A few weeks ago, I had a short stay in Paris. I was eager to go to Notre Dame Cathedral once again on my visit, to see how the restoration was progressing after the tragic fire in April 2019.
It is still a building site after three years and looks like it is barricaded in for a siege. The modern steel scaffolding surrounding it looks incongruous against its ancient walls as do the high cranes hovering over the roof. The imposing main entrance with its two towers, famous rose window and great doors is currently cordoned off with boards. Behind them engineers’ temporary offices and builders’ huts stand in their own little yard. The whole edifice is hemmed in by scaffolding as if it cannot stand up without it.
On my last night, I stood listening to a lone violinist, an elegant busker, playing on the Parvis, the pavement in front of the Cathedral. He was a dancing shadow, gently swaying to and fro to his music, gliding in and out of the light and dwarfed by his backdrop: the two mighty towers looming behind him, lit by floodlights.
Keening with his bow, he began a sad sarabande by Bach, etching an elegy into the still night air. Little lights blazed out above the boards behind him and on the steel ribs of scaffolding illumining the ancient arches like votive lamps. Despite the apparatus of reconstruction surrounding it, the Cathedral was still beautiful against the indigo sky. As the sad tune lingered in the night air, time stood still. It was a moment of time and yet not of time. Like Notre Dame itself: of time and yet not of time.
And yet the sorrowful melody wasn’t an elegy. For Notre Dame is still with us, still standing strong as if eager to push away the scaffolding supporting it: a symbol of survival and of renewal, an icon for our post-pandemic times.
The sarabande was rather a lament for the tragic fire that almost destroyed the Cathedral. And it seemed to me, for the victims of the pandemic and of our war torn world.
As I gazed at Notre Dame shored up by scaffolding I was reminded of trying to live an oblate life in lockdown. I clung to my Benedictine scaffolding then to give some shape to my day and the lights in my darkness were the Rule, Scripture and other spiritual reading. I also felt shored up by my oblate brethren everywhere and my own community with their encouragement and prayers. Not being able to meet made us all a digital community then, and we still are to some extent.
Now that we have started to move out of the pandemic, I have come to realise that if we would practice stability, to stand strong like Notre Dame, we still need this scaffolding, and these lights in the darkness of our hearts. We still need our apparatus of reconstruction. For each day is a process of reconstruction and renewal for us, if we would be open to God’s grace. As St Antony of Egypt prayed every day according to legend, ‘Today I begin.’
Notre Dame, skirted by scaffolding gives a lie to the adage ‘You’ve got to stand on your own two feet’. So does St Benedict’s Rule. Yes we do have to stand on our own feet and walk too in our own individual vocation. But we all need support, to be shored up, like Notre Dame, at times, to let others help us to rebuild, to renew ourselves. And we are called to be the scaffolding for others, to help them to rebuild and renew themselves also.
This is why our Holy Father Benedict emphasises in the Rule that we are a cenobitic order, living out an individual vocation but within a community because we need their help and prayers and of those who have gone before us, the communion of saints, to do this.
There may be times when we oblates, who live outside our monastic community, feel we are living our vocation like a hermit, especially if we live alone as I do. But, as we know, we are not hermits, who, as St Benedict writes in Chapter 1, ‘have been tested a long time in the monastery’ before they are allowed to begin a hermit life.
However, living through long periods of lockdown may have encouraged a hermit mentality in us. So it is important to open out to others and to keep in touch with our oblate sisters and brothers and with our communities and there are so many ways of doing this, as we have all learnt over the last two years.
At the heart of the Cathedral of Notre Dame is the Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. It is what Erik Varden, in a recent post on this blog ‘Coram Fratribus’ refers to as ‘the current of sacramental grace, quiet but constant, uncontainable by worldly constraints.’ It is this stream of grace which has quietly strengthened and upheld the life of Notre Dame for centuries and which has upheld and quietly strengthens our oblate lives too. It is this stream of grace which will truly reconstruct and renew the Cathedral and ourselves also as we move out into a post-pandemic world.
Oblate of Ealing Abbey