Are There Any Sanctuaries Left?


Minister Frollo learned years ago to respect the sanctity of the Church. ~from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996)

Nothing says "kids' movie" like bloodthirsty mobs, genocide, and child abuse

Ever have one of those weeks when two different, but strangely similar, strands just seem to come together?

I was having a fairly innocent discussion with a friend about whether Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a film worth watching. For the record I think it’s one of the best; she absolutely hates it. It’s polarizing to be sure: this is ostensibly a kids’ animated flick, but has at its heart themes like racism, genocide, lust, redemption, and the role of the Church. Real cute and cuddly, to be sure (although there are the requisite singing, dancing and wisecracking sidekicks in the form of three gargoyles.)

I’ve been to Notre Dame de Paris several times. It is a central character in the film just as Quasimodo or Esmeralda are. It is a remarkable and beautiful building, all the moreso considering it was built in the 14th century. It stands as a reminder that regardless of what one looks like or which God one does (or doesn’t) worship, everyone is welcome within its walls. At the film’s climax, the Hunchback saves his beloved gypsy from hanging and shouts to the world what we, the audience, know: the cathedral is a sanctuary.

But are there really any sanctuaries today? That was the late Middle Ages; this is the era of flash mobs, drug wars and killing 90-year-olds for a few dollars. I had a brush with reality yesterday that left me shaken…and pensive.

Notre-Dame de Paris

For those of my readers who don’t know, I work in one of what I consider to be the last sanctuaries. The public library, which is at once an entertainment center, Jedi temple, and repository of information. It’s also one of the few workplaces where everyone is expected to be quiet. So far, so good.

Yesterday I watched as one of my patrons, who couldn’t have been younger than 60, was attacked by three teenagers attempting to steal her purse. Though I didn’t witness the actual mugging, I saw enough of the aftermath to know that I was worried.  If the library is not safe, where is it safe anymore?

The sad answer is that there really aren’t any sanctuaries. For every location you could name, no matter how sacred, from a church or temple to a day care center or school for autistic children, I could find at least a few examples of some horrific act of violence. This might be just human nature, but it’s also indicative of a society which has lost its way and its purpose. I’m sure these things happened 20 years ago when I was still young, but I just don’t remember hearing about them in such great numbers.

It’s been said that most people care about crime only when they, or a loved one, are the victims of crime. Personally I’ve always had a strong sense of justice (I come from a law enforcement family and considered joining the police force.) I care that people I don’t know are being murdered, raped, burglarized, and beaten on a daily basis. I also want to do something about it. One of the ways I feel like civilians can help is to create sanctuaries.

The library should be one of those sanctuaries. It shouldn’t be a fortress, but it should be a place where anyone, regardless of their status, can come and be treated with respect and dignity. Same thing goes for schools of any level, hospitals, and, regardless of beliefs, houses of worship. Regardless of whether law enforcement officers are present, those who come to a sanctuary need to feel safe.

For the record I still feel safe at work. I think yesterday’s incident could have happened anywhere. With the economy in ruins and despair widespread, the sad thing is that crime is also on the rise. I could write an entire book on the roots of crime or how to prevent it, but that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m no police officer or soldier, but I want to help people feel safer and protect those weaker than myself. That much is just in my blood. Instinct, as it were. If I were to see a senior citizen, a woman, or child being attacked, I wouldn’t hesitate to rush in and help. Call it crazy if you want to. I see these YouTube videos of citizens being assaulted on trains or at restaurants…and I also see all their fellow citizens standing passively in the background.

Sanctuaries don’t have to be buildings of mortar and stone. They can be people, too. You can look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I’ll video the next helpless person I see being assaulted, and maybe I’ll get 2 million hits on Twitter,” or, you can say, “I’ll do everything I can to help someone in need, regardless of whether I know them.”

In the end of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the great cathedral withstands a siege and remains as a sanctuary to all. I’d like to think there are still a few sanctuaries left today, long after the days of castles, knights and damsels in distress. As Quasimodo proves, sometimes all the strength you need is right there inside yourself. It’s not about a building or armaments.

The world we live in is a dangerous and turbulent one. May we all be able to summon that inner strength when and if we need it. God help the outcasts, indeed…because we are all outcasts to someone. And keep our sanctuaries, both inward and outward, strong.

Winged guardian of Paris

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on June 24, 2011.

2 Responses to “Are There Any Sanctuaries Left?”

  1. Of course, I love this post! The soundtrack to the film is on my iPod, and “God, Help the Outcasts” is my favorite track. What you express is beautiful and true. By the way, I need to find a song for you; it’s one that asks God to “prepare me to be a sanctuary.” Thanks, Heather, for the encouraging thoughts.

  2. Very thoughtful blog — and I love the idea of sanctuary! So sad to think that this country was once considered a sanctuary for “the poor, the downtrodden, those yearning to be free…” but today? Not so much … So glad I found your blog!

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