Why We Mourn

Yesterday around mid-morning Oregon time I started seeing reports that Paris’ iconic Notre Dame cathedral was burning. It seemed impossible. These old structures are built to last, and have survived everything from trebuchets and air bombardment to secularization. Surely the most famous Catholic church couldn’t have just randomly caught on fire? 

The outpouring of grief that followed was in some ways surprising. Europe has entered a profound era of non-belief that has left its thousands of gorgeous churches, cathedrals, and basilicas empty. A few dozen chairs scatter around the pulpit, adequate to serve the needs of the elderly faithful who dwindle by the year. Moreover, these structures reflect a sometimes dark history, when they stood as symbols of power and wealth as much as they did anything sacred. The exercise of that power crushed the powerless as surely as any king, despite its ostensibly godly provenance. As if to emphasize its own timeless failings, the Church has dragged scandal and controversy into the 21st century. 

So why did we awake with a hole in our hearts, mourning the damage to a church many of us have never seen, of a religion many of us do not practice? 

My early adult life involved the study of religion and a lot of foreign travel—but took me to the great cities of Asia, where Catholicism was absent or nearly so. My first encounters with these immense, ancient cathedrals came when I traveled to Europe on research for the Beer Bible. I remember walking around St. Michael’s Cathedral in Brussels in awe. I could not conceive of a building that took 300 years to build. The church (it only became a cathedral five hundred years after it was completed) took so long to build that the architectural styles changed; one end is from a visibly more gothic period. And that was just my first taste.

Kölner Dom

When I visit a new European destination, whether famous city or remote burg, I look up. Inevitably, the church will be placed on the highest location in town. Even in cities, spires remain among the tallest points in any skyline. I amble toward the soaring crosses, usually encountering smaller churches along the way. If a service isn’t happening, I enter and sit at the pews and take in the scale and graciousness of the inner, sacred space. I wander around to see graves of priests and popes buried hundreds of years before the empire would even learn of North America. I study the relics (and confess I usually interrogate their authenticity), I travel the stations of the cross.

As someone born at the very fringes of Christendom, I marvel at Catholic cathedrals. Portland is 5,800 miles from Rome, and the first Christians didn’t settle here until laughably late in the Christian era. (Some Jesuits set up a mission in what was then Oregon Country in the 1830s.) Truly the frontier, that was a few hundred years after the New World’s first church. Yet even out here, at the furthest reaches beyond the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the 95 Theses, the (two!) defenestrations of Prague, this history remained potent. We can only read about most of that old history, contenting ourselves to conjure images of events in our mind. But the Cathedrals—those we can still visit and touch and smell. We can trace our fingers along the hems of statues commemorating men buried so long ago. (Always men.)

It’s possible that someone like me, who was never a Catholic and who’s now a Buddhist, who lives on the far edge of secular country out of time and place with the great triumphs and sins of the Church, whose principle interest is beer, might see why we care so much about the fire at Notre Dame. If I can feel its wounds so keenly, perhaps I can explain why.

Humans are social beings. We find meaning in connection. We organize ourselves around activities that foster connection, and have for at least 12,000 years. It is not just coincidental that the oldest human edifices are not homes but places of worship and feasting —it’s essential. The most important things to humans are other humans, and the bonds we form with them. We are not so far removed from the beasts, and our DNA is festooned with instructions to help us come together and unite. 

(It’s also not surprising that those first buildings exalted not just the divine, but welcomed beer as well. Like the bonding power of faith, beer lifts the spirits, softens the heart, and brings us together. But that is a different post.)

Cathedrals are in part testament to the failings of humanity, our greed and vanity. But more if they capture our faults, they also testify to our grace. Cathedrals are places of communion, where we allow our emotions and dreams to blossom. Cathedrals are built at such a scale because they inspire us and cause us to feel something greater, more transcendent. The old men who keep the religion of these places have fallen out of step with their parishioners. The answers they provide don’t fit the lives of most Europeans anymore. The cathedrals, though—they still speak a truth even to those who never were Catholic. They demonstrate that act of communion and allow us to feel a connection to each other, to the timeless past, and to something greater—whether it’s God or the unfathomable age and size of the universe. 

Just seeing a building that took 300 years to make scrambled my brain. How could our short-sighted, mean little species find the inspiration to make a building like the Brussels cathedral (hardly worth a footnote, really, compared to places like Notre Dame), and keep that inspiration alive for fifteen generations? Sitting inside, one might similarly ask how those medieval workers managed to build a structure that would rise so immensely, dangerously high. More likely, conceptual thought melts away in the experience of such height and beauty; we don’t think when we visit these spaces so much as sit in awe.

When Notre Dame caught fire, we didn’t stand to lose a Catholic building. We lost—or worried we were losing—an extremely rare fragment of our own capacity for transcendence. When the Taliban bombed the Bamyan buddhas, people had a similar sense of loss—even though that was the first moment most of us realized they existed. You don’t have to be a Catholic or a Christian to mourn Notre Dame, just a human. Notre Dame long since passed from the hands of the Catholics and even the French. It is part of human heritage, so of course we mourn.