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I spent last week touring Italy with my family and a group of students from a leadership class that I teach, and, while climbing the near-500 steps to the top of the Duomo in Florence, walking through the Sistine Chapel, and staring up in awe in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, I thought back to my previous post, “The Lumber of Our Lives,” about how we construct the rooms of our lives with the lumber of our experiences.

The Duomo in Florence

The Duomo in Florence

Several things strike me every time I enter one of the grand cathedrals that apply to the metaphor of building a life that matters:

These cathedrals were built to last. Each one of these grand cathedrals is a monument to endurance. Built over 700 years ago, these churches have withstood the ravages of time, war, pestilence, earthquakes, fire and flood. They have seen cultures come and go, fashions fade in and out, political parties alternate power, and yet, here they stand, as testaments to a higher morality than mere whim, fad, or fancy. The raw materials from which they were constructed (marble, bronze and even gold) were chosen to last. In other words, in the deep construction of these buildings are materials that do not bend to popularity, pressure, trends or trials. I wonder if we were as intentional in choosing the materials that shape our lives as the builders of these great cathedrals if we would have so many lives lost to ruined and rotted timber, eaten through with regret and envy and shame. 

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These cathedrals were built as legacies. Neither Rome nor its cathedrals were built in a day. Spanning several centuries, the building of these cathedrals were projects passed down from generation to generation, often father to son, over many generations. The first father would cut the rock from the quarry, the second would lay the foundation, the third would begin the work of shaping out the artistry, and on and on until finally, many generations later, a work of art arose out of the sweat and tears and toil. There are families I know (including my own) whose descendants reap the benefits from legacies of blessing passed down over many, many years, from early fathers and mothers long gone who chose virtue, faith, kindness and service to others as the building blocks of their family’s foundation. The point is clear: what we pass on echoes like ripples in a pond through lives long after we are gone.

Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel

These cathedrals are monuments to transcendence. When you walk into one of these grand cathedrals, your eye is immediately drawn upward, to remind you that you are not the grand sum of the universe. There is a higher, more transcendent cause than the sum of one’s own self gratification and glorification. In this space, there is a sense of holy awe, of hushed worship, such that, even if you are not a believer in any particular faith or religion, you cannot help but feel the grandeur of something bigger, larger and deeper at play than one’s own petty needs and trite necessities. The very building of these structures takes one outside of one’s self. What, I wonder, are we building today with our lives and in our culture that will stand as testaments to our modern values and sensibilities? What will future generations say we honored, cherished and revered?

At their best, these cathedrals were built to offer sanctuary, rest, healing and  wholeness. As a lover of history, I certainly know that many of these cathedrals were host to the worst of mankind’s indulgences, but I know that they also held the possibility and hope of being places where the weary, the ragged, the despondent and the rejected could find rest. They held out the possibility of comfort, aid, redemption and shalom. In my life, I cherish deeply those friends who, by their very lives, offer the same sense of sanctuary that I have found in these old buildings of marble and gold. Rare but precious are those relationships that offer balm to my wounds, comfort to my afflictions, mercy to my misgivings.

As I think about what it must have meant to build monuments such as these, I ask myself: Am I building something with my life whose value will stand up to the test of time? What legacy am I passing down to my children and future generations? Do I spend my time focused on things that won’t last past tomorrow, let alone 700 years? Am I so consumed with my own small world that I give no thought to causes larger than myself? Do I offer any sense of respite to those with whom I engage?

May we build, with the lumber of our lives, monuments of blessing that bear witness to lives lived wholly and holy, inlaid with kindness and mercy, whose altars are for the healing of the nations.

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