In August my wife and I went to Shipshewana, Indiana, in the heart of Amish country, to see Amos Lee in concert. One of my favorite Amos Lee songs is called “Violin.” In it, the songwriter laments the snarl of the streets around him — the gangland violence, the pushers and the lawyers and “the small-timing hustlers who all seem to feed upon each other.” He might be, he sings, “headed for a breakdown.”
The plaintive refrain is a plea, a prayer. “Oh God, why you been hangin’ out in that old violin, while I’ve been waiting for you to pull me through?” The song ends softly, hauntingly as “Oh God” repeats, fades and echoes into silence.
In this issue’s cover story, Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs and regular contributor to The New Yorker, writes about the effort to restore Notre-Dame de Paris after the tragic 2019 fire that destroyed so much of that universally beloved cathedral. His narrative is much more personal, though, than a recounting of the damage done to the building and the restoration process.
Elie examines the nature of Gothic architecture, discusses its grounding eternal resonances in temporal constructions, creating a place apart from the world while lifting the human spirit toward heaven, toward the otherworldly. Much of the enchantment derives from the design of the spaces, but it is also due to the artistry, the beauty, the creativity and detailed craftsmanship of human labor — work often driven by a desire to please and honor and give gratitude to God. So that therein rests God’s very presence.
It could well be a minor note in Elie’s story, but it strikes me as one of the most poignant: He was “sexually violated” as a college student, he writes, by a Jesuit priest during spiritual direction. As a path toward healing, he sought dark, quiet, empty churches. He found peace there and spiritual experiences, without the people, just the spaces — those created with human thought and hands — that bear the sacred, offer God.
For most of my life, I have gravitated toward a God of the untamed wilderness, the spirit that thrums and breathes throughout the natural universe. But I have known, too, the holy on this campus, in the face of a stranger, the phrasings of a poet, an artist’s vision, the words of a physician advising young doctors-to-be, the intellectual dimensions of human exploration, the divine order of the cosmos, sacramental conviviality.
I know there are those with ordained concepts of the nature of God and prescribed pathways to him. But I’m thinking that God is too big for that, is beyond human comprehension, outside any boundaries we would inflict upon a deity. One of the wonders of this life, it seems to me, is the mystery of it all, the unpredictability, the way God has of showing up unexpectedly, smilingly, even as music playing from an old violin.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.