What is the Message from Notre Dame Cathedral’s Fire?

“To love is to act.” Victor Hugo, May 20, 1885

I will never know how many thousands of fellow human beings sat, riveted, to their respective television sets, radios or digital screens, gobsmacked and horrified by the sight of this 850-year-old spiritual edifice burning, at the onset of Holy Week. Through the initial crucial hours of the massive firefighting rescue, simply to witness the outpouring of hymns and prayers from the throngs gathered together at the site, nevertheless, was awesome.

The below photo was taken before the Cathedral’s spire fell, and also showing the Eiffel Tower in the distance to the left.UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay communicated that the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is part of the World Heritage site “Paris, Banks of the Seine,” adding:

“Notre Dame represents a historically, architecturally, and spiritually, outstanding universal heritage. It is also a monument of literary heritage, a place that is unique in our collective imagination – heritage of the French but also of humanity as a whole. This drama reminds us of the power of heritage to connect us to one another. We are receiving messages of support from all over the world.”

The below image shows the Cathedral from a different side, in its former night-time glory, within a fuller Seine River setting, along which even the stone embankments are protected as part of this whole UNESCO World Heritage site.

Regardless of our religious faith, or even lack thereof, the 2019 Holy Week fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris awakened within people around the world our shared higher qualities, which reside within us, energetically, at a soul level.

For the first time in recent years, I honestly consider the fire not in and of itself, but rather in relation with the widespread human response, to be a harbinger of hope for the human family. When something triggers the connection with our soul, we respond with love. We are here to learn how to take care of each other, which includes taking care of the sacred edifices across human cultures which were constructed to remind us about our interrelationships here, as well as those which reach beyond our earthly existence to a spiritual realm.

To me the hope for human survival on earth resides in our recognition of what we hold in common. The burning of this Notre Dame Cathedral provoked the hearkening of the human soul which spontaneously unites us at this deepest level of our being.

The soul is much more powerful than either our rational mind or our emotions, the latter ways of knowing representing only fragmented aspects of our fuller consciousness. When the soul awakens, all of our inner ways of knowing are activated to respond, to open us to the larger dimensions of our existence beyond individualized personalities and egos.

In other words, in what has become an increasingly secularized world – and, worse, the original spiritual teachings distorted and perverted by fundamentalists and extremists – crises appear to be the essential events to call upon us to act from our innate higher qualities, such as love, compassion, generosity, grace, gratitude, humility, forgiveness and more, which open us to the deeper meaning of being alive.

Woven throughout human history are crises that provoke actions grounded in love.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris embodies many layers of meaning, one of which is its resilience to survive, even prevail, through periods of turbulence a number of previous times, because people cared deeply enough to restore, repeatedly, what was damaged.

Given the major damage to this Cathedral, for example, inflicted by the violence of the French Revolution, the Cathedral was under threat to be demolished. But, Victor Hugo, whose political life and literary works were based upon love and justice, felt compelled to challenge this threat of demolition through his story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Who could know how timeless, and universally loved, this poignant story would become?

Hugo’s vision, however, was more immediate, to save the Cathedral from demolition. The Culture Trip website contributor Jade Cuttle in 2018 elaborates in her own words selected brief citations from Hugo’s famous book:

“The descriptive sections of the book are so extended, going far beyond the requirements for the story, that his conservation efforts are clear. `There exists in this era, for thoughts written in stone, a privilege absolutely comparable to our current freedom of the press. It is the freedom of architecture,’ he wrote in praise of its construction.”

Cuttle also writes, in reference to Hugo’s use of metaphor in his book’s message:

“The bell-ringing, half-blind hunchback of Quasimodo has become iconic of `a courageous heart beneath a grotesque exterior.’ This character urges readers to look beyond the surface and find the beauty beneath, with the hope that they’ll do the same for Notre Dame.”

Storytelling is unique to the human species, as is the language of metaphor. I always recall the words of the late Indigenous spiritual elder Art Solomon, who pointed out that humans are the only species on earth who need stories, to remind us of our purpose here, because we forgot the `original instructions’ from the Great Spirit for us to take care of the earth.

In fact, sacred structures in every human culture embody multiple layers of symbolic imagery to communicate stories, that evoke the connecting threads of our history through time and, importantly, what we hold in common as a human family.

When Hugo referred to “thoughts written in stone,” such thoughts as well as feelings are embodied not only in the stone structures which include, of course, numerous carvings of both biblical and mythical beings. Yet, as well, the Cathedral is filled with sculptures, paintings, finely-crafted religious ornaments and, last but not least, the magnificent stained glass windows – all of which relate stories.

As a young adult attending art college, I majored in stained glass. We students used antique glass imported from Europe. Other traditional components included lead and cement. We executed the delicate, and painstaking, procedures of glass cutting to shape each and every piece of glass before interlocking the multiple pieces, one at a time, within lengths of lead (initially stretched) bent gently and firmly around each piece of glass, all of which then were cemented in securely. Creating even a modestly sized single stained glass panel took months of physical labour.

Powerful memories stay with me, regarding the intense labour yet, ultimately, the heightened sense of glorious accomplishment to create an art work so beautiful and lasting. The changing light each day, indeed, in accordance with different times of day, different seasons and weather, render stained glass continuously new and sensually alive.

Therefore, upon witnessing the Notre Dame fire, what struck me was the immensity of what was happening, and the potential to destroy and lose in a matter of hours what took more than two centuries to construct originally – through the labour of thousands of people, inspired by a spiritual force larger than themselves, to apply their highest art and engineering talents, in a collective pursuit to create something of extraordinary magnificence and timelessness that would far surpass their own life spans.

To sum up, what the Cathedral’s structure and its many artefacts embody represent something far beyond the visible physical appearance. Consider, as well, how the physical structure of stone and wood originated from materials in the natural environment. In other words, the feeling of sanctuary in the building touches us invisibly as well, through connecting us energetically with the earth as well as with Spirit.

So what is the message in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris fire? Actually, there can be several messages, depending on whether we take time to reflect upon how and why the fire affected each of us in particular ways. Even not feeling personally affected could give pause to reflect on why as well.

Why do we exist? Life’s journey can bestow joy, beauty, love, as well as inner and outer peace. Their deeper appreciation and experience, however, cannot be bought, nor do they come easily or quickly. Instead, they require conscious effort to deepen our awareness, earned through time as we learn to pay closer attention to what really matters.

Technology, for example, always has been with us. Indeed, communication through digital tools immediately informed people across the world about this fire. They, in turn, could choose to respond – and did, in huge numbers – to share their sorrow, bewilderment and also support, through spontaneously awakened hearts and souls. We all hold that possibility in common.

How we choose to use digital technologies, even so, is one of the challenges of our time.

We have arrived at a historic moment when so much information and knowledge is at our finger tips. But, how wisely are we using our intelligence – for those of us who have the privilege of access to digital tools – to consciously make the extra efforts to deepen and broaden our awareness in the pursuit of healing and restoration, through the choices we make using these tools?

Deepening and broadening our awareness, in fact, requires knowing when not to be using digital technologies. Instead, when do we give ourselves the gift of being fully present to our immediate external environment and the people with whom we are experiencing it, sometimes together with animal companions as well?

Personally, I feel blessed residing on a countryside homestead where, even while working at my computer (technology), I can look out the window – when I am not outdoors directly experiencing nature – to enjoy serendipitous visits from various animals, birds and insects among the bushes and trees in all seasons. When immersed outdoors, all aspects of my being – physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually – open to the wonders of nature and the universe, as I gaze upon the woods and open fields, and also the vastness of the starlit sky. Such experiences awaken my whole body as well as my heart and soul to cherish, and protect, the beauty around me.

Similarly, spiritual sanctuaries such as cathedrals have been created to awaken our innate qualities holistically, that reconnect us to what really matters – our interrelationship with Creation, within and beyond our earthly realm, and our highest calling, to take care of all planetary life.

Always we have free will to choose where we place our attention. Always possible is holding in our hearts such words of wisdom as Victor Hugo’s: “To love is to act.”

Choose, therefore, not to be bombarded continuously by what is divisive, hurtful, misguided and focused on the turmoil in the world. Instead, choose where you can gain knowledge and experience, that can develop your capacities to take actions that protect, restore, and strengthen love and justice wherever you live and travel.

Yet also take time to reside in natural settings and in human-created sanctuaries, to replenish your energy, experience serenity, and awaken to the wonder and joy simply in being alive.

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