Reflections on the Fire of Notre Dame
by George Wolfe
Two of my favorite places in Paris are the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Montmartre and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. One can’t help be raptured by their architectural beauty, enduring tradition and the inspired art that adorns these honored places. But the fire in the Notre Dame Cathedral reminds us of the temporality of these sacred structures and artifacts. Or as the Buddhists would say, “nothing is permanent,” a reality that forces us to look more deeply into what a symbol represents and calls us to ponder.
In the Gospel of John, when Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus after the resurrection, he says to her, “Do not hold me . . .” (John 20:17). It is a teaching of nonattachment, instructing us to let go of the superficial physical form of the master so we may come to know the spiritual essence that the master embodies. And so it is also with Notre Dame.
There is the awe-inspiring sanctuary which moves us as we enter the nave of the cathedral, but this is but a pale reflection of the inner sanctuary which we come to know through meditation.
The problem many of us, both believers and nonbelievers have, is that we are looking for God in the wrong direction. We are imprisoned by the false dualistic assumption that subject and object are separate, that God lies outside oneself.
But God is not an object of perception. Rather one finds the Sacred Presence by looking deep within. It requires a shifting of the awareness that is experienced through meditation or a contemplative practice that ushers us into the sanctuary of our deeper self which is beyond the intellect, beyond the ego, and beyond name and form. It is the experience of awareness by itself, a fourth state of consciousness unique from waking, dreaming and sleeping, an experience akin to what Jewish scripture calls the great “I AM” Exodus 3:14), or what the opening chapter of the Tao Te Ching refers to when it says: “The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.”
The Hindu spiritual leader, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, states it well when he writes: “We were born with silence, and as we grew up, we lost the silence and were filled with words. We lived in our hearts, and as time passed, we moved into our heads. Now the reversal of this journey is enlightenment. It is the journey from head back to the heart, from words back to silence.”
I am not Roman Catholic, but each year I enjoy attending the Maundy Thursday mass at St. Francis Church in Muncie. It is a service celebrating humility and the sacrificial action that dispels our illusory fabrications of the intellect and ego. It ushers me into the inner sanctuary where I can die within and rest in communion with the Divine Presence “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). There we come to understand that in this mystery we call the universe, life and death are not opposites. Birth and death are opposites; life is common to both. All is forgiven in the fullness of the sacred sanctuary within the heart.
It is much like an aesthetic experience that we must become receptive to through the act of surrender. In this experience we at last come to realize the great paradox of life, that it is through death that we gain immortality. It is the fire which destroys our conceptual icons and intellectual identity that at last enables us to discover our deeper and truer self.
George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus and former Director of the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He is also chair of the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and is the author of Meditations on Mystery: Science, Paradox and Contemplative Spirituality.