Book of Hours

I wrote the following essay last year, around the first week of May, and I find it captures something of what I like about New York in the spring, so I include it here.

Here in New York, where we never lack for things to do, last weekend I went to both the spring Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and then to the Cloisters Museum in Upper Manhattan, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art houses its most spectacular works of Medieval art. On subsequent days, I alternately joined the throngs under the cherry trees – in what was supposed to be an ecstatic worship of springtime blooms but whose purpose was rather marred by the sheer number of people trampling over the lawns of the Garden and sprawling out among the narcissi and tulips – and walked the intimate stone halls and tidy garden pathways of the medieval museum.

As I mentioned, these were weekend activities, planned for in advance and set aside from the more ordinary chores that I spend my days doing. It is still an effort for me, when there are pages to write and articles to summarize, to let the folders sit under my desk and get myself out, out of the house and out of my small self, to celebrate the few cordoned hours that separate Saturday and Sunday from the rest of the week. But this is exactly what I did last weekend, when I was purposeful about finding the time for these other activities, in hours that stood out from the ordered movement of the rest of the week.

Comparing the cherry blossom festival, which was based on Japanese springtime rituals, and the Cloisters museum, I was struck by certain similarities in the cultures that inspired these events. Pre-1950s Japan and Medieval Europe had notions of time and how to use it that, while not identical, were both certainly very different from our own. To this day in Japan, it is a national event when the cherry blossoms bloom in the spring, bringing hordes of families to the parks and gardens to stand in ecstatic witness under these flowers. The sakura remind us of the transience of human existence; looking at them – really looking at them, we forget other things, caught up in understanding the color of their petals and accepting the soft waft of their fragrance. We cannot do anything except be just who we are, stranded under their boughs, faces upturned like lunatic star-gazers, eating the blooms with our eyes. The cherry tree, in flower, demands nothing more than our attention.

(And yet, the people at the Botanic Garden must have thought that we’d rather put our attention elsewhere, for they hired Japanese punk bands to play all afternoon and set up booths to teach people the fine art of flower arranging. How like Americans to add something more to that which is already perfect!)

The medieval church distinguished between the vita activa and the vita contemplative, life’s highest pursuit. Hear “the cloistered life,” and one thinks of a sheltered existence away from life’s vagaries. But the medieval monasteries were hardly sheltered havens: they hosted pilgrims, cured the poor, copied manuscripts, and took in the treasures of kinds. I suspect that because of the monastery’s intimate involvement in the mundane, its buildings and schedule were purposefully designed to give space to the divine. While dirty pilgrims slept under the pillared cloisters, the chapel nave remained holy space; the monastery marked its days by its prayers, neatly dividing up the waking hours and separating – or integrating – the divine and the commonplace. There were still gardens to weed, patients to attend to, books to copy – but in their proper hour. I saw the material evidence for these schedules in two or three delicate Books of Hours on exhibit at the Cloisters Museum, each a tiny compendium of images and words, an horarium to measure regal hours.

We tend to think of the Middle Ages as a dark time when superstition reigned, human knowledge was scant, and death came easily with plagues and crop failures. But it helps me to remind myself that, whatever else it was or was not, this was a pre-Cartesian age, and that the divisions that we have since learned to place over the world – civilized and barbarous, advanced and primitive, heaven and hell – had not the same power or meaning to the medievals. God was tremendous, yet intimately close – far closer to men and women than after Calvin placed him so far up in the heavens and declared his decisions so intractable, that our actions were, really, almost beside the point. No, the medieval God was found in earth’s very order: in the sacred topography of the monastery and the mount, in the holy rituals that governed daily life, and in the hierarchy of kings and popes, barons and bishops, that were earthly replicas of divine rule.

At the Cloisters Museum, the actual cloistered pathways are held up by pillars dating back to the Middle Ages, artifacts that were carefully transported to the United States by John D. Rockefeller for the creation of the museum. The rest of the museum was built up around them: new arches and bases complemented the medieval columns, while dim cloisters opened up to the open-air gardens planted within. Visitors to the museum, walking under the reconstructed cloisters, are supposed to feel as if they, too, were members of a monastery. The carvings at the tops of the pillars still amaze and frighten us today, as they likely were intended to awe the monks and pilgrims who first saw them: friezes of leafy plants and flowers alternate with open-mouthed monsters devouring hordes of people, bearded men with gaping eyes, and fanciful beasts with too many tails and wings. The imaginarium of the medieval age had as many monsters as our own. Fear and longing have not changed.

But the world has changed, clearly, since the Middle Ages! Nonetheless, the Medievals’ very efforts to create their monasteries and overlay some sort of structure on the day, integrating the sacred with the mundane, is a task with which we Postmoderns still struggle.

My friend Louise opined, while we were talking about Zen mediation one evening last year in Brazil, that meditation has attained its current height of popularity in the U.S. because it is so contrary to our culture’s ideals. People will always seek their opposite when the pendulum shifts too far in one direction or the other, and as we are just about to the hilt with busyness and mayhem, Zen seems one way to calm the chaos in our minds when the world seems outside of our control. My friend is a historian who studies economic history and empires, and tends to work and think like the French historians, in sweeping terms that cover decades at a time and confound or confuse some aspects of human behavior. But I always wonder at movements that go so against the values of the society within which they emerge – the Transcendentalists, for example, in the mid-19th century, or the pilgrims, even, in Restoration England. Closer to us are the hippies of the 1970s, whose legacy, no doubt, has spawned a third American Awakening, the Age of Aquarius turned pragmatic: we now know that meditation calms the mind, yoga strengthens the body, fasting purifies the spirit. We’re too immersed in materialism to not engage in these practices for their immediate, promised benefits, proving that even in these counter-cultural practices Americans are, if anything, far too practical and intentional.

That the tendency to buck the current trend runs strongly through American culture should be no surprise, given that the New England Pilgrims and the Mid-Atlantic Quakers were after the same freedoms. Even today, one thing that seems to distinguish the U.S. from other Western democracies is the intentionality behind all of its subcultures: the Mormons of Utah, the Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn and Washington Heights, the Amish of Pennsylvania, the hippies of Berkeley – the list could go on and on. These groups seek an alternative to the “mainstream” – as if that were one monolith – and it is striking to me that this alternative is so frequently a religious or quasi-religious life, as in the Middle Ages. Even in this hypermanic society, we can find pockets of community and structures of meaning to hold us, just as the Cloisters and their books of hours contained and circumscribed the lives of the faithful.

Considering the cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens: why would so many people have appeared that afternoon, if not to mark their own days with a kind of purpose? Spring was flagrant, glimpsed all over the city in flower pots and urban squares, and being human we wanted to participate in it and mark the hours of our own lives. And so we sought out the trees. Not any other Sunday, but this Sunday, the Sunday of the cherry blossoms, when we went out hand-in-hand and were briefly (oh so briefly, as swiftly as those blooms opened and fell) transfixed by pink and white.

These photos were taken by wallyg and Henry Roxas and were accessed on flickr.com on May 10, 2008, by avidalegria. The Book of Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux was taken from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's website.


Anh-Thu said...

Hi Em --
I love the musings and pics! Your thoughts on the way Zen meditation fits into contemporary life reminded me of this Zizek article I read a while ago: http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/2/western.php
He has an interesting (and heady!) way of explaining the Western turn to Eastern religion. I'd be curious to hear your reaction. I'm not sure I swallow it all.

(Currently) from SE Asia,

Ai Lu said...

I think I read the Zizek posting, because you had it in your gmail line! Very provocative: I felt that he didn't leave any space for genuine religious sentiment, just attributed the current Western fascination with Zen to our desire to "escape" the material secularist present. And so what if we are looking to do so? The Buddha preached engagement in this world, not escape from it: the middle path, so to say.
What brings you to SE Asia this time around?