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- Spiritual Reflections
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“I know a farmer who says he has had the same ax his whole life—he only changed the handle three times and the head two times. Does he still have the same ax?”
When I first read those words in Howard Mansfield’s book, The Same Ax, Twice, I was fascinated by the philosophical problem they posed. But my philosophizing soon gave way to reality when I found myself in the hospital just a few weeks later. Though I avoided having my “head” and “handles” replaced, I did find myself with an electronic implant to control my crazy heartbeat.
I wondered how it would affect me. Would I still be the same person? For several weeks I asked that question. But a time came when I could say, “I feel like myself today.” It was then that I knew what restoration meant, at least within the context of my life. I didn’t have to be the same as before, but I had to feel myself—feel those aspects of my self which I consider to make me a unique person. Little things like enjoying a mystery story or finishing a crossword puzzle, and larger things such as beginning to think of others instead of feeling incredibly self-absorbed.
Restoration meant coming back toward the place where I was before, but with new experiences, new equipment and a new understanding of what makes me who I am. I don’t know if I am the same, but I feel like myself, and right now that’s good enough for me.
As Unitarian Universalists, we have restoration in the bloodline from our Universalist forebears. Elhanan Winchester’s work, Dialogues on the Universal Restoration, dating from 1788, is based on a passage from the Book of Acts, which promises a time of “restitution of all things.” This cornerstone belief of universal salvation convinced early Universalists that all things, all people, would eventually be restored to God. They were living in the shadows of Calvinism with its emphasis on the depravity of humans and the assurance of salvation for only a limited few.
Restoration was God’s plan of returning the world to its true creation, serving as a promise that no matter how sinful, difficult or broken their own lives were, they would participate in “the final holiness and happiness of the entire race.”
Restoration is return. It is promise and hope. But it is also loss and change. It is something new, made out of the old, resembling it, but with a history of its own. It may be an ax with a new handle and head.
When does something restored cease to be the same object? If the farmer replaces only the handle, is it still the same ax? Or only the head? If the ax is a family heirloom traced back to George Washington—the very instrument used to cut down that oh-so-famous cherry tree—well-used by each succeeding generation, handle and head periodically replaced, would that make a difference? Consider Old Ironsides. Though it fought its last battle in l815, the warship still resides in Boston Harbor and is maintained in its original form. Rebuilt and repaired nine times in its history, 80-90% of its structure has been replaced. Isn’t it still the same ship? Or consider the Ise shrine in Japan. Rebuilt 61 times over 1300 years, it has not a fiber of the original wood and thatch, yet it lives in the hearts of the people as a 1300 year old monument. It is not a replica; it is the real thing.
Howard Mansfield answers the ax question this way:
So does the farmer have the same ax? Yes…. He possesses the same ax even more than a neighboring farmer who may have never repaired his own ax. To remake a thing correctly is to discover its essence.
A tool has a double life. It exists in the physical sense, all metal and wood, and it lives in the heart and the mind. Without these two lives, the tool dies. The farmer who restored his ax has a truer sense of that ax. He has the history of ax building in his hands. Museums are filled with cases of tools that no one knows how to use anymore. A repaired ax is a living tradition.
Nothing makes me sadder than watching Antiques Roadshow and seeing toys in perfect condition, never played with and in their original boxes, assigned a value so much higher than beloved Teddy bears which show the evidence of use and affection. Those high-priced perfect antiques, in my mind, are not really toys at all, because no one has ever discovered their essence. I can’t begin to remember the number of times I sewed on arms and legs, or re-stuffed favorite toys for my children. At some point over the past thirty years Baby Beans (so-called because she was stuffed with Styrofoam beads) became Baby Polyfil, but I can assure you she was (and is) still the same beloved doll. Restoration is preserving the essence of a thing—its uniqueness and its special meaning.
When I started thinking about restoration I consulted an expert, Bruce Christman, head of the conservation department at the Cleveland Museum of Art. When we walked into the studios, the first item we saw was a recently acquired portrait by Franz Hals. As Bruce explained what was being done with the painting, I was startled. At some point during the history of the portrait a coat of arms had been painted into the upper right hand corner. It had not been a part of Hals’ original work, but it had been a part of the painting for quite a long time. What startled me was that they were in the process of painting over the coat of arms. Bruce explained that they wanted to restore the work so it appeared to viewers the way the artist had created it, but they did not wish to lose the history of the portrait. The decision was made to paint over with materials which could be readily removed at some future time. Should the painting, sometime in the future, be owned by a museum where history is prized more than aesthetics, the over-painting could be removed and the history revealed. Conservation seeks to preserve and stabilize a work of art. You can’t always go back to the way the artist created it. What’s important is preserving and respecting the essence of a work.
It is not just farmers and conservators who are in the business of restoration. All of us are. When the pieces of our lives seem to be falling apart, we need to find the appropriate resources, tools, and materials to begin restoration. During a vacation school program some years ago we prepared an archaeological dig behind the church. One of the children’s challenges was to try to reassemble a pot from the potsherds they found. It’s a wonderful symbol for restoring the brokenness of our lives. Some pieces will be lost forever; it will be difficult to determine where some pieces fit; some may stubbornly resist being glued in place; the finished product will resemble the original, but it will not be the original. The new creation will have additional history and meaning of its own, but it will retain the essence of the original pot and, one hopes, be able to function in similar ways. A restored pot may not be able to hold water, but it can hold a bouquet of dried flowers. It is identifiable as a pot and has aesthetic, historic and functional roles to play.
When things go wrong in our lives—grief, a crisis in health, a troubled relationship or a financial setback—we may well feel scattered, like potsherds at an archaeological site, a little bit here, a little bit there. In our anxious state, and in this age of quick fixes, we look around for someone to put the pieces back together for us. But, as Humpty Dumpty learned, that’s not so easy. The very essence of an egg shell is fragility.
It is important for us to remember our essence. Changes may have occurred in our lives—changes from which there is no retreat. The ax handle and head may have been replaced, but behind those changes there is an essential person who has existed continuously since birth and will remain into the future. We need to rediscover that essential person.
Each event in our lives had its origins in the past and will carry us into the future. Life flows on, and each new tomorrow holds today and yesterday in its embrace. We are not stuck in today, but are part of a continuity of life which gives us the opportunity to constantly renew ourselves.
We cherish the promise of restoration.
Howard Mansfield concludes his book with these words:
Ours is an age of broken connections, lost connections between heart and work, soul and politics, community and the self. Restoration is renewal—an effort to mend the world—or else it is not worth doing. Good restoration is a prayer, an offering. It [is] praise, attention paid; it revels in the glory and spirit of this life.
Pay attention to what is happening within you and around you. Rediscover your essence. Build connections with others. Find one small thing you can do to mend the world, and then do it. Offer a prayer of thanksgiving for what has been, what is and what will be. These are tools of restoration which we all have at hand. With them we can renew ourselves and our world.
Many years have passed, but the memories remain vivid. The visiting evangelist would end his sermon, I knew, as soon as he offered the “invitation.” The invitation was to come forward to the front of the church and be “saved.”
Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?
We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.
I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.
I want to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.
I do not wish to live what is not life, living is so dear.
Nor do I wish to practice resignation, unless it is quite necessary.
I want to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,
I want to cut a broad swath, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.
If it proves to be mean, then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world;
Or if it is sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it.
By Henry David Thoreau
I’ve been at my parents’ home in Pennsylvania for the past week and a half celebrating the holidays. One of the things my mom wanted me to do while visiting was to go through all of the boxes of school paperwork that she has saved since I was in the first grade.
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