WHEN last at Notre Dame in Paris, I lit a small candle to the memory of a loved one and quietly offered prayers under its flickering light.
On Monday evening, most terribly, flames on an impossibly larger, more savage scale licked through that ancient cathedral, destroying its roof timbers, toppling its spire and reducing its historic interior to a smouldering shell.
Splash News Crowds of Parisians, many of them youngsters, watched on in awed horror as Notre Dame burned
Any fire has a hypnotic quality. Any blaze has destructive power. Yet the Notre Dame disaster leaves a greater sense of obliteration. Just look at the crowds of Parisians, many of them youngsters, who wept and clutched one another and sang mournful hymns as they watched Monday’s devastation.
Their grief, and the awed horror of countless millions around the world who saw events unfold on TV, was not the normal reaction of onlookers rubber-necking at an accident. The loss of that old building left a deeper anguish. Why?
James Mates, reporting for ITV’s News At Ten that night, proved his value when he reached for an explanation.
“Our time here is brief,” said Mates. “These structures — the greatest creations of mankind — are supposed to be permanent. Few can have imagined seeing one destroyed before our eyes.”Precious concepts
These were good words. Notre Dame dates to the 12th and 13th centuries. To stand beside such an edifice reminds us of our human smallness.
The great cathedrals of Western Europe took centuries to build. Beside such projects, the longest human life feels butterfly-short. You run a hand over the old stones of a place like Notre Dame and you are struck by a sense of your own impermanence.
You don’t have to be churchy to feel this way. There are other forces at work in our Notre Dame agony, emotions that a modern broadcaster might hesitate to mention. Notre Dame contained more than altars and crosses and pews.
Its walls sheltered things far greater than the priceless artworks which burned. Notre Dame was a repository of the concepts of civilisation and nationhood and beauty and Christianity.
It may be politically incorrect to say so but Monday’s fire, to many of us, felt like a metaphor for the recent conflagration of those precious moral concepts. French president Emmanuel Macron, who rushed to the scene, had this to say: “Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives.”
Macron announced a national project to rebuild the cathedral because, “it is our profound destiny”. All this was noble and fair. But measure it against the record of the liberal political class he embodies. The Macrons and Merkels of this world — like the Blairs and Camerons and Cleggs and so many other equivocating cultural cowards — have long preached secularisation. They have diluted Christian values in our laws and public life.
Rex Features This picture of St Paul’s captured an idea of British defiance, of our country’s decency withstanding a Nazi dictator’s barbarism
One recent Archbishop of Canterbury even told us it might be a good idea to have sharia law in Britain.
These political leaders have imposed education systems that fail to teach youngsters to be proud of Western art and religion. They have scoffed at national pride and national flags (you may remember Labour’s Emily Thornberry mocking the St George’s flag) and lied to us about the federal element of the European Union.
Out of sheer political dogma, post-war politicians bigged up modernist architecture, even though the public hated it. Much-loved vistas were destroyed and our capital cities’ skylines were wrecked when mayors approved show-off skyscrapers.
We were told to be ashamed of past national historical triumphs such as the British Empire, which was allegedly racist and supremacist. Tradition was bad. Different was good. How come such leaders appreciate antiquity and the values represented by a great cathedral such as Notre Dame only when it has gone up in smoke?
One of the defining images of the Second World War was that photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral at the height of the Blitz, the dome standing proud amid Hitler’s bombs. The picture captured an idea of British defiance, of our country’s decency withstanding a Nazi dictator’s barbarism. It still makes one’s neck prickle with patriotism.
What will we in future feel when we see that image of Notre Dame ablaze on Monday night? Might it come to represent the torching of Christendom in Europe?
It is said that the Paris fire brigade was slow out of the traps. Might that be a metaphor for a wider carelessness by politicians who have seen our culture in peril and failed to act?
It is no great secret that churches in France and other continental countries have been in a spiral of neglect for decades. A few years ago I visited a major church in Coutances, northern France, and found dead pigeons on the floor and broken panes in the windows.
We have done better in Britain where, despite financial problems, our cathedrals and parish churches continue to be a great glory. The Church of England gets plenty of things wrong but it deserves credit for this.
That Notre Dame and some of her treasures have been destroyed in Holy Week, as though roasted in the very fires of Hell, is a challenge to our already-dented morale. It seems cruel and may leave churchgoers agape as they try to identify the Almighty’s purpose.
CommentLEO MCKINSTRY How many more kids need to die before we deal with Britain’s dangerous dogs? CommentTHE SUN SAYS Shamima Begum’s hatred of Britain is clear for all to see — keep her out CommentALLY ROSS End capitalism says funny man Frankie Boyle, one of the no Marx of BBC comedy CommentBRENDAN O’NEILL Labour’s hateful David Lammy loves to hate anyone who simply backs Brexit CommentTREVOR KAVANAGH If we don’t lose Theresa May by June then Jeremy Corbyn will be our next PM CommentTHE SUN SAYS By branding Brexiteers ‘Nazis’ David Lammy reveals how Europhiles see Leavers
If God is working his purpose out, He has an odd way of going about it.
But Easter is about renewal. Maybe that should be our pointer.
Let this ghastly fire act as a spark to our resolve to relight a sense of pride in Europe’s Christian tradition.
Reuters Notre Dame was a repository of the concepts of civilisation and nationhood and beauty and Christianity
AFP or licensors The Notre Dame fire toppled its spire and reduced much of its historic interior to a smouldering shell
EPA Might the image of Notre Dame ablaze on Monday night come to represent the torching of Christendom in Europe?
Notre Dame fire – French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild the cathedral so it’s ‘even more beautiful’ during address to the nation