"16-Year-Old Activist Demands EU Parliament Act On Climate Change As Quickly As Notre-Dame"
"Why Black People Are Giving The Reaction to The Notre Dame Fire The Side-Eye … The Money Raised So Expeditiously Shows an Irony When Compared to Tragedies in Our Diaspora"
"'Its burning feels like an act of liberation' … the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of 'the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith – just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change.'"
"In just a few hours today, 650 million euros was donated to rebuild Notre Dame … this is what they call white privilege." South Africa-based journalist
"Privilege Flares in Notre Dame Fire"
My mother was born in Slovakia in a house that her father, a shepherd, built by hand. We visited her village in the 1970s. Even then Aunt Bora lived in the traditional house type: one "black room" that had a fire; one "light room" with no fire, and no heat. Bora had raised eleven children in that house. Above Bora's bed hung a portrait of the Madonna and child. We praised its beauty. Bora jumped on the bed and began to take it down to give it to us. My mother had to fight off this gift. Bora offered us slivovice, low-cost, kerosene-flavored firewater. Other relatives served more expensive Bulgarian champagne. These relatives were members of the Communist Party. Bora knew that she suffered economic penalties because of her piety, "But I will never abandon the Catholic Church."
In America both my grandfathers mined coal. Bits of stories came down to me: my mother foraging through a garbage dump for food. Walking barefoot to school. My father riding the rails during the Depression, seeking work. Finally joining the Army when he was underage and serving under an older brother's name.
My mother had been eager to ensure that after he returned from the war, my father would never mine coal again. Her father and father-in-law met cruel fates in the mines. She moved her husband to Newark, New Jersey, a bustling city that could offer many kinds of employment to a returned veteran. In Newark, my parents discovered that there they were not identified as the grandchildren of serfs, or newly arrived greenhorns, or even Bohunks. Rather, in Newark my parents discovered that they were white, and that some of their neighbors objected to their skin. Violent, racially-motivated crime drove them out of Newark. They bought a tiny house in a new suburb.
My mother played classical albums in our New Jersey home. As a child I learned to recognize and appreciate Strauss, Grieg, Dvorak, Smetana, Chopin, Verdi, and Mendelsohn. There were so many books that in no room in the house were you ever more than a stretched arm away from a volume, from Man's Religions to The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel. Original paintings by Aunt Madeline and Uncle Joe bedecked our walls. Music and poetry played little role in my mother's professional life. She cleaned houses and worked in factories, often two full-time jobs in one day. Weekends she made time to clean the Catholic Church, so as to help defray tuition for putting her six kids through Catholic school.
My father was not an easy man, not for anyone, except perhaps the men he commanded in the Philippines and New Guinea during World War II, who spoke well of him; and also his confreres in AA. Dad would leave the house in the middle of the night and drive for hours to get a drunk to a meeting. My dad was much older than I and I think the Alzheimer's that would eventually kill him had affected his mind in my early adulthood. No, we were not close, and there was no way we could be close. Continents, tongues, and eras separated us.
Even so, one day, out of thin air, he said, "Come with me. I want to show you something."
We drove the half hour from our small, modest, suburban town back to Newark, my dad's former home. There we pulled up in front of the most magnificent thing I had ever seen. It was the Sacred Heart Cathedral.
"I can't take you to Notre Dame in Paris," my dad said. "But I can show you this."
Merely the lines of this structure against the sky – just that – geometric features in space – were sublime. These lines were so entirely right. So much of life is just off, half-baked, not quite what it should be, needs tweaking. These lines were the product of someone or someones who had achieved a higher state and saw what we would see if we were our best selves. The stone was granite-gray against the bright blue sky, and that was right, too. The stone was both masculine and feminine. It stood its ground, unapologetic, brave and solid and protective. It flirted, it flew, it flowed. It whispered, "I can be your dream." It soothed and caressed, "I can heal your pain." The front door alone was mystery upon mystery, and yet clarity upon clarity. "Yes," the stone statues and arches and endlessly ornamented arrows pointed toward Heaven promised, "this is all very complicated, but it is also all very simple. Sit for a while. Observe. And you will come to understand, and you will be part of this. In fact, you don't know it yet, but you are part of this already. Here is a polished wooden statue of a man in a funny hat holding an open book and a quill pen. Here is a monumental stone statue of a bare-foot woman with wild hair dressed in an animal skin. Here is a gilded mosaic of a weeping woman holding up her scarf, that now bears the imprint of a crucified man. Keep watching these characters. In them, you will find your own story."
It took a while to work our way from the street into the main church sanctuary. As complicated as the structure was, from the tip of its towers to the tiles under our feet, there seemed to be a living vine entwining and connecting everything. This sense of an invisible lifeforce was strengthened by organic forms. Columns rose and spread like trees stretching to their crowns. Paths flowed like meandering streams. Cinquefoil and trefoil shapes cropped up throughout, in stone, in the finals of wooden pews, and in stained glass alike, like flowers scattered in a carpet of grass. Once we reached the beating heart, the altar, flooded with colored light from massive rose windows, I knew that my father did not have to tell me anything about why he had brought me here. This was not Heaven, no, but this was a creation of those focused on Heaven. Every hand that had played a role in erecting this self-contained world, every mathematician's mind that crunched the numbers of heights and weights and spans, every wood worker, every mason, every glazier, every storyteller, every tile-layer, knew a piece of Heaven, the master builders orchestrated these pieces, and shared them here, with me.
Years later, in that journey away from being my parent's daughter that all college students take, (only to boomerang years later), I was lucky enough to have a professor named Lowe. He turned the lights off when we took our seats. He projected slides. And he said, "When you go to see the Elgin Marbles … " He insisted that we were part of the story. One day it was "When you go to Chartres cathedral, you will be astounded by the stained glass, especially the Notre-Dame de la Belle-Verrière …The Blue Virgin." And right then I knew I had to go.
I didn't make it to Chartres till nine years later, after serving two terms in the Peace Corps. Adjusting to a life in small villages had been relatively easy for me. It was all so natural, so tuned to the body's clock: sleeping when it got dark, getting up with the sun, and hand-washing my laundry in Himalayan streams so cold I had to use my Swiss Army Knife to chip my frozen socks and underwear off of rocks. I relearned in those villages what I learned in my childhood home, ringing with music, and in Bora's smoky hut. The poorest of the poor need beauty as much as any rich man. Peasants, porters, beggars, women whose fingernails are always embedded with the black soot of cook fires, sacrifice, yearn for, spend their last penny on beauty, and spirit, and meaning, and to take their place in the transcendent.
Returning to the modern West was painful culture shock. There's a story Peace Corps volunteers like to tell. A volunteer leaves the village, flies back to America, and has a nervous breakdown in the cereal aisle of the supermarket.
Before I fully reentered modern American life, I remembered that promise I made to myself in Prof Lowe's class. I budgeted only one day for Chartres cathedral. I spent six hours inside. I cannot fully communicate what I experienced there. I can say this. I have seen the Taj Mahal, the Golden Gate, Swayambhunath, the Wat Phra Kaew, The Parthenon, The Dome of the Rock, Yellowstone, the Matterhorn, and yes the Elgin Marbles, and the one place I need, I crave to return to before I die, is Chartres.
There's a feeling we are all looking for. It's a feeling that maybe only puppies, having just suckled all they can of their mother's milk, and just before they drift off to sleep in the warm and cozy company of their siblings, feel. Inside me, it's okay. Outside me, it's okay. Beyond me, to all the worlds, it's all, it's all okay. Julian of Norwich was a fourteenth-century anchoress. She lived much of her life inside a cell attached to a church. She tried to convey something of this feeling, as she received it in a revelation: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." She also reported that "God is nearer to us than our own soul." That's how I felt in Chartres Cathedral.
New Agers insist that Chartres' power is produced by "ley lines," magical spots in the earth. One New Ager that in Chartres, she could "feel the energy running through me. It is strong, and felt like a regular fine vibration, penetrating the soles of my feet so that my whole body vibrated in time with it … My husband said it hurt his legs! Chartres Cathedral is built on a hot spot, a place where powerful magnetic currents surface, and ley lines connect."
I politely disagree. This is what I think really happened.
In Europe, in the Middle Ages, the average life expectancy was a little over 30 years. People, as traditional people do today, lived their lives within smelling distance of pig and human waste. They shared their dwellings with flies and vermin; they shared their blood with fleas, mites, and lice. They were hungry most of the time. One storm could wipe out a given crop for an entire year. Early spring, before new crops came in, was an especially hungry time. Wild animals, or even merely rats, took children's lives. No one traveled much and they didn't have much power. Most people could not read. In short, Medieval Europe was like the villages I lived in in the Third World, or a million villages that have existed for tens of thousands of years. What was different? What raised focus from the backside of an ox ploughing a field, what lifted consciousness from bread, and maybe even – oh, too much for which to hope – bread with butter?
These pitiful wretches heard a story, about a God who loved them and died for them, and that story sparked them to master the properties of space, light, stone, wood, color, and storytelling, and they exercised that virtuosity, year after year, decade after decade, alone and en masse, in calm joy and in cut-throat quarrels, to erect cathedrals that awe millions today, in a way that nothing else can, in an era of instant satiation, education, and empowerment. And they did all this, knowing that they would not live to see the fruition of their handiwork. And they did it anonymously, because it was all done for the greater glory of God. But their attempt at anonymity is thwarted by the sublimity of their creations. These people who lived briefly and smelled bad stand as giants of our species stand. They were artistic geniuses.
As night follows day, leftists exposed their envy of the international concern being lavished on Notre Dame de Paris. The themes of their envy are predictable. It is bad to care so much for Notre Dame because the environment. Because black people. Because materialism. Because the poor. All of these leftist sins: environmental degradation, racism, materialism, and poverty, are, in this case, masks. The folks griping about love for Notre Dame are not really advocating for the earth, for people of color, for simple lifestyles, or for the poor.
Rather, their gripes are rooted in leftist views about art, and leftist views about art are more undead, more efficient brain siphoners, than the villains of a George A. Romero film. Mao said, "Proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are, as Lenin said, cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine … [Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy."
Fidel Castro said, "What must be the primary concern of all citizens today? The concern that the Revolution would asphyxiate art, that the Revolution is going to asphyxiate the creative genius of our citizens? Or should not the Revolution itself be the Concern of everyone? … What are the rights of revolutionary or non-revolutionary writers and artists? Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution? No rights at all."
Watch any given of those mourning Notre Dame in the streets of Paris. Perhaps every sixth or seventh face is black. About twenty percent of Sub-Saharan Africa, and about seventy percent of Latin American and the Caribbean, is . Leftists raged that we cared so much about the burning of Notre Dame but not the burning of black churches. Notre Dame is a black church.
I'm gobsmacked by my leftist friends who insist that one cannot care both about Notre Dame and the environment. They should read . And Leviticus 19:9 that forbids exploiting every bit of earth. And Proverbs 12:10 that counsels care for animals. Scholar Ellen Arnold "Medieval saints, scholars, and everyday Christians cared about nature, wrote about nature, and thought deeply about their environment. They recognized the fragility of the earth and valued nature as God’s creation. The history of ties between the medieval church and care for the natural world is deeper and richer than we imagine." It should surprise no one that medieval Catholicism produced Francis, a man who made peace with a notorious wolf, and that the founder of the modern science of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was an Augustinian friar. My leftist friends could not be more wrongheaded in insisting that there is some uncrossable line between church and environment.
The artists of Gothic cathedrals lived lives rooted in nature – milking cows, chopping wood, tending bees. Given nearly universal illiteracy, images from nature were the only way to convey abstract ideas. These churches' artworks illustrate a God who shows his love by embodying a shepherd rejoicing over a found lost lamb. A God who insists that the splendor of lilies outshines the wealth of Solomon. A God who knows, and notes, each fallen sparrow. In Chartres cathedral, there is a famous window that depicts Jesus as quite literally the pinnacle fruit on the tree of Jesse. These peerless masterworks, Gothic cathedrals, were built without petroleum, plastic, electricity, or earth-moving machines. Lovers of the earth should love Gothic cathedrals.
Materialism? When I mourned Notre Dame, I mourned the verb more than the noun. Yes, I value the palpable thing, the touchable cathedral itself. But I also value its erection. I value the faith, the community, the patience, the humility, the unity, the dedication, the vision that produced these wonders. I recognize that I inhabit an atomized, selfish, impatient, easily distracted world. I despair that we can't build a Notre Dame today. Those leftist scolds tut-tutting about materialism lack the imagination, the vision, to recognize this.
"What about the poor?" leftists rage. In their raging, they remind us of a story.
"A woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on Jesus' head. There were some who were indignant. 'Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days' wages and the money given to the poor.' They were infuriated with her. Jesus said, 'Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them.'" Emphasis added. Nuff said.
Polish poet Leopold Staff wrote, "More than bread, poetry is necessary." This is not a sentiment exclusive to the lucky and the rich. Jews barely clinging to life in the Warsaw Ghetto under Nazi occupation quoted Staff in their advertisements for a poetry reading. Materialists can't understand what these Jews knew, what my mother knew when she taught us to appreciate Verdi, what my Aunt Bora, with the Madonna adorning her wall knew, what Medieval artists knew. The poor need and deserve transcendent beauty and meaning every bit as much as the rich.
Here's what really rankles me when leftists rage about money spent to restore Notre Dame. They presume to rage in my name. They assume that I am incapable of speech. They decide for me, just as Mao and Castro did. I deeply resent the left appropriating my misery and harnessing it to drag their tumbrils. They will decide what art serves the proletariat. These leftists would have nothing but contempt for my mother who, after a week of working two manual labor, minimum wage jobs, cleaned a Catholic Church in order to provide, for her children, a Catholic education. These leftists know better than my mother. They know better than I.
But they don't.
Notre Dame tells a story that leftists reject, and that I believe. Their story is an atheist, materialist story. I must believe in the collective, and the collective will create the workers' paradise. The collective will vet donation-worthy art: crucifixes submerged in urine, Mapplethorpe's S&M portraits, a bloodied t-shirt reading "" – that is, "I am a biological male and I physically assault women who don't accept me as a woman." And yes just such a t-shirt was featured in .
My leftist friends who rage against the concern for Notre Dame want to be recognized as the Messiah. They want to be the ones receiving the accolades for saving the people. But Marx is not my Messiah. Jesus is. Materialism is not my ultimate end. My ultimate end lies not in this world, this "vale of tears," but in a transcendent reality I can see only as through a glass, darkly.
I'm wrestling with a couple of chronic illnesses. I work a low-wage job. I will donate to the fund to restore Notre Dame. The amount of money I give will be small in comparison to some donations, but it will represent a sacrifice for me. I will have to go without something I want in order to make my donation. Given my health and money woes, chances are I will never see any restoration. Someday, after I'm gone, a father will take his girl to see the restored Notre Dame, and her eyes will open to the transcendent. My donation will be a part of that. And that is better than anything any leftist can promise me. And my participation in that moment makes me rich.
Danusha Goska is the author of .
This essay also appears at Front Page Magazine here
This essay also appears at Front Page Magazine here