I’ve never been to Paris. I’ve never stepped foot in Notre Dame. In fact, I really don’t/can’t travel. I have a health condition that makes it really difficult, so I’m one that has had to learn to be in awe of my backyard, per se. This might be one of the most Christian things I do, because it forces me to make the familiar strange and therefore very beautiful. But, it does mean that I miss out on seeing the beautiful things, like great Cathedrals. They come to life for me in pictures and stories, in the ordinary people I know who tell me of their significance. There, I can use my imagination to live among the beautiful things I’ve never experienced.
I’ve been listening, and so many of you have told me about what this fire has meant to you, even if you don’t or no longer call yourself Christian. There’s something about the fragility of a structure that has stood for so long, through so much, that calls to mind our own fragility. If a great Cathedral can burn during Holy Week, what chance do we stand?
We don’t stand a chance, to be perfectly honest. From dust we come and dust we go, like the ashes of the structures we preserve. From seeds to trees to beams to ceilings. From love to life to servitude, labor, and exploitation. From all the things that go into building our great places of worship and from all the questions we ask about how we use our resources. They are infinitely complex and yet finite in their capacities, like our humanity.
If we were to turn to prayer in this moment, what could He reveal to us?
I can’t answer that.
But I do have an idea about how to pray that might be helpful.
In his spiritual exercises, St. Ignatius asks us to use our imagination when reading the Gospels. He asks us to place ourselves in the story we’re reading and experience Christ within the scene. In imaginative contemplation, we give our attention to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, etc. Is it hot out? Is the scene crowded? Do you smell the sea or the odor of men who have lived on the road? Can you taste your fear in the back of your throat, when the Roman guards show up? Who is talking? Who is listening? Who can’t we see, but we reasonably know should be there? My spiritual director recently told me that she likes to think about where the women were during the last supper. Through imaginative contemplation, we can go beyond the words and try to live them as they unfolded. For me, it’s like tuning a radio and finding a different frequency. Can I hear God in this different frequency? What is He trying to tell me?
So how might we pray in this moment, in our grief and awe for the fire in Notre Dame? How might we be there, when we can’t be there?
This morning, I read about how emergency personnel and others formed a human chain to preserve the relics housed in the Cathedral. Relics are extremely important to the Christian faith (among other faiths), and therefore losing something like the Crown of Thorns would be deeply devastating. In the heat of the moment, individual people stood shoulder-to-shoulder to pass these sacred objects to each other in order to ensure their safety.
Open your prayer however you are comfortable, with the sign of the cross or a prayer you like to pray. Ask God to be with you and ask to be with Him as you imagine this scene.
Now imagine yourself there, at the fire. Imagine standing next to someone, waiting to very briefly hold something sacred. Imagine your stillness, your sense of duty, the simplicity and enormity of your task.
What do you see? Are others watching you? Are you aware of them or deeply focused on your task? Is the smoke getting in your eyes?
What do you hear? Is it loud? Are people shouting things at or around you?
What do you smell? Is the smoke acrid? What about the perspiration of many people exerting themselves physically? Is there sickness among the panic?
What do you taste? Is the smoke making it hard to breathe? Is your mouth dry? Is your stomach turning knots and threatening mutiny?
What are you feeling? Are you scared? Sad? Focused? Calm? Inspired? Called?
Stay there. Stand shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers and wait for the sacred object to come to you.
When it comes to you, what does it feel like? What do you feel like?
Then, pass it on safely and wait some more. Imagine waiting.
Imagine yourself when it is over. Do you make eye contact with the people next to you? Do you hug or shake hands? Are you called into something else quickly and are forced to forego acknowledging the victory? How do you walk away from it all?
As you’re imagining all of these things, ask God to be with you. Listen for him and look for him. What does he want you to know or feel right now? Is there a passage in the Gospel he’s moving you to revisit? Is there something about your faith or your humanity that he’s guiding you towards learning or relearning? Is there something about salvation or resurrection lurking in the smoke filled scene?
When you’re ready, close your prayer however you feel most comfortable, like with the sign of the cross, a Hail Mary or Our Father, or a verse from your favorite hymn.
After you close your prayer, reflect on the following:
The great imagineer Rev. Dr. Fred (Mister) Rogers asked us to look for the helpers in times of terrible destruction. In imagining the human chain, we can imagine ourselves as the helpers, as part of something. We can imagine our belonging, even if the Cathedral is not ours or the faith is not ours or if the relics are meaningless to us. What does belonging call you to and what does it mean to be a helper? Where might you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with someone today and hold something sacred, even if only briefly? Where might you play a simple but very important part in the life of your neighbor?
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