IN THE TEMPLE
Standing on Moonstones: The Art of Dwelling Between
Standing on Moonstones: The Art of Dwelling Between
by Mary Lane Potter
Mary Lane Potter, Ph.D., MFA, is the author of the novel A Woman of Salt (Counterpoint Press), Strangers and Sojourners: Stories from the Lowcountry (Counterpoint Press), and the memoir Seeking God and Losing the Way, as well as books and essays on feminist and liberation theologies. She’s been awarded writing residencies at MacDowell, Hedgebrook, and Caldera, as well as a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her website is: http://members.authorsguild.net/marylapotter/.
Moonstones, sandakada pahanas, are granite or sandstone steps found at the doorway of a temple or at the foot of the steps leading up to a temple. When they first appeared, during the reign of the Anuradhapura Kingdom in Sri Lanka in 377 BCE, they were placed only in Buddhist temples and they shared a standard design: a semi-circular or half-moon stone slab elaborately carved—a half lotus in the center ringed by concentric bands of flowers, swans, a foliage pattern called liyawel, a procession of elephants, bulls, lions, and horses, and flames—each a symbol of the spiritual path. But as kingdoms and regions changed, so did the moonstones. The bull and lion carvings disappeared under the influence of South Indian Hinduism in the eleventh century CE, and after the fourteenth century the shape of the moonstones shifted to a triangle or full circle or oval, and the carvings became simpler and followed no set pattern.
Often said to be unique to Sinhalese architecture, moonstones are also found in the early (late ninth century CE) large mountain temples of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia. The later (twelfth century CE), more famous Khmer temples, including Angkor Wat, Bayon, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm, do not include this architectural feature. After visiting these later temples and being suitably impressed by their scale, grandeur, and bas reliefs, my husband and I traveled thirteen kilometers east of Siem Reap to Hariharalaya, an early capital of the Khmer Empire, to visit the three more ancient temples in the Roluos group—Preah Ko, Bakong, and Lolei. We stopped first at Preah Ko, and it was there I first encountered moonstones, at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the main outer entrance.
Though I didn’t yet know to call them moonstones, the first time I stepped onto those stone slabs, I sensed their uncanny difference immediately. There was no mistaking them for the path leading to the temple or the bottom steps of the staircase leading up to the temple. These were not utilitarian, block-cut steps, but smooth expanses sculpted with curves to resemble a half lotus petal and bordered with an eroded line of tiny seeds or beads inside an intricate chain of what looked like foliage or script perhaps. I felt these stones, softened by countless seasons and feet, welcoming me. I felt their broad expansiveness holding me, their curves embracing me, inviting me to linger there, the way well-designed architectural spaces affect one’s body, prompting and shaping the experience one has.
To my surprise, I accepted the moonstones’ invitation. I did not rush past them, up, up, up into the temple, treating them like so many stepping stones to speed me to my destination. Without understanding why, I stood still on the top moonstone, my feet centered in a blank surface, framed only by a curved border of beads and foliage tracing the shape of a lotus petal. Later I read that when the temples in Roluos were built, the official religions of the Khmer Empire were Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism, perhaps explaining why no bulls or other sacred animals were carved on these moonstones, to be trampled underfoot. I also read that in Buddhism the lotus symbolizes primordial purity, cosmic renewal, expansion of the soul, and detachment, and the foliage or liyawel edging symbolizes the tangle of worldly desire. But as I stood on those stones, I wasn’t thinking of symbols and meanings. My whole being was being altered, shaped, by the space those stones created. It was a physical experience. I felt in my body, with my body, the power of standing there, there on those smooth, worn, heavy stones that were neither temple stairs nor path into the world. There. Not on the ground but inches above it. Not on the first step up into the temple but inches below it. There, floating on a stone cloud between the interior of the temple, the sacred, and the world outside, the profane. Between. A place of power. Between. A place of trembling. Between. The place where one metaphorically takes off one’s shoes before stepping on holy ground, the place where one puts on her shoes again before returning to the everyday world. I was standing on a threshold, limina, between two worlds, between the interior of the temple and all that lay outside, between the sacred and the profane, between the spirit and the body, between the already and the not yet, tingling with the power of between, a space charged with the promise and the danger of moving between worlds.
Stirred up by the moonstones at Preah Ko, I eagerly sought them at the two other Roluos temples we visited that day, Bakong and Lolei. Each time I stepped onto the massive yet delicate stones, I was caught up in the experience of standing on the threshold between worlds, dwelling in the transformative space those stones created. Shaped by those stones, I began to know the wisdom of liminality. Before climbing the stairs into the temple, I lingered on that threshold, grateful for their gift of place, of time, to dwell in that space between, before crossing over into another way of being. One doesn’t leap into the sacred, one doesn’t intrude upon it or storm it: one prepares to enter it—heart, mind, spirit, and body—with fear and trembling. As I made my way out of the temple back into the world, I lingered again. When one has dwelt for a time, a moment, in a realm set apart, one does not throw oneself back into everyday existence willy-nilly: one reenters slowly, mindful of where one has been and where one is going, and the perils of crossing over.
These stones laid down by ancient Khmer architects were a threshold, a place of crossing over for human beings, human bodies. They were no Jacob’s ladder, no staircase from one world to another for angels, messengers, beings of pure spirit, to ascend and descend, carrying their divine announcements and delivering their aid. And I was glad for that. I’m suspicious of ladders, spiritual hierarchies of any kind, and the body-spirit dichotomies they are built upon. Mount this ladder, climb these rungs, scale this mountain—as if one ascends to a loftier, more spiritual plane of existence in a linear fashion, step by step moving higher, ever higher, inexorably, away from this earthly existence. These moonstones were no ladder for spirits; they were a liminal space for bodies, offering a place in which to shape-shift, undergo a transformation—more like the pillow on which Jacob lay his head to dream, to dwell for a time in that space between waking and sleeping. For the spiritual life, this task of becoming fully human, body and spirit, is not one of climbing out of one world into another, but of continually moving back and forth between a more spiritual and a more bodily way of being in this our one world, between experiencing the world inside the temple and experiencing that same world outside the temple, between the sacred and the profane.
Crossing over from the sacred to the everyday, changing from one state of being to another, is dangerous. Moonstones demarcate the boundaries of life inside the temple and life outside the temple while connecting the two, creating a physical place where a person, body-mind-spirit, can safely pass from one way of being in the world to another and back again, a place for ordinary human beings—not shamans and people undergoing initiation or other special rites—to undergo a transformation of being. Physical places are often designated as liminal spaces by religious traditions—natural places such as springs, caves, shores, rivers, marshes, calderas, and mountain passes, but also human spaces such as crossroads and bridges. The moonstones the architects of the early Khmer temple complexes incorporated into their design are humanly created liminal spaces. I left Cambodia grateful to have experienced, in my body, with my body, because of my body, the wisdom of these architects and the power of the transformative spaces they created out of stone.
Caught Between Worlds
It was only later, after months of frustration with my writing, that I began to understand why those stones had captivated me. I was stuck, caught between worlds, and I had been for decades. The stones taught me how to move.
Like many others, nonwriters as well as writers, I had accepted that the religious world and the secular world were two separate, permanent habitations, two mutually exclusive communities and worlds, two irreconcilable ways to live one’s life, and that one had to choose between them. And many do. Many religious people choose to live their lives entirely inside the temple, within the borders of a religious tradition, never venturing outside. And many who are not religious choose to live their lives entirely outside the temple, in a world disenchanted, never entering the temple, or visiting only as tourists or art historians.
But—thanks to temperament, character, providence, fate—I could not choose between them. I longed to belong somewhere, but I couldn’t make myself fit wholly within one world or the other; there was always some rebellious flesh squeezing out beyond the boundary. So I ran back and forth, back and forth—now toward the visible world and the glories of the body, now toward the invisible world and the glories of the spirit—like Hagar running between the hills Safa and Marwah in search of water for her son Ishmael. If only I could find what I thirsted for and stop running, like Hagar, who after seven circuits found the salvation she was seeking for her child, when an angel kicked the ground with his heel and water came rushing out, creating the well she called ZamZam.
For a time, I hoped that writing fiction would save me. I believe in the miracle we call art, in the power of words to reveal hidden possibilities, call us to attention, create openings for the mind to slip through, transform the self, animate lifeless lumps of clay. But I wasn’t prepared for a vocation as a creative writer. As a theologian, I had lived and taught, preached and published from inside communities of faith. Fluent in the languages of Christianity and Judaism, I tried to make the words and images inherited from those traditions come alive in the contemporary world and speak afresh, especially to women’s experiences. My work was pouring old wine into new wineskins. Becoming a writer, however, meant stepping outside the church and synagogue, into the wider world, where the familiar words and images I had drawn on were not recognized or understood or, if understood, rejected. If I wanted to be heard, I had to learn to speak the common language of the secular world in a voice that sang, a voice that stirred up fresh meaning from the more, that inexhaustible well of meaning that lies beyond the limits set by reason and tradition. Instead of pouring old wine into new wineskins, I would have to turn water into wine. But isn’t that what artists do? Take the ordinary stuff of the world and transform it into a delicious, intoxicating draught?
I set to work. Standing outside the temple, in the everyday world shared by religious and nonreligious people, using ordinary words, I tried to bear witness to the sacred, point toward an abiding more, the mystery and complexity that surround and sustain and enliven our mundane existence, and an otherness that breaks through our ordinary reality. But I kept missing the mark, and I found myself once again in that troubling between, this time between unchurched people and militant secularists on one side, and people of faith, religious conservatives, and fundamentalists on the other. To those in the secular world, my words sounded too religious—arcane, puzzling, or foolish. As one reader of my novel Woman of Salt told me: “I just skipped past all that talk about God; I wanted to know what happened to Ruth!” To those in the religious world, my words sounded too secular—empty, misguided, or blasphemous. “You’ve lost your faith,” several readers wrote me after that same novel came out. I wasn’t turning water into wine; I was mixing water and wine, polluting one and diluting the other. Instead of creating a bridge carrying meaning from one world into the other, my words fell into the void between.
Finding myself still trapped between, in no one’s land, drove me mad. I wondered if I should retreat, say, I’m not religious, I’m spiritual, meaning: I’m deep, I accept the reality of things reason can’t explain, but I’m also free thinking. No dogma for me, no outdated concepts or images or rituals, no shackles of tradition. I considered following the path of aesthetic contemplation laid out by Fernando Pessoa in the early twentieth century in The Book of Disquiet, his response to being “born in a time when the majority of young people had lost faith in God for the same reason their elders had had it—without knowing why.” Most of his peers “chose Humanity to replace God,” but because Pessoa was “the sort of person who is always on the fringe of what he belongs to, seeing not only the multitude he’s part of but also the wide-open spaces around it,” he “didn’t give up God as completely as they did” and he “never accepted Humanity.” How then did he live? He “kept a distance from things.”1
But these ways were not for me. I couldn’t step away from the choice any more than I could choose between writing literary novels destined to be labelled “fiction” or religious novels that would be shelved as Christian or Jewish fiction. As a writer in love with God and in love with the world, enthralled by the Bible and by novels, spellbound by sacred ritual and by the quotidian, pulled toward spirit and toward body, I was unable to shake off either obsession. More than this, I was unwilling to choose between truth pointed to by religions and religious experiences and truth pointed to by literature, science, philosophy—all the traditions of human inquiry.
I knew my predicament wasn’t unique, that other “nonsecular” writers were struggling to find a voice fitted to the urgency of our day. Imitating Bernard Malamud or Cynthia Ozick, Flannery O’Connor or John Updike, writers who had successfully found a voice and a language that bridged the two worlds, wasn’t an option, for the world their art responded to no longer existed. What then? What are creative writers in the 21st century who are also people of faith to do? People living during the Fourth Industrial Revolution and in a global world, a post-Einsteinian universe, and a new geological era called the anthropocene; people who also experience God, the anguish of sin and evil, the liberating power of repentance and forgiveness, the transformative power of sacred texts and rituals, and the holiness of this world—what are writers in this predicament to do?
The problem for those of us writers who are neither fish nor fowl comes down to this: We have no ready-at-hand words to explore this between where we live. We can’t naively use words like God, faith, prayer, sin, original sin, evil, repentance, grace, covenant, redemption, or resurrection. To secular people, people with no experience of religion or spirituality, or who eschew them and choose to live within the limits of reason alone, these words are too strange; they’re part of an antiquated worldview or a private language game they don’t understand. “What does grace mean?” people ask. Or, “What’s baptism?” “No one believes in miracles anymore,” they say. Or “People aren’t sinful, they just don’t know any better.” When we use these words, our secular friends and neighbors often shake their heads in bemusement, or they may pity us for our addiction to the opiate of the masses, or laugh at our delusions, or smile in contempt at our primitive ways. To the non-religious, we who live between often look and sound like fools.
To religious people, these same words are too familiar. Many religious people—those currently religious as well as those who were raised religious but left their tradition behind—are quick to assume they know not only what words like these mean but what they should mean. When we betwixt-and-between writers use these words, our more conservative religious friends and neighbors often object or try to set us straight. They believe we’ve emptied these words of their true meaning and filled them with vapid truths from the God-forsaking secular world, or lies that contradict the Bible and orthodox theology. To our formerly religious friends and neighbors, the self-identified “recovering” Catholics or Mormons or Pentecostals, these words often trigger the trauma they experienced growing up in their traditions. Because of this volatility, I long ago stopped telling people I was a theologian or grew up religious. Fundamentalists went after me like a dog with a bone, trying to save my soul. Disaffected Christians and Jews blasted me with a litany of the hypocrisy, abuses, and absurdities of the traditions they had left. To current or formerly religious people, we who live between often sound like traitors to tradition, heretics.
How to speak then? With what words, in what voice? We who are not defending the faith, translating religious terms for the nonreligious. We who are not reforming faith for our generation or reinterpreting familiar stories for the religious, following Paul Ricouer’s hermeneutics of a second naiveté. But we who inhabit the space between the secular and religious worlds, those of us who long for a tongue to “sustain the weary with a word,” for ears that “listen as those who are taught” (Isaiah 50:4). Are we are left with silence, a silence that gnaws at one’s liver, throws the heart out of rhythm?
Standing on Moonstones: The Vocation of a Writer?
Stepping onto moonstones in Cambodia opened a new way for me, a way beyond choosing to speak the language of one world or the other, and a way out of silence. One can also choose, those stones taught me, to spend one’s life crossing back and forth between two ways of being in the world, between the sacred and the profane.
The sociologist Emile Durkheim’s basic distinction between the sacred and the profane in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is helpful here. For Durkheim, the sacred transcends everyday existence; it is extra-ordinary and thus potentially dangerous, awe-inspiring, fear-inducing. The sacred refers to things set apart by a community, things made strange, including persons, rites, duties, texts, places, buildings, animals, trees, objects, words—anything can be marked as sacred. The profane refers to ordinary existence; it includes everything—persons, places, practices, objects, texts—that is regarded with an everyday attitude of commonness, utility, and familiarity. The sacred and the profane are distinct, not separate: the significance of the sacred lies not in itself, in any inherent quality of a person, place, or thing that has been intentionally set apart, but in its distinction from the profane.2 Objects or persons or places designated as sacred may become profane, and vice versa. This is why religious communities consecrate a building as sacred space when it is to be used for prayer and worship, and they deconsecrate the space when the building is sold to be turned into condos or to be used by another religious community.
Nothing is inherently sacred or profane. Nothing. Everything and anything in our world becomes sacred or profane by shifting our relation to it. I think of it this way: sacred and profane refer to two ways of being in the world. The world is one, but we experience it in two different ways—if we are able and willing—now as ordinary, now as outside the boundaries of the ordinary. As light is both wave and particle—not one or the other; as the human being is both body and mind—not two separate substances that need to be artificially joined by a pineal gland—so human existence is both sacred and profane. Standing on moonstones, I understood that the sacred and the profane aren’t two separate worlds; they are two ways of being in one world. Standing on moonstones turned my frustration at being caught between worlds into gratitude for the gift of dwelling between.
Though some see the world as divided and choose to live in the world seen from one point of view only, the religious or the secular, others experience the world as one and move back and forth between experiencing that world now as sacred, now as profane. That’s the situation of many people of faith today, creative writers and other artists included. We’re continually moving back and forth between the sacred and the profane. We don’t stand with religious people inside the temple or with the unchurched and secularists outside. We enter the temple to experience the strange truth there and try with our writing to make those strange truths familiar to those standing outside, to reveal the shared human experience hidden inside the strangeness. We also step outside the temple to experience the familiar truth there and try with our writing to make those familiar truths of our common, everyday existence strange, to cast a loving gaze on them until they shine with the infinite and give off a fragrance of the beyond, that more than we can say or grasp and that troubles our souls. We’re continually crossing over from one to the other, making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, turning water into delicious wine and wine into the water of life. That is our task as writers, as artists: to transform, not translate, to illumine, not define.
If there is a secret to this life between, with its constant crossings, it’s not just accumulating better writing techniques—though those certainly help—but in learning to dwell in the between. Entering or leaving, we linger on the threshold, listening for the truth that is not found inside the temple or outside the temple, a truth that does not belong to the sacred or to the profane, a truth that lies between. Perhaps that is our calling, to dwell between, to be “threshold people,” in the words of anthropologist Victor Turner3—not only those of us caught between the religious and the non-religious worlds, but all writers. “Not to belong anywhere, to be displaced, is not a bad thing for a writer,” says Ariel Dorfman. “If you can deal with it. If it doesn’t destroy you.”4 Dwelling between—dangerous, yes; but not a curse. A gift.
Threshold people are urgently needed now, for we’re living in a liminal period, a time of transition, of uncertainty, doubt, and disorientation. We may even be entering what the philosopher Karl Jaspers named an “axial age” or “pivotal age,” “an in-between period between two structured world-views,”5 in which radically new ways of thinking emerge, shaping future religions and philosophies of an entire civilization—such as occurred between the ninth and third centuries BCE in Persia, India, China, and the Greco-Roman world with the birth of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Platonism.6 During such times, Arnaldo Momigliano explains, “[n]ew models of reality either mystically or prophetically or rationally apprehended, are propounded as criticism of, and alternative to, the prevailing models.”7
We may now be in such an age of criticism and alternatives, when we need writers and other artists imaginatively to apprehend new models that will help us navigate our turbulent present and carry us into the future. That is the power of art, to be an act of exploration not conclusion, a journey into the unknown not a mapped destination, to dwell in the between. The temples, synagogues, cathedrals, churches, and mosques we have built and worshipped in for centuries are emptying and crumbling, and the everyday world that we have known and loved is disappearing, dying, species by species, galaxy by galaxy. All we have known and depended on is disintegrating, all structures suspended, all certainties called into question. For a new vision and integration of our world to arise, we need people who withdraw from the world to ask radical questions, imagine new structures, create new spaces for us to be shaped by—out of words as well as paint and stones and ideas. We need writers, artists, and thinkers who speak not to people inside the temple only or to people outside the temple only, but to all people in search of new meaning, new words, new voices to guide us beyond this polarized and disorienting age to a radically transformed world. We need writers, artists, and thinkers devoted to the art of dwelling between, people continually crossing over between the sacred and the profane to find words, hear voices, see visions that do not yet exist. We need threshold people. We need people standing on moonstones.
1. Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2003), 11.
2. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, ed. and trans. Karen E. Fields (New York, N.Y.: The Free Press, 1995 ). See all of chapter 1, but especially pp. 36–42.
3. Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Abingdon and New York: Routledge Press, 2017 ), 95.
4. Ariel Dorfman, quoted by Andrew Madigan in his Interview, “Ariel Dorfman: ‘Not to Belong Anywhere, to Be Displaced, Is Not a Bad Thing for a Writer,’” The Guardian (9 May 2018).
5. Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953 ), 1.
6. Ibid., chapter 1.
7. Quoted by Robert Bellah in his Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Boston: Harvard, 2011), 268.