Things Do Matter

Posted on October 8, 2011


After any natural disaster—like the tornado that struck our home town April 27—an oft heard remark is “things don’t matter, they can be replaced.”
And, of course, that is largely true. There is nothing comparable to human life. Trees, houses, photographs, the detritus of our lives, they are not measured on the same scale as life.
But, we all know that some things really do matter to us. They are part of our lives, either personally or collectively, and when we lose them, we suffer real grief.
They are often artifacts that connect us to our past, to where we have been, who we loved, or who loved us, to the long thread of what we were, and who we now are. It’s almost as if a part of our memory had been severed, and our memories are very much part of our being.
Years ago, during a move, while sorting through some beaten up boxes with old bric-a-brac, I came upon some old letters. Who knows I thought? Old girlfriends? Letters to my parents while I was in the Navy?
One caught my eye. It did not have a stamp, but some kind of postage seal. It was fragile, but intact. It was from First Lieutenant Jim Egan, USMC, then in Vietnam, dated sometime in the fall, 1965.
I opened it carefully and a flood of memories washed over me. We were both young. I was in the Navy, cruising in the Caribbean, and he was in the Marine Corps, acting as a forward fire control officer, stationed at Fy Xuan, an island, as Jim described it, “northwest of the airfield [Chu Lai]….”
The memories started to return, happy memories, welcome memories for the most part.
Jim and I went to a small prep school in New Jersey, played a lot of golf, and then when we had a chance, we escaped the Garden State. He headed to the Midwest to Notre Dame, good Catholic that he was, and I headed to the land of my father, the South, and found my way to Duke. We kept in touch even after we went into the service.
Then I recalled we seemed to lose touch, and I only found out years later that Jim disappeared in a small engagement sometime in February, 1965. He still is, after almost a half century, Missing in Action.
Finding the envelope loosened memories of the two of us I thought long gone, but they were still there, precious and poignant, brought back to me by the old envelope.
Things and artifacts are also part of history.
Many Christians, for example, for centuries have revered anything material that can be connected to the life of Jesus Christ.
As early as the age of the Emperor Constantine, his mother Helena, a devout convert, traveled to Jerusalem late in her life in 326 A.D. when she was almost eighty to search for the true cross.
It is a remarkable story. She found a Roman temple built atop the site of Jesus’s tomb by that crass pagan, the Emperor Hadrian. He is probably more famous as the builder of Hadrian’s wall dividing England from the wild Scots and Picts to the north.
Helena had that temple torn down and then set to excavating for the cross. Three crosses were found and then she tested them to identify the True Cross, which she did.
By the way, is this fact or legend? It is, as so much from antiquity, a bit of both. It is well known that people will act as much on faith as facts, and much of what is told about Christian artifacts belongs in the shady area between the two.
The Emperor Constantine then ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built where his mother found the Cross which she brought back to Rome along with some other artifacts such as the nails used to crucify Jesus. Since then, many “pieces of the Cross” have surfaced, some perhaps genuine, most probably forgeries, but all “things” which carry much symbolic and spiritual meaning for those who believe. Then there is the Shroud of Turin.
No other Christian artifact in modern times is more controversial than the Shroud.
It has its own web site which describes it “is a centuries old linen cloth that bears the image of a crucified man. A man that millions believe to be Jesus of Nazareth. Is it really the cloth that wrapped his crucified body, or is it simply a medieval forgery, a hoax perpetrated by some clever artist?”
It is, in fact, just a piece of cloth, albeit a very old one, that could be as old as Jesus. Miracles, healings and other manifestations are ascribed to the Shroud.
Does it, or does it not, have power? That depends upon your place in the religious cosmos, but it does surely have the power to recall for the believer the crucifixion and death of Jesus, a transcendent moment in the making of Christianity.
Things are also important in the secular world. The original Declaration of Independence, the most important artifact of our nation’s history, is meticulously preserved in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives, Washington, hermetically sealed in a glass case with argon gas.
The Rotunda is magnificent, and this plain piece of printed paper recalls for all Americans, in the enduring prose of Thomas Jefferson, why liberty is so important in our national psyche.
Battlefields and graveyards, especially from the Civil War, but all around the world, from the beaches of Normandy to the Korean peninsula, have the same power to light up memories, personal or national, of what came before us.
Archaeologists pore over ruins of cities and places in the ancient world, trying to determine if, for example, the Bible is true, if King David really lived, and this world, long lost, comes alive with bits and pieces, literally, out of the past.
So things do matter. When a tornado takes us down, it does more than kill and hurt. It buries the letters and pictures and things that recall our past. It hurts our heart as much as our bodies.
But when we do recover bits and pieces—material artifacts the archaeologists call them—that somehow find their way back into our sight and hands as we dig through the detritus, they remind us of so much of what we were, what we are.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday October 2, 2011

Posted in: History