Church of Bones

June 2, 2011

Headline: Fableists win in Louisiana
“The latest battle in the long standing war between evolution and creationism was lost in Louisiana last week. 17-year-old Zack Kopplin spearheaded a valiant effort to repeal Louisiana’s Science Education Act (which) opens the door to the teaching of Creationism in science classrooms. Tragically, the bill was shelved and the anti-evolution Act retained.” –Quinn O’Neill, biologist, at 3QuarksDaily.

Again arrogance presides where humility might be expected to rule. As a result, instead of competing knowledgably with peers of other states and nations Zack Kopplin and other students in Louisiana will be stifled by a 3500-year-old middle-eastern legend as persistent myopics strive to build a future on the misunderstandings of the past.

A while back I wrote a poem inspired by a church in Evora Portugal called Capela dos Ossos, The Church of Bones. It’s a sanctuary built of the sticks and bricks of human skeletons. As a metaphor for our situation (and in particular the mischief in Louisiana) it’s perfect.

In the way Capela dos Ossos is built of bones we likewise fabricate the edifices of culture and society upon the remains of what and who came before. We erect our beliefs upon those foundations. Ideally, we blend the stuff of yesterday with the stuff of today and build chapels to meet together and plumb what we don’t understand and pray it will be transformed into something we do.

We pray in a church of bones in which skulls outline graceful arches of low vaults and whose columns are ladders of stacked femurs. We admire its capitals of craniums.

It’s walls, unlike the idealizations of Michelangelo, are not fantasies romanced in fresco but the real thing: the stony remnants of once-respiring antiquity.

The ceilings of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel portray the romantic side of our relationship with the Unknown. The gorgeous human figures (even god is human in these paintings) arrayed there, full of vitality, tell us life is good; that god is good —fickle maybe, but ultimately good. They suggest that beauty itself is both human and divine. But in a church of bones we come skull to skull with another face. The face of what we do not know and which we fear.

We pray in a church of bones whose windows look out beneath an osseous calcium dome.

You’d think that after centuries of praying in our little churches of bone we’d have come closer to interfaith understanding; come nearer to working out the discordances of our religious beliefs —you’d think we would have reached some common understanding of the depths our ignorance. But we still tend to place our own beliefs (religious and otherwise) upon pedestals rather than set them side by side, in humility, with other churches of bones. In fact, they might better be placed to warn the future to steer clear of shoals of cathedrals and navigate carefully between irrational misunderstandings of the past.

Our chapel of once-articulating skeletons —a reliquary of  dreams— rises over a promontory like a lighthouse warning the world of muscle and bone, spit and sweat, breath and blood to steer clear of the promises of ghosts and constantly sound to avoid being beached in mud.

Domestically and globally we’ve reached a point where all stakes are high. States are in conflict, as usual. Religions vie for power, as usual. The rich grasp for more, as usual. Corporations compete for ascendancy not only over each other, but over poor and average folks who would like simply to work and live a decent life. As usual, religious fanatics of all faiths, citing legends, claim knowledge of what god desires. Finally, the US government has virtually ceased working.  It’s a study in stupid greed and discord and is as thoroughly beached as a humpback in mud can be.

As the sadly resigned Kurt Vonnegut said when surveying the destructive nuttiness of humanity in Slaughterhouse-Five, “So it goes.”

What we need is a widespread plague of humility. Maybe instead of frogs and locusts god in his whimsical way will send down instead a plague of doubt among wild-eyed true believers.  Maybe then Doubt will finally be seen to be co-equal with Faith as it should be.

There’s hope as long as we’re breathing. After that it may be too late.

We pray in a church of bones. We hope in a field of dreams. We hate or love between unknown and unknown.

by Jim Culleny
for The Shelburne Falls Independent


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