By Micah Kiel
In 1698 the Venetians surrounded Athens, Greece, which was then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. As the Venetians rained cannonballs down on the city, one of them hit the Parthenon on the Acropolis. The building — which had been a temple to Athena, then a Christian cathedral dedicated to Mary, and eventually housed a mosque — exploded and began to burn. The whole city came out to watch this iconic structure succumb to fire.
I found myself thinking about this historical event as the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris caught fire this week. The fire was universally hailed as a tragedy; people were in tears across the planet. The loss of an icon, such as the Parthenon or Notre Dame, gives us reason to reflect on why such buildings are important and what we can learn from them.
An oft-quoted phrase from Dostoyevsky says: “The world will be saved by beauty.” Our world today has grown increasingly utilitarian. We don’t have the time, energy or money to cultivate or build things that are beautiful. The modern aesthetic tends to be sparse, unadorned and simple. There is beauty in this, too. Simplicity, in its own way, allows God to enter.
But there are times when we need help. A building like Notre Dame gives our imaginations a push, a nudge, in thinking about what is beautiful and what God is like. The size, the colors that the windows make on the interior, and the ornamentation, connect us with something bigger and beyond ourselves. Such things do not stand in the place of God, but they help us to gaze in the right direction. They are an experience of the divine.
Catholics take the incarnation very seriously. We must remember that this has vast implications for how we view the world. The fact that God became flesh is about more than just Jesus and his life. The incarnation changes the way we should view everything — both people and physical objects. Part of the way we live out this belief in the incarnation is by being devoted to things that are physical. Our faith is not only intellectual. We worship and experience God with all five of our senses. Part of salvation is God’s beauty. Feeling bereft at the loss of this building is appropriate, because it is like losing a portal to God.
Watching Notre Dame in flames also makes us think about the past. The vast number of people across the centuries who knew and saw this building, and the events which the building had endured, are staggering. A building that endures for almost 1,000 years reminds us that we are all connected — no person is an island unto themselves. Our modern world has given us many wonderful things, but it also presents patterns of living to us that disrupt our experience of God. Screens intrude on every moment of our lives; divisions and tribalism distort our view of the truth. Notre Dame, like all places of God’s beauty, prods its inhabitants to live differently, to sit quietly side by side, to listen and observe. Sadly, for the time being, people will have to sit elsewhere. But Notre Dame still whispers to us its beauty and truth, even from the ashes.
(Micah Kiel is chairperson of the theology department at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)