Illumination (Part 1 of 2)

August 22nd, 2017 (Travel Date) 

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There were several places left to visit prior to leaving the state of Missouri: a museum on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River dedicated to the launch site of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, Cahokia, and there was a specific path to these places that I wanted to take: a river road route that followed near and sometimes next to the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Rain dictated the order of events on this day, so the river drive came first.

Unlike most of Texas, whose fields are often surrounded by fencing, most of the Missouri lands we traveled through have none. The fields are mostly agricultural, crammed full of corn and soybeans. This trend continued along the rivers into Illinois.

Low clouds produced a light mist and brief periods of rain for part of the drive. Before this drive mountains always held my interest. But these hills and flood plains along and between the two rivers, caught in deep colors by the overcast skies, were as much a site to behold for me as the Rockies were at varying points in my travels. After all, this was the type of setting some of my ancestors moved to Texas from. Perhaps there will come a day when I can travel from the point where the Mississippi begins to its end, to truly understand what an amazing experience this river is. Then again, such an experience can only belong to those who make the river their livelihood.

We passed several places I’d like to return to like Pere Marquette State Park and Grafton, Illinois, before arriving at the Lewis and Clark Memorial Park. Among the fantastic displays representing the expedition in the museum, was a replica of the boat utilized to launch the expedition. Memories of parts of their trail I crossed a number of years before in the Northeast flooded my thoughts as I walked the length of the exposed cross section of the boat. I wish I could tell you now that I had planned as they had for our trip. I had not. Our time there was brief, but informative before we drove on, crossing the river into Saint Louis, near the Saint Louis Arch. I really had no concept of just how big the base of the arch really was. Like other experiences in life, pictures really don’t do it justice.

Not long thereafter we arrived at the cathedral. I knew the moment I pulled into the parking lot there was something special about this place.

I have never committed to any one religion as a belief system. There are aspects of several I currently appreciate: The Jefferson Bible for Christianity, the spiritual struggle within as represented by various faiths, and certain meditation practices from Buddhism. In some ways I am new to them, but others have been with me a very long time. I enjoy reading Confucian books from time to time, Lao Tzu and Mencius were important reads at one time in my life, though no readings have I ever undertaken as a religious practice, a part of my life that still needs work. My relationship with some higher existence is quite personal; I’ve never really found shared worship that inspirational in that it often left me feeling more hypnotized than enlightened. No, my spiritual relationship with a higher order is usually found in the overwhelming sensation of awe I experience when I discover some positive insight or view that I had not experienced before. I knew the moment I stepped out of the vehicle and looked at the lines that form the outside of this structure, not to mention its sheer size, there was just such an experience to be had here.

I’ve spent time in various structures: tents in remote places, staring through a threaded screen toward a great many stars in the night sky, barns and cabins, trailers and RVs, a bomb shelter, several apartments; for a period of time I had the honor of working in homes whose architecture left me in awe of the level of detail and time it must have taken to build, from the chiseled marble, to paintings on ceilings from artists hired from overseas, to the beauty found in wormwood shipped from places I will most likely never visit. I’ve spent days and a few nights in hotels with areas open from the foundation to the glass ceilings whose number of floors I’ve long since lost count of. But never have I seen what I saw upon entering this cathedral: mosaics that the eyes could never tire of and behind the doors before me, was something quite special indeed, a view stretching across the nave, beneath the center dome where the east and west transepts are separated, up to the sanctuary. For myself, this was as inspiring as the first time I saw the Grand Canyon.

I could not stop looking up as I walked between the pews. This was one massive, open design. It was perhaps fifteen minutes before I even thought to look down at the floor. That’s the design, I heard someone say. You’re not supposed to look down here; it is designed in such a way as to make you want to look up.

Among the pews were several in prayer, even as the tour groups passed by. A strange setting I thought to myself. I followed a group for a while, then sat in a pew just to take it all in. I started to take out my smartphone to take pictures, perhaps shoot video of the beauty before me, so many of the tourists were doing just that. But I decided there simply was no image I could capture that would define the experience I was having in this moment. I would not call it religious, but it would be difficult not to define it as spiritual, as in wholly good for the spirit.

After some time I stood and saw the real reason I wanted to visit here. Saint John’s Abbey and University had commissioned a new Bible, the first by a Benedictine Abbey in more than 500 years; the Saint John’s Bible. A copy of it was on display here in the west ambulatory. I wanted to see it with my own eyes, even if its pages were behind a case. My mother and I not only received the great gift of seeing it, but as chance would have it, received a personal tour from a man who I knew not, but who took time to carefully turn page after page, jumping from one section to the other, explaining each illumination the artists had created.

The entire Bible was written by hand. The calligraphy laid out on a computer then written so that the words spaced correctly, we were told. There were a great many combined themes in this work of art, combined themes of old and new within the illuminations. Each illumination revealed gold leaf and scenes of the world we know, from the World Trade Center towers, to the HIV virus. When the page was turned to the Towers I was instantly reminded of them, and as my own repressed thoughts on the matter arose again, I was almost stunned to hear the gentleman make the comment I had made myself over the years, “What would have happened if we had forgiven him?”

Another illumination represented words flowing into a being; The Living Word. This illumination held great meaning, for by receiving these words, by meditating on them, allowing them to direct one’s behavior for the better, quoting them, sharing them, one quite literally becomes the living word. For myself, I am an amalgamation of “words”, from just about every genre, a number of beliefs, some not read but spoken, and a large number whose influence are continually being edited out as I age, some that are still present but probably shouldn’t be. Across thousands of years the trials we face from generation to generation remain; only the shapes and forms, the representations, seem to change.

After a period of time our guide completed this tour of this part of the Saint John’s Bible. I was so distracted by the moment that I thanked him but have forgotten his name. He spent a little time with a couple that followed, then left.

We entered a museum shop outside the doorway, near the stairwell, and found a few books we were seeking. As I looked around, I couldn’t help but think about the act of Jesus over turning the tables of those selling trinkets on the Temple Mount. But as an author I found myself also thinking, “I hope he wouldn’t have turned over a table full of books for sale,” even there, even then.

Walking back outside was almost like gazing into the light again following the total eclipse of the Sun. Kinda like I had just been through something I hadn’t completely processed just yet. Rarely have I found a life changing experience as satisfying in the moment as it is when aged by time.

 

To be continued....