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?