Even When Steeples Are Falling

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

by Rob Durocher

A little over a year ago on April 19, 2019 the world was stunned to hear that the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was literally burning down. While this tragedy was unfolding there were many people lining the streets singing together. Many of them were singing a beautiful song Je Vous Salue Marie (Hail Mary, or Ave Maria). I watched a YouTube video(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iH8Pbcd4z80) of this and was struck at how even in the face of apparent destruction a vast community stood together on the streets outside of the Cathedral singing and praying as they helplessly watched a place of comfort, worship and history being slowly devoured by flames! The haunting melody spoke of a sense of disbelief and despair over what they were witnessing – and yet at the same time a sense of hope as they remembered and sang a hymn to the lowly virgin, the mother of our Lord. Why were they singing? What was the point?

For them, music created a sense of community, of belonging and participation in the face of the unspeakable and the unknown. There was something of their collective strength and determination that was so inspiring as if they were saying these flames will not destroy our spirit and we will worship and sing in this house of God again!

 In these days of COVID-19, when we were experiencing tremendous anxiety a month or so ago, we are finally beginning to see a way through and a way back to our houses of worship. It has been such a blessing for us to be able to continue to bring worship to you and to worship together with you. While for many there has been a feeling of isolation from what has been most familiar, as we watched the proverbial steeples of our lives start to crumble in a day of social distancing. But just as music and singing was a great source of comfort to the Parisians at the burning of Notre Dame, I believe digital worship has been a source of comfort,  bringing us together when we cannot gather in place but rather around our devices. So very many of you have expressed incredible gratitude for the opportunity to sing and pray along with us as we lift up songs and hymns, both new and familiar. Singing reminds us that we belong not only together but to a God who inhabits the praise of his people!

We have heard from many medical and music professionals both inside and outside of the greater church that singing together, especially in small spaces is to be discouraged at least for a while due to how the virus can spread through droplets or aerosole transmission. While this is pretty sobering and even discouraging to many, I guarantee that anything we do as we look to return to worship in stages will always be with the health, well- being and safety of all.

But even that should never discourage us from singing the songs of Zion. We’ll just sing them differently! Sing like there’s no tomorrow in the relative safety of your home, your yard or even with members of your family respecting space and distance! Listen to the music and songs that inspire you, be they sacred or secular, new or old, and take advantage of the music offered through our St. John’s social media, “Be of Good Courage” emails,  and through many other streaming resources!

One of my favorite cassette tapes (hey this was over 35 years ago!) was called GREAT HYMNS OF THE FAITH recorded by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Choir and the Amen Choir of the First Baptist Church. I wore that out many years ago but so many of these inspiring hymns can be found on YouTube if you’d like to hear and sing along. I highly recommend them!

I encourage you to pray for each other as we look at better days ahead, rebuilding the fabric and steeples of our lives. No doubt a safe and hopeful return to a sense of corporate worship will continue to sustain us. Notre Dame is being rebuilt and soon we’ll be worshipping together (safely!) again.

In closing I’d like to share the following words from Nikolai S.E. Grundtvig, a 19th century Danish Lutheran Pastor and hymn writer:

Built on a rock the church shall stand,
even when steeples are falling;
Crumbled have spires in every land,
bells still are chiming and calling –
Calling the young and old to rest,
calling the souls of those distressed,
Longing for life everlasting. “My peace I leave with you. Amen.” (ELW 652)

Rob Durocher, deacon, is Minister of Worship and the Arts.


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