Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the terrible fire that threatened to completely destroy the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Before the fire, Notre Dame was one of the most-visited places in the world. Jason Baxter, a professor at Wyoming Catholic College, noted in a recent article in America magazine that Notre Dame had 12 million visitors each year, more than twice that of the Lincoln Memorial or the Colosseum in Rome. Baxter wonders, however, whether the throngs of people who would go to the great church actually knew or appreciated the significance of what they were experiencing. The perfection of the architecture of the cathedral, revealed through careful examination of the hidden details of its structure, helps us to understand why the church is so important. For the medieval person, it would have been a feast for the senses that is tragically underappreciated in a modern world that is oppressed by hyper-stimulation. “The experience of the riotous and playful shapes that are found all over the walls and on the floors and ceilings created a kind of release from the ordinary preoccupations of the day. They free the mind from its cares and lead it to a sense of being lost, immersed in wonder, overwhelmed by the hilarity of joy.” Baxter uses a surprising image to help us understand what makes a great gothic church like Notre Dame feel sacred. “Imagine the feeling that you would have walking into a haunted house on Halloween: rickety old boards, unusual light coming from under the doors, occasional eerie laughter. If you can, maintain the uncanny feeling but flip it, so that it is positive, and you might have a sense of the spiritual porousness of the cathedral in the medieval experience.” Notre Dame, and great gothic churches like it, give us an experience of the transcendent. God reveals Himself to us through the beauty of nature. A beautiful church is the application of the ingenuity of man to the things of creation to build a space that helps us experience the reality of the permeable membrane that separates the world from the heavens. In Baxter’s words, Notre Dame was “a mystical laboratory for making visible the love of God.”
Among the photos of the aftermath of the fire, the one that stands out in my mind is that of the high altar that remained pristine in the midst of the rubble. The sculpture adorning the altar is Nicolas Coustou’s pieta, Our Lady with the dead Christ lying on her lap, her eyes and arms lifted up to heaven in sorrowful supplication. Above them hovers the cross. In the ruins of the great church, the love of God remains visible, and we are reminded of how precious we are in His eyes that He would offer His Son as a sacrifice for our sake and share with us His Mother. She is Our Lady, Notre Dame, an image of the Church and the Holy Gate through which God entered His creation and through whom it pleases Him to draw us near to His Sacred Heart.