Moments Words Don’t Reach
The most emotionally powerful song in “Hamilton” comes after the death of Alexander Hamilton’s son, Phillip. Angelica sings what any parent who has buried a child knows.
There are moments that the words don’t reach.
There is suffering too terrible to name.
Yesterday was another of those terrible moments as a largely unbelieving world watched Notre Dame go up in flames. News commentators struggled to find words to capture both the extent of the destruction and why it matters. The fact that it happened during Holy Week — a fact that would have otherwise gone unnoticed in a secular culture — instantly became international news. Faithful Christians who tend to dismiss the importance of church buildings by singing, “the church is not a building/the church is not the steeple/the church is not a resting place/the church is the people” paused and perhaps shed a tear as the spire fell.
Why Cathedrals Matter
Thinking about Notre Dame and church buildings like it, I was drawn back to Phillip Larkin’s poem, Church Going. (You can hear the poet read it here.) Larkin describes a totally secular, unbelieving man who stops by one of the many empty, aging Anglican churches that are scattered across the English countryside. After walking around and noticing all the accouterments of worship, he wonders,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show…
In the end, he comes to this conclusion:
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
One news commentator asked if we are paying so much attention to what we have in the present that we have lost sight of our past. Another wondered if the fire might remind an increasing secular European culture of its Christian history. Another said that the fire drew the world together in a common sense of loss and grief, something that reached beneath the conflicts that divide us.
The experience of watching Notre Dame burn is at least a reminder that places matter. Physical places become sacred spaces because they are the places where we find God — or more accurately, places where God finds us. Cathedrals like Notre Dame were built to be a visual teaching tool in a largely illiterate culture. They proclaim the gospel without words. Historian Jon Meacham described the cathedral as a “physical manifestation of an unseen reality.” He said that one of the most important words in scripture is “remember” and that he shows up at mass whether he feels like it or not in order to remember and experience again the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Perhaps the image of the Notre Dame cross glowing amid the smoke and ashes will draw us back to the sacred places where we remember and experience the presence of the One who said,
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:24-32)
Grace and peace,