notre-dame-from-the-seine

Notre Dame: An Architect’s Notes on Building, Belief and the Power of Architecture

“Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.’” Those tabernacles were the best way that St. Peter could fully express his love of Jesus, but they were just another human stab at loving God, and went unbuilt.

I am touring St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome when word arrives about the fire at Notre-Dame. Here, in the place of Peter’s crucifixion, we learn that another tabernacle has been gutted by fire, that Paris’ greatest sacred building is as fragile as any of its makers. Our guide has a Ph.D. in antiquities and is a devout Catholic. She’s devastated by the loss. Her deep knowledge of religion and history is expressed in the sharing of the endless, intricate realities of man’s conquest of materials and theology at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Meanwhile, a friend monitors Notre-Dame’s incineration: “The windows are gone, the roof is gone, only a few firefighters were there in 10 minutes, and it took an hour for the rest to arrive. An hour.” She is bereft.

But humans made Notre-Dame. They kept it alive and functional, and traveled there in droves, for hundreds of years, to revel in its triumph over the randomness of earth. Whether everyone who visits Notre-Dame or St. Peter’s knows it or not—or even believes it (or not)—the creation of these buildings are celebrations of our gifts to God.

In those uncounted number of efforts, one of those tasks was repair of the roof. This likely means that molten lead was left somewhere, too hot for too long. What was used to keep the rainwater out of Notre Dame Cathedral may have set its dry, ancient roof timbers ablaze.

Thousands of humans built Notre-Dame. One of them may have doomed it. Until we fix it, again. And we will—because we can.

Every building fails over time, just like every human. The love of God that becomes present in the work I do is without beginning or end. It just is. We want to build our devotion and then love what we have built. But faith is not a building. St. Peter was vetoed when he tried to build those tabernacles, but he helped build a place for Grace in the world that lives long after he is dead. What 2,000 years has built will still be there tomorrow, after every devastation.

We all want to be the architects of our lives and rely on what we create to manifest what we will be. We try very hard to build timeless realities. But knowing how to do things often has precious little to do with what we control in our lives.

At countless meetings at these places of worship, I say that every care must be taken in every aspect of building to the glory of God, and people nod their head. But when I say that if these buildings are gone tomorrow, that they are just things, and that God is what lives – not our constructions – it’s disturbing to just about everyone in the room.

I am a state-designated “Historic Architect” and the 25-year property chair of an 1816 church, and I have worked on a number of religious buildings every year for the last 40 years. At countless meetings at these places of worship, I say that every care must be taken in every aspect of building to the glory of God, and people nod their head. But when I say that if these buildings are gone tomorrow, that they are just things, and that God is what lives—not our constructions—it’s disturbing to just about everyone in the room. Like Peter, we want to build tabernacles.

Faith in things has a shelf life. The religious faith that I do have is fully detached from professional dedications: my life is there, whether I think I earned it, made it, deserve it, or not. What we build is just here and now, until it is gone, until we are gone.

Each of our lives ends, but the reality of faith is fully personal. In the creation of who we are, it is often a prosaic checklist of achievements and setbacks. But the centuries-long task of creating a place based on faith is itself a wrestling match between the secular and the sacred. A bit like faith itself.

Beyond historic preservation as a devotion in architecture, the extension of faith in God into the embodiment of a building, especially this one, is daunting and tricky on many levels. We trust that the flying buttresses of career, love, and worth will make all this construction here, now, worth it. But none of it earns any love, no matter how joyous our expression is.

All buildings end. All people end. The unending truth of God in our lives is nothing we can construct. It is already there.

Now, let’s rebuild Notre-Dame.

Featured image via Wikipedia Commons.

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