Watching Notre Dame burn this week was shocking and heartbreaking. After the smoke cleared, it felt like a miracle that so much of the cathedral had survived. One has to marvel at her tenacity.
It is painfully ironic that the fire likely started because of renovation work. Notre Dame has desperately needed repairs for decades.
We tend to be a bit blasé about taking care of things that have been around for a long time; when the age of a building is measured in centuries, what’s a few more years to wait for repairs? But we should know by now that waiting can be catastrophic: it only took a few hours for fire to ravage Notre Dame. I think also of Michelangelo’s David: poor David’s ankles are terribly weak, and even a minor earthquake could send the entire statue to the ground, where it would explode into dust. The caretakers of David know they need to do something to protect him, and they even have a good idea of what to do, and yet nothing has been done for years. The earthquake could come tomorrow.
As we watch Notre Dame rise from the ashes, we should take to heart an important lesson: We cannot wait to save the things that matter to us, whether they’re buildings, art, cultural traditions, ecosystems, or species. The trouble, of course, is that often the Things That Matter disappear slowly, in much less dramatic fashion than Notre Dame’s spire, making the degradation easier to ignore and the resources harder to mobilize. They seem stable and everlasting…until one day they’re gone.
Sadly, some things cannot be rebuilt.