'The towers of Notre Dame cut clean and gray
The evening sky,'
—Willa Cather, Paris
Surely there are worse things one can witness than a cathedral on fire. Homes and villages. People. Crops, buildings. Flags. Stock markets. Savings. Surely stone, glass, and wood are only stone, glass, and wood even if they were once part of a spire, a statue, a pew in Notre Dame de Paris.
Surely the human mind does not need to find itself underneath a ceiling thirty-five meters high to experience humility. The human eye does not need sunlight streaming in rainbow rays through rose windows, flooding the space with colour in order for it to experience awe. The ear does not need to hear the chimes of a bell, the same that rang for kings and emperors, and to end two world wars, for it to recognize greatness.
A spire housing the relics of two saints. An organ; 8000 pipes, five keyboards, and one hundred and nine stops. A piece of cross, crown of thorns. Statues, paintings, a wooden frame made of 1,300 oaks. A cathedral is just a building of stone, wood, cloth, and history.
Just a building, even if that building is ‘the incarnation of an idea, a time, a spirit.’ An attempt to live forever. Man’s fight against the finitude of his own humanity.
Except even cathedrals catch fire. We are all fragile and fleeting.
To witness Notre Dame de Paris in flames bears a similarity to surviving a tsunami, an avalanche, a volcano erupting. Unnatural to the point of cruelty, it forces life to a standstill, like a train on la ligne 6 of the métro, stopped in its tracks on a bridge. Frozen in horror and over the Seine, from the window one can see the flames rising over the Gothic spire, the water flowing indifferently.
A cathedral on fire is surely not the greatest tragedy. No loss of life, no damage beyond that to the actual building. Still, today I grieve a world in which there existed a place where any feet could find rest, any mind stillness, any heart safety in meaning.