Gateway to Elsewhere – St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.
There are some national monuments that seem to function as intermediaries between the past and the future. The Arch of St. Louis, all 630 feet of it built between 1963 and 1965, is one such monument. It is an astonishing engineering feat that still dazzles the eye and inclines the mind to deep reflections on the meaning of time and history. Most of us know that the Arch of St. Louis was built to commemorate a place in history for St. Louis, during the mid 1800s, as the Gateway to the American West. Fewer people are aware of King Louis IX’s Basilica that stands directly in the shadow of the Arch. I would never have known about it had I not had an emergency stop over in St. Louis due to my wife’s contraction of a nasty case of pink eye.
We were traveling with our children on our annual van excursion across the country. Being Catholic and needing to go to Sunday Mass, marvel of marvels, there was a church within walking distance of our downtown hotel. So we went. The Basilica of Louis IX was first built in 1770. A newer structure was built in 1832 and dedicated in 1834. It is a wonderfully airy and very pretty cathedral, but it has one feature that the builders would never have imagined in their wildest dreams. If you look out the western windows, you can see the Arch of St. Louis.
The city of St. Louis was not built in honor of Louis the IX, but it was part of the Louisiana Purchase. Present day St. Louis is undergoing a building renaissance despite vast tracts of social decay, and the Arch of St. Louis is pivotal in the revitalization of the downtown waterfront. These facts were slowly filtering through my mind as the service was being conducted. I have always found going to church tedious. My mind tends to focus on anything but the process at hand. My daughter was fussing as I took one more look out the window at the unreal looking Arch framed by flowering trees. I then carried her to the back of the church. A surprise awaited me and took up any slack that the mass had allowed my wandering mind.
There at the back of the church was a large oil painting that I had never seen in any art history book. Being a bit of a buff on old paintings, I was doubly intrigued. The attribution read: Dedicated to Bishop Duborg in 1818. (The painting was restored in 1949 and in 1999.) There was no artist’s signature that I could discern, nor any attribution to an artist listed. I later discovered that the artist is unknown. The extraordinary thing about this painting is that it looks as if two different time periods are overlapping. It was as though Max Parrish and a traditional 18th century oil colorist had gotten together and collaborated on a new art form. Louis IX is shown receiving the Eucharist from three or four cherubs who are coming out of a chalice amidst beautifully colored flames. The whole effect is thoroughly charming, compelling, and, by turns, very New Age in some way.
Now for those of you who don’t know this, Louis IX was a saint duly canonized by the Catholic Church in 1297. Any politician or ruler becoming a saint is an unusual thing in itself – given the temptations to power – but Louis IX was not any ordinary king. He was one of the greatest of all French kings. He defeated King Henry III of England at Taillebourg in 1242, put down revolts in the south of France in 1243, forbade his own Lords to mistreat their vassals or war amongst themselves, and went on crusade in 1248 capturing the city of Damietta, Egypt in 1249.
His government, during his reign from 1226 (at the age of 12) until his death in Tunis during a second Crusade for the Holy Land in 1270 AD, was largely free of corruption and highly professional. His administration was widely known as being just and humane, at a time when tyranny was largely despotic rather than enlightened. He was noted for his justice, ability, charity and personal piety. Known to be a man of his word, he was widely sought after as an arbitrator. He founded numerous religious and educational institutions including the Sorbonne in 1257, and rebuilt Sainte-Chapelle in Paris to house the Crown of Thorns given to him by Baldwin II. He had eleven children, so he must have been something of family man, which I could relate to having six children myself.
We could stand learning more about this extraordinary man in an age when most political leaders are thorns in the public’s collective backside. What would a man like Louis IX do to solve our social problems if he were alive today, I wondered? I suspect that he would cut through bureaucratic red tape like butter and throw criminals into monasteries for spiritual re-education. What would America be like under a leader who could make our streets safe for all of our citizens, reform education, rein in social activists with morally retarded agendas, have no compunction about going on a crusade against militant Islam, and make us more wealthy, powerful and wise than we have ever been before?
As I gazed at the picture, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a powerful wave of anger, despite the baby resting in my arms. A prayer much more like a curse formed involuntarily on my lips but it was not any prayer that the Basilica or St. Louis would have sanctioned. Goddamn them, the invocation began:
Damn them for their stupidity
Damn them for their hardness of heart
Damn them for ruining our schools
Damn them for making a mockery of families
Damn them for making ecology more important than people or jobs
Damn them for making a virtue out of their vices
Damn them for not using their resources for the betterment of the people
Damn them for allowing millions to die under insane ideologies
Damn them for confusing morality with religion
Damn them for preferring darkness to light
Damn them for ruining my church
Now I like to think that St. Louis had something to do with this little imprecation but being a saint and all, he probably didn’t. I suspect that my anger sprang though the time lens of the Arch of St. Louis and was magnified by the host of demons that we are told are constantly tempting us. On the other hand, I don’t need much to set me off; so maybe I was doing the old fashioned version of a curse. I have been appalled over the past few years, as I have driven around this vast country of ours, at the bizarre hybrid of advanced social decay coupled with magnificent building projects – as if economics alone could rebuild souls. This ghastly shackling of intellectual virtue to unchecked moral vice seems to form the foundation of a devolving slave labor work force that is ruining both our economy and our culture.
As the darkness attendant to the curse lifted, I felt marvelously clarified and I listened closely to a very amusing sermon by the Reverend Richard Quirk. He was preaching about the need to let go and accept change in a positive way. He told the congregation to get in touch with their inner editors and check their emotions at the door of whatever new things were coming at them – in order that they might discover what was really being given to them. Having failed to check my emotions at the door of the Arch and having quite disengaged my internal editor, I finished the mass in good spirits. I went out into the brightness of the mist to communicate with the stainless steel vastness of the surreal and architecturally improbable Arch of St. Louis. There, by the mighty Mississippi, surging timelessly under the new Gateway to the West, I attempted to make my peace once again with America.