Monday, February 23, 2009

The Light Air of Lent Meets the Heavy Hand

As we approach the light air of Lent we encounter a hand hewn likeness of Christ's Crucifixion. This dramatic display seems to have been carved out of tree which fell at this spot. We are at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist Monastery in Berkeley County, S.C. The Abbey, once a prosperous plantation, is a pastoral retreat from the chaos of a declining civilization. The Monks within have retreated from that secular world and so have we for the moment.

While the Abbey is a reservation clearly dedicated to the practice of a Christian faith, one need not embrace the Sacraments to enjoy the peace which settles upon the visitor. The magnificent view of the upper reaches of the Cooper River is seen past a series of sacred statuary which blend smoothly with natural surroundings. The panorama presents a calming sense of grace. Most of the icons of faith are weathered and have taken on a patina which blends them with the land. They present no conflict and demand nothing of the viewer.

The Crucifixion in wood, however, is rendered in hard, sharply edged features which is unsettling and a bit difficult to view. It seems glossy and still new. It blends with nothing and stands decidedly apart from the placid surroundings. The discomfort one feels is no accident and the suffering it portrays is its message. Perhaps it speaks to both the child of faith and the secular citizen. It more than suggests that nothing of value comes easily nor without sacrifice.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Leave Your Blood at the Red Cross - Not on the Highway

Yes, by all means, but don't bring it here.

The wall bearing the Red Cross surrounds a very old building which is now a private residence at the corner of Wentworth and Smith Streets in Charleston, SC. Built in the late 1700s, it became the local headquarters of the American Red Cross during World War I. It housed not only the administrative services of the Red Cross, but was the Blood Bank as well.

It was to this very place where donors would come to roll up their sleeves and make the priceless gift of blood so that others might live or recover from serious surgery. It was an act of caring rather than a fashionable charity. There was no Bloodmobile in the early days to round up donors. This was well before the days of commercial plasma vendors who draw anyone from the streets with a few bucks for their blood.

The Red Cross decamped from this location in 1988. In the month before Hurricane Hugo struck Charleston in 1989 the building was returned to private habitation. A native Charleston couple fixed up the house, raised a family and remains there today. They retained the Red Cross on the wall as a matter of historical integrity. It is not the fanciful invention of some decorator. It may also be a reminder that our blood runneth red as it does in the rest of the Union.

The notion that Charlestonians have forever lived at ease, in splendor within endless rows of beautiful mansions is the unrelieved bunk of hack tour guides and Hollywood's corruption of history. Our buildings had not been simply the idle trophies of today's bored and fortunate. Like the people they were pressed into service to meet the needs of our times. The bold Red Cross on this wall is a reminder that the hopes and fears of every generation have played out on a working stage by actual people facing the very daunting challenges of real life.