Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Building Mortality

The great thing about construction projects, especially renovation projects, is that they strongly suggest mortality.

I've been rebuilding a bathroom over the last couple of weeks. Carpentry, plastering, tiling, painting, minor plumbing, and more than I 've wanted of industrial strength cleaning. I've scratched knuckles, raised blisters, plastered my hair, sanded joint compound dust into every crevice of myself and the place, lost the ability to smell paint, and felt the sting of industrial solvents in my nightmares.

And I've loved it. The bathroom looks great. I couldn't be prouder of myself, my skill, my capacity to improve the world. I want to show off my accomplishments to all family, friends, landlords, and anyone else willing to admire my work.

Yet renovation, by its very nature, is also humbling. With every hammer swing and brush stroke, I know that I am replacing the fruits of someone else's proud labor. Thus I know--even as I aspire for my work to last, to be a monument to my skill and labor and accomplishment--that my excellent work will fade, crumble, disappear.

Indeed, I'm inspired--in my tiny tiny way--by the great builders in history, most especially the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest by far of any of the ancient Wonders of the Mediterranean World and the only one surviving. Built by untold thousands of slaves over a period of twenty years, the pyramid must represent some astronomical percentage of Pharonic Egypt's GNP. I also wonder how many slaves died in its construction. Nevertheless, it is remarkable. Built with the most amazing mathematical and engineering skill, after 45 centuries it still less shows than 0.1% error in symmetrical dimensions, and the interior blocks of stone weighing several tons each are so perfectly placed that a playing card will still not fit between any two stones.

Yet even the Great Pyramid, the oldest and best monument to immortality in the history of the planet, is in fact a testament to mortality. Today it stands in defiance of time, but still shows the effects of time: it has lost its smooth stone exterior; ten feet of its tip has eroded away; its original purpose as a monument/tomb/symbol of religious and political power probably lasted centuries, perhaps millennia, but the place was thoroughly looted by the time Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in the 4th century BC. Like the tortoise that lives for centuries compared to the insect that lives for hours, the pyramid has a much longer life span than any other building, but still a mortal lifespan.

Tones of tragedy thus accompany the doomed effort to create something that endures. Yet, if we accept this fact of life from the outset, then building something to last offers a challenge, plus the fun and satisfaction of meeting that challenge with all the skills we can muster, all our energy to do our best with the meagre tools and talents we have, to at least improve over what was there before, to create a better world. Embracing the tragedy of unavaoidable failure yet doing our best to refute it is the joy of mortality.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

"Into Great Silence"

Some part of my Irish Catholic soul must be attracted to the priesthood. Not that I'm religious, or a believer, or even particularly moral, God knows (if He exists). Still, I'm attracted by the practice of contemplating God, or rather its secular equivalent. If I can translate God from religion to secular philosophy according to the tenet that God is life, then contemplating God means contemplating life.

This attraction is probably the result of some foreign influence, since it is so un-American, against the cultural compulsion to DO: achieve, build, earn, consume. Or perhaps it's just a sickness, a brooding nature, an affinity for cloud nine (as my father used to tell me), in other words, a poor excuse for not DOING. Although, I must say, I DO plenty of building, achieving, consuming, never enough of course (especially earning), but plenty. Nevertheless, I'm better, happier, when I contemplate the purpose and meaning of being alive. I indulge those moments outside of everyday experience that nonetheless define everyday experience. Perhaps it's akin to a pursuit of grace.

No doubt this pursuit attracted me the other night to the west coast premier of Into Great Silence, a German film by Philip Grönig about a monastery in the French Alps famous for its monks' vow of silence. From the website:

Silence. Repetition. Rhythm. The film is an austere, next to silent meditation on monastic life in a very pure form. No music except the chants in the monastery, no interviews, no commentaries, no extra material.

Changing of time, seasons, and the ever repeated elements of the day, of the prayer. A film to become a monastery, rather than depict one. A film about awareness, absolute presence, and the life of men who devoted their lifetimes to god in the purest form. Contemplation. An object in time.

As advertised, the film, like life in the monastery, is remarkably spare, silent, almost completely uneventful: no musical score, virtually no dialogue; no plot, no drama, no climax. Indeed, in a three hour film, almost nothing happens. The film is one prolonged--two minutes or more--artsy camera shot after another, of the beautiful monastery and its alpine setting; of monks praying, ringing the bells to signal praying, or doing some simple daily chore like cutting celery; of monks passing each other in silence. The only structure is this cycle of daily life, repeated again and again, through the seasons, throughout the monk's life, from initiate to blind old age, minimizing doing and maximizing contemplation of God's meaning. Nothing changes or develops other than this unhurried, repetitive, distraction-less approach to God.

Not exactly a formula for a Hollywood blockbuster.

Yet the audience was maybe 500 in the college lecture hall and still well over 400 after three hours, most of us still awake, though quiet, subdued, perhaps transported, as was the film's intent, into the experience of the monastery, monastic life, contemplation. The three hours were not spellbinding. My attention wandered, settling at times on my "to do" consciousness, my plans for after the movie, my appetites. Still, I cycled back inexorably to the film and its silent, unhurried, inexorable pursuit of grace. By the end, I felt that this pursuit was also mine. The tiniest part of that grace mine.

I am certainly not apt to contemplate Christ as the path to God's grace, but rather to pursue grace by contemplating my own acts of doing and how they contribute or not to my purpose, meaning, and happiness in this pathless existence. Or perhaps I'll contemplate the meaning of the acts of human beings, today or in history. Maybe I'll contemplate a film or other work of art. Above all, I'll contemplate the people close to me, especially the uncanny, sometimes overwhelming presence of a loved one. I also struggle, forget, screw up, get lost in my projects and appetites and distractions. I'm no monk. When I return to the contemplation of life, however, I take to it as naturally as a monk to prayer.

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