SHARE
Notre Dame’s fire teaches us about God’s prov­i­dence. | Courtesy Tasnim News

When Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire on Monday, my life entered slow-motion. I sat in the tele­vision viewing room of Grewcock with a small group of stu­dents and pro­fessors watching CNN replay a clip of the cathedral’s spire falling.

“Have you ever been there?,” said one of the pro­fessors.

“Yeah, last spring break,” I responded.

“Well, you’re one of the lucky ones.”

I didn’t feel lucky. I felt mad.

For Chris­tians, it can be easy to rec­ognize God’s sov­er­eignty when things work in accor­dance with our desires. When God’s plan lines up with our own, we find it much easier to attribute sig­nif­icant events to prov­i­dence.

The opposite is true for inex­plicable tragedy. The Book of Job is a great example of this struggle. Throughout his tribu­la­tions, Job sees God’s actions as arbi­trary, which God man­i­fests by levying countless tragedies for reasons that Job can’t under­stand. When Job demands an expla­nation, God refuses to justify his actions and instead focuses on his divine wisdom in com­parison to Job’s human igno­rance: “Where were you when I laid the foun­da­tions of the earth?”

I sat in Grewcock with that same igno­rance. Everyone watched the seem­ingly insa­tiable flames in silence, and as they burned every second felt like an eternity. Ques­tions began to swim in my head: Did the taber­nacle survive? What about the Crown of Thorns? Was anybody hurt? Why is it taking so long to put out a fire in the middle of one of the most developed cities in the world?

Was this an accident, or arson?

I wanted it to be arson. I wanted more than any­thing for there to be someone to blame, someone I could hate. It didn’t matter who it was. If only I could heap my emo­tions on some­thing more con­crete than mere chance or stu­pidity. So far, no such luck.

Vis­iting Notre Dame changed my worldview. In one afternoon, I was con­fronted with a tan­gible sign of the Christian imag­i­nation brought to bear on the world. I saw the com­bined effort of several gen­er­a­tions of craftsmen over more than a century. Men and women were born, worked on the cathedral their entire lives, and then died without seeing it com­pleted.

Like Mary washing Jesus’ feet with a bottle of priceless perfume, a story from John 12 that hap­pened to be a part of Monday’s daily Mass reading, Paris poured resources beyond prac­ti­cality into glo­ri­fying God through stone. Ulti­mately, they built a mon­ument whose beauty cap­ti­vated the world. The nuances of the cathedral’s con­struction still elude archi­tects and aes­theti­cists alike, with the Rose Window spawning both doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tions and con­ver­sions. And as I walked between those sacred walls the idea of Christian tra­dition, of a tan­gible and beau­tiful history of the Church, began to form in the back of my mind.

And so, I decided to become Catholic. It did not happen all at once and Notre Dame was far from the only reason. But wit­nessing this tes­tament to the power of orga­nized faith planted a signpost pointed towards Christ. It made me take my faith more seri­ously, and by extension set me on the path to my Con­fir­mation, which will occur this Easter Sunday.

The unfairness of this loss seems per­sonal, like an attack on my own spir­itual journey. Notre Dame helped me become the man I am today. It began my movement towards the very savior who preached a message of love that I so des­per­ately want to deny for the sake of self-serving revenge.

To give this tragedy a per­pe­trator would ground and explain it. We expect humans to be sinful and destructive. We could go to sleep knowing that someone would pay for destroying some­thing beau­tiful and that justice would prevail. But for justice to prevail, a crime must be com­mitted. While the inves­ti­gation into the origin of the fire is ongoing, we need to prepare our­selves for the pos­si­bility that it could have been an accident. If it was, then we find our­selves in the same position as Job: aimless in our grief, angry at God. It might be a hard truth to accept, but we have no right to be angry. We need to learn how to grieve in the face of prov­i­dence.

Where were you when the foun­da­tions of the earth were laid?

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    what does this title mean? It’s non­sense. the only prov­i­dence is the town in rhode island. The lesson here is to appre­ciate what you have when you have it, and do more main­te­nance and quality control when intro­ducing risk into a physical envi­ronment, espe­cially when the structure is basi­cally ancient. These are truths everyone can under­stand, not the drivel about prov­i­dence.

    • Camus53

      A very strange, even trou­bling, nar­rative.