Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Au Revoir, Notre Dame de Paris

A replica of a Notre Dame
gargoyle watches over us 
at night. 

Here I use “au revoir” in the sense, “goodbye until we meet again,” as it literally means “to the seeing again.” I believe in Notre Dame’s resurrection, thanks to the commitment of the people of France to rebuild after the fire that devastated it weeks ago.

Until then, we will carry it in our hearts.

The first time I visited the cathedral, we had a very personal encounter. A close friend of mine in Los Angeles asked me on behalf of his father, struggling with cancer, to light a candle and say a prayer there before the Blessed Virgin for whom “Our Lady” is named. I was only too happy to do that.

When I happened to turn on the news while putting away groceries and learned of the fire, my legs wobbled, my heart sank, and tears came. My voice quavered when I later told Wade, who was working from home. On Facebook I wrote that it was the first time since 9/11 that I “lost it” watching the burning of a building, though, in that case, it was not so much the building as it was the loss of human life and the loss of life as we knew it that overwhelmed me.

My first long fiction piece, an unpublished novella titled Tommy that I wrote in college, described the great loss congregants experienced when their church burned down. I based it on my childhood experience of a fire in my home church, Vanowen Baptist. I had witnessed firsthand how emotional my mom and dad and other church members became, though it only damaged and did not destroy the structure. There is something very personal about a church.

In the dialogue between minister/journalist Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, Moyers observes, “There are women today who say that the spirit of the Goddess has been in exile for five thousand years, since the—”

Campbell interrupts, “You can’t go that far back, five thousand years. She was a very potent figure in Hellenistic times in the Mediterranean, and she came back with the Virgin in the Roman Catholic tradition. You don’t have a tradition with the Goddess celebrated any more beautifully and marvelously than in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century French cathedrals, every one of which is called Notre Dame” [p 170].

While male gods have been associated with aggression, Campbell suggests, the Goddess is about compassion, which he declares as “the beginning of humanity” [p 174]. In a related context, Campbell says:

The spirit is really the bouquet of life. It is not something breathed into life, it comes out of life. This is one of the glorious things about the mother-goddess religions, where the world is the body of the Goddess, divine in itself, and divinity isn’t something ruling over and above a fallen nature. There was something of this spirit in the medieval cult of the Virgin, out of which all the beautiful thirteenth-century French cathedrals arose. However, our story of the Fall in the Garden sees nature as corrupt; and that myth corrupts the whole world for us [p 99].

In the chapter, “The Gift of the Goddess,” Campbell explains:

From mere animal-like carnality, one may pass through a spiritual death and become reborn. The second birth is of an exalted, spiritually informed incarnation. And the Goddess is the one who brings this about. The second birth is through a spiritual mother. Notre Dame de Paris, Notre Dame de Chartres [which Campbell described as his “parish church”]—our Mother Church. We are reborn spiritually by entering and leaving a church [p 179].

It is after this last point that Moyers reminds Campbell that the Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary as the Mother of God in 411, and Campbell explains that this had been argued long before in the church, adding, “there is a story that when the council was in session, discussing this point, the people of Ephesus formed picket lines and shouted in praise of Mary, ‘The Goddess, the Goddess, of course she’s the Goddess’” [p 180].

Campbell continues, “Jesus took over what is really the Goddess’ role in coming down in compassion. But when the Virgin acquiesces in being the vessel of the incarnation, she has herself already affected the redemption. It has become more and more apparent that the Virgin is equivalent in her suffering to the suffering of her son. In the Catholic Church now I think she is called the ‘co-savior’” [p 180].

Any of us who have contemplated Mary near the cross, or a Pietà of Mary holding her dead son, or witnessed any grieving mother who has lost a child, can bear witness to the intensity of such compassion, a word which Campbell defines as “shared suffering.”

To repeat Campbell’s maxim, “Our Mother Church. We are reborn spiritually by entering and leaving a church.”

No wonder emotions run high when we witness the burning of a church, whether Notre Dame de Paris, or Vanowen Baptist, or the black churches arsoned here in the South.

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