The Tomb within this Garden

“Take care that what you have gathered does not long remain in its original form inside of you: the bees would not be glorious if they did not convert what they found into something different and better.”   Petrarch   Familiares 1.8

Many years ago, after my first year at Miami University, I headed out to Philmont Scout Ranch, a patch of more than one hundred thousand acres tucked into the northeastern corner of New Mexico about forty-five minutes from Taos. I did so with a spirit knotted up in doubt that people could really find common ground or any substantial basis for connection with one another. I can’t pinpoint exactly what bred that sense of isolation in me, but I know those mountains in the Sangre de Cristo range were a garden of ameliorating herbs, lush with friendship, quiet, and simplicity.

The months I spent there, drinking my water from streams, walking through flower-sprung meadows, and lying beneath the stars worked redemption in me without my even realizing it. While working as a guide, I saw fleabane open to the sun in the morning, I smelled the ponderosa pine’s butterscotch scent in warm afternoon breezes, and I felt myself moving in the world, engaging it and those with whom I shared that time backpacking.

During that first summer out west, I made a friend while taking a course in wilderness education. Liz and I were both nineteen I think, and after she had headed back to Iowa in early June, we began to correspond. The envelopes of her letters arrived decorated with stickers and colored designs, sometimes twice a week, and they pumped my heart full of helium-like joy. With a notepad stuffed in an accessible pocket of my pack, I wrote my letters to her on the trail during breaks in a day’s hike or in the evening before slipping into my bag. I can’t remember much of what I wrote, but I remember I went through more than one notebook rambling on about what seemed to me the difficulties of life and the human condition. I can see now that that writing and her receptiveness helped me to recover a sense of the world as a place of encounter, a place in which we can hope to meet one another, know one another, and care for one another. Our written exchanges worked the flourishing of my spirit.  

For centuries, writing and the written word have been understood as a way of cultivating the soul’s health.  Through the Middle Ages, as an aid to memory and learning, Christians preserved the classical practice of producing florilegia, books in which readers gathered together the blossoms of insight that authors had cultivated elsewhere.  Preachers and professors alike made use of these collections of wise sayings in their preparation for writing, teaching, and preaching.  Additionally, those collections, and the selections of texts they wove together served as a means of cultivating one’s heart and mind spiritually. Those who created the books employed a variety of organizing principles, but on occasion readers were left free to browse them like deer do fields. No single pattern had to order every reading.

While pursing my doctorate studying comparative literature, I made such books of libraries. With a dilettante’s abandon, I bent my knee to examine books hidden from sight, to smell budding lines here or there, and to note just out of curiosity what had grown up in this or that corner.  Still, as I read, I gather and I drew much together in the hope of someday making something very sweet, sweet with the name of Christ. With some diligence, I still gather fragrant flowers from gardens and fields old and new, hoping for these to take root in the memory of my heart, to grow up within my soul, to bear fruit there as I cultivate its soil with the spade of prayer. I am a poor laborer, inconstant in my devotion. But in returning to my work, I aspire to make my heart a fountain, a well hewn from rocky earth, that a living faith might flow from it.  Today, it is through a labyrinth of aqueducts and use of much ingenuity that I yield my water. It comes from far away with much labor and noise.  

The book of Ecclesiastes reveals how all our labor under the sun, and the intricate pattern of our duties and responsibilities is a great vanity, a chase after wind, madness, and folly. Still Quoheleth, author of Ecclesiastes, urges us to toil under the sun, to busy ourselves like Martha, to pour ourselves into the affairs of the world, but to do so, with a pure zeal for the Lord, always choosing in every word, in every deed the better part, that we might rest in the transforming love of Christ as did Mary. 

Wandering the forking paths of the garden of that text, reader and writer alike might discover another fountain fed by an abundant spring, lying in their inmost self often hidden beneath the broken leaves of worry, sounding too gently to be heard over the rustling of one’s own spirit. Like Augustine and Monica at Ostia, the reader and writer of that text would enter into a conversation on the eternal life of the saints, and with the mouths of their heart pant for the waters of God’s high fountain, “that being sprinkled from that fountain according to our capacity, we might in some sense meditate on so great a matter” (Confessions IX.X). With this other fount, there “is no need of any skill, nor does the building of aqueducts have to continue, but water is always flowing from the spring” (Interior Castle 4.2.3).  And this is living water, fresh and cool, and at its side, like a deer, the soul may genuflect and drink in refreshing water. All may find in it spiritual sustenance which will enable each to bring to others the waters of life.  Wherever this fountain’s waters reach, lush plants grow up. There, much fruit ripens on sturdy branches. There the apple tree blossoms, and lilies sprout up. May the breath of the reader blow like the winds upon that garden that its perfumes may spread abroad. “Let my lover come to the garden and eat its choice fruits” (Song of Songs 4.16).

Here this garden of words and images is already overgrown, prune back its branches. In your clearing, you will find that these verses have grown up about a little tomb.  Approach it with the same zeal that Mary bore to the tomb where Jesus was lain for burial. Go to them full of longing to find your Lord in this script that your love might lead you to Jesus. Seek his presence and when you discover that he is not here, suffer his absence as Mary had at first suffered the empty tomb. Let the emptiness be a little spiritual cross upon which you suffer with longing for God.  Abide in the futility of your pursuit within this chamber of tears. And you will know then that “all speech is labored” and just as the “eye is not filled with seeing” nor “is the ear filled with hearing” (Ecclesiastes 1:8).  And then as you suffer the emptiness of this tomb prepared by a son of David, cry out weeping, “Where have you taken my Lord?” (Luke 24:5).

Pause then and listen. Wait for his word, and then in the garden of your heart, you will see the gardener, tilling under the sun, and he will raise his face to you and ask, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” And his question will occasion understanding, his words will roll back the heavy rock of obscurity from the tomb of these brittle vanities, so that you may enter these verses and all your earthly pursuits in truth and see them anew as a manifestation of all God’s glory, of Christ’s conquering of sin and death. And then, the tomb in which you suffered as on a cross will once again be a tomb, only now as you enter it in spirit and truth, you will find in the tomb the living God.

Architextual Aspirations

In Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral,” a woman and her husband are visited overnight by an old friend of the woman’s. The guest’s blindness makes the husband uncomfortable. Nevertheless, after a meal and some small talk, the husband and blind man find themselves alone, watching and listening to a television program on cathedrals. 

Mystified by the situation, the husband asks Robert, the guest, “If somebody says cathedral to you, do you have any notion what they’re talking about?” Robert spells out a brief understanding and then asks the husband whether he’s religious. Moments later, the husband responds as though answering his own question, “The truth is, cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They’re something to look at on late-night TV. That’s all they are.” 

As if suddenly aware of the husband’s own blindness, the blind man suggests they draw a cathedral together, and so after fetching some paper, the two men frantically sketch one with both of their hands wrapped around a single pen. They draw a cathedral with spires and buttresses and great doors, and finally, the blind man says, “Put some people in there now. What’s a cathedral without people?” At the blind man’s prompting, the husband puts the last marks on the page with his eyes closed.  Although the story’s ending is not without ambiguity, the final remark by the husband, “It’s really something,” rings of his having entered into that cathedral, of his having passed through those great doors and found the blind man there as a result of putting it down on paper with him.  

I read the story providentially in the sophomore year of college, when I was precisely as blind as the husband.  Like the husband, I had regularly detected a hollow vacancy in the words I spoke and heard spoken.  Language and life seemed dry wells, deserving the appellation of ‘nothing’ that the husband bestowed upon the word ‘cathedral’. But as I read the story and discussed it with my classmates and professor, I discovered like the husband, there’s a way that language can become a place in which to come together, that stories can be places in which to discover ‘the people’ in our lives. The world didn’t seem so absurd in its light. I remember leaving class that day with a sense that I too had entered into Carver’s cathedral through our reading and discussion of his story and that I had met my neighbor there as a result.  

In Abbot Suger’s twelfth century account of the construction of the abbey church of St. Denis, there are passages that raccount an historical occurrence of that kind of community building event portrayed in Carver’s story. In those passages, the people are drawn together, not by sketching, nor by entering into the word ‘cathedral’, but by moving into the holy and ineffable Word in whom all abide. Suger wrote at one point: “Whenever the columns were hauled from the bottom of the slope with knotted ropes, both our own people and the pious neighbors, nobles and common folk alike, would tie their arms, chests, and shoulders to the ropes and, acting as draft animals, drew the columns up; and on the declivity in the middle of the town the diverse craftsman laid aside the tools of their trade and came out to meet them, offering their own strength against he difficulty of the road, doing homage as much as they could to God and the Holy Martyrs” (De Consecratione II).  

The population literally rose up around, or more accurately, through those holy and majestic works of human creation.  They were fonts for human life.  Their beauty, their living geometry, the golden section, imaged forth the very nature of their function, a place in which to gather and flourish.  When the people came together in their shared work, in the struggle to raise the columns, the population of the town raised itself up, a cathedral, a spiritual temple giving praise to their Divine Architect, the Master Glazier, the most Holy Stonecutter, our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom all things hold together.

For many years, I have hoped to write a book that could produce that kind of moment, a story that required the reader to put it together with the author, in such a way that by their work, they might enter into and pay homage to God in a textual cathedral.  As John Paul II pointed out in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, there is a prevailing tendency in contemporary philosophy to exclude from our reflection and the grasp of our language any metaphysical truth. The arts also evidence that constriction, and John Paul’s letter to the artists is an earnest appeal to recall the holy work that God would give to us as creators who mirror His divine work.  

In the early 12th century, when Gothic cathedrals began to flourish, Villard de Honnecourt traveled about Northern Europe creating a sketchbook of the new architecture and of other features of the world he encountered.  The contents of the sketchbook, its rose windows and arches, chapels and labyrinths amounted to an account of the design strategies that could be employed in solving a variety of architectural problems that arose in the construction of those temples. As he gathered together the practical wisdom on the leaves of that album, he not only depicted new architectural strategies, he also employed new techniques in representation to convey the building designs. Still more, he seems to have invited others he encountered during his travels to draft there as well.  Through those designs, it became possible to open up whole walls to stained glass windows in which other artists then depicted the stories of the Christian faith.  When the sun lit those windows, the gathered faithful could read them like the pages of a book.    

Within the last seventy-five years, writers have developed innumerable literary innovations and transformed the textual architecture of our world.  By exploring new modes of narration, non-linear and fragmented plots, and many other ways of creating with language through literary form, their writings have generated a number of techniques for building text.  Works of literature that employ these modes of narrative construction regularly accentuate the presence of the reader in the text, engaging the reader explicitly in the putting-together of the narrative. Often, these creative developments lie in works of literature written from within the confines of a culture that no longer knows of God or in works of art that parody the Christian tradition.  

As a result, these artistic innovations may seem inextricably linked to spiritual blindness. However, the Christian Church, in light of the Incarnation, understands its faith to be most fully itself within particular cultures as it is lived in particular historical situations. Moreover, Christianity views the human person to be a discerning and creative creature. Taking the Christian mystery of salvation and its law of charity as our chief artistic principle, we can fully adapt the literary innovations of our time to the eloquent articulation of that life which is to be found in Christ. With the grace of God, we can create a sketchbook like Villard’s that houses the available literary and artistic strategies. In doing so, we would enter more perfectly into that daring tradition wherein Augustine made off with the wisdom of the Platonists as the Israelites had with the gold of the Egyptians. We would align ourselves with Thomas Aquinas in his astute redemption of Aristotelian thought. We would seek to bring glory to God and enter into communion with the 12th century poets and artists like Allen of Lille, Hildegaard of Bingen, Bernardus Silvestirs. We would write in the legacy of such figures as Dante Alighieri and Jean de Meun. And by so doing, the Christian faith would prove itself again open to the fullness of Wisdom and show forth that God is indeed one who makes all things new.  

J.L. Heilbron, in his book The Sun in the Church, examines how in the 17th and 18th centuries, driven by a similar desire for the fullness of truth, astronomers pierced the ceilings of some cathedrals in order that they might make astronomical observatories of them.  In need of a precise way of determining Easter’s date, they laid meridian lines in the floors of their cathedrals, across which a beam of sunlight would pass at noon each day. An aperture in the ceiling transformed the cathedral for those Christian scientists into a large camera obscura, with which it was possible to capture an image of the heavens. Today, employing contemporary literary forms, we can create such an aperture by opening our narratives to the orbiting light of the human intellect, the beam of which gleams with the radiance of its source, brilliant Wisdom. Tracing the shining course of that divine light across the polished words of this cathedral, we may perhaps enter more deeply into the Easter truth.  

My aspirations are greater than myself. They are aspirations I have for literature and for those who find in language an artistic craft. In the conclusion to Walden, Henry David Thoreau commends his readers to venture off into a wilderness of their own when he writes, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. . . . If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” My dream is not of a castle, but of a cathedral, and I trust that it will be built up word by word by writer and reader alike and that its dome will open to the heavens and their eternal light.  

We offer our lives to God not all at once, but continually through their course, as we render to Christ each day, each hour, and the gestures and words that comprise them, one at a time. Through that labor, our stories are bound together in Christ, so many pages in the great Book of Life. There, we may come to view our acts with less emphasis on how they are situated in relation to our own lives and more and more so in relation to the life that Christ lived for us. For at its heart, the story of every Christian is an unfolding, a flourishing, not merely of one’s own life, but of the life of Christ and of the many lives enfolded in his breast. No events figure so prominently in the Christian’s life story as those of the Paschal Mystery, for through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we have eternal life. In this mystery, we read the word, which as the Word of God, commands our reverence, and therein, with a graced audacity, we read the pattern of our lives.

The foundation for my cathedral stands already in Christ. Now it is for us to build upon it. Your eye falls on this page now: as I hold the chisel, you strike with the hammer, and the seam will be cut. Your eyes are now a lever, prying open this stone. The iron chisel of your mind draws by remotion the hidden image from the ashlar. Strike! Strike! Let charity be our mortar, faith our quicklime. Our template, the Trinity. We are the quarry, living stones to be built unto a spiritual temple. We are the stone cutters called to cleave from ourselves all that is sin. We are sculptors and glaziers, blacksmiths and quarries, masons and plumbers and roofers, artists and laborers. We are stone and glass, lead and oak, sand and water, the fire of the forge, mallets and crane. Let us raise ourselves up with the grace of God to the heavens like spires and dome. Let us rise up to our full human stature and bring glory to God, bound all in all in his ineffable Word.