The Ancient Modern
Reflections on Lalibela, the Spiritual Heart of Ethiopia / Joshua Alan Sturgill
The ancient capital of Ethiopia astounded me. I thought of Chaco and Mesa Verde in the American Southwest, or the Valley of the Gods in Sicily, or the Great Wall in China—but these places have long been abandoned. Tourists are the only life there; the present is overshadowed by past.
But Lalibela is still alive with pilgrims and prayers. The ancient solid stone Churches remain functioning parishes, and during my visit, I had to stand aside while white-robbed worshippers filed out of the cave that leads to St. Gabriel Church. On the eighth day of every month for the last 800 years, the Archangel Gabriel’s role in the history of salvation is celebrated in the church dedicated in his name.
The ingenuity and dedication of the ancient world never ceases to amaze me. Would any culture today have the skill or patience, vision or faith to accomplish such a unified architectural and artistic feat? Would any of us be able to match our ancestors’ talent, cooperation and zeal?
Seeing Lalibela makes me wonder how we should compare the technologies of the past and present. It is not enough (though I am tempted) to say that one is “better.” The question requires serious study and contemplation.
How does a cell phone compare with Notre Dame? How does Euclid compare with Einstein? I do a lot of contrasting as I think about these things, but today I am interested in standards for comparison. I think about words like “use” “precision” “speed” “beauty” “sacred” “entertaining” “true” and “necessary.”
Do these words mean the same as they once did?
Every generation laments what is lost. How can we see gain and loss with sober objectivity – in order to, perhaps, choose what is best for the souls in each generation?
They say that life expectancy has increased. But what are we doing with the extra time we have? I wander through the miracle of the Lalibela Churches, and it seems that the ancients did so much with so little. What they lacked in life duration, they obviously made up for in life dimension. So much of what they build or wrote was full of energy for the soul. What does the modern world have for the life of the soul? What do we have that is objectively better—in terms of intellectual and spiritual wealth?
My tour through Lalibela was brief, but quietly transcendent. Since I often find myself disoriented and confused by the pace (and direction) of current culture, I was deeply encouraged by these crumbling works of high art, which are still alive with joy and strength.
The ancient world is still contemporary there. The whole place stimulated me to ask: why can’t the ancient within myself likewise find courage to break its addiction to external things, and return to the Center? Am I also, like these Churches, a temple? A house built to tend a fiery, though hidden, Altar?
To all appearances, I was just another tourist. But I passed through holy darkness in the deep tunnel connecting the Bethlehem and Emmanuel Churches. An initiation. A rite of union. I was a stranger and a foreigner, but I joined the history of Lalibela. I joined those anonymous ones in side passages and sheltered alcoves, those monks and priests and pilgrims caught up in sacred history.
A thousand years ago the stones of Lalibela began a dialogue with God, and no amount of tourists, vendors or excavations could ever disrupt the intimacy of that divine conversation.