Continuing the Thread

Darkness spreads its heavy velvet mantle early on winter evenings.  Blackening windows mirror the activity of life sheltered inside from the cold.  Inhabitants isolated inside move through their evening routines unaware that the light which illumines their mundane tasks engages in a valiant struggle against the enemy outside.  It must push back the shadows.

I have a fascination, perhaps due to my melancholy nature, with medieval monastic communities.  This is no romantic fascination of the sort that longs to live as they did.  Rather, it can best be described as a deep respect and wonder at those who did choose to live this way.  Opting for a simple, even brutally spartan life is not something we moderns can readily understand or appreciate.  Yet, I have an ever-growing gratitude for the rich inheritance we have received as the result of their choice.  Their self-imposed isolation and impoverishment have given the world riches beyond imagination.

In the 6th century a monastic community was built on the inhospitable Skellig Islands jutting violently out of the Irish Sea.    It was on the larger of the two islands, Skellig Michael, that the monastery was built on a cliff hovering 600 feet above the crashing waves.  Higher up, at 700 feet, a hermitage was built as a place where one could pray in as close physical proximity to God as possible. Monks lived in tiny little bee-hive shaped stone huts called clochans.  In an effort to keep out the harsh weather the only opening was a skin-covered door.  The brothers here spent their days in quiet study and prayer. They also spent many isolated hours painstakingly copying the holy Scriptures, histories, and the literary works of classical antiquity which had been carried up to these remote regions by the invading Romans.  It is possible, even likely, that the great canon of Western literature known to us as “The Great Books” would have been lost forever when the hordes of so-called barbarians swept across the European continent in the years following Rome’s demise.  Rather…in little stone huts and cold stone cells in the British Isles, men who chose obscurity as their way of life conducted their work by the weak flicker of candle flame preserving our heritage.  Most importantly, they were preserving God’s Word which would kindle much brighter flames in the years to come.

One of the harsh realities during the early Middle Ages was the constant threat of Viking attack.  Britain was an easy mark for the marauders, but even the harsh conditions of the Skellig islands were not enough to deter the Scandinavian invaders whose native lands were equally harsh.  There are at least two specific Viking attacks recorded in histories of the eighth and ninth centuries.  In the first, the island was invaded and the Abbot was kidnapped and left to starve to death.  In the second, the famous Olaf Trygvesson, invaded and–in one of the great twists of history–was baptized by one of the Skellig brothers.  Olaf took his new found Christian faith and the mandate to spread it very seriously.  Unfortunately, Viking-style evangelism often included torture.  For those who failed to accept the faith and be baptized, it usually included death.  At least in the early years.  Over time and with patient instruction Olaf, King of Norway, laid aside his cruel ways and the Viking culture was conquered through the cross.  The monks of Skellig, living in isolation from the rest of the world, had been used by God to plunder the kingdom of darkness in northern Europe.

The monastery was eventually abandoned.    It became home to two lighthouses, steering seafarers away from the dangers hidden by the cover of darkness.  These, too have now been abandoned.  Yet, the light from Skellig has not been extinguished.   All the brothers had hoped to do was live faithful lives of quiet devotion engaging in the seemingly mundane task of copy work.  Were they ever aware of the valiant struggle that their little candle-lit huts were waging against the enemy outside?  The end of their light, of all light, is to push back the shadows.

What quiet tasks are we performing in isolation that are helping to push back shadows?  Are we content to have them known only to God?  May the long winter nights ahead give us the time to reflect on these questions.

P.S.  For my fellow melancholies or anyone interested in a beautifully captured feeling of Skellig:





Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Thread

Based on the medieval method of determining temperaments, I am a definitely a melancholy.  The personality of a melancholy is highly affected by the slightest changes in circumstances, environment, routines, sights, sounds, smells.  These changes can send our spirits soaring or plunge us into the deepest shadows. The driving desires of the melancholy are solitude, long periods of uninterrupted time for reflection and creativity, distance, even seclusion. Without these things, the melancholy feels anxious, stressed, weighed down. According to the medievals, the melancholy personality is also equated with the element of earth: cold and dark.  That got me thinking.  Is this perhaps why I am happiest during the winter with its long months of biting cold, extended hours of darkness, and relative isolation?   I literally feel giddy with joy at the prospect.  Contradictory? Perhaps.

There are times in life when the convergence of conversations, readings, and circumstances are hard to ignore.  Perhaps it is at these times when God is insisting that we take a closer look at the common threads.  For me, the recent convergence has revealed the common thread of the power of isolation to affect the lives of others.  Contradictory? Maybe not.  Hopefully over the next few weeks, I will be able to carve out some longed-for solitude to create an explanation of what I feel but cannot yet find the words to describe.

Aside | Posted on by | 2 Comments

Building Our Legacy

One of the things in life that sets my heart aflutter is good architecture. When all the elements of good design come together in a structure, the effect is so satisfying. What makes one structure more aesthetically pleasing than another is hard to define. Yet, I know it when I see it. It’s simple beauty that pleases me most. Perhaps that is why I am especially fond of New England architecture. Simple, classic, lovely.

Regional architecture is an interesting thing. As is true for other human endeavors, architecture exposes the thinking of the people doing the creating. What is it about New Englanders that caused them to create such quiet, unpretentious beauty? What core beliefs drove their design principles? To answer these questions, we must first consider who these builders were.

New England. The region’s name gives us a giant leg up. Not all the settlers were English, of course. Scots-Irish and settlers from other nations also came to the region. But, we can safely say that the majority of them were of British descent.  When these settlers came, they brought their culture with them. The word culture is another interesting thing. It comes from the Latin word “colere” which means, among other things, “to cultivate, to worship, to adorn.”  So, we can think of a “culture” as an expression of what the people decide to cultivate and worship.  The things they choose to worship give birth to cultural adornments, in this particular case, the buildings they construct.

So, back to the earlier question:  What core beliefs drove their design principles?  In studying the belief systems which best defined the people of England, Ireland, and Scotland, it doesn’t take long before one runs headlong into the Westminster Confession of Faith along with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  Written in an attempt to unify the worship and doctrine of the three countries, the Westminster Confession casts a long shadow—so long that it traverses the Atlantic and defines not only early American colonial life, but also government, law, education, and yes—expressions of art—including architecture.

How on earth can a creedal statement possibly affect building?  Granted, there are many other factors in determining why people would build in a certain way, but as a man believes, so he creates.  This is most closely linked how he designs houses of worship.  So, let’s take a look.

Quick.  What comes to mind when you think about a quintessential New England Village?  What is the centerpiece?  Do you picture a giant, stone cathedral with dizzying height, bejeweled with stunning stained glass windows?  Or, do you picture a village green surrounded by simple, white frame structures, the largest of which is the meeting house with its clock-faced tower presiding over the rest?  My guess is that what you pictured is the latter.  The iconic New England church blends in harmoniously with its neighbors and marks the center of village life.

For these believers, the worship of God was to occupy the center of all of life.  The answer to Westminster Catechism number 1 (What is man’s chief end?) explains a lot:  “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” And here is how our New England brothers and sisters sought to demonstrate this truth and remind their community of it continually, by literally putting God at the center.

Just as worship was to be the center of life, so the preaching of the Word was to be the center of worship.  Author Paul Tillich makes an interesting observation in “Theology in Architecture” in Architectural Forum regarding the development of clear glass panes in ecclesiastical architecture:

“The development of light in churches is very interesting.  Slowly the daylight replaced the light that is broken through stained-glass windows.  The daylight is not the outburst of Divine light but light by which one can read and the congregation can see one another.”

The centrality of the Word, read, sung, and preached requires light.  Pure light to illuminate the Word.  Equally important is for the community of believers to see one another; for the body to be able to behold—and know— all those who are members of it.   To see one another in the light of the Lord’s Day as they encourage and exhort one another through singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  To see one another in the light of the Lord’s Day as they read the Words of life corporately, signifying their unity of belief.  To see one another as they hear the Word proclaimed together and are reminded of what God requires of His covenant people.

These churches had very little in the way of adornment, relying instead on the beauty of God’s saving Word, voices blended in corporate singing, and the beauty of believers worshiping in unity of spirit to adorn the space with a splendor no thing made by human hands could rival. They did not seek to create houses of worship that looked significantly different from any of the other buildings where human activities took place.  For them, all of life was an act of worship, whether one was making candles, selling dry goods, or feeding lunch to hungry children.  The only nod to religious ornamentation was the spire drawing all villagers to a heaven-ward gaze as they worshiped God through their daily callings.

I wonder:  What does our building say about us?  How has our culture influenced the way we build?  Our homes?  Our churches?  If someone three hundred years from now were to evaluate what we cherished based on what we’ve built, what would they deduce?

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Haman’s Moment of Unwitting Truth

“There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your kingdom: their laws are different from all other people’s and they do not keep the King’s laws.” Esther 3:8a

Haman spoke these words to Xerxes as a deceptive means to destroy the Jews. He hated the Jews. The hatred is not explained other than the detail given of Haman’s pedigree: he was “the son of Hammedatha, the Agagite.” Haman is somehow connected to Agag, King of the Amalekites. Bad blood existed between Israel and the Amalekites. And so, Haman wants all God’s chosen “…to be destroyed, to be killed, to be annihilated.” And so it has always been and always will be in the city of man.

Haman’s words were intended to deceive; they weren’t honest. But, they were true…mostly. The laws of God’s people have always been distinct from those of other people. They have always been marked by a concern for the downtrodden, the weak, the vulnerable. They have always placed an emphasis on the importance of self-control and personal holiness. They demand that husbands love their wives, that wives respect their husbands, that children humbly obey, that leaders serve in humility, that the governed pray for and honor those in authority over them. They command God’s people to love Him with all their hearts, souls, strength, and minds; and their neighbors as themselves.

The Hamans of the world always think that they are more clever than God. The Hamans of the world seek to create knavish laws designed to further their own personal agendas and then squawk when those who can see through them dare to question.

Think about it, Haman. What if everyone followed the summary of biblical law—the one you call “unlawful”? What if everyone loved God, acknowledging Him as the true King and, from that understanding of the proper order of things, then truly loved others as they loved themselves? Right. You and Xerxes would be unemployed and, deep down inside, you know that’s true.

The only hope for Persia, for Greece, for Rome, for America is for the numbers of those who have a higher law to increase. There is a people scattered and dispersed throughout every nation: their laws are different from all other people’s, and they DO keep the King’s laws.

Haman learned this lesson the hard way as do all the Hamans of the world. And so it has always been in the city of man.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hello world!

A birthday lunch with a literary friend, a perfect summer day, the beautiful insightful words of a former student turned muse,  a son’s decision to embrace the fearsome, and freckles on a little face.  What is the connection you ask? Inspiration.  The blessings of this life overflow in abundance—even when the clouds obscure the truth.  And so…I must do something with the gratitude.  Here goes…

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment