There is something about human nature that is inherently awed by big things. I know this because I recently visited the St Louis Arch – this humongous steel sculpture, monumental, towering overhead overlooking the Mississippi. The response to something big – anything big – is awe. Like the spacemen in Stanley Kubriks’ 2001: A Space Odyssey, the appropriate religious response is to whip out the camera and attempt to capture a sliver of it – not too different from the medieval pilgrim buying a little metal souvenir, or bowing at the feet of the thing and pocketing a little bit of dirt to keep in a small box. This is why the cynical South Dakotans decided to blow huge sculptures of presidents’ faces into a mountain – because they knew we are inherently impressed by bigness.
We can laugh at this phenomenon, but the laughter dies away when we are confronted with a big thing – whether it’s a powerful man, the giant Mall of America – the largest mall in America (which I also stood at the feet of), a revered university, or even just a really, really large teapot. I mean, bigness makes us feel our smallness. Monumentality gives the illusion of immortality. We look at the St Louis Gateway Arch, and think, here is something man has achieved with the works of his hands – it looks like some relic of an alien race, left as a cryptic message for conspiracy theorists to decipher – but no, it was made by my race, my kind – and what a wonder and enigma is Man!
It stirs something fundamental in us – it makes us worship. Because we know we are mortal, mere walking, breathing time-bombs with a finite counter pasted across our chests, and that perhaps this thing, whatever this thing is, has a secret of something that lasts beyond time we can conceive – perhaps it is infinity, perhaps it is immortality. And because He made us to be immortal, we long for it – we rage against death, we allow ourselves, one by one by one, to be blindsided by it, unable to look it too long in the eye during our brief lives. But it is there, and it is raging at us, raging at us to find meaning, to find purpose.
And the thing about these big things is they always seem to be symbols – metaphors, similes, patterns that recur in the unconscious, things with unutterable meaning. Things which stand for other things. Things which stand for things which have no form. Things which are empty in themselves, except that they are imbued with heavy meaning.
To me, the Arch is always about infinity – that sweet yearning to encompass the globe, the sky. It always prefigures the rainbow, or is a left echo of the rainbow, that beautiful sign God set in the sky. I saw two rainbows this whole time, and was comforted, feeling a little like Noah, that yes, perhaps the days would be long before I saw floods, but I was on the right track. The first one, over the Atlantic, on a beach at Nantuket, Massachusetts; the second, set right over my train tracks, framing the gateway between Indiana and Chicago. They were little comforts, I guess, to a girl who cannot be sure one minute to the next where she’ll be going. Every time I see a rainbow, I think of my dad’s home remedy, from my great-grandmother. She used to say, if you have a wart, and you see a rainbow, you should rub the wart against the grass, and it will go away. I remember wanting to try this out badly, since I had a wart on my knee. I don’t remember anymore whether it was healed the day I saw that rainbow over the garden in Singapore. But my wart isn’t there anymore. I can’t for the life of me understand why I don’t remember such an important thing.
But I know that rainbows are about pointing the way – pointing forward, and pointing back. They are affirmations of a promise, a covenant God made between Himself and his beloved Earth. It was a cross of His tears and His beaming contenance, sorrow and relief flooding all at once. The St Louis Arch was conceived as a frame for that golden land – the great (supposedly empty) West – the promised land, which (of course) always lay just out of one’s grasp, just out of reach. That is, if you were the conquering nation, and not the Native Americans who had to march that same route in tears, exiled from their own land. No, promised or not – the land is not the promise; the God Himself is.
For beautiful as they are, when we see the bow, it is only half the story – quite literally. For physics tells us that rainbows are, in fact, not arches but circles – we just never see the ends of them because our view on the ground cannot accommodate their perfection. Before the invention of the twin compasses, mankind spent no small effort trying to draw a perfect circle, imagining that if they could, they would discover the secret to perfection. We’ve all drawn circles now, of course, in primary school math class. But we fail to see the miracle of the perfect form, each point equidistant from the centre, with no edges, no points of division. Perfect equality, perfect harmony, perfect wholeness. Perfection – at the feet, encircling the Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace, the Mighty God, Emmanuel, God the Three, and God the One. How beautiful He is in Revelation, his flashing eyes, his floating hair! How beautiful He is in my mind, with that rainbow sign, crowning His fair brow! How much glory there is even in ephemeral things, which man-made things only counterfeit, and then not with the delicacy and poignancy that Your touch lights upon the earth! How you love your people, that you should grant Beauty for promise’s sake, Beauty for our sake, Beauty for Your love, your delight, your pleasure.
I remember one of the dearest sermons I have ever heard, about God bringing the cloud, and setting His bow in the cloud – Oh He never spares us the cloud! For without the cloud there can be no dark grey to set the ribbons of light against – and if not for tears we can never see His unpuddled face.