Like so many others, I saw the Cathedral of Notre Dame burning. I’d been there a number of times, always followed by a stop at George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company bookshop. I admired its architecture and size, and always I would look up in search of its famous inhabitant, the Hunchback.
But I can’t say I was moved to tears like so many other people. I looked at the pictures of the burning cathedral and whispered: It’s the people, don’t forget. It’s the people.
Maybe it’s my Jewish heritage. Jews were usually not permitted to build synagogues during the time they were in the Diaspora, certainly not big ones, and they got accustomed to creating more modest dwellings for God. We grew up knowing that if the big temple was gone from Jerusalem, angels still visited every home on the Sabbath Eve on Friday night, and that God dwelt in tiny shtiebel-like shuls as well as the larger synagogues. They couldn’t combine art, architecture, engineering, glassmaking, frescos, sculpture, tapestries, etc. to make anything like a big cathedral. They had to lie low, be humble.
I’ve sat in Notre Dame and in its cousin, Chartres, as well as the Cathedral in Cologne and St. Patrick’s in Manhattan, and admired the big elephants coming down the nave of St. John the Divine in Upper Manhattan on St. Francis Day. What I most remember were small lunch breaks spent sitting in the back of Trinity Church at the top of Wall Street and walking on the paths of the adjoining cemetery.
When I read of all the hundreds of millions of dollars promised to rebuild Notre Dame, what came up for me was: What about the people?
Early this morning I returned to the basement to search for the elusive title to Bernie’s car. I had already gone through many boxes, but they feel like sand in the Sahara, there’s always more. In one box I opened a folder marked Personal and out tumbled aerogrammes. Aerogrammes, for you younger citizens of the world, are letters written on thin blue paper that went by air, getting to the reader within some 10 days, a big deal in the age before emails and Facebook Messages.
Several came from H. Maezumi and they started: Dear Bernie. I did a double-take; Maezumi Roshi, one of the Zen pioneers who brought Zen from Japan to the United States, never addressed his student by the name Bernie. That’s when I realized how old these letters were, they were written before Bernie’s ordination in 1970, when he became Tetsugen. And in fact, in one of the letters Maezumi Roshi wrote that he is getting the tokudo (priest ordination) papers ready for the ceremony.
In that very letter Maezumi Roshi discussed at great length Bernie’s search for “a New Center,” which I believe referred to Bernie’s search for a retreat center site in Santa Barbara. Responding to Bernie’s letter to him in which he described all these efforts, Maezumi Roshi talked about the road that needed to be added, blueprints for the buildings, rooms for staff, bringing a special architect from Japan, the correct time to fundraise in Japan, etc. But at the end of the letter he writes the following:
“HOWEVER, PLEASE DO NOT FORGET [caps are his] that my major concern is to have the handful, even less, truly awakened dharma successers [sic] in the United States before I leave this world. In order to do so, if it is necessary, I do not mind to sacrifice even a new center. Do you know what I mean? We should make future plans along with this very fundamental and important requirement. If we have the true men, necessary things will follow them. Big harvest will come in hand if the seeds are carefully taken care of for necessary time to ripe. It is a very simple fact.”
The blog is on retreat till early next week.