Ourselves In Their Shoes?

Issue 48

We were all shocked to see recently the pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral in flames after a devastating fire.

It started early on Monday evening in the roof, famously referred to as ‘the forest’ because of the number of trees used to make the wooden beams, and quickly spread to the spire and other parts of the cathedral. Within hours, the spire had fallen, burned to a cinder, and the rest of the cathedral was in serious danger of collapse.

However, owing to the work done by the French firefighters (not acting under the advice of Donald Trump), the blaze was under control by the early hours of Tuesday morning and completely out later that day. Although the extent of the damage is still not yet known, much of the building has been preserved as well as, of course, the hundreds of priceless artefacts and treasures contained within it.

What struck me however, both whilst the cathedral was ablaze and afterwards, was the extent of the reaction of the French public to the fire. On Tuesday night, thousands amassed outside to hold a vigil for the cathedral, singing hymns, mourning and praying. Emanuel Macron, the French president, cancelled his planned public address to make a speech to the nation, promising to rebuild the cathedral of Notre Dame to make it “even more beautiful than it was” within five years.

To understand the extent of the reaction, one only needs to look at history of the cathedral. Its construction began in 1160s and it has borne witness to the trials and tribulations of French history; it saw Henry VI crowned as ruler of France in 1431 as well as royal weddings, theological battles and the rigours of two world wars, all of which left the building largely unscathed. It also, of course, forms a crucial part of the iconic views of Paris, the city of romance and countless marriage proposals have no doubt been made in its shadow. Watching such an embodiment of the permanence of a nation burn and its spire collapse is profoundly shocking to any French person.

Paris though does not have a monopoly on iconic cathedrals. Much closer to my home in Durham we have our own thousand-year-old cathedral, inextricable in its history from the history of the city. It too is a building which is instantly recognisable to its neighbours and which forms the backdrop to the best views of Durham.

How would we react if a similar tragedy struck our, and the nation’s, most beloved building. I suspect it would have a similar effect on us as the fire in Notre Dame has had on the French. Durham Cathedral isn’t just part of the city, it represents it; anyone who lives in the area has a deeply felt connection with the building. It has been part of life in the region for a thousand years, since Lindisfarne monks made the journey with the body of St Cuthbert to a hill island on a bend in the River Wear. According to legend, Cuthbert’s coffin became immovable and the monks took this as a sign to build their monastery and cathedral there. A building such as that feels as perpetual as the rock from which it emerges but events such as the fire at Notre Dame serve as a sobering reminder that ultimately nothing is permanent.

But, as ever, when tragedy strikes, we can be measured according to our response. Fundraising to restore Notre Dame began almost immediately and has reached a staggering total of one billion euros. Whilst some have criticised spending so much money on the project when there are many other deserving causes, it speaks volumes that people are prepared to go to such lengths. This, as much as anything else about the cathedral, indicates the strivings of spirit, to recreate something even more beautiful than has gone before. Often, we show ourselves in our best light in our darkest hours.

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