What Notre Dame tells us about our attachment to buildings

Photo by Rohan Reddy on Unsplash

The fire last weekend at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was a tragic and heart-rending experience for many.

In some of the live footage the gasps of the onlookers were audible as the tower fell.  Afterwards many people, particularly French ones, spoke of their sense of loss, their grief, their numbness in terms which mirror bereavement.

And for many people, not just Parisians, there really was a sense that part of them had died too.

How is it that buildings – and not necessarily ancient, sacred and beautiful ones – can become such a significant part of us?

Some buildings, of course, we choose to invest with part of our identity.  They might represent our nationality, our culture or our religion.  They can symbolise our history and encapsulate our values.  So they are more than buildings – they represent who we are.  Perhaps that’s why Prince Charles was so annoyed way back in 1984 about the proposed modernist extension to the National Gallery in London:

…what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.

We profoundly object to change that is forced on ‘our’ buildings, because it embodies change that is being forced on us.

Other buildings are part of our corporate history.  That explains why some mission workers are so traumatised when an agency sells off its beloved old country house headquarters.  It’s not an objection per se to the move to practical, functional offices, but it’s the lost of a place that has links to past generations of mission workers, to key events like the training of a particular cohort, or a formative season of ministry.

And some events are part of our own personal history.  Churches in which we married, houses in which we lived, and places we have enjoyed visiting.  Most of us have driven past old homes to see what they are like now – because we are still attached to them (see our blog on the folly of trying to go back).  This is why it can be such a difficult experience for mission workers abroad to find their parents are selling the family home and there is no opportunity for them to go back and say goodbye to the bedroom they grew up in.

Mission workers, perhaps more than most, have a significant need to try to hold on to some stable points of reference from the past.  As they return to the UK on home assignment or to retire, they find a bewildering array of change in their family, church, high street and national culture.  While they can attend workshops or retreats to help them manage this (and I have just led one at Penhurst Retreat Centre on this very topic) their journey can still feel very much like a trek through the wilderness in hope of a promised land.  A few familiar landmarks can go a long way towards smoothing the transition.