Weeping for Zion (Dennis Aubrey)

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.

Notre Dame d'Heume, Heume l'Eglise (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Notre Dame d’Heume, Heume l’Eglise (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Notre Dame d'Estours, Monistrol d'Allier (Puy-de-Dôme)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Notre Dame d’Estours, Monistrol d’Allier (Puy-de-Dôme) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey
Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre Dame de Nazareth, Vaison-la-Romaine (Vaucluse) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Side aisle of Église Saint-Pierre , Parthenay-le-Vieux (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by PJ McKey
Side aisle of Église Saint-Pierre , Parthenay-le-Vieux (Deux-Sèvres) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

North side chapel, Église Saint-Laurent d'Auzon, Auzon (Haute-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
North side chapel, Église Saint-Laurent d’Auzon, Auzon (Haute-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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”.

Grave of Krzysztof Kieslowski (Warsaw) Image by Krzysztof M. Bednarski, published under GNU Free Documentation License.
Grave of Krzysztof Kieslowski (Warsaw) Image by Krzysztof M. Bednarski, published under GNU Free Documentation License.

Joseph Pearce. “An Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” St. Austin Review 2 no. 2 (February, 2003)is reprinted here.

21 thoughts on “Weeping for Zion (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. We are weeping for that which is greater than we are. We seek to experience the divine, to see it around us. Yet we have done so much to destroy that which leads us toward the realization of the exsistance of the divine around us.
    Beautiful as always.

    1. We are indeed, Aquila. One of the hardest things for us is to walk into one of our favorite Romanesque churches and see how it is becoming either a museum or an amusement park. To see what has happened at Mont Saint Michel, for example (to identify the worst) is even more difficult than trying to survive the hordes of selfie-taking tourists in Notre Dame de Paris. I actually saw a Japanese girl “vamping” in a slinky dress on the floor of Notre Dame while her boyfriend took shots of her like she was a fashion model.

      1. The lack of simple good manners is obvious everywhere, and respect is almost dead. I can just hear an old priest going absolutely ballistic over something like that and trying to see to it that the offenders were exorcized.

      2. Aquila, the vamping in Notre Dame was so shocking not only because it was a church, but it was also clear that others were trying to worship. To reverse the situation, it would be like building sand castles in a Karesansui garden. Often when PJ and I are photographing in a church, we discover that there is someone in a private corner of the church trying to pray or meditate, and we are immediately chastised. We feel like intruders and we move away so that we don’t possibly disturb that person. What other response is there?

      3. I guess it just comes down to the idea that as long as you are okay with what you’re doing it doesn’t matter how it affects others. I would feel I was intruding to find someone obviously praying or meditating and I too would move away and try to make sure I didn’t disturb them. Perhaps part of the problem is that so many of the old churches in Europe are no longer active churches and when tourists go to one that is still active they act like it isn’t. I am probably very old fashioned and would consider it wise to be respectful no matter if the church was active or not simply because it once was a very sacred place and that sanctity should remain.

  2. Dennis, i admire your faith in written communication. Many artists refuse to describe their art, to lower it by describing it. The idea for many of them is, my art is my message… If i have to explain it in words it means i failed in my art form…

    But you Dennis and PJ you plow on like farmers, delivering artistic pictures of artistic architectures and sculptures, and still finding a profound will to comment on them, to reach further after the image is made… To dig deeper till no stone is left unturn…

    I hope that, like in Esop’s (or La Fontaine’s) fable, a new harvest will come out of this labor…

    Your quest is of the faith of the medieval believers. Can we find such candor with /after all our modern knowledge? Can we forget all that we know and come down to our knees to that candid faith?

    You are caught between the ultimate weekness of the kneeling pilgrim, and the tempestuous temper of your flying stallion…

    Jesus is the only character I know who has matched the ultimate passion with the ultimate servitude, and he didn’t end well… Or did he?

    1. Joel, the writing is primarily to explain the context of the photography, but it diverges often, as it did on this post, to what we feel and think about the churches. And since PJ and I both share the photography, there is also an inevitable discovery of things that I did not shoot and find when looking at PJ’s work. A classic example is the great shot she did of Saint Front in Périgueux. Thank you so much for your commentary. PJ and I both loved the “You are caught between the ultimate weekness of the kneeling pilgrim, and the tempestuous temper of your flying stallion…”

  3. I find a deep sympathy/empathy with what you write here.
    Above all I hear a call for recognising the need for inner space – and where was this space better explored than through God?
    Mariolatry adds a distinct spin to that.

    Fellow travellors, in our ways.

    1. Michael – fellow traveller – thank you so much for this. I always hesitate posting these personal reflections, wondering if they have any place in a blog about the photography of medieval architecture. But have come to realize that the personal exploration is precisely why we chose these churches in the first place. Your comments and encouragement help so much.

      1. I presume you are familiar with the story in Bede about the sparrow in the mead hall? It troubled me for quite some time, until i realised the sparrow spends most of its time outside – that we can and do exist ‘outside’, that is as much our environment as this.

  4. Dennis, this is nothing short of splendid. It’s late on a Sunday night, my second Sunday in retirement, needing a piece like this. I’m out of the pulpit for the rest of my life and need sustenance. This piece spoke to me in the depths. Thank you.

  5. The sanctity of these wondrous constructions will always trump whatever reasons a person feels obliged to enter them. I especially felt the power of your statement about Chartres being built as the home of the Virgin Mary on Earth, remembering that these builders truly believed that Earth was the center of all existence, and that Heaven was above, and Hell was below.

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