As I left school yesterday afternoon, my phone had messages from four or five faculty members: had I heard that Notre Dame cathedral was burning? I went online and looked at the pictures: the flames toppling the spire. The crowds gathered across the river, singing Ave Maria into the night.
I wept. Why? Why did a fire nearly 4000 miles away affect so many of us so deeply?
Perhaps it was partly just stress that needed to find an outlet. I’d had a difficult meeting after Mass yesterday morning. Sometimes the practicalities of starting a school really are challenging.
But it was more than that. It mattered that it was this cathedral, this particular gem in the crown of Catholic Europe. For example, I assume that this 800 year old Rose Window no longer exists:
Receiving a classical education means, in part, learning to receive this beauty as one’s own patrimony. At Martin Saints, our students are apprentices, young men and women being cultivated so that they are capable of receiving their inheritance.
What was on fire last night is a piece of that patrimony, a choice portion of our inheritance. People have been worshiping on that site since Roman times, through the Carolingian and Viking ages. Eventually, two hundred years of construction in the high middle ages created the building more or less as we know it today. Thomas Aquinas would have known and recognized it. What was burning last night is a chapter in the story that makes us who we are.
In 1969, the British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark stood across the Seine from Notre Dame cathedral and famously said: “What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms yet.” But then he turned and looked across the river at Notre Dame: “But I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I’m looking at it now.” (Watch the whole documentary at this link; this quote occurs at 3:32.)
Civilization is a perilous thing. In that same BBC documentary, Sir Kenneth talks about how western civilization had nearly perished after the fall of Rome, and he warns that we could face similar danger again someday.
Please pray for Paris, pray for Europe, pray for the renewal of the Church, pray for the revival of classical education in our era, and pray for Martin Saints.
The rose windows survived! Read more in Rod Dreher’s article Hope in The Ruins.