Sunday, November 1, 2009

The ultimate urban experience

A while ago a former colleague at the Museum changed jobs and went across the street to work at the School of the Art Institute. He told me that he was leaving the realm of dead artists for the realm of the living. That gave me pause to think. On the surface it seemed like a compelling idea. His description conjured up images of leaving the old, creaky fossils behind in favor of the new, the exciting, and most important, the relevant. Thinking it through a bit however I realized that somewhere in the future, maybe ten years, maybe one year, heck maybe even less, much of what we find relevant today will become trivial, trite, or just plain silly. Yet the important work that has stood the test of time will remain fresh, enlightening, yes even relevant, while most of the art produced today, (as is the case with most of the art that has ever been produced) will be forgotten.

I was reminded of this today, on the Solemn Feast of All Saints. We Catholics dedicate the entire month of November every year to our departed ancestors. During today's feast, we celebrate the lives of people who lived exemplary lives, so much so that we believe they unquestionably dwell as citizens of that very unearthly place that St. Augustine described as the City of God. On the second day of November, the day of the Feast of All Souls, we reflect on the lives of all our departed. The two feast days are most popularly observed in Mexico as El Dia de los Muertos. Contrary to its (to our ears) macabre name, the Day of the Dead is very much a day of celebration and festivity as people reconnect with their deceased loved ones.

If there is one thing that distinguishes the Roman Catholic faith from most other Christian traditions, it is our devotion to those who came before us. We believe that the history of God's love for His people does not end with the last page of the Bible. At mass we proclaim that we believe in the "communion of saints." That is, we are members of an extended family of believers that not only encompasses the living of every race and nationality, but also those who came before us, and by extension, those who have yet to come.

Today in the Cathedral, the point could not have been clearer. We worshiped in a building that was built well over a century ago but is filled with adornments from our own era. The congregation every week comes from every corner of the globe. The liturgy, a work in progress for the past 45 years is based on liturgy that is almost two thousand years old. The music ranged from the Renaissance to practically yesterday. Jesus' words in the Gospel reading, commonly known as the Beatitudes, uttered so long ago, are pointedly centered on the present:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, there's is the kingdom of God..."

And while mass was devoted to those who lived in the past, the squeaks and squawks of the children sprinkled throughout the building reminded us of our future.

The Church is indeed about the timeless, as well as the here and now.

Which is perhaps why so many have strayed. Our culture today hasn't much time for, or interest in the timeless. I often hear the sentiment, "I just don't get anything out of going to church." It's trendy these days to say "I'm spiritual but not religious", meaning of course, "I believe in God but I don't go to church". The churches that do have growing numbers are charismatic, ones that offer a heaping helping of "spiritual experience". More reflective, traditional churches are struggling.

For me, the point of going to church is not what I get out of it. It is the collective experience of belonging to something that is much greater than myself, something much greater in fact than the sum of all its parts. I believe that we go to church for each other, for God, for our families, past, present and future, for our friends, for people we will never know, and yes even for the guy sitting next to us who shakes our hand during the greeting of peace but who wouldn't otherwise give us the time of day.

That to me is what sums up the urban experience. Our destinies are all tied together, whether we like it or not. Along with those who came before as well as those who will succeed us, we live, love, work, struggle, fight, build up, tear down, care for, and leave our mark on a place that we will eventually leave behind. That in a nutshell is the fabric of a city.

City of Man, or City of God, one thing is certain, we all need each other.

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