O Lord, we are so easily deceived still into expecting from you a kingdom governed according to the laws of this world. Keep our eyes fixed on the triumph of the cross, so that we may grow into a deeper understanding of the power of your law of love over the laws of human expectation, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This prayer from the end of Morning Prayer for Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019 in Magnificat magazine speaks to me of God’s first century followers and their inability to recognize the Messiah in Jesus. But, oh, it also speaks to me, to what my heart goes through during this Church crisis, and even when reading about the sins of the Church’s people through history. It speaks to me of my own sins and false expectations. However, it came foremost to mind the next day, the Monday of Holy Week, speaking to me about our visceral reaction to the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Though we know all things of this world are passing, somehow, we expected Notre Dame to stand, unchanged, in the heart of Paris forever. We forget that this building has more in common with a sand castle in eternity’s eye view. The Jews expected a Messiah to lead the charge against the Romans and set up a new and glorious kingdom on earth. We expect our twenty-first century world to continue in some sort of glorious material progress, as we preserve the best of the past and build new monuments to our own genius for the future.
This fire is in part a harsh detachment from these expectations, a call to accept change when it inevitably comes and to hold loosely all that is not eternal. We are to remember that our churches, our homes, our health, and our comfortable American way of life is not guaranteed. We are to remember that even our children, our spouses and our dearest friends are on loan to us from God. Ultimately, we are to remember that the Cross is our true expectation, and, yes, the Crown, too. But never the latter before the former.
This fire offers abundant lessons to be salvaged from the rubble, including from what has been left standing: the foundation and twin towers. St. John Bosco had a vision of the Church as a ship, the Barque of Peter, in a great storm, the Pope at the helm guiding Her through the twin towers of our Blessed Mother and the Eucharist. Like a great ship in the River Seine, Notre Dame has been deeply broken, taken on water, but still stands, twin towers of her own intact.
After the spontaneous prayers of Parisians on the streets and the work of the brave firefighters, priests and others who rushed to aid their mother, the fire was miraculously contained and the damage is not nearly as bad as was feared. Signal graces were given to all in what was saved during Holy Week: the Rose Windows, the Crown of Thorns, a sainted French king’s tunic, and breathtakingly, a glowing cross set behind a pietà sculpture. The Blessed Mother fairly shouts, if such a thing were possible of such a gentle mother, “Behold!”
It is almost as if the Blessed Mother set herself on fire to get her children’s attention. It is certain that God allowed this, and the people of France, steeped in the intellectualism of the Enlightenment for centuries now, fell to their knees in prayers and singing, weeping for and with their Mother. The eldest prodigal daughter of the Church had a blessed moment of true recollection. Perhaps most have already rationalized away their experience of that night of smoke and flames, prayer and song as purely humanistic emotions tied to a beloved landmark and the memories of pious parents or grandparents. But the truth is a tiny ember in their hearts, and if they do not quench it, it will grow as the Blessed Mother and Jesus speak to them in many and various ways, suited perfectly to the needs of each. This Mother loves us so. She mourns our straying, our prodigal ways.
“Behold, Your Mother”
Outside of Jesus himself, no greater gift has been given, nor will we ever receive in heaven or on earth, than our Blessed Mother. We are called to love her, appreciate her, honor her, talk to her and run to her with our troubles. She wants to teach us her ways, which are Jesus’ ways. She is always a good and gentle teacher. She will teach us how to be a good and gentle teacher to those around us, too.
Jesus gives her to us, not to put something between Himself and us, but to help us to draw near, especially when we are in pain, especially the pain caused by our own sin. In our embarrassment, hurt pride and disbelief in our own lack of virtue and continuing selfishness despite all of the graces we’ve been given, we will fear less to come to such a gentle mother. Mary will soothe our hearts, smooth out our fears, show us our errors and reassure us of her continued love, and of Jesus’. With our focus taken off of ourselves and placed back on Jesus and His mercy and love for us, and with renewed confidence in that mercy and love, we can return to Jesus with true contrition. He will forgive, heal and set us back on the right course.
This unmatched gift and grace of the Blessed Mother is always available to us, night and day, in busyness or at times of prayer and reflection. Pray for the grace to make good use of such a gift, to love well such a mother. By using this gift, we allow her to teach and train us to be like Mary for others: to be a bridge to Jesus, like the bridge over the Seine that leads to His church named for her. His mercy waits and trembles to overflowing in His cup. He desires to pour it out on poor sinners like us and the lost around us. He thirsts. The more we come to our mother and become like her, the more souls will also find Jesus through us, members of a vast army of little mothers, little fathers, little souls lighting the way to Christ.
Will we rebuild like before? Impossible. Two hundred years of careful, pious craftsmanship cannot be replicated within a twenty-first century time frame. But that is alright. I hope that a new church is born on that age-old foundation, one open to the transforming and changing light of day, to God’s every movement in the heavens. Perhaps simpler and mindful of the transience of all things earthly, but still giving the utmost glory to God, all honor due to our Blessed Mother, and to all saints who came before us and upon whose shoulders we now stand in faith. Most importantly, I hope that it will become again a place that draws us to our Blessed Mother, to be reconciled with her Son.
May the mercy and grace of old flow down the Seine around the little island that holds up Our Lady, in new and miraculous ways suited by God for times such as these. May the people of Paris, of France and of the world, stream back to Christ through the grace of a Mother whose love for them is a burning fire in her heart.