The First Stones of the Cathedral


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This week the world watched the Notre Dame Cathedral burn.  As the spire collapsed we were reminded that our footprint is temporary, fleeting and that history can become ash in a moment.  Events like these are a huge historical loss but it is worth acknowledging that our future comes anyway. We will rebuild the cathedral and the history books will be re-written to preserve what needs preserving.

There are two types of builders; those who see the end of their project and those who don’t.  The former see their vision through to completion, and the latter humbly lay the first stones of the cathedral; i.e. those whose vision is so grand they will never live to see the final result.  

What are the implications of each?

The first kind of builders are entrepreneurs who create something from nothing; a coffee shop, an e-commerce business, a mobile boutique or the next useful application.  They are visionary minds like Acre Architects who brought the Prix de Rome to Saint John, New Brunswick.  They are the one in a million artist who writes The Times They Are a-Changin and they are the fighter who raises the belt as world champion.

Each one of these builders, in some ways, are also those who lay the foundation for things they will never see; the ball has been set in motion and it will move perpetually, seen or unseen.

The difference between the first builder and the second is that the second knows they will never see their vision become a reality and they are only making the first mark of countless. In a recent Vice episode, Frank Drake of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) talked about how he knows he will never see the day when the SETI system he built with Sagan makes contact with our galactic cousins.  You can detect a calm, acceptance in his voice; he is a builder; content with laying the first stones of the cathedral.  

Teachers, are the second kind of builder, are they not?  The truly great teachers take pride in University acceptance or Rhodes scholarships but the end result will be unseen; the first stones of the cathedral.  The great builders of Europe: when Gaudi died the Sagrada Familia was only one-quarter complete; what began in 1882 is expected to be complete in 2032.

The Notre Dame Cathedral was set in motion 856 years ago.  It’s stone archways survived revolutions, countless presidents, despots and industrial giants.  It’s spire survived two world wars and the church bells rang night and day without concern for what the rest of the world was doing.

The Notre Dame Cathedral, and all others like it, will continue to be built and history will continue to be written.

I envy the future builder who gets to confidently, yet humbly, approach the tower, and yet again, lay the first stones of the cathedral.

The question is, why would we do this? It’s simple; the opportunity to contribute to something greater. Something more. Something beyond one’s self. Legacy is a strange thing because not one of us get’s to witness legacy unfold once we’re gone. Somehow, and this seems incredibly unlikely in the scheme of things, the knowledge that our work will continue is enough for us. That makes me hopeful.

Perhaps the idea is to inherit qualities of both types of builders; build great things in life and see to their completion, and then walk humbly as you lay the first stones of the cathedral of great things you will never see.

Where in your life today are you the first type of builder, and where are you the second?