Many plans are circulating for the restoration of Notre Dame after the tragic and highly symbolic fire that shocked the world. Technicians are getting ready to engage in this challenging project. Well over a billion dollars has been raised — almost effortlessly. French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild an even more beautiful church in five years.
Everything is ready. It seems nothing is lacking—save humble and contrite hearts. Everything, therefore, is lacking. For if this work is not done with a spirit of Faith, the restoration is doomed to be sterile and soulless.
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The restorers are treating the task as an engineering feat. But much more important than a physical restoration is a moral generation. For as many have noted, the raging fire symbolizes the devastating crisis inside the Church and the West. To what purpose do the technicians restore perfectly the body of the cathedral, if it has no soul?
It is Catholic France that must be restored. Few ask the important questions of how we might induce the Blessed Mother to return to Notre Dame. Will God bless this reconstruction? Or will He treat it as some modern tower of Babel made more to glorify man than God?
The Restoration of Chartres
Indeed, Our Lady must return to Notre Dame to take possession, lest her house be reduced again to a museum for those without Faith. History provides some insights as to how a real restoration might take place.
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In his book, The Cathedral, nineteenth-century French writer J. K. Huysmans (1848-1907) tells the fascinating story of how Chartres Cathedral was rebuilt in medieval France after a fire destroyed the church. We can learn lessons that can help us in our present sorrow.
The Chartres story would be unbelievable were it not registered in the Benedictine annals, French chronicles and ancient Vatican documents. Even secular authors give testimony to the extraordinary effort and energy that raised this Marian temple on the icy plains of La Beauce.
At the time, France lacked everything—save humble and contrite hearts. Huysmans tells us that the workmen labored humbly and anonymously. We know little about their skills but much about their piety.
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“For this we know: they labored only in a state of grace,” asserts Huysmans. “To raise this glorious temple, purity was required even of the workmen.”
Flying to the Virgin’s Aid
Workers arrived at Chartres when word spread that a fire had razed the Sanctuary of the Virgin. A general outcry rose among the people everywhere for the “Madonna was loved then in France.” They engaged in a sublime crusade and vowed, cost what it may, “to save a Virgin, homeless now as on the day when Her Son was born.”
Whole populations from all over France left their labors to fly to the Virgin’s aid. The roads were crowded with pilgrims, rich and poor, men and women, young and old. Nothing could stop them—neither bogs, dense forests or unfordable streams. They formed “unconquerable legions of sorrow” that with their sufferings and prayers besieged heaven to bless their efforts.
A countless throng soon occupied Chartres. They cleared rubble, dug foundations, dragged whole trees and heavy stones. Men and women of all ages and social classes harnessed themselves to carts and subjected themselves to the discipline of the monk-engineers that directed the work.
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“Divine love was so powerful that it annihilated distinctions,” Huysmans observes. Indeed, all lived in amazing harmony accepting the tasks laid before them. All had their roles, be it cooking, sawing or hauling. Even the sick could help by storming heaven with prayers pleasing to God. The pilgrims saw their work as “an act of mortification and penance, and at the same time as an honor; and no man was so audacious as to lay hand on the materials belonging to the Virgin til he had made peace with his enemies and confessed his sins.”
Those attached to sin or who would not frequent the sacraments were dismissed from the encampment. Those who stayed worked with a spirit of prayer; they wept over their sins imploring Our Lady’s mercy. On Sundays, the grand multitudes would form long processions, sing canticles, attend services on their knees and hold candles that blazed at night like stars.
Huysmans notes that besieged by such humility and love, God heard the prayers of His people and blessed their work. A cathedral started to arise.
“Heaven was besieged, and conquered by love and repentance. And Heaven confessed itself beaten; the angels smiled and yielded; God capitulated, and in the gladness of defeat, He threw open the treasury of His grace to be plundered of men.”
More importantly, “He placed His powers in His Mother’s hands, and miracles began to abound.”
The building of such a magnificent structure without modern technology might seem miraculous to our minds. However, such technical marvels are hardly noted in the age of Faith. The chronicles on the restoration concentrate on the more touching miracles of the Virgin Mother looking after her children involved in the restoration. When they hunger, she multiplies the bread to feed them. When they thirst, she supplies excellent wine that replenishes itself. When workers are lost at night in the forest, she appears torch in hand to guide them back to safety. Those who are injured during the construction are miraculously healed.
In this way, the people erected a magnificent dwelling befitting a queen. And Our Lady came to be with her children, filling her church with graces and blessings that shine even in our neo-pagan days when so many have abandoned her.
Lessons for Us
Does not Chartres have some lesson for us? For our sins, we have been chastised with the loss of Notre Dame, this precious jewel that was the joy of the world. The Christian civilization that built the cathedral is no more. Our Lady is now homeless “as in the day when her Son was born.”
What is needed is not materials, money or vain promises. Our Lady does not want or need these things. She is not impressed by the technological solutions that solve so few problems—and create so many more. She wants humbled and contrite hearts that will ask God to bless the restoration of the building and restore the link between God and the French people.
While Notre Dame burned, pious souls knelt on the sidewalks singing hymns and praying the rosary. Would that those involved in the restoration might consider multiplying such actions as part of their plan! Faithful Catholics on their knees are worth much more than intricate plans. As at Chartres, we might then expect Our Lady to supply abounding miracles for those who call upon her. We need workers with Faith. Let them build with pure hands. Let their souls be upright. Until this happens, the present restoration seems doomed to fail.
If Notre Dame is to be restored, the Madonna must once again be loved in France—and the world. She longs for loving souls that might besiege heaven to ask for her return, not to occupy a building but to reign again in the hearts of men.