Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

May 13, 2004

Culm Banks, Coal Slides, and the Cry of the Poor in Spirit

I grew up in an around Wilkes-Barre, in the heart of the Pennsylvania coal region, and scattered around my town were mountains of slag-coal, called culm banks. As kids, we used to have fun running up the sides of these things. They were very steep, and you couldn't take a single step without starting a small avalanche. The coal slipped away beneath your feet, and then the coal above you started sliding, and pretty soon you were climbing against a downward conveyor-belt of dust and rocks. Sometimes you just gave up, sat down, and let yourself slide back to the bottom.

There was something fun and exhilerating, not to mention incredibly dirty, about all that, but I wanted to use it as an illustration of the human condition. I think that human history is really the story of the children of Adam struggling against the remorseless avalanche of decay to which the world has been subjected since the Fall. What we call "civilization," with all its obvious benefits (for which I thank my God), is still nothing more than a vast tower of Babble. For all these years we've been trying to regain paradise by our own will, ingenuity, strength.

That's the macro-level, I guess you could say, the micro-level is in our own personal lives and circumstances. Trying to beat the rap, come out on top, look good, stay young, prove ourselves right in all cases. Trying to command respect. Trying to win, and if we can't win, trying to look like a winner anyway.

Just like me and my friends trying to climb to the top of the culm bank (and by the way, if you've ever seen one of these, you'll know that paradise is not at the top, but nevermind), we're not getting anywhere but the bottom, covered with black soot and dirt.

What does it mean to be "poor in spirit"? It means, to give up this fruitless and hubristic struggle to "reach the top," to be as gods. To give up, to sit at the bottom of the culm bank and cry out, "God, save me, for I cannot save myself."

***

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5 Comments:

Blogger rebecca said...

This is really good stuff. Thank you for the reminder.

It makes me think of Philippians 2: Think of others as better than yourselves...Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who was in the form of God, but let go of His rights and perogatives as God to be human, and even as a human He humbled himself to be obedient even to death on a cross. (Very loose paraphrase)

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Yes, Rebecca, that's a very apt reference from Philippians 2. This is something more deep and strange (to us) and wonderful than humility. And the thing to be remembered, of course, is that He chose it. He chose it! That's an incomprehensible wonder, something like a star or a supernova--too vast for our puny imaginations to gather in--and yet it's so!

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and by the way, the post that was removed (above)? That was just me, removing my own post--by mistake! Bob

1:11 PM  
Blogger Eáránë Felagund said...

Very insightful entry. Indeed. Once we call out to God, our sights will also be shifted to rest upon higher things, and not the things of this world.

1:43 PM  

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