Thursday, February 07, 2008

Dead Man Working

This is Bishop Paul Marshall's February column in the Morning Call of Allentown, PA. It can also be found here.

I’ve seen the dead working.

To preside at the high altar of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on the feast of St. Paul’s conversion was an enormous treat. I had seen that altar only from far away. After some 50 years of looking up at it, off and on, it was a thrill to approach it to lead worship.

I saw something that first irritated, and then moved me.

There has been since the 1940s, over the high altar, a wonderful representation of Christ in glory, a Christus rex, that uses the facial figures of all the racial groups. Everyone can identify with it.

What initially irritated me is that this beautiful cross, which hangs on lovely gilt chains, apparently can sway a little in the breezes that must pass through one of the world’s largest churches. Somebody thought it might be better if Jesus didn’t sway.

Two strands of fishing line anchor the cross … to the marble hands of the dead bishop who is buried behind the high altar. I have pictures.

Only one who stands at the altar, a place roped off from visitors, can see this improvised fix that is essentially invisible to more than 99 per cent of those who pray or visit.

The fishing line irritated me because of the casual disrespect shown to the dead bishop by making his sarcophagus into a paperweight. Looping fishing line around his praying hands also suggests devaluing prayer itself. Martha: 10; Mary: 0.

Still, it is hard to be angry at what I’m sure was not intended as impiety or insensitivity in a day when we routinely express our new spiritual freedom by far more shocking acts of casual desecration in supposedly relevant worship experiences. The more I study modern psychoanalytic theory, the more convinced of I am that the need to cut ritual and mystery down to size and even abuse them isn’t a movement; it’s a symptom, an ugly one, but that’s for another time.

When life gives you lemons, make metaphors. From an actuarial point of view, I am closer to my death than to my birth, closer to ending than beginning my career. It is comforting to think that even after one is gone, something of what one was or did could help keep things steady for the next generation.

It is comforting to remember that there are things we can give, write, say, or do that will affect the future of our faith. Like the dead bishop, we may contribute to its stabilization in ways we cannot anticipate.

For example, I recall that hundreds of young women in Schuylkill County and beyond have been assisted in getting a college education because a gift given a century ago for a project that could not be accomplished has been converted into a scholarship fund.

It works both ways. Thinking about the fishing line that keeps Bishop Potter working and allows visitors to see a marvelous representation of Christ more clearly made me stop just for a moment in a very busy day and remember that almost everything I know best and value most is attached to the hands of one dead person or another. Many threads keep each of us in place.

I find myself torn. Fortunately, the decoration of a church in another state is not my problem. On the one hand, if that were my grandfather’s likeness being used to anchor the fishing line, I might be protesting in the cathedral office this minute. On the other hand, if that were my grandfather holding steady the most inviting image of Christ I know so that others could see it, I might think he was still answering the call to fish for people that was given so long ago in Galilee. I’d be thankful.

1 comment:

ruidh said...

"From an actuarial point of view, I am closer to my death than to my birth, closer to ending than beginning my career."

Yeah, actuaries always take the rap for reality.