Another moment that brought this truth home to me occurred at The Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that stands on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. The Cloisters, dedicated to medieval art and architecture, is partly constructed from remnants of various European monasteries, including one, in the ruins of which Thomas Merton as he relates in The Seven-Storey Mountain played as a boy growing up in France.
One of the more famous holdings of The Cloisters are the Unicorn Tapestries. The Unicorn Tapestries are of unknown origin, although the docent said they were believed by some to have been woven as wedding gifts for an aristocratic couple. They tell the story of a hunt for a unicorn, but the tale is also an allegory for the Passion of Christ.
The most well-known is the last tapestry, “The Unicorn in Captivity,” in which the Unicorn sits within a fenced area, surrounded by plants, all, we were told, faithful renderings of vegetation native to the area in which the tapestries were produced.
Now, I have seen reproductions of this image countless times, on glossy pages in books. None of that prepared for me the experience of standing in front of it, overwhelmed by its enormous size and intricate, painstaking detail, detail impossible to see unless you could stand there, your nose a safe inch or two away, studying it. I used to be impressed when I looked at reproductions of this tapestry. Now, I look at the one my daughter purchased and has hanging on her wall, and all I can see is a faint shadow of the real thing.
Then early on a cold, windy, Saturday evening, we made our way down to lower Manhattan and stood at the tall, chain-link fences surrounding Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centers once stood and thousands died.
Again, it’s a sight I’ve seen on television almost weekly for two years, but being there in person is quite different.
On television, for example, you don’t see the vendors hawking wares photos, unbelievably, of the planes crashing into the towers, books commemorating the day, baseball caps with “Ground Zero” stitched into them, and little plexiglass paperweights encasing tiny World Trade Centers.
Nothing really seemed to be selling, even though there was no lack of tourists. We came from all over. People stood in front of the site, having their pictures taken, struggling with the proper expression. A long white limousine pulled up, and a wealthy couple, dressed for dinner, hopped out and raced to the observation point. The man carried a black bag from which a small white dog’s head peered.
What strikes you is grief, first, and then simple astonishment. The space, now the site of construction, is not that big, when you consider what happened there. How could these towers have fallen straight down? How could so much of what surrounded it be spared? And how could anyone open up a huge discount department store right across from the site? What in the world does that mean?
We went to Mass at St. Peter’s, the oldest Catholic Church in the city, and the place where Fr. Mychal Judge’s body was brought and laid before the altar. Wheels from one of the planes had damaged the roof, and there were still scars. Here, in this place and the blocks surrounding it, for weeks and months and to some extent still, people had been killed, and those left behind had grappled with the question of why and how and what next. Reading about it all doesn’t communicate the somber reality of the place.
It’s so true that knowing about things is nothing like meeting them face-to-face. It is true for art, for battlefields and tragic places, for the mystery that is human life as it is lived. Virtual reality is no reality at all.
And so it is with faith, as well. We may know about God, and read about Christ, and we may call these activities faith, but they are not. Faith is knowing, not just knowing about. Faith takes us into the presence of the Living God, who meets us with a love that all of our words and pictures and imaginings can only hint at in their faint, flat shadows.
Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.
(This article first appeared in Our Sunday Visitor and is reprinted here with permission of the author.)
Amy has written several excellent books, which are available now through our online store.