Archive for the Catholic University Category

A Short and Illustrated Thought #1

Posted in Architecture, Bascilica of the Assumption, Catholic University, Photography on April 9, 2012 by smpiv

When did I grow up?

Difficult to say,

Never had a rite of passage.

Nothing at thirteen,

Nothing at sixteen,

No lion killed,

No ancient text read in an ancient language.

When will Min grow up?

The History of Transcendence Part I or “Et tu, Brute?”

Posted in Catholic University, Hurricane Irene, Uncategorized, Yestermorrow on October 16, 2011 by smpiv

What will your epitaph read?  Will you have time to spout some pithy last words?  What’s on the other side?

How will our ends be dictated?

Yeah I know, real pick me up questions—pass the toast and put me to bed.  Several things I have experienced over the past several weeks have put more of a laser focus on these thoughts so I share them with you now in three acts.

Act I

I recently attended a symposium, “Transcending Architecture”, at the Architecture school I attended in DC—the Catholic University of America.  It was a two day affair in very uncomfortable seats, in an acoustically awful auditorium, and, for a dweeb like me, totally absorbing.

One speaker in particular caught my attention. Mark E. Wedig, a Dominican friar, came at the notion of transcendence and the numinous from the theological perspective.

Now, I can operate at a fairly high level in many things, but the friar was using words I knew in combinations that made them new and somewhat incomprehensible.  But, from the haze I heard him quote a French phenomenologist, Jean-Yves Lacoste, who contends that the liturgy is nothingness.  My first thought was that this was a bit on the nihilist side of things and, indeed as he worked his way further into his argument it was.

“The only way in which true nothingness can be seen is in the shadow of the overwhelming plenitude of God; pure darkness can only be perceived when one has first encountered absolute light,” writes Michael Burns on his blog, Daily Humiliation.  This is an intriguing response to the notion of nothingness.

Before this I hadn’t really perceived nothingness as inhabitable space, but he more I thought about it the more compelling it became.  I was so wrapped up in this thought that I’m not sure where Friar Wedig went with his talk.  I do know where I went however.

First, the liturgy as nothingness is a notion that must be contained and it is the responsibility of the congregant and/or congregation to occupy this void, either through their belief or their willingness to responsibly question their belief.  The physical space they occupy, the church, the synagogue, the mosque offers sanctuary and solace to safely wander the void and ultimately to transcend the nothingness to a numinous state.

Secondly the numinous is a temporary state.  I don’t think the nothingness is a lack of understanding or belief or an area that can be seen only through the “overwhelming plenitude of God”, but the shadow world we live in.  Without belief and/or the ability to transcend the everyday the liturgy will truly be nothingness and our being pointless—and what is “true nothingness”?

And finally, sacred spaces are the vessels of this nothingness.  We are invited in with very little pretext to move through the darkness to the light and most sacred spaces physically process you to the light, whether with glazing and/or ceiling height.  Can a building offer this transcendence without a liturgy?  In general, no; most of us need direction. Can the liturgy offer us transcendence on its own? In general, no; we need the structure of the structure; we need the order and comfort of a physical space to perceive the nothingness, to offer our belief as the light from the shadow.

Act II

My neighbor was tragically killed by a truck while crossing the street to her house.  I heard it.

She and her husband crossed at the same spot many times before with no consequence other than to get to the other side.

I was sitting in our living room working on my computer when I heard the sound of a car being hit, but it was one sided—it wasn’t two vehicles.  This was immediately followed by a woman’s quick scream of surprise.  That was it.  It was not more than a second..

I raised my head in anticipation of the sound of brakes, or more metal being smashed, or more screaming, but nothing.  I went back to my computer.

A half-an-hour later I heard the sound of an idling semi and I went to the window to see what was going on.  There hadn’t been the sound of sirens or anything else out of the ordinary so when I looked out the window I was shocked to see a body lying under a sheet, in the middle of the lane, a ways onto the bridge.

I was entranced.  Who could it be?  Who had succumbed to the proverbial Bus?  Who had come to the ultimate moment of transcendence?

For quite a while the body lay there while emergency personnel went about their business as they waited for whom I didn’t know.  It wasn’t until an EMT pulled back the sheet that I had my first clue of who it might be.  At that point the body was face down.  The EMT rolled the body over and then I knew and it literally took m breath away.

“It took my breath away”—an expression that is used quite casually.  I’m as guilty as the next, but at tha moment I knew exactly what it meant.  It was as if I had swallowed nothing.  I wasn’t choking, the air just wasn’t there.

I wanted to reach out to her; I wanted to stroke her hair; to tell her everything was OK, everything was alright.  Help would be there soon, but she had already passed, she was dead and for what seemed forever lay under that sheet.

I have never been this close to death before.  I had never seen, in this case, heard how quick it can be.  I had seen a plane crash years before at an air race, but other than knowing a pilot had to be in the plane, it may as well have been a model.  This was a vibrant member of the community, a mother, a wife, a thoughtful person, gone in an instant—our fragility on full display.

Act III

Irene is a name that is not often heard these days. The hurricane naming committee decided 2011 would have an Irene for the ninth hurricane of the season.

It began in the usual way, churning far away, ready to devastate some enchanted Caribbean island, and gathering strength for its trip north.  The computer models had soon laid out a path that would take it up the East Coast on a rare path that could take it up the Chesapeake and finally through New England—it was now US newsworthy.

It followed the computer path pretty well, although it lost a lot of its strength and by the time it neared us it had been downgraded to a Category 1 Hurricane, a Tropical Storm.  A bit of wind and a bit of rain that would could cause flash flooding. It all sounded fairly benign.

So on Sunday morning I set out for the Mad River Valley and Yestermorrow.  Before I left I told my son Min to get together a small suitcase, his rain boots, rain coat, any entertainment he may need and to help his mother do the same. I also lectured him on the dangers of weather and its utter unpredictability.  So Min don’t think that safe zone he had erected in the playroom with the blanket for a roof would do any good. I told him that if it became too windy, too rainy, or a combination of both they were to head to my office.

I shared my wisdom following my review of the weather for the day, so I thought it would simply be lesson in being prepared for any exigency not an actuality.   So off I went, over the rain slicked roads of Central Vermont, Route 100 and 107 in the main, to Yestermorrow.

When I was a child the end of the world was to be a nuclear holocaust.  An impersonal exchange of ICBMs between the USA and USSR that would require us to hide under our desks at school; be herded to a central location; and finally retrieved by our parents to be taken home to quietly radiate with our immediate family.

Since the demise the Soviet Bloc that scenario has been tucked away along with such lovely acronyms as MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), and SEATO (look it up).  However, with the rise of the Weather Channel an entirely new set of lingo has hit our shores.

Isobars; Category 1 thru 5; High Pressure and Low Pressure; and we all have a friend who obsesses about the weather whom we now call (in my case) AccuCas.  But this all seemed another case of the Weather Channel making much ado about nothing.

The class began at nine and we worked through the day to the sound of rain coming down throughout that time.  It didn’t sound unusual and class ended promptly at three that afternoon.

I packed up, said my goodbyes, and as I passed by the office I thanked them.

“If you can’t get home you can stay here the night.”

“Thanks, that’s very kind” I replied, thinking they wouldn’t see me again for a while.

As I began down Rt. 100 South it was quickly obvious that the situation was a bit unusual.  Earlier when I made me way North on the same road I had noted places along the way that I thought might be a problem should flash flooding actually happen.  Going south there was already a number of spots that had flooded that weren’t on my list.

As I moved further along I was running along with two purposes.  One was to get home to make sure Lisa and Min were safe; the other said turn around you fool this isn’t good.  My first inclination moved me forward although my second inclination was sounding louder in my mind.

The smell of mud was getting stronger and stronger as I drove.  Who knew that the smell of mud could be so menacing and frightening?  I began to drive on the side of the road furthest from the raging water as parts of the road had already slid into the water.

My mind was shrinking, my ability to think waning, when, finally, a barricade made the decision for me.  I wheeled around quickly and then flew back to Yestermorrow at sixty to eighty miles an hour.  My mind had opened up again as I realized a dead Mikey was no good to anyone.

As I neared the last bridge before getting to Yestermorrow—an iron bridge that was being battered when I had left and even worse now—I sped up a notch to get over it.  Seemed a good idea at the time, but I think had the bridge given out while I was on it my speed would just have made me hit the other side a little harder.

Finally safe at Yestermorrow I met up with several other people from my class who were trapped as well.  Sitting with a warm cup of coffee we decided that we should become Eco-terror tourist, to see what Mother Earth had wrought.  My first inclination had been to hunker down and wait it out, but my curiosity got the best of me and off we went.

First stop was south toward the iron bridge I had just crossed.  It was being pounded by water and debris.  Trees were literally falling off the banks and being crushed and shredded beneath the bridge.  As I watched more people arrived including a family of four.  Like a magnet the destruction drew all but a few—me included—toward the bridge.  It was as if a TV screen separated them from the onslaught that raged in front of them and no harm would come.

Fortunately none did, but I found it curious to think that these people somehow thought they were invincible.  That this terrestrial life would do them no harm or that somehow they would swim to safety should something happen.  For me it was the motivation to see my ten year old grow up that kept me at a distance.  Yet there was an entire family nearly standing on the bridge having their picture taken by one of my compatriots.

Our second stop was at the covered bridge into Waitsfield. By the time we arrived the water had receded a bit and the bridge stood firm.  The bridge was elevated and the water had come just below the road deck. Where we were standing had just been under three feet of water.  The houses that lined the road in various states of disrepair were one hundred fifty to two hundred years old—mostly wood framed, but some of brick.  Neighbors helped one another bring back pieces that had floated away.

As I looked I realized that these venerable old structures were all in the flood plain and as mentioned were all quite old.  Two other things struck me.  One the bridge was elevated high enough to avoid being underwater and, two, one small, brick house, much older than any other house around it sat on a mound even higher than the bridge.  There was a structural memory there that damned the human memory that tends to forget these things.

Finally we returned to Yestermorrow.  I went to my room and slept like a baby.

Coda

So there you have it insight, tragedy, and foolhardiness. If I were Shakespeare……

But I ask again what would your epitaph be?  Your last words?

I heard my neighbor’s last sound.  It haunts me still and I suspect it will for some time. It was a sound of surprise, death catching us completely off guard.  It would be left to others to give voice to her final words.  An open mike memorial service that lasted three and half hours did just that and probably said more than she could have summed up in a sentence.

Someone like Neil Armstrong can pass quietly, nothing to be spoken; he said his piece on July 21,, 1969.  I won’t insult your intelligence by writing those words here.

Julius Caesar came out with, “Et tu, Brute?”.  This was said to his friend Marcus Brutus and probably reported by Brutus.  But who’s to say–the majestic and powerful seem to say pithy things at their final moment quite often.  We should all have publicists.

A good friend’s father just died and he passed quietly after saying the Rosary with his wife.  It was reported that a moment after they had said the Rosary that his wife said, “Bill, did you just die?”  Sure enough he had, and a very good man passed on transcending our human travail.

I once told a girlfriend that we live for our death. By that I mean that we try to walk this world the best we can; to overcome our selfish needs; to do the best we can for our family and neighbors.  Just to do our best with what we were born with so that perhaps someone will mention our passing in a kind way.  And as I recently read, we don’t truly die until the last person who knew us passes on as well.

I will leave you with a short obit from the London Times that my wife Lisa has had taped to our refrigerator for years now—

Watson, Graham—died peacefully after a delicious dinner.  He will be greatly missed by those whom he loved.

Brilliant.