On Monday evening, while worshipers gathered in prayer, Notre Dame cathedral went up in flames. Onlookers gathered to bear witness to the conflagration, spontaneously joining their voices in song. As God’s house burned, His people sang hymns and prayed. It was hauntingly beautiful, and served as a reminder of where God lives — not inside those silent walls, but within the devoted hearts of the gathered crowd, and all who worship in His name.
But the notion that Notre Dame is “just a building” — and so we ought not mourn — doesn’t actually follow. This building — its architecture, its windows, and its treasures — are a tangible link to all the human beings who have walked there, worked there, and worshipped there for over 850 years. Standing in that space, looking at the masterpieces that human hands have wrought, worshipping the God who has been worshipped there for centuries, we are connected through the ages to humanity.
When I kneel, of a Sunday morning, and accept the wafer, I frequently find myself contemplating all the others, throughout history, who have come to God’s table just as I have. I think, particularly, of Henry VIII and his six wives — historical figures of whom I am particularly fond — and I feel, in this act of eating the bread and drinking the wine just as they did that I am close to these people whom I love but will never know.
If you stand in Notre Dame de Paris, you are standing in the place where Napoleon was crowned emperor. The place where Henry VI of England was crowned King of France. The place where Mary Queen of Scots married the Dauphin of France. The place where Parisians celebrated their liberation at the end of World War II. You are standing where countless others have stood and worshipped God. Where men and women have joined their lives in matrimony. Where those left living have said goodbye to the dead. If you stand in Notre Dame de Paris, the echoes of all those things — and more than those — ring down the ages.
God does not live only in Notre Dame cathedral — nor in any church or place of worship on this earth — but a building such as this one is a testament to the human spirit, and its love of the Almighty. In it is encapsulated the work of our hands, our hearts, our minds, straining to honor God — to offer, in return for his unending love, an imperfect token of our gratitude and devotion. Within these walls a multitude has come and gone, but also the very fact of these walls is a testament to the heart of man — yearning to worship God in any way he can.
Notre Dame can be rebuilt — should be rebuilt — and that, too, will ring down the ages as a testament to the resilience of mankind. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mourn what has been lost. Or rejoice in what has been saved. Our connection to this building and the things it held doesn’t mean we’re fixated on material things. It means we recognize the effort it took to create them, and the things these walls have seen. Look, a building like Notre Dame cries out, look what humanity is capable of. Look what we have done together.
In the streets the people prayed and sang. They stood and watched as fire toppled the work of centuries. They bore witness so that those anonymous hands that erected those walls did not toil in vain. We are here, now, hundreds of years later, standing where they stood, singing hymns they too had sung. Worshipping the God they loved and honoring his name. Some honor Him with songs, some honor Him with prayers, some honor Him with edifices reaching for the sky, and windows sparkling in the light of God’s new day. We reach out across the centuries — a chain of human hands and minds — loving our God, and seeking to glorify His name.
Faith Moore is a writer and stay-at-home mom. She lives with her husband and son in New York City.