The Burning of a Cathedral

The Indestructible and Inconsumable Mysteries that Burn Within

Flames ravage the iconic Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. A priest, along with firefighters, rushes to rescue the Blessed Sacrament as well as the famous relic of the Crown of Thorns. All of this on what might be called Holy or Great and Holy Monday, the Monday during Holy Week.

There is a cavalcade of media reports. There is a procession of “guffaw” by secular media announcers about the loss of such an historical treasure as tragic. There were pronouncements of maintaining “oneness” with the people of Paris.

As sad a sign as this event may be, it pales in light of the sadness of the loss of faith in France. More people visit the Cathedral Basilica of Notre Dame to take pictures and selfies, and say to themselves, “I’ve been there,” than go to Mass on a regular basis.

Jesus once said of the temple, “and there will not be one stone left unturned” (Mt 24:2). At some point, I believe God whisks away the hedge of protection even to his holy shrines in favor of his people seeing first and foremost that the most holy of shrines for right praise are the individual immortal souls of his creation. It is as if God is saying to the people of the world who are taken with, saddened, and mystified with the burning of the illustrious cathedral: God is saying, “My people — forget the ancient stones in favor of remembering the ancient souls I have known since the beginning, the living stones, I have created which are temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Pet 2:4-8, Heb 13:15).

So it seems, nothing is sacred to the heart of man these days. While we are moved by events such as the fire engulfing the Cathedral of Notre Dame, we see few reflections of the soulful and spiritual profundity of such a loss. What we do see are reflections of a loss of history, culture, art, and even modernity. We even see a kind of defiance to the humility of it all in the words of President Macron that “we will rebuild.” This is almost reminiscent of an Israelite arrogance reflected after the Assyrian attacks (c. 740–681 BC) upon the northern kingdom of Israel. Eventually Assyria would completely obliterate the ten tribes of the north. But instead of heeding a call to humility after the first Assyrian attacks, the tribes manifested a “human will” as indicated in their response to God’s warning: “The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with hewn stones: the sycamores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars” (Is 9:10).

Of course, there needs to be a concerted effort to rebuild such an edifice, but if all we are rebuilding is a little bit of man’s brief brick and mortar history and culture — then it is in vain. We are reminded of what we reflected upon on Ash Wednesday: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen 3:19).

The mystery of this great Cathedral of Notre Dame was not in its stones, or even its physical beauty. Rather the mystery that should enrapture our heart is of indestructible components, sacramental components. The mystery is the simple consecrated bread so heroically scuttled out some back passage way through the billowing smoke and danger high up above in the scaffolding and the burning spire. The mystery is indeed more than the relic of the Crown of Thorns or any other artifact rescued that day. The secret is in the “living bread which came down from heaven” — that simple ciborium of consecrated bread, hosts made only of fine wheat flour, pure water, crushed and mashed, baked and cut into round unleavened wafers (Jn 6:51). This crushed wheat is the crushed body of Christ meant for the sacred moment of unity between the living stones of the soul and the crucified body of Jesus in the form of the host, as he enters our temple, nothing short of a true “communion” with God. It is a very personal thing, this mystery.

But if that soul has been burned down to the ground by the constant fires of the world’s distractions, the lack of temporal peace, the affinity for visible images rendered by the quickness of social media, the constant polarization between peoples in word and in bullet, the scorched earth approach to winning, and, finally, the lack of dependence upon God for the peace we fight for — there would be no way for us to rebuild what God has created.

The repentance called for during the season of Lent remains a call beyond Lent, and through all the other liturgical seasons of the Church. The rebuilding of the church does not happen with man’s ingenuity, engineering savoir faire — because the soul was engineered mysteriously by the ancient architect of the human soul, not of man’s design. We must bow down. We must conform ourselves to the humility of ashes. We must reflect on our sin of arrogance — our sin of wanting to reform the world to our image and likeness — the likeness of historicity, culture, political correctness, cultural relativism, and the shallow likeness of refreshment as a mirage in the desert.

So what really is burning before our eyes? As the stones remain, and as it seems the ancient stained rose window of the north apse appears to have escaped the heat of the flames of the fires of Holy Monday, the soul of Catholic France smolders. The soul of the Catholic Church likewise, is smoldering from the flames of sexual scandals, confusion in both pastoral and doctrinal direction from the very top of the magisterium — a smoldering that emphasizes form rather than function, externals rather than the deep reality of the Church’s sacramental life within the soul, and a smoldering that will be the cause of the crushing collapse of individual souls dying without “communion” and the Bread of Life within us. Thomas a Kempis writes: “I will speak unto my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. But if suddenly Thou look upon me, immediately I am made strong, and filled with new joy. And it is great marvel that I am so suddenly lifted up, and so graciously embraced by Thee, since I am always being carried to the deep by my own weight” (Imitation of Christ, Book III, Chap. 8).

When Jesus said those words, “not one stone shall be left unturned,” he knew that the politics of the time was leading to such a prediction. But he was more concerned about the living stones within us with the hope that after such a disassembly, we would see the truth – the naked truth of the need for our dependency upon him. “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chron 7:14).

In the same century that saw the beginning of the construction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a young man in the Umbrian Valley of Italy heard a message from a cross lying in a dust heap in the ruins of the little church of San Damiano near Assisi. The voice clearly said, “Francis, go rebuild my church.” Francis dutifully began a project and subjected himself to great humiliation as he begged for stones to rebuild the little Church structure. What he didn’t realize until the famous dream of Pope Innocent III of a man small in stature, dressed in rags, holding up the structure of the Cathedral of St. John Lateran was told to him by the Pope himself. Francis was to rebuild a church that had become enmeshed in temporal things and concerns, politics, Crusades, money, and intrigue. It was a picture of our world today.

The message of the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in the twenty-first century is that we must rebuild our decimated and smoldering Church using the indestructible living stones that are in communion with Christ. Along the way, we must beg for the foundational stones of sanctity, the stones of the solidity of right, and the stones of clarity of what are wrong. We must look to those elements of our humanity that do not pass away, but rather that go beyond the veil of death — go beyond what is vain and useless — go beyond the destructible – into St. Augustine’s Civitas Dei, the City of God, marveling at the indestructible and inconsumable mysteries that burn within each one of us like the burning bush (Ex 3:2). It is time to bow our heads, kneel, seek resurrectional penitence, receive the “rock of ages” in communion, and rebuild the cathedrals of our hearts (2 Sam 22:2, Deut 32:4, Ps 18:31).

Deacon Thomas Baca About Deacon Thomas Baca

Thomas Baca is a Permanent Deacon in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, currently assigned to St. Therese of the Infant Jesus Shrine in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Deacon Baca maintains a blog at: www.tentofthelord.blogspot.com . He has degrees in Journalism and Mass Communication, Philosophy, and Public Administration. He has served in several parishes in both the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, and the Diocese of Las Cruces where he served as Executive Director of Catholic Charities and where he also served Bishop Oscar Cantu as an advisor for Campaign for Human Development. He was ordained in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 2007.

Comments

  1. Avatar Rev. Sam Falbo says:

    Thanks Deacon, these words are so timely and so desperately needed when we as the People of God put more emphasis on the worldly than the spiritual. The material world has a way of obliterating the eternal spiritual world that our Savior constantly offer us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
    May God continue to bless you and your work.
    Fr. Sam

  2. Avatar Bea G Zienkosky says:

    This article is so beautiful to read and contemplate. It made me feel like The Church, is a living thing. Not just a building I go to every week, to do my duty for the week and sometimes to get it out of the way, I will never look upon my church that I attend any longer as a building but as a house where God Dwells and it is beautiful, not just for the relics that are so beautiful, and the icons, and the beautiful statue of the Pieta in it, but the Presence of God Is Here. I love my church and my faith, I felt like crying when I thought of the times I didn’t feel like going, not for a valid reason but just because I just didn’t feel like it. even though I rationalized that I was not feeling well,etc and once in awhile it was true. At 84, I some times don’t feel good. But once I go and am inside with the beautiful choir and the wonderful Priest coming in to say mass, I am so grateful that I have this hallowed ground that God gave us. It enlivens my as I go out the door and head home, I am like a new person.. Thank you God, for our wonderful Church.. signed, Your Daughter, Bea

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