Beauty In The Burning

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By Carolyn Shields

The waft of incense and the lilies on the altar at Easter, the colored light that pierces through the stained glass draws me to Holy. The mystical chants, the deux millennium prayers, the soft marble curves of sacred figures, and the tolling bells raises my senses to the heights. The soaring steeples, fresco Stations, rich literature and paintings of the Holy Family draw me in to contemplate.

Again and again I am drawn to the faith by the awe, the spiritual, and reverence and sacred and holy…when I worked as a campus minister at an ivy league school, all of my students had answers demanded of them. They were trained to place any and all their understanding into empirical truth, the kind that can be rolled out if you can remember the scientific method from grade school well enough. The hard sciences, irrefutable logic, and numerics became the only ways to derive at truth, to get at those answers, and when they fell short, they crumbled. In extreme cases, they commited suicide when things didn’t measure up.

I was overwhelmed when I started that job since I barely cracked open my books in theology class back in college, and I felt so unprepared until I realized that what those students needed wasn’t a minister who could dole out the doctrines of the faith. They didn’t need someone who asked them more questions; rather, they needed to know that there was a place to come where it was okay to marvel in the I-don’t-know. They needed a place for the unknown and the mysteries to roll over and off them. They needed a place where answers weren’t demanded, though they were there ready to be revealed. They needed a place where their souls were spoken for, drawn up and out of them into the cathedral heights. They needed a place where the ends of reason and logic could fade into some candlelit abyss. And I could show them that.

Pope Benedict XVI called this the Great Perhaps, the place where the doubter’s inkling of faith and the believer’s nipping doubt congregate. Maybe we can call it the great What If. Bishop Barron calls it via pulchritudinis, or the way of beauty. (And of course, the Church needs the both/and—the way of beauty and the way of truth, and thank God those I worked with had the latter covered.) Beauty picks up where logic leaves off.

There are many reasons why Notre Dame’s burning tugged at so many heart strings, Catholic, French, atheists and American alike, and those reasons are important to talk about.

For some, it was the loss of a masterpiece. The Catholic Church’s contribution to the art world, and well, the world, is a monumental testament to the image and likeness of our Creator. You only had to look at Notre Dame for your eyes to be drawn upwards. I’m currently reading Monuments Men, a story about the heroic men who fought to preserve monuments such as Notre Dame and keep them safe from destruction during WWII precisely because they represented what the war was about. Rick Steves shared, “Imagine the faith of the people who built this great stone wonder. They broke ground in 1163 with the hope that someday their great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren might attend the dedication Mass, which finally took place two centuries later…And then imagine being a simple bareheaded peasant, entering the dim medieval light of the church for the first time. Take a minute to let your pupils dilate, then take in the subtle, mysterious light show that God beams through the stained-glass windows. And listen as the priest intones the words of the Mass that echo through the hall: Terribilis est locus iste — This place is awe-inspiring."

There are thoughts which are prayers. There are moments when, whatever the posture of the body, the soul is on its knees.
— Victor Hugo

For others, it was a painful reminder of how far we’ve strayed from appreciating the sacred. Ben Wilson, a journalist at the Grotto Network, shared that his heart is breaking because he felt as if he were, “Losing something special from history, a sense of connection to people before us, a sense of losing something that was sacred. Being Catholic is a bit like this—a sense of being connected to a living tradition, to people who came before us, to people who continue to pray and worship across the globe even if we’ve never met, a belief there are sacred things in this world.” In so many parts of our world, we fail to see the earth as sacred, we make mistakes as stewards, we pride ourselves on our stoicism and an unhealthy detachment, we glorify debased art and worship technology, and we even disregard the sanctity of life; yet, Notre Dame’s ashes were a call to remind us to respect what is sacred.

For many, it was a visual depiction of the spiritual hell fires our Church has been facing these past few years. The images of one of the most visited sacred places on earth up in flames and crumbling to ash had been seared into many hearts long before the embers rained from Notre Dame’s ceilings. Ravaged by doubt, betrayed by a kiss, raped of innocence, we could only watch. Victims of victimization. We’re not talking about Notre Dame here.

However the burning touched someone, each reason has something in common: the burning of Notre Dame stirred some kind of awakening within us. Something that only beauty—or the destruction of it—can touch. In the years to come, Notre Dame may look differently, sans spire, more renovation scaffolding, and her scars may be visible. But it’s hard to deny that by her burning, something has been born. There is a famous Japanese art form, called Kintsugi, meaning golden (“kin”) repair (“tsugi”). Patrick Travers, the director of the Newman Center in Philadelphia, shared, “When a precious bowl or vase shatters into a thousand pieces, rather than throw them away, Kintsugi artform consists of using a liquid gold to put the pieces back together, enhancing the piece of art into something more beautiful than the original. The wounds are not hidden, but are embraced and exhibited and expresses (though imperfectly) something of the beauty and impressive power of Christ's Resurrection. He has the power to transform our lives, not eliminating our wounds, but rather raising them to a new level of reality. Making them a ‘golden’ exhibition of his grace, for in our weakness his grace shines more brightly.”

Beauty awakens something deep within us, but its light breaks through in these cracks. Notre Dame’s burning has illuminated what we had previously cast in the dark, and that Light speaks for itself.