✜ Ephemeral things (from Greek εφήμερος – ephemeros, literally “lasting only one day”) are transitory, existing only briefly. ✜
When I was young, our family moved almost every single year of my life so books became my constant companions. The library was my temple, quiet and respectful and filled with mystery, learning, and adventure. The rows of books on the shelves fascinated me. By the time I got to high school in California, I was a confirmed library junkie. And it was in a California library that I remember checking out three books just because their titles compelled me to do so. One was Marx’s “Das Kapital”. I think that it might have been the reaction of the librarian when I checked it out, but I couldn’t resist carrying it around for a couple of weeks in the school hallways. I stopped when it became more difficult to read than to carry.
The second was the great work by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, the “Principia Mathematica”. The idea of the book took my brain by storm – mathematics and logic were the same and that all principles of mathematics could be logically derived from fundamental axioms and processes. That mathematics was somehow invented and derived was a completely novel concept. I guess that I had previously thought a genetic kernel of mathematics existed in all humans at conception. I was so taken with this idea of invention that I promised myself that I would read the book through and understand it. That never happened, of course, because I got completely lost in the mathematics, but it was like looking over the sheer edge of a canyon and being lost in contemplation of the depths.
The third volume was the “Summa Theologica” by Thomas Aquinas. The use of logic to prove the existence of God was completely irresistible to me, even though I had already begun my personal retreat from belief. Again, the work was too dense for me to understand in any profound way, but it introduced me to the world of Anselm, Abelard, William of Ockham, and Duns Scotus. They were a part of a world which seemed to embody the primacy of ideas and the mind and this, to my fifteen year old imagination, was shatteringly mind altering.
Now, having given this background, I must make a confession. At this tender age my intellectual hunger was hybridized with hormonal urges and the offspring was intellectual confusion. One moment I would be sitting in the library intently reading, taking notes about the compelling philosophical argument that the contemplative life is greater than the active life. The next instant my mind would wander to the compelling vision of luscious young Christine looking at me adoringly because I was reading such an important book. How could I reconcile Aquinas and sex?
And so I read these books in the library, but I carried them around the school halls in order that young women would be impressed. It didn’t work. Not one girl in my classes ever swooned over the Principia. I would have probably had better luck carrying a copy of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” or Ezra Pound’s “Cantos.” I probably would have been better off carrying Mad Magazine. As it was, the only time that anybody noticed was when the kid with the locker next to mine saw the copy of “Das Kapital” and loudly accused me of being a “Comminist”.
But I learned a lesson from the exercise and it has stayed with me my entire life. There are, and have always been, serious people making serious efforts to address the most serious questions of human existence. I long ago made peace with the fact that I would never be one of them, but it gave me a perspective on human accomplishment that has never been forgotten.
Most of what we consider art is as transitory as the Twelfth Night ice sculptures in Boston. The works may be beautiful, but are only temporarily sustainable. In seeking something less transient, less temporary, people look to nature, to science, to religion. PJ and I have found our Romanesque churches. They were created by the same powerful currents as the works of the scholastic philosophers; the belief that the mind of man can perceive the eternal workings of God in our transitory world. And more importantly, our work can honor those divine workings with our own efforts.
Oh, I learned one other important lesson as well. I have the utmost sympathy for all the juvenile medieval monks who worked diligently in the scriptorium copying manuscripts and then suddenly experienced the confused collision of their intellectual and hormonal selves. I think we have seen the results of that confusion in some of the capitals carved in our beloved Romanesque churches.