Touching the Infinite

The tragic fire that toppled Notre Dame’s iconic spire and most of its ancient roof this week broke millions of hearts around the world. Including mine.

I’m not alone in saying that the Paris cathedral is one of the most awe-inspiring monuments ever built. Its construction began in 1163 and was completed in 1345, a spectacular symbol of gothic architecture and human achievement. Imagine a single engineering project being developed today taking almost 200 years to complete. Unthinkable.

I have been fortunate—as a child and as an adult—to visit the cathedral many times. Attending the free organ recitals on Sunday afternoons was a must. I’m sure my Jewish grandparents wouldn’t have approved, but to sit in the pews, under the majestically ascending arches—with the smell of incense, the faint light of flickering candles, and furtive steps echoing in the great hollow spaces—would lift me into a strange sense of veneration, a visceral connection with something bigger than we are, something unknowable yet immensely powerful.

The sheer size and stunning verticality of the place made me feel small and humble. The music, especially if a Bach fugue, would spiral upwards, compelling everyone to look up, a temporary bridge between life down here and lofty thoughts up there, in the heavenly spheres. The finite touching the infinite.

Humans are peculiar animals, capable of imagining infinity, the eternal, capable of creating connections that may be anchored in matter but that lift them beyond the merely material. How amazing is it that flesh-and-blood creatures can build places of worship that compel them to meditate about time?

This, in a nutshell, is the paradox of being human, to have feet planted on the ground and an imagination that contemplates the sublime.

Aspirations of awe

Gothic cathedrals had many functions, from economic centers of religious pilgrimage to very special places of worship. Their goal was to be awe-inspiring: to make us feel at once small and large. Small, as we step in and are immediately enveloped by the sheer size of their ascending structure—a model of the Medieval cosmos, sinful humans at the center, humbly admiring creation. And large, as the faithful would proudly share a communal sense of belonging, of being, together, in the house of God.

But Notre Dame has something else. It is mysterious, it has terrifying gargoyles and frescos admonishing those who fall under temptation; in its stone façade, frescos depict the drama of human existence, our fears and aspirations, our sins and good deeds. To some, like the elusive early twentieth-century French alchemist Fulcanelli, Gothic cathedrals like Notre Dame hid within their statues and architecture the hermetic secrets of alchemical quests, mixing, in unexpected ways, the sacred and the profane. Apparently, Fulcanelli left his treatise The Mystery of Cathedrals with a student in 1926 and then disappeared.

No one knows what happened to Fulcanelli, although there are reports that he reemerged before the Second World War to warn scientists of the danger of nuclear weapons. He reportedly met with the engineer and resistance fighter Jacques Bergier in 1937. When Bergier asked Fulcanelli about the Philosopher’s Stone, the alchemist answered:

“… the vital thing is not the transmutation of metals but that of the experimenter himself. It is an ancient secret that a few people rediscover each century. Unfortunately, only a handful are successful …”

True or not, to those who have the predisposition to wonder about such knowledge, it is hard not to go around Notre Dame looking for clues. One can make the case that American best-selling author Dan Brown has understood the power of this symbolism and brought it to life in many of his books. From their success, it is clear that there is a huge appetite for this kind of speculation. And they are, of course, great fun to read.

A trance-like state

This brings me back to Notre Dame’s power to induce a sort of spiritual trance-like state. One may, of course, dismiss all this as nonsense and just limit himself to taking selfies with thumbs up and tombstones and altar candles on the background. I’m sure that is what many go there for. For the most part, these are the same folks that go to the Grand Canyon and spend an average of seven minutes looking over the South Rim, mostly to take pictures of themselves, something we wrote about here.

But there are those who are filled with a different kind of emotion as they step in and look up, a mix of reverence and humility as they realize this building has been standing for over 800 years, fulfilling its purpose as a portal to the sublime. The magic of the place is that it doesn’t take much to feel this way, just a few minutes of silence and deeper contemplation.

Since the fire, droves of people, locals and tourists, have been converging to Notre Dame to mourn its wounds and pray. French president Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild it in five years, creating something even more magnificent. Meanwhile, donors have been pouring money toward its reconstruction, at an estimated total of nearly $1 billion (U.S.) at the time of this writing.

The rebuilding is a reminder that it is not about not falling, but standing up again and again, every time a little stronger. This is one cliché we do well to remember every day.

Templeton Prize winner Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.