In the aftermath of the sack of Rome by Alaric and his Goths, St. Jerome wrote:
The world sinks into ruin: yes! But shameful to say our sins still live and flourish. The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire; and there is no part of the earth where Romans are not in exile. Churches once held sacred are now but heaps of dust and ashes; and yet we have our minds set on the desire of gain. We live as though we are going to die tomorrow; yet we build as though we are going to live always in this world. Our walls shine with gold, our ceilings also and the capitals of our pillars; yet Christ dies before our doors naked and hungry in the persons of His poor.
I am writing these words as the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is burning to the ground.
It is hard for an American to imagine the shock that men felt when Rome, the ruler of the great Mediterranean world, was put to the torch. Rome had not been sacked in 700 years. Hannibal had been at the gates, but he never got inside. Catiline sought to ruin it from within, but Cicero checkmated him. A corrupt senate, massive dislocations of a once-stable agricultural populace, armies loyal not to the state but to their free-dealing commanders, and ambitious aristocrats nearly destroyed the state, but the steel-cold Augustus Caesar triumphed over his rivals and set the stage for 200 years of relative peace. And now this same Rome had been overrun.
Or had it? What is Jerome really talking about? Not the churches that are “heaps of dust and ashes,” but Christians who live as if they were not wayfarers in this world on an appointment with the grave and judgment. They eat, drink, and make merry, living for the passing day, but they scramble up their riches, as if they were never going to die. They live high, and despise the low, especially the poor, in whose persons they scorn and mock the Christ they say they worship.
Jerome could say such things, because the true edifice of his Christian civilization was very much intact.
I feel no such comfort today.
As I write, no one knows whether the fire was accidental or the work of arsonists. I will not speculate here. People in such moments will grasp at what comfort they can find. I have heard it said that the loss is merely cultural, not spiritual. “Merely” is a word I will never place before “cultural.” Those who do so imply unwittingly that the substance, the culture, is already gone. No man says, while the flames reduce his home to cinders, “Well, it was only a home where our family has lived for a hundred years.” There is no such thing, for man, as only a home.
The French are duly mourning the loss. A sour Jerome would doubtless say that they might do better to mourn their sins. But there is a strange connection between dry eyes, all these years, and the tears now.
A family not warmed by love might mourn all the more the loss of a place, because without the house, the half-home, they have so little else. A people who have forgotten or forsaken Christ might mourn all the more the loss of the cathedral, because they have in his place only the great Nothing of our world, a Nothing of creature comforts, easy sex, shallow entertainment, and the restlessness of acedia.
I mourn the empty cathedral.
We have been evacuating cathedrals for a long time now. Burning them, too, and a lot of other things. We have been burning libraries, as Ray Bradbury tried to teach us. We burn them by our scorn for quiet, and for the good rich books of our heritage. We have been burning churches. Philip Larkin, atheist with a guilty conscience about it, could call a church a serious place on serious ground. Our intelligentsia are not nearly so honest or generous. They like to play with matches.
We have been burning schools. The schola is a place of leisure, of education for man when he is free; we have turned them into dens of politics, engines of human manufacture, sinks of dullness. We have been burning universities. Millennia of human wisdom? To the torch.
And Notre-Dame de Paris burns.
People are saying that we cannot build such a thing now. That is true. We lack the artisans. We do not have the techne: we likely could not fashion a single many-colored jewel in the 16-rayed north window, with the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child in the center of all. We cannot make the glass. We cannot mix the colors. We would have to guess and do our best.
But we would not build it now. It is not just that our hands lack the skill. Our hearts do not beat warmly enough, and our minds do not see. Think of that Mother and Child. What did it mean? The whole of creation and the life of man revolve, like the spokes of a wheel, about the submission of a woman to the will of God, and the humility of Christ, who emptied himself, and came to dwell among us in human form, not as an Alaric or Augustus, but as a servant, obedient unto death.
What have we built? What do we love?
Try to imagine it. Carpenters, glazers, masons, sculptors, smiths in lead, iron, copper, silver, and gold; with shovels, pulleys, winches, sledges, hammers; scaffolding everywhere; men like high-wire artists hundreds of feet in the air; decades of work, under the direction of bishop and master builder, one after another; and stories, hundreds of stories, of Christ and Mary and the apostles, of patriarchs and prophets, of teachers and martyrs, men and women, kings and common laborers; culture bearing a hundredfold in the very beings of the people who raised the towers high.
Try to imagine it, and weep.
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