I am building a shrine to my hollow chest.
It is not ramshackle, not a bathtub sunk into the yard of an old row house, not a false grotto of gathered rock and packed earth. My shrine is true. Polished marble and dark slate. It is trimmed in gold and votive candles, whose flames dance in the glass of framed icons. My shrine has been blessed by the church herself, visited by pilgrims and popes and future saints. It sits atop a hill in the shade of an ancient olive grove, overlooking the sea, where the sun’s light ripples and waves. In this part of the world it never snows. When you crest the hill you stop to catch your breath, though you don’t know if it’s the exertion or the heat or the beauty. In the shadows of my walls you are cooled and stilled. You light a candle, kneel for a moment in silent prayer. You rest your hand on the altar, and though it is stone, you swear you feel a flutter against your palm.
My shrine is incomplete. It takes years to cut and haul stone, to set a foundation in the soft soil of a hilltop.
Many to whom shrines have been built were martyred—shot full of arrows, hung upside down from crosses, pressed beneath immense stones. Their bodies pierced, bones crunched, skeletons wrenched out of shape. The path is narrow and rocky and walked with bare feet. It would be easier to fade from view, live quietly, abandon all aspiration to the divine.
St. John of Nepomuk was drowned, thrown from the Charles Bridge into the Vltava on the orders of King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia. The reason was political—a disagreement over who should be appointed Abbot of Kladruby. But bureaucratic disputes rarely make good arguments for sainthood. So a new history was built: King Wenceslaus suspected the Queen of having an affair. When John, the Queen’s confessor, refused to violate the Seal of Confession and reveal her secrets, Wenceslaus ordered John’s plunge into the river. As such, John Nepomuk is the patron saint of protection from floods and drowning. A fountain in Kranj, Slovenia depicts his death, the saint’s torso and limbs encircled by the tentacles of sea creatures.
I have built a false history of my fear. This is what men are supposed to do. I speak of an old amusement park ride, the submarine in its murky depths. The sunken architecture and shattered statues of Atlantis. The creature, red fleshed and bright eyed, just outside the porthole. Its tentacles, its suckers, pressed against the hull. I say, I just don’t like being in the water.
Here is my confession: I am not afraid of the ocean, the dark sea, what swims beneath the surface. I am afraid of exposing my shape. So I stay away from the current’s strength, the sand’s heat. I hunch beneath the heaviest towel.
My mother sat on an old towel in the front passenger seat. My father, silent, teeth pressed to teeth, drove. In the back of the van I thought about riding home from the pool, the beach, our swim trunks soaked, towels draped over the seats to protect the upholstery. Her name would have been ______. That was not how my parents put it—they said her name was. She was someone who had never been, but someone they had lost. A hole in the center of my mother’s body. We all have our own names for what is gone, what is simply missing.
Once, on the beach, my mother looked at the hole in my center and asked if I have a heart.
I wonder what my skeleton looks like. Not an x-ray’s blueprint, but the architecture of the thing itself—washed ashore, picked clean of flesh and muscle and tendon and ligament, half-buried in sand.
Let me start with the architecture of ribs. A shallow channel of flesh divides belly and flank, rises from the crease between hip and darkly curled hair, gathers and pools in shadow beneath the rib that protrudes farther than most, too far, a rocky overhang that strains against a thin sheath of skin.
For symmetry—because there is beauty in symmetry, because all beautiful things are symmetrical—a second rib, the twin of the first.
The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man. A teacher once told us this is the reason men have only twenty-three ribs, while women have twenty-four. He must have known, that teacher, even as he said this, that it was untrue.
I see now that the rib comes second, that there is existence before the rib. Let us call this first existence, this unmoved mover, the chalice of the chest itself. The sternum and its shocking concavity. In Latin, the language of the Tridentine Mass, its name is pectus excavatum. It is, surprisingly, an erotic locus. It draws the eye. A woman once told me she would like to eat cereal from it, sop my skin with milk, scrape it clean with a spoon. Another wrote the word Jacques on a red gummi fish and pressed it there, my exposed center, a perfect bowl. The fish’s name, she said, is Jacques.
To other boys it was shame, shallowly cupped. What’s wrong with your body? How can you even breathe? I’ve defended, deflected, lied. I was hit by a baseball when I was young, malleable, still growing. Or: It’s nothing. But because a shrine is a sacred space, a place of worship, lies do not belong.
Worship can be defined as to venerate or adore. To show veneration or adoration. According to Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Oriental Orthodoxy, and Eastern Orthodoxy, these words are not interchangeable; adoration is reserved for God, while veneration is meant for the saints. So used together as a single definition of worship, veneration and adoration may not be useful. Perhaps more so is the meaning of the Old English word from which worship is derived: honour shown to an object, or to give worth to something.
What gives an object worth to the point that it is shown honor? We can start with function: an object—say an architectural structure consisting of four walls and a roof—serves a certain useful purpose—say to house other objects, to keep them safe from driving rain or rising tides. We can proceed to beauty, or aesthetic value. Let’s say that structure is meticulously designed, given clean lines and high ceilings and large windows. Beauty, so often thought of as merely ornamental, serves a function itself: it bestows pleasure, or serenity, or self-satisfaction. But beyond function, and beyond beauty, is rarity—the structure built by a master craftsperson, an unparalleled talent with only one lifetime to produce work, an artist for whom every effort is an artifact.
The structures I admire from afar are cloaked in dark hair, frozen in effortless mid-motion. Serious, easy bearded, they do not wear shirts because they do not need to. There is nothing to hold, no spare flesh or bone. One appears in black and white, runs along the beach, hoists himself from a swimming pool. A saint’s medal hangs dripping from his neck. Another twists and folds himself into unnatural shapes of vibrant color. He stands on a narrow bridge through the jungle, touches the sole of his foot to the back of his head. He balances inches above the earth on a single, steady hand. It is impossible to not hunger for these forms, these uncanny structures of bone and blood and meat. I study their intricacies. Solid slopes of shoulder crease into collarbone. Orderly ladders of serratus anterior descend from armpit to abdomen. I measure with my eyes, take note of the way each piece fits into the next.
(We are told we should emulate the lives of saints. But what is the difference between praising and being praised?)
Praise must be earned. Here is how: turn water into wine, wine into blood. Eat meals meant for thirteen men. Bread and bloodwine and slow-cooked beans and olives and pistachios with bitter herbs. Eat charoset, the mortar that holds you together. Enough loaves and fish for five thousand. Eat until you are sculpture sized.
Take a great burden upon your shoulders. Become two columns. Bend your knees, flex your hips, but do not bow your head. Hold your back straight and tighten the muscles of your center so the weight does not crush you. Look at yourself in the mirror; picture yourself gilded, framed, hung for all to see. When you feel as though you can bend no farther, straighten.
In the center of my shrine, atop the altar, sits an old chest. Against the backdrop of marble and gold and dark stone the chest is simple, wooden, warped with age. Worshippers hardly notice it among the surrounding splendor, rarely wonder what relic it contains. It is, in fact, empty. Hollow.
Terrific piece. Smart and full of truth and heart.