Sacred Places

Island Life

222

I think the first time I stood in awe of a building was when I was in England in 1975. I had left a group of photographers in London at the conclusion of the “European Photo Study Workshop” that I had been a part of and, because I had a somewhat open ended ticket home, I spent the next three weeks hitchhiking through England, southern Scotland and Ireland. People had told me-”You should go to Bath”- so I did. I’m fairly certain that I did not misunderstand that they were actually imploring me to go take a bath. At any rate, I went to Bath, where I saw the Roman baths that I believe the town was named after. But it was the Bath Abbey that really captured my imagination. It was old- 12th century. But mostly it was ornate, with details inside and out that put most other buildings of any kind to shame. There was craftsmanship, structural intricacy and history all in one place. It was the end of summer and tourists were wandering in and out – myself included. It did not really feel like a religious space in that context- it was just an amazing building.

I don’t really recall how many days I spent in Bath but I do remember how fascinating the entirety of the town was. I walked everywhere, and since Bath is built around a river and somewhat nestled in a valley, it was fairly easy to walk all over town to visit and view its multitudes of points of interest. One day I decided to walk up hill and out of town to get a look from the top of the nearby knoll for a different and overall perspective. I remember seeing low brick walls in front of houses along the way. Many of these walls had partly rusted stumps of metal sticking out of the bricks that made up the top of each wall. I believe I had heard that these stumps were the only remnants of the ironwork fences  that had stood there before the war time demand for scrap metal had seen them all cut down and melted and reformed for more destructive purposes than simply blocking a view. But my greatest memory of that walk was the serendipitous moment when I reached the top and, being Sunday, every church bell in town seemingly all began to toll at once. It wasn’t coordinated, but it wasn’t cacophonous either. I stood still and looked around from my perched view on the hillside and tried to determine where each voice of the bell chorus was coming from.

I thought of that time in Bath just yesterday when the news reports of the fire at the Notre Dame cathedral started coming in. There was a mention of the fact that the firefighters had sought to save the bell towers when it looked as though other parts of the structure were sure to be lost. There had been concern that if the fire got to the towers and weakened the support structures for the bells then they might plummet to the ground, taking out parts or all of the towers as they fell. I thought of the sound they might make bouncing off support beams and perhaps ricocheting off walls and timbers toward the last final gong they might make as they hit the ground. As it was, the towers were indeed saved, so the locals were spared at least from what surely would have been a cacophony of finality as the bells plummeted to the ground below.

There was a part of the newscast that reminded me of a temple fire I had been to years ago at Burning Man. It was the part when the spire on Notre Dame collapsed in flames, not unlike the collapse of spires of a number of temples that have burned on the last night of Burning Man. The difference between the playa and Paris is that the temples there in the Nevada desert are built to burn. The Burning Man temples are omni-denominational and become, over the week of the festival, a place of calm in all of its otherwise chaotic existence. The temples also become, during that week, a repository of memorabilia- photos of lost friends, parents, siblings or pets of festival goers- that are all there to be consumed by fire. These temples have also been elaborate and beautiful, especially the ones designed by David Best. There are many levels of spirituality that can be in evidence at these burns, or at least there used to be- I have not been back in seven years.
With all the fire and debauchery that is in evidence there, Burning Man has been characterized as a pagan ritual of sorts. It was interesting to find, in looking up some of the history of Notre Dame, that Alexander III was the pope when construction was begun on the cathedral in 1163, perhaps around the time that the Bath Abbey was being rebuilt and expanded. It was also interesting to note that in one of his papal decrees, or papal bulls as they are known, in 1172 Alexander III sanctioned a crusade against the pagans of Northern Europe that both granted a remission of sins for all crusaders out fighting for this cause, and legitimized the widespread use of forced conversion to Catholicism amongst the so-called pagans they were there to encounter.

This last part is all kind of new to me, so I wasn’t really thinking about it last week when I was standing on the edge of the Black Rock Desert and reflecting about how calm it all looked as compared to what it might look like there come the end of August when the Burning Man festival rolls into town, so to speak. In truth though, I had not made a pilgrimage there for this particular reflection. I was actually on my way to Reno for a conference put on by an organization, Trails West, Inc., that exists to research and mark sections of the emigrant trails that led people west in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. It was interesting to note that a sign had been placed along the road to the access point where you can drive out onto the dry lake bed that indicates that this area had been part of that emigrant trails system. In one of those time traveling, fantasy moments I imagined a group of tired, covered wagon pioneers coming around the mountain range at the upper end of  this part of the desert and coming upon the strange revelry that happens at Black Rock City for a week in August.

However, as I stood out near that desert there did already exist a file marked Pope Alexander the Sixth rattling around somewhere in my cranial recesses. The presence of that file was what set off a few internal bells and whistles for me when I heard recently on the nightly news that pope Alex 3 had had a hand in breaking ground at the cathedral of Notre Dame. The reason I had that Alex 6 file kicking around in my head is related to my western trails interest and the whole Horace Greeley thing I’m immersed in at the moment. Following my cross country ramble last fall, I had been thinking about the whole ‘white guy coming along and taking whatever he found out in these barren, “uninhabited” lands thing’. In digging around a bit, I found a reference to Pope Alexander VI and a papal bull that he had drafted that outlines the “Doctrine of Discovery”.

What this doctrine basically stated back in 1493 was that, with Spain and others sending out explorers at that time to places unknown, this doctrine granted them the right of possession over anything they found in their explorations, even if what they found seemingly already “belonged” to any indigenous peoples that might be there, as long as these found folks weren’t Christians. These heathen, un-baptized  natives did have a right to occupancy of these lands they lived in, but not possession of those lands nor what might come out of them. This sounded like such a good idea that supreme court justice John Marshall used it as legal precedent in the 1823 case of Johnson v. McIntosh to settle a land purchase dispute, and it has been used in cases against Native American land claims up into this century. And so it was that we were able to go west and take whatever the savages had, because we had the Pope and God on our side…. Happy Easter.I think the first time I stood in awe of a building was when I was in England in 1975. I had left a group of photographers in London at the conclusion of the “European Photo Study Workshop” that I had been a part of and, because I had a somewhat open ended ticket home, I spent the next three weeks hitchhiking through England, southern Scotland and Ireland. People had told me-”You should go to Bath”- so I did. I’m fairly certain that I did not misunderstand that they were actually imploring me to go take a bath. At any rate, I went to Bath, where I saw the Roman baths that I believe the town was named after. But it was the Bath Abbey that really captured my imagination. It was old- 12th century. But mostly it was ornate, with details inside and out that put most other buildings of any kind to shame. There was craftsmanship, structural intricacy and history all in one place. It was the end of summer and tourists were wandering in and out – myself included. It did not really feel like a religious space in that context- it was just an amazing building.

I don’t really recall how many days I spent in Bath but I do remember how fascinating the entirety of the town was. I walked everywhere, and since Bath is built around a river and somewhat nestled in a valley, it was fairly easy to walk all over town to visit and view its multitudes of points of interest. One day I decided to walk up hill and out of town to get a look from the top of the nearby knoll for a different and overall perspective. I remember seeing low brick walls in front of houses along the way. Many of these walls had partly rusted stumps of metal sticking out of the bricks that made up the top of each wall. I believe I had heard that these stumps were the only remnants of the ironwork fences  that had stood there before the war time demand for scrap metal had seen them all cut down and melted and reformed for more destructive purposes than simply blocking a view. But my greatest memory of that walk was the serendipitous moment when I reached the top and, being Sunday, every church bell in town seemingly all began to toll at once. It wasn’t coordinated, but it wasn’t cacophonous either. I stood still and looked around from my perched view on the hillside and tried to determine where each voice of the bell chorus was coming from.
I thought of that time in Bath just yesterday when the news reports of the fire at the Notre Dame cathedral started coming in. There was a mention of the fact that the firefighters had sought to save the bell towers when it looked as though other parts of the structure were sure to be lost. There had been concern that if the fire got to the towers and weakened the support structures for the bells then they might plummet to the ground, taking out parts or all of the towers as they fell. I thought of the sound they might make bouncing off support beams and perhaps ricocheting off walls and timbers toward the last final gong they might make as they hit the ground. As it was, the towers were indeed saved, so the locals were spared at least from what surely would have been a cacophony of finality as the bells plummeted to the ground below.

There was a part of the newscast that reminded me of a temple fire I had been to years ago at Burning Man. It was the part when the spire on Notre Dame collapsed in flames, not unlike the collapse of spires of a number of temples that have burned on the last night of Burning Man. The difference between the playa and Paris is that the temples there in the Nevada desert are built to burn. The Burning Man temples are omni-denominational and become, over the week of the festival, a place of calm in all of its otherwise chaotic existence. The temples also become, during that week, a repository of memorabilia- photos of lost friends, parents, siblings or pets of festival goers- that are all there to be consumed by fire. These temples have also been elaborate and beautiful, especially the ones designed by David Best. There are many levels of spirituality that can be in evidence at these burns, or at least there used to be- I have not been back in seven years.

With all the fire and debauchery that is in evidence there, Burning Man has been characterized as a pagan ritual of sorts. It was interesting to find, in looking up some of the history of Notre Dame, that Alexander III was the pope when construction was begun on the cathedral in 1163, perhaps around the time that the Bath Abbey was being rebuilt and expanded. It was also interesting to note that in one of his papal decrees, or papal bulls as they are known, in 1172 Alexander III sanctioned a crusade against the pagans of Northern Europe that both granted a remission of sins for all crusaders out fighting for this cause, and legitimized the widespread use of forced conversion to Catholicism amongst the so-called pagans they were there to encounter.

This last part is all kind of new to me, so I wasn’t really thinking about it last week when I was standing on the edge of the Black Rock Desert and reflecting about how calm it all looked as compared to what it might look like there come the end of August when the Burning Man festival rolls into town, so to speak. In truth though, I had not made a pilgrimage there for this particular reflection. I was actually on my way to Reno for a conference put on by an organization, Trails West, Inc., that exists to research and mark sections of the emigrant trails that led people west in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. It was interesting to note that a sign had been placed along the road to the access point where you can drive out onto the dry lake bed that indicates that this area had been part of that emigrant trails system. In one of those time traveling, fantasy moments I imagined a group of tired, covered wagon pioneers coming around the mountain range at the upper end of  this part of the desert and coming upon the strange revelry that happens at Black Rock City for a week in August.

However, as I stood out near that desert there did already exist a file marked Pope Alexander the Sixth rattling around somewhere in my cranial recesses. The presence of that file was what set off a few internal bells and whistles for me when I heard recently on the nightly news that pope Alex 3 had had a hand in breaking ground at the cathedral of Notre Dame. The reason I had that Alex 6 file kicking around in my head is related to my western trails interest and the whole Horace Greeley thing I’m immersed in at the moment. Following my cross country ramble last fall, I had been thinking about the whole ‘white guy coming along and taking whatever he found out in these barren, “uninhabited” lands thing’. In digging around a bit, I found a reference to Pope Alexander VI and a papal bull that he had drafted that outlines the “Doctrine of Discovery”.

What this doctrine basically stated back in 1493 was that, with Spain and others sending out explorers at that time to places unknown, this doctrine granted them the right of possession over anything they found in their explorations, even if what they found seemingly already “belonged” to any indigenous peoples that might be there, as long as these found folks weren’t Christians. These heathen, un-baptized  natives did have a right to occupancy of these lands they lived in, but not possession of those lands nor what might come out of them. This sounded like such a good idea that supreme court justice John Marshall used it as legal precedent in the 1823 case of Johnson v. McIntosh to settle a land purchase dispute, and it has been used in cases against Native American land claims up into this century. And so it was that we were able to go west and take whatever the savages had, because we had the Pope and God on our side…. Happy Easter.