The Spire in the Fire: Why did Notre-Dame burn?

When my husband told me Notre-Dame was burning, I was sitting in meditation at my usual jigsaw puzzle, my back to the room. I began to pray. The essay below is a new analysis of the news.

Why did the fire happen at Notre-Dame?

Fire insurance investigators will come up with their own explanation of what happened at Notre-Dame. What nags at me is: what is the spiritual symbolism of the fire?

Fire itself is a symbol of the Holy Spirit in Christian parlance, the Shekinah in Jewish thought, Spirit in neo-religious movements. The purpose of fire is always transformation. Usually, big transformation, fast transformation.

Notre-Dame, as its name proclaims, is a monument to Our Lady. Its looming presence in Paris signifies to millions of people the blessing of The Blessed Virgin Mary on the cathedral and its church, on the city and its people.

The attic and the spire burned. As they are restored, they will be transformed. The spire is an architectural representation of humanity reaching up to a Transcendent God, the deity that is always bigger than our troubles.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is a high-profile, worldwide symbol of the Catholic Church. It doesn’t take a feminist to realize the phallic nature of the spire. What better image for the patriarchal hierarchy of Catholicism?

Decades-long sexual scandals have plagued the male priesthood of Catholicism. They continue to this day. What Our Lady did was burn away, or, if you like, transform that symbol of church power.

She left her cathedral smoking, but intact, after she blew the roof off the secrecy, the obfuscation, and the dissembling of disingenuous bishops, cardinals, and pontiffs many of whom, to date, have proved far more interested in preserving their institutional powerbase than in cleaning house.

Our Lady, tired of the game, cleaned house.

Paris reacted like it was wartime, and all political posturing ceased. President Macron, whatever his motives, attempted to call out the best in us in the same way then-New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani did after 9/11. In a national television address, he said, “I believe very deeply that it is up to us to transform this catastrophe into a moment to become better than what we are. ... It is up to us now to rediscover ... what made us, what unites us.”

Harking back to 9/11/01, when I lived less than a mile away from the Towers, I remember a softer, kinder, more united New York than I’d experienced in many a year. We helped one another unstintingly. We were transformed out of our cynicism into our humanity—all in it together.

This is what Paris will do. This is what the world will do to rebuild the glory of Notre-Dame. We will unite. We will unite because that is what humanity does when there is gaping need. It’s the right thing to do.

There remains an aching question: Will the Church heed Our Lady’s—and their Lady’s—message, and allow itself to be transformed? It’s the right thing to do.

Let us pray that they will.


For more essays like this one, I am pleased to say that you will be invited to a new platform in the coming weeks. SFC