“Stillness crieth out that something Great is nigh.”
We seek connections every day, among our family, our friends, our colleagues, and sometimes even complete strangers. We seek connection with each other, and with life itself. We are surrounded with the tools of connection more now than ever before. The web, email, cell phones, texting, Twitter, Facebook, and social media in general. We can see almost instantly what those we care about in some way are doing or thinking. What we find lacking in human connection, we try to find in other things. We seek to connect with ideas or feelings. We study, play music, paint, sculpt, build and write so that we can connect to that ineffable thing that eludes us. And not finding those ideas or feelings, we settle for something else, something that carries the trappings of meaning while not having anything intrinsic itself. We settle for fashion. We decide to care about things that will inherently end in obsolescence. I think that we do this for three reasons. First, because the fashionable automatically implies community and we are therefore connected. Second, we can do something about fashion. We can buy things that state who we believe we are and when they become obsolete, we can replace those things. And third, perhaps because obsolete is better than death. The finality of death is too abrupt and we would prefer for things to pass gently into the world of nostalgia.
At other times in the world, the central mystery of life – death – was the object of all study and understanding. The intellectual, spiritual and emotional life of man was guided by the attempt to comprehend the inevitability and meaning of our passing. People were no more wise, intelligent, or spiritually superior than people are now, except in the single factor that the object of their searching was more profound. Perhaps we have studied their thoughts and feelings about death and realized in some way that its mystery is beyond our understanding. We have given up in trying to solve a problem insoluble. Lacking any other great motivation in life, we seek distraction, and if there is any single thing that our world today has to offer it is distraction. We can see any movie at any time right in our homes or even on our phones. All music is available for pennies to be played anywhere at any time. The internet makes more information instantaneously available to us than is contained in the largest libraries in the world. And we use these gifts for distraction. Even our politics have become the politics of distraction.
I’m not trying to preach, but merely to contrast what PJ and I have found in these French and Spanish churches – a completely different world sensible to us the moment we walk into the cool, quiet interior of Sainte Marie de Souillac, Saint Pierre de Beaulieu, or Notre Dame la Grande in Poitiers.
These are spaces that are designed to for us to listen to that stillness that speaks to our souls, to the depths of what we seek and what we feel. In all probability, no criminal will ever be converted by a stone building, but in such a place he may feel the wrong in what he does. He will fear, in some deep sense, for what remains of his soul and thereby wonder if life might have held a different path than that chosen. The liar will sit in a quiet corner and have the courage to peek at a truth that is buried in the midst of his lies.
The rest of us may realize that those seemingly monumental failures in our life may not be important after all. We may not have to puff them up, to inflate them almost pornographically. These failures are not who we are, they do not define us, and they do not describe us to others. They are merely the residue of our ambitions.
Finally we are left with the silence itself. The stillness of these churches cries out for us to examine ourselves and our lives. Perhaps in that examination, we will find the edges of something else, signs of something important, perhaps even the traces of something great.
For words, like Nature, half reveal
And half conceal the Soul within.
(Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H)