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Notre Dame Donations Are Heartening But Where Were The Billionaires After Grenfell?

Its heartening more than heartening to see various wealthy figures pledge money to the rebuilding of Notre Dames roof and other damaged sections. Its undeniably important that we maintain such beautiful and historic buildings, as Ive 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.

Related:France burns with anger as rich lavish cash on Notre Dame

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 theres 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, Britains 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, its an ugly look, and gets uglier the more is revealed about the case.

Watch: How did the Notre Dame fire spread? (Sky News)

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As we look to the burning embers of Notre Dames roof in dismay, its 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 were all in this together, and we cant do it alone, is quite literally written large in stone.

You neednt 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.

Its 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.

Lets all help to rebuild Notre Dame, and at the same time, where we can, lets work on rebuilding the bonds of community and bridging the divides between rich and poor.

Otherwise, whats the point of such beautiful places if they dont inwardly mean anything?

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