A quandary, solved by a home­less man

What to do about do­nat­ing to re­build Notre Dame? Think back to who built it.

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D - Ron Gross­man

Per­haps be­cause the Ped­way is par­tially lined with back­lit stained-glass win­dows, I was deep in thought about the burning of the Paris cathe­dral as I walked through Chicago’s un­der­ground pas­sage.

Out­side of rush hour, when com­muters scurry to and from their trains, stretches of the Ped­way are empty and you are pretty much alone with your thoughts. So I scarcely no­ticed a bedrag­gled old man sit­ting against a wall with a sign bear­ing a scrawled mes­sage propped up by his knees. “HELP POOR,” it read. The im­port of the words didn’t register with me at first. I was mulling over a ques­tion that’s haunted me ever since of­fers to fi­nance the re­build­ing of Notre Dame Cathe­dral started pour­ing in.

Even if it is re­stored ex­actly to what it was be­fore the April 15th fire, will that suf­fi­ciently honor the mem­ory of the 12th cen­tury ar­ti­sans who built it — as much with faith as with lime­stone and mor­tar? A voice put an end to my reverie.

“You know me, don’t you?” said the old man with the sign.

I did rec­og­nize him. Not by his looks but by his words. They echoed a teach­ing com­mon to many faiths. As Je­sus, for one, put it: “When you have a ban­quet, in­vite the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind.”

In­stinc­tively I reached into my pocket, grabbed some bills, and put them in the old man’s hand. I have no idea how much I gave him. I was car­ry­ing a bunch of twen­ties and singles. What I did was an act of faith, not of pi­ety. I’m not re­li­gious. My small char­i­ta­ble act was in­spired by a con­vic­tion that, in the richest country in the world, every­body de­serves, and some­day will have, a roof over their heads. That’s a mat­ter of faith be­cause it’s not sup­ported by clear-cut ev­i­dence.

Notre Dame was con­structed in an age of faith. It was a physical ren­der­ing of Chris­tian­ity’s prom­ise that those who be­lieve in Je­sus will go on to a heav­enly life. The cathe­dral ar­chi­tec­turally ex­pressed the Bi­ble’s open­ing sen­tence: “In the be­gin­ning, God cre­ated the heav­ens and the Earth.” That is why its arches soar so high above the ground you have to lean back­ward to see them.

The 12th cen­tury ma­sons, stone cut­ters, and car­pen­ters who built Notre Dame didn’t doubt the the­o­log­i­cal premise it was based on; What they lacked was sci­en­tific guid­ance for their work.

It would be four more centuries be­fore Galileo de­vised a math­e­mat­i­cal method of de­sign­ing a struc­ture that would re­sist the forces threat­en­ing to bring it tum­bling down. Me­dieval ar­ti­sans had to learn by trial and er­ror. So their struc­tures some­times fell. On ev­ery visit to Notre Dame, I’ve mar­veled at the sub­tlety of its de­sign.

To my eye, Notre Dame’s el­e­gant col­umns and fly­ing but­tresses seem made of some lighter-than-air ma­te­rial. In fact, the cathe­dral was largely built of lime­stone, which is anything but light. It had to be cut into blocks, each lifted 100 feet or more and wres­tled into place. And this in an age when the only power that could lift and carry was hu­man or an­i­mal mus­cle, and horses and oxen can’t climb lad­ders.

By com­par­i­son, re­build­ing Notre Dame will be a piece of cake; Ex­pen­sive, yes, but hardly mirac­u­lous. Its re­stor­ers will have elec­tric and fos­sil fuel pow­ered ma­chin­ery to do the car­ry­ing and lift­ing, and com­puter-driven de­vices to do the mea­sur­ing and cut­ting. En­gi­neers can de­ter­mine what is sal­vage­able, aided by de­vices that can de­tect internal cracks. That is why, the way I see it, just restor­ing Notre Dame won’t do jus­tice to its 12th cen­tury builders. For us, it’s just too easy.

To do them jus­tice, we need to tackle prob­lems as chal­leng­ing to us as build­ing a cathe­dral was to them — prob­lems we know de­serve a so­lu­tion but have so far been in­tractable. Like the fact that mil­lions go to bed hun­gry.

So let me sug­gest that oth­ers who share my feeling make two con­tri­bu­tions, one to the re­build­ing fund along with a note ex­plain­ing the sec­ond, which was made to a char­ity. Here is my note: “Please ac­cept this check in honor of the 12th cen­tury ar­ti­sans who built Notre Dame. I’m also hon­or­ing them with a con­tri­bu­tion to the Greater Chicago Food De­pos­i­tory that feeds the hun­gry, just as Je­sus taught.”

I got this idea in the Ped­way, Chicago’s cat­a­comb, where an old man, his cloth­ing in tat­ters, asked the ul­ti­mate moral ques­tion: “You know me, don’t you?”


Do­na­tions have poured in from around the world to fi­nance Notre Dame Cathe­dral restora­tion af­ter the mas­sive fire.

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