Notre Dame burned yesterday.
A cathedral that was erected over the course of a century and stood for another 750 years burned. Its towers stood as the tallest structure in Paris for over 600 years, until they were surpassed by the Eiffel Tower. You neither have to believe in God nor ignore the horrors that were justified by Christianity to be awed by this structure.
But the Notre Dame that burned today is not the same Notre Dame that was finished in 1260. Yes, the building is at the same place and looks largely similar but the toll of centuries has necessitated repairs and restorations that have replaced the rotting, cracked, broken pieces of the landmark.
Fortunately, the structure remains largely intact and the work of restoration specialists will return Notre Dame to its former glory. As the structure has gradually been replaced (and will be replaced again), so too has the idea of Notre Dame been changed time and time again.
Our modern understanding of Notre Dame has been filtered through our experience with France, with Catholicism, with Disney’s (or Victor Hugo’s) Hunchback of Notre Dame, and with watching the spire fall in flames on social media. These experiences are fundamentally different than those of someone who lived a century or even a decade ago and, consequently, so is our understanding of “Notre Dame.”
Five years ago, the Seattle Seahawks were Super Bowl Champions. Of that team, just five players remain on the current roster (one of whom took a little detour to Tampa Bay). The team dresses in the same colors it wore that season and plays the same sport but it isn’t the same team.
Our idea of “The Seahawks” has been changed by nine years with Pete Carroll and John Schneider at the helm; by seven playoff seasons in that span; by learning about how the run game actually has very little to do with play-action success. I am physically and mentally incapable of watching this team the same way I watched that of 2013 and it has very little to do with the fact that I know the 2019 version won’t be as good.
The destruction, or even damage, of any monument to humanity’s audacity and passion is tragic, infinitely more so than the turnover of a sports team. To many people, Notre Dame with never be Notre Dame again. The Seahawks will never be the Seahawks again. The Mariners will never be the Mariners (’95 or ’01 vintage) again. Grief in the face of these facts is understandable because something precious to us has been lost.
But after grief comes a choice. We can choose to lament the loss of our idea of some thing or we can choose to undertake a new understanding of whatever we think we’ve lost.
With very few exceptions, every part of your body replaces itself over time. Your stomach is regenerated each week (so don’t worry, it doesn’t remember last week’s sushi and jagerbomb combo). Your entire skeleton will be new after 40 years (it probably won’t feel like new though). I don’t snooze my alarm clock as the same person, either physically or mentally, each day. Every year players join and leave my favorite teams, even if the uniforms stay the same. My loyalty is to laundry. But I hope to enjoy these teams, as best as I can, on my terms as much as on theirs.
Like my body, Notre Dame will be rebuilt and restored. Once again, its spire will rise over Paris and its rose windows will dash colors upon the floor. It won’t be the same, but it would never have been the same, fire or no.
Notre Dame might not be Notre Dame again, but it might become Notre Dame.