form and the newer form.
Both of these initiatives had their successes and failures. The successes stemmed from true intentions to foster a tradition. By definition, a tradition is a handing on, a dynamic process that passes into the lives of people now, not merely a static inheritance. As Jacques Maritain, probably the greatest of the neo-Thomists, put it: “we must show that this wisdom is eternally young and always inventive, and involves a fundamental need, inherent in its very being, to grow and renew itself.”
The process often fails, however, because people subjugate what cannot change in the tradition to the desire to make it “relevant to people today.” This error has gone so far in the secular world that we see entire segments of our society assuming that people can only learn from people who are like them, think like them, live like them, and – at the extreme in our current obsessions about race – merely look like them.
If you reflect on this, it’s clear that this is a formula for self-centered ignorance. If you only want to be what you already are and to be taught what you already think, there’s no real growth, no authentic dynamism possible. You’re stuck within the limits of “Me.”
That’s the danger that the Notre Dame renovations seem likely to run. Twelve million people a year visited Notre Dame prior to the 2019 fire. Whatever else might be said about the state of the interior back then – and some parts were chaotic and needed reordering – it certainly didn’t keep crowds away.
Indeed, it’s precisely because such sites are different from them that people visit. Pity the poor person who goes to Rome to shop or to Japan to see the (admittedly amazing) modern city. You don’t need to leave home or change mentality for that. The reason people visited Notre Dame was not to see a reflection of themselves, but something Other, deep, powerful.
Whatever the interior restorations may do to Notre Dame, if they lose that – which at bottom is the sacred sense of a people who believe in God – they may gain a world but lose its soul.
*Image: The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against the Demons by Jean Fouquet, c. 1452-60 [THE MET, New York]. The illustration is from the “Hours of Étienne Chevalier” and shows Notre Dame, the spire of Saint-Chapelle, the Pont Saint-Michel, and other monuments of the Île de la Cité in Paris.
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