Towers of Babel

After an allusion to Babel, it seems a bit sacrilegious to begin with the great cathedrals of Europe, but if you'll pardon the poor transition, there's a point here.

When I first traveled to England, my friends and I had the opportunity to wander around the Durham Cathedral, a beautiful example of late Romanesque architecture that was built largely in the early 1100s and completed by 1135. Perhaps it is easy to criticize the medieval church-builders, who robbed parishioners of ludicrous sums of money in order to build unnecessarily massive structures with no function aside from community worship and the housing of relics. We certainly have little sympathy or understanding for the kind of mindset that produced the likes of this and other great European cathedrals. But at the same time, there is an undeniable beauty to the soaring heights of the nave with its massive pillars and ribbed vaulting, something that takes your breath away even as your soul takes flight on the heavenly sound of a chorus singing the evensong service. A moment's quiet contemplation reveals, as contemplation yields to exultation, why someone might go to the trouble of building such a gargantuan thing at such great cost.

Beauty almost always costs something. Things that last: they cost even more. The Durham Cathedral took 42 years to complete, and as building projects go, that's a fairly short time frame. The famed cathedral of Köln (that's Cologne, for you non-German speakers) was erected over the course of 250 years until building ceased in 1473. It was not completed until 1880. As noted earlier, not only time but also money was required for these projects - money that came out of the pockets of people who were pretty hard up to begin with. While, granted, they may not have shared the vision of their tax-collectors, their sacrifice contributed to the construction.

So what do medieval churches have to do with the tower of Babel?

I don't think that modern man could produce the likes of either those cathedrals or the Genesis tower. There are lots of reasons we could cite, starting with the prohibitive cost and moving on to the ways that religion is perceived and practiced (I will grant that there are modern churches that are ridiculously expensive, but they are rarely the product of years of work and painstaking effort, sacrificing form for function and expediency). But I don't think either of these possibilities really get to the heart of the matter, which is this: how many of us are actually willing to build toward a future that we may not get to see?

One of the most powerful concepts that I took away from my year at IMPACT was the idea of dash management. On your tombstone, there's a bare minimum of information. A name, two dates, and maybe an eloquent epitaph. Oh - and a dash. That's your entire life: a single two inch line carved in stone that will gradually wear away under the effects of storm and season. That's all the time you get in this world, so use it wisely.

But that's really hard advice to follow. We don't see our lives in terms of the dash. We see them in terms of the day to day. I'll be the first to admit that my projects are tiny. Most of the time, I'm lucky to get through the weekly chore of doing my laundry, so forget about planning a cathedral. If I can't even get my clothes onto hangers before the basket fills for the next round, I doubt I'm going to have the foresight to transcend my everyday life and enter the greater perspective of human history.

And yet, we're cheating ourselves out of so much if we get hung up on the small things. They're important too, don't get me wrong, but they're not necessarily ends in themselves. Their pleasure is fleeting, evanescent. The joy I take in steaming a perfect, velvety microfoam - and drinking the scrumptious latte that it goes into - is momentary and easily forgotten. We can and should submerge ourselves in these kinds of delights every now and again, but they can't be everything because ultimately, the foam dissipates and the mug is empty. They can't satisfy forever. And when we get stuck on the small things to the extent that we can't sacrifice their comfort anymore and can't see beyond them to the bigger picture, then we've lost something equally precious, which is the opportunity to contribute to and participate in something that will last beyond ourselves and our tiny moments, which, though lovely, are mere nanometers on an all-too-short dash.

I don't want to build a cathedral. But I hope that I don't get so wrapped up in little things that I never get to be part of something bigger than myself, something that might some day, hundreds of years from now, cause someone to pause and think, This is a good thing.


Sunrise to Sunset

I have a confession.

(That's not the best beginning, as stories go, but work with me here)

Every so often, probably more often than I'd care to admit, I sit at my computer or stare at my phone and try desperately to come up with something witty or profound or snarky to post as a Facebook status. And sometimes, I'm even furiously jealous of my friends, who can say cool things about what they're doing in foreign countries or for internships or just at a big music festival... Y'know. Cool stuff.


It's true, they got me.

I have nothing original to say about the way that Facebook makes us celebrate trivial moments. All of that was said back in 2008 by people who are better with words than I am.

But it does make me wonder: what does it take to live in such a way that every moment is profound?

Does that make sense?

I want to live breathlessly, always on the edge of my seat, not because someone is always amping up the adrenaline-rushing adventure, but because I'm always discovering the wonder of the amazingly ordinary. I spend so much time looking forward: to the end of my shift, to a long-awaited reunion, to January when I leave for England. And that's not bad. We have to anticipate and hope for the future, or we start to wither and die in the present. But if that's all we're doing, it's not healthy either, because we're missing the good that is laid out before us.

I might be exhausted, sunburnt (more like sun-charred, at this point), frazzled, and uncomfortable, but what about the fact that I'm alive? What about the fact that I am typing (what does that even mean?) on a computer (slim, portable device capable of incredible feats based on some kind of basic language and lots of tiny pieces and even if I did know how it worked, it should still blow my mind) using language (we can communicate with other people in a massive way; words open a gateway between two or more minds, making so much possible, and if they break sometimes, well, their very existence is pretty marvelous, and we can't expect them to be perfect) to share an idea... Every single part of speech is an incredible thing. Verbs. Nouns. Articles and conjunctions, adverbs and adjectives. Paper: woven plants that absorb a sort of dye and transmit aforementioned words and ideas. Who knew a plant could be a sort of mental storage facility?

Living profoundly is living in wonder. In awe. Because every moment is incredibly unlikely, and every breath is the height of improbability. If we can look for just one moment beyond the daily concerns to recognize the marvel of having days and having something to be concerned about and, for that matter, having the ability to be concerned about something, then maybe we'll be a little closer to the heart of the child and the heart of God, who says every morning, "Again, again!" For though the sun is old, the dawn is new, and we know it only fleetingly before it ages to day. So open your eyes and be humble enough to be amazed, lest you lose the chance for good.



"Dear brethren, our real trouble is not doubt about the way upon which we have set out, but our failure to be patient, to keep quiet. We still cannot imagine that today God really doesn't want anything new for us, but simply to prove us in the old way. That is too petty, too monotonous, too undemanding for us. And we simply cannot be constant with the fact that God's cause is not always the successful one, that it could be 'unsuccessful': and yet be on the right road. But this is where we find out whether we have begun in faith or in a burst of enthusiasm."

{Dietrich Bonhoeffer}


Context and Hindsight

The Apocalyptic visions of St. John used to terrify me when I was a child. I feared to even stumble accidentally into that part of my Bible, a sub-conscious nod, perhaps, to the way that ignorance and fear are so often intertwined. By the time we studied it in my senior Bible class, I had of course experienced the abatement of most of that anxiety, but I had not lost an appreciation for the vividness of the book. Over most of its twenty-two chapters linger bilious anvil clouds and the stagnant humidity of an unbearable August day, or so my imagination would still quite readily paint them. There comes a moment, though, when the storm breaks, and the rain falls. In the wake of a friend’s death, that moment brought me to tears. It still blows my mind, both from longing and from amazement at the beauty of the thing. And yet, it’s just six words.

“Behold! I make all things new.”

I like to read a fairly wide variety of books, but I do tend to gravitate toward certain genres more than others. Semi-biographical histories fall into this elect, for several reasons.

People love stories, because, because, because. The “becauses” are endless, but I think foremost among them may be such qualities as ordering chaos and ascribing meaning. When the story of an individual’s life is told in its chronological ordering with a sampling of the contextual influences that provided its environment, there is a certain sense of order that is hard to perceive from within. I do not see all of the people around me as a more-or-less objective observer might. I see only the two-dimensional panorama of bodies as they relate to my own body, not the three-dimensional depths of the web of human interactions.  And when the life story, thus composed and ordered, is seen within the lenses of hindsight, it becomes meaningful, vindicated: redeemed.

In his book, In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson describes the life and ambassadorial work of historian William Dodd during his time in 1930s Berlin. Dodd was not an ideal candidate for the position according to the standards of the time, but rather more of a warm body to fill an empty space. His ideology and approach to diplomatic life often came under fire, especially from those who would deliberately put out their own eyes rather than see the tumult unfolding within Germany’s borders. He himself began with similar ideas but was gradually forced to accommodate his views to the reality of the world in which he found himself.

Though his greatest critics don’t seem to have ever backed down entirely, Dodd also had his share of praise, as Larson notes in the end of the book. Those who experienced what he experienced saw not a man incompetent and irascible, but a rare, stalwart soul who resisted the moral contamination of playing along with a terrible regime.

Both St. John and Erik Larson’s stories are powerful, though one looks to the past and one to the future, because of a common thread: redemption. In the one case, the redemption of renewal that transforms everything in an immediate, irrevocable sense. In the other case, the redemption of vindication, as uncertain steps taken into an unknown future are proven true and right.

Not all stories are happy stories. I’m currently reading Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and it’s a story with a well-known ending: for his involvement in the Abwehr conspiracies against Hitler, Bonhoeffer is executed at the Flossenbürg Konzentrationslager mere weeks before the Germans surrendered in 1945. But all good stories are stories of redemption, something Metaxas clearly understands since he begins his story with Bonhoeffer’s funeral in London and the humanizing effects of bringing to the public eye, after years of hate, a good German. It’s something we crave, this redemption business, more than happy endings, more even than stories, because it gives us that which is more essential than air, because without it we shouldn’t bother breathing: hope.


Ongoing Conversations: What the Mirror Says

First things first, I apologize if any of this doesn't make sense. I'm on coffee number three, and the sun coming through this coffee shop window is about to give me heatstroke, so the circumstances are conspiring against coherency.

This morning, I was invited to a friend's graduation. It was an interesting experience, in part because it was my old high school, and I had the opportunity to sort of relive my own graduation. But things are so different from the other side of the platform. Between the series of epiphanies inspired by the setting and the fantastic address by the commencement speaker, I was wrestling with what to write, but the thing that immediately struck me as I sat there was that every single one of those senior girls up there on that stage was beautiful, and most of them probably don't even realize it.

Thanks to a recent encounter with Beachbody's "Insanity" workout program, I've had a lot of conversations and read several articles recently on the topic of body image. There was the Dove Real Beauty campaign video, which - regardless of motivations and continued adherence to beauty norms - starkly highlighted the break between how women see themselves and how they see others. There was the awesome blog post, Strong Is the New Skinny, that talks about the difference between being emaciated and being strong. There was an Existentialism class discussion of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex that led to Iris Marion Young's "Throwing Like a Girl" and the ways that girls are taught to relate to their own bodies versus the ways that boys are taught to relate to their own bodies.

But it doesn't take all those ideas and conversations to know that most of those girls probably fall somewhere between dissatisfied and deeply unhappy with the way they look. Not a single one of them looked unhealthily overweight, but I'm willing to bet that they poke and pinch themselves, lamenting imaginary fat and secretly hating everything they put on because every time they sit down, their belly roll is visible. I know these things, because I sat where they're sitting. And the part that broke my heart is that these insecurities don't just magically disappear as high school girls become college students and transition into adult life. Often, in fact, they just become worse. And it's so, so unimaginably stupid.

One of the hardest things for any woman to do is to stand in front of a mirror, look herself in the eyes, and say, "You're beautiful." It took me a month to get up the courage, and then I burst into tears and ran away. Why? What am I so afraid of? Why is it that when I look in the mirror, I find it so hard to see what you see?

When you see so much promise and so much possibility standing in front of you, if you're anything like me then you're filled with a lot of hope. Hope for the best of all possible worlds, filled with love, laughter, joy, and all of the rich experiences that life has to offer - yes, even the ones that hurt. Hoping all of this for others, who have yet to crack open the book of their lives beyond the introductory pages. And amidst all of these things, my hope for the women of the LCCS Class of 2013 is that they realize how beautiful they really are - not because their faces are pleasingly symmetrical or their curves fall in exactly the right places, but because the hearts that they've cultivated within themselves shine through in their expressions, their gestures, and their words. Who they are fills up the flat image of what they look like and gives it meaning, animation, brings it from two dimensions into four. It doesn't matter whether they go on to become world famous or never leave Lancaster County. In the end, they are, each and every one, the imprint of something special and inimitable, and I hope that they learn how to celebrate that, even if takes them the rest of their lives.