The Day We All Knew

Making Wisdom Popular

Notre Dame Burning.jpg

Today—April 15, 2019—will go down in history as the Day We All Knew—knew that whatever we were, whatever it was that gave our civilization its life, its ingenuity, its glory, is gone.

This was the day when large portions of Notre Dame de Paris, the cathedral of Paris for nearly a thousand years, burned to the ground. It had survived the convulsions of the Black Death, religious furies, Revolution, and two world wars. But it was in our day that it crumbled. This stunningly gorgeous, beautiful, and transcendent building has suffered catastrophic damage.

Everyone felt the ominous significance of the event. Religious or non-religious, there was a ubiquitous terror that this fire represented something deeper—something far more profound than just a building being destroyed. It was as if the bells of Notre Dame were tolling their last for the civilization that cast them.  We knew we were in some mysterious sense watching the climax of a multi-century suicide.

Despite all our vaunted “freedom,” all our cherished “rights,” all our technological “liberation,” our souls have become empty.  We have gained the world, but lost the only thing that truly matters.

Today represents something—we all feel it. It stares us in the face with what we’ve abandoned, with who we were, with who we still could be but for our refusal. So many of us are mourning, because a gorgeous monument that represents Her that formed our civilization in Her womb, has been incinerated.

The Church: Builder of the West

That “Her” is the Catholic Church.

The West would not be what it is but for the Catholic Church. No Church—no West. Indeed, the very idea of Europe itself did not proceed from the sword of the Roman Empire, but from the heart of Holy Mother Church, whose missionaries, often sent by the Successors of St. Peter in Rome, brought the Faith of the crucified Galilean to every one of its corners.  “Europe,” and all that has proceeded from it, exists only because of the Catholic Church.

Her influence was, for centuries, the guiding light of European civilization, a civilization that birthed modern music, the university, science, and art renowned the world over. She preached the dignity of man as none had done before Her.   She spread literacy, and educated the masses.  In an age of chaos, disease, war, and brutality, She made possible the advancement of the meritorious, no matter their background (indeed, the Bishop who began the building of Notre Dame began life as a serf!). She offered a ray of hope for millions of souls.  She raised the dignity of women to previously unfathomable heights.  Indeed, “Notre Dame” means “Our Lady,” a reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who the Church continues to honor and venerate as the “New Eve” of the new creation—a creation inaugurated by Her Son, Jesus Christ, the “New Adam.” She invented orphanages, built hospitals at a rate un-imagined by the pagans, and preserved the Scriptures and other priceless works of scholarship and literature through some of the most chaotic periods of history.

The Church mothered our civilization—imperfectly, but undeniably. But for the Catholic Church, the West would not be what it is.

But it is this heritage the West has been running away from for centuries. The process is nearly complete.  The Church remains, but Christianity has been shattered into shards of self-made religious ideologies. The secular world thinks too well of itself to admit its need for the Church that taught it the philosophical and theological bases of its most cherished assumptions. We in the West have grown to despise not just religion, and not just organized religion, but the Catholic religion most of all, for the Catholic faith, at its best, makes strident demands of us. When once we learn Her lessons, we know the hour of decision has arrived—either we perish on a cross, and live; or we live as we wish, and die.  More than any other institution in the history of the world, the Catholic Church calls all men to deny that very thing the modern West believes is at the root of all it calls “happiness”: the self.

And yet, when one of Her—and formerly our—greatest monuments goes up in flames, we cannot help but mourn.


Haunted by the Shadow of the Catholic Church

A Rabbi friend of mine once made a fascinating remark about the many Jews who, likewise, have abandoned their own religious heritage in favor of the latest secular ideologies. How, indeed, could they become the devotees of political ideologies with such fanaticism—strangers, as it were, to the very Jewishness whose labels they kept, but whose substance they had abandoned? “Because,” this Rabbi said, “every Jew is haunted by the shadow of Moses.”

I could scarce provide a better answer—appropriately amended—to this aching question of why, despite our supposed hatred and abandonment of everything that built “Our Lady of Paris” cathedral, we can with all sincerity mourn Her destruction: because we, as a civilization, are haunted by the shadow of the Catholic Church.

She taught us everything that has been essential to all we love most—most significantly, perhaps, the idea that Revelation and Reason are not antagonists, but partners in the elevation of the human person and society. It was She who fused the genius of Jerusalem and Athens. It was She who thereby provided the transcendent basis for human dignity, responsibility, and endeavor.  In doing so, She made the West unique among all the civilizations of the earth.

That is why when a part of the Church dies—when a part of our Mother dies—a part of the West dies. We mourn for something we declare with our mouths we hate, but which we affirm with our tears we somehow long for. We mourn for something we no longer understand or believe—and yet we mourn nonetheless.

As Catholic historian Christopher Dawson observed, “the culture which has lost its spiritual roots is a dying culture, however prosperous it may appear externally.” For centuries, the West has abandoned the Church but for whom it would not be what it is.  Indeed, many professed Catholics have worked for the abandonment of the Church in the name of the Church!

And yet in doing this, we have abandoned the presence of God in our midst—an outpost of the transcendent—the bridge between two worlds, Heaven and earth, that makes human life meaningful, and infuses it with purpose. That’s precisely what Notre Dame’s builders believed She was: an outpost, a foreshadowing of Heaven itself—a place of Sacrifice, of the humble presence of the Divine under the appearance of bread and wine, of angelic hosts with whom to join the chorus of the Trinity. 

It is for this reason alone that in a world far harsher, far less comfortable, far less convenient than our own, they built what they knew only their granchildren’s grandchildren would ever see.  That’s what men with chests do.  Men without them settle for screens, sex, and sloth, too absorbed in their own boredom to create anything that lasts.

And that is precisely what the modern West has forgotten—that which lasts.  That which endures.  That which transcends time and space.  That which is eternal, the very thing the Catholic Church exists to remind man of.  Notre Dame was dedicated to Christ and His Mother, and was intended to last until His return.  Even now, after this devastating fire, the stone of Notre Dame remains largely intact, providing perhaps an ample-enough skeleton with which to rebuild.  But where will you find such buildings today?  Indeed, even most of our modern churches are worse than banal—they are ugly.  We simply don’t build things like Notre Dame anymore.  For beauty itself is that transcendent quality which most reminds us of the eternity we have conveniently, and self-servingly, forgotten—and yet when we behold it, we know that despite all the tragedy of life, this is what we are created for.

Destroy this, and human life becomes un-moored.  It is fastened to little more than the wind.  With what glee we boast in our un-anchored liberty!  And yet when once we lift our heads and behold that which is anchored, we know deep down that our liberty, our “freedom,” our mere things and amusements, are not nearly what they are cracked up to be. We’ve gained the world, yes. But in a very real sense, the modern half-man of the West has lost his soul.

All this, because we are haunted by the shadow of the Church which built our civilization, and the eternity in our hearts which it constantly reminded us of through the power of Truth and beauty. Say what you will of the sins of the Church’s members—and they are many. But wherever you find the Catholic Church, you will invariably find beauty which teaches Truth, and reminds us of eternity.

The Day We All Knew

April 15, 2019 was the Day We All Knew—whatever it was that had made us who we were, we, its inheritors, had squandered it. We knew that what we saw burning in Paris we have been allowing to burn for generations. We’d been telling ourselves that the likes of Notre Dame belonged to a disgusting past of superstition, oppression, and backwardness—but today we realized we had only been projecting. We’d grown rather fond of the idea that our ancestors were the barbarians, and we were more than happy to outgrow them. But today we knew—and we felt our knowing—that it is we who have become the barbarians. How strange are our tears at this destruction, when our eyes have been dry for so long!

The medieval period was no heaven—it was full of corrupt, sinful, depraved people, as all times are. But today we saw that it had something which modern man, in the midst of his fratricidal world wars—his dulling, homogenizing, mass-produced, intelligence-sapping prosperity—and his sexual libertinism (which in America alone has cost more human lives than World War II because of abortion), doesn’t.

Tolstoy defined boredom as “the desire for desires.” Today we realized that modern man is utterly bored—and that medieval man was not.

Today was the Day We All Knew that spit at Her as we may, slander Her as we do, revile Her as we have, Christ’s Church brings glory into the world whose loss we cannot help but mourn. Even the stones cry out! She is someone we fashionably hate, but when a part of Her is extinguished, we ourselves feel extinguished.

Today was the Day We All Knew that we had witnessed the destruction of something that would possibly never come back in our lifetimes—a structure made entirely without the material wonders we so boast of, but which nonetheless puts the secular, ugly, nihilistic West to shame.

Today was the Day We All Knew that the medieval barbarians who built what they knew they’d never see for the sake of Him who they had not seen, had an eternity in their hearts that modern man, drowning in creature comforts, meaningless sex, banal entertainment, and electronic stultification, could only dream of.

Today was the Day We All Knew that in the immolation of this glorious cathedral, we were in fact confronted with our own self-immolation.

Today was the Day We All Knew that we are not what we have told ourselves. We have not, in fact, outgrown our Mother. Battered and bruised as She is, we still need Her.

Today was the Day We All Knew that as a civilization, we had made ourselves orphans—and yet still can’t bring ourselves to go back to our Mother.

Our various forms of knowledge diverge more and more. Authority, the very principle of life, loses its meaning, and this awful edifice of civilization which we have inherited, and which is still our trust, trembles and threatens to crash down.

In such a crux there remains the historical truth: that this our European structure, built upon the noble foundations of classical antiquity, was formed through, exists by, is consonant to, and will stand only in the mold of, the Catholic Church. Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish. The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith.

Hilaire Belloc, “Europe and the Faith"