Looking Back

Image credit: David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1944, via Wikimedia Commons

Like many I’m shocked and saddened by the fire at Notre Dame cathedral.  At the same time a recurring theme of this blog has been that modern people are disinclined to pay for the past, and some analysts are saying that lack of funds for regular upkeep of the cathedral over many years are at least partially behind the tragedy.  Monuments that have stood for centuries require constant care, but it’s so easy to take them for granted.  Cathedrals aren’t just religious buildings.  They are humanistic in the sense that they stand for our natural tendency to create great markers of our time on earth.  So very human.  Many human acts we wish to erase, but some represent a loss to the very soul of our species when they’re gone.

Even in this secular age the great cathedrals of Europe are on the agenda of many a traveller.  My own recollections of Notre Dame have grown hazy with the years—I do recall the stolid towers and flying buttresses.  Even the doubtless inauthentic but still ancient crown of thorns.  The famously secular French stood in the streets and sang hymns as the fire raged. 

My single trip to Paris was followed by a stop in Germany where we saw towers of cathedrals left standing even when the remainders of the buildings were gone—bombed out during World War Two.  Asking a friend about it we learned that the Germans felt these skeletal churches were appropriate reminders of the horrors of war.  No masses could be said in them ever again, but they stood, in their ruined majesty, as their own kind of monument to human folly.

We live in a post-cathedral world.  Symbols of the unity of a nation, demanding resources beyond what could really be afforded, cathedrals served to unite.  Citizens of London, it is reported, shoved bombs off St. Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz.  Religion today has been turned into a means of dividing and conquering people.  It builds border walls rather than cathedrals where those of any faith might be allowed in and invited to wonder.  Images of that famous spire helplessly falling amid the flames suggest the shock of the twin towers collapsing.  Although the structure survives, much has been lost forever.  And if people react like they are wont to do, there will be outpouring of resources to rebuild and restore, but only for a while.  We tend to think that looking at the past is frivolous.  Yet, my photos of Notre Dame remind me that a life spent looking back may well be the only kind worth living.

Money Poppins

Marypoppins Easy answers seldom hold up. Generalizing is a way of dealing with the vast amounts of data people continually process. Now that many of us in the “developed” world spend much of our time indoors, those skills earned from thousands of generations of learning about the environment have transferred to media of various sorts. I watch a lot of movies—they are my escape from an urban reality that often weighs too heavily on my primate brain. Long ago I relegated Disney to that shelf of the least profound films. Although many of their animated features of the past decade or so have introduced complexities and some seriousness into the mix, often I find myself still hungry after sitting through a helping of the Disney fantasy-land. It seems to me that nature is crueler and more careless than Disney makes it out to be. Nevertheless, sometimes something profound can be discovered in the most unlikely of places.

I never saw Mary Poppins until I was in college, but now I come back to it as an adult from time to time and I still learn from it. While watching recently it struck me that two worlds (at least) are juxtaposed here: the world of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. On the night before the Banks children accompany their father to the bank, Mary Poppins suggests that some things are important, although quite small. She refers, of course, to the birds that the Bird Lady uses to make her pitiful living. She sells crumbs within sight of an opulent bank that stands for the order of society. She is dressed in poor clothing, a beggar woman under the protective gaze of saint and apostles. The bank has guards and bars and powerful men. The worlds are brought into collision by Jane and Michael wanting to feed the birds but they instead are forced to open a bank account. In the ensuing melee, George Banks takes the blame and is fired.

On his way to the bank that night to be sacked, he reevaluates. In a brief but significant scene, he pauses in front of the Cathedral, deserted at night, and scans where the Bird Lady sat. The scene immediately cuts to the bank, still at work, its great doors snapped open by uniformed guards. The Cathedral, dark and glowering, is just down the street. And yet, once dismissed Mr. Banks chooses the way of the Bird Lady, an unemployed man spending tuppence for paper and string to mend a kite. No, I don’t attribute much profundity to Disney, but Mary Poppins does give pause for a moment. We never see the inside of the Cathedral. It is generally dark and forbidding. The bank is light and inviting, yet liable to turn on you. Maybe it is merely lack of sleep, but as I closed my eyes last night, it seemed that even Disney may have, for one brief instant, turned its back on money.

Abbey Rood

On the long flight home from London, experiences during my brief free time play back in my head in a continuous loop. One monument to civilization I wanted my daughter to experience was Westminster Abbey. I would liked to have taken her to St. Paul’s as well, but churches are just too expensive to visit. I’ve written before about our drive to visit places of significance, the urge toward pilgrimage that is as old as humanity itself. (Perhaps even earlier.) Because of the reach of the British Empire, events that have taken place in Westminster have affected people all over the world. The cream of the British crop is buried there. To see them, however, you need to pay an unhealthy sum of money. “Money changers in the temple,” as my wife aptly observed. And once inside photography is prohibited. How easy simply to become a slab of marble hazily remembered in the mind of an overstimulated tourist. There is no way to absorb it all.

The church has fallen on hard times in much of Europe. Speaking to several Brits the real interest seems to be in Islam, a religion clearly on the rise in the United Kingdom. During a brief respite from work, during which I ducked into the British Museum, the queues were out the door for an exhibit on the hajj. Tickets for the exhibit were sold out. Meanwhile, across town, the Church of England charges a visitor 16 pounds even to enter the great minster with roots in the eleventh century. Christianity and capitalism have become inextricably intertwined. A building as massive as Westminster, let alone St. Paul’s, must be costly indeed to maintain. These have become, however, icons to culture rather than religion. Their value in that regard cannot be questioned.

Standing beside Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and T. S. Eliot, it is noteworthy how few clerics buried in the Abbey maintain such a draw. Kings, queens, knaves and aces of many suits may abound, but apart from the eponymous Archbishop of Canterbury, few men and women of the cloth stand to gain our attention. The nave soars high overhead and the crowds of sightseers jostle one another to get a view of the sarcophagus that now houses the dusty bones of those whose names endlessly referenced from our childhoods vie for admiration. The sign says “no photography,” and the docents throughout the building cast a suspicious eye on anyone holding a camera. How jealous Christendom has become in a land of secular advance. I stand next to Sir Isaac Newton and contemplate how the seeds of destruction are often planted within the very soil that surrounds the foundations of mighty edifices of yore.

Good Morning, London

First of all, Virgin-Atlantic Airlines gets a gold star in my book. Having flown quite a bit over the past six months, I’ve been reminded on just how stingy airlines can be, making even a brief flight a test of endurance. They are very generous with full body scanners and less so with basic human services, such as food, entertainment choices on long flights, and a sense that you’re doing anything other than propping up a flailing, deregulated industry. Virgin-Atlantic demonstrated that air time need not be torturous. So, with many choices of movie to watch, on Good Friday, I decided on one of my favorite genres of religious movie—the vampire flick.

I have been anticipating Dark Shadows for well over a year now, but I had heard nothing about Fright Night. Really, in many ways Fright Night was an unremarkable vampire movie, but then again, watching on a plane is maybe not the place where one would expect the gothic mood required for full enjoyment. Nevertheless, the full range of religious cures of vampires was present with one notable exception: crucifixes. Crosses abounded, but here on Good Friday I saw no corpi. There was holy water, so clearly it wasn’t purely Protestant sympathies that led to the abandonment of crucifixes in the movie. In any case, crosses were only a minor deterrent in this scenario. What finally dispatched the chief vampire in this case was a traditional wooden stake. Which, somehow reminds me of typical airplane food on most airlines.

Driving around a secular London dressed in religious garb, St. Paul’s Cathedral lit splendidly in the night, was a reminder of the hold Christianity still has on even non-religious culture. It was kind of like the corpus-less crucifix in the movie. The inspiration behind the great gothic stylings of Big Ben and Parliament arise from their long association with Christian culture. On the streets people were milling about London late in the evening, not apparently fresh from church, standing in the shadow of Westminster Abbey and happily snapping photos. This may be a montage of disparate images colliding in my jet-lagged mind, but somehow virgins, vampires, crucifixes, and churches seem to fit naturally together.

P. T. Mammon

Phineas Taylor Barnum is frequently treated as a figure of cynicism personified. As the founder of what would eventually become the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, P. T. was a noted hoaxer and scam artist. He capitalized on the fact that people will pay to see anything they are gullible enough to believe. Unfortunately, many human beings were exploited for their unusual characteristics, but he was also known as a philanthropist with an eye for reform. Most people don’t realize that Barnum’s early career involved being a salesman for the Sears’ Pictorial Illustrations of the Bible. From Bible salesman to huckster extraordinaire. The great American success story.

In what I see as a related article on Religion Dispatches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, has taken legal action to move Occupy London protestors from its property. As religions go, it is difficult to conceive of a more established, conformist church than the C of E. (Well, maybe the Roman Catholic Church could vie.) St. Paul’s Cathedral actually charges an admission fee (not a cheap one either), perhaps cashing in on Mary Poppins; Feed the Bishops, I believe it’s called. The reason that the Cathedral is seeking to remove the undesirables (the cathedral is next door to the London Stock Exchange) is that they interference in business. Hard to charge admission to people who can’t come in. It’s not so much to save souls as it is to horde pounds. Problem is, the message of ancient Christianity more closely matches that of the Occupy movement than it does the Church of England. Barnum knew the selling power of religion. So do bishops and countless priests. How long do you suppose the clergy would remain if Christianity went back to the “tent making” model of the first century? I suspect there would be quite a few more prelates at Occupy London.

Somehow money and religion have become all tangled together. Not that I would begrudge any clergy of a fair salary—I’ve been on the receiving end of not receiving adequate pay myself, and I wish it on no one. When money, however, is the sine qua non of the religious establishment, where has compassion gone? One would like to think that clergy would be among the first to stand in solidarity with those protesting unfair business practices. But ah, the church is very establishment-oriented. Not just the C of E, either. Most churches have fallen into the comfortable zone of supporting the system and teaching their adherents that this is all in the divine plan. A kind of cosmic quid pro quo. According to the Gospel writers Jesus chased the money-changers out of the temple. Phineas Taylor knew that giving people what they wanted often trumped the honest truth. “The noblest art is that of making others happy,” he once stated. Somewhere along the line, the admission price shifted from the circus to the cathedral. There is one born every minute, indeed.