Michaelangelo, Metaphors, and Sacred Objects

I like symbols and symbology. I’m quick to perceive relationships between seemingly unconnected circumstances, objects, and ideas. This is good for a writer; it’s the foundation for metaphor, effective characterization, and convincing multi-layered cause and effect. It’s also good for making sense of the actual world, whose events are related in ways more complex and profound than can be seen on the surface. We know things by other things—the manifold by the simple, the abstract by the tangible. God often speaks in metaphor, and the imagination can serve as entryway to the understanding.

But things can get whacked when we constantly think of incidents and events as having particular meaning and significance for us personally, like the universe is sending us coded messages. I don’t want to force an analogy or see connections that don’t actually exist or place undue importance on things that in fact have nothing to do with me. I try to keep a sense of perspective. Otherwise my writing, and my life, will get pretty damn silly.

Or pretty damn terrifying.

Or pretty damn terrifying.

All this disclaimer is basically an introduction to another one of my extended metaphor posts. I have a lot of Sacred Objects in my life; within the past year or so I have written about the symbolic importance of a marble, a ring, and a tree. They are reminders to me of things God has shown me about himself. This is the story of yet another such object, which I found twenty-four years ago.

I was hiking with a friend at Angelina National Forest in Nacogdoches. I dearly love twisty, serpentine hardwood forests, full of shadow and secrets, thickly draped vines and furtive little noises. These woods were nothing like that. They were piney woods, like those I used to visit as a child in the Arkansas Ozarks, and just as lovely in their own way. Everything there is bold and open and upright; the pines shoot skyward like giant lances with handles planted in the ground, and the outnumbered oaks have to grow tall and slender and straight just to keep up and reach sunlight. The very air seems bright and clean with resin’s sharp astringency. It’s a place for clarity of thought, meditation, worship, and prayer.

I was twenty, old enough to have racked up some serious regrets and determined to make a new start. I felt hopeful, but bruised and sore inside, twice-shy, and afraid of failing.

At some point in the day, I found this.

nut and bolt thing

It was some sort of nut-and-bolt-and-washer combo, fused into a solid unit. No trace of threading remained on the bolt. The pitted iron surface was a deep brown, lightening to rings of orange rust where bolt and washer met. One long side was flattened to a taper, with the knobby end just vanishing into the flatness.

nut and bolt thing side

The nut was still a respectable hexagon shape, but the washer was warped, pressed up on one side and down on the other, with a delicate curve like the curl at the tip of a rose petal. Viewed from above, the nut and washer did look a lot like a rose.

nut and bolt thing rose

Within the borders of what is now Angelina National Forest, there used to be a sawmill, a railway spur, and a small town. The last of the township was abandoned in 1927, almost ninety years ago. The remains are still there, slowly decaying in the clearcut. The little iron whatsit I found might once have been part of a building, a machine, or a railway structure. Whatever its original purpose might have been, even the memory is lost now, along with the materials it held together, and the thing itself is useless for holding anything together in the future. No wrench will ever loosen the nut from the bolt, and nothing short of hot forging will restore the entire hunk of iron to its original three components in their original forms. Even then, the molecules would be rearranged.

What does it take to so alter the shape of three stout pieces of iron, not in a forge but in a pristine pine forest in East Texas? What forces of heat and pressure, what passage of time, season after season, year upon year? Nature can be a terrifying thing, swift and violent, slow and implacable, patient and strong.

I picked up the little iron whatsit and carried it with me. I don’t know why; I just liked it. And over the course of the day I realized it fit my hand perfectly.

nut and bolt thing hand

I’d recently heard Tommy Nelson preach at Denton Bible Church about the building of God’s temple in Jerusalem. The temple wasn’t just another impressive old building. It was designed as a place for God to personally dwell among humanity, the ineffable and eternal and uncontainable Maker somehow placing himself in a particular physical space crafted by human hands out of timber and stone and precious metal. And the plan was for the nations of the world to come to this place and learn of God and delight in him. The temple was a beautifully proportioned edifice whose furnishings, walls, textiles, and even basic layout all illustrated things about the character and actions of God. It was, among other things, a metaphor.

The building of the temple was a task long in the planning. King David, the warrior-poet, had wanted to be the one to undertake the project, but God said no. David’s reign had been marked by war; his hands had shed too much blood for him to build the temple. The task would go instead to David’s son, Solomon, whose reign would be characterized by peace (1 Chronicles 22:6-10). So David contented himself with amassing supplies—timber, stone, precious metals—for the project he would never see completed or even begun.

King Solomon took the throne, and in the fourth year of his reign he began to build the house of the LORD. He had a quarry somewhere in or around Jerusalem where his builders worked alongside builders sent by Hiram, king of Tyre, preparing timber and stones for the house of God (1 Kings 5:18).

And the house, when it was in building, was built of stone made ready before it was brought thither: so that there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.

1 Kings 6:7

Stone-shaping is a percussive activity. Every tool involved—mallet, axe, adze, hammer, wedge, chisel, rasp—is designed to get rid of the parts the stone-squarer doesn’t want, either by forcible removal or by abrasion. A quarry filled with stone-squarers busy at their work is probably no place for someone like myself with a high-strung nervous system and near-pathological sensitivity to noise. Confining the stone-shaping to the quarry would certainly make for a quieter, more peaceful building site. But is that the only reason it was done? And why does the author of the Book of Kings even mention the practice?

Adam Clarke, the Ulster Scottish Bible scholar, writes of this passage,

It appears that every stone was hewn and squared, and its place in the building ascertained, before it came to Jerusalem: the timbers were fitted in like manner. This greatly lessened the trouble and expense of carriage. On this account, that all was prepared at Mount Lebanon, there was neither hammer, axe, nor any tool of iron heard in the building; nothing except mallets to drive the tenons into the mortises, and drive in the pins to fasten them, was necessary: therefore there was no noise. But why is this so particularly marked? Is it not because the temple was a type of the kingdom of God; and the souls of men are to be prepared here for that place of blessedness? There, there is no preaching, exhortations, repentance, tears, cries, nor prayers; the stones must be all squared and fitted here for their place in the New Jerusalem, and, being living stones, must be built up a holy temple for a habitation of God through the Spirit.

solomon temple building

I am not familiar enough with stone-shaping or sculpture to speak with authority, but to my imagination modeling seems less daunting than carving. You can add to clay or other medium as well as take away. My dad, a painter, could paint over a problem section in a work in progress without sacrificing the entire painting. As a writer, I can take a word or phrase out, put it back in, try it somewhere else, read it aloud, and think it over, always knowing I have the option of changing my mind entirely and going back to the original wording. But with stone carving, you have one shot. If you knock something away, it’s gone, unless you do some tedious repair job that will never be as good as if you had gotten it right the first time. A good stone-carver must possess incredible foresight and vision as well as physical dexterity and strength.

Michaelangelo’s David stuns me every time I see an image of it. The figure is slender but strong, and the bodily proportions are a bit off, with huge head and hands that give David an adolescent look. (The size of the head was probably meant as a trick of perspective because the statue was originally intended to be positioned on the roofline of the Florence Cathedral and not at ground level. The hands, however, are probably meant to look oversized.) One leg holds David’s entire weight, causing his hips and shoulders to rest at opposing angles, and giving the torso an s-curve. This posture, called contrapposto, is further accentuated by the inclination of the head to the left and by the contrasting positions of the arms. In profile, which is how we view the statue today, the combined effect of posture and facial expression—the furrow of the brow, the bend of the wrist, the tuck of the head—is taut and apprehensive; but head-on, as displayed in Michaelangelo’s day, it is aggressive and purposeful. In fact, the positioning of the statue at the time of its completion was considered a bold political statement.

michaelangelo's david

And all this came from the mind and hand of a twenty-six-year-old man and was worked into a piece of flawed marble previously rejected by another artist.

I realize I’m wandering a bit. My little iron whatsit is a far cry from Michaelangelo’s David or a stone in the temple Solomon built. Nobody is going to put it in a museum or marvel at its beauty. But it fits my hand, and that makes it special, at least to me.

A lot of things look weird until you know their purpose, and then they look just right. Knitters have the niddy noddy and the ball winder; firefighters have the Halligan bar; nineteenth-century surgeons had the tonsil guillotine. Form follows function, sometimes to terrifying places.

Here, for example.

Here, for example.

Natural forces can dramatically alter the shape of things that seem durable and hard—either with swift violence, as with floods, volcanoes, and hurricanes, or slowly and tediously, as with erosion. Swift or slow, these forces appear terrifyingly random and indifferent. The making of a tool or a work of art, on the other hand, is deliberate and purposeful. But to the medium being shaped, if we imagine the medium having a human consciousness, it would all be one and the same. The medium wouldn’t like it and would rather be left alone. I know I would. I don’t like excessive pressure and friction and heat. Given a choice, I would get away from them. But if God uses these things to shape me and fit me into his house, his hand, then that changes things. What appeared to be random suffering is shown to have purpose, and that makes it easier to bear.

(Not that we should be quick to assume we know what that purpose is, or to make light of pain! Nothing is more irritating than to hear suffering demeaned with glib words about how it’s all part of God’s plan. C.S. Lewis asked, “What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know he is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?”)

Whatever the workshop—a pine forest, a Jerusalem quarry, a human heart—God’s work has purpose, and his vision can be trusted. He uses rough forces to make things of beauty.  And he will not always be hammering and chiseling and adzing and sanding. Suffering in this life is our opportunity for gaining character, but one day the work will be complete. The forces that shaped my little nut-and-bolt combo had finished long before I came along on that hiking trail. It was a perfect fit the moment I picked it up; there was nothing left to do.

michaelangelo's david hand