My Camino Way: Article #11
THE GOLDEN CHURCH (part II cont.)
BUILDING PEACE COMMUNITIES IN THE 21st CENTURY
Photo Credit: Ricardo Andre Frantz, Fresco in Basilica San Marco, Venice;
The traffic roars and hundreds of pigeons fill the square, but it doesn’t seem to interfere with the peace and enjoyment that the piazza brings to the millions of people who go there.
They will sit on benches and read or talk with friends. Or maybe they will linger for a while and feed the birds before going into the Chiesa d’Oro (the Golden Church), Basilica San Marco – still considered the most beautiful building in Venice.
Inside the church the walls burst to life with stunning gold-leaf mosaics depicting stories of the lives of Christian saints and martyrs, and other biblical tales. Pearls, emeralds, sapphires, rubies and other rare gems glitter at the altar, where other priceless relics reside. Many of these are treasures from the Crusades, after the conquest of Constantinople.
In 823, as the legend goes, Venetian merchants stole the sacred bones of St. Mark by sneaking it past the Muslim guards in pork-belly barrels. And as in so many saints’ legends, a sea storm almost sank the ship that was carrying the saint’s remains. But as they were tossing about in the sea, St. Mark appeared from beyond the grave and told them to lower their sails, and so the merchants were saved.
Above the doors, at the entrance of the basilica, the story is painted out in painstaking detail.
This is a heroic tale of Christian pilgrims at war, sanctioned by the Holy See. The golden glow that fills the basilica seems in stark contrast to the darkness of the Crusades.
For the more intellectually inclined, the Biblioteca Marciana houses tens of thousands of manuscripts dating back to medieval times –many of them illuminated, including ancient Greek manuscripts, without which Western Europe would likely never have been introduced to the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato that had such a profound influence on European culture.
There must be thousands upon thousands of stories in the Piazza San Marco for each of its ancient
buildings, monuments, manuscripts and the people who created them.
It is a place steeped in culture where the walls tell tales a thousand years old and human voices in dialogue are audible above the din of traffic.
The Piazza doesn’t need to shout out its offerings. Rather, it draws one in, engaging people in conversation or contemplation. It invites those who visit it to experience life in the moment or travel back in time and see the world through a telescope – or through the eyes of the Renaissance, the eyes of Christianity.
We need to know these stories too. They also belong to the story of humankind.
No one would expect or want Time Square to become a replica of an ancient European piazza, to be something it is not.
A city square should reflect the city’s identity - and certainly New York has plenty of identity.
But it should also consider the most vital needs of its immediate community and be fair to the people in it. There needs to be balance and a feeling of inclusion that flows into the rest of the city. It must be safe for everyone – especially children – and restorative to the soul.
In its ideal, when it is at its best, the heart of any city will have a joyous beat that creates a sense of well-being and peacefulness.
Time Square has its moments of magic, to be sure, but ultimately it encapsulates, at one intersection, the worst part of America: inequality and excess consumerism coupled with the kind of mindless greed that can get a nation into deep hot water, just like it did nearly 90 years ago.
Here, the modern-day Mercury still rules and the illusion of the American Dream plays itself out with giant-sized Disney characters invading the streets, populated by adults who lost their innocence long ago and can’t find their way back to Kansas.
Photo Credit: Anthony Delmundo, New York Daily New, August 27, 2015
Here, the majestic lion has morphed into a sad caricature of itself, on the big screen and on Broadway, where the booming film and theater industries keeps capitalizing on the power of its symbolism and panhandlers are stepped over and shuffled off the stage before they have a chance to make enough for a cup of coffee.
It is a city of escape artists and superheroes. This is how it survives, by building a grand illusion to avoid dealing with the deep issues of its soul. Even the NYPD can't seem to get it under control.
Apparently Mickey Mouse and the gang have been going about the streets accosting the young and old alike; the police consider it a “public safety issue.”
Disney and Marvel seem to be "The Untouchables" in this story. If it weren't so tragic it would be comical.
And this is how our youth learns about the “circle of life” and moral lessons on social interactions and familial relations: through cartoon figures conceived within a male-dominated hierarchical based system that stereotypes and discriminates and sends the message that we each have our place in society.
“Look at the stars,” says Mufsa, in The Lion King. “The great kings look down at us from those stars. So whenever you feel alone, just remember those kings will always be there to guide you. And so will I.”
It’s a nice thought. Except when the children finally do look up to search the sky, there is narry a twinkle to be found. Corporate towers block all the sunlight and pollution snuffs out the stars. And far too often there is no one around to guide them down a better path.
Instead, advertisements of super-sized fries and coke, and the latest retail product to go with the show, beam down from blinking billboards beckoning them to the check-out counter.
Whatever life lessons may be embedded in the story line is soon forgotten the moment theater-goers step out onto the sidewalks of New York.
In all of this, the King of the Jungle is a far cry from his home. Mute and dethroned and doomed to perform for the gods of money until the public tires of him, he may as well be back in the 18th century with a dog on his back, the aristocracy clapping in glee by the doors of the Golden Church – oblivious to his suffering.
Surely, this isn’t progress?
In addition to its being the “crossroads of the world,” Time Square it is also known as the “heart of the world,” with Broadway as the “Great White Way.”
And, true to its identity as a political superpower is its most glorious title: “the center of the universe” - which is why I chose to write about Time Square above all other squares in North America. It commands attention like a spoiled child who wants the latest toy on the market and doesn’t get it.
The delusional egocentricity that defines the “American Dream” isn’t hard to recognize in these grandiose titles. The United States has always believed itself to be the center of the universe, with Wall Street as the city’s financial epicenter.
But if America is the heart that keeps the world beating and Time Square is an accurate representation of where we’re at, then we’re really in trouble.
Given the recent post-election riots in a nation that is divided and in debt to the tune of nearly 10 trillion dollars – 30 per cent of which is owed to one country (China) – it’s safe to say that America’s spiritual and economic heart is in urgent need of a transplant.
As a race, we are at a crossroads. And for better or for worse, the United States – with its myriad divisions – is at front-and-center stage of that global crossroads.
If America has a heart attack, the rest of the world will almost certainly feel the heat.
“...We have both been very homesick for Paris. ... New York looked very beautiful on the lower part around Broad and Wall streets where there is never any light gets down except streaks and the damnedest looking people. All the time I was there I never saw anybody even grin ...
Three hundred years from now people will come over from Europe and tour it in rubber-neck wagons. Dead and deserted like Egypt ... Wouldn’t live in it for anything.”
- from the Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Vol. 2, 1923-25
New York has become a city for the rich and the tourists that visit it, and far too many urban spaces (especially in world-class cities) tell the same tale.
There is no real living room at its center, few places to go where arms reach out to bring the community together.
Other squares and neighborhoods or boroughs divide the city, based on wealth, ethnicity, sex or the arts and technology - Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, China Town, Harlem and many others – but they are scattered;
no one place exists that connects all divisions.
Time Square is “it”.
And unless parents hold the hands of their children tightly, the children have no place there either and no community looking out for them, only the millions “hustling forever for a buck ...”
Humans cannot live that way for long before we start dying. The metaphorical crack in the tower is widening. This was never our divine path.
We must begin weaving a different story.
END OF PART II
Stay tuned for more El Camino stories NEXT WEEK. Meanwhile, feel free to contact me if you’re considering El Camino as a relationship sabbatical or simply for your own spiritual growth. There’s plenty of information on El Camino and many ways to walk it. So, if anything has resonated with you while reading this, it may be a special sign, divinely arranged just for you.
Buen Camino, Pilgrim