It is hard to describe the loss of Notre Dame.
When the poet Rainer Maria Rilke lived in Paris, each evening on his way home, he stopped as he crossed the Siene on the Île de la Cité to watch the sun set over Notre Dame. The darkening ancient towers silent against the new, awakening, electric city was a contrast that meant something. The sun setting on an ancient world as a new world was born, it was a portrait of loss and gain.
Rachel Corbett, in her beautiful book, You Must Change Your Life , on the friendship of Rilke and Auguste Rodin, put it beautifully. "Like a forest or an ocean, a cathedral was a place where the world hushed up and time stood still." Cathedrals offer "asylum from the senses," she wrote. It's why they still speak, why they're cherished even by unbelievers. Because they evoke something other than the city while still rooted in the heart of it. Whispering in the hearts of visitors something more profound than the babel of the city streetswith their noise and violence, cathedrals speak a gentle peace.
But they do more than that. They are temples of our better angels. Buildings which lift the eye, they lift the heart too. Sigfried Sassoon, that soldier and poet, writing in 1917 in the Church of St. Ouen, put it like this: "But I know/ That had I lived six hundred years ago/ I might have tried to build within my heart/ A church like this, where I could dwell apart/ With chanting peace." At a time when he was not yet a Catholic, still a strange wanderer, the church pulled on something spiritual in him. "My spirit longs for prayer,/ And, lost to God, I seek him everywhere," he wrote.
It is what such places conjure, whomever or whatever your God. Cathedrals are forests, oceans, hearts of cities, places of unhurried peace; as Emmanuel Macron said, Notre Dame is "our history, our literature, our imagination." That's the work cathedrals do. They remind us of our deeper selves. They remind us we're more spiritual than we think.
For France the fire of Notre Dame is spiritually crushing, which is to say, culturally and even politically crushing. "The most pagan of cities. The most Christian. Certainly the most Catholic." Charles Péguy, better than anyone, described the mystique of France, that strange incarnation of sacred and profane, that deeply Catholic synthesis of all things, born as one nation. Unlike other nations, France is as much spiritual reality as anything else, no matter the governing aberrations of 1789. That's why this isn't just a loss of history, but more. Because France has never achieved atheism, no matter how hard it's tried.
France bears a "Christian mark," said the political thinker, Pierre Manent. Insofar as nations are spiritual things at all, France is Catholic still. Denied, like rebellious children by materialists, hedonists and atheists, it's hardly debated. France is a spiritual nation; the French are spiritual. Which is why the fire of Notre Dame is a spiritual disaster. And it's also why the several recent acts of vandalism against Catholic churches throughout France are so disturbing. They portend a conflict for a different epoch, a different France. As Péguy wrote, and not without despair, "so we have the sorrow of seeing whole worlds, humanities, living and prospering after Jesus." A world without cathedrals.
This names the sickness so many of us feel watching the fire, the spire fall, the smoke. More than the mere loss of history and complex gothic beauty, the loss of Notre Dame signals the loss of something about ourselves, something we once believed was eternal. That the likes of Rilke and so many others saw in places like Notre Dame something transcendent, different and beautiful, its destruction will mean for many spiritual homelessness, a spiritual dislocation of our mystical body politic, a metaphysical wound.
Which leaves only hope, but of a certain kind. Again, to Quote: Péguy: "What surprises me, says God, is hope." This is all that remains of the rubble. "There will be others, thank God: France must go on," he said. But it's a spiritual struggle in store for France. How they rebuild Notre Dame will reveal the state of the French soul, the health of France's collective spirit. Which makes it a parable for our time, a story about how much soul we have left.
Joshua J. Whitfield is pastoral administrator for St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and a frequent contributor to The Dallas Morning News.