I still remember where i was when I heard of the tragic Notre Dame fire on the Monday of Holy Week one year ago. Like many others I applauded President Macron's commitment to rebuild the great cathedral. He created some anxiety, however, with his hint that he favored some sort of "contemporary gesture," something neither the cathedral nor the contemporary world is in any further need of!.
Apparently, his commitment to a quick reconstruction - in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics - may have been decisive in protecting the cathedral from those who want to replace its spire with something more modern. (There have even been proposals suggesting a swimming pool on the cathedral's roof!) According to the announcement made this week, it seems the cathedral's reconstruction will respect its original medieval Gothic design - and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's 19th-century Gothic spire, which replaced the original medieval one, which had been removed in the previous century.
It is obviously appropriate to build modern buildings in modern styles. If there is a problem with modern architectural styles it is not that they are modern but their style - or lack thereof. However one responds to modern architecture - and there are obviously many different examples of modern architecture from beautiful to bland to ugly - it is not some modern building that is being reconstructed. Nor is Notre Dame just another example of medieval beauty, of which there would remain many in the world even were Notre Dame not to be rebuilt. More importantly, Notre Dame expresses a medieval cultural and religious sensibility, the loss of which has made modernity more impoverished than most moderns may willingly acknowledge. It is a sensibility which needs to be experienced, in the ways in which such a medieval building is intended to be experienced, in order to fill some of the void that sadly stands at the heart of modern experience.
I don't typically quote Rod Dreher, but what he recently wrote ("Weird Christianity," May 20, 2020) about his first encounter with Chartres Cathedral expresses something of what a church like Notre Dame is meant to do - and still can do even in this cold and soulless age:
"It wasn’t until I stumbled into the Chartres cathedral at age 17, on a tour group, that I was confronted by a form of Christianity that overwhelmed me. Nothing in my life in small-town America in the late 20th century had prepared me for the grandeur of God made manifest in that Gothic cathedral. What kind of Christianity inspires men to build this kind of temple? That was probably the first time in my life that I was truly struck by awe, in the old-fashioned sense. I remember standing there, in the center of the labyrinth, looking all around at the stained-glass windows, the arches, and the vaults, thinking, 'God does exist — and He wants me'.”
That is why it is so important that places like Notre Dame be rebuilt and maintained. That is why the real Notre Dame - not one with a "contemporary gesture" - is so very needed now, as much as it was back in 1345, maybe even more so.