Signs of Life

In religious studies classes, students are asked to take on an “anthropological approach.” That is, no matter what a student’s own faith, he must approach each belief system he studies in class from the “outside.” He has to try to view his own faith with the same lack of bias with which he views foreign faiths.

Students become interested in the academic study of religion for many reasons. For some, it’s the history, or the literature. The culture, language, theology or philosophy. One of my reasons is the sociology. I’m passionate about human beings and diversity, and I think that learning about what people devote themselves to, believe in, and why, is captivating. There are reasons that people all over the world believe what they do, they’re not just “stuck in their ways.” The reasons typically always have emotional significance. If not, many beliefs would have dissolved long ago.

I’m partial to Christianity, I don’t see that changing. But sometimes I find myself, in a class discussion on Christianity, thinking, “This is old news.” In my religious studies classes, I do take my faith for granted. I know I should never forget to use my “outsider” perspective, but sometimes I do. The origin of my faith, the sacraments and holy words– they’re beautiful things and yet, because they’re so familiar, I don’t find them as enchanting during those classes as maybe my classmates do.

 

In I Kings, chapter 6, Solomon builds the first Israelite temple. Its purpose is to house the Ark of the Covenant. I Kings goes on to describe the many materials the temple is built with—strong cedar, olive and juniper woods, gold and bronze molding. Inside, Solomon carves intricate palms, gourds, leaves, flowers, and pomegranates into the walls. Majestic, wooden statues of cherubims (large angelic creatures) are set at the front of the temple to guard the Ark.

In Solomon’s day, temples were places specifically dedicated to deities, where deities could “reside” (literally be housed inside). I Kings says that, upon completion of Solomon’s temple, the glory of the Lord filled it, in the form of a cloud. God showed his acceptance, and He simply placed his name inside. No matter how great the temple, Solomon’s structure could still never contain the, much, much greater, God.

I Kings’ text is more than two-thousand years old, and I was surprised to actually feel struck by the vision of the temple that it portrayed. I felt in my mind that I was seeing it with fresh eyes—the symbols, the carved wood. But these things– cedar, molded gold, palms and pomegranates– are familiar to me. They’re things I see in my own Orthodox Christian church in much the same way as I saw them in Solomon’s temple.

In a recent class, a professor asked, “What do you think these symbols are meant to represent? Palms and gourds? Pomegranates?”

I raised my hand. “The way I interpret it, I think they’re signs of life.”

My professor conceded. The vegetation Solomon carved stood for birth and growth. Christian churches of today, also, are built to symbolize renewed life in pretty much every way. But I don’t think I was aware of all of it, before.

Catholic and Orthodox churches are shaped like crosses, my professor pointed out. The altar (the top of the cross) points East, while the bottom of the Cross (the nave) points West. Parishioners enter through the Western door (the direction that the sun sets), leaving Earthly “life”—trivialities, worries– outside. They enter the church in order to renew their spirits. While they worship, they face the altar, East. They’re facing the sunrise, while it illuminates all of the stained glass windows/icons lining the walls.

The windows’ and icons’ images tell the stories of saints; Christians who came before, suffered, and gained new life upon death. No matter what you’ve done, the church will always be there for you, welcoming and accepting you, offering you renewal of spirit, and mind.

I was thinking about my beautiful childhood parish all the while that our professor spoke. The warm gold, the powerful songs of the chanters, the smell of the incense and its visible, ascending smoke. I wasn’t fully aware, before, that the very construction of my church, and its orientation, had so much symbolic meaning. My eyes brimmed for a moment. I was so caught off guard, and I found it wonderful. I nodded in concession, and blinked the tears away just as easily as they had come.

Perhaps I’d finally remembered to take on my “outsider” perspective? I think there’s a greater chance I was just feeling sentimental about my faith. That simple discussion on Solomon’s temple brought so much beauty to mind– I could clearly see the reasons why people choose to be Christian, the same way I can typically see why people of others faiths believe what they do. Not only that, I was reminded of the emotionally significant reasons that I, myself, rejoice in being Christian.

 

*More extensively, Solomon’s Prayer of Dedication (I Kings 8:22-61) is something to be studied and appreciated in itself, a beautiful prayer that illustrates a beautiful devotion.

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