Friday, August 24, 2012

Visiting the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis

About an hour ago, I left the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis.

As one grabs the huge wooden doors, one's anticipation is overthrown as the door opens way too easily. As one proceeds into the doorway, an immediate aura of gold showers one's skin. The tiles reflect the light as I enter from the busy street outside. An older man, a volunteer of the Basilica, in a bow tie and older raspy voice tells me that the intricate tile work took 74 years to complete from 1914-1988. Soon, it is apparent. The walls shimmer in various sparkles of opulent tile work. A staggering 21.5 million tiles surround the observer; the walls are adorned with various mosaics: Jonah and his whale, Thomas Aquinas and the beatitudes.

True to medieval form, various images of the Holy stand in to symbolize various tales and saints alike. In medieval times, the image was a substitute for understanding, and this sets it apart from the pristine lightly colored chapels of Protestant churches. The Protestant experience avoids iconography, preferring instead to understand the intangible word literally within the mind's eye. For the Catholic, the image is everywhere, and it is hard to decide if opulence and magnificence are leftover strategies set to work in the illiterate class, or something else for the 20th century born. Leftover strategies become something else, or as I will contend, one possible way of understanding the Holy (I am not committed yet to the exhaustive nature of my own opinions opting for a open humility to put them forward for examination).

The image is a transacted symbol, a type of gateway for the imagination to conceive the possibility of the depicted subject. A literal and naive imagination will simply take the image as is, as if the entire depicted Virgin Mary stands only for the miracle of Jesus's birth. I have explained many times before how much I deplore biblical inerrancy and literalism. Such strategies keep people from attending to the true complexity and richness of historical interpretation at work in history. Rather, I think, we should encounter the questions such richness pose when we stand at the threshold of inquiring for ourselves what tradition means to us.

Now, why talk of the Image as a way of opening up the imagination to conceive the possibility of the depicted subject in its richness. The pictorial form is not literal. To think of it as literal is to operate with a limited imagination, and operate as one might conceive a French peasant viewing the story of creation. The pictorial form is meant to carry us. The intricate symbols above force and inspire our eyes upward. I glanced up and saw the saints, the disciples and various ensconced metaphors for the divine. They held my attention in sheer brilliance and they gestured me to look onward and upward. My eyes track the roundness of the various middle sections of the roof that mirror the literal shape of a cross. As I look about, I feel like stretching out my arms in wonder and simultaneously feel like I want to take the beautiful images into myself.

The images overwhelm in silence contrasting against the occasional whisper and spoken voice. The resonance of the voice echoes throughout chiming and then vanishing with a reverberation meant to instill us to listen for it again. This reverberation manifests an aesthetic quality of manifesting the word, and is the general reason that all churches maximize the resonance of sound. Inside, people walk and sit in silence. They prostrate themselves before the saints, Mary or Christ. The respectful silence of the Cathedral snap us back into ourselves at the very same time the images are set to work on us. We start imagining the very possibility and form such images depict. We bow before their sheer awesome opulence, beauty and leave with a profound reverence. This reverence is an earthly feeling. Reverence can only be felt in contrast to the sublime Image of the Holy.

Within the Cathedral, I tried to pray today. I folded my hands in supplication, bent down on my knees, and I could not reach any quite in prayer. Instead, my mind wandered to questions it has always wrestled with about the Images surrounding me. In truth, I reach a quiet more silent than prayer affords. This quietude is reached when I think about philosophy as a difficult passage or when I write. If I of  am attempting to penetrate the depth of Aristotle, Husserl or Scheler, I reach a quiet of reflection more sacred than when I pray. The sacredness is a product of the quiet silence wherein I am alone before myself. In this solitude, I experience the cessation of the constant shifting of thought from one thing to another. There is only being in this "philosophical" silence. When I pray, I experience a restless quiet, an anxious encounter at being alone with myself before another. This is comparable to the nerves before going on stage or talking in large groups. In this way, it is a reactivation of an old social disposition of being before others. At this point, the possibility of God feels like an intrusion in my breast, a provocateur sent to stir trouble than the calm overwhelming presence of love. There is no loving presence when I pray to a personal God, and I speculate that this love is an unexpressed implicit want to be judged favorable before others. This is why I am more comfortable with a Cartesian God, an impersonal God subsumed in Descartes' metaphysical obsession of projecting geometry onto the world or Kant's postulate of practical reason. The experiences of the Holy that engender sacred silence and restful quiet are found in philosophy, and this is why philosophy is a religious experience for me.

The Images around me literally "throw me." They put the literal and the metaphorical at work within us such that the experience of God, the experience attempting to conceive the divine are re-constituted in a way to serve as a contrast of the countless other banal experience of daily life. Even the light of the Basilica captures the silence somehow. The candles shine in memory, the voices reverberate resonating and trailing off into the silence form which they came, and the visual images carry an allure that makes me look upward. As the lived-body is the zero point of orientation in physical daily life, we never look downward except in shame at what we have done or the want to ignore others and everything else. We ignore the concrete facticity of the ever-present others of social life. When we look upward, we look on alongside others doing the same thing. In this way, I speculate that in looking up, this gesture reveals the intersubjectivity of religious life to which something greater than all of us can be experienced in common. In William James, this is the "unseen order" to which we "harmonize" and it is within the symbol that we are thrown back upon realizing the benefits of religion in life rather than inventing ways to ignore the unfamiliar in Protestantism (Protestant churches are very adept at taking care of their own). We can also see the effect of the Image within ritual found in the gesture of looking up. The religious communal experience is a ritualistic symbol of our interdependence in human life. This is why we share in silence with others in mass, and interrupt that silence in mass by welcoming those next to us. In the middle of mass, we shake the hands of others. We invite the complete stranger around us and embrace their hands. The silence shared and its interruption between is the only intimate time where we hold the hands of those we may never know.

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