By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. Psalm 137:1 (King James Bible)
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was quoted as saying, “Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’” Edward E. Ericson, Jr., “Solzhenitsyn – Voice from the Gulag,” Eternity, October 1985, pp. 23–4
It is not just that men have forgotten God. Humanity has placed so many restrictions on how we can approach the mystical side of life, the crucial part of the divine that cannot be explained in merely rational terms. Catholics have created a God that can only be perceived as part of a dogmatic Trinity. Calvinists attempt to abandon the mystical in religion completely. Modern rationalism has embraced a form of primum movens as the first cause of existence and then dismisses the divine from any further role. It is as if a creator set in motion a celestial algorithm that plays out forever in its own private fractal dimension.
How is possible to limit the illimitable? Humanity has imbued rocks, trees, waters, winds, the sun, moon, stars, statues, emperors, and contemplatives with divinity. The divine has embraced war, love, death, rebirth, beauty, fertility, justice, and evil. All of these are attempts to define that which cannot be defined.
Although not a practicing Catholic, there is a sense in which I am profoundly moved by the concept of the Virgin Mary as expressed in the Middle Ages. To touch and handle Throne of Wisdom madonnas like Notre Dame d’Heume or Notre Dame de Vassiviéres links me to the fervor of veneration for the Mother of God that led to the creation of the great cathedral of Chartres as her home on earth. It moves me when I see the simple beauty of the Sedes Sapientiae madonna with her implied knowledge of the sacrifice of her son and it is possible to sense the deep feeling and kinship expressed by the artist. This is no simple idol, but the most human response to the most human of the venerated saints. God used a human being to create his son and Mary is the mystical link between our own humanity and the divine.
Solzhenitsyn said further, “Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.” In a world exhausted by intolerance, war, polarized politics, economic greed and criminal manipulations by those in power; in a world dominated by the material, finding no solace in science or or learning, people look for answers in the secret places within.
Among the things that we might find when we do so is the spiritual or the religious. We might settle for a simple dogma or belief that justifies our personal desires, prejudices or wishes, or we can look again, but deeper within. We can look to what is right for all of humanity, for all people. We can seek justice and follow the path of those who have defined the best in the human spirit.
The articles in Via Lucis describe the churches that we photograph, sometimes as architecture, as reflections of the age that built them, and often as survivors of the tumults of the thousand violent years through which they have passed. But Via Lucis also expresses what PJ and I are trying to personally capture with these photographs, the sensation of the ineffable. Sometimes the writing is a meditation and sometimes a personal vision of faith.
And once in a while it all seems so complicated and perhaps we regret having tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that prevents us from trusting the yearnings of our heart. Perhaps we yearn for a time when the sacred seemed always to surround us, hoping for a concrescence of human knowledge and the divine.
Perhaps we are simply weeping for the Zion that was the pure and deep faith that we possessed as children.
Note: The music at the beginning of this post is the “Lachrymosa” from “Requiem for My Friend” by Zbigniew Preisner. The piece was written after the untimely death of his friend, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Lacrimosa is, of course, Latin for “weeping”.
Joseph Pearce. “An Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” St. Austin Review 2 no. 2 (February, 2003)is reprinted here.