Awe of cathedrals grips visitors of all faiths, and the faithless

Last week, as I walked from a class into a lobby area of the college with a TV, I didn’t notice what was being broadcast by CNN. It wasn’t until a colleague directed my attention to the monitor that I saw the Cathedral of Notre Dame in flames.

Instantly, I had a flashback to the morning of 9/11 and hoped what was happening in Paris was not another terrorist act.

I was also transported back 45 years, when my wife and I visited Paris. That was when I was still in grad school and we were dirt poor. We were camping outside Paris in a leaky tent and riding the Metro nearly an hour to get into the heart of Paris.

I have a memory of standing in front of Notre Dame, amazed at its dimensions. And, like many other European churches, I felt upon entering the cathedral that I was entering an even more expansive space. Like many visitors, I felt small and insignificant, with silence being the only appropriate response.

I also felt in the silence the prayers of millions of pilgrims from over the ages. Since that trip, my wife and I have been blessed to visit many European cathedrals, all of which have given me a similar sense of awe, silence, and layers of prayer. Yet no two cathedrals are alike, and Notre Dame is one I will never forget. Perhaps its setting contributes to its specialness, as the cathedral is bordered by the majestic river Seine. Those taking the popular stroll along the right and left banks of the river can’t help but see Notre Dame and marvel at her beauty.

In interviews with Parisians after the fire, I heard the repeated response that part of their identity was lost in the flames. Based on statistics about church attendance in contemporary Europe, not all who expressed their sorrow are regular church-goers. Some may not have entered Notre Dame for years or decades, but that doesn’t invalidate their sentiment. And I have no doubt that even ardent atheists are grieving the damage to this iconic cathedral.

I don’t at all subscribe to the once popular phrase of the 70’s “God is dead.” Yet I do recognize that we live in a world very different from that when gothic cathedrals of Europe were built. Fewer of us attend worship on a regular basis, yet the number of visitors to cathedrals, shrines and temples continues to rise.

So what is the appeal of these places in our modern age? For some, the appeal might be the art found within. For others, such buildings may serve as museums to the past. But that doesn’t explain the awe that grips visitors, no matter what their attitudes are to religion.

It is the silence that draws us, and it is that silence that reveals a paradox. In the noise of our age, the hectic schedules, the filling of every spare moment with attention to social media, the twenty- four news cycle, and the twenty-four hour sports cycle, God might not be dead, but God has certainly been silenced.

Yet, when we enter these sacred places where we are requested to turn off our devices, we experience something increasingly rare—silence itself. And that silence feels holy. The amount already pledged to rebuild Notre Dame is astonishing. I look with eagerness for a way to make a contribution, and I know I’m not the only Hoosier to feel this way. The world needs all places where silence is guarded as a treasure, where people who might not believe in God yet encounter the holy. For the Quakers are right. Silence isn’t the absence of noise, but the presence of something.

And that holy presence makes us more wholly human.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].