France’s Paradoxes, Embodied in a Cathedral

France is a secular republic, dedicated to the principle of laïcité, or the absence of religion in public life. But it has as its national symbol the Notre-Dame cathedral.

Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt / AFP / Getty

PARIS—It was the morning after the fire ravaged Notre-Dame, consuming its oak latticework and lead roof, damaging rose windows, toppling its spire. There was a low, gray sky and it was still unseasonably cold. People had gathered again along the riverbanks facing the cathedral, trying to get a closer look at what remained.

What did remain? I walked closer. The facade and two boxy towers held their sturdy place on the horizon, as they had for eight centuries. So did the walls of the transept. This was as it should be. This was reassuring. “Notre-Dame is Devastated, but Saved,” the headline ran on France’s leading news channel.

Relics and paintings and other works of art had been rescued and placed for safekeeping in the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’s city hall. The gilded crown of thorns, the one Jesus wore on the cross—the one he was said to have worn, or believed to have worn, as the news commentators put it—had been saved, carried out of the basilica by human chain.

Late Monday night, as the fires still burned, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation and called it France’s “destiny” to rebuild the cathedral. Already, some of France’s richest families have pledged hundreds of millions of euros. The diocese of Paris was sorting out where to hold Easter Mass on Sunday. Copies of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, sold out on Amazon.

As I crossed the river to the Île Saint-Louis, a familiar feeling began to set in. This was the feeling of living in history, of witnessing the unfolding of an event that will reverberate for years to come. Soon there will be polemics about how the fire started, about why the French state had pledged only 2 million euros, or $2.3 million, a year for the upkeep of Notre-Dame, which in 2017 started raising 150 million euros in private funding for a sorely needed renovation. Already there are debates about the destruction of other monuments in other contexts, such as the Roman temples in Palmyra, Syria, and who will pledge the funds to rebuild those.

Then, after the living-in-history feeling, a different one came. This was the falling feeling that sets in when something you believed was unchangeable changes, when something you believed was indestructible is destroyed. The order of things shifts. Monuments are supposed to precede us and outlive us. We measure ourselves and the span of our lives against them. We aren’t supposed to watch them burn before our eyes. Ours is a certain kind of grief, both personal and collective. Tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse, as the French proverb goes. Everything passes, everything breaks, everything leaves.

And then there are the multiple dimensions of the loss. The devastation of the basilica is material—what caused the fire? What will the repairs look like? It is also symbolic. Commentators were seeing the fire as a symbol, of how the Catholic Church needs to be restored as an institution as much as a building. Like so many of Europe’s great churches and places of pilgrimage, Notre-Dame is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This is the Church as mother and protector, an aspect the institution has not excelled at in the years since the sexual-abuse crisis erupted.

It’s hard to convey just how significant Notre-Dame is for France. Listening to the newscasters wrestle with their formulations about the crown of thorns, it became clear that the devastation of the cathedral had laid bare all the paradoxes of the country. Here is a secular republic, dedicated to the principle of laïcité, or the absence of religion in public life, that has as its national symbol a cathedral. Here is a country that deposed its king in a revolution, yet now sees its embattled president as a new monarch—one that some of its “yellow vest” protesters want to depose again.

Here is a country that pulled itself out of the Middle Ages and through the most rigorous Enlightenment of the West, that purged religion from public life and wrested its public schools from the control of the Church—even today, French schools are a pillar of the republic, a cauldron in which citizens are formed—and yet has somehow stayed Catholic to its core. Here is a country that is forever doing battle between reason and belief. The crown of thorns that Jesus is said to have worn on the cross.

In his brief remarks on Monday night, as the flames still burned, Macron spoke of the cathedral’s place in French life. He sent his thoughts first to French Catholics. And then to all the citizens of the republic. “Notre-Dame is our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where we lived all our great moments—our plagues, our wars, our liberation. It’s the epicenter of our life,” he said. “It’s a cathedral that belongs to all French women and men even if they’ve never seen it.”

A realm of the imagination. Gone up in smoke, but still standing.