Notre Dame burned the other day.
The world mourned. In the days to follow, wealthy donors reached out to offer assistance for the restoration of the glorious architecture and works of art that were damaged in the blaze. Among those to offer assistance was the U.S. White House.
When I heard this I was angry, but couldn’t express my feelings well. I posted a link to the article and all I could think to write in the haze of my rage were the words “Puerto Rico” in all caps over and over again. We couldn’t spare the money to help those American citizens whose lives were left in ruins in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and yet we can send money to France to restore the ruins of “an irreplaceable symbol of Western Civilization.”
My friends added more names in the comments, Flint and Standing Rock most frequent among them. Not to mention countless other cities where people (most often young black men) are murdered by police on a regular basis, or where schools and public events have become the sites of tragic mass shootings at the hands of crazed gunmen while lawmakers sit back and do nothing to prevent the cycle from continuing. But no, our condolences and checkbooks would be better served addressing the problem in France.
These thoughts were like fuel on the fire, and my fury burned that much hotter and higher.
Please understand: I’m grateful to those who would work to restore this holy place that is such an important symbol to the French people. My rage is not directed toward them, or their acts of generosity. But it is directed at an underlying attitude that influenced their decision-making. You see, priceless works of art were worth doling out thousands and millions of dollars to rescue. Human beings were not.
I think every heart’s a cathedral.
I think every human person that walks this Earth is a priceless treasure trove of irreplaceable and unfathomable value.
It was people who painted those paintings and sculpted those sculptures and built those tall walls and soaring ceilings and erected that stunning steeple atop it all. It is people who admired it, who photographed it and painted it, who made it more than just the sum of its parts, imbuing it with a meaning that stone and metal and glass and wood never had on their own.
Like Notre Dame, people are grand and enormous on the inside. They’re more dazzling and intricate than the kaleidoscope patterns of stained glass that form the Rose Window. And like a chapel on Easter morning, a person can “contain multitudes” while also playing host to a hushed and sacred silence.
People are beautiful, of immeasurable value, unique, unparalleled, inestimably precious.
Yet we see them vandalized, cut down, and destroyed every day. We see these “cathedrals” burn on a regular basis, and we do not hurt for them or move to help them. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale reminds us that “ordinary… is what you are used to,” and so maybe that’s it. We see so many cathedrals burning every single day that it just becomes easier to avert our eyes from the blaze.
This is what I was having trouble trying to say earlier. This is why I feel both saddened at the losses of Notre Dame while also angry in general at many of the responses. I suppose it would be easier to just not care, but I do. It makes me want to turn to these people and say to them, as Quasimodo once asked of a gargoyle in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “Why was I not made of stone like thee?”