Maybe I’m just feeling dire, but I’m impatient with people asking how God could let this happen to our beloved Notre Dame, with people asking “What does it mean?” We know what it means. It means the same thing it means when anything dies: That this will happen to the whole world someday. Every relic, every painting, every window, every stone, every body, everything we love. Jesus Christ was immolated. Why should His Father spare a building?
Don’t learn the lesson that, through our will and our strength, we will rise again from this fire. Learn the lesson that death comes for everyone and only Jesus saves.
I wrote those words yesterday, while Notre Dame was still in flames. Today it seems that more than we thought can be saved. Some of the windows are gone, the roof was staved in by the tumbling spire, but the main structure and towers are almost miraculously intact. The Crown of Thorns and other relics were saved; the Blessed Sacrament was saved. No lives were lost.
But even as our panic and horror is quieted with a measure of relief, the loss leaves a mark. It’s normal and human to suffer under the blows of loss. Holy Week is the right time to let ourselves feel that loss without shying away from it, without comforting ourselves too much with reassurances that we can rebuild and repair — not only because 21st century artisans can’t hope to match the brilliance of the past, but because all things will pass. Every rebuilding is temporary. Every loss is practice for the inevitable loss we were born to face. It is good to face it, to feel it, to know what it is. To remember why it happens, and to remember what the remedy is.
It’s not ironic or especially dreadful that such a thing should happen during Holy Week. On the contrary, it’s the best possible time for such a thing to happen, if it must happen (and it must). This is the week when the universe lost the best thing she ever had. If you will not look loss in the face now, then when?
Here is an essay I wrote just over two years ago. It focuses not on gargantuan, iconic cathedrals full of treasures and relics, but on little things — baby shoes, toddler art. The details are different, but it’s the same story. Loss writ small is loss all the same; and the answer to every loss is also the same.
There was a pile of papers on the kitchen island, and I finally sorted through them. Along with paid bills, cancelled checks, and warranties for products long since broken and thrown out, there were reams and reams (yes, I realize a ream is 500 pages. That’s what I meant) of drawings of birds, ballerinas, flowers, and clouds stuck together with stubby little rainbows. I smiled at each one, and then, feeling like Satan incarnate, threw them away.
Sometimes when I sort, I save a few representative samples; sometimes I am ruthless. But of course saving everything is not an option. Even if I had the space to somehow neatly and un-hoardishly preserve all the hilarious and charming pictures my kids draw, when would I have the time to enjoy them? I have some fantasies about old age, but even the most unrealistically golden ones don’t include spending years of my life looking at thousands of pictures of rainbows rendered in blue pen.
And yet it cuts so deep to throw them away. Same for sorting through baby clothes. It’s not that the little purple onesie is so precious and unique in itself; and it’s not as if I actually want my child never to grow out of size 3-6 months. It’s just the act of leaving things behind that hurts. I get better at making it happen, but I don’t get better at not letting it hurt.
People are always saying, “Store it in the cloud!” Give it to the cloud rather than cluttering up my poor overworked hard drive: my pictures, my music, all the words words words that I churn out. It’s only the price of ink and the shoddiness of my printer that keeps me from printing out everything — every cute kid story that goes on Facebook, every draft of every half-baked idea that never makes it all the way home, every well-turned phrase of love or encouragement I send to my husband at work. I want to save it all, and never let it go.
It’s not that I hope for fame that outlives me: “look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” and so on. It’s just that I want it all to last — somewhere, somewhere, all the things I love and have poured my life into.
It’s a terrible anxiety, the fear of losing things that are precious — terrible because it hurts so much, and terrible because of what it means about me and my disordered loves. When the fear of loss is bad, it drains the joy out of my treasures even as I’m holding them. My little baby smiles at me with such a direct, melting simplicity: two perfect teeth, tiny and fresh like little bits of shell, her mouth pops open, and she lunges like a jack-n-the-box, so unthinkingly in love with the world that she wants to eat it all. On a bad day, her happiness gives me pain, because all I can think of is how it passes, how she passes, how I am passing away.
I feel better temporarily, less existentially bereft, if I take a video, to capture the tricks and charms which are uniquely, adorably hers, which will never be repeated by any other baby, which must be remembered, must be saved — mustn’t they? But saved for how long? Technology is outmoded. Today’s cutting edge video capture will be tomorrow’s wax cylinders. Today’s acid-free photo paper will last only in the same way as “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.”
So much has been lost, irretrievably. Does it matter? My kids want to know what their first words were. I remember a few. Some I wrote down, but lost the book. Moved away, left it behind to be discarded by some overworked landlord or U-Haul maintenance man. Does it matter? I still love them now; I listen to what they are saying now. Does that mean that what I’ve lost doesn’t matter?
Remember how poor Ivan Karamazov saw all the pain in the world — the brutality against children, most of all, was what he could not abide. He did not want to be able to abide it. He understood that, in the light of the Resurrection, all would be made new — that Christ would return and reconcile all things to Himself, and the pain of innocents would be subsumed into a peace and justice that passeth understanding.
Ivan did not want this to happen. He could not bear for it to happen. He did not want outrageous injustices to be all right: He wanted them not to happen in the first place. This is how I feel. I don’t want it to be okay that they are lost.
Still, I know that if I try to save, save, save, then in most cases, what I’m really doing is burying them. I’m not doing anything useful, not respecting their value by agonizing over preservation, any more than the workers in that final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark were doing a good deed by packing away that precious crate among tens of thousands of nameless, dusty crates in a warehouse that stretches on for dreary, nameless acres.
So I try. I do a little saving, just enough to make me feel human, and then I inwardly send the rest up “into the cloud,” hand it over to Jesus, who has infinite capacity to keep every drooly smile, every first word — if that’s what He wants to do.
I don’t really, in my heart, want Heaven to be a retirement village where all the saints have endless hours to pour over memories of the good old days back on earth! So I uproot and uproot these things from my heart, and I tell myself I’m cultivating virtue.
But this disease of affection, this pathology that makes me love the world, and ache as I love — what is it? And am I sure I want to be healed of it?
That’s the problem, right there. Lose it all or save it all: either way, it’s wasted. Either way, it’s lost. That’s what we mean by the Fall: loss. Everywhere. Everything. Our very mode of being is defined by loss.
Well, it’s Lent. And I am not Ivan, because I have tasted God’s love. I am not a government flunky, senselessly sealing up treasures, because I’m the one giving orders here. I’m not a dragon sitting on my stinking hoard, flying out in a jealous frenzy when some trinket goes missing.
I am fallen, but I have been saved, am being saved, and I will be saved. Nothing is lost, not even me. But now is the time to look loss in the face. What will come back to me? That is in Jesus’ hands — Jesus who was, himself, lost, and who himself “knew the way out of the grave.”
Eyes on Christ. Weep if you will, but eyes on Christ. I must not look to save. I must look to be saved.