Greg Garrett: Notre Dame Cathedral has meaning for us all – Here’s why the world now mourns

When the Notre Dame Cathedral exploded into flames Monday, people around the world were shocked and saddened, not just because it is a place of historic and sacred significance, but because a thing of beauty was damaged and defaced before our very eyes.

The collapse of the burning spire – so long a marker of the Paris skyline – brought gasps because it was a symbol of holy faith and because its slender graceful tower reaching toward heaven was a symbol of human artistry.

Millions of us had seen that spire in Paris or in pictures; it was a shared connection. One of my students at Baylor University described Tuesday morning how watching the spire collapse sent a physical pain through her chest. The loss of beauty can be heart-stopping.

MACRON VOWS TO REBUILD NOTRE DAME IN 5 YEARS AS DRAMATIC FIREFIGHTER FOOTAGE IS RELEASED

Like many who have lived in Paris or loved Notre Dame, I too feel stunned. When I am in Paris, I see Notre-Dame almost every day. Partly, my feet turn naturally in the direction of the great cathedral because it occupies an island in historic central Paris. Distances are calculated from Notre Dame. It is, literally, the center of the city.

But I have also found myself drawn to Notre Dame time and time again over the years, whether to amble slowly past, to sit watching it from across the River Seine, or to walk through its interior.

It has become very clear to me – as it has to many – that somehow I need this place built more than 800 years ago. But why does a modern Texas Episcopalian feel such a sense of connection to a medieval Catholic cathedral?

Why does Notre Dame matter?

Religion and art are two of the most important ways that human beings understand ourselves, our place in the universe, what we are supposed to value, and what we are called to do. For people of faith, the Divine is speaking in Holy Scriptures and in liturgy, prayer and music within the walls of a church, synagogue, mosque or other house of prayer.

My friend, the Rev. Lucinda Laird, Dean of the American Cathedral in Paris, told me Tuesday that Notre Dame is important because it is “not merely a historical building, wonderful as that history is, but a place of faith and beauty.”

Religion and art are two of the most important ways that human beings understand ourselves, our place in the universe, what we are supposed to value, and what we are called to do. For people of faith, the Divine is speaking in Holy Scriptures and in liturgy, prayer and music within the walls of a church, synagogue, mosque or other house of prayer.

Over the years, I have written – often while living at a cathedral in Paris – about how we employ both religion and works of the culture to help ourselves make meaning.

Theologians argue that ultimately our quest for beauty – whether it is sacred or secular – leads us back to the same source. Augustine of Hippo wrote that whatever is true and beautiful is of the Lord.

But you do not have to be a formally religious person to recognize that a thing of beauty offers us an experience that takes us out of our little lives and links us to something larger than ourselves, whether that thing is human artistry or a connection to human history or to what some people call God.

We might say that the Divine is also speaking to us through Shakespeare or Toni Morrison, through the music of Bach, or Ella Fitzgerald, or U2, through a painting by Giotto or Frida Kahlo, and certainly through a transcendent building like a cathedral.

I have spent decades now saying that the holy comes in many ways, if we are only open to seeing it. A cathedral can be a sacred space; so can the Continental Club in South Austin, if Jon Dee Graham is playing.

This disaster in Paris, coming during Holy Week, could remind us that all weeks are holy, that we are surrounded by truth and beauty at all times, that we should always pay attention. But it also reminds us of the central spiritual message of Holy Week, the most sacred time on the Christian calendar: Out of death, sadness and despair, new life can spring forth.

Last summer, in a Paris Choral Society rehearsal of Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem,” our director, Zach Ullery, told us that one of the most important things that human beings ever do is come together to create something beautiful. I believe him, and I hope we all do.

The evidence surrounds us, even if some of it is in smoldering ruins. During the Middle Ages, architects, sculptors, stonecutters, carpenters and stained-glass artists toiled together for 200 years to build the Notre Dame Cathedral. They created something beautiful to honor their God. Because human beings need beautiful things, it was one of the supreme artistic achievements of the ages.

It is hard to believe that such a thing could ever happen again. We live in a fragmented world, a world where it sometimes seems impossible to find any common ground. But maybe our shared sense of grief over Notre Dame – our shared realization of why it matters – could bring some light even out of this darkness.

French President Emmanuel Macron is an agnostic, but he described Notre Dame as a cathedral for all French people, and said it will be rebuilt in just five years.

Donations have poured in from around the world – more than $700 million so far – from the rich and powerful who are giving millions of dollars to the comparatively tiny amounts offered by people like me.  We all believe that our lives are somehow better when a place like Notre Dame is whole.

In rediscovering such a common purpose – and in remembering our common need for sacred spaces, art, and beauty – new life can grow out of these ashes.

CLICK HERE TO GET THE FOX NEWS APP

“Even at the grave, we sing our song,” a Christian liturgy says. “Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Readers wishing to donate to the restoration of Notre-Dame may visit the website of the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris.