Through a glass, darkly.


“It should be said that something can be known in two ways. In one way, through its own form, as the eye sees the stone through the image of the stone. In another way, through the form of something similar to it, as the cause is known by its likeness to the effect and man by the form of his image.” – Thomas Aquinas. (Theology, Faith, and Reason: On Boethius)

The winter of our discontent grinds on like a house guest that has overstayed his welcome. We yawn, stretch our arms, clear the table, and try every hint we can think of, yet still it sits droning away in its chair. Not to be rude, but dear winter, its time you went home so we could get to bed.

Another morning has dawned clear and cold on the front porch, steam rising from the tops of the buildings downtown, as the morning sun painted them powdery pink. From this distance the glass towers seem like one monolithic mass, a glacier creeping across the landscape. It’s hard to imagine the thousands of lives that will swarm inside of them, like bees in a hive. Each one unique, its own complex tangle of blood, and muscle, and nerves. And this is but one city among millions, and these lives just a speck among the billions who have come, and gone.

For the past few weeks I have been pecking away at our genealogy, drawn in by the desire to know the faces that came before, to trace the roots of the tree back to the source. It has been an interesting journey. The branches that seemed the closest to my sense of self were quickly met with dead ends, and the ones that seemed obscure, ran on like train tracks into the distance. So I followed them to see where they led.

Down one track lay five generations of a family living out their lives in the village of Pietravairano in Caserta, near Naples, Italy. Down another track lay eight generations in the Bavarian town of Winterbach, outside of Munich. I made it as far as 1788 and 1580 respectively, before the tracks became overgrown with weeds and disappeared, but I have no reason to doubt that they were tied to these towns for several generations before that.

These places, and these names, stare out at me from the computer screen as mute strangers. I can search the names of these villages, and look at satellite imagery of the landscape. I can use our technology to drive the streets, and stare up at the buildings from three thousand miles away. But despite all of our technology, the human geography remains just lines, and names on a page. Like a blind sculptor I can only place my hands upon their granite faces, and imagine how they looked.

We can split the atom, and map the human genome, but we cannot recreate the past. It can only be painted in the canvas of our imagination. And yet, Aquinas was right. There are two ways to know something. Through its own form, and through the form of something that has descended from it. In the same way a geologist can examine a sculpture, and know the rock from which it was chiseled, we can know these people through knowing ourselves.

Watching my son this weekend, bent over a sketch pad, intently focused on the picture he was drawing, I could see the image of my father; the same furrow in his brow, the same calm focus on his work. It flashed for a moment like sunlight off the window of a distant building, before going dark. But it was there. For a moment the past lived through the present.

These moments surround us daily, if we can only pause long enough from our lives to see them. The faces, and shadows of the past flickering like a home movie being projected onto the screen of our lives. I run my hand across the map on the page, name before name, disappearing into the distant past. They are gone from this earth, forgotten except in name. Yet they pulse like blood through the capillaries of our lives.

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8 thoughts on “Through a glass, darkly.

  1. I am fascinated by geneology, perhaps because I don’t know much of my dad’s side of the family. When you think (as stated in the movie Amistad, I think) that YOU are currently the reason for your ancestor’s existence . . . powerful stuff.

  2. I KNEW you were Italian!!
    Recently my father posted a picture of his own father on facebook and then he had the audacity to post of photo of me RIGHT NEXT TO IT and ask “who do you look like?”
    Being the spitting image of your much despised hard ass paternal grandfather is not good.

  3. Love this. Again. Goes without saying. Let me once again quote yourself back to you… “We can split the atom, and map the human genome, but we cannot recreate the past.” So true and what follows is true(r) if truer is logically possible. This is part of a reason why Chinese people always reprimand their children by calling them out for behaving in a way that will shame their ancestors even those who are long gone. Represent!

    • I think one of the biggest problems we have in America is our lack of connection to the past. It leaves us adrift spiritually, and morally.

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