My wife, Nichole, and I have been privileged to visit Notre Dame twice together. Our first visit was in February 1998, and just after we returned to Washington D.C., I opened a meeting of our church board, which I then chaired, with these reminiscences:
Eight days ago, Nichole and I were in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. Its construction dates back to the 12th century. A very model of Gothic architecture, it is a museum of statues, gargoyles, stained glass windows, exquisitely carved screens, and paintings. It dominates the skyline squarely amidst a small island in the Seine.
We had not come to worship. We had entered the Cathedral as tourists. Thousands of others milled through the cavernous nave with us, gawking at the shape and soaring spaces of it all. In its attitude, the crowd that Sunday night was no different from the crowds we had encountered at the Louvre, the Champs Elysee, La Madeleine.
We took seats for a few moments, relieving our aching feet and simply drank in the history, the past. Darkness crept across the landscape outside that Paris Sunday evening, and the great stained glass windows in the cathedral dimmed and faded out. No sounds were heard but the shuffling of a thousand feet across dusty stones, the muffled voices of the curious. A gloomy greyness drifted into the cathedral and settled on everything. Candles flickered fitfully here and there. We were lost in the past.
And then we experienced a transformation. Worship attendants began straightening the altar area, seats were cordoned off; lights switched on, and the soft notes of the organ began to fill the place. The tourists began to drift out, and the worshippers took their places, the seats filled. Then a young woman, with tight black hair and a blue tunic took to the front and sang out, chant-like, a Psalm. We joined thousands of worshippers, responding in broken French.
Light by light, preparation by preparation, worshipper by worshipper, and note by note, that historic stone pile along the silent Seine had been transformed from a monument to the past to a living body of believers — vibrant with hope, with possibility, with shared purpose. We were not all Catholics, perhaps we were not all Christians, but, in our own way, we were all worshippers. I was struck by the transformation we witnessed. It had come so unexpectedly, so quietly, but so suddenly and dramatically.”
In his book, The Cube and the Cathedral, George Weigel asserts, “European high culture is largely Christophobic, and Europeans themselves describe their cultures and societies as post-Christian” (p. 27). That may be harsh, but the decimation of church attendance across Europe (an affliction now spreading rapidly in our own country), is one of many evidences that Weigel is not wrong. European pockets of religiosity and commitment may be the exceptions proving the rule of an increasingly dogmatic secular society. In the 21st century, the large cathedrals scattered across Europe are, like Notre Dame, looming husks of another time, no longer sought out primarily as sanctuaries where we meet God, but instead as historic monuments to the achievements of Man. The severe damage to Notre Dame is lamented not chiefly in religious, but instead in historical and cultural, terms.
In such a time, when they are largely emptied of believers, I would argue these edifices are needed more than ever. They bear silent and dramatic witness to the faith of another era; a faith that may someday beckon a future generation to go beyond their historic, ancient walls to the God who “does not dwell in temples made with hands,” as the first Christian martyr, Stephen, proclaimed (Acts 7:48).
On my office walls are large photographs of a cathedral in construction and completed — Washington National Cathedral. I am always drawn to cathedrals and churches, as my family will attest. We’ve ducked into many an ancient doorway while passing through cities and towns on vacation. And on my wall is a favorite quote from T.S. Eliot, which has new urgency now: “The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without” (“The Rock”). This morning, Nichole and I sent a donation to the Friends of Notre Dame so that we could play a very small part in the restoration of this beautiful edifice and the witness it bears. It is so good to see that hundreds of millions already have been pledged, for rebuilding Notre Dame will surely be an expensive, arduous, and long-lasting project.
Your own place of worship, just like the local Adventist church we call home, needs resources, too. Without that support, the decline may not be as dramatic as what Notre Dame suffered yesterday, but it will be, in the long run, just as severe. Even more than our money, our places of worship need us, and we them.
Closing now with a few more lines from T.S. Eliot, again from “The Rock”:
In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks
There are hands and machines
And clay for new brick
And lime for new mortar
Where the bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every [person] to [their] work.
Jeffrey S. Bromme, Esq. is the Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer for the AdventHealth.
Image Credit: Flickr.com / Olivier Mabelly
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