Reflections from the Ruins

I repair to the ruins when the words won’t flow— when family crises demand ambulatory prayer, when the wonder and the uncertainty of it all threaten to smother me like an ill-struck match on a muggy August morning. I walk through streets of postwar ranch houses, the humble dreams of the greatest generation repurposed as millennial startups. I pass a cloverleaf of youth baseball fields and disappear into the vine-tangled treeline beyond the foulpoles, a boundary by my reckoning as haunted as Ray Kinsella’s cornfield, but by what ghosts I cannot yet ascertain. I follow a boardwalk that parallels the sluggish progress of South Peachtree Creek, until I reemerge into a clearing momentarily bushwacked for the benefit of joggers and cyclists and saunterers like myself—those of us privileged to have stumbled upon this unpublicized exhibit of urban archeology. The hungry jungle encroaches upon piles of standing stones: shrines, it seems, of some cult no longer practiced, artifices of a vanished people.

Ruins

Temporal and spatial dissonance set in. Have I stumbled into Atlanta’s unknown Mesoamerican past or its untold post-apocalyptic future? This zip code features prix fixe restaurants, entire skyscrapers inaccessible without a security clearance, the Poet Laureate of the United States; all I can see at the moment, however, attests to some far-northern Olmec colony that I never knew existed, or perhaps a recently evacuated refugee settlement in a future failed state, the smoke of kicked-out campfires nearly visible in the vaguely malarial air.

In truth, the builders of these pyramids were not so exotic. They worked for the City of Decatur at the turn of the twentieth century and for the WPA three decades later. The remains of their labor once formed a functioning Water Works, sufficient to hydrate a simpler age but obsolete by the time Delta jets flew the Braves into town. The dams were detonated, the aeration tanks and supervisors’ offices relinquished to the elements, the engineers snatched up as consultants for new suburban subdivisions. Life went on and the jungle went to work. It may be five-hundred years before you can start charging admission, but it really doesn’t take much to make a pile of picturesque rubble. Like many other American cities, Atlanta abounds in ruins younger than a century, relics of an industrial society either left to rot or refurbished into pleasure dens for the so-called “creative class.” There is no New Deal project that thirty tropical summers can’t reduce to debris, no supply depot that a resolute contractor can’t reincarnate as a craft brewery.

Ruins inspire predictable ruminations: the futility of ambition, the whims of fortune, Ozymandias and all of that. Romantics find them sublime and evocative, progressivists find them depressing and obstructive; they throw into relief both the hopelessness and the necessity of all endeavors in brick and mortar. My local ruins bring a similar spectrum of thoughts to mind and, given my daily preoccupations, often turn me to contemplating the fate of Christian infrastructure.

The consensus seems to be that we westerners are living in the ruins of Christendom, a fact to be lamented or celebrated—or perhaps both—depending on one’s theological disposition. Across Europe, monumental gothic prayers are being wrought into rock-climbing gyms and condominiums. Our curiously religious continent is not immune from these trends. Down the street a tall-steeple church; it dwindled to forty grey heads in less than half a lifetime and sold its deed to a developer of mixed-use shopping plazas. The local news, meanwhile, chronicles a perfect reversal of late-Roman trends in urban planning: the City of Atlanta’s quest to raze two historic churches impeding the construction of a new arena for violent Sunday spectacles. If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? (Ps 11).

The foundations, we know, subsist not in cement and stone. The Church burrows its way into new living spaces and somehow continues to thrive. In Nashville a lately sepulchral Baptist sanctuary pulses with life once more under the protective gaze of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I recall how quickly Boston, that Puritan Zion, became the most Catholic city in the United States, and I wonder what the Buckle of the Bible Belt might look like fifty years hence. My Catholic triumphalism quickly recedes, however, when I think of the Boston parishes now boarded up or auctioned off to pay litigation bills. Who knows what sorts of prayers that city, once the pride of ultramontane America, will one day offer from its neo-gothic ruins. Who can say whether my own beloved church, whose cruciform architecture and Trinitarian décor I so admire, will one day be retrofitted to form a mosque?

As a child, I took visiting relatives to see the California missions, Franciscan churches once in disrepair, now well maintained as both houses of worship and tourist attractions; as an adult I live in a state whose coast was similarly lined with Franciscan missions, the remains of which, if at all traceable, lie disregarded in remote corners of private hunting grounds and vacation properties. One son of Zebedee rests in a vaulted shrine at the end of a pilgrim trail on the edge of the mighty sea, the other beneath toppled boulders off a nondescript Turkish exit ramp. For every California mission trail there is a Georgia mission trail, for every Basilica of St. James there is a former Basilica of St. John, salutary reminders that the Church can never triumph in this world. Not one stone will be left upon another—not even in Santa Barbara, not even at Compostela.

On a tour of Turkey several years ago, I paused to ponder the desolation of that hill outside Ephesus where tradition has buried the Beloved Disciple. I mourned the marvelous edifice that once stood there, as I had mourned vestiges of Christian Empire throughout the trip. Then Sunday came, and finding myself in Antakya, I set out with two friends to see whether a sanctuary lamp might still be burning somewhere. An angelic young Kurd intercepted our confused route and led us through the byzantine alleys to an unmarked church where thirty or so Catholics worshiped not quite clandestinely. We hummed along with their hymns, exchanged fragments of English at the passing of the peace, ate of their home-cooked feast following the mass, and received the blessing of a bishop soon to be murdered. It was in Antakya—Antioch—that the disciples were first called Christians. And for a moment, faced with this living outpost of the primitive church, I regretted my tears for medieval temples now cast down.

Walk about Zion, go all around it, count its towers, consider well its ramparts, go through its citadels (Ps 48). Jesus knew that what he was about to undergo would mean, either directly or proximately, the end of the temple and all its glory. He did not gloat over the fact, however, as his Friday accusers would claim—to the contrary, he lamented the destruction that lay ahead. The evangelist tells us, in a poignant detail, that upon entering the city that final time, Jesus paused and “looked around at everything” in the dying daylight (Mk 11:11). A faithful son of the temple cult, who had made the pilgrimage to Zion each year from his youth, he wanted to take stock of what was about to be lost. He knew that, through his passion, God’s people would never want for priesthood or sacrifice; he lamented nonetheless. His willingness to weep for the ruins to come inclines me to think it not untoward to linger a while amid the rubble of the Christian past. The earliest disciples were known to have puzzled pagans by their care for the dying and the dead; perhaps we post-Christendom believers might bewilder zealously rezoning contemporaries by how we regard our ruins.

Drew Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in church history at Emory University and a catechist at his local parish.