The Only Church that Illuminates is a Burning Church.
I first encountered these words on a meme depicting the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral. The meme appeared before the flames had even been quenched. After some digging I discovered that the quote was attributed both to the Marxist revolutionary, Che Guevara, and to Buenaventura Durruti, an anarchist leader in the Spanish Civil War. Regardless of its origin, the fact that someone thought it appropriate to resurrect the quotation before the ashes of the great church had cooled is a testament to an emergent rage that deserves our attention.
The rash of attacks on churches in the months preceding the Notre Dame fire, in which ten historic churches across France were targeted, caused many to be suspicious that this fire too was man or woman made. The motive in those attacks according to Ellen Fantini, of the Vienna-based Observatory of Intolerance and Discrimination Against Christians in Europe, was, pressure from “the radical secularists or anti-religion groups as well as feminist activists who tend to target churches as a symbol of the patriarchy that needs to be dismantled.”
While the authorities assure us that the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral was not arson, the fact that some people seemed to delight in its destruction enough to create such memes is cause for wonder. Is this just a trollish stunt of a renegade anarchist eager to foment outrage or does this view really reflect the opinion of a number of people? As so often on the internet there is no way of knowing. Either way it was an opportunity to employ my new engage the rage strategy.
I have found it useful to respond to outrageous and hateful speech the same way I respond to reasonable speech: take it seriously and ask myself if there is any grain of truth in it.
While it is usually not a good idea to engage individually and personally with internet trolls, I find at least in my own mind, it is a useful exercise to engage the rage intellectually. This sort of thing effects no change in the minds of the trolls (who are impervious to reason) but it does prevent rage in my own soul, which does defeat the trolls intent, by drenching any possible growing turmoil in myself with cool reason. Is it true that the only church that illuminates is a burning church?
No, I would say not. The church has been a source of both illumination and consternation from its founding. Illumination from the wisdom it has bestowed upon humanity and consternation from the all too human sin. However, what might be true in the meme is that the burning of this particular church certainly has illuminated some things. For one it has illuminated that we have not become so “spiritual but not religious” that we could be unmoved by its destruction. It also illuminated that perhaps there is indeed something to lose if we casually toss away our Christian inheritance. It illuminated the mystery that this edifice survived 850 years of atrocities, the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution and the First World War, the Nazi occupation, but not our present time. Why?
Twenty years ago when I was a teacher in a small classical high school the Virgin Mary, Our Lady, Notre Dame, was officially removed from “The Great 100” list of important people from history the students were expected to know. The logic was that Jesus Christ was already on the list, his mother is sort of redundant considering there are only 100 people highlighted in all of human history.
I can see the logic in this from a purely secular historical perspective, from which Mary is merely a poor and simple first century, female nobody. But from an artistic, symbolic, and religious perspective no other woman has captured the imagination of the West like the Virgin Mary. There are more paintings, music, sculpture and architecture inspired by her than perhaps any other human, definitely more than any other woman.
She is the woman who, in some sense, captivated God himself. Not like the previous ancient pagan stories such as those found in the Metamorphoses of Ovid, a string of stories of rape and attempted rape of humans by gods and goddess from Greek and Roman history. No, in this is a new story. God is not satisfied to subjugate a human woman to his will, instead He waits on her yes and then becomes, not her lover, but her embryo.
God makes Himself utterly vulnerable to a woman. This is anti-rape culture. Christianity (while certainly not always perfect in its execution) does hold within itself the seeds of a culture and civilization which surpasses that which came before it. I am not sure that feminism will actually be happy with a return to paganism. Paganism was focused on the supremacy of male power as illustrated by its fundamental stories. For any progress to be made, that which is good and right in previous generations’ thought must be preserved.
This Notre Dame Cathedral Church, this great masterpiece of architecture created to honor a humble woman who contained the uncontainable and became the throne of God, the work of generations, a symbol of the elevation of humanity and the condescension of God has been nearly destroyed . . . and on our watch.
That someone, especially a feminist, actually delights in this loss, out of a mad, malevolent bitterness at the sins of the patriarchy is rather ironic considering it was several hundred years’ worth of work and devotion of mostly men to honor history’s most influential woman, born in poverty and obscurity but raised higher than any human ever had been.
Yes, we must acknowledge that there have been serious transgressions in the Church and society. But while the urge to delight in the destruction of a Cathedral in one’s rage for the sins committed against the vulnerable, this actually insults the victims. It implies that the destruction of a cathedral could make up for the sins of the clergy. It cannot. The loss of all the cathedrals of Europe cannot make up for the loss of one child’s innocence at the hands of clergy.
What is the proper response to malice and ineptitude? To quote an ancient proverb First, do no harm. What is wrong with revenge? If we commit revenge we have no grounds on which to call the original evil wrong. If we respond to malice and ineptitude with malice and ineptitude we simply perpetuate evil. As St Francis said, “Let peace begin with me. Where there is hatred let me sow love.”
Charles Dickens’ immortal novel, A Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution, reveals Madame Defarge, a character whose bitterness over the rape and murder of her sister by a member of the French aristocracy so consumes her that she demands the guillotine for even the children and small grandchildren of her sister’s rapist. In Victor Hugo’s epic Les Miserables Jean Valjean is pursued by Inspector Javert who stops at nothing in his pursuit of his notion of “justice.”
In both stories it is the characters who take personal responsibility and reject revenge that redemption and love and resurrection (that is a new life) is possible.
France, and all of Christendom, has been faced by the image of this burning and illuminating Cathedral. It asks us this question: shall we have gratitude for that good part of the inheritance of our fathers and mothers, while being honest about their failings, or shall we instead choose the path of Defarge and Javert, the path of rage, revenge and destruction?
The story of the French Revolution, a cascade of revenge, with its leaders falling by the guillotine — sometimes within days of assuming command — showed us what vengeful rage can do. Anyone who thinks they can laugh at the destruction of their civilization and not eventually find themselves also crushed under the weight of its fall has not been reading history.
Katherine Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Western Pennsylvania.