What Notre Dame Teaches Us As It Burns

I can’t help but think that as it burns, Notre Dame de Paris is teaching us an important lesson. This fire is surely a tragedy, and I don’t mean to detract from that. But something special is also taking place on social media right now. A wide range of people are expressing the deep impact this structure has had on them in a remarkably unified way. Over and over, I’ve seen people use the word “awe” in reference to their experiences of Notre Dame. From Dan Rather to a pop star I probably should have heard of named Camila Cabello, I’ve seen people from very different perspectives offer strikingly similar responses:

It’s special to see people from such varied backgrounds talk about this universal human experience — especially on Twitter, which seldom affords the earnestness and space to breathe necessary for encounters of awe.

It’s as if this 13th-century church is dramatically letting us know it has something to say to us today. Behold, it tells us. I am a colossal relic of a time when people were less jaded and were more aware of numinous mysteriousness. I am a towering monument to awe, and I am reminding you as loudly as I can that you can apprehend the same radical amazement as the people who toiled for two centuries to construct me.

We must move beyond loose spirituality that is afraid to identify itself with millennia of religious wisdom and religion. Traditional religion has become so stale in the popular consciousness that its essence is remembered only on days when its cathedrals burn. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sun shines today also. Today, Notre Dame de Paris beseeches us to remember that.

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