The Impermanence of Eternal Things
By E. Gray
I have an irrational love for churches. All churches. Soaring medieval basilicas, ancient stone shrines, clapboard New England meetinghouses, eccentric modern architecture, Latter-Day Saint temples. Old and new, large and small, awe-inspiring and quirky and plain, Christian, pagan, Jewish, and Muslim. I have spent most of my academic life thinking and writing about how churches embody religious identity and constrain religious practice. I drag my kids, students and friends into churches and require them to sit and observe, and to admire if they choose. Not all churches are beautiful. I am perfectly ok with that. In fact, my Latter-Day Saint upbringing has accustomed me to looking for transcendent experiences while sitting in practical, unadorned chapels and I frequently discover that unattractive churches can reveal the most fascinating things about those that built and worshipped in them. But there is no experience like walking into a gorgeous cathedral and looking up at the vast expanse of enclosed space created by human hands in veneration to God, an experience that feels about the same in Mexico City, Montreal, Washington DC, Venice, London, Cologne, Madrid, and over and over in Rome.
And in Paris. Like so many others, I watched the news with horror as Notre Dame burnt on the night of April 15th, and I woke up early the next morning to find with relief that most of its treasures, its windows and its iconic façade and bell towers were saved due to the heroic triage efforts of firefighters. Because of my work as a religious historian, I have managed to talk my way up into the space between the vaults and the roof at more than a few medieval and early modern European churches. (Despite a touch of vertigo and claustrophobia, I firmly believe that one must explore both the attic and the basement whenever possible.) A few years ago, clambering over roof timbers above the vaults in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, it occurred to me to wonder why all those ancient, dry wooden beams did not burst into flame more often. The thick stone walls and wide expanses of copper sheathing on old European churches create an impregnable skin, but on the inside are hidden some highly-flammable bones.
Now that I know that the damage to Notre Dame is repairable and most of the priceless items preserved, I have been trying to sort through my complicated emotions of the past day. Watching dramatic footage of the fire and reading despairing posts and melancholy memories on Facebook, I kept thinking, “Yes, this is how this feels.” While I watched video of Notre Dame’s central tower falling, I saw bombs dropping on Dresden in 1945, destroying the Frauenkirchealong with every other building in the center of the city and the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians. I watched emergency response personnel running in and out of Notre Dame and saw rioters pillaging the cathedral in 1793 during the French Revolution, doing much more damage to its precious art and irreplaceable relics than the fire of 2019. I clicked on photos of bright flames glowing through the rose window and saw besieging armies in the Thirty Years War torching the Cathedral of Magdeburg in 1631 while citizens ran to escape the city and looters scrambled for any remaining treasures. My sense of déjà vu was heightened when news reports about Notre Dame brought similar events into the consciousness of media consumers: the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem experienced a major fire at the same time Notre Dame was burning, and an arsonist attacked three black churches in Louisiana a few weeks ago. I watched the burning of Notre Dame and saw every church in the world.
I realize this is a strange response, maybe even for a historian. I also realize that I cannot possibly know how it really feels to watch a sacred, beloved, iconic building desecrated and devastated before my very eyes. Perhaps my friends who watched the Provo Tabernacle burn in 2010 could honestly say they know how it feels. I was safe at home in my farmhouse in Vermont, wrapped in a warm blanket, staring at a screen at events happening 3500 miles away. The images transported me to Paris and beyond, and yet I felt distanced from my fellow observers around the world, who were watching the unimaginable destruction of a building everyone assumed to be eternal and unchanging while I saw something that struck me as terrible, but oddly predictable and even routine. Churches burn. Roofs collapse. Art is tragically lost. People rush back and forth, saving what they can or escaping the destruction. Then the sun comes up, they take stock of the situation, they clean things up, and they begin again to rebuild. Until the next time.
What does it mean when a permanent structure, an anchor of memory and identity, turns out to be ephemeral? I think of the things that once seemed everlasting and infinite to me, but I now recognize as a complicated amalgamation of things ancient and modern, human and divine. Some of the elements are beautiful, some are strange, some are unsightly and uninspiring. Sometimes flames erupt or looters invade and I am forced to assess what is precious enough to be worth saving and what I can let go and rebuild later. But I do not love the edifice any less.
How do you cope when your spiritual landmarks go up in flame?