Arched and buttressed from within

“Man must be arched and buttressed from within, else the temple wavers to the dust.” ~Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

The Washington National Cathedral is a dear place to my heart, so the pictures of the damage caused by Tuesday’s earthquake saddened me. The sight of the missing spire, the other spires that are off-center, the fallen stone works, the cracks left behind—all of these grieve me and concern me. The reports of cracks in the flying buttresses worry me further, especially given the approach of hurricane Irene in a few days.

However, as I look at the pictures of damage from towns that are near where my family lives (a short drive from the epicenter), I am grateful that such a large building constructed of stacked stone fared as well as it did. Architecturally, the credit for this stability comes from the arches and buttresses built into it.

As I read these reports and considered the damage, the quote above came to mind. There are many things that happen in each of our lives that shake us up like the Cathedral was shaken on Tuesday by the earthquake. Without being properly buttressed from within, the temple that is our Self will collapse to dust when we encounter these hard times.

I tend to look for my safety and stability from things outside of myself. In the physical realm, that makes a lot of sense. I have a savings account, I buy insurance, I perform preventative maintenance and upkeep on my house and my car, I buckle my seat belt, I lock my doors. All of these things are reasonable precautions and make a good deal of sense. But they are no help in the emotional and psychological storms of life.

All of these precautions I have taken have meant that I did not need to worry as much about my physical safety during these last couple of years as life given me one earthquake after another, but the greatest storms I’ve faced were ones that none of these things could protect me from. As my sense of self-identity has in so many ways been melted away, there was nothing outside of myself that could me any protection at all.

Even dear friends who have walked this path with me and offered encouragement and insight could not protect me from the ravages of the storms that have hit. They were a comfort, indeed, but they could not walk this path for me, nor could they hold me together with their strength. It has only been the buttresses inside my soul that have held me together and allowed me to walk this journey without crumbling to dust.

Even so, I still tend to look first outside myself for the strength to withstand the storms. I want to rely on organized belief systems (whether religions or otherwise), on close relationships, on external practices, on psychological insights. And these things do indeed offer comfort and succor during the storm, but if I have not taken the time to tend to the maintenance, repair, and strengthening on my own internal buttressing, those things will not be enough.

As sad as I am to see the damage to my beloved Cathedral, I am grateful for the visual reminder of this idea to help me refocus my attention where it needs to be. This is one lesson that I seem to need to keep coming back to over and over again, but each time I find my inner architecture is that much more secure, like a muscle that is strengthened the more it is used.

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