Elegy for a Fallen Spire

It’s not about what we
can say to mark a tragedy like the burning of Notre Dame. It’s about what we
can’t.

“There certainly are few finer architectural pages than this façade … a vast symphony in stone … the colossal work of one man and one people, all together one and complex, like the Iliads and the Romanceros, whose sister it is … a sort of human creation, in a word, powerful and fecund as the divine creation of which it seems to have stolen the double character,—variety, eternity.”—Victor Hugo, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Our society communicates
in sound bites.

For every news flash,
every major event, give us two minutes and we’ll have compressed our reactions
into 280 characters, ready to share with the world. But on Monday, when the
Notre Dame de Paris burned, our responses sounded flat and shallow.

They sounded flat
because we no longer know how to relate to the past.

We live in a culture
that idolizes progress.

This progressive mindset
tells us that we are constantly improving, and that we live far better than our
forebears did.

Our technology is so
much more advanced, and our understanding of science and the world around us more
nuanced. We cycle through popular philosophies and ideas and political
theories, constantly optimizing, discarding the ideas of yesterday for the
hypotheses of today.

Because, as we all know,
today marks the pinnacle of human history—at least, until next week.

What we don’t realize is
how tightly our obsession with progress is woven into the fabric of our lives.

Why, after all, would we
want to keep anything permanent when we’re constantly improving anyway?

To hang onto the past is
to miss out on a better tomorrow.

We generate content and
merchandise that will disappear as quickly as we make it, and that we will
supplant with something shinier, more compelling, more functional.

At home, we surround
ourselves with things we know will be replaced with the new and improved versions
in a couple years. We drift from city to city, following new careers and new
opportunities, never growing too attached to any apartment or house, swapping
out friends like sets of keys, forgetting names and addresses with every move.

Athwart the stream of
progress and change are monuments like Notre Dame, a resounding contradiction
to the claim that today will always be better than yesterday. World wonders
like the cathedral, relics of the past, stand above and beyond the constant
tweaks and improvements and ebbs and flows of the modern age.

Somehow, despite their
age and their outdated architecture, they endure. And even after so many
centuries, Notre Dame continues to inspire us, in ways we can’t quite put into
words.

It’s a strange inconsistency in our worldview: Even as we believe we ride the cresting wave of human history, we assume we’ll never create anything as great or as enduring as the geniuses of the past did. It wouldn’t even occur to us to try.

And yet on Monday, we
found ourselves face to face with an event that forced the chisel and the
carving tools into our own hands.

The fire that consumed
Notre Dame demanded that we say something that would reflect the scope and
weight of 850 years of history, something that would describe the loss of a
spire in flames.

We were called upon to
acknowledge that this seemingly unchanging bulwark of time, of art, of history,
at the end of the day, is just like us. It, too, is beholden to the passage of
time. It, too, is transient.

But unlike everything else
in our lives, we know it follows different rules. We know we can’t really
replace it. And we certainly know we can’t improve it. We’d have no idea where
to start.

Far be it from us to
engage with the enduring.

Our ever-changing
society doesn’t give us the tools or the mental framework to comprehend what
Notre Dame means, or what we just lost.

It’s in that moment we
come face to face with the complete failure of our culture’s worldview.

Since we have no
vocabulary for the past, we have to fall back on the vocabulary we do have and
understand: the language of a tragic news story or of a personal
disappointment, something that feels terrible for the moment but will get fixed
in a little while, or will be forgotten after a couple more news flashes and distractions.

Yet the whole time we
try to talk about what happened, every time we shake our heads and murmur “terrible”
or “so sad,” in the back of our minds, we have a vague, uncomfortable sense
that that’s not what we mean at all. That we’re missing what’s really happened
here.

But what else is there
to say? When the weight of the past is thrust upon our shoulders, what are we
supposed to do?

That is Notre Dame’s
challenge to the progressive man.

Notre Dame doesn’t just
contradict our culture by standing against the march of progress; it connects
past, present, and future by expressing truths that never change.

The cathedral endures as
an icon of humanity because it reaches into the past, building on the
Greco-Roman tradition, and invoking the depths of the Christian faith, telling
of the grandeur of heaven, and the beauty of an eternal God reaching down to
show mercy to a sinful world.

Even if we don’t know
the names of the craftsmen, we can hear what they’re telling us, through almost
a thousand years of stonework and time.

The fire in Notre Dame
reminded us that monuments of the past can and will pass away one day.

But the inverse is true as well: The transience of Notre Dame can also remind us of the transience of the craftsmen who built it.

Like us, they spoke
words nobody will remember, and like us, they made things that have long been
lost to time.

The craftsmen of the
cathedral had the same limits we do today. The only thing that distinguishes
them from us is how they drew on the wisdom of the past to express truths that
never change, and how they sought to tell those truths in a way that would last
for generations to come.

That is how they created
a monument that endures, and how the power of Notre Dame’s message echoes
through a future that its creators could never have imagined.

Temporary men told a
story in stone, wood, and glass that still speaks to us. It’s up to us not to
just listen to the message, but to learn how to build upon it; how to reflect
in our own lives the truths that Notre Dame proclaims.

It’s our job now to
maintain a connection to the past, and do our own part to extend that
connection well beyond tomorrow. To learn the lessons the artists, writers, and
philosophers of the past can teach us, and to do our own part to better
understand and testify to the truths they tell.

Fire, war, and time may
destroy the wonders of the past, but they can’t destroy the truths those
wonders express. Not as long as you are there to continue the tradition that
came before you.

When your heritage calls
on you, as it did on Monday, you can draw your response from that well.

That is where you will
find what to say.