Communion Of Dreams


Faith.

I wrote this back around 1993, and had it up on my archive site. Yesterday I had reason to look it up, and first looked here, figuring that at some point I must have reposted it. But a search didn’t turn it up, and I thought that I should correct that oversight.

It’s interesting to now look back to it, and to see how little my attitude/approach to the subject has changed with another 23 years of book conservation experience.

 

Jim Downey

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Mark Twain, in his early work Innocents Abroad, described how Christian craftsmen were given special dispensation to enter mosques in the Holy Land in order to install or repair the clocks which called the faithful to prayer.  Sometimes I feel like those clockmakers, and wonder how they reconciled their non-belief in Islam with the service they provided that faith.  Did they feel the grace of Allah’s touch in their craftsmanship, or in the heartfelt thanks and blessings they received from the faithful?

I am a book conservator in private practice in the Midwest, and a significant number of the books I work on are religious texts, usually but not exclusively bibles.  While I am a deeply spiritual person, largely in the Christian tradition, I do not consider myself to be a person of faith, and I have doubts about the existence of a single divine entity by whatever name.  Still, I respect the religions of others, and am comfortable working on the books that deeply religious people bring to me.

Repair of holy scripture is an odd thing for an agnostic to do.  My friends of faith say that it is part of my path of spiritual growth, perhaps the way I will be led to discovery and belief.  Perhaps.  But I consider it more that I am keeping faith with my clients.  A bible, particularly a personal bible which is used for daily prayer and inspiration, is probably more private and revealing than a diary.  I can tell from the way the binding is broken, from the wear on the pages, from the passages highlighted or notes made, what is important to the owner, what their innermost fears and hopes are.  I suspect that often I know more about these things than they do themselves.  I am a therapist of paper and glue.

These books are precious, not in a monetary sense, but in a personal one.  I can see it in their eyes when they bring the bible to me, asking me if it can be repaired, worried less about the cost than the time it will be absent from their lives.  The repair of these books is usually simple and straightforward, just an hour or two of labor.  I can fit this work in between larger projects, and get the bible back to the owner in a matter of just a few days.  This news usually comes as a relief.  But almost always the owner is still hesitant let go of the book, hands slowly passing it over as they search my face for a clue as to whether they can trust me with this part of themselves.  Just as a veterinarian receives a beloved animal who needs treatment with gentleness and grace, out of concern for the owner as much as for the pet, I receive their bibles as a sacred trust.

And when they come for their bibles, I am sometimes embarrassed.  Embarrassed because of the praise, the occasional blessings, and the overflowing joy they feel.  It is times like this that I feel that my hands are not really my own, my craftsmanship and skill not something that I can take pride in, but a rare gift that comes from outside of myself.  And I am grateful, whatever the source, for this touch of grace that enters my life.

 



Italy, 2012: The ghosts nearby.

“Finally we stood in a level, narrow valley (a valley that had been created by the terrific march of some old time irruption) and on either hand towered the two steep peaks of Vesuvius. The one we had to climb – the one that contains the active volcano – seemed about eight hundred or one thousand feet high, and looked almost too straight-up-and-down for any man to climb, and certainly no mule could climb it with a man on his back. Four of these native pirates will carry you to the top in a sedan chair, if you wish it, but suppose they were to slip and let you fall, – is it likely that you would ever stop rolling? Not this side of eternity, perhaps. We left the mules, sharpened our finger-nails, and began the ascent I have been writing about so long, at twenty minutes to six in the morning. The path led straight up a rugged sweep of loose chunks of pumice-stone, and for about every two steps forward we took, we slid back one. It was so excessively steep that we had to stop, every fifty or sixty steps, and rest a moment. To see our comrades, we had to look very nearly straight up at those above us, and very nearly straight down at those below. We stood on the summit at last – it had taken an hour and fifteen minutes to make the trip.”

Mark Twain, Chapter 30 of The Innocents Abroad.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Yeah, it isn’t quite that bad climbing Mount Vesuvius today. There’s now a very good path which switchbacks a couple of times, then winds around the mountain a fair amount, making for a longer walk but one which is still fairly steep, climbing the final 200 meters of elevation from the parking lot. Take a look:

 

 

 

 

Then once you’re to the top, you can walk about a third of the way around the lip of the crater. On one side, you look down into the crater, on the other out over the volcanic plains to the Bay of Naples:

 

 

 

 

Looking towards Naples.

 

There’s a dark patch of green surrounded by buildings directly above the corner post: that’s Pompeii.

 

 

At the top – at the very end of the public trail – there’s a little hut selling refreshments and souvenirs. And the prices are more reasonable than you might expect. But I decided that I didn’t really need either an ashtray or a skull carved out of black pumice.

Standing there on what’s left of Vesuvius, looking out over the plains below, I felt a bit melancholy. It could have just been the exertion to climb to the top. Or that I knew the trip was coming to a close. But looking out over the misty cities, it was easy to picture another eruption. There are millions of people within potential reach of the volcano. Naples – a city of some 4 million – is conceivably at risk. In the immediate area around the volcano some 600,000 people are subject to possible pyroclastic flows. Current scientific models indicate that there would probably be two to three weeks of warning before a serious eruption, but no one is entirely confident of that. And at best, it would take 5 -7 days to evacuate those most at risk.

 

* * * * * * *

 

We came down off the mountain, but in some sense didn’t leave it. It lurked there on the skyline as we went to Herculaneum.

I said that visiting Pompeii was “sobering,” but the primary thing that going there did for me was to help me envision what a Roman city was like.

Herculaneum was different. It was even more immediate – more “real.” That’s because of the way the city was destroyed.

When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Herculaneum was mostly out of the immediate ash cloud. In Pompeii, the city was largely buried by ash and small rock debris to a depth of several meters in the first few hours. This caused roofs to collapse, and entombed people in ash after they suffocated or died from blunt trauma.

Not so in Herculaneum. They only got a few inches of ash initially. This meant that they had a lot more time for the city to be evacuated. But when the blow came to Herculaneum, it came very swiftly – in the form of a pyroclastic flow of molten rock and debris moving at 100 mph and at a temperature of over 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

Those who were in the city died almost instantaneously, their flesh vaporized in the heat. All that was left was bone.

Likewise, structures were encased in the molten mass, and it happened so quickly that wood didn’t burn – it was carbonized, turned to charcoal, sealed in super-heated rock. Roofs didn’t collapse, as the structures were filled inside as well as covered over on the outside. Eventually, the entire city was covered to a depth of more than 20 meters. The result was a city which was even better preserved than Pompeii. Better preserved, and because of that more tangible. You couldn’t help but walk the streets, enter the houses, and feel like you were in a living city, one which had just misplaced its populace. The ghosts were still close here:

Vesuvius waits.

 

The boathouses where the final refugees died.

 

Courtyard of the baths.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Carbonized rafters.

 

Street scene.

 

At the wine merchant’s.

 

Wood on the outside of the wine shop.

 

A local snack bar.

 

Another street scene.

 

Wooden screw press, now carbonized and behind glass. This was probably used in the making or cleaning of cloth.

 

City above, city below. (Ercolano – the modern city, and Herculaneum).

 

* * * * * * *

It was our last night at the villa. Usually this is something of a party night for everyone, and for much of the group this was true. But somehow I just wasn’t really in the mood.

Jim Downey
PS: there’s an excellent collection of additional images from this trip, taken by Angie Bohon, another member of the group. They can be seen here, here, and here.