Why do we visit holy ground? We are drawn to holy places, even as tourists, because we want to stand on sacred ground. We want to drench ourselves in atmospheres of grace, whether natural or structural. Even if we tell ourselves we are non-believers, only tourists come to see what other people consider sacred – still, we walk carefully upon holy ground, perhaps in the hope that we really are walking through grace.
I think each of us has at least one sacred place somewhere – natural or constructed by human beings, like a cathedral. Among the many places that I view as sacred ground are those built on Earth to gather people in prayer – cathedrals, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, chapels. All the great cathedrals of Europe are holy ground for me for reasons obvious and not-so-obvious. Among the ones I love the most are Notre Dame Cathedral and Chartres Cathedral. They take my breath away every time I enter these cathedrals. Sometimes my eyes fill with tears – I have to admit it. These holy edifices fill me with awe – exactly what they were meant to do when they were sketched out on paper centuries ago.
I have wondered myself what it is that moves me literally to tears when I enter these magnificent cathedrals. Why is it that they “bring out the Catholic” in me at a time when I so clearly see the political and social turmoil that is clearly destroying the contemporary Catholic Church? But then, paradox defines the nature of God and the hidden ways of the sacred. The Catholic Church is more than what it appears to be. It is indeed the world’s oldest corporation – that is certain. But it is also a mystical strong hold – that is its greatest treasure. Its charism from the time of Jesus was to hold the Light in the field of darkness. And that covenant assured that endless resources of mystical Light would pour through this Church because endless serpents of darkness would be ever present, if not at times in control. It is this mystical covenant that gave the Catholic world Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avlia, Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross, Hildegard, Padre Pio as well as renowned places where the Madonna has appeared and created a means of healing for people as proof of her visitation: Lourdes and Fatima. I have been intrigued by Catholic mysticism all my life.
Heaven speaks in symbols and symbolic language. Human beings have instinctively known to look for signs, omens, indicators that the Divine is present in unnatural events that seemed to be timed in alignment with our need for guidance. The sun appeared to be falling to the Earth on an October Sunday morning in Fatima, Portugal where hundreds of thousands of people had gathered for the promised sign of proof that the Madonna was indeed appearing to three young children. Many began to scream in fear, thinking that the sun was going to collide with the Earth. Suddenly it reversed course and returned to its position in the cosmos.
Sometimes heaven speaks in dramatic events, perhaps through all dramatic events only we have lost the capacity to interpret the language of heaven. Because I know that is true, I immediately thought when I saw Notre Dame on fire, “If this isn’t arson, then is the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral a fire from heaven? Is there a message in this event?”
If so, who is qualified to interpret it? Or, do we approach these events like living scripture or sacred reality shows in which each of us is at liberty to draw any conclusion we want. At the end of the day, that’s what we do anyway, right? And we would all argue with anyone offering us “the” interpretation because we have long passed that stage in our lives of being told what to believe. So, the best we can do these days is share our perspectives – emphasis on the word perspective – and you take what jewels of wisdom from it that resonate with you.
From my admittedly mystical perspective, I believe that there may well be power, purpose and a hidden Divine agenda behind this fire. That we must interpret or at least wonder about this agenda – or even if there is one - is the way or nature of a “mystical message.” Heaven speaks in code – think of intuitive breadcrumbs. That is as true for great tragedies as it is for your personal ones. You are rarely told what to do, for instance, or what to believe, or how to respond to an experience. And you are never provided with explanations as to why things happen as they do – whether the event is the loss of a family member or a fire in an iconic cathedral that has come to represent the sacred field of France. You simply get gut signals or higher direct instructions as to how to proceed, but never explanations or previews of outcomes. Choice and free will are never tampered with by the invisible world, at least not by agents of the Light. Your life is like an on-going spiritual reality show – think about that.
I have long believed that the great cathedrals of Europe were divinely inspired. Most of them, like Notre Dame, took centuries to build. Men refined their skills as masons, stain-glass makers, stone cutters, wood-workers, and so much more. Guilds and schools of apprenticeship developed. Towns grew around the construction of cathedrals. The power of the Church – that is, the Vatican and all it represented - during these centuries is hard to imagine today.
And consider the tools available to the craftsmen who built these grand cathedrals as far back as 1,200 years: pencils, paper, a compass to do architectural calculations, and a pendulum attached to a string. And they relied upon sacred geometry. They did their calculations of where to place these grand holy structures in alignment to the forces of the celestial world. These builders on the Earth worked completely conscious of the fact that they were constructing an edifice to and for God, a place to house the sacred. Notre Dame of Paris would be the home of “Our Lady of Paris”, the Madonna, the Holy Mother who would watch over Paris by day and rest at night in the great cathedral of Notre Dame. This belief was not fiction for people for many, many centuries. It was a deep and holy truth. Only in recent years – in our generations, have we dismissed such deeply rich, holy beliefs that heaven sends guardians to watch over us, individually and collectively.
Human labor alone did not build these great cathedrals. Faith and reverence for the Divine – and pride in working for God – was carved into the stones and woodwork as well as the artistry of their magnificent and irreplaceable stained-glass windows. I have listened to so many commentaries these past two days about the national treasure that Notre Dame is to France and to the Catholic Church, everyone noting that it is an 850-year-old Gothic structure. For so many, the value is its age and the history that has unfolded under its now burned roof, famously referred to as the “forest”. Reporters refer to the kings who were crowned in Notre Dame and to Joan of Arc and Napoleon. Any building that is 850-years-old has stories to tell but one that is also a kingmaker and the center of great ceremonies is a history book unto itself.
No wonder money is pouring in to rebuild Notre Dame. As of the writing of this piece, almost a billion Euros have been pledged – an astonishing amount. I have no doubt that the structure of Notre Dame will be rebuilt in the years to come – but what of the soul, the sacred grace of this holy place?
Great cathedrals were inspired undertakings. They were not just someone’s idea or whimsy, like building a house or even a castle for personal protection. A cathedral is a mystical edifice as well as a building. It has a body – and a soul. It has a sacred mission – a charism. Its charism – its purpose is to be a place for the enactment of sacred activity and rituals – the enactments of the sacraments: Baptisms, Marriage, Ordinations, Mass and Communion, Confirmation, Confession. The Last Rites and Confession are of course two sacraments that are administered at the bedside of a terminally ill person. All of the sacred rituals of transformation are meant to occur within a church – a cathedral, under the watchful guidance of the Divine and the angels of heaven.
Those who built these cathedrals so long ago never questioned that they lived and worked under the ever-present watchful eye of heaven. Today many people dismiss that way of thinking, as nonsense perhaps. I get that. Religious teachings are so archaic and intellectually dusty. They have not progressed with our ideas of “reality”. We are exploding into a galactic age, after all. I mean, look at our technology and our telescopes and how far we can see into space. We can’t possibly be the only planet with life on it. We need a galactic-sized theology, at the very least, if we are going to have one at all.
But here’s what I know to be true about us. Even though we are transitioning to a galactic-sized theology – which we are – every human being still has a secret longing to have God call him or her by name. Every person wants to have the inner sense ignite that alerts him/her that the Light of heaven is directly shining upon them. That experience – even for a micro-second – communicates to you that your life is on track, no matter the chaos you are in, that you are being guided, regardless of how dark it might seem, and to trust – just trust – that all will be well. Fear evaporates in the power of Light. Sacredness has that affect. Teresa of Avila wrote that when God gets into the “walls of your soul” for just a second, it’s enough for a lifetime. She knew what she was talking about.
When I watched the faces of the French people singing the Ave Marie, some while weeping, as they saw their beloved Notre Dame in flames two days ago, I knew in my heart that they were not just responding with horror to a building on fire. Some part of them was wondering while they were praying in song, “How could this happen? Why didn’t God protect Notre Dame?” And finally, in the privacy of their hearts, they were asking, “Where is Notre Dame?” Where is Our Lady? Has she left Paris? Has she left us? Is that what this fire is about? Is Paris no longer protected?
Nothing brings out the soul – and silences the skepticism of the intellect – than thinking that maybe – just maybe – heaven has abandoned you. It’s one thing to make statements about disbelief and there is no God and being an atheist or agnostic or druid or extraterrestrial – or whatever. It’s another to witness a fire on sacred ground during Holy Week – symbolic of death and resurrection, a message in itself. Suddenly, like a cold glass of water poured upon your soul, you realize that Notre Dame was not just a lovely Gothic building or the most famous tourist attraction in Paris. It was like a spiritual good luck charm for France. And now, like a kick to the intellectual, agnostic gut, a sacred question has been released through the fire: Has Notre Dame of Paris left Paris?
Will the Madonna return to the Cathedral? I have no doubt that the many patrons pouring money into the fund to rebuild Notre Dame are doing so for love of Notre Dame historically and love of Paris. But I bet deep in their souls they want to insure the Madonna, the Holy Lady of Paris, once again will have a lovely home in which to rest at night after watching over Paris – and France.
Have a blessed Easter or Passover, everyone.