A Note about Shrines

Today I went to the Alamo.  I had been there back in August, but this time it was with my family in law over spring break; when the weather was nice and the lines were long.  There are places in the US with such a profound and iconic presence in the American identity – but they are few: Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Independence Hall.  This is rather unique to the US; that where we live doesn’t usually have a meaningful heritage.

I think that this is a problem, and my visit to Washington D.C. a couple years back bears evidence to it.  It is a strange thing for Americans to suddenly be in the presence of a historic place like the Lincoln Memorial, or Vietnam Memorial.  We are used to seeing it on a postcard or movie, and when we it the presence of the place itself we find that we don’t know how to act.  I remember my deep annoyance at a Lincoln exhibit as junior high and high school kids who were on vacation.  Here, in front of the suit that Lincoln was killed in, were kids pinching each other, joking around, and doing everything but paying homage that was due to the man and the moment that rocked our nation.  It is not the behavior that annoyed me, it would have been fine at an amusement park, but we were not here to be amused.  We were here for… well why do we go on vacation to see something not meant to be entertaining?

Part of the problem is that shrines, monuments, and other profound places are not meant to be traveled to, but meant to be lived around.  One of the things that makes the Alamo so great is that it was there because it had to be, it’s not a memorial that the city collected because it needed something distinct.  The Alamo is part of the identity of San Antonio, and it is themonument in the city.  It is in the center of the city and people pass by it everyday, living in its shadow.  This does not mean that the Alamo is stale to the people of San Antonio, any conversation with a native will show you otherwise, in fact they have built the city in such a manner so that no building will cast a shadow on the shrine.  This is how monuments naturally are, and how we naturally relate to them.  The festival of monuments that we see in D.C. is artificial, though perhaps forgivably so.

For those who haven’t been – the Alamo was large, and only the chapel (with its recognizable silhouette), the barracks, and some of the walls remain.  The chapel itself is very small, and it was primarily where the women and children found shelter – and when people talk about “seeing” the Alamo, they usually mean going inside the chapel. 

To the natives however, this is not a chapel, and they do not refer to it as such.  To them it is the “Alamo Shrine”.  As you walk into through the iconic doors there is a sign that reads “Be silent friend, for here men died to blaze a trail for other men.”  Men are instructed to remove their hats, and there are frequent reminders to treat the Shrine with its due respect.  Personally I cannot be around the Alamo without either buoyant boyish joy or a profound ache for the sacrifice of the men, the historic grounds, and the fall of my childhood hero – Davy Crockett.  Yet today, inside the rather plain adobe walls as I tried to soak it in, I found myself surrounded by people who were talking more about basketball, where to eat, and the usual sort of touristy bickering between parent and child. 

If all you can talk about inside the Alamo is what you talk about inside Chili’s, if all you can think about where men paid the ultimate price, is the price of gasoline, if this is what it means to you, if this is how you behave: why even come?

The fact of the matter is that there is a proper response to these places and artifacts, and though we kind of know this, we don’t work of measuring up to it.

Hours later I was in Austin.  “So this is where Vince Young hung out?” said my brother in law giving the streets we drove just a bit more meaning.  As we walked inside the State Capitol, we appreciated the pomp.  It seems rather fitting that the Governor of the great state of Texas should have a large, well lit building with a fantastic dome, and a marble floor.  It seems appropriate that it shouldn’t inhabit a Home Depot – like facility furnished by Wall-Mart and Ikea.  It is meet and right to give honor to a place, to a person, and to a great institution.

So why do we treat the house of God, and the people of God with such little reverence?  In fact treating these things of primary importance with their due honor is frequently denounced as silly, wrong, and sinful.  No, it’s just a human response – and it takes habituation, fragmented living, and a concerted amount of effort to not revere people.  Even in hardcore Evangelical circles were “Jesus is my home-boy”, people revere R.C. Sproul, Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham, and Jean Calvin.

The profound moments that history will remember us for; the battle, the decision, the Saint may be in front of us.  We must live in a profound world, in a world that belongs to us before it is great, only then call we understand our place in the cosmos and the duties that guide us.  The divine is all around us, the earth upon which we stand was moved and molded in God’s act of creation, and the life that animates us was given to us directly by God.

We are insane to treat it lightly.  We either brave or foolish to not fall on our faces as we go about our daily chores under the fire-quenched sphere that perilously hangs above us.


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