Rhetoric and Ritual, Particularly Death

Of all the tombs I visited in Egypt, the “Bent Pyramid,” featured above, was my favorite. Pulling up to the monument, we parked in a barren lot beside a single guard listening to his radio and sipping tea. He approached with a gentle wave before turning back to his small hut. A cyan blue sky arched above, trimmed with a gentle haze to the north, and the Sahara’s dusty gray skin withdrew into flat horizon lines, warbled with gentle hills. Wind kicked up sand, disturbing the silence.

The Bent Pyramid likely marks the transition between the early step-pyramid approach of some rulers and the more recognizable models, like the Great Pyramids at Giza, a design also shared by the Red Pyramid nearby. Archeologists guess that the initial incline proved untenable, requiring a last-minute shift toward the tip.

But I remember the isolation of the pyramid most of all. While the Great Pyramid accompanies the throaty calls of merchants selling overpriced trinkets and Coca Cola to tourists, themselves snapping pictures and gawking at the monuments in a range of languages, the Bent Pyramid–perhaps from its crooked birthmark–remains isolated. And while Giza, itself sprawling from Cairo, continues to fill the desert around Khufu’s great tomb, the Bent Pyramid stands largely alone.

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Obligatory Great Pyramid pic, Giza

Outside the tomb, my fellow teacher Dea and I sat underneath a rocky archway, overwhelmed by the silence. I listened to the “heartbeat” of the desert, as I then wrote.

But throughout my time in Egypt, I experienced many tombs. Going to and from Cairo, our taxi passed “The City of the Dead,” a nickname given to a still-used necropolis of Muslim tombs inhabited and cared for by poorer families. A series of road- webbed grids, walls, tarps, and low-slung rooftops spilled into the distance, pierced by the spires of the occasional mosque. At sunset, the haze-infused orange of the setting sun timed with the muezzin’s call proved overwhelming.

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A “neighborhood” in the city of the dead, Cairo

I also experienced the quiet, bleached streets of Coptic Cairo, where churches held the relics and clothed caskets of saints and religious figures, icons of St. George covered walls, and fans spun slowly from high ceilings over long rows. In Cairo, the bodies of Muslim royalty remained concealed behind the arabesque of mosques, while in Alexandria we wandered the Roman-Egyptian catacombs of Kom al-Shoqafa. In the deserts, beyond the pyramids and their localized buildings, we walked inside the boxy tombs that housed non-royal figures and stood atop the ruined Greek town of Karanis, now little more than blanched stone under a relentless sun.

Outside Egypt, I’ve always been interested in death, from the Roman mummy masks that I perused while lingering in Oxford’s Ashmolean, to the various graveyards and grave sites in Europe in America. But I’ve never thought about the rhetorical power of ritual and death.

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Own it: Authenticity

Rain clouds loomed outside as I sat across from my spiritual advisor, Br. Robert, in the simple room. “You have to own it,” he said. “You’re an artist. Own it.”

He talked about his early years as a friar. The other friars didn’t think much of his penchant for painting, forcing Br. Robert to sacrifice his own time, money, and space for it. At one point, he even tried to suppress the urge because it interfered so much with his religious duties. Just as Thomas Merton complained about his “double” as a writer pestering him during his early years with the Trappists, Br. Robert struggled with the artist fighting for expression from within.

When he left the friars–and the Catholic Church for a time–Brother Robert lived on Skid Row, trying to make his work as an artist. He found a deep, resonant calling. Surviving on rice and beans–tuna fish, when he could afford it–he scraped by, but his art taught him his vows better than his stint with the friars. Poverty. Obedience. Chastity. The words clarified as the years wore on.

For Br. Robert, devotion to art proved a devotion to God.

“Own it,” he had said. The words made sense as he said them, but didn’t resonate. As the years has pass, the words Br. Robert and I shared deepen and clarify, like his vows. Tempered and stretched by experience, his wisdom grows. I understand him now.

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