Viewpoint: A Spirituality of Ruins

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

Among my favorite books is one entitled “In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland.” Written by Duncan McLaren, with magnificent photographs by Simon Marsden,” the author introduces the book as follows:  “Here spanning the centuries are the beautiful and haunting ruins of Ireland, the once great houses, castles, Gothic and Palladian mansions designed by the most accomplished architects of their day, . . . houses that were splendid in their prime and beautiful in their ruin—victims of Cromwell, civil war, famine, land acts, private bankruptcy.”

Ireland is not the only country that preserves ruins. Auschwitz is possibly the most famous ruin in Europe. The city of Coventry in England preserves the ruin of its medieval cathedral destroyed almost completely by the Nazis. The ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stand as sober reminders of terrible human evil. The closest thing we have to a modern American ruin is the 9/11 memorial in New York.

Biblical reflections on ruins are nowhere expressed more powerfully than in the Book of Lamentations, in which the author laments over the terrible ruin of Jerusalem. All seemed to have ended; yet the author expresses the anguished hope that God will rebuild in the day of his coming.

What is the value of ruins? I suggest that it is a profoundly spiritual one.

The truth about every one of us is that there are spiritual ruins in our lives; our personal histories and landscapes are littered with them. It is the nature of ruins that they cannot humanly be rebuilt or renovated, except in an artificial way. Ruins remind us that every aspect of life does not have a happy ending. All we can do is recognize our ruins, accept them, lament over them—and then commend them to God in the firm faith that only he has the power to rebuild in the day of  eternity.

The ruins of our lives are the terrible and unfixable mistakes we have made, the wrongs we have never been able to right. They are the relationships, once valuable and cherished, that have broken down, never to be rebuilt in this life. They are the irreversible illnesses and ravages of age that bring pain, feebleness, depressions, and a growing sense of mortality. They are the lost arts and skills, abilities and agilities that once we thrived on, but now are fading. They are the people we love, once joyful and happy, who have fallen into pessimism, unhappiness, and despair. Our ruins are the painful imprints made upon us because of the terrible things that have happened to us. They are the loss of family, friends, and companions through age and death. They are the unrepairable things that have happened to nearly every person, every family, every community.

Do I paint too gloomy a picture here? I would answer with another question: Is what I describe a true reflection of human experience? I would argue that it is. But reflection on the darker side of human life is not a cause for pessimism and hopelessness. Life, in the Christian perspective, is not a tragedy. A tragedy has no good ending. The Christian view of life is that God’s saving power always overcomes human pain and suffering—but only in God’s good time, which may be in eternity. We cannot forget that Christ’s human life ended in the awfulness of Calvary, but it was raised up in the glory of the resurrection. Thus, we have to await the final Easter to see the rebuilding of all earthly ruins.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent’s parish, Salt Lake City.

By permission of The Intermountain Catholic, Salt Lake City.

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  1. I was just reflecting on this with the Lesson of the Fig Tree as it relates to the Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree.

    In the Lesson of the Fig Tree Jesus explains, “As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

    He’s saying that even though “heaven and earth will pass away” we know that the kingdom of heaven is coming when we see fruit in our lives and the life of the Church.

    So, we will see ruins all around us, but his word and the fruit on his fig tree (the Church in his body) will still fruit all around us. And in fact, we do see joy and love and hope in the midst of great suffering. It’s been the Christian story. At least that is how I am understanding it.

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