As I write this, Norte Dame Cathedral is burning down. My heart pains just at the thought of this.
It’s hard to concentrate on anything. And yet, it’s a world away. But not. Because it’s in my head. Not just the image of perhaps the most incredible example of French Gothic architecture, but also the personal experience I had there, so many years ago, imbibing it, struck by wonder and awe.
I feel it now. It’s as if I can picture that younger me, walking through the place, looking up, up, up. Trying to take it all in, but failing. For, works of art like this combine the ingenuity of humans with the creative spirit of the ultimate Creator.
Its website describes the revered cathedral as “above all ‘the House of God and the abode of men’ because this building is full of human and Christian experience” and “a privileged witness of Art and history, witness of spiritual memory.”
And now, it’s in ashes.
This story is unfolding, so I know nothing about the cause nor the extent of damage. Was this a terrorist act? Or was this the result of a careless tourist who tossed his cigarette but in the wrong place? Or something else?
I suspect time will tell. [And, it seems to now be clear it was an accident, connected with the renovation of the cathedral.]
But for now, I grieve. For the loss, because even if the French (and others) rebuild Norte Dame de Paris, it will never be the same. We will know it’s a replica.
And I grieve for those who will never set foot in its hallowed halls and gaze upward with that combination of pure reverence and awe.
Yes, human life is more precious. And spiritual truth more eternal. But loss on this scale definitely shakes even the sleeping soul.
How do we cope when such events occur?
We live in an age where 24/7 news pummels us with all sorts of examples of nefarious human behavior, disaster, loss, injustice, and so much more. We cannot inoculate ourselves from these events. And yes, it is important for us to grieve — for a time.
Where we are able to help, we should. I suspect if Notre Dame de Paris were to run a GoFundMe campaign, they would well exceed their goals. But, of course, the cost of rebuilding is much more — both in terms of money, time and emotional energy.
So, how do we come to terms with what’s going on? How do we actually cope?
I think we need to move into a different space after we deal with the initial shock and grief. I don’t understand the tragedy, the pain. My mind wants to get an immediate explanation of what is happening. I want the facts. And I also want to know WHY. Not how it happened, but how it could happen.
But truth is, I will never know the answer to that last question. So I recognize, if I remain caught up in my emotions too long, I become dysfunctional.
Most of us need to recognize this situation is way out of our control. Once we recognize that, we can step back and process. We can observe. We can pray. And we can carry on, as functional adults who have our lives — work, family, other involvements.
There is this process of disassociating — or un-attaching— we need to pursue to get through these crises happening over and over. We also need to keep our eyes on something — Someone, I believe — higher.
We must surrender to that overall arc of our human experience, the eternal nature of the soul, the understanding of how, when all else comes crumbling down, whether inside or outside of our control (and much of it is the latter), we can still stand, we can still trust.
Going beyond the processing. Learning to become valiant.
This is how we cope. But even more so, this is where we can choose to become valiant. We can rise above the metaphorical — and real — ashes of tragedy, whether it is a direct hit or something like this experience of the fire of Notre Dame.
Yes, we process the shock and grief first. Of course, we are human; we cannot help but feel these things. But then we need to assess the level of control we have in it all. In this process, no matter what the tragedy — whether very personal or on the corporate level — we find a way to go on.
This, I believe, is the process of becoming valiant, even in the face of tragedy.
And for me, this is where personal faith comes in. It is more powerful than dry, mechanical religious practices (although there can be comfort in rituals, I won’t deny). It is relationship with a Creator who knows the whole picture when I don’t.
I have to settle with that. I have to settle with not knowing. And, though I grieve, I also arise. Because that is what our world needs — people who grapple deeply with tragedy but aren’t immobilized by it for too long.
Because there’s life to live and work to do, people to love and songs to sing. Even in the face of tragedy.