The Burning of Notre Dame

The Burning of Notre Dame

The first photos showed the cathedral’s high spire falling, its skeletal wood frame silhouetted against the engulfing red flames and – seen from the city’s venerable center – a column of smoke rising.

Notre Dame is the heart of Paris.  No one builds like that today.  By contrast, efforts have been made to replace the World Trade Center – not adequately, in my view, but a building of the same form could be replicated were one so minded.  The same cannot be said for this crowning exemplar of twelfth-to- fourteenth-century gothic architecture.

Was it what a New York fireman friend has called “a set fire”?  This one might well have been an accident, set off by workmen with torches, though most accidental fires don’t begin as infernos.  If there were more to know, one can’t help feeling that, after duly investigating, “they” wouldn’t say.  Churches are being mysteriously vandalized all over France – desecrated, not just vandalized – but wars of religion have been safely relegated to earlier times, so the question can hardly be raised.

Secular Paris,

 the Paris that believes nothing

 — not even its own erotic spasms –

 cannot know why its heart is breaking.

From what I remember, when you stand on the high towers and look down, you can see how the city first unfolded, each expansion circumvallated by a wall, which then overlooked further expansions, to be contained in their turn.

One time long ago, my first love argued that I had never understood him, since the human soul turns up new, unexpected contours, like the cathedral of Notre Dame that we had just encircled, walking alongside its walls.

It was a lovely image, even though I thought it was misleading, since I did know him.

An account of one of the sackings of ancient Rome described the city as well guarded by its sentries, walled defenses and preparations for an anticipated fight.

There was, however, one thing outside their defensive perimeters: the high-towered, well-constructed aqueducts carrying Rome’s water supply into the city.  The barbarian invaders — Vandals, Visigoths or whoever they were — simply knocked down the aqueducts.  The population had to flee. The city died of thirst.

For Paris, the Cathedral of Notre Dame may have been the spring that watered a spiritual thirst inadmissible in the polite, urbane and ironical tones of its inhabitants.

Of that kind of thirst

cities can also die.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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6 Responses to The Burning of Notre Dame

  1. I’ve taken the liberty of posting on my fb page … thoughtful comments about “spiritual thirst” in a time and place, and a western world, where such a thing is rarely recognized for what it is.

  2. Laurin Raiken says:

    Dear Abigail, Your writing is so very beautiful and totally moving. Since you know from what I told you That my doctors attribute my occasional Crying to survival of two Open Heart surgeries, You could count on my tears for Notre Dame Along with millions of others. A Global Treasure For all human kind, Even the unkind. Thank You For your words, Thoughts and Feelings. Laurin

    On Tue, Apr 16, 2019 at 1:18 PM Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column wrote:

    > Abigail posted: ” The Burning of Notre Dame The first photos showed the > cathedral’s high spire falling, its skeletal wood frame silhouetted against > the engulfing red flames and – seen from the city’s venerable center – a > column of smoke rising. Notre Dame is the hear” >

    • Abigail says:

      Dear Laurin, Thanks for these wonderfully kind words. About Notre Dame afire, a friend said, “The whole world stopped!” As for crying, one wishes one could do more, but one can’t do less.

  3. Frank J. Attanucci says:

    My Prayer of the Day: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Lk. 12:49)

    May an ember from Notre Dame de Paris enkindle a blazing fire of renewed faith, hope, and love in the hearts of all those who believe in Christ, that we, by the grace of almighty God, may fulfill our commission to be a light to the world. Amen.

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