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Archive for April 16th, 2019

The 1969 BBC series, Civilisation, opened with host and art historian Sir Kenneth Clark standing in Paris with Notre Dame cathedral behind him. He stated that the purpose of the series was to give examples in history of man showing himself to be an intelligent, creative, orderly and compassionate animal. He said he couldn’t define civilization in abstract terms but, turning to look across at Notre Dame, felt he would know it when he saw it.

And that might be so true. In the aftermath of yesterday’s fire that destroyed much of that cathedral, it felt not so much like a tragic fire in an old religious space but more like a greater loss of civilization, of history and humanity.

Watching yesterday, it was hard to not see it as being the symbolic burning of down of all things we hold sacred as a civilization. It was a place that for over 800 years had witnessed and survived plagues, wars and revolutions. How could it be so seemingly devastated in these modern times?

It’s burning seemed like the perfect image for the plunge back into the darkness which we often seem ready to take these days.

It was a sad day for us all and a test for our willingness to continue in light as a civilization.

I have never been to Paris, never gawked upon the cathedral. So my connections to that place are limited at best. I did have at least two great-grandmothers going back many generations in my paternal grandmother’s line who were from Paris. They came to North America as Filles du Roi, the King’s Daughters. They were young women with few prospects in France who were recruited in the 1660’s by the French crown to go to New France, which is now Quebec. They were given passage and a dowry in order that they might marry one of many young male settlers and populate that new land.

I can imagine those young women carrying a memory of that cathedral with them as they moved into the new wilderness. They would certainly know of it as it was even then an old cathedral, already 500 years old at that point. They may even have taken communion there. It might well have been the symbol for civilization that they held in their minds. Like Kenneth Clark. And like many of us who just felt a loss of part of our self as humans as we watched it burn.

It will be rebuilt but it will be a long and difficult (and costly) process. It should be a reminder of the fragility of many things that we take for granted and that we should take care of those things that show us to be an intelligent, creative, orderly and compassionate animal, as Mr. Clark put it. Some may rejoice in seeing them in flames but losing them may be a greater loss than any of us can imagine.

 

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