As I write, the spire of Notre Dame de Paris is collapsing into smoke.
Reports say that the towers are burning, that windows have melted. Notre Dame de Paris is on fire. This cathedral has stood for over eight hundred years.
Trauma is not logical or rational; it clings to more than bricks and mortar. If your house burns down, what you mourn is not the structure.
Imagine the people who build Notre Dame. Far more people than you would think. Yes, there were the masons who put stone upon stone. Someone, far back in the twelfth century, sat there without a zero to make the calculations easier and worked out how to make arches soar. A priest must have traced alphabets, in Greek and Roman letters, crosswise on the cathedral floor in chalk. A smoke of incense rose to the rafters, hanging, safe and comforting, in the air. Racks of candles glowed, flickered, and glowed again. Imagine – a priest in Notre Dame in the year 1200, gazing up at new stonework and the resin scent of wood still newly sawed for statues. Imagine a man in 1400, praying against the war that carried on and on, while the rain dripped from the gargoyles and pitted the stone on the north face of the church. Imagine a woman going into Notre Dame in 1780, kneeling to pray for a baby born too soon. Imagine a mother in 1917; a parent in 1943. Imagine now.
This cathedral is a building – just a building, only a building. But for generations on generations and centuries on centuries of people, it would have been emotion soaked into stone and breathed into stained glass. It would have been hopes and prayers rising like smoke into the deepest spaces of the spire and the highest arching spaces of the roofs. It would have been whispers and murmurs and mutters and cries and curses. It would have been stones clutched for support and touched for benediction, knelt upon in relief and beaten in frustration, weathered and worn and crumbled and rebuilt. That is what a church is.
As I write this, the spire of Notre Dame de Paris has collapsed into smoke.