Notre Dame and the need for sacred space

April 16th, 2019

On the Monday of Holy Week, I gathered with the other Episcopal clergy in the diocese downtown in our cathedral, a beautiful, soaring neo-Gothic structure, where we renewed our ordination vows and received oils consecrated by the bishop to be used in anointing at baptism and of the sick. When I returned to the office, I was devastated to learn of the massive conflagration that was engulfing Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Over 850 years old, the cathedral is one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture and features prominently in art and literature. It sits in the middle of the city, on an island in the Seine River, and is the most visited monument in Paris.

As we watched helplessly a continent away, some people bemoaned the loss of the exquisite craftsmanship that went into its construction, the art contained within the nave, and a building that, to many, represented Paris and, more broadly, France. But what I saw burning was a church. I thought of all of the churches that have been destroyed or damaged— the black churches in Louisiana burned through racially-motivated arson, the Washington National Cathedral damaged by an earthquake, ChristChurch Cathedral in New Zealand that was deconsecrated after an earthquake, and the many churches, my own included, destroyed by tornadoes and other natural disasters.

In the basement of my church building sits boxes of broken stained glass and splintered wood, the remnants of the historic nave that a tornado blew the roof off of in April 1998. After the tornado, the congregation came together to sift through the rubble and tried to save that which they could — a few intact windows, the large stone baptismal font. With the idea that someday a new nave incorporating the old pieces would be built, they have clung to those vestiges as a remembrance and a future hope.

To lose any building in a traumatic and unexpected way is a tragedy, but in a world where things are increasingly disposable and marked by private space that can only be accessed through commerce, to lose a public worship space, a place where the community gathers, is devastating. Especially with a church, a building is never “just” a building, particularly one that has been hallowed by centuries of prayer. Our souls need sacred spaces, places that are holy and set apart, places marked by beauty. We need buildings dedicated to the glory of God that have absorbed years of prayers, where people have been baptized and married and buried, where pilgrims can find rest and the desperate can find relief. If God is truth, goodness, and beauty, then the beautiful can point toward God. It can be a kind of sacramental reality that guides us to something beyond ourselves.

As I write this, it is too early to know what will become of The Cathedral of Notre Dame, but all around the United States, we are losing churches. More often they are being transformed into breweries, event venues, and apartment complexes and not parks or homeless shelters or community centers. Likely many of them needed to close, but as the trend continues, the fabric of our communities becomes more fragile without these spaces, with more and more land taken up for private gain rather than public good. Whether it is Notre Dame or the small church on the corner, it is healthy and reasonable to mourn. A culture that increasingly desires what is new, that prioritizes function over form and individuality over the communal, is a culture that misses out on what is sacred, what is true and good and beautiful.

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