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The Day Notre-Dame Burned

The great cathedrals are designed to awe and overwhelm. The images of Notre-Dame in flames inspired feelings of profound pain and sadness, similar, in an odd way, to the experience of standing in its presence.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For a long while, there was nothing to do but watch the flames. No one knew anything. One of the bizarre and upsetting aspects of the fire, one of its many sub-horrors, was how quickly it settled into the familiar panic-and-do-nothing holding pattern of cable news tragedy. Even while what you were looking at seemed unbelievable, like something from a dream. The juxtaposition of coverage and object jarred. One was empty; the other seemed overloaded with so much meaning you couldn’t take it in. Here is an Aflac commercial; here is beauty on fire. For much of this time, remember, we thought the cathedral was going to burn to the ground. We thought we were witnessing the end of Notre-Dame. It seemed indecent to watch and indecent to look away.

Watching the flames, watching the pictures of the flames, you had thoughts. One of mine was that the image itself, its absolute power and spectacle, had something cathedral-like about it. That it was a kind of anti-cathedral. Notre-Dame was glowing. The fire has generally been described as “engulfing” the building. It’s truer to say that Notre-Dame seemed to be burning from within. We know now, of course, that the flames built their strength in the attic, in the crisscross of ancient beams known as “the forest,” before spreading to consume the medieval roof and pull down the 19th-century spire. What you saw on TV was a lot of smoke, and the shape of the cathedral inside the smoke, and inside the cathedral, incandescence breaking out. Church windows are usually murky from the outside and brilliant within. The fire reversed this: You could see the glass, inside its gothic tracery, blazing through the smoke.

The great cathedrals are monuments to the power of images. They are designed to awe and overwhelm. I love medieval cathedrals in my cells, but I’ve always found something unsettling, even painful, about the feelings they evoke. I’ve never been inside one that wasn’t at least a little bit terrifying. You go around with your guidebook, stroll into the chapels, take selfies on the roof, light your candle, wonder where you’ll get coffee afterward—and under all that, not insignificant terror. And this is especially true of the great French cathedrals, which are less influenced by the Renaissance than Italian cathedrals and therefore less abashed in the worldview they mean to make you accept.

I’m not an expert in any of this, and I’m also wary of sounding like the guest lecturer in your Intro to Western Thought class in 1962, but what I’ve always found moving about Italian cathedrals is the despite-itself quality of their humanism. The sense that we are here encountering a way of looking at humanity that emerged through the church, but isn’t precisely of it; that the act of beautifying the doctrine of the medieval church also meant discovering something about ourselves that the medieval church would have preferred to suppress. Think about, say, Michelangelo’s faces: Without the church, they can’t exist, but the dignity they embody points in an entirely different direction from cosmic hierarchy and innate sinfulness, even when they are themselves illustrating those things. Perhaps especially then. It’s the contradiction that’s thrilling. The idea that the concept of the sacred includes and in some way generates its own beautiful undoing.

The French cathedrals are different. At Notre-Dame, Chartres, Amiens, you are in the presence of something entirely more remote and forbidding. You can see this clearly, for example, if you consider the distinction between a cathedral and a palace. The splendor of a palace—of Versailles, for instance—is meant to impress, but a palace assumes the viewer is at the top, not the bottom, of the social order the palace is meant to enforce. The decoration announces the wealth, power, and taste of the proprietor, but every golden ornament also flatters the ego of the visitor who is entitled to participate in the show: This way to your bedchamber, my lord. A medieval cathedral does just the opposite. It proclaims that you are at the bottom of a hierarchy that includes not only society (here is the king, here are the dukes, here are you, a long way down) but the inescapable order of the universe. You are insignificant, a creature ringed with dangers, threatened by torments, and dwarfed by infinite light and darkness. Moreover, your only path to significance is through embracing your own nothingness. Submission is always the goal of medieval awe.

This worldview—I mean the medieval Christian worldview, not the Christian worldview—is not one I trust, for many reasons. One of them is that it’s almost comically exploitable by political power on earth. Those are human rulers in a lot of stained-glass windows, and many of the great cathedrals, Notre-Dame included, have been used as massive projections of political authority over the centuries. (In that sense, it was maybe a notch less than totally inspiring when several billionaires joined Apple in pledging hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the cathedral post-fire.) I am neither the first nor the 1,000th person to note that the awe-submission dynamic is pretty handy if you’re looking to rule peasants. So is, I don’t know, controlling a physical manifestation of unchanging cosmic order that everyone visits once a week.

When I set foot inside a cathedral, though? All those rational objections, which reflect some of my deepest beliefs, turn out to have no force at all. I step into the darkness, see the rose window floating in light, and everything falls away. And: awe. On the surface, I’m a tourist; underneath, my brain is momentarily reorganized into thought-structures of the 13th century.

This is what I meant when I said that I find cathedrals painful even as I love them. They’re painful because they force me to confront the mortal flimsiness of my own thoughts. And, by extension, of my own self. This is probably a healthy thing to experience now and again. It’s useful to be reminded that the way you think is not the only way people have thought or the only way you could think. The utter ease with which a medieval cathedral accomplishes this, though—that’s terrifying. The way it overwhelms you without even noticing. That’s why you move through the space with that strange, stunned hush, inwardly wrong-footed (regardless of your own religious beliefs, because even if you’re a Christian, you’re not a medieval Christian). That’s why you have that moment of weird disorientation when you go back out into the sun. You’ve been rearranged. Now your brain has to remember where all its pieces go.

And that’s why the picture of Notre-Dame in flames struck me as weirdly consonant with the experience of seeing Notre-Dame in life. It was shattering in the same way. I should say here that Notre-Dame is a building that has meant something to my life. Outside the church is where I first asked my wife to marry me (she said no, probably because I wanted to elope to Corsica). Years later, when I spent a summer very mentally unwell in Paris, I used to walk to the cathedral square to sit in the sun and feel connected to human life. I went there again and again. It became one of my symbols of hope. One of the smallest things it’s ever been a symbol of, I know, but for me, it was important. Watching the fire made me physically sick. I found myself thinking: If it has to be destroyed, at least it’s being destroyed unforgettably; at least it’s being destroyed with a violence and power commensurate with the marvel that it was.

More than that, though, the thought that beat in my brain was just: I love this building. I love it. I love it. Please save it. Please.

I will not remember this thought as a prayer, and I will always be grateful it was answered.