“We are born not to be museum keepers, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” John XXIII
I love visiting museums. A couple of summers ago I took my daughter and son to Chicago. We spent a wonderful few days visiting the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry as well as the Aquarium and the Lincoln Zoo. One of the great things about living in St. Louis is our family has been able to visit the Art Museum, the History Museum and the Science Center often because they are free of charge.
Sometimes the exhibits move me profoundly. I am drawn into a piece of artwork or an artifact in an almost mystical experience. Suddenly, time and space converge. The lives of the people who created or used the museum piece before me come to life once again. I wonder who was this person? What made them create or fashion this? How did they feel? Were they rich and comfortable or poor and desperate? How did the people around them respond to their work? And most importantly, why does this piece of antiquity move me still after all this time? Did the artist or artisan have any idea of the power they would have to reach out beyond the boundaries of culture, language and even their own life-spans to communicate with future generations? I have come to realize I am drawn into the mystery not because of the thing itself but because of the person or persons that brought it into being.
But frankly, I don’t always have that magical existential experience with much of what I find in museums. Often, I meander from one exhibit to another noting trivial details but essentially I am uninterested. Not infrequently, I can be disturbed or really “creeped out.” Some pieces of the past I would prefer to be left in the past. I am reminded of Ecclesiastes, “for everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die.” Maybe that is also a good reason for museums. They can teach us about how far we have come. Or how far we still have to go. We can learn that human history has been unjust, and cruel and self-destructive far too often in our past. We are able to see with new eyes, fresh perspectives and more objectivity that which those who shaped history could only know from their individual viewpoint and their particular historical-cultural situation.
So, I enjoy visiting museums not because they memorialize and enshrine the past. I find value in museums because of they challenge me to question, learn and deepen my own humanity. Museums are a way for me to awaken in myself the universal and eternal quest for human beauty, wisdom and human dignity through the ages and beyond. Museums, I think are not supposed to be about preserving the past. They exist to help us become more attentive and aware of the people and events around us right now. Museums are indeed great places to visit. But I don’t know anyone who would want to live in a museum. We must, at some point, come out to the fresh air and sunlight. We are, at the end of our visit, grateful to return to the world of living, breathing people.
I believe that Good Pope John XXIII was a very wise man and very close to the heart of God. He knew that Jesus Christ and the message of the Gospel cannot be contained in climate controlled vaults and museum archives. John XXIII was well aware that the Church is found in the land of the living. And so fifty years ago this past October, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. Calling together the bishops from all over the world, and invoking the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, he gave us the opportunity to breathe new life and energy into the Church. John XXIII empowered the People of God to come out into the sunlight and re-engage with the world just as Jesus and the first disciples did. A historian himself, Pope John XXIII did not dismiss our past history as completely irrelevant or unimportant. He realized the power of the Church of the past wasn’t that it tried to look and behave like the church of past generations. The power of our church’s history and the genius of how it survived two thousand years was how it engaged with the present cultural, political and social realities of its day.
The first major document produced by Vatican II expresses the intent of the Council Fathers perfectly. Titled Gaudiem et spes, it is translated as, “The Church in the Modern World.” And so fifty years later we are faced with yet another challenge. Those of us who remember this landmark event of the Catholic church are becoming fewer and fewer. Can we continue to dialogue, learn and grow with the fruits the Council and the Holy Spirit entrusted to us? Or will we lock away this historical event in an archive pulling out small pieces to interpret out of context and without exploring the historical perspectives and realities for those who created it?
I’m not ready to seal the Second Vatican Council into a museum exhibit for people of centuries beyond us to rediscover. So I hope that all of us during this proclaimed “Year of Faith” will take the opportunity to remember or perhaps learn for the first time, the history of documents of the Second Vatican Council. Let’s unlock the vault and let the lessons of our very recent history out. After all, museums are not about the dead. They are all about “cultivating the garden of life” today.