Notre-Dame de Paris and A Place Deeper than Words

by Sheri Ritchlin, PhD

Flames and smoke rise from the blaze at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Photograph: Thierry Mallet/AP

Yesterday several people interviewed by the media said they were surprised by their own response to the news that Notre Dame was on fire. They burst into tears (as I did). They were not French. They were not religious.

In a world filled with inflamed rhetoric like a huge bowl of ire, this was an event that took us to a place deeper than words. It was like 9/11 or in my lifetime, the news of Kennedy’s assassination. How important this is to remind us that we are beings who have such places below words, who are made of an unconscious fabric that connects us, not only with people throughout the planet in the present time, but to a thousand years of history in the past, and long before that.

Caught as we are in the tangled mesh of political, philosophical and theological concepts–none of which can be universally “agreed” upon–as Allysyn Kiplinger says, we should consider what this moment is saying. (Read her blog post from yesterday about Notre-Dame here.) The day before Notre Dame burned, a headline in New Scientist above a photo of one of last year’s massive forest fires, read “BBC climate doc adviser: Earth is sending us really powerful messages.” The documentary, Climate Change – The Facts, will be presented by David Attenborough. Perhaps the flames of Notre Dame, on the Monday of Holy Week, are sending us a message too.

Last night on the PBS Newshour, the images of destruction from Paris were followed by the images of a US town’s destruction from a tornado. The woman who had seen her home ripped from its foundations had no words for that either.

During the immediate aftermath of 9/11 Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was summoned to voice a collective international mourning. When the original performance ended, Beethoven had to be turned around to see the cheering audience. He was completely deaf. It seemed appropriate, though not intentional, that the Newshour ended with Yoyo Ma playing Bach on both sides of the Mexican Border; music going to those deeper places where walls cannot exist.

Humans are described as being separated from the animals by our intelligence, our capacity for reflection and the power of language. Artificial intelligence is advancing with lightning speed and is predicted to equal or even surpass us in those powers. Ironically, what will distinguish us from artificial intelligence is the immediacy of our sentience, which we share with other creatures, and the ground of sympathy with all creation that makes us receptive to the messages of Earth and History, which remind us of who we are. Let us hope that this human is the “programmer.”

In the photo below, note the expression on the face of the little boy (right) as his mother, Sarah Anzick, is about to rebury the remains of a child unearthed on their property after his original burial 12,600 years ago. DNA revealed that his family were the ancestors of 80% of all native groups in North and South America. Around them are members of tribes from Washington, Oregon and Montana. This is 175 miles from my home.

Shared humanness. Deeper than words.

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