Even when steeples are falling

by Mark Safstrom

I returned to my office after teaching my Monday morning class a few months ago, opened my email and clicked on a message from one of our chaplains about a student vigil for Notre Dame. Not knowing what this could be about, I searched online and found live coverage of the fire engulfing the cathedral. I was transfixed, like the throngs of people I saw on the street and lining the river bank, silently watching in horror. And then there was a collective gasp.

I had never watched a church spire collapse before.

Seeing two colleagues, both French professors, in the hall a few hours later, I walked over to say, “I’m so sorry about Notre Dame. I’m sad for France.” Nothing overly dramatic, just a simple, human acknowledgement of the historic loss was intended. But I could hardly speak. Why was I choked up?

Coincidentally, the next day I was to teach about cathedrals – this was a history course on Medieval Europe. I showed slides of St. Denis, the first gothic cathedral, designed by Abbot Suger in the 12th century, and explained the ingenuity of his design and of the other cathedrals that followed. Pointed arches, flying buttresses, ribbed vaults, and soaring heights inspired by the dimensions of Solomon’s temple and the New Jerusalem. I described my favorite feature, the clerestory windows, glass walls of light and color, crafted to communicate biblical scenes and to dazzle pilgrims with a stunning visual representation of God’s glory and the majesty of creation. How do walls of glass manage to hold up such a heavy stone roof? This is a miracle of architecture. Let there be light!

I concluded with images of Notre Dame from the photo spread of the aftermath of the fire in the New York Times. I mentioned how over 1,000 oak trees had formed the roof, and how all of those 800-year-old beams that burned had still had the fingerprints of the craftsmen on them. Now they were gone. Then I felt the knot in my chest return and stopped talking. “Sorry guys, still too fresh,” their dithering professor quipped.

I love history, I love art and architecture, I love the church. But seriously? Why was this catching me off guard?

A colleague later pointed out, “because your church is on fire.”

Maybe so. Metaphorically, my denomination, like many others, is indeed on fire regarding division over inclusivity of LGBT Christians and their friends, family, and pastors who would like to make space for them, despite current administrative policies that prevent this.

Exhausted from thinking and talking about this, my purpose here is instead to offer a word of assurance to those who feel hopeless and excluded, or, as one veteran pastor put it, “like my childhood home has burned down.” I wish to remind us that even in situations like this there may be immediate devastation, yet there is also a long game.

It takes decades to build a cathedral, often more than a century. We’ve been reminded that they can burn down in a matter of hours. The difference between the historic churches of Christendom that now lie in ruins and those that still have their roofs, arches and spires is that they have actually been rebuilt over and over again. We forget this sometimes when we visit them. When natural disasters, and arsonists, and bombers have finished their work, stubborn builders have returned to assess the damage and start securing the structure.

I think of the medieval wooden stave church in Bergen, Norway, destroyed by arsonists in 1992. It was replaced in exacting detail only a few years later. It had been so thoroughly documented and photographed that the builders could virtually duplicate it. I also think of the “Friends of St. Paul’s,” the Londoners who rallied to form a volunteer corps during the Blitz to extinguish fires and the collateral incendiaries that flew when the bombs struck its walls and the houses nearby. This must have seemed futile at the time. Yet, as Grundtvig’s hymn reminds us, “Built on a Rock, the Church doth stand.”

Though many feared that Notre Dame might be a total loss, thanks to hundreds of firefighters it was not. In the following days there was hope of stabilizing and rebuilding the church. Knowing that there were so many people who worked patiently through the flames to save the church came as a poetic reassurance.

Trauma can prompt us to focus on shared values. “It’s in times of controversy that our Pietist heritage comes out of the woodwork,” someone wisely shared at a church history conference at Bethel University many years ago, referring to the irenic spirit of Rosenian Pietism. That has stuck with me.

Recently in Uppsala Cathedral, once again marveling in another of God’s sacred spaces, I lit a candle and prayed.

We will patiently put out the flames, take stock of the damage, repair and rebuild. Yet, a church is not simply an institution to preserve. It is “God’s house of living stones.” There are relationships here to be mended, people to be cared for, reconciled with, loved and included.

Guds frid – God’s peace.