Peggy Noonan

{ } ~ A few small observations on the fire at Notre Dame:

It’s interesting where your thoughts go as you watch a disaster, live. Friends kept saying they were feeling some of what they’d felt on 9/11, and this was true of me too. No one thought it the same, but the flames and smoke evoked similar feelings of grief and loss, and a sense of portent, especially for Catholics, who saw in the destruction a metaphor for—or a judgment of—the state of their church.

Monday evening I found myself remembering an intuition I’d had hours after the World Trade Center had fallen. TV was showing people who’d escaped the towers, covered in dust and ash, and trekking north. As I watched I thought: Some desperate person among them is escaping his life right now, planning his disappearance. He knows the scale of the disaster because he just walked out of it. He knows if he doesn’t check in for the next few days he’ll be counted among the dead. He’ll soon be at a motel in Queens, then on a plane somewhere. He will tell his story decades from now. He’ll tell us he came back once and visited the memorial on which his name is etched.

I had an intuition too as I watched Notre Dame burn. Somebody wonderful is watching at this moment and having a conversion experience. He will write of how the size of his grief, of his shock, opened a door in his head and heart and his faith came rushing in. We’ll hear about that in coming years, and maybe from more than one person. Destroyed beauty is a spiritual event.

I also thought of the great speech in Tom Stoppard’s play “Arcadia” on all that was lost when the great library of Alexandria, Egypt, burned down. Thomasina, a young would-be scholar, says: “Can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides—thousands of poems—Aristotle’s own library! . . . How can we sleep for grief?”

Septimus, her tutor, answers: “By counting our stock.” Don’t grieve, he says: “We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. . . . The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. . . . Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”

Those were Monday’s thoughts. Then, Tuesday morning, the shocking good news: The fire was out, the structure still standing, the great things still there—the radiant cross, the altar, the Pietà, the pews, the relics saved.

It felt like a miracle, didn’t it? I think it was.

I called my friend Liz Lev, the art historian and author of the magisterial “How Catholic Art Saved the Faith,” and asked her why the fire at Notre Dame was such a grave and emotional experience for so many people of varying faiths, not only Catholics seeing a cathedral burn.

Her answer was arresting. She said, essentially, that we are all of us more loyal to the idea of beauty than we mean to be or know we are.

“When the fire came, for two days it made us let our guard down,” she said. “It showed us that beauty still affects people, that they know they are custodians of it. We still need to believe in the beautiful.”

We sense the achievement and sacrifice that went to its making. “It’s not the tower in Dubai, which is clever, or even the Eiffel Tower”; it is “a spiritual home.” “There’s something in the building. You get the sense of centuries of people who worked on it who’d never live to see it done.”

The architecture is part of the story. “The Gothic is a paradox. It’s so lacey, it looks so fragile—the fire coming out of the lacey spire—and yet underneath you see this powerful, solid, domed facade.” This reverberates with the myths and stories we love: “The hero is strong and yet the hero is vulnerable, frail. This moves us.”

What does the art inside the Cathedral, the statues and paintings, mean? Ms. Lev noted that Notre Dame’s story is the structure more than the art inside it, and in this it is the antithesis of the Sistine Chapel, where it’s all about the interior art and decorations. But the cathedral is also about “the scattered world of France’s relationship with its faith.” During the French Revolution the exterior statues were beheaded, glass broken, the church defaced: “They put the Goddess of Reason in there.”

“Notre Dame is a shoe box of memories” of all the times French Catholics “have gone running from the church.” Tuesday morning Ms. Lev learned that the statue of Notre Dame de Paris had survived. “The statue is the same age of the consecration of the Cathedral. It’s not splendid, it’s nice, it’s pretty, but it stands by the altar and you always see people saying the rosary beneath it.” Sometimes, they are shooed away. “But she’s still there. That’s very beautiful.”

A great deal was made about the saving of the relics—Christ’s crown of thorns, a nail from his crucifixion, a tunic worn by St. Louis. I asked Ms. Lev about the Catholic preoccupation with the physicality of things. Why do we pay such attention to relics in general?

“The Christian faith is rooted in the physical world. It is incarnational.” God took bodily form. “Christian art is Christian art because Jesus became a baby who could be held, and passed from person to person—‘You hold him now.’ His passion is a wet, messy, brutal affair on his body—he bled, he sweated. . . . We are creatures of flesh. He became flesh so we could become even more beautiful, even more like unto God.”

The Sistine Chapel could never have been produced in any other culture, she said. “Only Christians can do it because only Christians celebrate the body, the bodily resurrection.”

But why do we honor the relics of saints—a hand, a heart, a knuckle? Why do parents keep a lock of a child’s hair? she asked. “The saints were here. They are not ectoplasms. Their souls are in Heaven but they were here.”

Finally, people sense Notre Dame is most powerful and central in its moments of suffering. “The Greek word for church is ecclesia—people gathered together. On the night of the fire it was gathering people together,” literally, around the church and around the world. “Notre Dame is most potent gathering them in suffering.”

This reminded me of something someone said on social media after the spire fell: Maybe the old church burst into flames so we would look at it and really see what it is.

We did.

Happy Easter. Happy Passover.  


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