Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has been high on my bucket list for some time. I have always wanted to see the rose windows and those dramatic flying buttresses on the east end of the building. Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend the day in Paris before flying home to North Carolina. Knowing that I had only a day and that the energy in my tank was running low anyway, I prioritized my exploits, with the Cathedral of Notre Dame first. I shall never forget turning the corner and seeing the west facade with those twin towers rising above the Seine. Finally, I was here. Bucket List box checked.
In front of the Cathedral is a vast paved courtyard. Hundreds of people were queued up to enter, with the line snaking around the borders of the courtyard. I had come all this way and was not going to let a long line stop me now. Fortunately it was moving at a fair clip. There is no cost to enter the Cathedral and security officers were simply checking the contents of bags. I knew the wait wouldn’t be long. The line provided me an opportunity to study the west facade of the cathedral and to study the people around me. There was an American family in front of me. They had been traveling all over Europe (a la the Griswolds) and Paris was one of their stops. A French couple was behind. Since my French vocabulary begins and ends with the word “toilettes,” I have no idea what they were saying.
But then there were young people taking pictures of themselves in the middle of the courtyard. There was one couple in particular that grabbed my attention. They were young, probably early twenties. Her clothing barely covered all the necessary areas and he was carefully dressed in white shorts, shirt, and baseball cap turned backwards. When he snapped a photo of her in front of the cathedral from his cell phone, I didn’t think anything of it. I, too, would have liked photo in front of a Bucket List stop. But it didn’t stop with one picture. She was posing. I’m not sure how to best describe it. She wasn’t posing with just her smile, she was posing in dramatic positions as if it were a spread in Vogue. And then she would walk over and look at them. She the gave her paramour directions on how to take the picture. She’d pose, and then look at the phone. Then it was his turn. He posed. Straight on. Turned to the side. Looking over his shoulder. Look at the phone, rinse, and repeat. I look around and noticed many couples doing the exact same thing. Later I went to Instagram and searched for Notre Dame Cathedral and there, collected in one place, were thousands of pictures of young people posing in front of this Cathedral.
It struck me that these individuals had no intention of getting in line and going inside. They did not and, chances are, would not ever know what the rose windows looked like from the inside. They did not see the crown of thorns in the apse. Instead, they remained outside in front of one of the greatest monuments to prayer ever built, a building designed so that human beings would lose themselves in the presence of God. Unfortunately they were missing the presence of God through a lens focused on themselves.
Instagram Christianity is a real temptation. Instagram Christianity is one that is lived for the approval of others and depends upon “likes” and comments. It is posed and the instruments of the faith are there as background instead of what actually grounds us. Instagram Christianity is to spend a few minutes in the courtyard and never actually enter the heart of the matter. Instagram Christianity loses God in ourselves instead of losing ourselves in God. How do we counter this? After all, standing in line to enter the church is far more inconvenient than metaphorically snapping a picture in front of it. I think the fact that there was a line to enter was hopeful. Clearly there were more people wanting to go inside than those posing outside. The line of people was an act of witness that what awaited us was worth it. This is why consistent attendance by the faithful is such an important witness. The best restaurant is the one with the long line because we know it must be worth waiting for. If we create a line to St Timothy’s we are not only receiving the sacramental formation and grace from our worship but we are also making a statement that this is worth queuing up for. This two hour sacrifice on Sunday is a joy. We are free by losing ourselves to God instead of losing God in ourselves.
As critical as I was in the moment outside the Cathedral, I was also reminded that of all the places in Paris they could be - and there are many - at least they were there. But what drew them? Beauty. Notre Dame is breathtaking. It doesn’t matter if you are faithful or faithless, you cannot argue with the draw of beauty. It is ethereal. I am convinced through the witness of the Church that beauty is one of the greatest evangelistic tools God has given us. Our worship, our building, our faith is and should be one of beauty. These couples may have been standing outside drawing attention to themselves, but maybe they will return. And perhaps this time, with the witness and invitation of a long, faithful line, they will queue up and enter. And once they are inside, they will lose their breath. And in losing their breath, will lose themselves, and find the presence of the Lord Jesus.