The destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral is a shattering disaster almost impossible to put into words.

For the crowds who gazed at the conflagration from the banks of the Seine, as for millions around the world riveted to their television screens, the sight was one of horror, bottomless sadness, abject helplessness, cultural symbolism, and stomach-churning irony.

What makes this catastrophe so huge is not this thing or that thing, although each is appalling in itself. It is all of them together — a vast conglomerate catastrophe.

Countless works of art have been incinerated. Centuries of labor and the irreplaceable skill of masons and sculptors, artisans, architects, princes of the state, and princes of the Church has been reduced to ruins and rubble.

A site of pilgrimage for Catholics, scholars, and tourists has been erased from the world. An embodiment of our great civilization, in wood, stone, and glass, fashioned for the glorification of God, has been consumed. It will never be there for our children as it was for us.

At a time when social and cultural forces are building a bonfire of Christian values, this blaze at the heart of Paris seems a physical expression of all that is turning to ashes.

How many people watching in every time zone around the planet, or only now waking up to the shocking news, share some combination of these feelings? Hundreds of millions? A billion?

Nothing is forever. But sometimes there are things that seem to be. And Notre Dame seemed to be, standing in the middle of a great civilization and faith. Until suddenly it wasn't.

We have all lost something priceless today.