What Notre Dame of Paris means to me

From the Preface of the 2019 CWF Coursebook


When the ideas contained in this book first pushed through the surface, I travelled to Paris in search of the necessary setting to start writing them down. Even so, expression evaded me at first. It takes more to make a writer than ideas, I suppose. The ideas must shape a story. Back then, they crowded my mind; they tugged at my imagination, and they lit up like a Christmas tree every time I found myself looking at an expression of culture. But when sitting before a blank page, I couldn’t find a way into the story.


Paris is an inspiring city. Spending a few weeks there with the intention of writing about culture while getting to know a new one was not unfitting. I definitely learned: not only a little bit of French, and not only about the Parisian culture’s grandeur; I also encountered another worldview. The history told by the buildings and artwork, the logic manifested in the infrastructure, the expressions on the faces in the cafés and on the sidewalks—these and a thousand more were indicators of a different view of the world; one that was slightly different from the ones with which I was familiar. If I had thought that I had a holistic understanding of Western culture, I now realized that I was wrong. Considering the incredible richness of its components, I could not possibly claim to capture the quintessence of Western culture at my young age. I thus kept observing what I saw and recalibrating what I thought and I wondered how I could ever put something down on paper if, with each page I turned in life, I had to constantly recalibrate everything. Would I ever obtain access to a story that would express my ideas?


One day, I walked into Notre Dame Cathedral. It took me a while to get through the line of visitors, all eager to experience the legendary charm of this gothic masterpiece. When I finally strode through the rows of forest-like columns and pointed arcs, my eyes sluggishly adjusted to the dimmed light in the middle nave which was illuminated only by the crisscross of light beams allowed in through the symmetric stained glass windows. I found myself surrounded by the breathtaking views created by the several layers of space that pulse with the spiritual charge contained in this ancient building. This felt familiar. As a Catholic seminarian, I was no stranger to churches. Moreover, the gothic genius spoke to me of a worldview I knew. For all the diversity that you can find in the different Western nations, there are elements which unite them culturally. More than anywhere else, this unity is embodied in the architectural spirituality of the Catholic churches.


Statue of Charlemagne in fornt of the facade of Notre Dame Cathedral (December 2016)

To my surprise, not only the stones spoke of spirituality in Notre Dame. There was also a service going on by the main altar. To be precise, two dozen faithful sang the evening prayers. It struck me how harmoniously the stream of tourists flowed around the praying locals. Prayer and sightseeing coexisted peacefully. In that moment, it even seemed that these two activities were enriching each other. Usually, two things as different as these are prone to adversely affect their respective ends. In the special atmosphere of Notre Dame, however, the tourists instinctively seemed to show the due respect, while the faithful must have taken pride in the stunning beauty of their service.


Notre Dame's "several layers of space pulse with spirituality (December 2016)

While pacing through that scene pensively—feeling like I belonged to both groups: the faithful searching for the glory of God and the visitors searching for the heights of culture—the Christmas tree lit up in my mind again. This was a furnace of Western culture right here! Prayer and beauty, faithful Christians and secular bystanders, diversity and encounter: all encapsulated in an atmosphere which clearly affected people’s behavior, relationships, and mood. Faith and culture merged into a whole here, without canceling each other out. They enriched each other harmoniously. In that moment, I discovered my way into the story.


[...]

It is a tragedy for culture, when expressions of faith are destroyed. For culture needs faith.

In order to understand the interplay between faith and culture, one first needs to regard the history of Western culture and pay special attention to the role that Christian faith has played in it. [...] Most importantly, however, one must reflect about how the two realms of faith and culture merge into one tension field in the life of a concrete person. Whether it be the person standing in the pews during evening prayer, or the one striding through the side aisle of Notre Dame—whoever wants to get in touch with the centerpiece of Western culture must walk into the tension field where faith and culture relate. We could say that a person’s Catholic worldview is the result of how he or she moves through that tension field. This book wants to be a framework to describe that field and a handrail for the journey through it.

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