Friday, February 22, 2013

Touching the wounds: Incarnation and Conservation

This is likely my most overtly religious and confessional blog post ever. There are some times when I just like to try to see how the various motivations and intentions and interests in my life intersect, and this blog post is one example. To provide a little context; I am a preservation professional, and I am also a contemplative, religious guy thoroughly embedded within the Christian story (although I’m most at home in that odd Mennonite – Brethren – Anabaptist wing of the Christian story.) In addition to my Masters of Library Science I have a Masters of Biblical Studies from a seminary. For those for whom the language of this post is uncomfortable or unwelcome, I ask your grace.

Library preservation is about preserving more than just stuff, but the part of preservation work that has most shaped me is working with stuff – damaged, wounded, vulnerable stuff. I work with papers made of wood pulp, cotton rags, and hemp fibers. I handle books bound in the hides of cow, sheep, and goats. I smell the odors of a wet hog when I first put a hog hair bristle brush in water. (The first time I got a hog hair brush wet I was immediately struck by the smell which took me someplace else. It took me a few moments to realize I was recalling childhood memories of butchering hogs on the family farm.) I pull on binding thread, push on press screws, gently tug at old tape, and critically handle a newly repaired book. When I’m given a paper document that gives me every indication of being very brittle, I still need to grasp it between my thumb and forefinger and gently bend the paper till it invariably breaks. When I’m given a book with signs of mold I caress the discolored area and often bring it up to my nose for a quick sniff.

The biblical depiction of the physical world is vast and complex. It is, first and foremost, God’s good creation, but it is very quickly tarnished by Adam and Eve’s rebellion. As a result, humanity’s relationship with the matter of this world is described as one of labor and struggle.

cursed is the ground because of you;
   in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
   and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
   you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
   for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
   and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3: 17b-19)

 For the rest of the biblical story the material stuff of this life is a mixed bag – it both extols the glory of God, and demonstrates our mortality and insignificance. These opposing qualities are probably best reflected in the Psalms, what is often referred to as the prayer book of the Hebrew scriptures and is perhaps the most intimate of biblical books.

The Psalms often extol how the grandeur of God is revealed in the stuff of this world.

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. (Ps. 19:1)

 But the Psalms also express the deep transience and turmoil of our material existence.

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
   they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
   and its place knows it no more. (Ps 103:15-16)

 The Christian scriptures, or New Testament, portray an equally conflicted relationship with the material stuff of this word. The early church as depicted in Acts shares its material possessions and cares for the material needs of others. Other writings depict flesh as the home of sin, and something to be overcome.

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit, To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Rom. 8:5-6)

 It seems right to demonize the flesh. It is the home of uncontrollable urges, and the stuff that falls apart, decays, and dies. Things of the spirit seem to elude the mundane and demoralizing diminution of the flesh. But simply dismissing the material stuff of this world as the abode of sin does not reflect an attentive reading of the full biblical story; the law and the prophets, the gospels and the epistles. As much as the stuff of this world reflects and participates in sin, the bible also tells us that the stuff of this world reflects, and participates in the divine.

The feature of the Christian tradition which has perhaps the most to say about a believer’s relationship to the physical world is the concept of incarnation. The idea of incarnation is that God, creator of all the stuff of the universe, became embodied in the stuff of the universe, most notably in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, God became fully human. Incarnation may be the most scandalous teaching of the Christian faith.

Stories of Jesus’ life often involves spit and stones; blood and wine; loaves and fishes; and wounds.

Western Christianity, especially in its modern protestant form, has tended to let the idea of Jesus and incarnation play 2nd or 3rd fiddle to stories of Jesus death as the key, and maybe even only, saving event of the whole Jesus story. Jesus came as a baby, but only so he could die. The Eastern Orthodox church, however, has developed a much fuller appreciation for significance of the incarnation. A key Orthodox teaching is that in taking on the material stuff of this world, God redeemed all matter.

These two paths of working in conservation and pondering the meaning of incarnation have for me met in the story of the person that is often referred to as Doubting Thomas. Jesus had been crucified with nails driven through his hands, and a spear piercing his side. Days after his death, stories were circulating amongst his community that Jesus was alive. In a closed room Jesus makes an appearance to all the disciples, except Thomas. Later, when Thomas is told of this meeting he replies,

‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20:25-28)

Thomas demanded physical, tactile proof of Jesus’ resurrected existence. Curiously, when he did see Jesus, and Jesus instructed him to touch the wounds, there is no record of Thomas actually doing so.

Jesus’ resurrected body was physical – and more importantly, it was wounded. The final state of existence is not pure, pristine, and perfect, but it bears wounds.

I don’t know if I’ve ever read or heard someone use the language of woundedness when talking about conservation and those things we conserve, but it may just be worthwhile to explore.

When I handle an object that has been given to me for care I occasionally recognize that I am touching wounds. In fact, there are times when a colleague, but even more often, when a friend brings a damaged book to me that are reminiscent of stories of people bringing their sick family members to a healer (whether its biblical stories of bringing the sick and lame to Jesus, or “real life” stories of people bringing their sick children to the hospital.) They bring something they care for that is wounded and they feel some of the pain of that wound. These wounds tell me that while I can and should engage life, much of life is ultimately beyond my control.

I am deeply grateful for how working in conservation makes me fully aware of how I participate in God’s good creation. It is an honor and privilege to touch and work with these wounded parts of creation. My job and my work is not any more – or less – sacred than anyone else’s, but it is sacred.  

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