Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jan Morris on Holy Places: Valuing the View from the Interstices


I'm loving Jan Morris's book Europe: An Intimate Journey (London: Faber & Faber, 2006).  As with everything else she writes, it's always right at the intersection--of cultural crossroads, religious crossroads, ethnic and geographic crossroads, etc.  Right at the intersection of one crossroad after another, just as her beloved city of Trieste, to which she returns again and again in her books (this one included), is interstitial.  Liminal.  Full of ambiguity and a multiplicity of ambiguous, syncretistic meaning derived from the confluence of many different cultures none of which dominates in the cultural mix that has come to be known as Trieste.

And that attention to shifting, nebulous, never absolutely defined boundaries reflects Morris's own experience as someone born James Morris, who chose, after having served in HM's Royal Lancers during World War II, to become Jan Morris.  And who is the child of a Welsh father and an English mother, whose adult life has involved--as this book stresses--a journey from a generic British identity to a specifically Welsh-identified one.

And from a conventional middle-class Anglican background to a Druidic belief in pantheism.  The first section of the book, entitled "Holy Symptoms," is an absolutely engrossing overview of the various holy places across Europe that have figured in Morris's many travels, and her response to them as a believer who rejects the attempt of any single religious tradition to exercise exclusive ownership of the holy, and the attempt of any one tradition to confine the divine within its unilateral truth claims.

A priest friend of mine who is an outstanding scripture scholar used to tell me that a wise seminary professor of his insisted, If you want to know our real Christian history, read what our enemies have written about our history.  Read history written by losers instead of victors, by those who have experienced the sharp edge of others' swords, and you're far more likely to gain an accurate picture of what has happened in the past than you will if you read history written by those on top of the heap.

I think the same thing may well apply to reading about religious life and religious artifacts by someone whose life has been lived at the interstices of gender, national identity, and religious affiliation.  Read Jan Morris on her pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick or to Lithuania's Kryžių Kalnas, or on a Christmas day spent at Stockholm's Operakällaren restaurant, and you won't be reading anything akin to any official travelogue you're likely to pick up in any bookstore in the world. 

But you'll definitely be reading fresh, illuminating commentary that makes you think long and hard about how interwoven all celebrations of the holy are, regardless of the religious traditions from which they spring, and how rooted in an antiquity that some religious traditions--notably Christianity--prefer now to dismiss as "pagan," even as they rely heavily on the very pagan motifs they imagine they have vanquished, when they teach us that the divine presence is everywhere in the cosmos.

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