Rebuilding What We Never Made: Notre Dame

Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be […]

Duo Dickinson / 4.17.19

Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah. (Matthew 17:4)

Those tabernacles were the best way that St. Peter could fully express his love of Jesus. But they were just another human stab at loving God, and went unbuilt. Now, when I am in Rome (the place of Peter’s crucifixion), I hear that another tabernacle to God has been gutted by fire. Notre Dame in Paris is found to be as fragile as any of us.

Christophe Petit Tesson/POOL/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Yesterday I was touring St. Peter’s Basilica with a PhD in antiquities and a devout Catholic. She was devastated by the loss Monday night of Notre Dame in Paris. She expressed her endless knowledge of both religion and history by sharing the intricate realities of man’s conquest of materials at St. Peter’s.

My friend lamented Note Dame’s incineration. “The windows are gone, the roof is gone. Only a few firefighters were there in ten minutes, and it took an hour to get the rest there. An hour.” She was bereft.

Human beings made Notre Dame, were keeping it alive and functional, and were traveling there in droves for hundreds of years to revel in its dominance over the earth’s randomness. Whether everyone knows it or not, the creation and appreciation of Notre Dame and St. Peter’s celebrates our gifts to God.

In those uncounted efforts, perhaps one was repairing the roof, which meant molten lead was left somewhere, too hot for too long. What was used to keep the rainwater out of Notre Dame Cathedral may have set its ancient, dry timbers ablaze.

Hubert Hitier/AFP/Getty Images

Thousands upon thousands of people built Notre Dame and chose not to have fire protection woven into it. One of those people may have ended its viability. Until we fix it. And we will. Because we can.

But not even an architect can design faith in our Savior. Not even during Holy Week. My faith in God is on a different plane than any fully designed, engineered, and crafted construction. Every building simply fails over time, just like every human. But the love of God becomes present in the work I do, and that love is without beginning or end — it just is.

We want to build our devotion, and then we love what we have built: but faith is not a building. In the aforementioned Bible verse, St. Peter was vetoed when he tried to build those tabernacles, yet he helped inspire a place for Grace in the world that fully lives after he is long dead. What has existed for 2,000 years will exist tomorrow, and after every devastation, because we did not make it. God did.

We all want to be the architects of our lives and to rely on what we create to manifest what we will be. We try, very hard, to build timeless realities. But knowing how to do things often has precious little to do with what we control in our lives.

I am a state-designated “Historic Architect,” the 25-year Property Chair of an 1816 church. I work on any number of religious buildings every year, for the last 40 years.

At any number of endless meetings at these places of worship, I say that every care must be taken in every aspect of building to the glory of God, and people nod their heads. But when I say that if these buildings are gone tomorrow, that they are just things, and that God is what lives, not our constructions, it is disturbing to just about everyone in the room. We want to build tabernacles, just like Peter.

Faith in things has a shelf-life. Faith in Jesus is fully detached from our dedications. That love is there, whether we think we earned it, made it, deserve it, or not. What I, or you, build is here and now, until it is gone. Until we are gone.

Jesus built a huge life in 33 years, 2,000 years ago. It was ended. But it began again by the Grace of the Father. Like every thing. In the ashes of our own lives, which always end, the reality of faith is hard to trust. We turn to the flying buttresses of career and achievement to make all this construction here, now, worth it. But none of it earns any love, no matter how joyous our expression is.

All buildings end. All people end. The unending truth of God in our lives cannot be constructed. It is already there.

Now let’s rebuild Notre Dame.