What are you doing here …
There are libraries and then there are libraries. The Radcliffe Camera (camera deriving from the Latin for “room”) lies just north of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin (where Thomas Cranmer was tried) and just south of the Old Bodleian Library. To the west is Brasenose College and to the east is All Souls College. The building dates from the 1740s. There is a lower reading room with clear arched windows and iron tracery, with a domed ceiling. To get to the upper galleries one climbs a very large spiral staircase. Interior to that one finds the upper gallery, with smaller windows, due in part to an upper level of books and reading spaces accessed by spiral staircases, very steep and very narrow ones. It is a compelling location, and atmosphere which drips with the wisdom of the past, the curiosity of present, and the imagination of the future.
Though they looked nothing alike, being in the Radcliffe Camera harkened me back to the library of my childhood. It was the public library in Greenville, SC. It was located around the corner from McPherson Park, up the hill and past the old armory, on the left across of Calhoun Towers and Trinity Lutheran Church. The public library had creaking stairs and wooden floors and smelled like books. Some of the Radcliffe Camera’s floors are wood; others floors have carpet, to muffle sound I would think. Both places smelled … like books. Not musty, not dusty, not sanitized, simply like books.
At the Greenville Public Library, in the Children’s Room, there was a set time (I don’t recall how often) after school that was story time. A person, always a lady as I recall, read various books and took care to show those of us spread out at here feet the illustrations, if there were any. When the books she had chosen did not have illustrations, she took great care to encourage us to use our imaginations to create the rooms, people, forests, jungles, rivers, oceans, and other components.
I know there are still children’s sections in public libraries. The venerable old main Detroit Public Library has one. I wonder if there are still ladies (and gentlemen, I hope) reading stories? I wonder because I see so many game consoles and video devices. Of course they have their place, but it seems to me that strip away the invitation to imagine – to create something out of nothing, or to fill in the spaces if there are static illustrations. As good as The Lord of the Rings trilogy movies were in capturing Tolkien’s Middle Earth and its inhabitants, it is an amazing thing with a person of any age creates them in his or her own mind, own imagination, just from the words the author gifts to us. The same is true of Narnia, or Hogwarts, or the trenches of Verdun, or the 100 Aker Wood, or not always in books, Lake Woebegone.
I’ll be honest, though we took our daughter to the library, she much preferred the book store, and our bank accounts show it. But we read, pretty much every day. Sometimes we read the same things over and over. Only she can tell you if she added more detail to the imagined worlds each time. I can tell you that I did – even down to the location of the dust-bunnies in Good Night Moon. My point is: wonder and imagination are limitless, and as nice as video games are, I am not at all convinced that they cultivate that part of the self.
I am convinced of the parallels between this and the spiritual life – worship and worship spaces, as we understanding them, and including the words and notes spoken or sung, are rich in all the things necessary to get beyond the finite and into the limitless wonder of God. Our minds, or imaginations, are set free creating the images for Jonah being tossed overboard, swallowed by a big fish, and subsequently “yorked-up” on a shore (was it rocky or sandy?); or imagining what a prophet, a seraphim, an ark (either of them) or the creche and heavenly hosts are like. For what else are the set-apart, the sacred, spaces we have built intended, other than to inspire us and set us loose into the wonder and mystery of The Divine.
It is why, in the deepest part of my being I am sure that worship the time for all ages, all generations, all the people who are wondering about, questioning the existence of, seeking the presence of, convinced of the presence or absence of, or convicted by love of the verity of God, to be together.
Perhaps it is why down through ages and generations the words, “Rabbi (or mommy, or daddy, or grandpa, or auntie, or sissy, or padre, or Ms…. ), tell us a story” has been so important. It gives us a limitless chance to co-create , which is to say engage, along with God. Don’t believe me? Just start with the words below and see where you go. (Say them out loud to yourself and keep on going …)
And one day I was minding my own business and I heard a voice. The voice said, “What are you doing here …”
******** The Sabbatical Diary is published with gratitude and appreciation to the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Detroit, Michigan for granting me sabbatical time and funding, and to the Graduate Theological Foundation, Oxford Foundation Fellowship, which made access to Oxford University for reading and research possible.