I’ll admit it. When I first heard that Notre Dame was on fire, my first thoughts led me back to an old episode of The Flintsones, where Fred and Barney, in order to get a regular night out with the boys, had joined the volunteer fire department, which had a fire to put out every week…in a town that was made entirely out of stone.
And so I wondered, “How can it be on fire? It’s made out of stone?”
I quickly found out that while the walls were stone, the roof wasn’t. It was made from 800-year-old wood. 800-year-old dry wood, of which their own website says “fire is not impossible.” And because it was the roof that was on fire, that’s why you see so little damage to the inside.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. I’m here to talk about why so many people care about Notre Dame in a way that they don’t care about the other churches, and a mosque, that burned on that same day or in that same week. And that’s a question that has many people indignant.
My answer is very simple: Notre Dame has touched more people in one way or another than all those churches, and the mosque, put together.
The church I grew up in, St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in South Orange, NJ, burned to the ground decades ago. Actually, the building burned down (let’s all sing the song now). The people of St Andrew’s had decided to merge with another Episcopal church across town, and had sold the property to Seton Hall University. So what had burned down was now St Andrew’s Hall. I don’t expect the world to notice or be upset about it. Heck, I was only nominally saddened when I heard about it months or years after the fact. I was similarly saddened to hear that Ashland School, where I spent kindergarten through 8thgrade had also burned down.
These were places that I grew up in, that I could never go back to visit again. They meant a lot to the people who passed through them. But how many people outside of East Orange ever heard of Ashland School? Heck, how many people in East Orange ever heard of Ashland School (we had a lot of schools)? And how many people outside of South Orange ever heard of, or had been to, St Andrew’s?
No…my old church burned down decades ago, and I didn’t expect the world to notice when it did. It meant something to the people who belonged there, and to the people in the surrounding neighborhood, but few others.
But why do we care about Notre Dame, and not the other buildings that went up in flames last week? Because we know it, we’ve been there, we’ve seen pictures of it, we’re familiar with it in a way that we weren’t familiar with any of the other buildings that burned.
They say that familiarity breeds contempt. But it can also breed appreciation and love.
If we’ve been there, which I have, along with 13 million others each year, we have that familiarity. If we’ve seen pictures of it, we have that familiarity. If we’ve studied it, we have that familiarity. Millions of people have a familiarity with Notre Dame that they never had with the other buildings or…St Andrew’s.
And you know what? In my book, that’s OK. You can’t care about everybody. You can’t know about everybody. You can’t be told and care about every religious building that’s on fire. That would be as overwhelming as being able to hear all the molecules collide.
And it’s well worth noting that even those who are indignant about people caring so much about Notre Dame have their own blind spots of familiarity and unfamiliarity.
So let’s give everyone a break here. OK?