One of the highlights of our voyage for me was visiting the grand Gothic cathedral: Notre Dame de Paris. Apart from being magnificent and enormous, I found the cathedral to be daunting, frightening and bizarre.
The flying buttresses span out like giant spider legs, the circular stained-glass windows glare like a monstrous Cyclops, and the pointed arches shoot up like razor-sharp stalagmites. The grotesquely intricate cathedral looms over its surroundings like an ancient alien spacecraft, demanding awe and even confusion.
What is this about? What is this absurd and strangely beautiful edifice trying to do here? I am not sure. If it is trying to be otherworldly, it has succeeded.
And then I take a closer look at the details. I see Jesus and the twelve apostles and Mary with child sculpted into the arch entry. This makes sense until I start seeing horned demons trying to eat the apostles and hellish dragons attempting to strangle Mary with their long, scaled tails. I am not having demonic visions or enjoying magic mushrooms from Amsterdam. These beasts are seriously carved into the stone cathedral, permanently locked into battle with the saints. And then I see them all over, almost leaping off the corners of the rooftops, jetting out, eager to attack and devour.
I then see a holy man holding his head, a monster mocking Rodin’s thinker, and then a dragon shoving a human arm down its throat. I am not sure if I should be afraid or I should be laughing. So I give up and just remain fascinated.
But the rest of the day, the crazy gargoyles of the cathedral continue to jump from tower to tower in the back of my mind. Even as La Joconde charms me with her voodoo eyes, I still wonder about the gargoyles. (I think, How crazy would it be, I wonder, if a gargoyle were prowling in the background of the Mona Lisa, ready to pounce this enchanting woman?)
Why did these people adorn their cathedral with these monsters? What did they mean? Were they just for fun? Did they have theological or sociological significance?
Frechman Emile Male said, “No symbolism can explain the monstrous fauna of the cathedrals…If ever works are exempt of meaning surely these are…All attempts at explanation must be foredoomed to failure.”
I am not a huge fan of being foredoomed to failure, but I still cannot help but wonder about these beasts.
We know that they were used as gutters to direct water flow from the cathedrals rooftops. In fact, the word gargoyle comes from the Latin word gurguilo, which is actually an onomatopoeia, representing the sound of gushing water. It is where we get the words “gargle” and “gurgle.”
Apart from that, everything else is mostly guesswork.
Some suggest that they were meant to be so grotesque so that they would scare away the real demons or perhaps fool the real demons into thinking, “Oh, I guess they already have demons here so we don’t have to bug them.”
Some even suggest that they were pagan symbols meant to attract pagans to the church: “Check it out, pagans! We have crazy monsters here! You like crazy monsters, right?” That seems a little misleading to me, especially since there are no monsters inside the church.
Like most medieval scholars, I lean towards seeing the gargoyles as repellants to dark spirits. I am not entirely sure how they repel evil, but I think it has something to do with humor. And I think the humor has a lot to do with the two epigraphs of C.S. Lewis’ famous Screwtape Letters: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” (Martin Luther)
“The devil…the prowde spirite…cannot endure to be mocked.” (Thomas More)
This same sentiment inspired U2 lead singer Bono to dress as a devil named
MacPhisto; to mock evil and to make fun of the Devil who seemed to dominate rock music. That was Bono’s funny way of asking, “Why should the devil have all the good music?” And I like to think that the gargoyles are the medieval church’s way of teasing the devil, saying, “Hey, Prince of the Air! You think you rule the earth? You cannot own this place. This is God’s property! So deal with it!”
The gargoyles inspire me to mock the negative voices in my head that some might call demonic: voices that make me feel horrible about myself, that stress me out, that lead me away from God and community and into self-loathing and self-hate. The gargoyles inspire me to not take the negative voices so seriously. In fact, the gargoyles inspire me to mock the voices.
Upon reflection of the medieval devil, who apparently takes himself way too seriously, I sense an important spiritual caveat: Don’t take myself so seriously. Because when I take myself seriously, I imitate the devil. And since imitation is the highest form of flattery, I am praising the already arrogant asshole whenever I think of myself with excessive gravitas.
Chesterton pointed out the converse truth: “Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.” This reminds me of a story that I heard from Wayne Dyer that calls us all to take ourselves lightly:
Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him: “Peter,” he says, “kindly remember Rule Number 6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes, and withdraws. The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology. When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting prime minister addresses his colleague: “My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?” “Very simple,” replies the resident prime minister. “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.’” “Ah,” says his visitor, “that is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?”
“There aren’t any.”
I bought a mini-gargoyle to adorn our Kaleo chapel. Every time I see the little monster, I think of two things. First, I am reminded of the Devil’s permanent ban from our place of worship and from all places where Christ is adored as King. The Devil can try all he wants but he will inevitably fail. But the fact that he keeps trying is so entertaining that it invites our ridicule. The gargoyle is really our way of saying to the Devil, “Na, na, na, na, na, you can’t get me!”
Second, the gargoyle makes me smile because it reminds me of Rule Number 6. And what says “Don’t take yourself seriously” better than a little pensive monster with its tongue sticking out?