This week I have been disheartened by climate activists who have minimized, trivialized and literally mocked humanity’s mourning of the losses at Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15. Yes, Notre Dame is a building made by human beings, and the loss of its icons is hardly comparable to the loss of species or the loss of the natural world. However, if we are going to be resilient as we navigate climate catastrophe and the collapse of systems, it is crucial that we ditch binary, either/or thinking and hone our ability to hold opposite realities at the same time in our own bodies and minds.
Three essential realities we must not miss in this tragedy must be held alongside our commitment to the sacred Earth.
First, Notre Dame is not “just a building.” To assert as much is to miss its significance in human history and to ignore the complexities of European history. Worse, in my opinion, is to overlook the symbolic import of the devastation of one of the most glaring symbols of the feminine principle in human history. That archetype, or universal theme, far surpasses the reality of an actual edifice. For all its repugnant patriarchy, the Roman Catholic Church could not suppress the feminine in its dogma because that principle was far older and much longer-established in the minds of its devotees. The roots of Earth-based paganism have endured and reappeared in liturgy, art, and music to this day.
From the symbolic perspective, the Notre Dame inferno feels consistent with the escalating attack on the feminine worldwide. As Western civilization more blatantly crumbles, patriarchy will intensify its indomitable targeting of the feminine. A global glorification of the toxic masculine in the form of militarism, white nationalism, and white supremacy is mirrored in fires of Notre Dame. For this, we must mourn.
Secondly, Notre Dame’s devastation symbolizes, as author John Pavolitz writes, the reality that “we belong to one another.” He notes that, “Watching the flames swallowing up such a universally beloved testament to the staggering creativity that humanity is capable of, we recognize how tethered to each other we are, how fragile and fleeting everything here is—and how starved for beauty we all are these days.”
Starved for beauty, indeed—as technology increasingly dominates our existence, as courses in the humanities fade from college curricula, and as the uglification of our planet insults our eyes, ears, and nervous systems. This is yet another form of soul murder, and thousands of visitors to Notre Dame have attested to the fact that whatever their religion, if any, they felt their souls nourished and re-energized by entering that breathtaking work of art and beauty.
And finally, Notre Dame is especially relevant to those of us awake to climate trauma and the collapse of systems, both of which tear us apart from the Sacred Self within and estrange us from the community outside us. We understand nothing about the significance of Notre Dame if we do not understand the community commitment involved in its construction. Thousands of artists and architects worked tirelessly together for years, for a purpose much greater than themselves. Let us remember the genius concept of the guild system which trained and employed artisans throughout Europe to express their superb craftsmanship on behalf of the community.
So let’s remember that Notre Dame was not just another building devastated by fire. And equally important, let’s stop dissing people who mourn its losses yet fail to mourn the loss of species and the natural world. If we are going to last two minutes in our own fires of collapse and develop any kind of resilience worth its salt, then we need to ditch our binary, either/or thinking and hold the both/and’s in our consciousness. As John Pavolitz notes:
There is nothing we do or create or feel or breathe individually or collectively, that doesn’t touch the rest of us. The best of our faith traditions, the greatest of our Constitutions, the most profound expressions of our creativity, and our most noble personal convictions tell us that we are inextricably bound together.
The devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15 was a tragic loss for humanity as well as a symbol of contemporary assaults, literal and symbolic, on the feminine. It was a heartbreaking loss of art that held the blood, sweat, and passion of thousands of artists—male and female, who poured every ounce of themselves into creating a work of magnificent beauty. How can we separate that human-created beauty from the beauty of the natural world. The creators of Notre Dame lived close to the natural world, and the natural world erupted from their hearts and bones in every buttress and every pane of glass.
In the end, resilience is about wholeness—in our thinking and in our bodies. Let’s not miss the symbolism in this tragedy or any tragedy, natural or otherwise. And let’s celebrate the creation of beauty for a purpose greater than the rational mind and the human ego. Otherwise, why are we even taking up space on this planet?