Much has already been written about Notre Dame but its destruction holds a lesson for those of us that call ourselves fundraisers, institution builders, and problem solvers.
The emotion of it all caught me by surprise as it did for so many of us.
I’ve never been to Notre Dame, never seen it’s spires or heard its bell towers. But watching the insides ablaze was tormenting for a reason inexplicable at first. My gut said that this event was more than an event, that this building was more than a building.
Of course, Notre Dame is symbolic of beauty, faith, its spires pointing us to God. And God knows we need symbols that reveal to us good things to come. The harder answer is that the cathedral is also more than symbolic – a physical presence that any restored culture would be built upon.
Simply put, it’s old and real.
The first image that came to mind as the flames rose higher was an image found in a Madeline book I’ve read to my daughter in years past. It’s a painting by the author, Ludwig Bemelmans, called “In Rain.”
The painting illustrates a caregiver, Miss Clavel, walking with twelve little girls in two straight lines with Notre Dame towering over the unfolding scene. In a way, the painting is frantic. Sideways rain pelts the pavement and five people and a dog hurry across the courtyard to escape the storm. The evening is cloudy and the painting is dark.
However, the painting is not anxious. In fact, it possesses a calming effect. Unlike the hurried adults, these twelve little girls in two straight lines are safe, ordered, and cared for. You can imagine them unfazed by the stresses around them as they make their way to evening prayers.
Notre Dame stands tall and forever in the background. Personally, it’s the most comforting image in this painting, even more than the poised walk of children. The mere presence of the cathedral tells a different story. It tells a story of time and certitude, that all will be well. It is something that can be counted on to exist before us and after us. Anyone paying attention feels smaller and less important in the presence of the stone masterpiece.
And this is why I wept. It’s not because it was a church, though the burning of a place of worship is heartbreaking in its own right. Nor was my emotion a result of a human tragedy as I felt with Sandy Hook or the Charlottesville shootings. I cried because I felt a disruption in the backdrop of our collective lives, as if something I unknowingly relied upon to ground me had been violently disturbed. Something lasting and forever was shaken.
We need institutions built to last. Built to withstand time, not just to solve problems or seek truth or convey beauty, but something created that calms the collective anxieties of our world merely by its resilient presence across time. We all need to live our daily lives in the foreground of things that don’t fade away so easily. In a culture that celebrates transience and impermanence, let there be people and organizations committed to far horizons.
So for those of us building institutions, activating generosity, and solving problems, the burning of Notre Dame should pose a serious inquiry: are we creating anything that will last 100 years, 500 years, dare we dream 1,000 years or more?