Tragedy and Evil / Hope and Resurrection

It’s been a week of religious tragedy.

When news got out about Notre Dame burning last Monday, this ubiquitous, media-worthy word – “tragedy” – sprang immediately into the headlines and conversations of the day.  It was unthinkable that such an iconic structure could be filled with flames, at that very moment.

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I have been to Notre Dame. I visited a lot of churches when I was in France. This was partly because I did much of my travelling with my Catholic flatmate, and partly because churches are lovely places to visit. They are almost always open; they are quiet; the candles smell nice; the sun comes through stained glass in beautiful colours; people from all sorts of countries gather peacefully. And the buildings are so old – there is a sense of wonder that comes just from knowing that humans stepped on these same stones many centuries ago, and that although their lives were very different from ours today, the things they saw while standing in the nave were almost exactly the same as what we see. It feels like a condensation of time.

When I heard that Notre Dame was burning, I was shocked and dismayed to think of the beauty and art and history of that building – one that means so much to so many people (as evidenced by the subsequent fundraising for repairs) was suffering damage. (Typically enough, as a francophile with an MA in French lit, I also thought immediately of Victor Hugo and how shook he would have been.)

It was a good exercise in critical thinking to talk with Sean about it. (This is often the case when I talk to my husband – about anything.) He did not switch to auto-tragedy-mode when he heard about it. He can understand why people are upset, but he sees the building as a symbol of the Catholic church, an organization of which he is none too fond. He sees it as the worst of the patriarchy and extravagance, not to mention a bastion of systemic, systematic, global, multilayered abuse. Also, it’s an organization that has a lot of money. He was frustrated thinking of all the funds pouring in to help rebuild this symbol instead of financing something that will make a real difference in the lives of those actually in need.

To his point about finances, it’s worth noting that Notre Dame has been owned by the French government, not the Catholic Church, since 1905. So, although the building’s use is “dedicated exclusively to the Roman Catholic rite”, the church is not on the hook for repairs. But we humans do have a habit of directing money towards… NOT the most urgent needs (a point illustrated by The Beaverton with the hilarious/awful article “Catholic Church assures billionaires that none of their Notre Dame donations will go to poor“).

I took a screen shot of this last week, because it is so pithy and true:

To Sean’s second point about the problems with the church, I also can’t disagree. I know lots of wonderful individual Catholics, but I am aware that Catholicism is an institution with facets that can be described as warped, monstrous, and immoral. (The Canadian Indian Residential Schools are a particular sore spot with me.) When it comes to Notre Dame, though, I argued that 1) it’s not really a Catholic symbol – France separated church and state ages ago and is pretty vehement about it, and 2) you really think we shouldn’t care about damage to historic buildings? You think you wouldn’t be awestruck, even a little bit, standing beneath those legendary arches? I think he would be. He loves history. But he is also upset with a lot of things humans have wrought, with good reason.

It’s nice to hear that the damage was not as bad as expected at Notre Dame, and that people have come to feel hopeful about it. But the point that Sean and many others keep coming back to is: it’s just a building.

Never was that more obvious than yesterday, on Easter Sunday, when – as groups all over the world pondered rebirth and second chances in their myriad forms – the news came that there had been eight bombings targeting Christians in Sri Lanka. For all the relics and art of the Notre Dame fire, no human lives were deliberately, violently taken – or even accidentally lost. It’s hardly in the same category of catastrophe. I’m sure large amounts of  art and architecture and beauty and history were destroyed in Sri Lanka yesterday, but no one is talking about that, or about what “stuff” can be salvaged from the blasts. People are talking about the almost three hundred people whose lives are over, and the thousands of others whose lives are scarred forever. THAT is tragedy.

Associated Press, via cbc.ca.

Funnily enough, I have not seen a single article about billions of dollars pouring into Sri Lanka to help in the rebuilding there. No one is feeling hopeful about this devastation. Resurrection is not forthcoming.

At the top of this post, I said that it’s been a week of “religious tragedy.” We could mention that in these specific incidents, the suffering has been mostly Christian, but really – it’s a tragedy for everyone when violence is perpetrated between religious groups. Every time someone chooses hatred as a way to express faith and make a mark on the world – and there are countless examples – it is a blight on our species. With these advanced brains, we’re supposed to do better than that.

Yesterday, as I often do on Easter, I thought about thawing and baby leaves and birth and greenness, and how grateful I am every spring for the shift into lively life. We got to take a walk by the marsh and listen to choruses of frogs and red-winged blackbirds (and we even saw a muskrat!).

At this moment, on Easter Monday, Earth Day 2019 is drawing to a close in the Eastern DS time zone. Where we live, it was a beautiful mild day when we could open windows and almost see grass growing. CBC’s top stories today include declining numbers of bumblebees in Canada, flooding in Québec, and Ontario’s “most anti-environmental” government in generations.

Here’s a photo that struck me the day after the Paris fire, posted on Twitter by Torrance Coste from B.C. (and used with permission): “This tree was 100 years old when Notre Dame was built. Others like it, part of an ecosystem thousands of years older than Paris, are cut down every day. The cathedral fire is absolutely tragic, but we wilfully destroy similar wonders for profit, and that’s worth reflecting on.”

Every time we think about a tragedy, there’s always one bigger. People are sad about Notre Dame, and I am not one to judge what makes people sad. People are sad about Sri Lanka, of course, and the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and Mozambique, and the list goes on and on. And these wretched spots on the globe seem relatively scattered compared to We are poisoning/ flooding/ burning/ desertifying/ desecrating/ killing our planet from every source and direction. I am sad about that.

On Earth Day, I think we’re supposed to feel hopeful. We’re supposed to smile gamely and say, “Let’s clean up the world for ourselves and our kids! C’mon, everybody!” I do put on a game face for my kids and students, because we can’t just throw in the towel. There has to be hope to fuel effort… but I find it harder every year that we continue to be a stupider species than we think we are. We are terrifying close to a brink we can’t see, and I am confident that I will live to see things get a whole lot brinkier. Will we ever get serious? Will we ever shape up and quit bombing each other to focus on preserving our own habitat? As such irresponsible, squabbling, selfish denizens, do we even deserve to come back from that edge?

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4 thoughts on “Tragedy and Evil / Hope and Resurrection

  1. Beth says:

    One commentary I heard about Notre Dame: where will they ever find the trees to create the enormous beams that were lost? Where indeed. I imagine they were easy to find in 1200.

    • Ben says:

      The trees, carefully curated oaks over a century old, are ready to be harvested from the grounds of Versailles. Europeans take the long view, and this is not the first time Notre Dame has been damaged.

  2. Ben says:

    I was surprised not to see any mention here of al-Aqsa, which burned at the same time as Notre Dame. It was handled swiftly and easily, but the third most important houses of worship of each of TWO major religions burning at the same time seemed especially shocking.

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