Would you rather find yourself in a remote and untouched corner of the globe (if such a virgin region were left to explore in our world), or stand amid the ruins of an ancient civilization? I was thinking about that this week. Maybe because both seem equally impossible and so far out of reach in these days of covid19 isolation! As much as I love the beauty of nature, I have to admit that there would be something cold and lonely and rather arresting about being the first to set foot somewhere. It would be stirring, but I think I am stirred in a deeper way when I touch the very stones hewn and placed by the ancients. And the buildings need not even still be standing to stir my soul. I’ve explored ancient castles in my ancestral homeland of Scotland. I’ve sat in the shadow of the Parthenon on the steps of the Acropolis. I’ve touched foundation stones under Temple Mount in Jerusalem. I’ve walked on Roman Roads that the very feet of Jesus have trod.
I know that the “cathedral of nature” can lift our hearts to God. I don’t discount that. I, too, have been left breathless at the rim of the Grand Canyon. But there is a mysterious moving in our souls when we connect with objects left behind long ago by men and women just like us. When it comes to Architecture, “We may live without her, and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her,” said John Ruskin. This remembering, while it brings with it a sober reminder of our own mortality and insignificance, also helps us to realize that we do not stand alone. The gravity is tempered somewhat by finding ourselves in the company of untold millions, a long line of lives lived and lives yet to be lived. And perhaps where natural beauty meets with the evidence of the past is where we feel these stirrings the deepest. In such magical places, it’s as if the stories of bygone lives enrich the landscape, lending it a deeper beauty and a note of solemnity that might otherwise be absent. Acrocorinth was like that for me! Did you know Corinth has its own acropolis (literally “summit city”)? It’s a hike well worth it!
So what’s got me thinking about ancient buildings and beautiful places? Or rather, should I say “who”? John Ruskin of course. Yesterday I moved from his discussion of art into the realm of architecture…something I am even less versed in than art I’m afraid. But Ruskin is a master guide. His chapter on Memory as one of The Seven Lamps (or principles) of Architecture really challenged my 21st century mindset. Writing well over one hundred years ago, he was already decrying the frenzied pace of “modern” life and the carelessness with which homes and public buildings were being slapped together. He said it testified to a spirit of discontent when “Men build in the hope of leaving the places they have built, and live in the hope of forgetting the years that they have lived.” He believed a person should build a home, not just for their own lifetime, but for generations to come, with a sense of permanency and legacy. He says, “When men do not love their hearths, nor reverence their thresholds, it is a sign that they have dishonoured both.” Ouch!
“When men do not love their hearths, nor reverence their thresholds, it is a sign that they have dishonoured both.”from The Seven Lamps of Architecture by John Ruskin
He then moved on to discuss public buildings and argued that a nation’s monuments belong just as much to future generations as to the builders’ own time. He even went so far as to say that there is really no such thing as “restoring” an old building. The result is nothing more than a model, just an empty shell. It’s a lie. It’s not the same ancient edifice at all. His answer to avoiding the temptation of such a dilemma is to keep a careful, reverent watch on historic buildings through the years and to do all we can, as need arises, to preserve them. That way, many more generations will be able to enjoy them. Eventually, however, the time will come when any building is too far gone, and we should just be honest about it and face the sad fact that it is time for its “funeral”. He believed that what we inherit from previous generations is that sacred and deserves such care and respect and honesty. Here we go again! I can hear that familiar echo of the Pre-Raphaelites, pleading for absolute truth and honesty in art.
I also found his discussion on each generation’s view of its successors interesting. He says we are eager to contemplate our effect on posterity but usually only in a selfish way. We want to be admired, remembered, maybe even exonerated by them; but when it comes to making choices for their benefit that would delay or preclude our own pleasure, we hesitate. That kind of forward thinking is sadly not as common or popular!
Living in 2020, in a very mobile society where entire households are frequently on the move, whether it be across town, across the country, or across the globe, I did find some of his assertions challenging. But he did succeed in painting a beautiful picture of a life lived in connection to both past and future generations. He was speaking in a strictly architectural sense, but I see so many faith applications here as well. When I think of the legacy of my physical and spiritual ancestors, the hardships endured, the sacrifices made, the risks taken in search of a better life (which perhaps was not to be realized in their lifetime), what right do I have to break faith with them? How dare I deprive my children and grandchildren of such a rich heritage!
When I turn my gaze in the opposite direction and think with an eye toward future generations, what right do I have to jeopardize their well-being or security by selfishly indulging my whims and fancies? Could it be that there are things worth depriving myself of for the good of someone yet to be born…someone I will never even meet in this life? As a Christian, living within the context of God’s story and believing that all of history is His grand story of redemption, I have to answer with a resounding “yes!” Just look at the genealogy of Jesus for some great examples of how God worked through human lives and hardships, unbeknownst to them, to bring about the birth of the Messiah. Now, I’m not claiming to have some future king in my bloodline or anything, but with my limited vision, I don’t know what foundations God is laying or building upon in my life as I live my days faithfully and sometimes not so faithfully! But God knows!
We all need that kind of encouragement, especially during these days of isolation when life can feel so aimless and obscure. I may not have had a literal hand in building my family’s home. I certainly didn’t lay the threshold, brick by brick. Come to think of it, there’s probably not a single brick in this split-entry cookie-cutter house! We don’t have a hearth whose stones tell stories of bygone days. But Ruskin’s lofty ideals have given me a renewed sense of purpose in “building” the atmosphere of our home. PJ and I may not live out our final days under this roof, bequeathing it to the next generation; but I pray that the life and love and faith that is cultivated within these walls will long outlive any of us who occupy this space right now!