A quandary, solved by a homeless man
What to do about donating to rebuild Notre Dame? Think back to who built it.
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.