The older you get, the lonelier you become. That is not because you become anti-social. It is because your friends die.
Your editor is only 61. He is not a particularly ‘social’ fellow. His wife thinks he is a curmudgeon, because he does not tarry at cocktail receptions or join in Super Bowl parties. He rarely stays up after midnight; and has never heard anyone say anything after the midnight bell that was worth staying up for. And to make it worse, he is an economist of the finger-wagging, I-told-you-so school.
A man of this sort does not accumulate many friends. So when he loses one, he feels like a bum whose last quarter rolled down a storm drain.
On Monday, we went to a funeral for a dear friend, Frank. The service was held in an old and beautiful church in the heart of Paris, St. Julien Le Pauvre.
“Isn’t that just like Frank,” said a fellow mourner. “He couldn’t even be buried like everyone else.”
Frank was Catholic. “Not to believe would be vulgar,” he said after receiving last rites.
He chose St. Julien le Pauvre for his funeral service because it is a Catholic church, but it is also much more than that. It is in the hands of a sect we had never heard of – the Melkite Greek Catholics. The group comes from the Near East, with its headquarters still in Damascus, and now has parishes all over the world, with an important cathedral in Roslindale, Massachusetts. It claims descent directly from the apostles Peter and Paul, but through a long and twisted lineage, threading itself through the history of the Levant. Melkite Christians are the product of an old schism. They were part of the Eastern Empire and subject to the authority of Constantinople for centuries. Then, the Moslems took over…adding Arabic flourishes and poetry to the Melkite rites. Later, the Melkites joined with the Roman Catholics, to which they remain united.
Frank was an architect. The last time we saw him – when he was already feeling the heavy hand of the Reaper on his shoulder – we talked about building. We told him about our project at the ranch in South America, where we are planning to build, by hand, a vaulted ceiling out of local stone and adobe. It is fairly easy to imagine it, but very difficult to figure out how to build it in practice. How do you frame it up so that it is rounded in the right places…and intersects a different curve going in the other direction?
Frank had done a vaulted ceiling himself, in stone, in a house he built with his three sons. If he could do it, we reasoned, we could do it too. But Frank was an architect; we are only a feral economist.
Frank took us over to the basement door. Leaning on a cane, he invited us to go down and have a look. We saw what he had done, like a wine cellar with a vaulted roof. It was not exactly what we had in mind, so we explained and Frank took out paper and pencil to instruct us. Still it was difficult to grasp the intersection of the two curves, at a 90 degree angle one to the other, from his drawing.
“I need to see this in stone in order to understand it,” we said.
“Don’t worry, you’ll see it soon enough,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Just keep your eyes open.”
Saint Julien is a marvelous old church, built in the 13th century. It was built and rebuilt and built again, according to the history books. But in the 13th century, the present shape took form.
Then, as recently as the 1920s it was the scene of an important event in the art world. It was where Tristan Tzara, Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault staged the last major “Dada excursion.” The Dadaists shouted to passersby a stream of idiotic and absurd remarks. But that was the idea, to stir up interest in the absurdity of life itself. It was a form of marketing, designed to raise the public’s awareness of Dada and perhaps give the artists more street cred. It failed. The public ignored them. Breton and Soupault then split off from Tzara and formed the surrealist movement.
Frank had little interest in the Dadaists. As far as we know, he had no particular interest in the Melkite schism either. It was the building itself and the richness of the ceremony he admired. The church is built entirely of stone. It is small, intimate, with an ornate wooden panel that embellishes the sacristy in front of worshippers. On the walls hang religions paintings and icons in the Eastern Orthodox style. The priest was decorated in the Eastern style too. Though not Orthodox, he would be easily mistaken for one of that ilk, with a black head cloth stretched over a flat rack on the top of his head, falling gracefully to his shoulders and down his back.
The service began with chants and a sung Greek liturgy. It had the flavor of monasteries, minarets and strong coffee… At times, the words were clearly French. At other times, we weren’t sure. There were the usual bible readings…and a homily from the priest.
We were lost in thought…mostly remembering Frank and wondering why we had seen so little of each other in the 30 years we had known each other. Frank was a much more reflective man than we are. We write. Frank thought. And when he talked, we listened carefully. Because his thoughts were not the rough brew of columnists and pundits. They were the distilled spirits of the serious thinker. Rich. And strong. Often, when we were considering a subject, we would ask ourselves… ‘What would Frank think of this?’
Now, it is too late to ask him. We’ll have to think for ourselves.
As we were thus occupied with our thoughts, our eyes rolled upward. There were columns running down both sides of the church, spaced about the same distance as those we intended for our project at the ranch. We followed them up to where they branched out, expanded…and vaulted over the ceiling. And yes, there were the criss-crossing supports…the frame on which to rest our ceiling…and the angles, formed naturally by the intersection of the two vaulted sections…just as we had imagined it.
Our mouth was open. We tilted our head upward. We studied the ceiling. And we thought we heard a voice whisper: ‘just open your eyes.’
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