Why does Notre Dame matter?

Isabelle Hamley writes: Growing up in France, I never really thought of Notre-Dame de Paris as the best French cathedral. Or the best example of early gothic architecture. Or even a place of deep spiritual meaning for me. It was – well, that’s it, it just, was. And so I wasn’t really prepared for the tidal wave of emotion I felt as I watched it burn against the backdrop of the city.

Within an hour or so of the news hitting the headlines, I read a grumpy Facebook post complaining that this seems to be such big news, compared to the many parts of the world devastated by suffering that we so often ignore. And more this morning – blogs and posts sharing their righteous outrage that so much money would be used to rebuild, when it could be used for the poor. For good causes. For much more valuable human lives. Let the ruins stand, and turn the ground into a park. And of course, at one level, this is absolutely right. There is so much need in the world, so much misery, that we should do everything we can to combat it. The question is, are these things mutually exclusive?

Or, to put it another way, do those calls to leave the ruins to stand, to concentrate on ‘what really matters’ profoundly misunderstand the nature of being human? There are only a few things that distinguish human beings from other creatures. One, according to Aristotle, is laughter. Another, according to scientists, is self-consciousness. Another, I would argue, is art. Art in all its forms—the creation of beauty for its own sake, not for utilitarian purposes, but because it calls to something deep within us that we cannot explain, something that connects us to a reality beyond what we can see or hear or touch or feel. One might even suggest, it is a key aspect of the divine image within us. As human beings, we do not do things simply because we have to, or because they pass a rigorous test of usefulness. Human beings, even when facing the most desperate circumstances, make music, draw, write, tell stories. It is woven into the very fabric of who we are. And so watching a well-known, well-loved, irreplaceable building devastated by fire, calls to something within us that we may not be able to explain or rationalise – and yet something that has the potential to bring out beauty and help us recognise and rejoice in our common humanity.

The very first message of support the rector of Notre-Dame received, he said to journalists yesterday, was from the Chief Rabbi. Somehow, something about beauty, symbol, meaning, and loss had the power to bring people together. Many of those interviewed on the streets, and personalities and celebrities speaking, talked of ‘our’ cathedral, regardless of their faith background. I wonder what those who had the vision to build the cathedral, and those who lavished the best of their abilities and talents on the building, to give glory to God, to draw the eyes towards heaven along the vaulted ceiling, to teach the faith to those who could not read designed Biblical stained glass, I wonder what these men and women would say, when seeing that the fruit of their labour has spoken deeply to many who would not immediately describe themselves as Christian? Isn’t this part of what cathedrals are for? Isn’t communicating the beauty of the Gospel, awe at its power, an essential aspect of mission? And when we recognise our common humanity, and lift our eyes about utilitarianism, then, hopefully, we recognise that there are many, many other situations we need to attend to.

But this is just the start. There is something even more important that makes us human: we are people who remember. We may distort our memories, we may be selective, we may try to forget. But we remember. Sometimes in words, sometimes in pictures, sometimes in habits and symbols that have the power to bring out what we have buried deep. The memory of a people is not held simply in history books. It is held in the very land they inhabit, in its landscape, in its buildings. The suggestion I saw in a blog this morning, that history is always there, we do not need buildings to remind us of it, is but an expression of an old heresy, or of a destructive modern trend. It suggests that we are but spiritual beings, that the material world around us is something we may use, but that its destruction or absence does not matter because we, supreme beings, have the power to hold things in our spiritual/cognitive memory. It also seems to suggest that we can make ourselves what we want to be, regardless of what is, or isn’t, around us. Both of these assumptions are deeply flawed. We are who we are through a complex interaction of the culture we live in, the history that has shaped it, the landscapes we inhabit, the languages – verbal and non-verbal – that we speak, the symbols that structure our ways of thinking and reasoning.

And out of all of these elements, we weave narratives that tell us who we are, why we are here, where we have come from, and, perhaps, where we are going. Notre-Dame is a keystone of those narratives of French identity. Keystones are rarely obtrusive, but nevertheless they ensure that the beautiful, visible parts of a roof all hold together. Notre-Dame holds many strands for us: all French roads are measured from its parvis; it inspired countless other cathedrals, some of which have surpassed it greatly in beauty and elegance; rulers were crowned there; it was a focus of anger in the French revolution; one of the greatest stories ever told by a French novelist, Victor Hugo, was set in its belltower; in living memory, our older citizens remember the bells ringing the end of years of war in 1945. These are the visible strands. Other, less visible strands are there too, and some of them were surfacing for the first time in many years last night. France has a deeply religious past, and a deeply ambiguous relationship to this past. It champions secularism, and religion is usually discussed with mild condescension, if not outright suspicion, in public life.

It was therefore deeply moving, last night, to hear journalists groping for words they had almost forgotten—words that speak of faith and what faith had meant to the nation over the years. Many of them were trying to put into words the sense of connection they felt to the cathedral, how moved they were to hear hymns and prayers from Christians surrounding them, and find words that would nurture hope. This morning, journalists were tentatively using the word ‘miracle’ as they contemplated the picture of the inside of the cathedral, the cross illuminated from the side windows, still intact, and heard of the news that many windows had survived, and the organ maybe too. To hear these words spoken with awe and genuine interrogation is nothing short of a miracle – and it may be short lived. But as I listened, I realised that Notre-Dame had lived up to its destiny: it reminded a people of its past, and of the hope of new life we find at the foot of the cross.

France has tried very hard to push God away, and forget the faith of centuries. But when the people fell silent, the very stones cried out. The question is, now that we remember, what will we do with these memories for the future? There is a small window of opportunity for the nature of public discourse to change. For the derision and suspicion of faith to morph into respect and attentive listening. Yesterday, the French president embraced the rector of the cathedral. Church and state in a long forgotten embrace? It was a fleeting image, and yet a hint that new life, new ways of imagining our life together are always possible.

And for me, this is the real question of the rebuilding. What is it we are rebuilding? What kind of vision will animate the endless years of work ahead? Will we listen to the memory of stones, and honour the God whose cross triumphed over destruction, fire and ashes? Notre-Dame held memories we had forgotten; will we accept God’s gift of memory, and reshape some of the distorted, incomplete stories we tell ourselves, so that we can move into a better future? I hope and pray that we do; and I believe that we can, because I believe in the God of Good Friday and of Easter Sunday, who ultimately holds all memory, all past and future in his hand.

Dr Isabelle Hamley is Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. She was previously in parish ministry and theological education, and her PhD explored the interpretation of texts of violence in the Old Testament, published by Wipf and Stock as Unspeakable Things Unspoken.

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media, possibly using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

15 thoughts on “Why does Notre Dame matter?”

  1. This is beautifully expressed. Thank you, Isabelle. I’ve been aware of the lack of language to express the feelings around Norte Dame, but the much-shared image of the cross shining through the smoke has resonated with a lot of people. Perhaps Norte Dame is the embodiment of a faith (and hope) in God that people aren’t quite ready to let go of.

  2. Some people are writing of the Cathedral being ‘destroyed’. But from what I can see the Cathedral has survived surprisingly well. It seems to be mostly the timber roof (and spire) that burned – even the stone vaulted ceiling has survived, as has much of the wooden furniture inside, and almost all the important stained glass. Interesting to hear that the organ might have survived as well. I’ll be interested to see the final report on the damage but I suspect it will not be as great as many expect or fear. I’m glad to hear that it will be repaired and rebuilt.

  3. Whilst I applaud the €0.8 received in donations for restorations of this Gothic Roman Catholic Cathedral there were no deaths. Can one compare this fire to #GrenfellTower fire built in one of richest boroughs of England where 72 people lost their lives as a result of fire related deaths (including 18 children). What value do we place on human life/medieval buildings? What will happen to the green tower, some tower residents still live in hotels, others weep, the results of Public Inquiry still not yet known 22 months later?

  4. In Malta, a small island, there are apparently 365 churches, generally upkept immaculately at no little expense; participation in the annual rituals and processions is high. The country is/was happy and secure.

    Till recently when the secularists hijacked it.

    This shows us what happened in the Middle Ages. Most were very poor indeed by our standards. Yet they looked vertically to God and horizontally to one another and the common good, rather than inwards. So they managed to work together to achieve greater things in community and in architecture – even in riches – than we are capable of today.

    This being so, how can the present knocking of Christendom (by those who know almost nothing about it…) be justified? It is exactly what we are looking for: something that will inspire people to labour without monetary reward and in the process be further motivated to contribute to a higher and wider good than their own, as well as to the common joy.

  5. I have mixed feelings about it. It was genuinely shocking to watch, and that was just on tv. But I do wonder about the importance of a single cathedral. I suspect any notions of ‘religion’ to the irreligious in France will be very short-lived. God doesnt seem too concerned about man-made structures, even those built in His honour, as it were. Indeed Jesus seemed to think a lot more of God’s creation rather than man’s. But I might be wrong.

    And I certainly agree with your rejection of the idea that we are primarily ‘spiritual’ beings. I used to think a little like that, but have come to realise our physicality is just as important, given that the destination of the redeemed is a renewed earth, not in some disembodied state. And God has created us as physical beings, with a mind and soul.

  6. Thank you for a wonderfully written reminder that we are a physical people, a people who remember and for whom ritual can very easily replace reality. Notre-dame may have been built to the Glory of God but it was built by builders who were probably just as irreligious as today. We talk about a Christian past as if it was an utopian Eden forgetting that the French revolution was the result of a State which oppressed its people, exiled the Huguenots and who destroyed the Protestant faith in a program very similar to ethnic cleansing since. Church attendance was a matter of survival, not faith. The inquisition was as far from Christian as Pol Pot, Stalin or Mao. You clearly remind us of the heresy of “spirituality” but the heresy of ‘rose-tinted glasses’ is equally bad. The church apparently already needed a massive restoration but the vault of ‘priceless’ treasures was still intact and clearly more important to the ‘church’ than Notre-dame itself.

    We worship a Messiah who was crucified in a loin cloth, never owned a house and had no place to lay his head. He was sold for 30 pieces of silver quite probably donated by a rich member of the Sanhedrin, just as we see the rich donating their money in public today. Would Jesus see spending £700million on Notre-Dame as rendering unto Caesar? Would He see it as another Temple filled with money changers and sellers of fake sacrifices? Would He even recognise it as being for His worship or the worship of an idolatorous ‘image’ of Christ made in our image where power and size and strength are what matter?

  7. Clearly it’s a deep disturbing thing for the people of France (I wonder if it’s all of them?). I was, touched by the words of a nun watching it… “the living stones are not burned” as she made clear that the building is not the Church.

    I’m not at all convinced that this will herald a Christian revival in France as opposed to some vague notion of spirituality. If it does I’ll praise God. A wave of popular thinking is usually a passing thing. It might strengthen the Christian depth of bonds. Don’t we all recall the hype that the outpouring of grief at Diana’s death would do the same?

    “But as I listened, I realised that Notre-Dame had lived up to its destiny: it reminded a people of its past, and of the hope of new life we find at the foot of the cross.”. Did it really? A rebuilt cathedral may be a great thing for national identity but that’s a far cry from saying that the life that’s in Jesus is now made clear… and believed.

    I’m wondering why English cathedrals are ringing their bells for this but didn’t toll for Grenfell. (I don’t think they did…).

  8. I do not think they did either Ian. They are ringing their bells because the Prime minister told them to (caesar) and because they hope to curry favour with caesar to get more money for the repairs. We the living church do not see the cathedrals as important enough to pay for their upkeep. says it all really

  9. Thank you Isabelle, a beautiful article. I was thinking of sacred spaces today as I discussed rural churches with colleagues. They are the Notre Dames of their locations, deeply prayed in places. I think we ignore that sense of place at our peril. It is true that church is community, not stones and mortar, but a Twitter thread on other sacred spaces destroyed (mostly by humans) which I saw last night reminded me that the creation of sacred space is a profoundly human, and material, impulse.

  10. I used to drive past Notre Dame once a week for about 6 years on the rive droite by the Île de le Cité. One of my boys, who has Aspergers, used to obsessively draw hundreds and hundreds of pictures of it, inspired by the Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

    I was a bit saddened to see the roof and spire go up in flames, but honestly I find the outpouring of emotion about it a bit off, really. Mercifully, no one died. And, well, it’s a building – that can be repaired. At an eye-watering cost.

    I’ve been Notre Dame several times; it’s pretty dark and cavernous, and its hard surfaces magnify every tiny sound into a muffled echo. It’s great that some people find it spiritually uplifting, or culturally inspiring, but personally I feel closer to God walking in a dewy forest or along a deserted beach.

    A spokesman for the Catholic Church said on French TV as the fire was still raging, “I’m sad but the true church is not made of wood and stone, it is a living entity that will never be destroyed.” Well said.

  11. Thank you, Isabelle, for this. I agree, without criticism with what you have said – but I am also aware of two ‘vacancies’ which, for me, make the issue of rebuilding less clear…

    1) The loss of art is, indeed, always a tragedy – but, these days, the loss of an ‘original’ is less of a tragedy. If a Van Gogh painting is lost in a fire, it would be sad indeed, but no one would presume to repaint it. Instead, it would live on in digital records & reproductions. Is a building (as art) so different?

    2) Having been a parish priest for 40 years, I’ve been all too aware of those parishioners with no or little faith who are comforted by the presence of the church (building). For them, the building always points back, to a comforting, nostalgic, cosy ‘something’ which includes candles at Christmas etc – never to the present (and faith choices which they need to consider now) or to the future (and what God offers in Christ).

    I tend, therefore, to view historic buildings as a mixed blessing, and have actually been quite jealous of parishes where their unhelpful building has been destroyed in a fire and they were able to rebuild with a 21st century gospel-application in mind…

    • Thanks David—I think this ambiguity is well observed, and it correlates with the theological ambiguity we find in Scripture about holy buildings of all kinds.

  12. There is always a tension between resources spent on an edifice versus being spent on humanitarian projects. Just reflect upon the anointing of Jesus in John 12:4-6 and Judas’ response. Surely Jesus overturning of the tables and his criticism of the Temple referred to the abuse and twisting by the Sanhedrin et al of God’s original purpose for the Temple in Ezekiel ‘to be a beacon to all nations’. The building was the centre of the activities that Jesus was criticising, and yes it was destroyed, and yes the kingdom has both a terrestrial and spiritual dimension. Are these mutually exclusive?
    I’m reminded that one of the methods that absolute rulers (dictators) use to control society is to destroy the spiritual basis of the community in buildings ( e.g. Henry VIII although there were additional financial gains and reasons). Humanity seems to require external representations of spiritual and political structures and in this context Notre Dame is a focus for those of faith and those without. It can have a utilitarian purpose (Notre Dame café?) If this can be used for the glory of God so be it. The poor will always be with us, and it is our responsibility to address this not just on a one off donation but continually in society. Rebuilding Notre Dame and responsibility for the poor are not mutually excusive.

  13. I love this piece by Isabelle – thank you. ‘As human beings, we do not do things simply because we have to, or because they pass a rigorous test of usefulness.’ Yes and yes again – in a church trying so hard to be strategic and useful in its time. I am reminded a speaker I heard some years ago pointing out that when the west facade of Notre Dame was cleaned decades back after centuries of city soot and decay they uncovered a riot of sculpted scenes of French medieval life and other bible images placed there at the top of towers by the first builder-artists. The point made was that Notre Dame was built before the invention of the telescope. So no one had ever seen them up there. Nor was there any expectation they ever would. Out of sight they served no purpose. They were useless by any other measure. But God’s own creating is like that too. You never reach the end of it. Nor is it there to be ‘useful’.

  14. What a coincidence that the destruction of Notre Dame and the instant efforts of Resurrection should occur so close to Passion of Our Lord .


Leave a comment