It’s heartening – more than heartening – to see various wealthy figures pledge money to the rebuilding of Notre Dame’s roof and other damaged sections. It’s undeniably important that we maintain such beautiful and historic buildings, as I’ve written elsewhere, many times.
Yet, the immediate, voluble reaction does get me thinking.
In the Middle Ages, much of the glory of the cathedrals across Europe – Chartres, Cologne, the Stephansdom in Vienna – were made possible by the gifts of extremely wealthy merchants and nobles. Guild chapels, carved altars and windows were installed at their behest. Some of the greatest treasures in these places arose only as a consequence of these very public donations – made to secure a place in heaven, to demonstrate their earthly power, or both.
Yet, there was another area in which these lords and magnates would show their munificence – in alms for the poor, bestowing money for their upkeep and building hospitals for their care. While most cities had basic means of at least attempting to support the less fortunate, these bequests provided a valuable civic service, especially as the Middle Ages began to draw to a close. Disease could, at least, be partially contained. The effects of famine could be addressed. As mercenary as it was – of course the wealthy expected something out of it – it was much needed.
Centuries later, in 21st century Britain, it seems there’s a lot more of the former occurring, and a lot less of the latter.
Consider the reaction to the Grenfell fire. While there were several substantial singular donations from individuals to the appeal to help house and support the survivors, much of the £20m raised came from micro-donations from the general public. Some of the loudest voices and biggest fundraisers were members of the local community, banding together to make noise.
In contrast, much of the reaction from wealthy ‘elites’ (to use a much used and abused term) consisted of questions being raised about the worthiness of the recipients. Wealthy councillors in nearby Chelsea made objections to suggestions of rehousing survivors in the borough. Press barons attacked several survivors at length, including the man in whose flat the fire had started, Behailu Kebede. A later inquest later cleared him of any wrongdoing whatsoever.
Rather than subside as the 21st century dawns, Britain’s class problem is placed in stark relief at times like these.
Perhaps part of the issue is a lingering hangover from the attitudes of the Victorian era, that praised values of self-reliance and the puritan work ethic over others. Perhaps xenophobia plays a role, as many of the inhabitants of the Grenfell tower were migrants. Whatever the case may be, it’s an ugly look, and gets uglier the more is revealed about the case.
As we look to the burning embers of Notre Dame’s roof in dismay, it’s important for some to remember that such a wonderful edifice was built to celebrate a faith that emphasises giving aid and comfort to the poor, regardless of who they are.
Behind the stained glass and statues of saints are any numbers of verses, Psalms and parables that ask them to put aside their preconceptions and give what they can in times of need.
This essential truth, that we’re all in this together, and we can’t do it alone, is quite literally written large in stone.
You needn’t be a believer to see how the gift of food, shelter and opportunity to a person in need can be just as much of a light in the darkness as any number of glittering church treasures, illuminated by candlelight.
Cathedrals such as Notre Dame were originally built to give their congregations as clear a view of the supposed next life as could be found on Earth – a ‘map of heaven’, so to speak.
It’s imperative that as we progress ever forwards, that we never forget that many of us – especially the wealthy – have the ability to bring a little part of that heaven to others on earth through their gifts.
Let’s all help to rebuild Notre Dame, and at the same time, where we can, let’s work on rebuilding the bonds of community and bridging the divides between rich and poor.
Otherwise, what’s the point of such beautiful places if they don’t inwardly mean anything?