On a small number of occasions my very good French friend, Daniel Szabo, – who is that rare breed; an evangelical Christian in France, – has written a blog post for me. I asked him to write this one after he told me yesterday that, although he lived in Paris many years, he almost never equated God with Notre Dame.
Notre Dame, The Twin Towers and Michel Houellebecq
Even though it only happened yesterday evening, I’ve been wondering why so many people across the world were affected by the fire that set Notre Dame ablaze. In Paris there were people in tears on the street and others praying or singing hymns in an attempt to comfort each other. Of course some people quickly ridiculed those tears and questioned why we could not cry over poverty, persecution or climate change instead of a vestige of Catholicism.
The social medias and the images on television have long made any local event instant world news, and I always find it slightly unnerving. And yet as I watched the beautiful flames coming out of Notre Dame I, like most people, remained in a state of shock for a while. But why? Why can we be so shocked and saddened by a building on fire when there are no lives at risk?
Eighteen years ago I was sitting in a common room at Columbia University and all the people around me were in tears as they watched the second tower fall on television. I did not shed a tear, I was not scared, I was not devastated, I was not American and I didn’t know anyone who was working there. I had not lost a parent or a close friend, but it didn’t mean I felt nothing, or had no compassion.
That afternoon I went to play basketball in Central Park since all the classes were cancelled and I thought it would be a good way to think of something else. On my way home I saw people standing looking at the horizon. There was not much smoke so what were they looking at? They were looking at the empty skyline. It would take a long time for New Yorkers and even for tourists to get used to the absence of the Twin Towers.
The two events were quite different of course, one was the first terrorist attack on American soil, the second was most likely an unfortunate accident; the first one caused the death of almost 3000 people, the second caused the injury of three fire fighters; the first one started a long war in Iraq and then Afghanistan, the second one has already collected close to 1 billion Euros to reconstruct the damaged cathedral.
And yet there is something cathartic about crying in front of the television and sharing the grief with millions of other people across the world—even if it’s “just for a building”. Now there’s another simple reason why a lot of us were in shock in front of the blazing Notre Dame—it’s simply a part of our lives, whether you’ve seen it once while you were on holiday in Paris or see it every day on your way to work, or every time you go back after living there for ten years.
The morning after I met the stunning young lady from Australia who became my wife six months later I took her to a little park called Saint Julien du Pauvre that sits right across Notre Dame and I read her the three poems I had written for her the previous night. A friendly tramp engaged with us and started singing ‘Rolling on the River’ for us (I think he was called Luigi, my wife swears it was Gianni… or Giovanni).
Most French people would have memories (I was going to say similar memories but that would be a romantic lie) related to Notre Dame, no wonder they were in shock when they saw it ablaze. Why can’t we let people grieve, or be sad without accusing them of lacking compassion for other catastrophes? Yes, I was surprised to see people cry on the pavement, or pray, or sing hymns. I wouldn’t do it, but do I need to question it and ask them if they cry for people in Yemen or in Syria? I don’t think so.
Notre Dame is also simply a recognisable symbol of Paris and of France in general, a beautiful historical monument and finally an emblem of Christian art and devotion. While it was burning it was easy to see it as a symbol of the fall of civilisation and the fall of religion and morals. As a French Evangelical Protestant, I hardly attach any spiritual meaning to a cathedral—even my beloved Notre Dame.
Once again that doesn’t mean I wasn’t moved by those flames. But there are worse flames whether literal or metaphorical—the flames that a famous Australian rugby player of Tongan origins mentioned in an unfortunate tweet that went viral and cost him his job. Of course his message was supposed to be the same message that Jesus gave when he walked this earth—repent and believe the Good News. But who wants to hear that even if it’s true?
When he was thirteen Michel Houellebecq—arguably the most influentual French writer of the 21st century—was given a Bible by one of his schoolmates who was trying to “convert” him. Fifty years later he still owns this Bible and no longer considers himself an atheist. His novels draw the perfect diagnosis of a decadent society—money, sex, power can only give you momentary pleasure and usually at the expense of someone else. He once said that even though he did not believe (yet) he would hate to live in a world where no one believed in God.
When asked recently if he had not become a Catholic writer he replied: “I am Catholic in the sense that I show the horror of a world without God.” In one of his poems, he concludes after describing the difficulty of living in a world that can sometimes be disgusting: “we can no longer live far from eternity.”
Victor Hugo said almost two hundred years ago that Jesus Christ governed our civilisation but did not yet permeate it. Not much has changed in two hundred years, except Jesus Christ certainly no longer governs our civilisation and probably permeates it even less, and yet the Holy Spirit is alive in millions of Christians around the world. The Holy Spirit is not in Notre Dame, he was not in the Twin Towers either—but he is still present in the universal church of his believers. And as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection, let’s try to remember that Jesus is alive and he wants to permeate our lives and our society.
To repent is not such a bad thing, it only means to change ways, to change lives and to accept that we need God. If Notre Dame had burnt to the ground it would have been very sad, its reconstruction would have been almost impossible… it would certainly have taken more than three days. When Christ died on the cross it was incredibly sad for his followers and even for a Roman soldier who had seen much worse. But three days later he rose from the dead and that is why a few centuries later Notre Dame was built, that is why two thousand years later some people believe in eternal life and will rejoice on Easter Sunday (or Monday) because our God is not dead, he neither stayed on the cross nor in the tomb. He is alive. He is alive indeed.