Reflections for King’s-Edgehill School Cadet Church Parade, 2019

Church Parade Reflections 2019
Christ Church (Anglican), Windsor, Nova Scotia
May 14th, 2019
“But you, have you built well?”

I. “But you, have you built well?”

“But you, have you built well, that you now sit helpless in a ruined house?” T.S. Eliot’s question in ‘Choruses from “The Rock”’ reminds us that, one hundred years ago, the world was in ruins following the devastations and horrors of the First World War. His poem, The Waste Land, reflects on a world that is “a heap of broken images,” itself a scriptural reference about the wilderness which we create in contrast to the garden of creation that we heard about in the first lesson from Genesis read by Julia.

“You know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.”

It is a picture of desolation and despair. The only hope, he suggests, is found in “the shadow of this red rock.” “Come in under the shadow of this red rock.” The reference is to Holy Scripture, to the words which speak to our souls in all times and places, words which awaken us to comfort and consolation, and to thoughtful action. Only so might we learn from the ruins of our own making. Only so might there be a building anew.

“I will show you something different,” Eliot says, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” It is at once disquieting and yet comforting. It recalls us to creation in which God breathes his spirit into the dust of our humanity and ‘Adam’ became a living being. Fear is not only about the things which frighten us; it is also about the awe and wonder of God, the Creator and maker of all things.

“But you, have you built well?”

 

II. “But you, have you built well?”

“We build in vain unless the Lord build with us.” The motto of Bishop Charles Inglis emblazoned on his crest is depicted in one of the windows in the School Chapel. It reads Nisi Dominus frustra. Taken from the Latin vulgate translation of Psalm 126/7, it means “Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it”. By ourselves we discover only frustration and vanity. We are being challenged about the nature of our activity, our doing.

Among the first things which Bishop Inglis did in coming to Nova Scotia was to establish, first, a School in 1788 and, then, a College in 1789 here in Windsor. He also set about building the first Christ Church in what is now called the Old Parish Burying Grounds here in Windsor. Its foundation was laid in 1789. The oldest window in this Church, found at the back just above the stairs, was once in the apse of the original Christ Church, but was later removed and ultimately relocated here before the first Christ Church burned in 1892, some ten years after the building of this structure.

Building and rebuilding, fire and ruin.

“But you, have you built well?”

 

III. “But you, have you built well?”

Sometimes we have to sit in the ruins in order to think and understand.

The German novelist, Alfred Doblin, writing after the devastations of the Second World War, voices the uncomfortable truth that sometimes “you have to sit in the ruins for a long time and let them affect you, and feel the pain and the judgement.” It isn’t always what we want to hear. That is the curse of Cassandra, as Alberto Manguel puts it, namely, the reader’s unwillingness to hear, to see, to think.

Sometimes buildings themselves recall us to thoughtfulness. They remind us of the hopes and prayers of preceding generations. Sometimes sitting in the ruins of an age is not only the prelude to building but an essential part of the rebuilding because we are recalled to foundational principles which in turn shape us. They belong to the building up our souls and our communities.

“But you, have you built well?”

 

IV. “But you, have you built well?”

Walking is thinking for Aristotle. His lectures are really the result of his “walkings” – his thoughts taken down after walking about, talking and pondering everything. We have just walked down from the School to this Church.

Our journey through the streets of Windsor is a way of thinking and living an important part of the history of the Town and the School, particularly the military aspects of both and which connect to the global world. Our walking, our marching, is not about how great we are, not about ‘look at us, look at us,’ not about calling attention to ourselves, but about our connections with one another, about our life together, and as part of a wider world.

Our walking is an act of remembering.Peripateo is the Greek word which takes on a wider meaning as the walk of life. It captures the sense of our lives as lived purposefully, intentionally, and ethically. It is part of the building of character and of esprit de corps. Such are the formative aspects of the educational project of the School.

“But you, have you built well?”

 

V. “But you, have you built well?”

The Great Windsor Fire of October 16th, 1897 devastated Windsor, destroying two-thirds of the town. Between four hundred and five hundred buildings were burned. One of the most poignant images of the fire was the spectacle of pianos hauled out of the homes of Windsor and onto the streets. Four days later, the Hants Journal noted that “the remains of over one hundred pianos were counted in the ruins.”

This Church, though scorched, survived the fire in part because of the labours of students from King’s College. Christ Church, King’s Collegiate School, the University of King’s College, and The Edgehill School for Girls subsequently provided sanctuary for the other churches in the community which  had lost their buildings in the fire.

The Town quickly rebuilt and miraculously rebounded after the fire. But rebuilding a culture and a civilisation which had destroyed itself in the First World War was another matter; a much more difficult undertaking and one which remains for us to ponder.

In many ways we still live in the ruins of its aftermath; still caught in the forces of technocracy which destroy us and our world.

“But you, have you built well?”
 

VI. “But you, have you built well?”

The world’s attention has been captivated by the devastating fire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Much attention has been called to the significance of the building, to its role and place in the history not only of France but of Europe and beyond.

And yet so much of the commentary dances around the obvious, afraid to name the real meaning and significance of the Cathedral. The real significance of Notre-Dame de Paris, as a Canadian commentator, John Robson, notes, is that it is a church. More than an icon of culture, more than a tourist attraction, it “speaks to our aspirations to be better than we are,” to a kind of universal hope in us that we can be better (National Post, April 16th, 2019).

Notre Dame de Paris reminds us of an age defined by a vibrant and an intellectual faith which we have largely lost and yet is always there to be recovered just like Notre-Dame can be restored. What have we built, we might ask, which will last for eight hundred years or more?

There are and always will be questions about our resources and the proper use of them. The fire at Notre Dame occurred on Monday in Holy Week. The traditional reading of the Passion that day includes the story of the woman who anoints Jesus by breaking open the “alabaster box of ointment of spikenard, very precious.” Her extravagant action evokes the age-old criticism. “Why was the waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pieces of silver, and have been given to the poor.”

Jesus response is intriguing. “Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying … what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Poverty is about more than money and at issue is what do we do to make things better through the building up of our social and political lives. That requires a spiritual understanding that embraces a larger view of our humanity. That includes the buildings that speak to our highest aspirations in spite of ourselves and even in the ruins of an age.

“But you, have you built well?”
 

VII. “But you, have you built well?”

The fire at Notre Dame de Paris confronts us with other features of our disordered world. There are, it seems, no trees in France or in the whole of Europe large enough to replace the huge wooden beams that were part of the roof of the cathedral. We confront the sad and sorry consequences of our failure to be good stewards of our world. And so here too.

Look up and behold the beams of this Church. They are at once functional, for they hold up the roof, and symbolic, for they teach. They are Alpha and Omega beams. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and Omega is the last letter as shown by the posters held up before you and which point to the shape of the beams above you. You can see how the shape of Alpha and Omega are nestled together.

“God is the beginning and end of all things especially rational creatures” Thomas Aquinas notes. Such is the radical meaning of creation and redemption understood philosophically and religiously. “The Originator of heaven and earth when he decrees a thing, he says ‘Be’ and it is,” as the Qur’an expresses it. We live thinkingly when we are alive to such ideas and principles. There can be no building apart from them.

Here in the structure of the Church we see their symbolic meaning. In the Christian understanding, they signify Christ as our beginning and end which is what we heard in the Second Lesson about God and Christ as the Alpha and Omega as read by Nick.

“But you, have you built well?”

 

VIII. “But you, have you built well?”

We are embraced in Christ, the Alpha and Omega of our lives. These beams were all hewn from local trees of remarkable stature and size that once abounded in these regions but, alas, no more. It is a telling indictment about our careless use and abuse of the world in which we find ourselves. A cautionary tale perhaps but part of what belongs to our reflections.

The oldest buildings on our School Campus are Convocation Hall and Hensley Memorial Chapel. They, like Notre Dame, are built of stone and they, like Notre Dame, have massive wooden beams. Like the beams of this Church, they were hewn from stands of local wood, the like of which we no longer see around us.

To face such things is to confront ourselves and at the same time to be reminded of our aspirations to be better than what we are.

“But you, have you built well?”

 

IX. “You, have you built well, have you forgotten the cornerstone?
Talking of right relations of men, but not of relations of men
to God.
“Our citizenship is in Heaven”; yes, but that is the model and
type for your citizenship upon earth.”

Buildings recall us to the ideals that belong to the shaping of our lives. The great buildings such as Notre Dame and this place too in its own small way remind us of the principles that are at once foundational and formative for our lives.

Our lives are about the constant building of character through the awakening of our imaginations and the training of our minds, our bodies, and our souls. That can only happen in a community in which we encounter the spiritual and intellectual principles that shape and govern human lives.

That must be our building; our building upon the things which we are learning and doing together. Eliot’s question is timely and pertinent yet humbling and provocative, at once personal and universal.

“But you, have you built well?”

(Rev’d) David Curry

Readers: Andrew Atwood, Aimee Cooper, Ava Benedict, Maddy Magee, Duncan McLaughlin, Megumi Tsuji, Mateo Barbera Parra, Evan Logan, Jimin Choe, Eva Redmond, Ohemaa Ofori, Will Fleming, Makayli Paul, Ella Brown.

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