We have a national cathedral – Westminster Abbey – where our poets and monarchs are buried. But it is not national as Notre Dame is national. Our heroes are stacked away there, revered for things that are vaguely remembered. In the mysterious interior of Notre-Dame, however, something is celebrated that is far more durable than the deeds of heroes: what is revered is an idea. The Englishman, looking up at those gargoyles from the square below, is made aware of the God-given idea that can reveal itself, now in a King, now in an artist or playwright, now in the peasant girl whom we, the English, martyred in our greatest crime.
We are awe-struck by the presence of this idea, fixed forever in stone, because it is not unique to the cathedral but is embodied in the city all around. We in Britain have destroyed our cities, shovelling away the stone and replacing it with steel and glass. We have done to London what Le Corbusier wished to do to Paris, and what one of our architects, invited by President Pompidou, did to the Marais. We have replaced built form by childish bubbles of steel and glass. Our churches stand in concrete deserts, and it is hardly surprising if nobody visits them or enters them for a time of prayer.
As the angel on the roof has promised, Notre Dame will be resurrected. It will be resurrected because its city, unique among modern capitals, has remained continually itself, from the time when it was the spiritual heart of Europe, through the time when it turned the world upside down, to our present time, when it reminds our troubled continent of the spiritual inheritance that it must not deny.
Kurt offers thoughts on Notre-Dame and expressions of transcendence.