by Maria L. Evans
“Truth is what is true, and it’s not necessarily factual. Truth and fact are not the same thing. Truth does not contradict or deny facts, but it goes through and beyond facts. This is something that it is very difficult for some people to understand. Truth can be dangerous.” ~Madeleine L’Engle
On a recent trip to Carlsbad Caverns, I was lucky enough to be visiting on a weekday with few visitors. My last visit there was on a Saturday in 1982, and that day the caverns were packed with visitors. The dearth of visitors allowed me to see something that I had not seen on that first visit–all the various grottos along the cavern walls. I was struck that they looked like miniature views of the main room–little dioramas nested within the walls. It was almost as if one could look at the grotto for a while, then turn around and see a larger recapitulation of the shapes and patterns of the rock formations in the grottos. It was almost as if they were trying to tell a story–the story of how this cave came to be, lived and grew over eons.
I still can recall vividly the first time I saw a diorama. It was on a childhood trip with my family to Florida, and we had stopped along the way near Chattanooga, TN, to a site that described the Battle of Lookout Mountain. There was a huge diorama in the main room with flashing lights and explosions and row upon row of soldiers in blue and gray. The diorama told the story by using lights and sound to direct one’s attention to a different part of it, as the pre-recorded story of the Battle of Lookout Mountain unfolded.
We don’t think about things much in terms of laying them out on a diorama. Now, we discover the unfolding of stories at tourist sites via higher tech means like IMAX theaters and computer simulations. But what I’ve always loved about dioramas are that they are a collection of details, and although the story is the entry point for the experience, they become personalized by the details we choose, so the experience can be different for us each time we view it, based on the details we choose. That doesn’t tend to be our pattern when we watch a movie, where the more we see it, the more we wait in bated anticipation for the parts we most enjoy. “Oh, oh, here it comes! I LOVE this part!”
Most of the ways we see the world are linear and dichotomous. Either/or. Up/down. Right/wrong. Good/evil. With this tendency for duality and linearity in our thinking, stories have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, and the characters are generally either good or bad (although sometimes one has to wait till the end to see whether someone was ultimately good or bad.)
L’Engle’s quote, however, invites us to see spirituality and religion in a non-dualistic way–as a diorama–thereby making the stories of the Bible “our stories.” She invites us to consider the details–the facts, as the portal to truth rather than the definition.
As I looked at those grottos in the cavern walls, they started to remind me of the Stations of the Cross. Although it’s one of the oldest forms of devotion used in Lent and Holy Week, it’s also the one that can really bring out a visceral negative reaction in people. “It’s too Roman Catholic.” “I don’t like the blood and gore.” “There’s unsubstantiated myth in it, like Veronica–there’s no evidence a woman gave Jesus a cloth.” “Jesus really didn’t say some of the stuff in the Stations in the way it’s told.” “There’s too much talking and not enough silence.” “I’m not into Jesus’ death, I’m into the Resurrection.”
The visceral nature of some of those negative responses I’ve heard over the years reminds me how we describe our own pain, or a painful chapter in our lives. When we can finally break the silence, things tend to rush out of us in list upon list of “the very specific details of how we were hurt or harmed.” This tends to be linear, and dichotomous–because we are venting in order to control. We control the facts in an attempt to control the truth.
I did not exactly grow up with the Stations as part of my religious tradition, but it was part of the religious tradition of the family of my best childhood friends. I never really got the point of the Stations until I wrote my own a couple of years ago. It was only when I wrote a set of Stations that I began to understand their purpose–that each station is a diorama that urges us to hear our stories within the story of Christ’s passion. Who was our Simon of Cyrene, carrying our cross? Who has wept for us by the roadside? When have we encountered Christ in the simplest action of wiping another’s face?
Perhaps, just as the cavern had written its own set of Stations of the Cavern, the Stations of the Cross invite us to see our life within the context of a series of dioramas of Christ’s passion. What detail will we choose to let the story unfold around us and lead us to a fuller understanding of the truth of the Good News in Christ?
Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid