A publication of Sacred Heart University
Polemic, Patience and Perseverance

Notre Dame de Paris: A Meditation on Meaning and Memory for the 21st-Century Church


Thence entered I the recesses of my memory, those manifold  

and spacious chambers, wonderfully furnished with

innumerable stores; and I considered...

­­                        St. Augustine. Confessions, Book XIII

The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer…On the face of this aged queen of our cathedrals, by the side of a wrinkle, one always finds a scar. Tempus edax, homo edacior; which I should be glad to translate thus: time is blind, man is stupid.

                        Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Book 3, Ch. 1

On April 15, 2019, the world beheld a mournful spectacle in Paris as the fading light of day was pierced with raging tongues of fire that were consuming the fabled cathedral of Notre Dame: its roofing, its spires, seemingly even the flying buttresses of the great Gothic edifice.

The fire would persist for several more hours as people gathered in the area near the cathedral, and thousands more gathered around different forms of media and watched in vain as a manmade marvel of design and engineering was ravaged by the error of man-made technology.

Those who cared to pay attention to the accident did lament the sad fate of Notre Dame but did so, it seems, for peripheral, insufficient reasons: predictably the reasons were about national pride and cultural chauvinism, secular and personal concerns, and even some academic and aesthetic complaints about lost artifacts and marred beauty. Such grievances are understandable, perhaps allowable, but do seem to obfuscate the true legacy of Notre Dame de Pariss—that is, what should be understood about the original meaning of the Gothic structure and about what such an edifice of stone and glass could offer to the 21st century, to the 21st- century Church, to 21st-century Catholics.

We are moved, then, to pause a moment and reflect on Notre Dame, not as a digression into medieval ecclesial culture or as a foray into the nuances of art history, but as a conversation about values and tropes of meaning between past and the present worlds. Like Thomas Merton, who deepened the dimensions of his own life’s path and realized the emergence of his own spiritual journey by delving deeply into an earlier (medieval) age of monastic culture, we also might want to delve a little into the riches of spiritual treasury of our tradition and enrich our own journeys, not simply on our terms (which tend toward a cultish emphasis upon the individual as well as a socio/political and economic presentism) but on terms familiar to the people of that time. In the interests of brevity, I will consider only three values expressed by the great Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame that we might wish to apply to our common cultural (and ecclesial) moment:

  • Walk into a Gothic cathedral and be struck by the vibrant multiplicity of the material world in the surrounding display of carvings and paintings, glass and stone: animals, flora and fauna, the strange (see: misericords) and the fantastic (sea creatures and wondrous beasts), life and death. Then reflect on the Gothic/Scholastic principle that everything—not just the human—is worthy at least of attention and is part of the goodness of creation. All aspects of the physical world are justified as participants in the sacred mystery of the faith: that is to say, all such wonders of creation converge in the same place where the miracle of the Eucharist occurs and the liturgy reenacts the Passion of the Christ. Thus does the created world participate in that salvation, thus does the splendor of creation reveal itself. Though perhaps not so to our modern observation, the Gothic cathedral in its time was regarded as a living organism encapsulating the vibrancy and animation of the living world, its diffuse patterns and expressions indicative of the inherent goodness and progress of creation. As John Ruskin once wrote, “… it was in healthy love of change that Gothic architecture rose,” and while there abides in the Gothic a healthy tension between the divine and human (the human will win out centuries later), it yet insists that the world is a locus of temporal dissolution but also perpetual immanence. It is worth our care and compassion because it is a gift that we have received although we did not earn it, and such a perception of our world is one that we all in the 21st century would do well to remember, much as Pope Francis has suggested not anew but in keeping with the Catholic understanding of creation. The Gothic cathedral, if viewed properly, asks us to celebrate humanity and all other expressions of creation in all their diversity and distinction; we should live in gratitude for the plentitude of life in this world while at the same time recognizing that each living entity, known and unknown, expresses the eternal presence of God in our midst.

  • The prolific display and bountiful imagery of the Gothic cathedral articulate a range of emotions, but certainly in its time it expressed no sentiment more than hope, and a hope that was unabashedly joyful. In the 21st-century aesthetic of clear glass and steel lines, the darkening stone and stained windows of the Gothic cathedral might evoke other reactions, but in its time, the edifice was both inspirational and aspirational. The structure of the cathedral does strain upward to airy heights, and certainly such upward reaches could be read as arrogance and prideful assertion. However, for the generations of workers who toiled by hand to construct the church, it represented hope in the possibilities of human endeavor and the salvific promise and joy in genuine devotion and in the creative process, in the gifts of imagination and inspiration.

There are indeed droll gargoyles overhanging the sides and entrances of the cathedral proper and they do present particular admonition about sinfulness and impiety; nevertheless, they do not impede entry into the sanctuary and the (medieval) congregants were not deterred: the men and women walked under the looming watches of the gargoyles and through the doors into the sanctuary. The hope of/in salvation and for/in the animating progress within the world future pulsed throughout the cathedral and there was space for joy.

We, of course, live in a dark, even dystopian, era and it has been difficult to rest in hope or find joy in much of daily life. However, there surely was much in the 12th and 13th centuries to cause pessimism and no small degree of despondency, and yet there were still public (as well as private) gestures of optimism, faith and trust. We might want to consider opting for the light more than resigning ourselves to the darkness. As Viktor Frankl reminds us, each of us has the freedom to choose how to respond to whatever situation distresses us, and we have that choice. We can choose to ‘dwell in possibility’ and live with joy in the future. Like the medieval bricklayers, stone masons and artisans who toiled at their craft even though they were quite aware that they likely would not live to see the completion of the cathedral, we can choose to trust in each other and in a fellowship greater than any one person, trust in a future of which we are but a small but vital part now, and be joyful for the many blessings that grace our lives.

  • As Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis Abbey in Paris (and one of the first patrons of the Gothic style) once exclaimed: Deus est lux, God is light. The beauty of the stained glass windows in Notre Dame and other Gothic cathedrals was not for mere display. The windows were meant as conduits of light that would cascade into the shadowy spaces of the cathedrals in a symbolic representation of the pouring out of divine illumination into an opaque world, not the word of creation or nature but the world of human design and manufacture, the word of human societies and communities, of human groups and associations, of man-made values and ideas. It is the illumination of reason enhancing faith, of truth prevailing over deceit, of transparency vanquishing opacity. It is the call for clarity, honesty and intelligibility in all our lives and at all times. What could be more pertinent in this age of deconstructed truth and post-postmodern relativism than to shine a light onto the dim confusion of our culture?

Notre Dame de Paris still stands. Some of the building, including the 800-year old original roofing and its 300-ft. iconic spire, has been lost, as well as 10 percent of its works of art, but the high altar and the cathedral’s organ have suffered severe but not irreparable damage, and most of the stained glass windows, including the great Rose Window, remain intact. However, that material inventory should not detain us much. It is the primary structure of the church—its 12th-century footprint on the Ile de la Citie and its original signification that endure. What was fragile or incongruous or wearied has burned away, but what is secure and true and genuine endures. We do well to remember that.

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.


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