Failure and Victory: Finding Personal Meaning in the Wreckage of Notre Dame

I write this just days after watching Paris’ Cathedral of Notre Dame become engulfed by flames and fearing that the most famous and treasured place of worship in all of Christendom after St. Peter’s Basilica would be reduced to stone and ash at the start of Holy Week.

Thankfully, the Cathedral is not wholly lost, but as it burned, it truly did seem like familiar parables and lessons were playing out before our eyes:

  • “In the blink of an eye…”
  • “Store up your treasures in heaven…”
  • “Upon this rock, I shall build my Church, that the gates of hell shall not prevail…”

The falling spire of Notre Dame felt almost portentous. My friend Tom McDonald wrote, “The thing about a fire in the sky: it makes you look up.” His words tapped memories of Marian prophecies warning of sky events “seen throughout the world,” – something that seemed impossible 100 years ago but is now reality. Yes, look up, look up, and see the signs and symbols that always accompany an awakened awareness of the unending battle between dark and light, between good and evil, between what is above us, inviting us to rise, and what is below us, and would drag us to its depths.

As the fire spread, many of us prayerfully asked, Lord, why Notre Dame; why at the start of Holy Week? Why would God permit it? What are we supposed to take away from this great horror — a portion of our past burning away in the face of such an uncertain future — besides spiritual sorrow and endless debris?

All the Fails

It feels a bit like a shared penance — the universal church suffering the loss of one of its universally-admired structures, in reparation for her many soul-shattering sins. An absolute beauty taken from an institutional body of faith that had brought too much ugliness into the world – a blaze brought to a church spectacularly failing in its mission to “light a fire” on the earth.

A Church failing as 50% of her youth depart into the whirlwind of the “nones”, where they seek not a different encounter with Christ, but no encounter at all, because the Church has botched its job of teaching why the encounter is everything.

A Church failing as entrenched leadership seem unable to unite in ready humility to atone for the soul-shattering clerical abuses  of children, seminarians, and nuns, thereby contributing to so much that is ugly, broken and damnable.

A Church whose future – it must seem to the world — seemed written in the smoke of Notre Dame, rising to heaven like spoiled incense: Flammis acribus addictis.

Consigned to flames of woe.

As those flames flickered against the Parisian sky many asked, “How do we enter into the Easter vigil and its long Alleluia Season of victory and resurrection, in the face of such catastrophic failure?”

And yet, when the smoke was cleared, and the first images of the cathedral’s interior came to us, we got our answer, and it was stunning. Within the charred remains, the beauty had held. Here were the incredible statues. There were the stained-glass windows. There was Our Lady of Paris.

And there, untouched by the conflagration, was the Cross – upright, shimmering in the light, inviting us forward.

It was a moment of spectacular grace, and the world seemed to experience it with a collective sigh of relief, because where there is the Cross, there is hope, mercy, redemption offered to all of us amid our interior wreckage.

Since seeing that image, I’ve been taking the fire at Notre Dame personally, because it has so perfectly reflected my Lent, which I’d begun with enthusiasm, approaching the toughest discipline I’d ever undertaken as though I were a champ heading into the ring with a knockout record – ready for victory, for the sake of Christ.

Oh, fool. Within weeks, I was not just letting down my guard but bloodied and on the ropes. My spirit was being pummeled as I (all too willingly) opened myself up to sin – both new iniquities I’d never expected in myself, and despised old behaviors whose false charms invited me to dance and then entrapped me in a viselike grip once I drew near, pulling me down, down, down.

How quickly my spiritual spires, raised with such good intentions but supported by little more than self-will, crumbled in upon me in. Easter was approaching like a countdown, and I was sin-battered, my soul staggering and mute, no victory in sight.

I had tried to raise up glory to God, but it had been my own notion of glory, relying on my own efforts. My failure was predestined thanks to the rickety foundation of shallow self-sufficiency upon which I had tried to build, and the utter lack of attention I gave to the necessity of grace.

The Voice of Grace

In Paris, on Monday evening, we could hear it — the voice of grace rising as French citizens sang hymns to Mary while her Cathedral burned; the voice of grace carrying our gasps as those first pictures emerged from its depths, with the Cross front and center – recognizable and whole, and so reassuring.

The voice of grace, ringing like a great bell of mercy, leading us to another chance.

Parables before our eyes, indeed.

  • And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.
  • See, I make all things new…
  • Do not be afraid…

Victory, like the Resurrected Christ, shows its wounds even in glory; they give testimony to the paradoxical cost of triumph, which is one’s complete surrender.

It took my Lenten disintegration to remind me that what we were meant to achieve through our Lenten practices is not a personal victory, but a surrender. That our habits of pride and stiff-necked recalcitrance must sometimes require a surprise assault upon our interior structure, and an unexpected collapse, before anything good may rise and come forth in resurrection and glory.

This is true for each of us, and for the institutional Church, as well. We must fall into the hands of the living God – a fearsome thing – and then rely on grace to build Christ’s glory within us, and in the Church and throughout world. There is no other way.

In the image of a fire-gutted Notre Dame, I see myself, and I see the whole Church, newly vulnerable in unexpected victory through Christ. Having attached ourselves to his surrender, we await our resurrection in his.

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2019-04-18T11:02:17-04:00

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