Notre Dame is burning! This was devastating news. I am sure it was more tragic in person. Why were so many around the world affected by the news? Why did it cause me to cry? In part it is because I was privileged enough to have visited the grand cathedral during a senior-high trip. It is not something the average person has an opportunity to do though. Part of my love for the Lady of Paris is her long history and the legends associated with the generations of workman who participated in her incarnation.
One such account is of a craftsman who was carving artwork into the rafters. When someone skeptically inquired as to why he would waste his time whittling wonders no one would see, his humble response was, God will see. Most of the workers would not live to see her completion, but many generations have witnessed her glory.
The intent of the institution of cathedral-building was to give man's best to God. To inspire those who would enter in, to look up in awe. To participate in something eternal in time. Height and harmony, human and Host meet in unity under the stone and within the heart.
Notre Dame has withstood the wars in France, Europe, and Christendom. It wasn't an air raid or an arsonist that brought about its burning; it was simply serendipity. Some say it is a metaphor for the state of the Church in France, Europe, and Christendom. Some say it is a prophetic sign from God warning of our burning if we don't repent. But most everyone agrees, Christian or not, it is a beautiful, historical monument we ought to mourn if irrevocably lost. Notre Dame has withstood being simply French or Christian.
It is Human.
Why? How has it transcended? Why is this not simply sentimentalism? How is this building practical any more considering the soaring secularism of Europe? Notre Dame spans more than just a city block and it represents more than an iconic era. It has lasted more than 800 years, not only because of the materials or maintenance, but because of the meta-narrative it tells. The artistry, the technology, the faith and the history that commune in it surpass what it is made of or when.
Algebra, Latin, and even English Grammar are like this. Teachers are perennially probed as to the practicality of such content areas: When are we ever going to use this? Students moan. Why does my child have to have this? Parents complain. Studying, contemplating, and practicing Algebra or diagramming a sentence is like building Notre Dame. We are one of the workers in the middle of the project. Those who came before us began the intricacies of mathematics and the codification of language, and we are being handed the chisel and the pencil and told to apprentice on this project before we go off into a chosen vocation. We can't see the end, we didn't see the beginning, but we are told to complete these menial tasks in order to be trained for other work. We feel as though doing this diagramming could not possibly help us or anyone else. What does an algebraic equation have to do with everyday life? Who cares whether we have diagrammed a sentence or translated a Latin exercise well in the "real" world? People write essays all the time without diagramming a single clause.
When we engage in math and language we are, for a moment, carving artwork into the rafters of civilization, participating in the preservation and maintenance of mankind. We are working wonders for future generations we may or may not see.
But If we look up we will see.
Even when we don't see, God sees.
And it is good.