How can beauty and awfulness have such unity?
A quarter way through life’s journey I was lost and alone in a bright world. Indeed, the world was all too bright and clean, as if there was something wrong with us that we had worked long and hard to cover with stainless steel and LED screens.
In spite of all that, one still feels the need to cry out to the gods on occasion. They must be there, somewhere above the noise. But in this, our exile, it seemed my cries could not reach their Olympian heights.
Surely the gods require something of me. They must cry out for my sacrifices, my works, my words, my right thoughts and feelings. But I am only a man, cursing and despairing along my way, and what are the gods that they should be mindful of me?
The right words always escaping, the right thoughts always fleeting, the right actions always failing.
Wandering and lost, but then – the stone, ancient, haunting, yet inviting in a way only pilgrims will understand.
I had been in houses of worship before, searching after strange gods. The gods of those places expected much: Laughter and smiles even when life was sorrowful; singing and shouting to cloak the loneliness; tears at the right time and only at the right time. Noise cloaked as joy. Emotion cloaked as holiness. The masters of these temples could not be divine, for their expectations are the same as those in the fallen world around them.
But this stone edifice, even from an approaching distance, displaces human expectations. How can beauty and awfulness have such unity? The very enormity of the structure reminds me of my insignificance yet the steeples and spires reaching to the heavens also seem to offer promise of some hope, but not of human hope. The solemnness suggests I have been hoping for the wrong thing.
Children laugh and play loudly on the front steps. Surely their youth blinds them to the spiritual messages hidden in the architecture.
I enter. Silence. No wonder people kneel when crossing the threshold. The mind and soul compel some reaction. The hall is dark, yet full of light and color coming off the stained windows and images of saints and angels.
The whole building and the religion that brought it into being is a paradox. The feeling it evokes can only be described as joy wrapped in fear and trembling.
My mind recalls those stories from the Old Testament. Whenever God visited mere mortals He masked His glory lest it consume and strike the mortals dead. Those who got a glimpse, a tiny view of heaven, must have felt joy, but usually they fell down in fear and terrible awe. If a mortal tried to walk through heaven he surely could not bear the weight of glory.
This place of brick and mortar took my breath away for a moment. That must only be a fraction of what it feels like to pass through heaven’s gates: to feel the beauty and splendor crush and dissipate all your thoughts and expectations that you brought with you.
To enter a holy place with an open heart is to allow it to reorder your thoughts and desires. In the presence of beauty I have no words, and even if I did they would not be appropriate here. But I still, strangely, feel as though I am being heard and that all my needs and desires shall be made whole. Like when a friend or lover knows your thoughts before you speak, only this is somehow more complete.
In the corner sits a Lady, holding her dying and nail-pierced Son. I have not suffered as they have suffered. All my tribulations are absorbed in His. No wonder I cannot speak. In the world outside, my thoughts were not His thoughts and my ways were not His ways. But here, on this stone floor, something called my thoughts higher, and all that I thought important vanished.
I turn to leave. The children from before are now seated in the back pew, without chaperone, in silence.
Brian Miller is currently studying Law at George Mason University where he also works as a Research Assistant. His writings have appeared in The Intercollegiate Review, Ethika Politika, and The Imaginative Conservative.