PARIS, FRANCE - APRIL 15: Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019 in Paris, France. A fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, collapsing the spire. The cause is yet unknown but officials said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work. (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)
The world watched as a treasure was destroyed
02:04 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Jay Parini, who teaches at Middlebury College, has just recorded “Jesus, Paul and the Early Christians,” and published “The Damascus Road: A Novel of Saint Paul.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

I’ll never forget an Easter Mass I attended at Notre Dame in the spring of 1969 – 50 years ago, almost to the day. The tumultuous organ reverberated in the nave and aisles, and I had a sense of the walls themselves singing. The experience stays in my head: sitting in the pews with hundreds of worshippers and feeling lifted up toward the famous rose windows, through which morning sunlight pillared.

Jay Parini

I’ve been wrestling with the fact that I feel so upended by the fire at the cathedral. I’ve visited many times, but what does Notre Dame really mean to me, an Anglo-Catholic living in Vermont?

The timing was jarring. What a week for this fire to happen: a time when thousands of worshippers in France were readying themselves through penitence and prayer for the Passion, for Easter itself – the celebration that comes on Resurrection Sunday.

There is always sorrow when a cultural artifact, a great work of architectural art, is damaged or destroyed. But Christians (like me) experienced the fire as a kind of body blow. Notre Dame is not only a cultural landmark, one of those monumental sites that defines a major city. More crucially, it’s a gathering place for those who choose to come together to worship God in a particular way.

For those of us who follow the way of Jesus, it feels as though there is a deeper loss to consider here. The burning of Notre Dame was inadvertently symbolic, a devastation that stood in for the general loss of public worship in our time, the erosion of “We” into a billion little atoms, each of them singing and celebrating the individual in a self-indulgent, depressing and literal manner.

It goes without saying that we live in a profoundly secular age. The surveys all concur: Young people, in particular, are losing interest in religion. According to the Pew Research Center, “younger people in many different parts of the world are less likely than their elders to say religion is ‘very important’ to them.” This is especially true in Europe and the Americas.

I don’t need a survey to tell me this. I have eyes and ears. Indeed, my own three children seem largely uninterested in formal religion. The students I teach at Middlebury College in Vermont are broadly secular, and their indifference to religious observances of any kind is palpable. I teach a course on poetry and religion every year, and I go around the room on the first day of class asking the students to give a quick sense of their own religious identity. The vast majority of them say: “I’m spiritual but not religious.”

In my view, the decline of religion in the West has something to do with the rampant individualism that afflicts us. Modern life is about Me, Me, Me. In the United States, the individual has been enshrined as the most important unit in society, often by wise and brilliant thinkers. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance.” “I celebrate myself and sing myself,” wrote Whitman in “Song of Myself.”

The individual unit is a building block, of course: Both Emerson and Whitman had a subtle understanding of what this meant. It’s also the cornerstone of capitalism, one that was elevated to the level of brutality by Ayn Rand, who in “Anthem” wrote: “I am done with the Monster of ‘We,’ the word of serfdom, of misery, of falsehood and shame.”

To be frank, there are too many egomaniacs in the West — at their worst, self-glorifying, narcissistic, and destructive people who have lost touch with deeper realities, which is where morality will be found. It is often found in sacred places, like a church – like Notre Dame.

A church is, in the Greek of the New Testament, a “gathering place” or ekklesia; our word “ecclesiastical” derives from that root. There was no “church” in the early centuries of Christianity: The saints gathered in homes or public spaces, and this gathering allowed them to become the “body of Christ,” wherein they felt immense reassurance, a feeling of unity. They found a sense of the eternal in this space of togetherness. And they still do.

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    A wave of sadness overwhelmed Paris, and the world, when images of Notre Dame in flames circled the world. This feeling of mourning and loss caused me — and I suspect I’m not alone here — to recall what else we find in sacred spaces, including our now-ravaged Notre Dame. We discover together the importance of becoming We.