There was no need for him to mention gravity.
After all, it’s always with us.
But after an old newspaper friend told me he’d lost five inches to osteoporosis, gravity came to mind. Were it not pushing down on him, he’d be five inches taller.
Gravity’s like a lot of things in our lives: It seems always with us, and we take its force for granted as it shapes our lives.
As I sat in an oak pew in Covenant Presbyterian Church April 21 for the funeral of another old newspaper friend, former Springfield News-Sun editor Allan Barth, the beauty of the church’s sanctuary struck me the same way.
With its wood accents, pews and stone space, it feels like an exquisitely designed cave. In the midst of its stained glass beauty, the stone and wood seem to swallow some of the light and remind us of the eons in which humans didn’t live their lives bathed in electric light and surrounded by drywall.
Through its architecture, it reminds us we’re the stuff of this planet, and in so doing, shapes our thoughts.
Aspects of the funeral also reflected the architecture of Allan’s personality and soul, none more so than two readings that, for me, are kind of the bookend reactions to another force that acts on us: death.
The first was the 23rd Psalm, with its reassuring words about God as a protector amidst threats from enemies and “the valley of the shadow of death.” Its much repeated walk-off speaks of the promise of goodness and mercy following us all the days of our lives and living in the house of the Lord forever.
The far bookend was “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” Dylan Thomas’ rage against death that amounts to a kind of retrofitted celebration of all the good in life that is lost at death. The poet’s rant encourages us to fight and spit against the dying of the light that has been our life. It was read movingly by Kiki Wilson, Al’s step daughter.
I’d never thought of pairing the seeming opposites of 23rd Psalm and “Do Not Go Gentle” in a single service. Doing so was a reminder of Al’s sophistication.
Two quotes in the small bi-fold paper that carried his obituary also made me feel his presence.
Al’s smile came through in one from the prolific writer Isaac Asimov: “If my doctor told me I only had six months to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”
A quote from writer E.L. Doctorow, was more serious: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader — not the fact that it’s raining, but the feel of being rained upon.”
In their own way, these little touches showed of the architecture of our culture — the ideas of what thinking people have thought about life.
And there were other signs of culture afoot.
Basil Fett’s wonderfully trained voice called out songs from the organ loft, the same place from which Al’s son Scott played a Mozart trumpet piece and organist Trudy Faber brought her art to bear, both in her playing and through an arrangement.
My ear heard yet more evidence of culture’s presence each time I stood to sing a hymn and the woman next to me, a full grown preacher’s kid, articulated each word of each hymn in a way that made me feel like a mumbler and bumbler in the spoken word. It was a pleasure to listen to her.
Then it struck me: It’s the people around us who sustain our culture. They sustain and remind us of important thoughts and of artful ways and practices.
Just as masons have been restoring the stone work from the dramatic scaffolding that now wraps around the taller tower of Springfield’s St. Raphael Catholic Church, others are at constant work adding, shaping, restoring, inventing the houses of ideas we inhabit.
As I sat in the modern cave that is the sanctuary of Covenant Presbyterian Church, it felt reassuring to be in the presence of such people, including Al. It helped to lessen the gravity of the moment.