Acts of Faith and Other Navigations
The following essay is excerpted from a new book of the same title from Gaspereau Press (www.Gaspereau.com).
TODAY I believe in God.
A visiting friend and I were listening to a jazz trio one Sunday morning in an Anglican church. The trio led off with a prelude by John Coltrane, then accompanied the singing of hymns and responses. For the offertory they played a piece by Thelonious Monk. While the ushers passed the plates between the rows, the bass tromped out the vintage, the piano danced on the head of a pin, and the saxophone reached deep into the invisible joinery of mortise and tenon in the high-raftered interior of the building. As the notes slowly resolved again into three musicians stationed below the altar with their instruments, my friend leaned over and said, Today I believe in God.
Then this. The elderly man and woman who had taken up the offering were waiting in the center aisle for the music to end. Holding the collection plates before them, they began to walk forward. A young girl in the pew across was playing with a small figure that hung from the end of a keychain, making it dance. She moved her plaything into the air of the open aisle behind the ushers. It took a moment for me to realize that the dangling, dancing toy was a skeleton.
I have thought this about the place: anything can happen.
Like my visiting friend, I have slipped in and out of the rows of wooden pews since the day I was born. I have been sitting there from long before that day. I floated above the naked grain of elm or chestnut or oak while still curled in the warm universe of my mother’s womb, for in my family this custom, habit of being, and desire is generational.
I have heard everything there is to say about the place, for and against; both its necessity and its redundancy. Have felt it all, in my bones.
I have thought every thought about how I would rather be somewhere, anywhere else. I have thought that there is no place on earth I would rather be.
I have asked myself, Why do I persist?
Unlike my friend, I am lucky. I have never not believed in God. Or perhaps he is the lucky one. My off-and-on ambivalence about the place has never made me question the existence of the one for whom the structure has been built. If that is indeed what happened to my friend. So I found myself having to translate his statement, as words from another language. The current translation runs as follows: Today I have been won over by something that is both here and now, and out of this world.
With the unspoken addendum, It doesn’t happen very often. And, Tomorrow, I may not.
An earlier translation had used persuaded instead of won over. But in the end his statement seemed more felt than reasoned. He had been wooed, not argued, into saying it.
You might ask, would the music have evoked the same response had we heard the jazz trio at a club or concert hall, anywhere else but in that Anglican edifice on a Sunday morning?
A few years earlier, my wife and I had visited a small Presbyterian church. We were at the time agonizing over whether or not to leave the religious tradition in which we had both been raised. We’d met at a college which was part of that tradition’s continental web. Our two daughters had been baptized within its church walls. It was home. But the truth was we were drying up inside, shriveling.
In the middle of the service, the piano started to play and the woman sitting next to me rose to her feet. I thought I might have missed a cue, and was about to stand, when she began to sing. She sang a song familiar to us, an old hymn, one I had come earnestly to dislike, mostly for the way that its sorry corpse, and those of its many cousins, had been dragged through the congregations of my youth and early adulthood by a ponderous, overbearing pipe organ.
Accompanied by the piano, the woman sang the hymn as a gospel song.
She may well have been singing Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, for the effect this had on me. It was revivifying.
“Dem Bones” is an African American spiritual based on a story from Hebrew scripture. In the story, Ezekiel, a prophet, sees in a dream a valley scattered with bones, and is told to prophesy to them. When he does so, the bones reconnect, take on flesh and blood, and walk.
The song runs through an itinerary of bones in the human skeleton, the knee bone connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone connected to the hip bone….
You might ask, would my wife and I have needed to be put back together, revivified, if we had not, in the first instance, chosen to come to such a place each Sunday morning?
Is it a name, or a form of shorthand?
The G-word, as I overheard someone say to my neighbor as they worked together in the neighbor’s backyard. What he said was that he didn’t like to say the G-word, and preferred to use Supreme Being instead.
Is it a heading under which is listed a string of attributes? Hebrew scripture uses many attribute-names: Almighty, Creator, Lord, Holy One, Ancient of Days. Hebrew writers wishing to write the name itself paused first, and prayed. When the sound of the shorthand letters they employed for the name was spoken, it came out as exhaled breath.
Breath, then, was one of the attributes. Or the thing itself.
Breathing is believing. Cue the saxophone.
Jewish writers today often leave the vowel out of the word, or name, replacing it with a hyphen. They do this on the chance that the piece of paper on which it is written might be thrown out, thus dishonoring it.
The word, or name, spoken, is blunt, stays inside the mouth. Does not come out as exhaled breath.
I lingered over the today in my friend’s statement. The word hedged its bets against tomorrow. It spoke to the present moment and assumed nothing, made no claims for the future, should there be one.
And I thought about this again as I drove alone across the wide, dry prairies one recent summer, hearing the word meaningless spoken repeatedly through the car speakers. As in, Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless, says the Teacher. I was listening to Ecclesiastes, one of the wisdom books in Hebrew scripture. The word meaningless brought to mind writers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, because it is part of the existentialist vocabulary. I wondered if this word was an accurate translation from the original Hebrew text. The older translation with which I was more familiar had used vanity, a word that puts a more self-referential spin to what the author is saying, adding a dose of pride or narcissism to the pointlessness or uselessness being expressed, and avoiding the black hole of nothingness, the abyss, of the translation I was hearing.
The word vanity does not have the currency it once did. I fished around in my own vocabulary for an alternative that could capture the emotional thrust of a writer who was looking back over his life, at all he had accomplished (which was much), at everything he had believed important, and had concluded that it was all, in the end, pointless, an exercise in self-delusion and futility.
Concluded, in other words, that it was bullshit.
My visiting friend that Sunday morning came from one of the Atlantic provinces, and was raised Baptist. Baptists are many in the Maritimes, and have branched many times. Baptists of slightly different religious shadings attend churches standing within a stone’s throw of each other. The same branching is true for my own Dutch Calvinists, as it is for all who are in the Protestant tradition. We can’t stop protesting, even against each other. The pattern repeats through the generations. A theological issue arises. There is disagreement. When the disagreement runs deep enough, the group splits. Families too may split, and the whole episode takes on the character of family tragedy, for these people are indeed kin. What had been held in common is divided. One group keeps the building; the other begins searching for a vacant lot.
What do you get when two Dutch people meet? A church.
Three Dutch people? Schism.
Schism is a word forged solely to describe this splitting and breaking-up. Its meaning is in its sound: the clean cut, the scissor sharpness of a skate-blade on ice, a rending of the earth that opens a chasm, an abyss, at your feet.
For Dutch or Baptist you might insert Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Mennonite. The list goes on. You might insert the Reformation of 1517, that begat the Protestant movement. You might insert the Great Schism of 1054, that begat the fraternal twins of Roman and Orthodox Christianity.
That small group of friends and followers who gathered in a room two thousand years ago after the public execution of the one by whom they had been won over, and who sold all their possessions and held everything in common, has over these past two millennia ramified with religious devotion.
I have thought this about the G-word: it is an acronym, a three-letter signifier of the kind that is used for an international corporation. The corporation is made up of many smaller branch companies and groups of companies. Each company runs independently and is allowed to maintain its own particular identity. Each has little knowledge of its sister organizations, but is confident that it has a direct line to the head office.
I have thought: it is a non-name which has become a name; it is a verbal touchstone for what is ultimately nameless.
I have thought: and yet we bandy about the name, or non-name, as though we knew all that it meant.
A generation goes, a generation comes (more words from Ecclesiastes), and fewer people can remember what the fatal disagreement was that led to the church split and a parting of the ways. Or the issue doesn’t carry the same electrical charge any longer. Or they no longer care. Meaningless, meaningless. But there is no turning back, for by now each group has developed its own slightly different traditions and social mores, has embarked on its own history. Members of the separate groups still do not readily speak to one another. An inarticulate, lingering suspicion exists between them. Each party considers the other guilty for the breach, while they themselves have remained innocent and true. Innocent, and in the truth.
And all are made more perfect by what they have had to suffer.
In other words, a sense of spiritual superiority may be nurtured.
This too is bullshit.
I have thought: here, in this building, this is where the Supreme Being, in its wisdom, has put all the most difficult people, the ones most likely to cause trouble or be a nuisance, so that they will have to deal with each other, in one place, leaving the rest of the world free to get on with its business.
I have thought, alternatively, that this repeated splitting is as natural as cell division. It is a form of differentiation, growth. It is the large tree branching toward the heavens. It is an expression of delight in variety on the part of a Creator, the same delight that prompted a biologist, referring to the mind-boggling number of their species that walk the earth, to declare, The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles.
And yet, who cares? These are divisions within an institutional phenomenon that is culturally entrenched but at the same time seems to have become deeply, hopelessly passé. In this part of the world, at least. Its history of doing good and right weighs against its history of doing bad and wrong, and has been found wanting.
A certain percentage of the population is part of this institution, has been part of it, perhaps for generations, while a larger percentage sees only buildings: the beached whale of brick in the city’s downtown, or the wooden, lap-sided structure tucked into an older neighborhood, not much larger than the surrounding homes; the ancient stone edifice that must be hell to maintain, or the sprawling complex on the outskirts of the suburbs, with its origami of roof-peaks, many-windowed wings, and expanse of parking lot.
You drive by and wonder, What do they do in there?
Bullshit is a blunt instrument of a word, with limited nuance; a crudity. It does, however, capture the element of surprise, the punch, that the writer of Ecclesiastes delivers against what human beings normally consider important, and against what he himself had once lived for: knowledge, accomplishment, status, wealth.
I lay on a motel-room bed during the same summer journey over the oceanic swells of shortgrass prairie and wondered how a book as unrelentingly downbeat in its assessment of human endeavor could, in the end, make me feel so good, or, what’s the word? Uplifted.
The writer’s conclusion: There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil.
Perhaps the reason I have never not believed in G-d is that I make things. To my eye the world and everything in it has the look and feel and attention to detail of something that is made.
To think otherwise would be a denial of both hand and imagination.
At the time that my wife and I first visited the small Presbyterian church called Saint Cuthbert’s, where the singer sang the hymn as a gospel tune, I had recently become self-employed as a woodworker, living day to day in a small shop, building furniture on commission.
My apprenticeship in the trade had taken place within a small company that made furniture to sell in its own showroom. By the time I had worked there five years, I was able to produce a five-drawer bedroom dresser, in white pine, in an eight-hour day. Starting with planks from the pile of rough lumber from the mill, I could cut, joint, saw, glue, plane, dowel, assemble, rout, and sand the wood into side and top panels, front and back frames, drawers (dove-tailed) and drawer glides, backsplash and front kick-plate.
At five o’clock, as I locked away my tools to go home, the finished piece stood ready for the stain and lacquer booth, a study in perfection.
Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Random phrases and sentences of Hebrew scripture or, in this case, Christian scripture, may, at any time, pop into the waking head of one who was raised on those two collections of story, history, law, prophecy, poetry and song, biography, and letters commonly called the Bible. All it takes is one suggestive word, such as perfect.
Snippets such as these also are, were, and in all likelihood always shall be used to take aim and fire, to snipe at others for their inability to reach, in this case, a perfect measure.
Such are the liberties taken with our received text.
The five-drawer dresser was required to be a study in perfection: unblemished, all surfaces free of planer and sanding marks, no half-knots where the boards had been sawn and glued into panels, no furring from a dull router bit, drawers aligned evenly and sliding freely on their hardwood glides. Someone was paying good money for it, and our small company had its own standards to live up to. It was a matter of professional pride.
But this too was bullshit.
For I was not enjoying my toil. The work had become so tedious and predictable over the years that the only pleasure I derived from it was in being able to build a simple but labor-intensive piece of furniture in a day.
And always, in the background, was the waste. A good deal of waste is created simply in transforming a standing tree into lumber, but a shop such as ours produced an astounding amount of scrap wood on its own. It got worse when we converted to piecework, and were paid according to how much furniture we produced. The scrap bin rapidly filled with off-cut lengths of lumber that would require too much effort to make useable. Once a week someone came to the shop to glean the bins empty for firewood.
A furniture-maker is often also a tree-lover. The waste and my complicity in it had come to seem a form of betrayal.
One difference between what I and what the Creator, if that one exists, make, is that my work, once finished, is done, complete, ready to be sold. Creation, on the other hand, the earth and sea, the sun and stars, is both made and being made. Is creation, rather than a creation.
That one has managed to do what many artists and craftspeople only dream of, which is to create something that is both a finished work and yet in process.
Why do I persist?
You’ll miss it if you don’t go.
Feeling ill and conflicted one Sunday morning. Miss what?
Whatever may happen.
A few years after we began coming to Saint Cuthbert’s, someone rose during the service and sang Handel’s “And the Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible.”
The title of the music alone had me thinking about my three brothers-in-law, who had died fifteen years earlier, in their late teens and early twenties, within six months of each other, of the disease muscular dystrophy, with which they were born.
And something happened. The singer was suffering from a cold that day, and had trouble reaching some of the high notes. But the un-reached notes began to meld with the brothers’ short lives, which they had lived to the full, and with thoughts of their bodies, corrupted by disease, until it seemed clear that the singing suited their memory, and the music, more truly than if every note had been hit dead on.
I thought: perhaps perfection is not required.
What a strange thing it is, to be traveling a great distance, alone in a car, listening to stories from Hebrew scripture.
I grew up with these narratives, so the journey took me into my own past as well as over the subtle and undulating landscape of shortgrass prairies. I could still recite most of the list of thirty-nine books, from Genesis through the Psalms to the prophets, at which point I became bogged down in the confusion of Hebrew names, just as I had in grade school. I listened to a few of the history books in sequence: Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel, I and II Kings. These books tell of a people entering a new land, in order to settle there. They battle to take the land over from its inhabitants, under orders from on high not to leave a single living creature, human or animal, in any of the cities, towns, and villages they defeat. And they get into trouble (from on high) if they fail to destroy everything completely, everything except, in some cases, the fruit trees.
No one, in my youth, asked what kind of Supreme Being would give orders for what amounted to ethnic cleansing. And neither did I. It fit with the good guy/bad guy, cowboy and Indian themes of the movies I watched on television.
I felt some disjuncture, however, listening to what was going on three thousand years ago in the Mediterranean Basin while driving through the shortgrass prairie of North America. You make your own connections, or they are made for you. During the same travels I visited Little Big Horn, site of the last battle between the Plains Indian tribes and the United States Cavalry, where the tribes won the battle but lost the war.
The Ecclesiastes writer is famous for saying, There is nothing new under the sun.
Small white crosses stand scattered singly and in small groups on the hillsides of Little Big Horn, one each for the fallen soldiers of the cavalry.
In recent years, small monuments have joined the crosses, indicating where Sioux, Blackfoot, Cree, and other native warriors fell.
The Ecclesiastes writer is also famous for saying, There is a time to kill and a time to heal.
I lay on the prairie motel-room bed and made another connection: the church as an institution bears as much relation to the one from whom it grew as a five-drawer dresser bears to the tree from which it is crafted.
That is to say, it is made.
We had no idea who Saint Cuthbert was when we first entered the doors of the Presbyterian church named after him. My wife and I had been raised in a thoroughly saint-free religious environment. Saints, in fact, were regarded with some suspicion. They’d been debunked long ago, together with all the other trappings of the Catholic Church. Why this Scottish branch of Calvinism still clung to them we couldn’t guess.
Cuthbert (d. 687), then, was a shepherd and a soldier who became a monk. He lived in northeastern England and is most closely associated with Lindisfarne, a monastery on an island that is accessible from the mainland only during low tide. He was known for his humility, good works, love of nature, and his ability to heal and perform miracles. He did much traveling about the countryside, visiting remote villages and people, bringing gospel and sacrament.
One day, Cuthbert went out to preach, taking a young boy for company. It was a long walk, and since they had not brought provisions, both became hungry. Cuthbert saw an eagle in the sky, and said to the boy, G-d is quite capable of sending us food by that eagle.
They walked along beside a river when the eagle flew down and settled on the bank a little way off.
Run and see what G-d has sent us, said Cuthbert.
The boy brought back a big fish which the bird had just caught.
Cuthbert asked, Did you not give the fisher its share of the catch? Cut the fish in two, and return half to the bird.
The boy did as he was told. Together the two travelers entered a nearby village, where they shared their half-fish with a family who invited them into their home.
We know about this English saint because of a book, Life of Cuthbert, which was written not long after his death. Its author was Bede, who was also a monk.
Bede’s biography is mainly about the many miracles Cuthbert performed. Readers of the time expected no less of a saint. They were attuned to the possibility of supernatural intrusions into daily life. They expected no less of a Supreme Being. As Bede relates them, these intrusions are both truly miraculous and entirely matter-of-fact.
The tone of the book is conversational. The writer has interviewed the friends, acquaintances and people whose lives his subject has touched, and gathered these stories together into an extended obituary. He is the sympathetic but conscientious reporter, authenticating events with eyewitness accounts, continually citing his sources:
My source for this is Herefrith…, who had the story from Cuthbert himself.
Baldhelm is still alive…; he told me this one himself.
It’s strange to me that we can come to this place for years, and consider each other friends, and still be unaware of significant, life-shaping or life-changing events in each other’s past.
The speaker and I were talking after church one Sunday. She had just finished reading a book in which I told about my wife’s three brothers, their terminal disease and their early deaths, many years ago. A family biography, or extended obituary. I had come to think of the book as a kind of medieval life, like Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, and as equally full of miracles. How else to explain that though all three died, life won?
If I ever needed it, that is, proof for the existence of…, then they, the three brothers, provided all the proof I needed.
Their parents provided all the evidence I needed to show that his rain falls on the just and the unjust.
But my fellow parishioner and friend that Sunday morning was right. It was strange to have left our family lives out of all our conversations. My wife and I had been coming to this place each Sunday now for twenty years, but were still, it seems, living alone on the island where those three deaths had cast us.
Our saint, in addition to his many virtues, is equally well known for his longing to live alone as a hermit on an island. His island of choice was called Inner Farne, which lies several miles off Lindisfarne, in the North Sea. It was uninhabited, and considered uninhabitable, until he built a stone shelter there, with one opening by which he could enter, and another in the roof.
Cuthbert came by this island-longing honestly. He was raised in the Celtic tradition, a tradition of monks who lived together in monasteries, or who lived alone in godforsaken locations, or who took long journeys over uncharted waters, alone or in company, often bumping into those who lived, alone or in community, in those godforsaken locations.
It occurred to me that there were probably others with stories that remained untold.
And I fashioned the idea of a kind of latter-day Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories told by the various pilgrims who are traveling together, straightforward eyewitness accounts of significant events in their lives. In my imagined telling, the pilgrimage was taking place each Sunday morning, the pilgrims seated not on donkeys or horses but in chairs.
I approached someone within the congregation whose story I happened to know already, explained my idea, and asked if they would tell the tale, or allow me to tell it. It quickly became apparent that for a variety of reasons this person was very reluctant to make a personal narrative public. Others would very likely feel the same way, I realized.
I thought: perhaps one of the reasons people come here in the first place is because no one knows their stories and they do not have to tell them, or they may tell them selectively, if and when they choose.
I thought: perhaps these untold stories are still somehow subsumed into what is happening on a Sunday morning, and they do not need to tell, because it is already being told, simply by their bodily presence.
You might ask, does this mean that people can re-invent themselves, or that they can lead a double-life? Isn’t this a set-up for being duped?
The book of Ruth lies between the historical narratives of the Judges and Samuel, and tells a self-contained story. I listened to it as well on my prairie journey.
A woman named Naomi travels to a neighboring country to escape drought in her own land. There, her two sons marry. Both sons and also her husband die, and Naomi decides to return to her homeland. Her daughters-in-law accompany Naomi to the border, where she tells them they should return to their own people.
One turns back, but the other, Ruth, refuses.
Ruth is famous for her reply to Naomi: Where you go, I will go; where you stay, I will stay; your people shall be my people, and your G-d my G-d….
The particular group of people that has fallen together in this place is made up of those one might consider refugees. This may be my own inclination to over-dramatize. Some were raised Presbyterian, most not. Some were raised Brethren of Christ, some Roman Catholic. There are Baptist-born, Salvation Army, Dutch Calvinist, Assemblies of God. Mennonite. Anglican. One comes from a familial line of circuit-riding Methodist preachers. There are those who never set foot in a church before coming here, seated next to those who were, shall we say, over-churched.
These are the ones whose towns and villages were razed. This is more over-dramatizing on my part. These are the ones who suffered drought and famine, or were burned out of the religious tradition in which they were raised, and fled into other lands.
Alternatively, there are those for whom this place offers continuity with whom and what won them over in the first place, minus certain trappings.
Alternatively, there are those who simply landed on this island, or were washed up on its shore; who walked through the doors one morning and never left.
Where you stay, I will stay.
The church as an institution bears the same relation to the one from whom it grew as a five-drawer dresser bears to the tree from which it is crafted.
That is to say, it is made. From many parts.
I have thought: the reason I persist is for what is being made.
We come to this place, we travel here, detaching ourselves from our homes, navigating streets that are largely free of traffic, in the general silence of a Sunday morning, separating ourselves from the week-long parade of which we are also a part, to rejoin the pilgrimage.
To be going somewhere, sitting still, with others.
This desert, this island; this traveling into a frontier, this return home; this solitary experience, this company of sundry folk, by adventure having fallen together into fellowship.
The line is from Canterbury Tales. We clip-clop along together on our donkeys, like Chaucer’s pilgrims. Not exactly strangers to each other, but not family or clan. Related to each other by circumstance and choice. And by blood; spilled blood.
There is nothing special about this particular Sunday-morning assemblage. It is no more or less peculiar than any other group.
Peculiar is one of those words, like vanity, that come from a translation of Hebrew and Christian scripture into the English language current at the time of Shakespeare. The Hebrews are called a peculiar people, meaning singular, unique.
Hearing the King James Version of the Bible from a young age plants words like these in one’s head, words which have lost their currency or whose meaning has shifted, but which still resonate.
In the case of a word like peculiar, the shifted meaning may act as a salve. You are able to understand your Sunday-morning assemblage as being not only unique but also, in present usage, as oddball, strange.
You understand, at the very least, that in many, most, western countries of the Judeo-Christian tradition your meaning has shifted; you no longer have a cultural currency.
One Sunday morning, as a form of research into the question, I asked someone, Why do you persist?
Obviously this person had thought about it. The answer came immediately, in three parts.
First, she said, because this place represents family. This was almost literally true in her case, since her marriage to a person outside her race and religious tradition had not, to put it kindly, been looked on favorably by her birth family.
Second, because in a capitalist culture many people adopt a survival-of-the-fittest perspective, and here the perspective more closely matched her desire to love-G-d-above-all-and-your-neighbor-as-yourself.
Third, because she gets practical help. That morning help came in the form of a phrase from a verse in the reading from Christian scripture, confess to one another, which she translated as, apologize. She runs a hospital department, and has discovered that people need to be willing to apologize for mistakes they’ve made simply so that everyone can continue to work together in some kind of harmony. A second phrase complemented the first: be at peace with one another, meaning, to her, recognize and accept the all-too-human personal characteristics of others.
Her response was straightforward and practical, to a questioner who tends to spiritualize even the smallest breath of wind, if that breath is well-timed.
She added a fourth reason. She considered this place to be a journey, rather than a destination. This was also, she said, how she viewed her own life.
My respondent had taken confess to one another, and be at peace with one another, two snippets of scripture that have been, are, and likely always shall be used as ammunition to fire verbal shots, to snipe at another person’s inability to reach the perfect measure, and she had breathed life into them.
Or, the life in them breathed into her.
Cue the saxophone.
There are at least two differences between what is being made and the five-drawer dresser.
First, what is being made is not a study in perfection.
Second, what is being made, in its many parts, is not necessarily visible to the naked eye.
Sixty-eight pieces of wood go into the crafting of a five-drawer dresser, in the Old Ontario pine style in which our woodworking shop specialized. This total does not include the varying numbers of planks which, glued together, comprise the side and top panels.
Some of the pieces are identical to each other. For instance, the drawer sides, and the horizontal members of the front frame. A few of them are one-off, such as the kick-plate which adorns the base of the dresser.
Taken separately, these individual parts are not easily identifiable as belonging together, do not necessarily look as though they will form a whole. They may very well come from different trees. The male and female halves of the drawer glides for our pine drawers, for example, are made not of pine but maple.
Each piece is the end result of a process that begins at the pile of rough-sawn lumber and moves through a sequence of machinery.
Each machine has a specific purpose. Each also has its own degree of loudness, its pitch. When the wood meets the machine’s blade or multiple blades the sound changes, becomes more strained, heavier. The wood resists what is happening. It has to be held down, and pushed, to overcome the resistance.
Each piece of wood is made to suffer toward a final shape.
My work life has since also extended into carpentry. It is difficult these days to look at the pile of lumber delivered to a job site and not think that the forest has given up its numbers; here lie the slain.
Prophesy to these stacked limbs. Prophesy what? More building? A house, a church, a box to put our stuff into? Why this unending, irrepressible impulse to build?
And yet it shines: the bright skeletal framework of spruce wood stands upright and naked on its foundation: floor joist connected to the wall stud, wall stud connected to the top plate, top plate connected to the rafter, rafter connected to the ridge beam….
And yet it shines for the present only. The sun and the elements will not bleach these bones whiter but toward decay, until the structure is sheathed.
That is to say it awaits a skin.
It awaits the life breathed by the ones who will enter within.
The human anatomy is comprised of structural elements that are sculptural, shaped, carved, individual, particular, peculiar.
The same holds true for the anatomy of the body of people who have entered and gather within.
It’s this thing we do.
Sunday morning, people stand around, talk quietly, wait; musicians tune their instruments; our shepherd sees to last-minute details.
She told me her story, he said, referring to a fellow sheep with whom he fell into more than casual conversation, following the service.
There is a miracle of intimacy that can occur within this context, between people who are not necessarily close friends.
It’s because of this thing we do.
Why do I persist?
What’s in it for me?
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.