Watching An Ancient Thing Burn
I saw it burning as I stood in line to buy lunch, staring at the screen from a distance and trying to make sense of the scene. The smoke was clear but where and what was on fire? It was an ancient thing that had survived 800 years of war and conquest, kings and despots, tyranny and freedom. It was undone by the good intentions of modern renovation.
I have read and shared on social media thoughts that liken this burning cathedral to our own Western Culture. They are not wrong. We would do well to let one sacred place made of wood represent the intangible and ethereal place that comprises the work of scribes, artists and scholars for thousands of years. We should all take note that a place for gathering and worshiping together will be for a time lost to us. We have not always noticed the loss of such places.
As I watch Our Lady of Paris burn I see in a moment what has happened gradually to our common gathering places as we have modernized and renovated. We have lost and are losing things that are old and sacred. The poetry of an ancient wooden cathedral in a modern city is something that Paris and the world will miss. We all felt the loss as we watched it burn, but what other great and unnamed things have we lost gradually as the modern world has renovated family life, individual worth, and religious fervor?
We have lost a life close to the earth as a generation who knew how to grow and fix things is dying off. They lived as well as they could with what they had. Even though they may have had less than we do, I don’t pity them. I want to be more like them.
We have lost civility as everything becomes partisan and factions of intellectuals and elites go to war for control over a narrative they will shape for their own purposes.
We have lost wisdom and knowledge as information has become our highest goal.
We have lost memory as we no longer need to remember anything. Lists, facts and phone numbers are ready when we ask the magical blue screen that tells us everything.
We have lost the ability to persuade and be persuaded. Today, a challenge to the way we think and the way we live is something to be eradicated. We are becoming more and more uncomfortable with diversity of thought, making those who hold different ideas our enemies instead of thoughtful humans who may help us learn something new.
We are losing the love of learning in one size fits all classrooms where the highest aim is not goodness or fitness in the real world, but a passing score on a test made by a stranger to the ways of children.
All of this can be summed up in the loss of Harmony. Harmony is not one thing, its lots of things that work together to make something good and beautiful. It sounds like different voices singing different notes in balance. It looks like neighbors helping each other with the harvest or the stranger who helps an elderly lady load her groceries in the car on a rainy day. It feels like the resolution of tension when discord is held for too long. It tastes like a little bit of sweet and salty in the same delicious bite.
I could go on naming the things we have lost as the modern world, with often good intentions, moves faster and faster all around us and within us. There are whole books on the loss of western culture. YouTube videos abound on these topics. The despair of watching Our Lady of Paris burn can become more than a moment and we can live too long in that despair and make all our decisions around the fear of what we may lose next. Or we can get up and dust ourselves off and rebuild with a reverence for the past. The day after the fire, all is not lost, a great deal of the building has survived. Some have pledged their treasure to rebuild and many more will follow.
We all can take part in rebuilding our culture in similar ways. You can start by reading a book, an old book, and working through the hard bits with a friend, a teacher or a mentor. Find people that are doing big, hard jobs in our culture, making the art, writing the stories, providing the resources that are healing you and support them. Listen with grace to the people who are not like you. Get busy in your family and with your community and come together to build relationships, feed the hungry or read out loud to classrooms full of children. Just as Parisians will be called on to rebuild Notre Dame, there are places that need our work in our communities.