The rebirth of Notre Dame’s purpose

The fire in the iconic Gothic cathedral did not destroy its original role as a gathering place for grand purposes. Its restoration will only affirm the ideas that shaped the famed structure.

AP
People gather in Paris April 15 to watch as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral.

When tourists flock to Paris, they often gather at the Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum, Montmartre, or Champs-Élysées. Yet the most popular gathering place – at about 13 million visitors a year – has been Notre Dame Cathedral. Its near-destruction by fire on April 15 helped to prove why.

During the giant blaze, hundreds of people in the City of Lights gathered to pray and sing. Others collected donations by the millions of euros to restore it. Around the globe, people gathered by a TV or a smart phone and, in a mix of disbelief and reverence, first learned of the damage to an icon that seemed so permanent. Just like its purpose nine centuries ago, this house of worship brought people together to affirm higher purposes.

For some, the purpose today lies simply in the wonder and beauty of the cathedral’s Gothic architecture: the flying buttresses, soaring spires, and peering gargoyles on a small island in the heart of France’s capital. Others see inspiration in its long human history; site of the coronation of kings, the beatification of Jeanne d’Arc, and fictional works such as Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.”

Hugo saw the structure as a “vast symphony in stone.” Yet he also called it as “powerful and fecund as the divine creation.” Christian churches, of course, are not really about the buildings. At a deeper level, they are an expression of spiritual yearnings and insights, often reflected in architectural elements that serve as reminders for believers.

Winston Churchill best described how a structure can feed back to its purpose. After a German bomb destroyed the House of Commons in 1941, members of Parliament squabbled over whether to restore it or expand it with large spaces and conveniences. Churchill reminded the MPs that the tight quarters of the House helped bring “intimacy of debate and discussion, that freedom and that sense of urgency and excitement.” In other words, he said, we shape our buildings and in turn they shape us.

The world’s most treasured buildings help circle us back to the grand ideas that led to their existence. They can be temples for worship, towers for learning, or simple structures for creativity. They are the domiciles of dominion over the values we cherish. Their materiality can be consumed by fire. But out of the ashes the same aspirations can arise. Those of Notre Dame will too.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.