Notre-Dame Cathedral Fire

This week, one of the most iconic buildings in Paris has burned and many people, including myself felt heartbroken by the 15 hours fire that destroyed 2/3 of the Cathedral’s roof. The grief over the burning is completely human, but why do we fell like this incident happened in our own home, a deep sense of empathy, even from people that have never visited the Cathedral nor are religious?



My hypothesis lays on what this building represents and how our society nowadays is so far distant from that idea. First, we have to go back in time to France in 1160, when the work to build the Cathedral begun. By that time (Medieval Europe), the project and construction of such a building presented enormous challenges, not only in the engineering side, but also in resources available, from workers to raw materials. To overcome this problem, the construction of the Cathedral initiated by Bishop Maurice de Sully was divided in three stages, and took roughly two hundred years to be completed. In such a long time, it is easy to imagine that hundreds if not thousands of people died in the construction site from accidents, sickness, or even simply from the low life expectancy of the intensive labor. As for the raw material for the building itself, even if they were available from local sources surrounding Paris in the quality stone necessary to support such structure, still, transporting stone was certainly costly and demanding, even over a short distance. Thus people involved on the project, from the Bishop, to the workers knew they hardly would see the finished product of their work, and that was fine, because working for a greater idea than their own merely existence was rewarding enough.

Furthermore, our values today are different from the past and differently spread. In medieval Europe, the church had immense power over the citizens and was the source of moral values and sometimes even the law. Those values were then transmitted in the households and homes from Lords to servants, and from parents to children. The moral code had deep influence in the society understanding of their mundane life and their purpose, which allowed them to have a broader perspective of the individual responsibility in the community and a greater commitment in building ideas and even buildings they would not likely see completed.

Nowadays it is impossible to imagine a project that would take the commitment of generations to be built. Our society, in desperate need for immediate validation, is constantly looking for projects that could quickly and less costly be concluded. For us, short term projects are from 6 months up to two years from now, while long term projects are up to ten years from now. Our medieval relatives would call us shortsighted for thinking so close ahead, but that is because It probably took ten years only to build the foundation of the Notre-Dame Cathedral and half a century to raise its walls.

In addition, the search for new and personal goals was practically nonexistent. If a man was a shoemaker or a stone-carver, he would probably pass its craft to their sons, who would continue the job until they passed it to the next generation. The same thing happened with Kings, Lords and Barons. This model of communal purpose worked perfectly in assuring continuity overtime necessary to complete a colossal project, such as the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Some people may say it was horrible not to have freedom to choose their own path in life, and I would agree, but to be honest, I see nowadays so many people lost and desperately searching for a meaning in life, that I believe they would gladly accept a purpose that was passed to him than going thru the hard and adventurous task of finding their own.

Thus, the grief over the burning of the Cathedral may not be about the building itself, but rather what it represents. Even without knowing, we may be felling a sentimental yearning for the past instead, when life passed slowly and had more meaning and purpose. We all fell lonely or lost sometimes, that is because we are constantly changing our priorities and projects in life, while our medieval European cousins had probably one virtue and purpose in their lifetime, and that was serving God.

I am not saying we are now worse than men and women from medieval Europe, what I am saying is that buildings like the Notre-Dame Cathedral will not be built again in the future, or at least, not with the same blind commitment we as a society once had, trusting each other to continue the work and the project and moving forward. The sadness and grief are the result of Nostalgia of what buildings like the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Pyramids in Egypt, the Milan and Florence Duomos in Italy, the great wall of China, and many other sites represent in human evolution, and to feel that, you don’t have to be religious or french, but simply human.