Why It Was So Hard to Watch the Notre Dame Fire

Read this author's reflection about the Notre Dame Cathedral fire and why it was so hard to watch.

Like many other people, I felt real sadness and heartbreak as the world watched Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris suffer a devastating fire this afternoon. It was shocking to watch the fire’s destruction live on Twitter, and crippling to know there was nothing I could do about it.

Watching the spire fall reminded me, in a small way, of seeing the towers collapse on 9/11. I prayed that no one would be hurt (and haven’t heard that anyone was) and yet tears welled in my eyes and my heart sank as I watched the flames engulf the building.

I’m honestly not sure how to process these feelings.

Is it devastating to see so much beauty go up in flames? Is it heart-wrenching because this feels like a physical representation of the crises in the Catholic Church of late? Do I simultaneously feel compelled to watch and look away because 800+ years of history are turning to ash?

Probably all of the above. And they are all valid feelings.

The destruction of one of the most iconic Catholic churches in the world is being mourned by people of every religious and non-religious background alike.

If you’re one of the lucky millions of people who have visited the church, you know that it was beautiful. But so are so many other things in our world.

Would I feel this way if the Mona Lisa burned to ash? I’m not sure that I would.

There was something about this building that was so much more than a building — something sacred.

“I know this blessed place is a human-made interpretation of what is mysterious, unknowable, and undefinable and … seeing her burn brings tears to my eyes,” actress Anne Hathaway shared on Instagram.

Ben Wilson reached out to say that his heart is breaking because he has a sense of “losing something special from history, a sense of connection to people before us, a sense of losing something that was sacred. Being Catholic is a bit like this — a sense of being connected to a living tradition, to people who came before us, to people who continue to pray and worship across the globe even if we’ve never met, a belief there are sacred things in this world.”

Seeking healing

The only appropriate response to something that is clearly a tragedy seems to be prayer. Like this video of Parisians kneeling and singing the Hail Mary.

Or the church bells that can be heard throughout the city in response to Paris’ Archbishop Michel Aupetit’s request that they ring out as a call to prayer.

But who or what am I praying for? Certainly the firefighters. Certainly the people of Paris who have lost a major part of their history. Certainly for the priests and faithful who worshipped there.

Prayer can’t change the damage the fire is doing, but prayer does change us. And it brings us together as one. So, how will I let my feelings of sadness and my heart’s appeal to God for help change me on this dark day?

Something deeply uncomfortable

And yet there is something unsettling about the realization that I was moved to tears for a building this afternoon when I’ve become numb toward reports of devastating natural disasters and shootings and bombings on a daily basis.

How do I balance embracing real sadness about the destruction of this church while keeping it in perspective with the lives lost every day that get little or no news coverage? I’m still figuring it out, but I challenging myself to move forward with a renewed sensitivity to and compassion for other tragedies I hear about.

This church was sacred. And it has reminded me of the sacredness of all life.

I will say this: there’s nothing like losing something that makes you appreciate what you have.

Moving forward

And what can we do now? I saw someone comment on Twitter that this event is distinct from others because we honestly don’t know if Notre Dame Cathedral will ever be rebuilt.

This week I’ll appreciate the beauty of our churches with the wonder and awe they deserve. I’ll cherish beautiful moments with more of my heart. I’ll appreciate art and history a little more. And hopefully, I’ll take more pictures of the beautiful and sacred things in my life more than ever before.

Whatever you feel you and the world have lost today with the fire in Paris, how can you cherish what we have left even more?

There are thoughts which are prayers. There are moments when, whatever the posture of the body, the soul is on its knees. —Victor Hugo

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