My newest painting is from a photo I took of a church in downtown Hot Springs on one cloudy spring day. It wasn’t much to look at as a photo, but I was called to stop and snap its image at that moment. I learned long ago in ministry to listen to those promptings of the spirit, for a greater power was working beneath my poor powers of discernment and knowledge. If I listened, I’d show up when people needed me, even when they were unable to contact me. God has a mysterious power to do unlikely works, or things we ordinary folks would call minor miracles.
Most of us see our churches as ordinary places, maybe even “our places,” rather than God’s holy place. This is why we say “my church,” but if we were truthful, we’d admit, no church ever belongs to any human being, for the church is the body of Christ. We also aren’t just one congregation either, for all these buildings comprise a greater Body of the greater Church, which is the Body of Christ. Plus, we who look to our membership rolls forget about the ones who are outside our doorsteps: the hungry, lonely, poor, wandering, naked, or the prisoners and infirm who are confined. They too are part of Christ’s body, which yearns to be made whole.
In my painting, this ordinary, grounded church now rises as a golden, ethereal structure striving toward the heavens. As a Inspired Church, it’s “going on to perfection.” While it won’t get there on its on account, God’s energies are there to help it, just as the spirit will help each of our churches to grow in faith and witness to the world. As I consider the pre Easter fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, I think of the cycles of spiritual growth both we and the bodies of Christ undergo. We all have times of growth and lying fallow, and some even seem to have seasons of rot. Yet God’s renewing spirit can make the dead bones live again.
A Christian church has been in Paris since the 3rd century of the CE. This site has a history of both blight and renewal. Two ancient churches were destroyed to build the new gothic cathedral. These were built on the site of an old Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. The work on the cathedral began in 1163 and was completed 203 years later. In 1789, French revolutionaries caused major damage to the building, especially the statuary. Nearly a half century later, publication of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831 sparked a campaign to restore the cathedral.
Although Notre Dame de Paris is a Catholic Church, it’s also a historic building. As such, the cathedral belongs to the state, which is responsible for its maintenance. Nevertheless, the day-to-day maintenance of churches and cathedrals in France often falls to cultural and religious associations. And just because the state is responsible for funding large infrastructure projects doesn’t necessarily mean it has the money to do it.
When the world watched the spire fall and the wooden roof collapse, a great sadness fell across people’s hearts. Immediately large financial pledges poured in to rebuild this architectural treasure. One of the blowbacks in the days of grief after the fire and the generous outpouring of pledges to rebuild this cathedral of hope, which is over 850 years old, was the reality of human needs. Soon folks said, “If we can raise this much money for a building, why can’t we raise it for the homeless, the hungry, the war refugees, and all the other human causes of need?”
Yes, these are important, and we should always provide relief for human distress. Great buildings, which have seen over eight centuries upon this earth, are a special case. They carry the hopes, dreams, and memories of each person who has ever entered their doors. With the advent of television and social media, they now carry the memories and dreams of everyone around the world who watched this great sanctuary burn and all their hopes for what it will become in the future.
When we cast a vision for our own churches, most of us aren’t facing a burned down edifice. Instead, we usually find a burned out congregation or a barely burning membership. Not many of us will stay in our appointments long enough to make “cosmic changes,” so we work to improve what we can, with the hope the next pastor will build on our work. In truth, it’s easier to redesign or renovate a building than it is to restore a congregation to health.
Currently architects are designing their best proposals for this spiritual heart of Paris and France. Some will “go big or go home,” while others will bring a more simple vision. Paris firm Vincent Callebaut Architectures’ vision for the cathedral is an innovative and eco-friendly design that supports the local population and produces more energy than it uses. Its vision of the rebuilt Notre Dame features a futuristic glass design, solar power, and an urban farm to support vulnerable and homeless Parisians.
Four years ago, an art historian used lasers to digitally map Notre Dame Cathedral. His work now could help save it. The Vincent Callebaut project is titled “Palingenesis,” a Greek concept of rebirth or recreation. The firm proposes a new roof made of glass, oak and carbon fiber, which connects “in one single curved stroke of pencil” to the sloping spire. The rooster which topped the original spire and retrieved from the rubble after the fire, will resume its watch from the new glass design, while the cathedral’s choir will be bathed in natural light.
Vincent Callebaut Architectures
Beneath the spire, the roof will host a fruit and vegetable farm run by charities and volunteers, in order to produce free food for vulnerable local people. “Up to 21 tons of fruits and vegetables could be harvested and directly redistributed for free each year,” the firm said in a press release. “To that end, a farmers’ market would be held every week on the forecourt of Notre Dame.”
Vincent Callebaut Architectures
The roof and spire will also produce electricity, heat and ventilation for the cathedral: an “organic active layer” within the glass will provide solar power, while the roof’s diamond-shaped “scales” will open to offer natural ventilation — a design inspired by termite mounds. The spire will act as a “thermal buffer space” in which hot air accumulates in winter.
The cathedral could host an urban farm which produces food for local people. Credit: Vincent Callebaut Architectures
“How can we write the contemporary history of our country, but also that of science, art and spirituality together?” the firm said in a press release. “We seek to present a transcendent project, a symbol of a resilient and ecological future.”
If the Vincent Callebaut design is selected, the firm said, the reborn Notre Dame will define “the new face of the Church in the 21st century,” presenting “a fairer symbiotic relationship between humans and nature.”
This is so amazing, yet I wonder if the religious community will feel elbowed out of their worship space. I know one of the difficult challenges in church leadership is adopting new ideas because “we’ve never done it that way before.” On the other hand, helping this 14th century gothic cathedral rise from the ashes to a new birth is the perfect moment to claim an extraordinary vision for a forward looking future, not only for the church, but also for Paris, the French, and even the people of the world.
- When we think about a new vision for our own church, are we willing to destroy the pagan temple and the god of its age?
- When we build a church for an earlier time, do we have the faith to tear it down and build it anew for the age in which we live?
- Do we hold on to an old form of church until it burns down and we need to create a new one from the ashes?
- Will we have the courage to reconfigure our “idea of church” so it’s not a separation from the world, but an incorporation of the world, as in the Wedding Banquet parable?
- Are we ready to entertain new visions and dream new dreams for our churches and our ministries?