About Me

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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Bells

As I enter the final full week of my time here in Germany, it is only natural that I should be found in a pensive and reflective mood; as I’ve already noted some weeks ago, I will certainly miss this town.Later this week I will put together a post that reflects more concretely on my work this year; today, I would like to address a question that has often been put to me in recent weeks, namely, what will I miss most about being in Germany?

I could offer some rather glib answer like, “The beer,” (though the quality of the beer is certainly one great perk of living here); or I could offer the academic’s answer of, “My experiences with the scholars with whom I have worked.”

The answer I would most like to offer, however, is the one I am least able to put into words. I have often, I think, remarked in correspondence on the intangible yet astonishingly real quality that the long history of Europe has imbedded in the very cobblestones and bricks and leaded glass windows of its civilization. It was a quality I first noticed in Rome almost three years ago: the reverence with which one is compelled to walk along byways and through buildings and ruins where so long a stretch of humanity has lived. I remarked at the time: “Here have trod men like Caesar and Augustus, [St.] Peter and Constantine, Michelangelo and Paganini, Garibaldi and Mussolini…[a] city of political, religious, and artistic preeminence…” As a dear friend of mine wrote to me earlier this year, Europe is a place “where the cities themselves are redolent of another time, a slower time, of people greater than oneself who have walked these paths.”

It is, in fact, a numinous quality that lives in the very fabric of these cities and towns where I have lived, the residual effects of hundreds of past generations of people who have lived and worked, have rejoiced and grieved, have been born and have died, all in this very same places. It is most noticeable in the churches, a fact that was explained to me once by one of the Jesuits at Boston College: that distinct feeling of immanence evoked by merely entering one of the old churches here (whether a great cathedral or small village parish) is, in fact, the lasting effect of the prayers of so many pilgrims before you, imbuing the very stones of an edifice with their hallowed echoes across and thus outside of time.

There are, of course, places in the United States that have started to take on this special patina that is not so much the gift of history as the gift of the people who have lived through history—I think in particular of some of the places I have visited in Boston, like Old South Church—but it is still a very rare thing, given that the oldest settlements in the United States predate the Peace of Westphalia by only a few decades: still new, at least by European standards.

There is, however, one very tangible signifier that I might take to denote the whole of this living historical sense that I shall miss so much; and though there are some places again where this tangible effect might be found in the New World, it is, nevertheless, something that it is so wholly ubiquitious in the Old World that its enduring presence is a foundational part of the everday pattern of life that I shall leave behind in little more than one week’s time: the bells. Mostly hung in the steeples and towers of the numerous churches that dot the landscape, they ring at all hours of the day, whether to mark the time regularly or to call the faithful more specially to whatever is the appointed service of the moment. Thus, they serve not only as keepers of the relentless march of time but also as special reminders throughout that march of its ultimate goal. Thus, I leave you today with their hearty, homewards call:

1 comment:

Jane said...

And it is a fine note on which you leave! Jane