By: Matt Gordon
A friend and I were discussing the Tower of Pisa the other day. The nearly 190’ structure took 199 years to complete. It has 296 steps on one side and 294 on the other—the seventh floor having two fewer steps. It resides in a coastal Italian city that is filled with impressive architecture. But the most noteworthy part of the city is not its historical sites, its medieval heritage, its university, or its fetching river running to eventual coastline. No, the Tower of Pisa is the jewel of Pisa. Because, of course, it leans.
The tower isn’t all that tall or ornate. If sturdy, one wonders if it would be an attraction at all. But its weakness—its leaning oddity—compels. Visit it and you will not forget the feeling of surprise and wonder and bewilderment at its paradox—a building that reaches to the sky, yet is mired by bad feet, threatening inevitable fall. It is what a topple looks like on pause.
Mark 13 opens with one of his disciples having a Pisa-like reaction: “Look, Teacher! What magnificent buildings!”
Notre Dame, St. Peter’s, Hagia Sophia, Westminster Abbey, the Taj Majal: What do these have in common? They steal your breath, replacing it with awe and imagination. Traipse across Europe or train across Asia and gasp: “What magnificent buildings!”
My last semester of college, I got to live here:
As part of an honors program, I joined a couple hundred other American students in Harlaxton Manor, one-part US college; one-part English relic from a foregone age—all parts wonder. My classmates and I felt much like Harry and Hermione, plucked from our country and deposited in a castle entirely otherworldly.
“What a magnificent building!” I echoed the Jesus’ disciple.
Of course, we are right to do this. Buildings are three-dimensional history books. By gazing at them, we understand so much of what came before—styles and opinions and politics and religion . . . the brick-and-mortar values of the societies that erected them. The spires jut into the heavens beckoning down the truths of former times.
This is also the way we view any beautiful thing. We foist the hopes of ourselves and our world upon it. I see the buildings around me; I gaze longingly at the science, the technology. And I adorn them in my wonder, hanging my hopes upon them as one hangs coat on hook upon arriving at a place that feels safely like home. Our devices and machines and bridges and buildings not only speak to our history-shaped beliefs, but they whisper a promise of the future, of all that can be and the magic to come if one just squints and hopes hard enough.
But Jesus was wise to the lean—the topple on pause.
“Do you see all these great buildings?” Jesus answered his agape follower. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
Jesus was making an actual prediction here—one regarding the destruction of the ancient temple that would come in 70 AD. But perhaps he was making a more general statement too.
This chapter goes on to chronicle the “lean” of earth; it chronicles the end of almost all things. The almost firmly in place by these words of Jesus: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
Notre Dame, St. Peter’s, Hagia Sophia, Westminster Abbey, the Taj Majal: What do these have in common? Every one will be thrown down. It will all fall down . . . well, almost all.
Maybe that is why we marvel at the Tower of Pisa. Its lean confirms what we know to be true at the soul-level.
The disciple found his hope, momentarily, on what humanity could create, and it blinded him to what was right beside him—the uncreated one with firm foundations not in this fading world, but in an eternity beyond. He reaches into the heavens, but is not bound by footings rooted in shifting sands.
As I look about this world, I gasp at the magnificent buildings and all the rest. But I remember the lean—always remember the lean. And in so doing, I remember something else: to keep my hope wrapped tightly around me, looking beyond spires to the promised almost of the heavens above.