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Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Face of Humanity

On March 19, 1945, Hitler laid out a scorched earth decree to destroy the cultural heritage of Europe after he determined he could no longer win the war. This revenge on humanity was entitled the Nero Decree, and were it not for the Monument's Men working within the military, a lot more things would have been destroyed by the bloodthirsty bastards who had held more and more parts of Europe prisoner as they advanced into the form that the Allies combined together to fight and destroy.

Sadly, we lose a lot of the great works that made humanity what it was. Other works were stolen from their owners, who were later killed in concentration camps. This was the ugliness and effects of war. Fortunately, much of the culture that we fought to preserve, in both individual freedoms and liberties, as well as creative and theological pursuits lives on.

Also, somehow, in this war and the great war before it, Notre Dame stood strong and went on.

There's a story that is told in the movie Before Sunset, which Ethan Hawke tells Julie Delpy, where he remarks on how one man was left to the task of pushing the button that would demolish the cathedral at Notre Dame, which had been wired with explosives. He couldn't do it. It was just too beautiful. The same thing happened all over Paris at other monuments.

It (and they) was (were) just too beautiful.

The liberation of Paris did leave Notre Dame safe, but in the end, it would be a series of renovation plans and funding attempts that began in 2017, which would bring the building to its knees (at least it seems to be at this time - an act of terror would just be doubly unthinkable). Unfortunately, the universe is filled with chaotic instances where things happen and slip away. Such is the nature of the universe. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

There were many moments in its 800 year history that Notre Dame had a wondrous, beautiful history. Obviously, April 15, 2019, was not one of them. Fortunately, items were rescued while others were previously removed for safe keeping. Who knew that taking down the Apostles would save them from the fate of the spire? The fire could have done more damage. The bell towers and main halls could have been totally consumed. Fortunately, they stand.

I have seen the images and videos of the fires. I watched the video posts back to back to back of the spires falling. I cried real tears and choked up to what this moment was, several times. I'm done watching the fire. What's done is done. It's time to focus on the future.

Out of these cinders, we need to find meaning.

With that, it's hard to put emotion for "things" into an expression of understanding them as something that is more human than material, but to understand why so many people hurt it's important to do just that. We have to understand why we weep for this place as we would a person, since that's what we're doing. In this, it has to be more than a symbol.

Yes, no human being died in this fire (or was reported dead when I wrote this). If anyone suffered injuries, it was done in fighting the fire or saving relics, which included the Crown of Thorns, a Nail of Christ, a fragment of the True Cross, and tombs of holy figures, as well as many priceless works of art.

Who would risk their lives for art? What exists in a creation that makes it stand apart? Is it the talent that it took to create the perfection of the effort? Is it the faith in the mind that willed the hands to create a representation of what the mind saw as meaningful? Is it the technological mastery of tools and skills to just create the work? Is it by sheer virtue of age and time passed, the years that something has stood through the erosive forces of life to still be visible to the eye, maybe a little more faded than in times past, but still here nonetheless? Or is it the theological depiction of stories from 2,000 years ago, which still reverberate in our selves?

Or is it all of the above, or perhaps even none of the above, something else altogether?

I've never been to Notre Dame. Because it was saved, at least in part, someday I will be able to. It won't be the same, but it will still be. As with other versions of the cathedral, parts will be changed, fixed, or removed. New parts will be added. Nevertheless and most importantly, the spirit of Notre Dame will be there, just as it was when people risked their lives to pull items out of there.

Notre Dame is its history, but its also the created art of The Hunchback, which Victor Hugo gave to the world. This was the same Hunchback that our local Lancaster, Pennsylvania, theater, the Fulton, brought to life last year. In it, the 100+ person cast took Hunchback over the top. To our absolute awe, it included a huge choir behind 5 huge bells and a 3-level almost 30-foot bell tower. I know that's hardly the real thing, but something in the power of that story had seen the real thing and felt touched by it enough to make it "real." 

Someone else's inspirations from the actual building made this version of the tale a created work that somehow paralleled human history to represent the meaning of who we are and want to be as a people, fighting injustice, standing for love, and the power to be in spite of life's cruel hand (the power to find ability, even in disability). 

As with all successful art, something inspired a message, which was communicated so vividly and powerfully that the viewer would truly receive that inspiration. Thus, in that moment that they opened the set up to its full size and full cast, something radiated out to the audience and made that musical so much more than just a regular night of entertainment. 

When you feel that expression, you just know. You get it, but you can't put a name on it. You just let it flow through you. I'd like to call it the face of humanity providing the meaning of life.

This is the same type of feeling when I walked into the Sistine Chapel in January for the first time and just cried at the beauty of something so overpowering and holy. I remember feeling that same way at the Grand Canyon, too. I just stood there looking for words and only uttering "wow." Yet at the Sistine Chapel, I didn't know what to say or where to start. There was just so much effort and inspired traces of lives in there. 

What's a person to say or do when confronted with huge swaths of theological history and life meaning at once?

The Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo and some other painters, too (Boticelli among them). We don't often think of them, but they're "on the soundtrack," too (so to speak). So is Daniele da Volterra, though his work is more of a "crime" to the purity of what certain authorities deemed "impure." For these other people, we don't think of this as their greatest hit, but for Michelangelo, we do... no matter how much he resisted coming back for the encore. Now, together with the work of the original artists who worked without fig leafs, this is his life's meaning. Daniele da Volterra's brush can't hide this reality from us.

Thinking of the supernatural connection between man and the divine, something is happening at the Sistine Chapel. As I said, I can't explain what it is or define it by name, but when you see it, you just know. 

And it's thinking about my time there that I know why I cried for Notre Dame, and why I would cry for the things we saw in Greece, Italy, or hundreds of other locations, if they were to fall as did the Buddahs of Bamiyan or any of the other artifactss that are currently being lost to war and looting. It's why the Monument's Men risked their lives before George Clooney was alive to make a movie about their attempts to recover stolen art from the Nazis. That spirit, portrayed in the book of the same name, is why he was inspired to make such a powerful visual statement.

It's why I get upset at graffiti in national parks or drunken parties littering in pristine or simply removed natural surroundings. It's why history and culture matters, whether it's mine or someone else's. It's why I'm thankful for people like the Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

This is why we fight for the face of humanity, even if it's not a person, per se.

To a throwaway culture, you don't get a second chance to save a priceless artifact.

Obviously, we didn't throw away Notre Dame, but many of you are like me. You planned to see it way too late. You thought it would always be there. Now it isn't. Why did you wait? If you could have gone, why didn't you?

I think about this now and reflect on our ability to go places and see and do things that will transform us into someone else. I think of a place in Utah and tell myself and the universe, just hang on for one more year. I'm coming.

We spend our time and money on things we value, so why not these things as soon as we can? We live our lives knowing that we have plenty of opportunities to see and do things, but then life happens and we don't ever make it there (I'm so glad my wife saw Notre Dame years ago and many of her family members saw it last year). We get too old. We aren't physically or financially able. It's like in the movie Up, with the adventure book. We define our life by our dreams, and yes, like in the movie, we adjust. But what about the things we should have done, but never did and so we regret what we missed out on?

For some of us, we know we could have done better with managing our hours. Here, it's the time wasters. For other people, it's the poor priorities. For still others, like me and many of the people who come to this site, things like Parkinson's happen. That's me. 

But it doesn't have to be.

We (I included) can live out loud and make the most of the time we can do. Godzilla can rage any minute. King Kong might join him. What are we waiting for? Someday, we will be old men and women with our memories. Will they be good ones? Will we do what we can to use our days

Can we follow our dreams to our Notre Dames, no matter what or where they are?

Because somehow in finding these heavenly connections to other worlds, the inspired products of the muse, we experience life's ultimate meaning. We become inspired to our own creativity and ultimate meaning. 

To see this destroyed, whether by a random accident or a deliberate action, we witness the destruction of a part of everything that touched it. Whether it's man's hand on a created work or God's hands on a natural place, something dies. At Notre Dame, a lot of parts of a lot of ghostly forms went up in smoke today. They'll never exist again as their face of humanity drifts away, hoping to be replaced with someone else's life meaning and purpose.

It's up to us and the actions brought on by our tears to recognize the beautiful and to preserve the past / present / future by creating it. No act of destruction can ever advance humanity near the same way as a creating one can.



Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Should a person (people) be feeling guilty for ACCIDENTALLY causing this fire at Notre Dame, I hope said person (people can find peace and forgiveness in this moment. I can't even fathom what a burden this could be on a person's mind, especially if it was an accident. In the end, the art is divine, but forgiveness and the ability to make amends are pretty important to. 

We owe that to humanity.

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