Like everyone else, I watched with shock and sadness yesterday as a fire consumed the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. It took me back to a time ten years ago when I pastored a church that lost its building to a fire.
It wasn’t as old or as big as Notre Dame, it wasn’t a masterpiece of art and architecture (though it was on the national register of historic places), and it didn’t have as many visitors, but for the families who had been part of that community for generations, the loss was just as devastating.
Physical places and objects engage our senses are powerful tools for us to experience the presence of a god who transcends those temporal limitations. It’s difficult for us to imagine things that aren’t perceivable by the parameters that we’ve been taught by the world, so the divine taking on a temporal form (the five dollar seminary word for this is theophany) is a well established theme in many of the world’s religious traditions.
Whether it’s a more direct divine communication like the angel Gabriel telling Mary she’s going to have a baby, or a work of art like Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel that inspire awe and wonder, physical objects helping us connect to the divine is a good, some might even say essential thing for us to have any concept of the divine at all.
Like any other thing that is fundamentally good, humans have a way of messing it up, and sacred space and sacred objects are no exception. I experienced this when we were rebuilding the small country church that burned as we tried to recreate the look and feel of our sacred space as best we could.
From howls of protest over lighted Exit signs in the sanctuary to refusing to include a cry room so parents of young children would feel more welcome, some people forgot that the space was intended to direct our attention to God. Controlling how the space looked became their ultimate concern- a kind of golden calf.
While I still believe that certain actions were wrong, their underlying desire to have that point of connection that had existed all their lives was not.
So while I understand the reactions of those online who looked at people weeping in the streets of Paris and said, “it’s just a building!”, I’d simply ask them to consider that they can be right and wrong at the same time. A building can be more than just a building. It can be a way for finite beings to begin to conceive of an experience the infinite.
If you were saddened seeing Notre Dame burn and feel moved to do something, please don’t donate to that particular rebuilding effort. French billionaires and the Roman Catholic Church have that one covered. Instead, donate to the three predominantly black churches in Louisiana that also lost their sacred space to a fire. This tragedy came at the hands of a white supremacist terrorist, and the people he tried to make afraid don’t have billionaires at their disposal.