I had an opportunity to go to France and Italy on a high school trip nearly a decade ago and, as usually happens on tours of those two countries, we went to a number of monumental cathedrals. The most overwhelming of those, in my opinion, was St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome where I was appropriately overwhelmed by the majesty of the sculpture, the floors, the mosaics, the size. About six years later I was in the Agia Sophia in Istanbul, another religious building that had been constructed on a similar scale, but a millennium before St. Peter’s. Sure, St. Peter’s was in better repair and was more open, but I the relative date between the two structures meant that the Agia Sophia moved me somewhat more. Similarly, the Blue Mosque and the Pantheon were awesome and it is easy to understand why other massive structures including, but hardly limited to the Artemision at Ephesus, Herod’s temple, the ancient mesopotamian temples succeeded in inspiring religious fervor in their believers and a sense of awe in everyone who witnessed them.
But the fact remains that each of those structures is, ultimately, a human construction.
I am on my fifth year living in the midwest, having come from the mountains and hills of Vermont by way of Boston and there are times that I am still struck by how far you can see (and I am aware that there are places that can much, much further). One such moment was on my drive home tonight where there was first a fiery bar on the horizon where the last bit of the sunset sank down and then, after coming around a corner to see the sea of fluorescent lights that is Columbia spring up and surround me. I like the first of those sights (even though the open space makes me vaguely uneasy); the second image is striking because it is easy to forget how completely one is surrounded by lights when living in or around an urban area.
While these two visions tonight serve as the immediate inspiration for this post, another was a Twitter exchange yesterday where we discussed the power of forests to inspire both idyllic poetry and dark fairy tales. It may be the product of where I grew up, but I have an intense nostalgia for mountains and forests, and I completely understand where societies and cultures look toward mountains for religious inspiration. For this reason, the two most awesome spots I visited on that trip on which I visited the Agia Sophia were the peaks of Meteora and the sanctuary at Delphi. Both sites have buildings, but unlike many of the other religious sites noted above where the primary reason that I was awe-struck was the construction of the buildings, these sites drew the buildings for their locations. It is easy to see why these sites evoke a particular feeling.
One of the other spots where I have seen something similar was in the desert in Israel, where there was no sea of lights to obscure the stars. It was a bigger version of clear nights in Vermont where the stars form a blanket. I think this is one reason why I have a fondness for the dark of night and for the light of candles. It isn’t just the darkness for the absence of light or the candles for the presence, but some slight way to move away from the constructions of human society. The primal power of the natural world can be terrifying, but it can also be comforting.
There is an irony in writing these words at a computer, but that is a common medium of communication in the modern world. Both the natural world and human constructions can be awesome, but I prefer the natural. I have no particular desire to become a hermit, but that shouldn’t be necessary to appreciate the stars.