Something there is that doesn't like a wall.
In a building, walls shape our space, define areas that function for work, or sleep, or play, or food, or elimination. Some walls prevent things from happening (noise and light for sleep); other walls promote things to happen (entrance hallways and passage corridors). Where you put a wall, and where you leave one out can significantly affect how we relate to one another. In the new Jesuit Community building at Fairfield, the architects worked closely with community members in determining how best to shape the space to promote genuine community and daily interaction with one another as brothers in the Lord.
Exterior walls shape our behavior as well. Walls can prevent us from seeing inside someone’s property, can block the flow of traffic (cows, cars, commercial vehicles) or direct it toward or away from something important. Walls can define where we have control or have ownership and where we have not. Walls can purposely restrict us outside, or inside.
Just as I have been fascinated by the walls of architecture, I have also been drawn to stories with characters who are struggling with the walls they encounter without or within. There is a wall that separates two young lovers in the play The Fantasticks, purposely constructed by their scheming fathers who secretly want them to fall in love. They know that the wall will encourage their children to be curious about one another, and of course, it works. In two old movies—Harold and Maude and A Thousand Clowns—the main characters are battling the walls that society creates to insure conformity. “Zoos are full, prisons are overflowing...what sense in borders, and nations and patriotism? …Oh my, how the world still dearly loves a cage, “ says Maude.
So how could I not visit the most famous wall of all? The “great” one. And yes, it impressively shapes the landscape of this nation, and at one time, it apparently did the job.
It was built over centuries, beginning in 7th century BC, but most of what remains was constructed in the 14th century. In many places it is about 25 feet high (that’s about 3 stories) and 16 feet wide (made of stone and brick), and at one time it stretched for over 3500 miles. It was generally built along an east-to-west line across the historical northern borders of China to protect the Chinese states and empires against the raids and invasions of the various nomadic groups of Eurasia. It was also used for border control of immigration and emigration, and for the collection of import taxes on goods transported along the Silk Road. It was bristling with army watch towers, troop barracks, garrison stations. Communication along the wall was accomplished by means of smoke or fire.
The Great Wall is listed as a United Nation World Heritage site, because it “symbolizes a remarkable footprint of extreme human endeavour, an indisputable accomplishment of humanity which serves as surviving evidence of its intellectual existence on the planet.” It has been claimed to be so visually significant that it has been observed from humans circling the planet in space, but that is apparently not true.
I was certainly moved by the enormity of the accomplishment, and from the ground, it is extremely visually significant. On the train ride out of the city (it is about an hour north of the center), the wall would appear and disappear in the mountains surrounding the ancient train path, and it was always a breathtaking sight. Even the Chinese who were on the train with me eagerly whipped out their camera phones to photograph a glimpse of the wall as it suddenly appeared out the window. When we arrived, the whole trainload of people rushed down the road to the ticket booths ($5), and eagerly surrendered their backpacks and bags to the security scanning machines (like at airports), which by the way are everywhere in China.
I was amused when we were given a special “Hero’s Ticket”, which provided me (and everyone else, actually) with the opportunity to have an official document created (and encased in protective plastic) that certified that I had indeed climbed The Great Wall. Of course it cost $3 (my certificate number is 1183524, by the way), and states that “In the future, I will change myself and make achievements in the spirit and realize my Chinese dream”. I have no idea what that means, but it has several stamps on it, and it is dated, and when I die, some lucky person may get to hang my picture and certificate on the wall. Who knows, it might even wind up on the wall of some chain restaurant that is decorated with important looking ancient documents.
The entrance reminded me a bit of Stonehenge in England, which, in photographs appears to be in a very remote area devoid of civilization. The truth is that there are souvenir stands and food and refreshment booths and of course ticket booths and bus parking lots just a short walk from the monuments. The same is true of the part of the wall that I visited in the town of Badaling. On the way to the entrance I passed numerous trinket stores, food markets, and even a KFC. And when you do enter onto the wall, there are two directions to go…to the north and to the south. The north section was overrun with tourists, and hundreds of selfies being snapped simultaneously. The south section was not nearly as popular, but the walk was very challenging---a very very steep uphill walk. Later on my way home, the health app on my phone indicated that I had walked up 150 floors. I was happy that I chose that route though, because it was relatively free of people and that helped me to imagine the idea of this wall as it was experienced by those who built it over 600 years ago. Like most of the wall, it is built in a spectacular mountainous setting, and in almost every direction you are treated to an incredible vista. I was lucky in that China’s famous smog was absent yesterday, and the air in the sky was fairly clear and blue.
I spent a few hours walking and reflecting on this wall, and all walls. In the days when this one was built, the world was much more primitive. And yet I wonder if we have really advanced all that much. This nation still fears the world outside its borders, and indeed it fears the people who live within them. I have been a bit hobbled in my blogging from China because the government does not allow my computer to access Google, Youtube, Vimeo, Facebook, the New York Times and a myriad of other websites that it considers dangerous to its authority over its citizens. As mentioned earlier, almost everywhere you go—the subway, museums, stores, tourist sites—you and your bags are subject to screening by machines and personal searches. And as China has grown wealthy, it is attempting to build new walls and borders even in the sea, to protect itself and its growing interests as a world power.
But it’s not just China. In relatively recent times walls have been built in the Koreas, in Germany’s Berlin, in the West Bank of Israel, on the American border with Mexico, and other places. In some ways, the world is as hostile as it was in the days when The Great Wall was built. And behind that hostility is the same fear, the same drive for power and wealth and security that has plagued human communities forever. It was the plague that Jesus addressed with his own life.
Robert Frost, in his famous poem, Mending Wall, wrote:
"Before I built a wall, I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn't like a wall, and wants it down."
Pope Francis has been deeply concerned about the deadly conflicts that are presently occurring in Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Ukraine, Russia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Colombia, the Koreas, Mexico, Pakistan, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Iran and other places beyond. I have been deeply moved by his words about the literal and figurative walls we build to try to contain one another. “Walls that enclose some and banish others. Walled citizens, terrified on one side, excluded, exiled, and still more terrified on the other. Is that the life that our Father God wants for his children? Dear brothers and sisters—all walls fall. All of them. Do not be fooled.”
Looking out at the great wall rolling across the beautiful mountains of China, I thought about how much of this wall—beyond the tourist sites--is itself crumbling. Much of the original wall has been overcome by the unceasing work of nature, which relentlessly challenges our human attempts at domination of one another and the creation with which we have been gifted.
I grew up in a family of modest means, and our homes were never very impressive. And although I know my mother would have enjoyed something more, she always reminded us that we don’t ever really “own” anything. Our lives are very short, and a hundred years from now--or a thousand—no one will even remember that we existed. Sometimes, a “heritage site” of such enormous human endeavor will survive, but if they reveal anything, it is that we human beings continue to make the same mistake over and over again: we forget that we are born as brothers and sisters through the loving force of the Creator of everything that is. That is why, as beautiful as it is, the Great Wall of China is a monument to our ongoing failure.