Turning Toward the World, Part 2: What Was and What Is

Turning Toward the World, Part 2: What Was and What Is April 25, 2017

Photo by the author
Photo by the author

Years ago I listened to Fr. Sean O’Laoire deliver a homily during which he described the four stages of a relationship; the stages most bring to mind a romantic relationship, but truthfully they apply to many types of relationships, like those among friends and family members as well. The first stage is infatuation, when we fall in love with our image of someone—our conception of them; it might be called “love at first sight,” which isn’t really love at all but only intense desire. The root of the word infatuation, fatuus, is Latin for “illusion.” The relationship might then advance to the second stage, intimacy, which is like the summertime—joyful, stable, fulfilling. But relationships generally only become real when the persons involved begin to develop a genuine understanding of who each other is, and this third stage can be a time of disillusionment, which has the potential to shatter the earlier image one had of the other. Only by accepting the beloved with all his or her faults, imperfections, baggage, and past mistakes does one embrace the full humanity of the other. From here the relationship can advance to a stage of deepening love, and the cycle begins again in a new way.

How often do we pine away for those elusive, halcyon days? When periods of cultural or political transition and tension grow intense—sometimes becoming crises—when the shape of the future is obscure or altogether opaque, we tend to look backward at the clearer past, much like a couple who is discerning whether their relationship will endure the stage of disillusionment; the woman or man might one evening return to the setting of earlier intimacy and wish that things could again be as they once were. Alas, they never will be. The most we can hope for is that the best elements of the past can be reclaimed—perhaps even improved upon—in the new situation as it unfolds.

Perception shapes reality. I felt this acutely when my wife and I sat on the plaza beholding the magnificent façade of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Hundreds of people poured through the plaza, laughing, eating ice cream, carrying shopping bags, and taking selfies with friends with Notre Dame as the backdrop. And the more I watched so many tourists glibly taking pictures around this building, I had a realization: in some sense, this building is emphatically not the same building that stood in just that place 600 years earlier. Now you may argue: come on, certainly all that cut-stone is the same stone that was dug out of quarries and chiseled away by masons in the thirteenth century—of course it is. But an object is not just what is; it’s what’s perceived, it’s what’s beheld, and the Notre Dame that I see many people behold in the twenty-first century is not the same object beheld by people in the fifteenth century. I suggest that what for most people in the fifteenth century was a marvelous veneration of the deity made manifest in architecture is to many people now an impressive example of a period of European architecture and an essential photo in anyone’s travel album of Paris.

Fast-forward centuries: the Hetch Hetchy Valley, 180 miles east of here, that John Muir perceived in 1912 was in some sense not the same place as that perceived by those who sought to dam and fill it as a reservoir to provide water for San Francisco and its peninsula. And it’s notable that Muir used religious imagery to drive home the stark contrast in perceptions when he writes,

            These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect   contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.

Perception shapes reality.

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