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

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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Light-of-many-candles1529 alegriphotos dot com

Images dropping before my mind’s eye like slides:

lockdown drills suddenly in sharp focus,

children huddling with their backs against the wall, invisible to an intruder,

teachers shushing them

and hoping they’d manage in a real emergency.

Now there are real pictures.

Children who will now always feel sick at the sound of a loud bang,

who will always remember that there was blood in those classrooms.

The terror and devastation on their faces makes me cry,

makes my insides tremble.

Guns did this.

Guns took a whole town and bereaved it of its children,

because even the families whose children are alive

will never be whole in the same way.


Those parents.

The very worst of worst fears,

the nightmare that won’t stop –

it’s all now real.

Their children were stolen.

Not just death, not just loss,

but Horror

greater than my mind can grasp.

How do you ever function again?

How do you eat, do laundry, buy groceries, put gas in the car, take a shower?

How do you sleep, ever again?

I can’t stop thinking of the Christmas presents.

Joyfully bought, lovingly made…

And now just pain.

I think of bunk beds with one empty,

one child to kiss goodnight where there were two.

How do you even begin to find the possibility of the first tiny step

toward healing?

Does it help, just a tiny whisper of solace,

when a whole town can grieve together?

It is a whole new town, after all.

Does it help that all of us,

parent or not,

bereaved or not,

are fervently, heartbrokenly

sending them our love?



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September 2001

Ten years ago today, it was my first day of school at the University of Toronto. I lazily listened to the radio after the alarm went off, until a breaking story about a wayward airplane interrupted the newscast. In the living room, I turned on the television and watched the second one arrive – the plane that proved the purpose of the first. We were supposed to arrive at our first class collected and confident, ready to discuss analytical theory of French literature with aplomb. Instead, we were stunned, disoriented, mournful.

My future husband was in the woods of Algonquin, completely oblivious. A few days later, he and the guys refused to believe the outlandish story they heard at the ranger’s shack; it must be just one of those tall tales you tell campers to remind them how far they have been from civilization. Now, it is eerie to remember that September 11th was the only day that week that it didn’t pour rain on them: the one beautiful, blue-skied day of the camping trip.

I’ll bet you remember where you were, too.

That Friday, I watched memorial services and cried to think of all the people who had died and lost loved ones, and all the people who would die and lose loved ones in exchange. The thought of even more carnage was agonizing, even though I knew why it would happen, and that people were demanding it. What an awful time.

This is what I wrote that month.

This is a season of ladybugs.
People walk around with them
Sticking to collars and hair, unaware.

In this season,
Torontonians walk down St. George
try to picture the tower gone.

In this season,
flags cuddle together as they fly
modern-day kings face off in the schoolyard
rallying their friends
blindly flinging pebbles as hard as they can
no question of saying uncle.

In this season
we shudder in varying degrees
as we open our mail.

Some of us staunchly bless America
less than ever.

We know childhood heroes can die
(did Mr. Dressup have a firefighter costume?)
We know the record man can go under
We know there’s poison in that
bursty blue sky.

Shaken and changed,
we bustle around like always,
all in it together.




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