Thursday, February 18, 2016

Light comes from everywhere: the stone church

I seem to be obsessed with spring. This in spite of the fact it isn't even here yet: not for most of us. In the mild gloomy slick of Vancouver, winter never really comes, which is why croci are poking their purple Easter heads up above the soil, cherry blossom buds are ready to explode, and the roses at the Centennial Garden in Burnaby are already beginning to spear reddish-brown leaves directly out of their prickly, woody stems.

So I sit here in the a.m. with everything, or nothing, going on around me. I have become obsessed with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (which my Windows Media Player insists on listing as "Right" of Spring), and am listening to it now. What was chaotic, or at least what seemed chaotic back then, and is supposed to be chaotic, isn't at all. Now, with new ears, or a brain blasted clean by forces I don't understand, it is the most orderly piece of music I have ever heard.

As orderly as Spring:

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

As usual, Hopkins had me until the second stanza, when he went all Mary-ish on me again, as he always does. Poor little man, celibate but yearning, yearning for men, boys, all those forbidden things he put just out of his own reach. 

Even if I could write, I know I could not write this, because the art of building airy castles out of cinderblocks is given to so very few. So I plough ahead (yes! "Plough". And American readers, please don't see this emphasis on Canadian spelling as a slight: it's just that the constant, enveloping election coverage is beginning to wear me down. This is almost as exhausting as the Canadian election that caused normally-sane people to draw Hitler moustaches on Stephen Harper.) Life is a keep-on-going, it's the only thing I've found that makes any sense.

Yesterday, something sneaked into the back of my head. A memory, or a dream? A dreamlike memory. It was a memory of a wall made of slate, or something like it. A room, no, a whole building that was built like a box. Square and unadorned. And there were stone walls, impossibly, emitting light, light that seemed to come from everywhere.

I knew this had happened to me, or else it was a dream so vivid it had left a burn-mark, a scar, a brand on me somewhere. My very skin was affected. I began to search my mind, but as with so many other fragile memories, I couldn't chase it or it would flee away from me. I had to sit there and see how much of it would come back of its own accord.

I was in a room, no, a whole building, and the walls were made of some sort of rock, and the rock was emitting light. Everywhere. I had no idea where I was in the dream/memory and couldn't place it, except that it must have been in our far-ago travels.

We had been to Utah to see Bryce Canyon twice (and surely, if God exists, s/he lives there in the sacred peach-gold turning of the light). I associated Utah and our trip to the States with minerals, rocks, petrified wood, but also religion. Could this not have been some odd little church (for I believed it must be a church) situated in the middle of nowhere, and made of some thin, porous rock, like alabaster? I asked my husband if he remembered it, and I got that tolerant, no-you're-crazy look I am so used to getting. He sort of acknowledged something like that might have happened some time, probably somewhere in the Southwest on our trips out there. 

But no. It couldn't be that. For some reason it seemed much farther back.

I started my usual internet search: churches made of alabaster/rock/translucent rock. Even names of minerals that would admit light. Nothing. It HAD to be translucent rock of some kind, and I was coming up empty, as almost never happens on the internet now.

But then.

Then, something, a photo of what looked like a rock plate with striations, and light just barely showing through it, not streaming but easing, glowingly. In fact, the rock faces on this wall - and there it was, a wall - were all glowing pinkly, redly, amberly.

It was a church.

It was a church in Switzerland, in a town called Meggen on Lake Lucerne - and yes, we had stayed near the lake for a day in 1998 - 1998! It was called St. Pius Church, and was the strangest Catholic church we had ever seen, bare, austere, just a box made of marble slabs. Marble so thin it emitted light, perhaps in that way Michelangelo exploited in his statues, giving them an almost phosphorescent glow. The place was so austere that it was almost severe: hard wooden benches with no backs, an altar too minimalist to be real with a cross suspended in the mid-air, and some sort of side-sanctuary made of cement - oh, cement! But I remembered it all, every bit of it, especially the way the light seemed to come from every direction.

The other strange thing, though, was how very little I could find out about this place. There was simply nothing but a very few Google images, with text either in German or Italian, or no text at all. The English text, what little I found, was in that stilted and often hilarious form that bespeaks the literal, translated word-for-word.

What I could (finally) winkle out was that this place was built in 1964 by - Fueg? Was that his name? The plain boxy shape was typical mid-'60s ultra-modern style, something I am trying very hard to forget  

This means the outside was almost howlingly ugly, like a particularly awful industrial building with an eyesore of a 1960s alarm-clock-looking tower outside it. It reminded me of the big TV aerial we used to have, the one you could literally climb.

But then things began to fall apart. Yes, I DID remember transparent rock, light, and a very boxy, square building. But how did we find this thing in Meggen, Switzerland? We stayed in Lucerne, and I don't think we ever came across any tourist info about this awful-looking (from the outside) place. We were used to seeing overwhelmingly-ornate cathedrals with flying buttresses, glistening with garishly-coloured stained glass, Catholic ostentation in the extreme. Yet here was this bare, unlikely, almost-impossible place.

I don't remember the outside. Not at all. No one would go near such a building unless they knew about what was inside. This place would have necessitated a deliberate side-trip, and we didn't have time for that.

But I put my HAND on that rock!

It was cool-warm to the touch, not as cold as you expected, because it had soaked up sun rays even though the day was cloudy. Far from being echo-y and cold, the acoustics were beautiful, warmly concentrating sound as if embracing it.

This couldn't be the same place, though. My "memory", if that's what it is, is of a small place we happened upon while driving around in Utah. The outside looked much like the inside (I think, or at least was more inviting than this cinderblock factory in a nothing little town). Someone invited us in and told us that the place had only one natural light source. The light came through the rock walls, which were made of gypsum or alabaster (or something). There was no electrical wiring whatsoever, and at night they used candles. We didn't stay long after marvelling over the walls, because really, there was nothing else to see.

I understand how memories from different times can become conflated. I see how rare it would be for ANY cathedral to be built of marble slabs, carefully chosen to match their grain. I understand it would be extremely expensive, and that even inside, there would be aspects of it (a lot of metal to hold the slabs together, and a Cosco-like gridwork on the ceiling) that were ugly by necessity. There is no way that even a mini-version of this could be built over here. But I just don't remember the size, the scale of this thing. Though like real estate photos, the rare pictures of it (and I've used nearly all of them here) might make it look a lot bigger.

Adding to my confusion is the fact that on the internet, where I very rarely run up against stone walls, this place barely exists. There are no YouTube videos of it. People don't write about it in their travels because they don't go there. The outside is just plain hideous, plainer than plain, a dud.

I don't know what happened here. If this happened at all - and now it's up for grabs - it was eighteen years ago, our grandkids hadn't been born yet. . . and we were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary with what we knew would be our one and only trip to Europe. Unlike all my strutting, fretting, ostentatious "friends" on Facebook, I can't post lavish photos of Algiers and Bath and Provence and wherever-the-hell, the travel destination of the month, with even more enthralling pictures of ravioli from that fabulous little Tuscan cafe (and by all means, show me your food!), because we are too old and poor and our health too dicey to go overseas, or travel anywhere at all any more. 

So that is that.

This must be it, though. It must. Where else would you find a whole church (you can't exactly call it a cathedral because it's basically a box made of stone) built so strangely? When the light kisses and splashes the stone from the outside, the walls inside glow like beaten gold. Nowhere else on earth will you find light like this. If there were an earthquake, even a small one, the whole thing would come crashing down, for those marble slabs are all of 27 centimeters thick: just over one inch.

One inch of stone between you and the sun. Think of it. But why is the memory so mixed-together with something quite different? Bill does not remember this at all, and has a hard time believing we were actually there.

Which perhaps we weren't. Perhaps we were somewhere else? But I know I could not dream stone walls emitting light. 

I'm NOT trying to make a point here, except a rather queasy one about memory. Back when I was wrestling and grappling with PTSD (which had no name then) from my father's abuse when I was a small child, there was a sudden, very high-profile "movement" called False Memory Syndrome, in which believers (whose daughters all seemed to be claiming sexual abuse from family members) tried to force on us the idea that we could create any old memory we wanted to, usually from sheer malice and a desire to hurt our parents as much as possible.

This could not have come at a worse time for me, and I was so close to suicide I was hanging on by my fingernails. Every day I signed a contract I had drawn up for myself: I will not kill myself today, dated it, and filed it with my therapist. My sister sent me whole magazine stories about "FMS" (which, who knows, may have wormed its way into the DSM by now) with long passages underlined. When I tried to explain to her what I was going through, the way my guts were being pulled out in a long ribbon by something I NEVER wanted for myself or anyone else, she ripped the letter to shreds and mailed the pieces back to me.

I had a letter from my dad, hand-written in all-caps: NO! IT DID NOT HAPPEN! He had the document countersigned by a psychiatrist who used to treat me when I was fifteen years old. This doctor was certain it didn't happen, as if he had been there. One thing you can say about my family: they sure know how to discredit a person.

The point of all this is, I don't want to believe memories can be scrambled or altered by time. They were all telling me it didn't happen. At all. My sister is a lot older than me, which (she said) guaranteed it never happened. It's a sore point with me. I DO remember the essence of something, of putting my hand on the cool-warm stone which was so very smooth. I remember Bill and I, both of us, marvelling that such a thing could even be.

But why does part of my brain say, "no, wait a minute. . . "

Not that it doesn't exist at all, but perhaps that it existed in a different form, smaller, more rudimentary, and somewhere in the United States (for Canada would never produce such a mineral oddity - we don't have marble anywhere). Knowing also that such a thing is virtually impossible, unless a North American architect decided to copy it on a smaller scale.

So what is the point here? Does this have anything to do with spring? Of course not. We didn't even travel to Switzerland in spring, it was the fall. Maybe that lovely Donovan song I posted yesterday? Maybe the crocuses, the everlasting green of Vancouver - the memory springing up or sneaking in like new life from nothing?

Probably there's no connection at all. I have never wanted to post polished essays here, but explorations that don't ever happen in a straight line. Which explains all the P.S.-es, the "oh wait!" at the end of the posts. If discoveries don't happen in a straight line, surely memories don't come back that way, or are changed in some sense - but are they invented, as my family insisted they were, just for spite or for sport?

But I DID put my hand on that stone, meaning it existed then, and must exist right now, this very minute, somewhere.

As usual, there is a small P. S. (until more seaweed trailings stream from the oozing clump I pulled out of nowhere last night). Someone here has tried to describe St. Pius in lyrical terms. After that, an amen.

Project description

The geometrical rigour and the clarity of St. Pius’s proportions help give the church its presence in the majestic – and dynamic – alpine setting and within a heterogeneous residential quarter. The white of the marble appears to enter into a dialogue with the distant glaciers. This dialectic is set forth inside the church with the contrast between the rhythm of the 74 steel columns and the cloud-like painterly structure of the stone wall panels. From the exterior, the polished walls appear to be pure white, while at night the interiors are cast in a honey-yellow glow, and their velvety surfaces radiate warmth and physical presence. St. Pius’s has not received the widespread acclaim that the expressive churches by Füeg’s contemporaries Walter Förderer and Gottfried Böhm met with. (Frank Kaltenbach)

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