Sunday Morning Sedona: What Is Sacred Space?

Yesterday, I came across these great shots of The Burren at Vintage Pages. I was reminded of Buzz Aldrin’s description of the “magnificent desolation” he witnessed on the Moon, and of Joan Didion’s essay “At the Dam.” I was also reminded of my own experience in Sedona, Arizona last summer, and I thought I’d share this piece about sacred space, published previously on Huffington. I wrote this months before I’d read Didion’s  fantastic work, but well after I’d heard Aldrin talk about his own.#

What Is Sacred Space?

The Chapel of the Holy Cross rises from a 250-foot abutment in Sedona’s ferric sandstone, a sort of redundant decoration in this part of Arizona where I-17 and the Red Rock Scenic Byway seem to follow God’s own early steps across the Earth. Out here in the desert, among the great open tables of a vast, imposing communion, the idea of sacral man-made space registers in the viscerally absurd, feels essentially and obviously offensive. From the road, the innate need our species has to seek the holy seems corrupted by the building’s hubris, its imperial theology, by the categories and catechisms that value the work of fervent hands above the sublime, enduring witness of 300-million years. As my friend Jeremy and I park our rental car below the chapel’s massive cross, so meager in this scheme of things, we confess our doubts.

We’d set out on a slow course from Phoenix after breakfast. As I-17 wended north and east through desert, brush, and forest, we considered the physical reality of everything we saw in relation to the mountains we know so well back home in Pennsylvania, the trees that cover them, the interloping cities and still-interloping suburbs that never suggest this expanse of material, the planet’s bones, an endless stretch of at-rest atoms testifying for the universe. At home there are no resources unturned; limestone and slate and iron-ore are subdued and spent, the mountains are worn-down by glaciers, time, and strip-mines. I know next to nothing about the natural or industrial history of Arizona, but from the highway I am happy to believe that the stones and dirt and desert floor lie just as they rose from dry seas and tectonics. From the highway, that so much matter rests within my sightline reassures me: reality is big, our theologies are small, we must go about sincerely rendered spiritual pursuits with a humility that mimics in its depth the vastness of creation. We have a truly cosmic space in which to seek and find the holy.

Our first views of the Chapel are from the distance after three hours of roadside spiritual formation. We decide before we ever see it that we’ll have missed nothing if we don’t. We snake through the Red Rock Scenic Byway towards the Chapel’s foot fomenting reservations. Out of the car, where the rocks can hear us, we say we don’t know why people do this and that then again we do. We ascend the looping road to the Chapel’s entrance, hoping to recover the better reasons humans build religious things: from the need to offer, from the need to commemorate the places they encounter God. Still, the red rocks, the desert mountains and Arizona forests, the dirt and stone and binding heat aren’t going anywhere; the massive dome we’re under can’t be soon forgotten. But we move toward the redundant space, moved perhaps by our investment in tradition, by a certain empathy for what William Faulkner’s Jason Compson Sr. calls “that aptitude and eagerness … for complete mystical acceptance of immolated sticks and stones.” In this temple of the open air, we move to see what, if anything, might move us in a church.

From the outside foyer-summit, the vistas are impressive, just as they are from any point for miles. Inside, the central cross doubles as the altar’s focal point through the Chapel’s glass facade. I am struck by the sanctuary’s stark simplicity: the space is small, the stone walls are unadorned save two crafted rugs each depicting a nondescript apostle. The Stations of the Cross are Roman numerals formed from crucifixion-style nails (they look like railroad spikes); the altar’s ornaments are modern lines and shapes, all unassuming. Though the chapel’s founder, Marguerite Bruswig Staude, meant for its contemporary 1950s design to contextualize the liturgy of building in “a monument to faith…a spiritual fortress so charged with God, that it spurs man’s spirit godward,” I am struck by how underwhelming it is in its setting.

From outside, the Chapel of the Holy Cross is vain decoration, but in the sanctuary I am confronted by the futility that the simple space suggests. The immolated sticks and stones remain as meaningless as ever, but they enshrine in Sedona a natural counterpoint to the majesty that dwarfs them. The Chapel is an iconography of resignation, yes, but not of a surrender to despair. The spare walls and rough metal of the church confirm the higher teaching of geology: in the bare face of cosmic bigness, we might celebrate the room our smallness gives to seek. We might be moved by the fleeting crudeness of our best gifts to consider how deep and wide the holy, how ancient our environs, how vast and long the trek of matter into meaning. How blessed we are in smallness, how godward might we move.

Confessions

A note to subscribers and other readers:  This is a post from April 8, 2009 that’s since gone offline.   I’m reactivating it in online archive today, January 24, 2011.  I do this from time to time, depending on what I’m working on or what I sort of just find in the archive.  If you’re a subscriber to this blog, you’ll probably get a notification that I’ve posted something new, but I’m really posting something old.  I’m not sure that I’d agree with everything I said in this post now.  One big difference is that my gut is with short stories and novels alike.  And memoir.  So, in addition to commenting on the original questions on this post, feel free to comment on the whole phenomenon of learning as you go.  best, Chris.  ps – It’s good to read good things?  Brilliant comment, Christopher.  But still true.

When I was young and so was Brevity (or “In 2006”), Dinty W. Moore was the first web editor to accept my work for publication. I’d been published in print before but the web journals were new to me.  Cooper Renner of elimae published what became my first web story (“Evensong”) in January of 2007 and the following month “Last Stand in the Closing Country” was featured in Brevity 23.  Around that time, I began blogging here sporadically about these and other early triumphs.

In the last two years, Brevity has grown in reputation and exposure.  The excellently maintained Brevity blog is one reason for this.  There’s an interesting post there today adapted from a presentation by John Bresland about memoir as confession and the need for confession to be shared and received in spoken rather than written/read form.

This past Friday, I read Darcey Steinke’s memoir Easter Everywhere in one sitting.  The last time I read an entire book without stopping was 1990 and the book was Superfudge.  I found Steinke’s recounting of her childhood and the tense nuances in her familiar relationships tender, anxious, and compelling, and my experience as a reader following her comings of age was cathartic, empathetic…good.  I really like this book and am recommending it widely.

I don’t know that all memoirists (or writers of personal, creative nonfiction) understand the craft in confessional terms.  Maybe so.  I don’t know that confession is the germ of Steinke’s project the way it is for Bresland’s, but it could be that confession lies at the heart of everything any of us write: confessions that there’s one undertaking, at least, that hasn’t lost all meaning, that there are human reasons to share these parts of ourselves, to tell our stories, the true ones and the ones we make true in our prose and by our choices.  Confessions that we hope for something (because why else would we share?) and that we can understand something about each other against so much noise.

I confess that I’m grateful to Dinty and Coop and Robin from Boston Literary Magazine and Will at Geez for running my first pieces, to Darcey Steinke for Easter Everywhere, to each of you for reading this blog and the pieces I run here and elsewhere.  I confess that one of the problems I’m having in my longer fiction is this mannish, moody distance I insist on putting between the narrators and the reader.  I think reading more memoirs will help my fictive voice and tone.  These people should sound real even if they’re not.  And, of course, they are.  Not like in a memoir exactly, but still like the way our memories work.  My fictive pocket universe with its confessors and confessing and the lot they have to learn from the flesh and blood types they’d love to be.

I don’t meant to say these characters are flat or unbelievable.  They’re not.  But they’re fighting for incarnation and I suppose that’s what I’m resisting on one side of the equation.  Attachments.  Confession.  Narration is so much easier.  Telling doesn’t hurt but it’s hardly ever honest.  On the other side is the overwrought bullshit that looks like me at 2 AM when everything is beautiful.  That’s not honest, either.

Short writing doesn’t have the same existential needs.  Its characters are born fully grown and armored and for very specific missions.  Joe from Bookish Us and I were talking last week about the ways long and short forms might appeal to men for different reasons.  Short stories for their barbarous terseness, their long-shadow effect, the damage they can do or the presumptions they can upend in brief attacks.  Their left hook jab hook combo.  Novels, as Joe pointed out, for their space, for all the places we have in them to run and hide from definition.  For our meanderings.  For the growth (or not) you’re supposed to enter into.  Short story characters make lousy novel heroes.  They’re too all-growed up.

The novel is balancing act for me.  My gut is with brevity.  My gut is with detachment and people that don’t change and the idea that the feeling you get when you’re done with the raid is precisely the point of reading or writing.  My gut is not with learning or teaching but with observing and reacting.  My gut is with the combo.

A.O. Scott has an interesting recent piece at the New York Times about some of this that I came across today.  He proposes, for reasons not unfamiliar to readers of Brevity or Six Sentences:

The new, post-print literary media are certainly amenable to brevity. The blog post and the tweet may be ephemeral rather than lapidary, but the culture in which they thrive is fed by a craving for more narrative and a demand for pith. And just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?

I don’t quote this to denigrate the longer forms of our craft.  I’m convinced that Scott and others who take the death of the novel for granted are wrong.  Great novels and memoirs are still being written and they matter, and no short story, no matter how great, renders them superflous.  (Another confession: I also don’t believe the album is dead or that video killed the radio star.  Maybe SoundScan did.) That said, there’s something about all of this brevity that seems very natural.  I hope he’s right that our culture is ripe for the rebirth of short fiction, not because it’s better, but because it’s good and important and (confession) rather particularly American.  Not like the Statue of Liberty.  More like Graceland.  (Confession:  I stole that, in a way, from Easter Everywhere).  There’s something mysterious about the short story, not quite poem, not quite long-form prose.  There’s something subversive about its purpose, something audacious about its claims.  Something kind of haunting.  Ballsy.

What do you think?  Is all memoir confession?  Is all writing?

Are short stories poised for a return to prominence as Scott suggests?

How do you intepreret the differences between short and long form writing?  As a reader and a writer, do you have a preference?