“Those bygone workmen did not serve, they worked. They had an absolute honor, which is honor proper. … A tradition coming, springing from deep within the [French] race, a history, an absolute, an honor, demanded that this chair rung be well made. Every part of the chair which could not be seen was just as perfectly made as the parts which could be seen. This was the selfsame principle of the cathedrals.”
Charles Peguy, ‘The Honor of Work,’ in Basic Verities
“…for all these gifts of the heart ennobled the men who gave them…”
John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic
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The fire in Notre Dame cathedral has touched us deeply. There are multiple reasons that even the possibility of losing such a monument shakes us–even as we gratefully discover how much was spared. My own thoughts have turned especially to one aspect of this drama: the people who actually crafted this masterpiece.
No! I thought to myself. Can such work, in a few blinks of an eye, possibly come to this?
Obviously, in some sense the answer is yes. That which arose from the work of countless human hands can be reduced by fire to a pile of ashes. This in itself is food for reflection on the passing-ness of all flesh.
Even this which stands as a monument, as a visible sign of such profound human accomplishment—from the soaring vision of the architects, to the socio-economic order that could actualize that vision over multiple generations, to the shocking though in some sense then-ordinary craftsmanship in countless distinct arts, to the faith that must in many ways have undergirded the whole project—even a monument to all this could indeed be burned away, leaving nary a trace. And would then there really be nothing left, as though it had never been?
Let us set aside that simply as a monument, such a building did foster inestimable good in those who experienced it, even as mere passers-by.
Let us set aside the countless pilgrims—some faith-filled, some skeptical, some just curious—whose lives would not be the same again.
Let us set aside the countless acts of worship, herein elicited and consummated.
What keeps striking my mind is the reality of the work itself of the people that wrought this cathedral. Their daily work was an art. It is characteristic of the human person is to be a responsible workman, and to be a responsible workman is to be an artist. Such artistry is ennobling, beginning with the one who exercises it.
It is a fair assumption, it seems to me, that in large part the work behind a cathedral like Notre Dame de Paris, was a human and humanizing work. Such work produces more than the visible artifact—though the visible artifact is a telling monument to that work. The interior fruits of such work, first of all in the worker himself and by extension in the broader community, can transcend the exterior product, and endure even after its demise.
Any craftsman knows there is more to what he does, than what he has made in clay. And such fruit of such work–even when not obvious–is safe from even the devouring flames of the hottest fire.
Charles Peguy (1873-1914) was a French poet and essayist. He died in battle in World War I.
John Ruskin (1819-1900) became the leading art critic of Victorian England. Moved by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution he shifted his focus later in life to social and economic issues. A controversial and insightful thinker, his way with words has an enduring power.
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