"In the case of modern Paris and the Notre Dame Cathedral it might not be too much to say that our Lord’s words have been fulfilled, 'if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.' The loss of the voice of these stones has moved many of us to sorrow and some, even in jaded, indifferent Paris, have been seen to kneel down in prayer for this loss."
"And flames now engulf a masterpiece. A voice is being hushed but not silenced. Those Parisians, who knelt on the sidewalks and prayed, take up the prayer the Cathedral had been making all along. . . ."
We all see the images of Notre Dame in flames. For almost 800 years it has stood through tumultuous events. The atheistic French revolution spurred on by misguided conclusions of the Enlightenment didn’t even pull down the Cathedral. The two world wars of the last century left it standing. The Cathedral suffered many interior renovations, perhaps few were as hideous as that done by Napoleon.
And yet, it stood silently pointing to something that modern western man has forgotten in large measure. Quietly the stones of the Cathedral prayed to God with a beauty and elegance of centuries long past.
Christian churches are not simply pragmatic buildings housing the latest fad and fashion of “seeker friendly” communities. At their best and most sublime level, Christian churches are participants in the worship of God, the Holy Trinity. In the case of modern Paris and the Notre Dame Cathedral it might not be too much to say that our Lord’s words have been fulfilled, “if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). The loss of the voice of these stones has moved many of us to sorrow and some, even in jaded, indifferent Paris, have been seen to kneel down in prayer for this loss.
Churches are places that require the finest craftsmanship, the highest level of beauty and tradition of any space created on earth. A Christian temple (what a Christian church building has been called traditionally for millennia in both the east and west) is an outpost of the Kingdom of God. It is not merely a house for God, it is a place where the Kingdom of God breaks through the gloom and darkness of this world like the sun through the clouds. It is not simply a meeting place between God and man, but a throne of the King of kings. It is a place where God himself fills man with divine life and light.
It is a place where the Saints—all of whom are alive in Christ—and the Angels and Archangels and all of the Hosts of heaven join with us in the heavenly worship of God. It should be no surprise that in our most profound worship we sing the angelic hymn, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth, heaven and earth is full of thy glory,” for we are joining in the hymn that the Angels sing continuously before the throne of God.
A church temple is sacred. In the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church we specifically pray “For this holy house and for those who enter therein…” We pray for our buildings because they manifest to us the Kingdom of God. The church temple is anointed with the oil of chrism, which is the oil used in completing the initiation of a Christian in the Church in the mystery of Chrismation [Confirmation]. Indeed, in the Orthodox Christian service, a church temple goes through a baptismal service in its consecration being aspersed with holy water, anointed with oil, relics of martyrs placed in the holy table, and the Liturgy of Life—the Holy Eucharist—celebrated. The church temple becomes a living presence of God and the Saints wherein we receive Christ our God. So powerful is this that when driving past a church temple, the faithful usually bless themselves with the sign of the Cross.
And what if one does not believe? Then the stones cry out in silent prayer and witness. They continue to speak to the unbeliever of a deep and pious faith. And that witness is inescapable. I have known many people who have visited Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul), which is now a museum. It was the greatest Cathedral in all of the world when it was built. Nothing rivaled it in size, composition, complexity of design or execution. Then the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and turned it into a mosque. After WWI it became a secular museum. But everyone who enters can still feel the power of the Christian people who built it. They can see the mosaic icons revealing themselves through layers of plaster and whitewashing. Even as a museum, those stones speak a word about God though a foreign hand is held to its lips.
And flames now engulf a masterpiece. A voice is being hushed but not silenced. Those Parisians, who knelt on the sidewalks and prayed, take up the prayer the Cathedral had been making all along. Our hearts break, but not without the possibility of rejoicing later. Though it burns—and there may be little left of the medieval masterpiece in only a few hours or days—we pray that what built Notre Dame may come alive and replant a Cathedral that is a living temple. We pray that they rebuild it according to the original pattern rather than foisting off on the world an avant-garde monument of transient and base values as is so often done nowadays.
But first we may all mourn the loss of a beautiful space dedicated to God, whose balance and design lifted hearts and souls to that Kingdom prepared for us and which we encounter in places crafted and given to the Trinity. Today we cry. Tonight and tomorrow we pray. Then, may the Parisians rebuild for the comfort of themselves and us all.