How Lovely the Ruins
We saw ruins on our trip to the Balkans last summer. Ruins of an ancient city, ruins of a basilica. It took imagination and an artist’s rendering to see what the buildings may have looked like centuries ago.
This past week I saw a story about the fire at Notre Dame in Paris last Holy Week, and the ruins—tangled metal from the spire and stones— that collapsed.
When the disciples are dazzled by the wonders of the temple, Jesus sees ruins. All will be thrown down, one stone upon another. It is the nature of things. Nothing lasts forever. Life is fragile. Whether institutions or edifices or our human flesh.
It is easy to live with illusions. That we will live forever. That America is greatest country in the history of the world and will always be so. That the church will continue as it did in the 1950s. That the shiny and powerful objects we purchase and worship and carry with us constantly will protect us from the heartache of life.
From time to time our illusions are shattered and we see reality—both frightening and liberating. Summer’s vibrant greens morph into autumn’s blazing rusts and oranges and reds—this year leading to the onset of an early snow and biting cold this past week. We wonder what is going on and whether we can endure.
What seems so heavy about these days is that there is a feeling that things are getting worse—
that there’s no hope. Many of the warnings are dire. Does the partisan stalemate signal the end of democracy? Is corruption in politics the new normal? Is isolation and social media increasing anxiety and depression among youth and is it fueling cyberbullying and radical hate groups across the globe? With fires in California and Australia and great weather extremes, it’s hard not to feel helpless despair. As 11,000 scientists recently explained in an article for the journal BioScience: “The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.”
It's not a hopeful message. All will be thrown down. Look at the ruins. And look at what will ruin us.
Apocalyptic literature in the Bible is not to predict the future, but to unveil the truth, and to encourage the faithful—to encourage us— to endure and to persevere. Life is hard. Often things do get worse. So now what—have a nice day?
Some would say we need more activism, more civic engagement. Some would say we need more spiritual practices and ways to remain centered. Some would say we need to understand history and learn from the past. I agree with all of those things.
But today I suggest another path. I have a book on my shelf called “How Lovely the Ruins: Inspirational Poems for Difficult Times.” In times like these our souls need more poetry, more art, more music, more theater, more liturgy, more ritual.
“How Lovely the Ruins” was published in 2017, one year after the 2016 election when people were posting empowering and moving poetry. In the preface, African American poet and writer Elizabeth Alexander writes that poems are how we say: this is who we are. They remind us that the world has always been broken—and has always been whole. She adds: “Sometimes, when times are tough, we may think we have nothing, when we actually we have everything. Because we are the survivors, and in [poems] we have all the ancestors have given us.”
True, we can lose perspective when we are overwhelmed. The refrain that Alexander wants to leave with us is: you have everything you need.
So, in writing of birds between the buildings in Detroit, poet Jamaal May pens, “how lovely the ruins, how ruined the lovely children must be in the birdless city.”
After 9/11 and the most massive ruins of our lifetime, people posted poems on windows and shared them by hand. One popular one was by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. Here are a few lines: “Try to praise the mutilated word. Remember June’s long days, and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew. . . Praise the mutilated world and the gray feather a thrush lost, and the gentle light that stays and vanishes and returns.”
How lovely the ruins. How lovely when illusions fall, and we see ourselves as we are. Rather than being busybodies, meddling in the affairs of others, November reminds us that nothing lasts forever. Make your life count. Never weary in doing right.
For seasons come and ago. There is always change. There are always meltdowns. There are always transitions. In some ways it is always the end of the world. Yet in our common humanity, we hold one another close. Christ, the sun of righteousness, rises with healing in his wings. And we find the strength to persevere. Not a hair of your head shall perish, Jesus tells his faithful followers.
Don’t forget that hymns and psalms are the church’s poetry. Taking us out of ourselves and out of our funks, they open our hearts and minds to a different reality, a different narrative.
So, breathe in the words of the hymn-poem we will sing in a few minutes. Through change and chance, God guides us. Mortal pride and earthly glory, sword and crown betray our trust. What with care and toil we fashion, tow’r and temple fall to dust. Ruins, all ruins, indeed. And then words to heal our weary souls: but thy power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.
Poet Wendell Berry writes of harvest and summer’s end. Of names that rest on graves. We imagine November days and the geese high over us, in his poem. And then stunning words of an ancient faith: “what we need is here. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. What we need is here.”
So find hope in this sacred place. Solace in the poetry of the hymns. Sustenance in the bread and wine. Courage in the words of faith. Inspiration in the music and the silence. Support in the community. And resilience in the presence of Christ here among us. All we need is here—to endure and to persevere.
How lovely the ruins. Even in the ruins, you have all you need. And what we need is here.