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April 17, 2019

The Burning Truth about Notre Dame.


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When a building stands for as long and has been through as much as Notre Dame, it is difficult to fathom that its structure is as fragile as our childhood dreams, as destructible as all other things we might wish to remain the same.

I remember standing on the pebbled beaches of Dover, England and peering across the channel at France.

England was the farthest I’d ever been from home, and the closest I’d been to needing to speak another language. When I imagined Paris from the base of the iconic white cliffs, I imagined the towers of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame. I’ve said her name to myself many a time since my first middle school French classes. Usually followed by, “I’ll get there some day.”

And yet yesterday, many like myself gazed at cell phones, televisions, or computer screens as her spire, and then her roof, toppled to the ground; as panes of her stained glass shattered in the heat like memories that we had not yet been able to make.

I did not know her. I’d never set foot in her city, and I didn’t know but a tiny fraction of her ornate history—but as smoke seeped from her pores, my throat burned with caged tears.

I hadn’t felt a sense of confusion like this since the collapse of the Twin Towers. The realization set fire to a trail of thoughts: I pondered my audacity to make this personal; I admired the sheer power of technology—the idea that what once would have been France’s tragedy alone was now instantly the world’s; I thought of buildings as symbols of authority and about what conversations we hold with and around them when suddenly they—or part of them—turn up missing like some child on a milk carton.

And there it was.

The blow of impermanence. That’s what scourged me.

If the 856-year-old Parisian cathedral could come to fall in a day, what else may come to pass?

A spokesperson for the church was quoted as having said in the midst of the firefighting efforts, “Nothing will remain from the frame.” Hours later, French president Emmanuel Macron vowed he would rebuild Notre Dame, illustrating beautifully the roller-coaster found in rejecting impermanence: tragedy—third degree burns treated with a Band-Aid.

In life, we build frameworks—some of them as thick as forests as was called Notre Dame’s wooden interior. We do all that we can to fortify these structures in our lives, be they religion or faith, career, relationships, or health. When we fear an ending, we tend to reject it and the discomfort of the impending transformation.

But eventually change catches up, and when it arrives, our Band-Aids begin to peel. Inevitably, decay disables their hold.

To resist impermanence is to slowly tear the remaining good adhesive from our haired skins. To embrace it is the quick rip of the strip. Either way, as soon as it’s done, new skin begins to grow and we heal. It is up to us how quickly we would like to do so.

Notre Dame may one day be bandaged and constructed anew, but her passing from one form to her next reminds us that it is only a matter of time before we all come to fall either in situation or in death.

The burning truth is that when one day she comes to rise again in her full glory, she will be une autre dame—another lady—still the world’s to cherish, but with stories new, and stories old, and stories yet to tell.

Only one thing is for certain: she will change, we will change—everything will change.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman