The fire at the iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was undoubtedly a huge tragedy, with global impact. It is an impact so profound because it has brought to the surface something very deep about the importance of our relationship with the spaces in which we live, and in which we find meaning and hope, writes Ewan Aitken.
To see people weeping in the streets as the fire destroyed the medieval roof was to witness real grief at the demise of what, in one sense, was simply an inanimate object – a building. Beyond that, it was clearly part of who they were; the pain they were feeling was real and deeply significant. It must have felt as if their own home was burning.
This fire reminds us of the importance of sacred spaces in our lives. By sacred I don’t mean necessarily religious. In fact, Notre-Dame, which is owned by the State with the Church as custodians on behalf of the State, is a very good example of how faith communities can have a positive and symbiotic relationship with a secular state without either giving up who they are or undermining their integrity. This relationship nurtures a space which is sacred both for those who hold to religious faith and for those for whom life’s meaning is to be found without a relationship to a deity. It is a shared space, both civic and religious, which brings meaning and significance for people with very different views of life. It transcends difference and provides common ground.
Our need for sacred spaces go back millennia. The ring of Brodgar in Orkney, tragically damaged with graffiti recently, is older than the pyramids. The archaeological dig beside it at the Ness of Brodgar shows a gathering place of a similar age where people, who had no means of communication other than face-to-face, and no means of telling the date other than the days and the seasons, met regularly for the sharing of food and ceremony.
The sense of place being sacred need not be confined to a building, or even a place of organised gathering or ritual. We each have those places to which we feel an innate connection to our “soul” (in whatever sense we may interpret the word). Places which restore our sense of self, reconnect us with our own story, and with what find most meaningful in life.
They can be sacred because they hold memories of time shared with those we love or once loved. They can be sacred because they bring us closer to nature. They can be sacred because they speak to us of mystery and our place in the universe. Recognising them and returning to them whenever we can are powerful ways of maintaining our wellbeing and our sense of belonging and hope.
It is also important, though, that we recognise and nurture sacred common spaces which hold our common life and story as citizens, as a community and as a nation. The Royal Mile may seem an odd example when considering the sacred. But spanning that stretch of land lies seven centuries of architecture: a castle; a Bronze Age settlement at one end, and a palace and a parliament at the other; the story of our nation’s capital. There are places along that street which might be more commonly sacred – St Giles’ cathedral, the Signet Library, Parliament Hall, the War Memorial – where the secular and religious meet in shared sacred and civic moments. There are also places of a perhaps more personal significance to individuals, private, unbeknownst to the wider public.
The fire at Notre-Dame is a tragedy. In the wake of such a tragedy, it is important to remind ourselves of the importance of caring for and acknowledging our need for those places which bring us together, whatever we believe, to share what it is to be in a city, to be part of a community – to be human.
Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians