As I write this article in mid-April 2019, I am horrified by the live broadcast images of the burning historic Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. I have visited this sacred place and subsequently stood in humility as I experienced awe.
I wondered if we have anything quite like Notre-Dame in our Western hemisphere.
Those of us who know the history of this magnificent work of 12th Century architecture and construction which spanned two centuries (1163-1345) have stood in amazement of its beauty and the overwhelming sense of being in a “sacred space.” According to The Paris Tourist Office, in 2017, Notre-Dame cathedral tops the list as the city’s most-visited monument: “Some 12 million people visited the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral in 2017, making it the French capital’s most-visited monument. The Louvre museum takes third place … tourists also flocked to the Eiffel Tower.”
Did you notice that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is described as a “monument?” That nomenclature is telling. A magnificent edifice, built to encompass worship and to capture spiritual and intellectual emotion, a “sacred [set-apart] space” where humans could step away from the mundane and worldly to worship God, can become trivialized into something no more than a grand museum.
On one hand, Notre-Dame is – literally – the “Ground Zero” of Paris. A writer from The Atlantic wrote that “Notre-Dame, the heart of Paris, is not only a Catholic site but the preeminent symbol of European cultural consciousness, the heart of France, the kilometer zero from which all its farthest villages are measured.”
The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, vowed to rebuild the damage within five years. He proclaimed that, “Notre-Dame is our history, it’s our literature, it’s our imagery.” The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo (a self-proclaimed atheist), spoke on television of seeing the flames from her office window and feeling “powerless.” France is in mourning and in a cultural uproar.
Despite all the public angst, what is mourned is the damage to a building. It appears to be a religious outpouring. On the other hand, LaCroix International reports that while 53% of French self-identify as Catholics, less than 2% identify as “practicing” Catholics.
Why is there a disparity between devotion to a brick and mortar edifice and a vibrant community that Protestants and Catholics call “the church”?
Here is a difference. “Faith” is the personal (and community) relationship with God. Faith is intense and life-changing. On the other, “religion” is the human activity, the attempt to practice faith.
That activity can become an end in itself – a ritual and comfortable substitute for deep, personal, and self-sacrificial living. Easter – for Christians – calls us to go deep, to be personal, and to give up ourselves for others.
Buildings, no matter how cherished, might come and go. “Religion” might reflect cultural and personal preferences and cultures.
But “faith” is one’s personal commitment, something to bring into the remainder of the year. Perhaps this is a time for each of us to embrace “faith.”
Joe Crowley is director of adult discipleship at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church in Bluffton. firstname.lastname@example.org