by Joanie Butman
Who wasn’t affected this week witnessing the collapse of Notre Dame’s famed spire? It’s no wonder France, along with countries around the globe, mourn the loss of this beloved cathedral – or parts of it. It’s a tragedy, of course, but it’s still just a building. From what I’ve heard, there was only one serious injury by a firefighter and many religious relics and priceless artwork were rescued. Given the severity of the blaze and the speed with which it travelled, that alone is miraculous. Coupled with the removal of the long-standing statues of the apostles on the spire just days prior, I’d say there was Divine intervention afoot for sure.
It is a stark reminder that we live in an imperfect, temporal world. Jesus’ words resounded in my head as I watched the flames consume this : “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away.” The ubiquitous photo of the glowing cross rising above the ashes inside the cathedral the following morning is testimony to this truth. God’s church is not made of brick and mortar.“ Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). We are His cathedral. “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (1 Corinthians 3:16).
The same way onlookers created a human chain to rescue irreplaceable treasures from Notre Dame, it’s even more important for us to employ the same tactic in sharing His love and compassion with the world. God is not interested in artifacts. Gold and finery mean nothing to Him. We are His most treasured possession. As such, I was challenged to ask myself, “Am I choosing to stoke His flame within me for others to see, or dousing it with things that will provide worldly comfort and significance for myself?” We’re all just passing through this world. What will rise out of our remains is determined by how we choose to answer that question.
That’s not to say worldly achievements and spiritual ones are mutually exclusive. God has given us all unique gifts and talents meant to benefit His world. For some, that may involve great things which will include a certain amount of recognition, notoriety and even wealth. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, for most of us, it is simply doing small things with great love. As Mother Theresa reminds us, “It is not how much we do, but how much love we put in the doing.” In other words, it’s not what you do. It’s who you are while you’re doing it.
The fact that the fire occurred during Holy Week was not lost on me. Could this calamity be a wake-up call? Christ’s redemptive formula has always been one of devastation and restoration. Holy Week is the definitive example of His modus operandi. Maybe the cathedral had taken on more historical and architectural significance as the “symbol of France” rather than its original intention as a house and symbol of God. Perhaps the world had fallen into a familiar pattern of worshipping the creation rather than its Creator. Individually and corporately, God uses pain to get our attention. C.S. Lewis wisely states, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
The Catholic Church as a whole lies in a state of disrepair, in desperate need of an overhaul on many issues – most notably the matter of child abuse by priests. Perhaps the infrastructure of a ‘religion’ providing those priests a safe haven needs to be toppled in order for it to rise again out of the ashes.
The spire (which wasn’t original to the structure) may have fallen, but the façade and the iconic, medieval bell towers still stand. The question now is what will we fill it with? Relics and religious antiquities or God’s most precious possession - people of faith sharing God’s love, mercy and compassion? On a more personal level, if we are His temple, what am I choosing to put into mine?
The original structure took almost two centuries to build yet people are horrified at the thought that it may take a decade to restore. That mindset reflects our modern obsession with immediate gratification. When construction began on Notre Dame in 1163, workers understood and were willing to sacrifice and commit their entire lives to something they would never see completed. We are called to do the same as modern-day cathedral builders. It brought to mind a story I once heard:
“…a rich man who came to visit a cathedral while it was being built, and he saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam that would eventually be covered over by the roof. He was puzzled and asked the manwhy he was spending so much time and giving so much attention to something no one would ever see. The builder never looked up. He never stopped carving as he replied, ‘Because God sees.’”
Even Jesus didn’t know when He would come again, ushering in God’s new Heaven and new earth. Nevertheless, we can choose to live as if the completion of God’s Kingdom will be tomorrow. It took a life-threatening illness to force me to reevaluate my life and experience a total shift in focus and priorities. My life as I knew it lay in ruins. Yet, out of the wreckage Christ brought something new and beautiful. I’ve no doubt He will do the same with Notre Dame because He is a God of restoration. As I’ve often been told, “If you miss the crucifixion, you’ll never experience the resurrection.” So, so true. Without the pain of Good Friday, we wouldn’t be celebrating Easter today.
When faced with the real possibility of losing all that I loved, I finally discovered God was all I needed. It was only when I chose to surrender everything to Christ that I could say with honesty that my most prized possession became my faith, “and this is not from myself, it is the gift of God.” That shift didn’t necessarily change what I did, but it did change the manner in which I did it. What’s more, it is the only thing I can carry with me into eternity.
What is your most treasured possession, and what kind of cathedrals are you choosing to build?
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? (1 Corinthians 3:10-16)