I’m lucky to live just up the road from Paris. I can get there in a three hour drive, or better yet, one hour on the mighty Thalys. So I manage to walk her streets every few months, either for work or for pleasure. Whenever I do, I make sure to pass by the Notre Dame. Most of the times, the queues of selfie-stick wielding tourists are too long so I just settle for a stroll around the Île de la Cite, continuously glancing up her flaring buttresses and snarling gargoyles.
She always takes my breath away, no matter how often you look at her. The Notre Dame is not a building. It’s not even a church or a cathedral. To me, it is one of the greatest living stories of human collaboration. How the finest minds in architecture, engineering and arts can organise themselves over the span of centuries to contribute to one singular vision.
She almost burned down this week. A fire erupted on her roof on Tuesday during the evening traffic rush. It took the Parisian pompiers the whole night to battle the blaze, to save the structure. Almost immediately, even while the ashes of the collapsed spire and the forrest of oak that held up the ceiling were still smoldering, the French elite opened their wallets.
As I am writing this, almost one billion euros have been pledged by a mere handful of wealthy individuals to rebuild the Notre Dame. Of course, there has been an outrage. Why, do so many rightly ask, can the wealthy get together to save a mere building, when there are so many other pressing causes in this world that also need their philanthropy?
I learnt of the news whilst on holidays in Bali, Indonesia. My jet-lagged wife woke me at around 3am, as she was scrolling a social feed when the first embers of news floated in. The Notre Dame is on fire, she whispered. Sorry to wake you, she said, but I can’t deal with this alone.
The day before we’d been snorkeling along the coast of Lembongan — one of the planet’s most beautiful natural islands. Every time we put our heads underwater to look at the coral and the marine life we had to swipe away the fragments of plastic that now circulate the planet’s oceans. Whenever you walk on a beach, the edges of the tides are marked with bottle caps, wrappers, cellophane and who knows what else we use to organise our human selves.
To clean up the choking oceans would require mammoth collaboration. Not only will it require the finest minds in engineering and the arts but also the poorest of the poor — to all work together.
The fact is, the cathedral on which we orbit the sun is also on fire. She is burning a slow and destructive death that is beginning to accelerate.
What we need is to rebuild that cathedral in Paris. To remind ourselves of what we have been capable of over the centuries. And to open more funds. In her name. To rebuild so much of what we have destroyed. For every euro, dollar and rupee spent on the Notre Dame, we need ten, a hundred, maybe a thousand, spent on cleaning up the oceans and the continents. Together. Because our lady is burning.