Like many, I waited to see if a piece of history would be leveled.
Paris and Hugo and Hemingway. Bells and bell towers, hunchbacks and fear of the marginalized. Asylum, refuge.
And above all, the infuriating human trait of naiveté.
We humans, sacks of blood and bone, architects of these castles in the sky, towering houses meant to hold dreams which reach higher than any cathedral spire–we humans have a maddening habit of taking things for granted, of huddling under a flimsy umbrella of forevers. It is more romantic that way, I suppose, this idea of timelessness, of history. Perhaps it’s even necessary. If we all walked the Earth paying attention to the fragility of the things and ideas around us, we’d be paralyzed.
The Pyramids, The Colosseum, The Great Wall, Machu Picchu, Notre Dame.
Liberty, Equality, Democracy.
I could almost feel the heat rising from the photos of Notre Dame last night, the blood orange lick of flame, the moment the spider-web spire collapsed called to mind watching other towers fall on another blue sky day.
When something like this happens, the seemingly impossible, the unthinkable, the never-before imagined, it’s natural to mourn collectively.
Notre Dame is a structure of legend and literature, surviving centuries (though not intact), occupations, revolutions, World Wars. We take for granted such a thing will always be there, stalwart in an azure Parisian sky, for whenever we get around to visiting.
Until one day it is not.
Until one day a stray spark or a careless cigarette butt or who knows, something seemingly small and insignificant, threatens to topple the entire structure and we are left not only mourning what was, but our own naiveté in assuming it would always be there, impenetrable to danger, destruction proof, safe-guarded.
And so we mourn not just the building, but the fragility of our own lives, our ideals.
I’ve stood in the shadow of Notre Dame twice. Once as a young lover and once again last summer, returning with my children. I wrote about that trip, about the resistance and resilience of the French, about the solidity of those monuments and buildings–paid for with the blood and heads and souls of its people.
That the French will rebuild Notre Dame I have no doubt–a lesson of resilience, of grit in the face of destruction.
But there is a lesson in there for all of us, not just Parisians, not just Catholics.
It is dangerous to take solidity for granted, to never think the unthinkable, to never imagine the unimaginable.
Accidents happen. Fires rage. Plagues spread. Revolutions rise and wars devastate. Ideas that should never see the light of day gain momentum.
That, it seems, is the price of humanity.
We must look after these castles in the clouds–whether a cathedral, a continent, a country, or indeed something less tangible.
Liberty, equality, democracy.
There will be literal and figurative sifting of ashes today. No doubt miracles will be proclaimed. The fact the structure still stands, its many treasures safe, will be touted as a testament to a God I don’t believe in.
What I do believe in, however, is that humanity will reach deep within its pockets for the price it must pay now and then, the price of believing in something bigger than us all, for hope, for a castle big enough to hold our dreams.
The cathedral will be rebuilt. Because if nothing else, the French are stubborn. The delicate architecture of a spire will rise again. Money will pour in from billionaires and the poor alike. Whether or not the Vatican reaches into its coffers of gold remains to be seen.
And in doing so we will forget about the mosque burned in California recently, the synagogues vandalized, or other houses of worship recently left burning: three black churches in Louisiana. They too will be rebuilt, though to much less fanfare, though the God they serve is the same.
To the stray spark we don’t expect, to the carelessly tossed ember. We cannot take anything for granted, cannot assume that our cathedrals or ideals will hold fast and strong, that they will be there when we find time to get around to them.
Sometimes it is the danger from the unexpected that brings everything toppling to the ground.
To the dreamers, to the architects of castles in the clouds–be they real or imagined–stand guard.