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Remember, don’t rebuild, Notre Dame

Everything we make and all the things we revere will one day end up as ashes. That’s the truth as much as we would like it to be false. That goes for churches and other places of worship, as well. Last week, one of the great wonders of the religious world caught fire and nearly burned to the ground, taking with it priceless works of art, proving once again that that which man makes, nature eventually takes.

It took nearly two centuries to build Notre Dame Cathedral and only a few hours to see it turned to blackened rubble. For millions of Frenchmen and Catholics the world over, the demise of Notre Dame was like losing a family heirloom, something that reminded us of our personal history. Those things are impossible to replace. Just ask victims of floods and earthquakes who lose all their possessions. They are forced to rebuild and remake their lives or live in a state of permanent loss. Fortunately, most choose the former, using their memories as their foundation to create a path forward.

Each of the world’s peoples and cultures has their own way of dealing with loss and with the inevitable grief that follows. We have ours and the French have theirs, but there are similarities. When the twin towers of New York City were destroyed, we vowed to rebuild them, and in the time capsule of those new structures was an implied dare to anyone who would attack us again. “Do so at your own peril.” The loss of a religious symbol like the Cathedral of Notre Dame is different. The forensic investigation that will follow will most certainly rule out terrorism and point to human error as the cause. That will help salve the conscience of the French and give them some closure, as it should.

This brings us to the question of what to do next. Should the French rebuild one of the symbols of their culture or let it rest in peace? When Christ said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” I think he was referring to the establishment of something far greater than a building, something that would transcend the centuries. He was speaking of faith, not bricks and mortar. That presents a problem for those who would repair the nine-centuries-old cathedral. Should they take Christ literally or figuratively? Should they be beholden to history and reconstruct Notre Dame with New Age building materials or accept that everything in this life has an expiration date and, instead, repurpose the edifice? While there isn’t one right answer to this question, it must be the French that find it.

To rebuild Notre Dame could cost a billion Euros. That’s real money in anybody’s language. To give it a decent burial by salvaging what can be salvaged and leveling the skeleton that stands would cost considerably less. The money that would have been allocated to rebuilding it could be spent on constructing a living monument to the pursuit of peaceful coexistence in the form of an institution whose raison d’être would be devoted to learning, cooperation and mindfulness. On its site could rise up a museum dedicated to Notre Dame’s history and of the Catholic religion in France – and the rest could be donated to charitable organizations in that country to help the poor of all religions and faiths. A gift of that kind would do more than ensure the legacy of Notre Dame for centuries to come; it would honor He who inspired its construction in the first place. Give those things to Caesar that are Caesar’s and to God those things that are His. Faith and inspiration do not dwell in buildings; they live within our hearts and souls.

Stephan Helgesen can be reached at