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Archive for the ‘Travel Log’ Category

If you’d like to be an opera singer, you need to learn Italian. If you want to learn gourmet cooking, it might help to speak French. And if you want to study philosophy, theology and metaphysics, it would be useful to know some German. There’s no doubt, these fields of study were dominated by Germans for a good solid three or four centuries, from Luther to Leibniz, Hegel to Heidegger, Schopenhauer to Schleiermacher.

I recently spent a week in the central German city of Erfurt, where Martin Luther enjoys the status of a superhero, and you can’t throw a stone without hitting a church. I can attest this second fact from personal experience, as I toured the city with my two feisty youngsters.

Over the course of our ongoing walking tours of the east German city, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to track down one particular house of worship known as the Predigerkirche, or the preacher’s church. For days, I circumambulated the historic Altstadt, longing to locate this semi-obscure monument, the Eckhart Door.

Long before Luther, the region’s best known church father was a country preacher by the name of Meister Eckhart (1260-1327). Or at least that’s the name by which we remember him some 700 years later. Eckhart’s reputation waxed and waned over the centuries, but around the turn of the 20th century, he enjoyed something of a revival, and today we recognize him as one of the premier religious mystics of the western tradition, alongside the likes of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. You might think of him as Christianity’s equivalent of Rumi.

Among the countless statues and historic monuments in Germany however, there is hardly a mention of this 13th century sage. So when I discovered that there was Meister Eckhart door on the Predigerkirche, I headed straight over. Or at least I tried to head straight over.

Erfurt’s old city center, like any other European city center, consists of a tight network of short, narrow and circuitous alleys and passages. So it’s nigh impossible to move anywhere in a straight line. But move and meander I did, strolling past church after church. I worked my way around the Luther church, admired the partial remains of the Barefoot church, noted the unusually sparse architecture of a certain evangelical church, but the Eckhart door still eluded me.

After a couple days of this mild frustration, I was forced to consult my maze-like map in excruciating detail. Gradually I honed my search, until finally I zeroed in on the neatly concealed Predigerkirche. With both my children in tow, I began to circle the sprawling structure. Approaching from the back of the church, we made our way through the cloister and found ourselves in the courtyard of the seminary school. Stone walls and irons gates partitioned the chapel and the divinity school, but no sign of a door with any allusion of the illustrious medieval mystic.

Finally, on the opposite side, we found the main entrance to the church. But still no mention of the Meister. We looked to the left, we looked to the right, we looked up, we looked inside, but only the narrow foyer was open to visitors. The children were growing restless. I stood at the door and doubted the entire undertaking. Perhaps we should simply cut our losses and find ourselves some fresh baked pretzels instead. Always delicious, never elusive.

Then we rounded the other side, and lo and behold, the last possible door of the church, the absolute furthest corner from where our circumnavigation began: we had arrived. No fanfare, no throngs of foreign tourists waiting to take a picture, just me and my two kids, and a very heavy door engraved with a bible verse and the dates of Meister Eckhart’s life.

My daughter was so relieved. “Ok, let’s go in already,” she groaned.

“Oh, no,” I said. “It’s just a door. We can’t open it. The church is locked. It’s just a door.”

She was incredulous. I tried to point out the nice big bronze letters on the door. She was not impressed. And so we headed back, slightly fulfilled, slightly disappointed, and mostly just relieved that we could stop searching and get on with our lives.

But later that day we passed a tourist information office, and I found a very small booklet about Eckhart, with a cover photo of the Bodendenkmal, the floor monument. Really? Was there yet another Eckhart monument to go and find?

As it turns out, a newer and even more meaningful memorial to Meister Eckhart covers the ground at the front door of the Predigerkirche. I had just stood on that exact spot, looking left and right of the church and upwards towards the steeple. I’d looked everywhere but down. Had I not been so obsessed with that door, I might have easily noticed the words of Meister Eckhart himself, etched into the very floor, right below my feet.

While the door includes a verse from the book of John, the floor memorial features seven distinct quotes from Eckhart, who for several years had delivered weekly sermons to his congregation in Erfurt. On one of those floor plaques reads the memorable message, “Man kann Gott nicht besser finden als dort, wo man ihn lässt”, which I would translate as: “Nowhere can you better discover God than where you let Him go.”

I can hardly think of a better phrase to sum up the lesson I learned in my long and winding quest to locate that glorious door. Sometimes the greatest discoveries are waiting right at our finger tips, if only we can let go of our tenacious attachment to the search.

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sagrada-familia

Most visitors will be content to gaze agog with jaw wide open at La Sagrada Familia, an architectural feat of unmatched ambition. But if you’re like me—and I’m sure you are—you will be forced to devote an inordinate amount of time reflecting on the theological implications of a church construction project that will quite possibly drag out for all of eternity. So that’s what I did, and I soon realized that Gaudi’s magnum opus was just swimming in religious undercurrents.

If at any point on your visit to this gargantuan House of God, you should happen to give any thought to the Old Testament, it would be hard to overlook the kinship between the 172.5-meter-high Sagrada Familia and the fabled Tower of Babel. The visionary architect Antonio Gaudi began designing the mammoth cathedral in 1872 and commenced construction in Barcelona a decade later.

In 1926, with the project approximately 15 percent finished, Gaudi was killed, as if by an act of God, when he was struck by a car on his way to church. This of course was not enough to stymie the project, but for the last 90 years, construction workers and vehicles have continued to scurry about the premises like so many frantic Babylonian builders.

When King Nimrod, in the Book of Genesis, schemed to build a tower that would reach past the sky and into the heavens, God saw fit to punish the king for having too much pride. He made sure that the Tower of Babel would never be completed, that heaven would not be touched. As with the quest for holy perfection, the devotee may work forever toward spiritual growth, always improving, but never reaching the finish line. The journey, as the Taoists say, is the reward.

The Greeks have their own story to illustrate such a never-ending task. Of course, I’m referring to the Myth of Sisyphus, in which Zeus punishes another conniving king, sentencing him to spend his eternal afterlife trying to roll a rock to the top of an insurmountable hill. Granted, construction of the actual cathedral might not truly last an eternity, but even if it is finished on schedule—how very unlikely—the project’s timetable will still rival those of the Great Wall of China and the Pyramid at Giza.

King Sisyphus is given a hellacious task, but like any epic undertaking, there is something noble about his efforts. He demonstrates for us the value of committing oneself to a project of immense scope. Like Gaudi and Nimrod, Sisyphus aims for immeasurable heights, strives to reach the unreachable. As a myth involving gods and the underworld, we have to recognize the divine nature of Sisyphus’s chore. He too is reaching for the realm of the heavens, striving for contact with the infinite being, the universal source, the ultimate connection with one and all.

The Old Testament offers one more, less familiar story, to convey the same message in still another way. The episode involves the transportation of the Ark of the Covenant. When an ox, pulling the ark of God, stumbles,  Uzzah reaches out with one hand to steady the ark. In His anger, the Lord strikes Uzzah dead on the spot for this irreverent act. (The scene, however brief, appears twice: 2 Samuel 6:1-7 and 1 Chronicles 13:9-12.)

The Jahweh of the Old Testament is truly ruthless and merciless (not much worse than the car that struck Gaudi dead in the street) but the passage ought to be read figuratively. In reaching out to touch the ark, Uzzah was violating a strict edict, the same law encountered by Nimrod, Sisyphus and Gaudi. The Word of God, contained in the ark, cannot be touched, not directly.

Through myths and stories, we can speak indirectly about the higher realms. But if we reach out to touch them, our efforts will only be in vein. Such things are ethereal, not of this earth. We can long for direct, divine experience—and we should—but we can never hold it in the palms of our hands. it. There is no tangible contact with the absolute, no direct knowledge of God. We can only approach it asymptotically.

Nineteenth century philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard emphasized this same principle in one his more interesting and provocative essays. Advocating for what he called a Leap of Faith, Kierkegaard explained that if God wanted us to have proof of His existence, he surely would have provided it. But instead the spiritual life is grounded not on proof, but on belief. It is a personal, spiritual process, not an absolute and objective terminus.

Now maybe you don’t buy into all this metaphysical mumbo jumbo. That’s fine. Who could blame you? But even even your mundane daily duties, you must have noticed that the satisfaction you get from completing a project of any magnitude—a little endorphin rush that last a few minutes, or maybe a whole day in the most extreme cases—still pales in comparison to the ongoing satisfaction you get from being involved in a project you find meaningful and worthwhile. So long as we are engaged, we enjoy that critical sense of meaning; but once our defining project is finished, the sense of purpose dissolves, and life sinks back into that state of inscrutability.  The journey, once again, outshines the destination.

In the end, I seem to have gotten more than I bargained for from my 18 euro admission into La Sagrada Famila. It gave me a lot to think about, though it brought me no closer to my destination. So in the meantime, I hope that all your tasks and toils may be deep and meaningful, bringing you ever nearer to that place of universal connectivity. Never stop reaching for the stars, but don’t be too disappointed if you fall short. And finally, be mindful of Gaudi’s response to his engineers when they told him that his grandiose idea would take centuries to complete. “No problem,” he said, “my client is not in a hurry.”

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Moving On

Liquidating all of one’s earthly possessions, severing all seminal ties, letting go of the trappings of domesticity and civilized living, it all makes for a mighty formidable undertaking. If I were prone to conspiracy theories, I would say that the cards were stacked against us, that the Man was trying to keep us down. I would say that the bankers, cable companies and bureaucrats, with their bloodthirsty fangs set deep into our freedom-loving flesh, had no intention of releasing us from the perpetual cycles of debt-accruing bondage.

But, alas, paranoia is not among my many ailments. I may be an idealist, but I’m not one to point fingers. And no amount of corporate avarice, good old boy networking or contractual shenanigans could explain the sleep disruption, the hives, or the heart palpitations that now plague my person. Man is a social animal, one who craves stability and routine. Selling the house, quitting the job, pulling the kids out of school and parting with every personal artifact does not a routine make. Nor a malicious conspiracy. No, we seem to have brought this all upon ourselves.

How easily we could remain content with our predictable regimen of work and leisure, commuting through the rolling hills, soaking up the endless sunshine, and periodically picnicking by the beach, where the Central Coast sunsets are always oh so pretty. That state of permanent complacency lay so close within our reach. Yet something haunted us, like a gentle rapping at our chamber door, like an alluring whisper from behind door number two. A beckoning, a warning, an incessant knocking.

Somehow we just couldn’t stop asking ourselves, “What else?” and “What if?” Sure, life in the SLO lane is but a short hop from paradise. But there’s an enormous world out there, filled with strange and titillating possibilities, stimulating people and unexpected opportunities. And our time here to see it is so limited. What if 30 more years pass by and we end up spending our whole lives in the comfort and safety of San Luis Obispo County, where the streets are always clean, the weather is always agreeable and the people are always smiling? It sounds a lot like what Goethe called the interminable succession of pleasant days. But I’m paraphrasing of course.

I suppose we’d have no right to complain, four or five or six decades of consistent contentment and smug satisfaction in smile-inducing San Luis, America’s happiest city. But what if this is it? What if life is short and we only have one chance to take it in and do it right? Would we want to play it safe and try our best to never make a mistake? Or would we rather try and do something outrageous?

By now you must know which choice we’ve opted for: the mystery prize behind the unmarked door, the path of the outrageously uncertain. Maybe we’re out of minds and maybe we’re dreamers, but when I’m old and slow and anchored to an oxygen tank, I won’t be the one looking back and wondering “what if?” Maybe I’ll look back and shake my head and wonder what he hell I was thinking, but I won’t be the one regretting not taking enough chances. I might regret having gone too far, but I won’t regret not having gone far enough.

When I think about it, it’s not a lot different from the rationale that goes into a midlife crisis. You only live once, it’s now or never, and if all else fails I’d rather look back and regret what I did than what I didn’t. But I suppose the difference in a midlife crisis is the state of total certainty, the complete absence of doubt and abject terror than now afflict us as we take this leap of faith.

As of this writing, I have already stepped down as the owner of my business, and a new pair of proprietors will take the helm tomorrow. Meanwhile, we have less than two weeks to vacate our home and begin living out of our suitcases. Everyone in the family now treads dangerously close to a nervous breakdown at the drop of a Bavarian hat. I checked in with my daughter earlier today, to make sure she’s OK with the fact that we won’t have a house much longer. She says it fine, but we’ll just have to go in the lake when we need to pee. Well, I’m not sure where she came up with that, but she’s nothing if not resourceful, and at the age of six, she seems to have marvelous sense of adventure, which is just what she needs right now.

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