This note is in response and support of Ann Knox’s comments about trying to interest family and friends in inheriting china, furniture, keepsakes which she held very dearly but had no room for in her downsizing move from home to condominium. The response? No one was really interested, or didn’t have the room, or perhaps, couldn’t see the same value in these things as Ann does. I share her pain, confusion, wonder because I experienced the same thing after moving to Korea. More recently, another GPPC friend posted a New York Times article about “Aging parents with lots of stuff, and children who don’t want it.” So I want to share my thoughts (dare I say wisdom?) about the importance of “things” and how they can become links to the sacred for us.
My grandmother, Ruth Welch Moor, was the only grandparent I ever knew. My mother’s mother, she lived alone in her home 25 miles away from us in Lake Charles, LA. Her husband and my father’s parents all died before I was born. So visiting her often was very important, and from an early age I remember going to her big wooden house in Welch, Louisiana, usually on Saturday, and often for Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Cookies were always under the kitchen counter in a wide-mouthed glass jar, apple juice in the Hotpoint refrigerator, and an empty lot behind her house ripe for exploration, with 2 giant fig trees for climbing and eating.
Inside in her bedroom was a small oak secretary with paper and crayons for drawing. I remember opening the fold down desk top, searching for crayons and who-knows-what other treasures that seemed to call that place home: stamps, pins, jewelry, newspaper articles, and objects I had no idea what purpose they served. Also in that bedroom was an oak chest of drawers and a rocker. I can remember my grandmother standing at that dresser at night, unpinning her bun of hair gathered on the back of her head, then combing it out until it reached her hips: pure white, thin, amazing to me. The rocker I would sit in alone and vigorously rock back and forth until Grandma would caution me about scooting across the floor and damaging something. But she always said it with a knowing wink in her eye.
When I moved to Korea in 2006, I shoved everything into a 12 X 12 U-Haul storage bin on Lombardy Avenue, and for the next 10 years would occasionally check on it during my visits to Richmond. But in 2015 I came to Richmond with a mission: clean out that storage unit and ship 4 very important memories to Korea. And that is what I did. I already knew my family didn’t want or didn’t have room for any of these items, and I don’t blame them for that—their memories were not tied to these “things” like mine were (are). But I also was not willing to let them go to Goodwill or the dump, or to strangers. No, these “things” are not simply connections to the past, but they also give me moorings now. Every time I look at them they whisper to me stories of love, of belonging, of permanence, and the power of place. Not only do they remind me of who I was, but of who I am.
I teach a church history class to university students every spring, using the text: The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez. Gonzales talks about the iconoclast and iconodule controversies that occupied the church in the 7-8th centuries. Iconoclasts wanted all symbols, images, relics removed from churches because they feared (with some accuracy) that people would worship the objects rather than excite the faith which the object represented. The iconodules countered that these objects helped people experience a closeness to an infinite, invisible God that enriched their worship and strengthened their faith. These issues have continued to be debated in the Church, and occurred again in the Reformation era. The same debate occurs when discussing the role of pilgrimage in Christian faith. Those who favor pilgrimage see it as a way of experiencing holiness, and thus exciting their faith, through visiting what may seem to us quite ordinary places. John Chrysostom noted, “…only seeing those places…mere lifeless spots, we often transport our minds thither, and imagine their virtues, and are excited by it, and become more zealous.” And Jerome suggested that merely seeing Judaea with our own eyes will helps us “gaze more clearly on holy Scripture.”
Are my furniture pieces holy relics? Is my grandmother’s house holy ground? No, not holy in the sense that they have magical powers of their own which cause me to bow down and worship them. But they do have power, power to inspire me to think about people and places that were holy (using the Hebrew meaning of qodesh, holy as “set apart,” unique, sacred). When I see these things I am transported in my mind back to my grandmother’s house, but more than that physical place, I remember her, and her influence on my life. She is a model of unconditional love for me, and when I see her picture or touch those “things” I am inspired to be a better person, to live more the way she did. The power those things have to create a holy space within me and a holy desire to be and do better are what makes them holy, and thus special for me.
In her Facebook post about moving, Ann and a friend comment:
Ann: I try to remember the memories are what I can take with me. I just can’t take all of the physical representations of those memories.
(Her friend): Of course, but symbols are the sparks of memories – get rid of what you don’t need or doesn’t spark something. The rest: cherish.
Now I’ve never met this particular friend, but I am moved by her powerful statement! “Symbols are the sparks of memories,” they are what get the fires of holiness going, or re-started. Another partner in that Facebook conversation says, “Stuff is just stuff.” Sorry, but that isn’t true for me. My “stuff” has the power to invoke powerful memories which in turn make me a truer, better, holier person. Without my “stuff”, I’m not sure I could experience that transformative holiness. It’s like saying the body of Christ in communion is just bread and juice, it’s just stuff. Well, no it isn’t; it’s more than that; it’s more even than we can know or say.
I brought my “holy stuff” to Korea in the fall of 2015. Yes, I don’t need to be reminded that for what I spent on storage for 10 years, I could have brought my “stuff” over 3X or more! But it’s here now, (sitting in my in-laws apartment!). But I retire in another 1 1/2 years, and wherever we move, those 4 pieces of “holy stuff” will go with me, because they are part of what grounds me, gives me perspective, comfort, stability, inspiration, peace, and joy. They have become sacred implements in my journey of faith—they tell me where I’ve been, who I am, and what’s important to me. St. Benedict, in chapter 31 of his Rule, says, “regard all utensils and goods of the monastery as sacred vessels of the altar, aware that nothing is to be neglected.” Even ordinary, everyday things like dressers and rockers take on sacred qualities when they bear with them memories of holy people and places. My “stuff” is sacred; they bear the indelible print of holiness.
I understand if you don’t agree with what some may call sentimental feelings. I live in a land that has a rich history, but one full of wars, colonization, and massacres of their people by outside forces. I find South Koreans have little sentimentality when it comes to things from the past—why? Because much of it was destroyed during the Korean War, 1950-53. And for 35 years before that, Korea was dominated by a foreign power hell-bent on eliminating Korean culture, language, and identity. So I understand the puzzled looks from those who may have cherished memories, but very little to show for them. But to my Korean family, I explain that for the many sacrifices I’ve made to live in this place you call home, and which I too now call home, I need reminders of where I came from and who I was/am. For I am no longer fully American, nor will I ever be fully Korean. I am somewhere in-between, and so “sacred vessels” help me cope with that split personality.
I mentioned 4 “stuffs” that I brought to Korea, but only showed you 3. The fourth is not from my Grandmother but from my father: an old trunk that my he had in his single days before marrying my mom. Not so great on the outside: its leather straps long gone, and its wooden slats in need of refinishing. But open it up and VOILA! MAGIC! On the inside lid are pictures of pin-up girls and movie actors/actresses and politicians and slogans, few whom I know or understand, and I don’t need to understand it; I simply cherish it as something special to my father, and now special to me. Is this “holy stuff?” Absolutely! Even though I was not particularly close to my father, this chest draws me closer to him and his memory, and those things, good and bad, tangible and intangible, that I inherited from him. It too has become a “sacred vessel” conveying to me something of who he was and who I am.
Korean Protestant churches are very iconoclastic. In fact, few have either baptismal fonts or communion tables in the sanctuary. I tell my history students that I miss those symbols in worship, because they remind me again of who I am and what God has done for me-visible reminders of an invisible grace. Such symbols act as icons, windows through which we can reaffirm what it is we believe and who it is we follow. These symbols “spark memories” of people and places which should not be forgotten. “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, do this in remembrance of me.” These things, this bread and wine, this table, this font, they are not just stuff, but sacred vessels that invite me in. Just so my furniture from home—every time I see, touch, and smell them, memories are sparked of special people, places, emotions – my visible reminders of an invisible grace and love that tell me who I am, where I’ve come from, and what’s important. As Ann’s friend said, “…[get] rid of what you don’t need or doesn’t spark something. The rest: cherish.” These things of mine spark good memories, and I continue to cherish them. My hope is you too have or will find some “thing”, some object that holds special significance for you, and that you will hold it, touch it, cherish it for the power it has to invoke in you powerful feelings of love, grace, acceptance, and goodness. We all need those things—when you find them, don’t throw them out! Cherish them.
Richard Hamm PhD is a professor at Handong Global University in Pohang, South Korea. He teaches English in the Language Education Department as well as Church History, Philosophy of Christian Education, and Christianity and Modern Thought. He serves in the English Ministry of Joyful Church and is an avid hiker and bicyclist, and former member of GPPC. He plans to retire at the end of 2018 and continue living in Korea, leading a life of conspicuous consumption. (Just joking! American humor does not translate to Korean congregations, so now when I tell a joke in a sermon, I prepare them for it and tell them when to laugh. You can laugh now.)