The Flame in Our Lady’s Hair On the Burning Yet Unconsumed Faith that Built Classical Buildings

by His Grace Bishop Maxim (Vasiljevic)

Paris is not merely a place, it is also a “way of life,” said the Athenian theologian and philosopher Christos Yannaras. And the way of life is always the result of how (the manner in which) things exist. At the onset of this millennium, Catherine Dolez, a professor at the Alliance Française, persistently argued that the term laïcité has became a necessary complement to a tripartite motto liberté, égalité, fraternité, while I endeavored to make her consider koinos logos (Heraclitus’ “general, common cause”) as fundamental for the essential identity of the polis. How can a city be called a city unless it has a constant point of reference that brings all to the same place? In response, she wrote an entire essay on the back of my notebook claiming that the identity of Paris is exactly based on the absence of an underlying logos. On April 15, 2019, it turned out that this city nevertheless does have the fundamental point of reference that makes it coherent: a deep attachment to Notre-Dame de Paris. It was expressed unexpectedly, for a moment only, but quite strong enough to point to that forgotten way, un véritable mode d’existence. The French watched in horror as their magnificent and emblematic cathedral of Our Lady of Paris burned before their very eyes. They were scared of losing their own selves, their identity. The fire caught the Virgin’s hair, but, fortunately, it did not consume it. That fire, though, came at just the right time.

Its value and the importance it holds over every French person and all France is unfathomable. President Macron stated something that needed no explanation: “We have lost part of our lives, of our destiny.” Victor Hugo considered Notre Dame the asylum and wanted to preserve it as such, inviolable. The church of the Mother of God in this metropolis was a symbol of past epochs preserved by Hugo as we follow the unfortunate fates of the “Hunchback of Notre-Dame” Quasimodo, Esmeralda, the corrupt archdeacon Claude Frollo and other characters. (To this generation that reads fewer and fewer books I recommend the 1996 Walt Disney animated film based on Hugo’s novel).

In a way, Paris is the city of Our Lady, just as Los Angeles was at one time (Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles, founded in early 1784), Prizren with its Church of the Holy Mother of Eleusa (Bogorodica Ljeviska; Our Lady of Tenderness) and Constantinople on the Bosphorus. Notre Dame is breathtaking. This cathedral, which dates from the 12th century, is a masterpiece with its flying buttresses, stunning stained-glass windows, carved gargoyles and fantastical creatures. Inside its walls are priceless relics and artwork; paintings, statues and other precious artefacts. The exterior of the church has been the subject of countless paintings and drawings as well as literary works.

In his column in the Sunday issue of the newspaper Kathimerini on Notre Dame, Christo Yannaras effectively demonstrated that the fire on the roof of the cathedral started an inexplicable surge of admiration for its architectural wonders even in those who knew very little about them. We know that France is a society that once (under known circumstances) chose to define itself as “atheistic” (professor Dolez clearly stated that laïcité meant “without religion”). How is it possible that Notre Dame—the second principal church of Western Christianity, formidably imposing on that little island in the Seine—is part of the very “being” of the French whereas at the same time they claim that their mode of being is “atheistic”? Yannaras wondered whether instead of Macron saying that Notre Dame was their history, their literature, their imagination, it would have been more appropriate and consistent to admit that Notre Dame was in fact the spiritual womb that gave birth to them, which they later jettisoned. And then he continued, and I paraphrase, “Because we, French, created a different culture, a different way of life, we wore glasses that did not allow us to recognize why we are so profoundly touched by this Notre Dame cathedral.” The leading Christian philosopher of Europe, as Rowan Williams calls Yannaras, added insightfully: “We look superficially at things, and where stone-masons carved images to the Glory to God, we admire the aesthetics and monumentality, discounting the fervent love that gave birth to that beauty.”

At one time, writing about Byzantine and Gothic architecture, Yannaras pointed out that both built temples with faith. “The same people who built Gothic cathedrals also produced theological Summae,” said Marie Dominique Chenu. According to Yannaras, “Undoubtedly, the appearance of magnificent Gothic-style cathedrals was the first technological application of scholastic thought, indicative of a technological relationship to the natural building materials and a stunning artistic expression of the autarkic and sentimental imposition of ecclesiastical power and magnificence.” Truly, the history of architecture is the history of writing. Before the printing press, mankind communicated through architecture. Form Stonehenge to the Parthenon, alphabets were inscribed in “books of stone.” Rows of stones were sentences, Hugo insists, while Greek columns were “hieroglyphs” pregnant with meaning. The ancient stone-masons kissed the stone as they laid them.

Just last May, the French Senate voted to ensure that Notre-Dame de Paris be rebuilt to look just as it did before the fire. Yannaras notices the paradox that flows from the determination to rebuild Notre Dame “using a technology that allows for remarkable imitations, as our culture today is based on impressions, not on a realism of relations.” The reason it will be rebuilt is because this “monument” continues to impress 13 million visitors every year. “We do not have master builders, that very soul of the Art, but we have money and machines that are only able to produce, untiringly…imitations!”

Why does our Athenian lover of wisdom lament over the hypocrisy of our time? Because in so many places in the world only a faint glow is observed where once shone a brilliant light of the polis of ancient democracy and the Christian ecclesia. “People untrained in the essentials of culture have never wondered which metaphysics gave birth to the Parthenon, tragedy, democracy, Hagia Sofia, eucharistic dramaturgy, demos as a self-governing community free from external pressures.” Those who still today do not ask themselves about the cause and purpose of existence cannot recognize Art as the fruit of faith and inventiveness. “Today, art has been reduced to a commodity (commercial gratification) or has degenerated into the sheer utilitarianism.”

We may lament with Yannaras that this saddening “metaphysical illiteracy” is also a feature of Orthodoxy’s overall social decadence, individualism, amorality, non-communication (willingness to so readily exclude and excommunicate others) that so blatantly dominate virtually every segment of our own fractured ethos. Even church events, even parishes and dioceses—once likened to ecclesiastical hive of bees—have ceased to concern themselves with the realities of today’s world and have become, as a rule, overly preoccupied with petty formalities (how one speaks, walks, stands, or gestures, what one looks at, etc.). Our everyday social life is marked by absolute declarations and banal statements, by moralizing and preaching. Is an ecclesiastical event in today’s Serbia true eucharistic communion in the fullest sense, as the body of the faithful gathered together in a relationship of mutual love, which the Apostle Paul so poignantly speaks about? Or has it also turned into a formality, into ideological statements, and into an invitation to pragmatic orthopraxy? The way of approaching truth has become either overly rational or sentimental, that is, individualistic, and “salvation” has turned into dry legalism and petty egocentrism.

Our Lady that “burns yet is untouched by the flames” invites us all to come out of the seductive self-sufficiency of authority and self-proclaimed power elite that expects gifts and approval, the applause and flattering. The authorities of church, the authorities of state… From beneath the ashes and rubble of the ideological ruins shines forth the Paschal proclamation that death was trampled down by death. The deciphering of that gospel is not subject to reasoning involved in their sermons and statements. With an inaudible voice it has already shattered the night as the dawn of the mysterious Day draws near. Nothing can defeat that gospel. Hemingway put these words in the Old Man’s mouth as a lesson to one boy: “You see, they can beat you, but they cannot defeat you.” The same Hemingway also wrote: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.” And what about Notre Dame? Its feast day of the Mother of God is a vigil constantly held in the Church, a moveable feast as a life-long ascent (or descent) until the dawning of the day of Pascha itself. For “in time she ineffably conceived and gave birth to Timeless God.”


His Grace Maxim (Vasiljevic) is bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America. 

Translation from Serbian by Teodora Gita Simic.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.