The liberation of Our Lady

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Churches, for the most part, feel confining. No matter how grand and beautiful, no matter how high the ceiling, they tend to shut out the world, which always seemed wrong, an attempt to "house," and therefore contain, an uncontainable deity. There are exceptions, of course: Unity Temple in Oak Park, for instance, and the wonderful chapel at New Melleray Abbey in Iowa. 

Many believers seem to think they need to be removed from the world in order to find the sacred. But the world recently found its way into one grande dame: Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Most see churches as sanctuaries, but I think of them as tombs of worship, where spirituality too often deadens and eventually dies from lack of oxygen. Hallowed hollows of stone. Spiritual caves. The festivities last week — Holy Week, the week Notre-Dame burned — celebrated the belief that Jesus left his tomb and bid us do likewise. Transcend your cave. Be reborn.

It makes a mighty metaphor. Plato, too, used the cave to represent the mind, where shadows on the ceiling intimate something greater, something beyond, something we need to leave the cave to fully grasp. What lies beyond our limits.

When I want to feel a sense of the sacred, I go outside, especially in the morning, washed clean by night, where I feel closest to what I would call the divine. Even then, I find myself beneath the blue dome of day, an awe-inciting cathedral in its own right, which gives way to the star-studded eternity of night. Outside the cave of my bedroom and the cave of my mind, on a Saturday or Sunday morning in April, when Austin Gardens is carpeted with spring beauty, scilla, Dutchman's breeches, wild columbine, unfolding mayapple umbrellas, Virginia bluebells, toothwort, trout lilies, trillium, and an assortment of other spring beauties, I tread on sacred ground.

Others prefer church, viewing it as a sanctuary from the destructive forces of the outside world. Last week, one of those forces breeched the 850-year-old slumbering sanctuary of Notre-Dame Cathedral and left it smoldering. A testament to 12th century stonemasons, soldiers of civilization, the structure's solidity was largely taken for granted until the roof burst into flames.

Through a hole left in the ceiling, debris fell from the consumed spire, charred beams littering the floor before the altar like a pyre for sacrificial offerings. 

And something else. 

Daylight poured in, reminiscent of ancient temples like the Roman Pantheon or Native American kivas or the chimneys of home hearths, connecting those inside to the heavens. An opening, to let the spirit out … or in. A different kind of beauty, detected amidst the devastation, bringing to mind a line from a Leonard Cohen song, "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

The light that, every 850 years or so, needs to get in.

An Economist magazine wordsmith was among the many who waxed poetic/nostalgic in the days following the conflagration: "Why has the fire at Notre Dame stirred such emotion in France? In a city of broad vistas and stolen glimpses, it serves as a fixed point for Parisians; a stable presence that emerges reliably into view, like a much-loved aunt, from bridges across the river Seine. Visited by 13 million tourists a year, the cathedral has been the backdrop to countless expressions of awe and romance, as well as been-there selfies. Locals may be riled by the narcissistic crowds, but are proud of what draws them. The 850-year-old cathedral is a national landmark that offers something particular: a form of timelessness, drama and spirituality, to set against the modernity and engineering prowess of the Eiffel Tower."

Yet this symbol was inert for many — until, in its openness, fragility and vulnerability, Notre-Dame was resurrected.

The image of the burning building also resurrected a memory from 1973, when, making my way through Western Europe on spring break during my semester abroad, I found myself in a pew in this cavernous vault one afternoon — entirely alone if memory serves — until I heard the faintest of sounds from the organ behind me, so faint I wondered if it were real. Was it some angelic visitation, an auditory hallucination, or simply a mischievous organist trying to spook the tourists with a haunting, mysterious melody? I'll never know, but it preserved my relationship with the place so that I gasped nearly a half-century later when I heard the church was ablaze. At that moment, Notre-Dame became a living symbol again — for a world that has been losing faith in all its institutions.

Most of us have some connection with "Our Lady," known to many, mainly, as the tail end of "The Hunchback of …" or to Catholic sports fans in the Midwest as the "other Notre Dame."

People enjoyed the luxury of taking this anchor for granted until fire performed its ministry. Then they cried, the edifice never more alive than in its moment of greatest peril. The roof was still ablaze when Emmanuel Macron, politics on his mind, vowed it would be rebuilt. 

Not so fast. Take a moment, first, to think of the many centuries that have elapsed inside this brooding tomb. Take a moment to walk through the ruins in solemn silence, to consider the workmen who fashioned then fastened those timbers, forming a roof that cut off the faithful from the awesome otherness of their fashioned, fastened God. A moment to remember those who toiled in obscurity, their names and numbers unrecorded, leaving as their legacy a cathedral to house a crown of thorns.

Then take a moment to linger, savoring this brief liberation of Our Lady, resurrected, pulsing with life, her tomb filled with sunlit April air.


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