And now we need a miracle

Editorial – The fire of Notre-Dame: the soul is a serious matter

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire on 18/04/2019

Roots do not represent the past, but the present and the future of plants. They remain hidden, deep rooted and invisible, but nonetheless fundamental. Some trees can continue living despite losing 90% of the leaves and branches, but die if their roots are severed. Uncovering the roots requires a great traumatic event: a major storm, an inundation, an earthquake. The same can be said for life: sometimes it is the death of a parent which leads us to recite the last prayer that we still recall even if, until that moment, we thought that we no longer remembered it. Monday night, the Christian roots of Europe became visible to all while they were burning up. Many of those Frenchmen who found a “Hail Mary…” blossoming from the bottom of their hearts, on their lips, had long lost the sense of that beautiful cathedral of that beautiful name and that marvellous prayer; but the words arose on their own, by the particular maieutic power that only certain kinds of pain know and provoke. Like roots: they are buried deep down, in silence and darkness, but remain in essence, simply, life.

The Notre-Dame fire showed all Parisians, Frenchmen, Europeans and the world where the roots of European culture really can be found, and how essential they are to life. During that awful night it wasn’t just the past that was going up in flames. The present and future were also burning up.

Something closely connected to words that many have wished to cancel or leave in a corner of their mind and life was burning up and during that terrible night they realised they hadn’t managed to eliminate them entirely. Sacred, spiritual, paradise, God, Mary: we have built Europe and the West over many centuries with and on the basis of these in-finite words. Our European cathedrals are icons and sacrament of a humanity which is still alive even if we have been doing everything to cancel and forget it. There they are, silent and persistent and gentle, repeating with their mere presence to us every day words of love that we no longer understand.

But there is an intimate part of us that still takes in those words. For we carry them engraved in our collective and individual soul. We cannot cancel them completely, just as you cannot cancel the chromosomes of your DNA. The soul is always a serious matter. Submerged, forgotten, humiliated, offended words, but still alive. The “heat” of that night made those different words visible again rewriting them with a kinder ink. While they were going up in flames, we returned for a few hours to a long medieval night. We saw that terrible fire and felt small and impotent under the great sky, and together, we heard both within and outside of ourselves powerful and ancient words. And the pain caused by that fire was also pain for the words that were burning up, for which we felt an infinite nostalgia, precisely while they were going up in flames.

The reconstruction of Notre-Dame will not be an easy task. There will naturally be a technical, reconstruction, that of the engineers, architects and the restorers. But there is another reconstruction of real and great difficulty, maybe even impossible without the happening of an actual and very real miracle.

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