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Spolie

April 14, 2019

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In a far-away place I am shown ancient and old and new. They combine in a set of columns. Capitals from Rome, thousands of years ago, shafts from Sorrento, hundreds of years ago, and renovation after an earthquake dozens of years ago.

I show the picture on the Internet. Then comes the comment, unexplained: “spolie”. I ask the sender, from Colorado, who I do not think I have met, and he notes that the Latin word relates the “spoils of war”, remnants that are now in the hands of the victorious.

But the triumph, here, is not over an enemy – but maybe it is.

The triumph is over time. “One and Done” is a convenient hand wipe of the incurious. On this distant shore, the reality of a fluted capitol over a smooth shaft appropriates history to serve the present. In a place where Roman remnants are used as bumpers on the outside corners of buildings built a thousand years later – reused against carriage damage –  is delightfully dismissive of the sacredness of the past.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and the dead were familiar then. The long dead were just a lost group who once ruled a place, so, when gone, spolie.

Talk of discovered, then reburied, villas, walls of defense repurposed to support one side of homes, the zombie-ized roots of indigenous sour lemon trees to support new branches grafted onto to them to make sweet fruit from a different species all hold the past as just a platform for the present.

Little veneration (as New England has) for just a few generations past.

And, in a talk here, I think of the talk I had with an ancient doctor at a meeting 20 years ago.

”It must be great to think that, given time, things like cancer will be cured, done. You save lives.” I gushed.

”Well” he said, “in truth doctors only get what they can out of the way, end the things we can, and let the body cure itself. We really do not know how that happens. We are clueless about the way we ultimately repair ourselves. So we help, but if damaged cells do not cure themselves, death happens.”

We can do things, but if the body of history was not under our feet, then it could not happen.

I think I can understand things, but I cannot understand what I do not know. Just like the doctor. So we trust. We have faith.

I believe in God.

Unlike many I know, I cannot begin to think I know anything about the knowledge other humans have made and my experience. So all the rituals, canon, human effort of religion is simply just a nice attempt to register to what we do not know. Like medicine, it often works, sometimes fails, but was once leeches and cocaine.

So it is Palm Sunday, the recounting of a week that led to death, 2,000 years ago. Some say it did not happen. Others say that the resurrection did not happen. History only offers spolie, the stuff we have after the events happen.

We cannot be then, only now. And we cannot be the future, let alone know it.

Here, in this distant land, history is so redolent around us that most here do not smell it. I do not know how the grain was grown that makes the perfect bread I eat, either.

We use the past because we do not have any other choice. I have faith because I do not have any other choice. When I was in the hospital two years ago I had no fear or confusion, despite not knowing anything about what was wrong within me, and certainly no understanding of a future, because, I think, it did not matter.

The coming death of Christ mattered to him, some, but then it meant nothing except the realization of the meaning of history. And the future. Not of understanding, but of faith.

 

 

 

 

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