The psychologist and genius Otto Rank, author of the classic work Art and Artist, said that if you want to know the soul of a nation go to its architecture first. Notre Dame de Paris and the entire gothic revolution of the 12th century Renaissance that it encapsulates (along with Chartres Cathedral 30 miles beyond Paris), tells us much about the soul of France. And our own souls.
It was my privilege to live and study and undergo some searing history in the shadow of Notre Dame during my three years at the Institute catholique de Paris studying the history and theology of spirituality from 1967-1970. Yes, the “events of 1968” which brought down the government of Charles de Gaulle with students rioting in the streets within eyeshot of the Cathedral were part of those days. (Students were also rioting in Germany, Berkeley, Madison, New York, etc., at the time protesting much that was deficient about Western academia.)
Notre Dame was a witness to such revolutions as she was to the French Revolution two centuries earlier. She was also witness to the energetic presence of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin as they learned at the feet of French intellectuals in a critical time of the birthing of America and its vision for a certain form of democracy.
In what way does Notre Dame reveal to us the best side of the French soul? First, because it is feminine—“Notre Dame” means “Our Lady” and there were more than 500 churches built named “Notre Dame”—Notre Dame de Chartres, Notre Dame de Lyons,” etc over a period of 125 amazing years in the Middle Ages, years when the goddess last appeared in the West: All of these Gothic Cathedrals were dedicated to the Divine Feminine. (Chartres contains one of the most celebrated Black Madonna shrines as well.) “La France” is feminine (Germany is masculine). There is a priority in the 12th century renaissance for the goddess, for the Divine Feminine, who represents Beauty and the Cosmos and the marriage of the human psyche and the cosmos--St Thomas Aquinas, who lived and taught at the University of Paris for years, and was present when they were constructing the Cathedral, said that every human being is “capax universe,” capable of the universe.
The goddess in the Middle Ages represented the poor, the outcast and the marginal ones. That is why she was so popular. Henry Adams in his classic work on Mont Saint Michel and Chartres emphasizes this point. Justice was vital to “Our Lady,” justice for the poor, not justice for the legal and judicial class. She stood with the poor, the oppressed, the “outlaws.”
Another fine example of the French soul at its best is the gift that the French made to the United States which we know as the Statue of Liberty. There we read the following, very much in the spirit of Notre Dame de Paris and the goddess: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
This is a philosophy radically different from the one that is currently busy at American borders caging children and separating kids from their parents and seeking to close border gateways to asylum against victims of violence and crime and poverty much of it caused by global warming and American actions in Central America. It is a feminist philosophy that celebrates our interdependence not only with other human beings and especially the poor but also with all of creation, the “web of creation” as Hildegard of Bingen put it, also in the 12th century, the century Notre Dame’s construction was set in motion.
Paris also bore witness just a few years ago to the COP21 Accords, an effort to bring all nations together to confront global warming and the demise of Mother Earth, Gaia, as we know her. While it was imperfect, it was a start and America signed on though sad to say a recent presidency and its enablers seek to exit this promise of a future for our grandchildren and future generations. But that exit, by those still married to denial and afraid of facing reality, cannot happen legally until 2020. Future, less in-denial administrations, might still heed the call and suffering of Mother Earth and join anew.
The goddess that Notre Dame represents is not a sentimental feminine but a fierce feminine, one that will and does stand up to injustice be it environmental, racial, social, gender, gender preference, or economic. She does not shut her eyes in a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” way. She is all seeing and often pictured (as in Hildegard’s visionary paintings) as multi-eyed. Wisdom is that way, she is cosmic and a “friend of the prophets” and a lover of Eros and play and creativity. She sees what is going on, she sees Reality. Says Hildegard: “Wisdom is found in all creative works.”
Notre Dame de Paris is one such work—with many, many expressions of creativity at its best. Consider the stained glass. Thank heavens much of it was spared. I heard a commentator say yesterday that we will replace the stained glass that was destroyed. No, we won’t. Twelfth century French stained glass was uniquely beautiful and opaque and rich in blues and reds and we have lost the formula of how it was made. We will never replace 12th century stained glass. We may strive to imitate it but will never reproduce it in its full deliciousness. Consider the music, the concerts and the singers, and the amazing organ, that has moved people for centuries. Consider the statuary and the soaring pillars that invite your eyes upwards to take in the stars themselves.
My mentor at the University in Paris, the amazing Dominican historian and scholar Pere M.D. Chenu, author of the celebrated work, Nature, Man and Society in the Twelfth Century. He used to say that the 12th century renaissance “was the only renaissance that worked in the West.” It “worked” in his estimation because it came from the grass roots—it was not top down as was the 16th century renaissance. It derived from the young and recently freed serfs and peasants who rushed to the city to learn; it derived from women; and it derived from communes that were busy reinventing relationships and community life.
Consider the masculine energy of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, built in the 16th century (and paid for by selling indulgences, which had much to do with the Protestant revolt and revolution/reformation) vs. the feminine energy of Notre Dame de Paris. The former is cold with all its marble and boasts exaggerated masculine imagery (even the statues of women look like beefy men). In contrast, the soaring verticality of the Gothic architecture lets the sun shine in, its vertical pillars imitate nature and the forest, and a delight in colors that bounce around on these same pillars as the sun moves through the day abounds. The invention of the flying buttresses (still present after the fire) made all this possible. What a move it was from the defensiveness of the Romanesque architecture of the cold and dark Middle Ages which boasted very small windows to the light-filled spaces of the Gothic! “God as light,” not “God as defense.”
Still today we are wrestling with these same energies of masculine control and empire building and power-over versus the feminine which is motherly, welcoming, light filled, nature based, creation centered, honoring of diversity. Chenu used to bring to our seminar on 12th century spirituality books of the Cathedral architecture of the 12th century. “You cannot learn spirituality without learning the art of the period” he would say. It was also in this period that for 100 years there was no condemnation of homosexuality and sexual diversity was studied at the University, as scholar John Boswell has demonstrated in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.
Those nationalist movements of our day, now being spearheaded by Steve Bannon, the same man who put the current president into office, are grounded in nostalgia and sentimentalism and patriarchy. They bristle at the thought of the liberation of women, much less leadership from women. They enshrine homophobia (consider Bannon’s pal now expelled from the Vatican, Cardinal Burke, who is the leader to the rebellion against Pope Francis’s efforts to reach out to gays). These movements are also rife with violence and violence, as Carl Jung teaches, is integral to sentimentalism. Feminist sociologist Anne Douglas tells us that sentimentalism is “rancid political consciousness,” it is the organic and passionate quest for justice we are born with denied. And feminist poet Adrienne Rich alerts us to how patriarchy invariably teaches a “fatalistic self-hatred.”
How much of this “fatalistic self-hatred” is integral to the extreme right-wing political movements of our time? Isn’t it both fatalistic and self-hating to deny climate change when it is already at work raising sea levels, bringing drought on the one hand and unmatched hurricanes and tornadoes and floods on the other?
Isn’t it fatalistic and self-hating to sell and preach homophobia thus condemning a sexual minority to temptations to self-hatred? The recent book In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy by French journalist Frederic Martel, demonstrates what a profound price has been paid in the very headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church in our time—a corruption of a system that includes very much the infamous Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the “sacred inquisition,’ and involves numerous past popes and cardinals and secretaries of state and more. This book proves that self-hatred among gays is at the root of the cover-up of pedophilia as well as the diatribes of Popes JP II and Benedict XVI against gays—even when both administrations were full of gay cardinals and bishops who were busy writing and disseminating this homophobia in God’s name through multiple papal bulls and writings and more during the daytime while acting out their sexual needs furtively at night.
The 12th century goddess was not only accepting of diversity. She was also a champion of the pursuit of knowledge and its fuller expression, wisdom. Lady Wisdom. Wisdom is feminine not only in the Bible but in most languages around the world. The 12th century revolution in education that birthed the University was profound and opened the door to today’s scientific method (and came from Islam) and boasted the marriage of science and spirituality (this was Thomas Aquinas’ entire life’s work). Sadly, this passion for wisdom and not just knowledge was deposed in the modern era. Instead of the University being a place to go to find your place in the Universe—which was its meaning when the University was invented in the 12th century—it became in the modern era a place to go to find your place in a man-made work world.
Academia became a jungle of opposing forces--a zoo for reptilian brains to compete to the death and to feed war machines and chemical companies. “Academic barbarism” was Thomas Berry’s word for it. The triumph of the masculine (knowledge) over the feminine (wisdom). And the Earth, Mother Earth, suffers unto death.
Is there a meaningful synchronicity to the partial collapse of Notre Dame de Paris in Holy Week? In Passover time? I think so. The story of life, death and resurrection is as pressing as ever. Passover is about liberation. Would that we might be liberated from on-going patriarchy! The president of France immediately called for a fund raising campaign and an effort to rebuild the Cathedral. And it will be rebuilt—provided there is a renewed earth to build it on. If we have only 12 years left to change our ways as a species before climate change completely takes over and dictates the future, then the Cathedral will never be rebuilt. And ought not to be.
Maybe the death of the Cathedral as we knew it for 850 years is yet another wake up call: To wake our souls to the Divine Feminine, to clean up the toxic masculine, to find again a new balance of the two, a balance so integral to Notre Dame where the engineering and construction and mathematical and masculine skills that made it possible are so marvelously matched with the stained glass, non-defensive lift, sunlight, beauty, coordination with nature, love of the Green Man and the Black Madonna, that characterize the Divine Feminine. It is this kind of sacred marriage that our species yearns for today. This is the cathedral—the inner throne within our consciousness—that must precede the outer throne or outer cathedral (“cathedral” means “throne”). Let us work on our hearts and souls to bring this balance back.
As I wrote the day of the burning:
A building has died but what it stood for--the divine feminine movement of Gothic architecture--need not die but needs to resurrect more than ever in human consciousness.
A cathedral by definition meant the throne where the goddess sits ruling the universe with compassion and justice for the poor. Anthropocentrism, clericalism and sexism have co-opted the invention of cathedral to mean the “place where the bishop has his (usually his) throne.” This is false. The cathedral is designed to be the center of the city, it is bringing the goddess to the center of the city to bring the city alive with goddess energies and values. Cities were birthed in the 12th century with the breakup of the land-based economy and religious and political system of the feudal era. The youth fled to the cities where religion reinvented itself apart from the monastic establishment that ruled for eight centuries and where education invented itself apart from the rural monastic educational system in the form of universities. Worship reinvented itself in the Cathedral in the city and apart from the monastic liturgical practice in the countryside.
Today for the first time in human history more than 60% of humans—a great proportion of them young people—are living in cities. The Black Madonna and the “throne as goddess” motif contribute to the resurrection of our cities. They give us a center, a cosmic center, a synthesis and unity and a life-energy by which we can redeem our cities and take them back from lifelessness and thanatos. Artists gather in a city. Celebration and ritual happen in a city. Nature and human nature congregate in a city. No wonder Meister Eckhart and other medieval mystics celebrated the human soul as city and the city as soul. It is the task of a renaissance to bring soul back to city. We might even define renaissance as a “rebirth of cities based on a spiritual initiative.” ##ViveLaCathédraleNotreDame
The Shoshone-Tongva founder of Stop Tribal Genocide, Emilio Reyes (@emiliotongva) responded to the Notre Dame fire this way: “That feeling of Notre Dame burning down is the same feeling Natives feel since 1492. That is 526 years; 365 days a year, 24/7.” It is good that we humans share common ground with grief. And even better that we cease to rain grief on to one another and one another’s cultures and symbols and souls, and surely not in the name of our Gods or Goddesses or other idols. Lessons learned? One hopes so.
Meanwhile, let us thank our ancestors and praise them for their wisdom and their quest for beauty and diversity and for justice and their brilliance and craftsmanship and caring that lasted so many centuries and delighted so many souls. Thanks to their genius and yearning for the Divine Mother Notre Dame de Paris happened and survived and thrived and bore witness all these 850 years. May she rise again. May Easter happen to all our souls and all we give birth to.