I am not religious, and I only visited once when I was eighteen, and certainly didn’t appreciate it the way I would today. Nevertheless, as I stood with the world watching as Notre Dame cathedral burned, I was crushed to my core. And I thought -- why? If my visit is only faintly remembered and it holds no religious significance for me, why were tears pressed hard behind my eyes, why did I feel this horrific ache and intense sense of profound loss?
In the end, I believe it is the intangible, transcendent sense we feel when we are witness to extraordinary art and human accomplishment. I may not be someone of a particular faith, but it is clear the intensity of that within those who came together to construct the cathedral. I believe that the intent, commitment, passion is infused within the artistry and craftsmanship -- visible, palpable -- and that transcends the need for a direct personal connection, reaching the more universal human one. Notre Dame is artistry and skill, craftsmanship and history -- it was built out of a passion for and dedication to one’s faith, to reflect the beauty and majesty of all life, to invoke a sense of awe in the world and in ourselves -- at our core.
Like standing before a Da Vinci, a Degas, a Van Gogh; when we hear soft strains of violins, or thundering timpani, we see with far more than our eyes and hear with far more than our ears. It is, for want of a better word, our souls that take the beauty in and remind us of a deep and abiding truth -- of the ways in which we are all connected, one, the same. A thing so often forgotten in this harsh and divided modern world. One needn’t be of faith to feel that part of oneself moved by the extraordinary.
So as I watched the cathedral burn, it was that part of me -- the one connected to that universal truth, the awareness of what every stone, every carving, every joint, timber and colorful piece of glass meant to those who created them, to those of us who have witnessed them, and to the history it has been a part of -- that part of me melted in intense sadness for the part it touched in me, and in empathy for those to whom it means so much more. It was beauty and faith and accomplishment and strength and...humanity engulfed in raging, angry flames, and it hurt. It hurt us all -- and while even these words do not truly adequately express what I’m trying to say, it doesn’t matter, and that’s the point. We know. We all know. And in that, we can come together and remember what ultimately unites us as one.