We sense an almost mystical importance with events like the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral. The ancient kings employed teams of magicians and diviners for just such a moment. The fiery plunge of a much revered spire would have been seen as an omen. A warning. A message from the gods–who spoke as much via events on earth as they did via events in heaven.
On some level we remember such a time when the world was full of meaning. On some level we still yearn for that. We sense this ancient spire falling was a sign.
Yet we’re a materialist culture now. There are no state diviners to enfold us in a specifically meaningful story. Instead of wondering what the gods were trying to tell us, quickly the news runs to our go-to story, which is all about the indomitable human spirit. “Something was lost. But we won’t be defeated. We’re singing. We’re standing together. We’ll rebuild and rise again.”
Flowers, vigils, and resolve have their place. But we’re living through important times–so we should work a little harder. Even without state diviners, we can use our innate symbolic intelligence to unearth a deeper meaning. What is the warning here? What do you see?
Diviners work with logical grids. That the fire burned at the top, roof and spire, suggests a different meaning than had it burned through the altar and pews. That it ignited at the start of Holy Week and not on a Tuesday in June—this is another piece of the story. That the cathedral walls and interior, that its stained glass windows, organ, and priceless relics all survived—this too is a message. And what was lost besides the roof’s structure? It’s what was in the roof’s structure. Gone is the wood from the forest of 12th Century oaks that pointed roof and spire toward heaven. You could say that whether the fire was intentional or accidental also matters, but for a culture who believes gods are speaking, there are no accidents. It’s all intentional.
The ancient diviners would have looked at the significance of the hour when the fire began and the direction–north, south, west, or east–of the smoke. These details elude us now. We can start more simply. An important cathedral burned and its spire fell. What does the cathedral symbolize? What in our world is burning and in danger of destruction?
Here are a few suggestions from the morning news … an obvious symbol is Catholicism, which certainly has been consumed by the flames of its own controversies. “Notre Dame is one of the great symbols of Paris and all of Western Civilization,” said the morning news anchor. The burning of a great architectural masterpiece could symbolize the tenuous situation of other great works of humanity, like democracy and justice. President Macron said, “Notre Dame is our history. Our literature. Our imagination. … A part of us is burning.”
The ancient diviners disagreed with each other frequently. Divining is a subjective art. But that doesn’t mean anything goes. Getting the message right matters. Perhaps you already have your own interpretation.
As for me, over here near the Oregon coast, I lean toward the cathedral as a fitting emblem for all of us, for humanity, for civilization. And the warning? I keep thinking of the forest of 12th Century trees that were lost. These can’t be recreated. These precious gifts of nature are forever gone, like the flora and fauna disappearing, as the effects of climate change keep showing themselves. I hear echoes of the sobering message of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist, who keeps telling the adults in charge, the politicians and economists, “I want you to panic. Our house is on fire. I am here to say our house is on fire.”
That the fire burned high–destroying roof and spire–suggests it’s our relationship with the sacred world that needs mending. I’m heartened by how much of Notre Dame and its relics were saved. This too is part of the omen. It suggests that we can save ourselves if we unite and act quickly. At Notre Dame, within minutes, as firefighters fought, a human chain had gathered, passing the relics to safety in record time. Yes we can do amazing things and not just rebuild cathedrals. We can save our planet. We can save ourselves.
But the gods are warning, “Hurry up. You don’t have much time.”