John Waters, Ireland
The desecration implicit in the proposal to reconstruct the basilica of Notre-Dame in the image of Woke may announce the culmination of a shift in human consciousness that began centuries ago.
I remember well the morning of April 16th 2019, waking up in a hospital bed, to a message from a French friend who wrote that the fire at Paris’s great cathedral of Notre Dame was ‘only the beginning ‘de l’expression de sa colere’ — the ‘expression of the anger of God’. For reasons connected to my condition, I had not at the time heard anything of a fire, and had to spend a stupefied half-hour verifying that I was not on some kind of anti-viral trip.
This friend is a man who does not say such things conversationally. His faith does not yield to a formal nomenclature or structure, but he is a believer who knows that these things matter in the deepest way. I thought on his words as I contemplated video images from other friends in Paris of fellow citizens singing hymns as they watched the flames rise from where the basilica’s spire used to be. In December 2019, Notre-Dame did not host Christmas Mass for the first time in 116 years.
The Daily Telegraph recently reported that the proposal for the restoration of the beautiful 800 year-old cathedral is to include ‘modernist’ elements.
‘Under the proposed changes,’ the report elaborated, ‘confessional boxes, altars and classical sculptures will be replaced with modern art murals, and new sound and light effects to create “emotional spaces.”’ There is also something about ‘themed chapels’ on a ‘discovery trail’, intended to ‘emphasise Africa and Asia’. These, it appears, will ‘project Bible verses ‘in various languages, including Mandarin,’ onto the chapel walls.
The cathedral’s plans, genuflecting before the ideological obsessions of the current Bishop of Rome, will also include a chapel with a ‘strong environmental emphasis.’ Traditional straw chairs will be replaced by illuminated benches that retract into the floor. The tabernacle and baptistery, along with most of the 19th century traditional confessionals, will be moved away from the main floor, the confessionals replaced by ‘contemporary art installations.’ Portraits from the 16th and 18th centuries will be presented ‘in dialogue with modern art objects’, to be called ‘a cycle of tapestries’.
Father Gilles Drouin, who has responsibility for overseeing the reconstruction of the cathedral, denied the plans were radical, saying the goal is to preserve Notre-Dame as a place that can welcome the public ‘who are not always from a Christian culture,’ because ‘Chinese visitors may not necessarily understand the Nativity.’
‘Foreign visitors see signs and magnificent paintings but don’t understand a thing. Images and sculptures and paintings count but so do words. So there are plans to project certain words and expressions in Mandarin, French or Spanish and English.’
Grayson Quay, writing in the Spectator, ‘explained’ things a little more ironically:
‘Everything old is bad. European history is primarily (if not exclusively) a story of oppression and exploitation. Human spirituality should be conceived of primarily in therapeutic terms. Climate change is the greatest threat we face. Sin is an uncomfortable concept best swept under the rug. All experiences can and ought to be technologically mediated. Diversity is our strength.’
‘In this vision, Christianity apologizes for everything secular modernity disapproves of and tries to take at least some credit for everything secular modernity likes. The Church becomes a domesticated lapdog. She might occasionally bark out some unwelcome condemnation of IVF or gay marriage, but these defiances are more annoying than threatening. A quick command will bring her back to heel. Wag your finger and say “bad!” and she’ll cower in shame like a good girl.’
More solemnly, it is all, of course, a recipe for the final obliteration of the central meaning of the basilica, part of the revolution of cultural demolition that is now at full tilt, intent upon the pancaking of the world, all in the name of a pseudo-diversity that rapidly contrives to turn the West into one anti-culture and every formerly genuine culture into chaos and meaninglessness. This is the precise object: Pure tourism, the institutionalisation of selfie anti-culture at the heart of God’s House.
You would think — no? — that the kind of people making and influencing the decision-making process would have given some thought to the possibility that the fire might have being guided by some kind of supernatural intent, and more recently to the question of how their plans for the restoration of the cathedral were likely to be received ‘upon high’ — supernaturalism being, so to speak, their very stock-in-trade. We do not need to list probable causes for God’s undoubted anger. But perhaps it is something the world and its putative spiritual leaders ought to reflect on while the opportunity remains to avoid any further defilement of the great temple of Paris, once one of European civilisation’s crowning jewels.
Introduced to it by my daughter who was studying at the time in Paris, I first attended at Notre-Dame with my wife about six years ago and, until 2020, when the world as we knew it ended, had been returning whenever I could. I have shed more tears there than in any church in any part of the world, and, that April morning, though ill and confined to a hospital bed 650 miles away, I shed some more on meditating on the conflagration of this symbol of Christian civilisation.
I had one particular sense of why God’s anger might have been provoked by Notre-Dame: that, in common with almost all the great churches of Europe, it had been allowed to become commodified and cheapened by being absorbed into the tourism infrastructure of Paris. This is a fate that has befallen many of the great Christian buildings of Europe, as the de-absolutisation of our culture continued apace: It is as if we have turned the formative faith of our civilisation into a theme park for curious and condescending pseudo-rationalists to use as background photographic evidence of their being on holiday.
This drift of thinking first insinuated itself to me in Florence, a few years earlier, at the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, constructed as a homage to the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Walking around the building for the first time, it struck me that there is something tawdry about the way modern Christianity presents such buildings to the world, inviting the de-absolutised public to come and gawp and snap without any requirement of reverence or affection. On the same visit, during the Consecration at Mass in the Abbey of San Miniato al Monte, I felt a slight jostle behind me and, turning around, was confronted by a Chinese woman with a camera held high to take a picture. There was nothing new about the experience. We had by then grown used to tourists in our churches, wearing shorts and T-shirts, brandishing cameras and semi-contemptuous disregard for the context in which they have contrived to manifest their often quite astonishing ignorance. It’s strange how you become accustomed to something troubling, perhaps experiencing an occasional slight irritation, but mostly remaining insufficiently motivated or bothered to focus on the feeling. Then, one day, a short series of experiences causes that previously unremarked phenomenon to register in a new and disturbing way.
Of course buildings require maintenance, and priests need to eat. And I don’t believe the problem is anything as obvious or banal as the mere ‘consumerisation of religion’. Nor is it really all that much about the way tourists in general dress or behave: most of them, to be fair, are respectful and dignified.
The deeper issue is that, here we are, at the height of the Age of Unreason, when it is becoming close to impossible for the human heart to breathe true air, and we permit — in fact, encourage — a disposition towards faith that, in almost every respect, tends to confirm the dominant mentality of the time. For what does it suggest that we allow tourists to wander around our places of worship, without commitment or investment of anything but curiosity and a handful of small change? To me, it suggests acquiescence in a growing cultural mentality that treats faith as a residue of a former naïvete — fascinating, diverting, maybe even beautiful beyond — as it were — belief, but ultimately belonging to a prior and condescended-to understanding of reality. To permit this is tacitly to concur with a characterisation of the religious impulse as something like a museum piece — to be looked at, studied, admired and recorded as part of the cultural diversion of a weekend away. It is to allow the Cross and the womb of Mary to be treated as fossils, upon which the world now gazes archeologically but without gravity or dread.