The moment when the blazing spire of Notre Dame collapsed, to cries of despair from the watching crowds on Monday, has already established itself as one of the most bleak and abiding memories of 2019.
The gilets jaunes riots that have plagued the streets of Paris and other cities since November last year means that the city has been no stranger to scenes of violence and destruction in recent months. But there is something about the collapse of a monument that has endured for centuries that strikes at the core of all of us. You do not have to be a Christian to feel this.
I have grown up in the shadow of cathedrals all my life – starting with Chichester, whose soaring medieval spire can be seen for miles around. Over the centuries sailors have used it as a landmark because it’s visible from the sea, but for every Chichester resident who’s been travelling, that spire scoring itself against the sky is the first sign that you’re coming home.
More recently my family lived next to St Paul’s Cathedral where my father was a canon. Since the original church was established here in AD 605, St Paul’s has been ravaged by three major fires – subsequent to these, its dome standing resilient against a blazing sky has become an iconic representation of London’s survival in the Blitz.
It is no surprise that St Paul’s symbol is the phoenix. Along with the motto Resurgam (I shall rise again), it’s testament to the continual determination of the human spirit to rise from the ashes.
Whether or not you’re religious, a cathedral sits on an extraordinary faultline in our culture. It is the place where the ancient meets with modern, the physical meets with the spiritual, grandeur meets with humility. I love the fact that when you walk into a cathedral, the first thing you do is look up. It’s reminder both of your own insignificance and the hope that such buildings inspire.
Even in a secular age, it’s difficult to find any non-religious architecture that manages – in quite the same way – to evoke the sheer unknowability of what what we all aspire to and the enormity of what we combat daily. These are the kinds of places we go to when people we love are dying, when we want to celebrate births, when we want to reflect on seemingly impossible hopes, or feel we are drowning in despair.
There’s something about the stillness of centuries in these buildings that allows us, for a brief moment, to feel connected to the dreams and disasters of everyone else who has passed through the doors. In the silence of a cathedral at prayer, we do not need to put on an act and impress anybody any more – it’s a place where we can simply be, letting the rattle of thoughts in our heads play out for better or worse.
Yes, of course there’s the pageantry and the splendour too – the moments when the cathedral is called on to evoke either the joy of a whole nation in a celebratory service, or its grief when there’s a major disaster. France of course, with its strict division between church and state, is extremely wary of the idea that a cathedral might represent it at such times.
There’s also the history of the church as a persecutor – though that has in the main been to do with the selfish and venal attitudes of those who’ve cynically manipulated its texts and power structures to their own ends.
More importantly in our success-and-status obsessed world, a cathedral is one of the few places which asserts that the most important aspects of our lives transcend ego, that even as we rejoice we are constantly subject to forces beyond our control. In a cathedral’s architecture, and in its music, it may seem to epitomise some of humanity’s great achievements, but it’s also a constant reminder of the need to be humble – that we are all, when it comes to it, little more than dust.
Of course some people will try to hijack yesterday’s tragedy for political ends. Although the conclusion right now is that it was a terrible accident linked to renovation works, there are mutterings about other more deliberate recent assaults on churches and churchworkers both in France and across Europe.
Any such form of persecution is utterly to be condemned, but we must also be wary of the nasty form of extreme right wing politics that is increasingly using the church as a symbol of a white immigrant-free Europe that must be salvaged at all costs.
You only need to look at places like Hungary, where Viktor Orban proclaims himself as the defender of a truly Christian Europe, or at the populist academy that Steve Bannon has established in Italy’s Trisulti monastery to understand the sinister forms of rhetoric that will emerge.
Which is why it’s all the more important for those of us who abhor such extremism to treat this terrible incident for what it is – a tragedy for everyone.
A building that crystallises centuries of human experience, an edifice that, whatever you think of the creed that inspired it, has asserted daily that life goes beyond the limitations of physical reality. A building that, because of the place it has occupied on Paris’s skyline, has symbolised to millions who live there that whenever they’ve been travelling, finally they are coming home. A home that, after yesterday, feels as if it has had the heart torn out of it. Who wouldn’t shed tears for that?