r m p






The Holiness of Desolation


Old Testament Reading: Lamentations 2:1-10

New Testament Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:8-11

Text: "There are holy places in the world, and I have been to some of them. Places where the presence of something sacred can be felt like an invisible meteorology. Always these places are quiet, and often they are in ruins. The ones that are not already at some stage of dilapidation nonetheless display the signs and symptoms, the promise of coming decay. We feel a sense of divinity in ruined places, abandoned places -- shattered temples on mountaintops, crumbling catacombs, islands where a stone idol stands almost faceless. We never have such feelings in cities or even in natural settings, where the flora and fauna are overly evident. This is why so much is atoned for in wintertime, when a numinous death descends on those chosen lands of our globe. Indeed, winter is not so much the holiest time as it is the holiest place, the visible locus of the divine."

                   -- Thomas Ligotti, "Mad Night of Atonement"

Desolation, it seems, is pregnant with a peculiar holiness. That is the point in the passage I have just read from Thomas Ligotti, and I think it serves as a key to unlock some important biblical images. Indeed it provides the basis for a profound spirituality. And the holiness of desolation may just be the only and best way we can deal with the deadly winters of our lives.

Our Old Testament reading was from the Book of Lamentations. This is a collection of five depressing dirges, all occasioned by the leveling of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and Edomites in 587 BC. In later years we know the laments were sung or recited ritually on the anniversary of the destruction -- which date was also thought to be the future birth date of the Messiah. My guess is that these terrible songs were written precisely to be sung as part of the worship conducted in the very ruins of the Temple by the forlorn Jews left in the land after the Babylonians had deported the aristocracy and the priesthood.

We have this mistaken Sunday School idea that all Jews left the Holy Land during the exile, but in fact it was only the upper crust, whose account of the events we read: to themselves they were all that mattered, so the way they told it, the land was emptied of Jews pure and simple. But in fact most remained, and they continued to worship at the ruins of Solomon's Temple, magnificent even, or perhaps rather magnificent especially, in its ruination. So the Lamentations served as a kind of liturgy of shadows in the ruins of the Temple. O worship the Lord in the desolation of holiness!

I believe that Ligotti is right, or at least I have felt what he has his character say we feel. There is a paradoxical holiness in ruination. And I would like for the next few moments to attempt to explain why this should be. A phenomenology of the spirituality of decadence, if you will permit me.

As Mircea Eliade has shown, in one of those academic works that foster religious experience by clarifying its nature, The Sacred and the Profane, human beings of all times and climes have not so much cherished abstract definitions of the sacred, as they have implicitly or explicitly ­pictured­ the sacred. And this in two ways.

First there is sacred time: it seems to us that holiness is resident in the remote past, and that it comes into the present from there. The divine visited the world "once upon a time." That ancient time, whether the time of creation or of the Exodus or of Calvary, is laden with all the glowing magic of mythology.

The holiness of the present lies in our partaking of that sacred past by means of the ritual time-travel of scripture readings, communion suppers, baptisms into the death and resurrection of the Savior thousands of years ago. Today becomes holy by harking back to those holy yesterdays.

Second there is sacred space: it seems to us that some places are holy places and others are not because some are closer to or more open to a hidden realm of divinity somewhere above us. The holy place is where the spheres of the upper sacred world and the lower secular world meet.

As when Jacob sleeps at Bethel and dreams that night of having stumbled on the very gate of Heaven. When he awakes he ordains the place a shrine, a zone of holiness, and calls it Bethel, House of God. In later years a mighty temple was built there by King Jeroboam. Pilgrims journeyed there as they do to any shrine, because they think they stand a better chance at gaining an audience with God there.

Ultimately the two categories of sacred space and sacred time merge together: a holy place turns out to qualify as holy because the holy appeared there first at some remote time.

Now why the aura of holiness that surrounds a ruined building? And it may be a ruined cathedral or temple -- or it may be an old warehouse whose shattered window panes glow in the moonlight of a quiet night.

It is because the ruins protrude from the past. They are fragments of walls that must have continued here, girders that must have reached up there, stained glass shards that must have composed a picture we can half imagine.

They suggest what they do not show. Thus they are more potent in their presentation of the holy than they could ever have been when they were intact.

The divine, the sacred, cannot simply be shown, or it would become an idol. And the worst part of an idol is that it is anticlimactic, disappointing! Surely the Holy must be more than that! Religious effigies do their proper work when we remember that they are mere pointers to the divine, suggesters of the holy. They point the soul to an inconceivable wonder and let us get lost in the contemplation of what we cannot imagine.

And the ruins of desolation are far more effective symbols precisely because of their brokenness. A stairway to heaven that falls away, like the ruins of the Tower of Babel. A mute witness to the holiness it can never reach.

Ruins suggest sacred time because from their broken battlements the eye can trace out the past shape of the complete structure, or it inevitably tries to. The very brokenness draws attention to the building's implied past far more drastically than the complete building itself would.

It is as if the vanished parts of the structure were still present but hidden by a curtain of invisibility. All that protrudes before the seeing eye is the fragments of stone and twisted metal.

Indeed the past of the ruin is more powerfully evident in the ruin than its present! The vanished past is totally conspicuous by its absence in the ruins of the present! And that mysterious past, left unseen to the eye and lending an invisible meaning to the ruins of the present, is redolent of the sacred past. And the same is true of sacred space. It is as if the upper portions of the ruined structure have been engulfed by the descending clouds of the holy heaven, as when the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration saw, eyes widening, Moses, Elijah, and their Lord swallowed by the falling cloud of the Shekinah glory.

What one can no longer see of the ruined temple makes one think of what one cannot see of the heavenly world. A temple beautiful in its intact glory tempts and invites you to mistake it for the heavenly world. Such is the danger of idolatry: the self-exaltation of the works of the hands of man.

Yet even so, one might perhaps have grown to take the splendor of Solomon's temple for granted if one had seen it three times a year for many years. How could the resident priests have helped taking it for granted?

But those who gathered at the site of the Temple's ruins after 586 BC? They saw the invisible holiness far more clearly than they ever did when distracted by all of Solomon's golden cherubs and pomegranates!

The holiness of desolation is a prime example of what Derrida calls the doctrine of the ­trace­. That is, a thing, a word, an idea, is given its meaning precisely by the opposite that it does not mean. The two are like complementary and therefore opposite pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each word, to be what it is, must bear the imprint, the outline, the track, the trace of its opposite. Each term points to its opposite.

Even so, the very desolation of divine glory is the strongest symbol of divine glory! If such is not yet clear from the example of the Temple of Solomon whose desolation occasioned the holy hymns of the Book of Lamentations, let me move to the New Testament.

In Mark's gospel, when is the first time that one of Jesus' contemporaries recognizes him as the Son of God and says so? Is it after a feeding miracle or a walking on the water? No, Mark says these things produced only dumbfoundment and confusion, even fear.

The first time someone is moved to proclaim, "Truly, this was the Son of God" is when the centurion sees him die on the cross!

As Paul says, Christ's divine power is made perfect in weakness. Because human weakness, destitution, bereftitude, is the ruin that bespeaks and points to its conspicuously invisible opposite: the power of God!

What does Paul say in the New Testament reading for this morning? His own infirmity serves as the potent trace of the mighty power of Christ. The miserable and utter absence of any power of his own clears the field for the appearance of the holiness of God. It is no longer obscured by the shiny gemcracks of human ability.

When the illusion of human self-sufficiency is gone, and nothing is seen but the ruins of weakness, then is the time when the power of Christ becomes conspicuous by its absence. It is like anti-matter, if you know your physics. A positron appears for a split instant and then decays, leaving behind it a charged hole where it was! When human strength decays after a brief moment of visibility, it leaves behind it a void that radiates the power of God.

If you are in a frozen tundra of darkness and desolation, I charge you: do not imagine that God has abandoned you! The sunny days of religious feelings and spiritual ecstasies were a shiny temple, a fancy idol. Now you find yourself in the ruins, where true holiness may be felt in the depth of the soul's night or the body's pain. It is on the cross that you are God's son or daughter!

Enter into the mystery of the terrible spirituality of the Lamentations. Cry out to him in your forsakenness. It may be some comfort to know that in so doing you are closer to him than you have ever been. His invisible power and holiness shine the more brightly from your darkness.

This is no Brer Rabbit trick, whereby you may turn mourning into rejoicing by perversely rejoicing over your mourning. Who is telling you to rejoice? I am simply telling you to know where you are! You sit like Job in the wreckage of a temple that once obscured God. It does so no more. You sit in holiness.

Look past the visible and trace out the shadows of the invisible.  It is there that you will find the meaning of your sufferings, the secret holiness of desolation.




Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design