The Cloister Walk, II: Solomon’s Quarry
The house was built with stone finished at the quarry, so that neither hammer nor ax nor any tool of iron was heard in the temple while it was being built. —I Kings 6:7
My friend Marty and I ran into each other out on the sidewalk while walking the dogs the other day and we got to talking about rocks, specifically the magnificent rock collection of the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue.
Since construction began on the building in 1922, The Trib has asked its reporters to gather stones from significant buildings or places around the world, so as you know, masoned into the walls of the Trib Tower are stones or bricks or gargoyles from the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramid, The Great Wall of China, Independence Hall, Abraham Lincoln’s Tomb, and Abraham Lincoln’s House, among other places.
There is a piece of petrified wood from Redwood National Forest, and a twisted piece of steel from the World Trade Center. Once there was a moon rock, but it’s gone now; only NASA can own moon rocks, so it must have been a loan.
When Dr. Hodgson built our Cloister Walk in 1958 and decided to punctuate those arches with stones from significant places in the history of Christianity, he must have gotten the idea from the Tribune Tower. Our collection is more modest than the Tribune’s; we have 12; they have 149. But there are two places that are common to both rock collections, and if you can tell me what they are without looking it up, I will buy you dinner for two at the venue of your choice.
Church Historian Sally Campbell said that strolling our Cloister Walk is like taking a walk through the history of Christianity, so I thought that sounded like a good sermon series. Today we come to what I think of as the most unexpected and obscure rock in our collection.
Probably some of you have been to Solomon’s Quarry, a subterranean cave that stretches for about five city blocks under the Old City of Jerusalem. It is about 600 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 30 feet below street level. Over the centuries, rulers from King Herod around the time of Jesus to Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century have built city walls and temples and palaces from the meleke limestone quarried from its depths. If you have been to Jerusalem, you have visited the Western or Wailing Wall; Herod took the limestone blocks for the Western Wall from the cave we now call Solomon’s Quarry.
You never want to get your geology from a preacher, but apparently millions of years ago Palestine was covered by a warm shallow sea and over the eons these limestone layers built up from the crushed, lime-hardened and congealed seashells of ancient marine creatures, and since this limestone is so nicely layered, you can quite easily cut it into slabs and build stuff with it.
There is no historical evidence to authenticate it, but legend has it that King Solomon used this quarry beneath the streets of Jerusalem to build the First and Finest and Most Magnificent Jerusalem Temple of the three that have been built on this site over the centuries; thus this cave is called Solomon’s Quarry. That’s not verifiable, but it is possible.
For those of you who skipped too many Sunday school classes in your childhood, Solomon was scion and successor to King David and by far the most successful king in Hebrew history. He lived about a thousand years before Jesus and historians think he started building his Temple around 970 BC. He reigned for 40 years, all of them peaceful, and turned a nation the size of Vermont into one of the world’s reining superpowers in the tenth century B.C. At its height, his kingdom stretched from the Euphrates in the northwest to Egypt in the southeast, and after he died it shrank back down to a tiny fraction of what it had been.
He had 40,000 horses and 1,400 chariots and, sandwiched into a strategic geography on a major trade route, made a fortune trading chariots—the ancient equivalent of F-14’s—and exotic goods like peacocks and chimpanzees with the powers of Africa and Arabia; I am not making this up; it’s in the Bible.
With 700 wives and 300 concubines, Solomon had the legendary Lotharian libido of a lover. With a huge harem like that, I have no idea how many children Solomon fathered over the years, but I shudder to calculate the tuition bill.
The IQ Scale hadn’t been invented yet in Solomon’s day, but it would have been useless anyway because his intelligence was off the charts; his wisdom was of mythic proportions. As many as three books of the Hebrew Bible have been attributed to him—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and, of course, the Song of Solomon. Those attributions are dubious, but it tells you how much respect Jewish history has always paid him.
Everything about him was loud, large, fast, and vivid. Yet for all his exploits, his greatest achievement, according to the Bible, is the Jerusalem Temple. The biblical historian spends hundreds of words describing this Temple in intricate and loving detail.
It was about 180 feet long and 90 feet wide, or just a little bigger than the footprint of our own property including the Warwick Manse; also 50 feet tall, much taller than our steeple. Legend has it that the stone came from Solomon’s Quarry, and I love the little detail in the story that tells us that they cut the blocks to size and spec not at the Temple site, but in the Quarry itself, “so that neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron was heard in the temple while it was being built.” No reason to annoy the Almighty with the clash and clamor of construction cacophony.
Every surface was covered in expensive cedar and precious metals. The Bible tells us that Solomon used 3,700 tons of gold and 33,000 tons of silver, and if that is true, then by current precious metal valuations, the Temple was worth $180 billion, before land and labor costs. The most expensive building in the world today cost $6 billion; the recently completed One World Trade Center cost $3.8 billion, so clearly the Bible is exaggerating, but you see the point of all this detail and all this hyperbole and all this pride in the house they’re building for God. The story is trying to tell us, “God is so great, and God’s earthly house is so important, that we will spare no expense in its construction.”
And this has been true ever since that first Jerusalem Temple. Have you noticed that in every city of every land on every continent in every age, the houses of worship are the most beautiful and the most distinctive?
This is truest in Rome, but it’s also true in Paris, in Tokyo, in New York, and in Winnetka, and until a couple of days ago it was true of Katmandu. After the loss of human life, one of the saddest things about that earthquake was the toll it took on Nepal’s cultural and religious heritage.
I’m not unbiased on this point, but I think this is as it should be. Someone put it like this: A church building is not just a place to worship in; it’s also a place to worship with. Solomon got this right, and people of faith through subsequent ages have too: churches are places to exhibit and celebrate the beauty of God, Godself—the wonder, the mystery, and the glory of the Creator.
Solomon’s Temple was a sermon in stone, our humbler chapel here is a sermon in stone. It is an instrument with which to proclaim the Good News that the Creator is not far from us, and she is very beautiful.
That’s why Edward the Confessor threw up the soaring arches of Westminster Abbey almost a thousand years ago. No one has any idea how he did that, but he did.
It’s why the glass at Chartres is not clear but kaleidoscopic, and narrative; even the windows are enlisted in the telling of the most beautiful story ever told.
It’s why Bach wrote the B Minor Mass and Handel his splendid Oratorios and Mozart and Brahms their Requiems.
It’s why Rembrandt painted the life of Christ and van Gogh his starry, starry night.
Do you know why Russia is an Eastern Orthodox land and has been for a thousand years? I didn’t know this story, but apparently in the year 988, a thousand years ago, Vladimir I of Kiev studied Judaism, Roman Catholicism, and Islam before making Eastern Orthodoxy the religion of his land. He sent emissaries to Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, and Constantinople before making his choice, and landed eventually on Greek Orthodoxy because it was the most beautiful of all.
Do you have any Greek or Russian friends? Maybe you ARE Greek or Russian, and if so, then you know how Eastern Orthodoxy believes that well-imagined and well-crafted pieces of earthly art can communicate the presence of God to earth-bound human beings?
Orthodoxy’s icons—the artistic images of Christ and the Virgin and the saints—are themselves holy relics; these artistic renderings actually share in the holiness of God. Earthly art, say the Greeks and the Russians, is a transmitter of divinity.
Before Vladimir chose his faith and the faith of his land, he sent out ambassadors to visit Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and when they returned from their visit, they reported: “We went to the Greeks, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worshiped their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty and we are at a loss to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among human beings.”
And so, because of these beautiful, well-crafted things, Russia has been an Orthodox land for a thousand years. We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. We only knew that God dwelt there among human beings.
Maybe the Greek Church got this right because of the influence of the philosophy of Plato on their Christian faith. Do you remember from philosophy class how Plato talked about this great Trinity of highest goods—Beauty, Truth and Goodness—and how he always talked about them in that order?
Plato thought that earthly beauty came from the splendor of the One shining through the Many. A man’s spirit—even his character—is uplifted by the sight of, for instance, a majestic oak tree because the tree participates in and shares the glory of its Origin, its Creator, and when we see an oak tree or a rose or the vista of the ocean, we are remembering our own origin.
Near the end of his life, Harry Truman would take a walk every morning, sometimes with his friend Thomas Melton, a minister. Sometimes their path would take them past an enormous gingko tree, one of the most impressive trees in town. Every day, Mr. Truman would stop by the tree and speak to it. Years later, after Mr. Truman was gone, someone asked the Reverend Melton what Mr. Truman said to the tree. And the Reverend Melton said, “Mr. Truman always told the tree, ‘You’re doing a good job.’”
You’re doing a good job. A good job of what? A good job of communicating divinity to me. A good job of reminding me where you came from, and where I came from. A good job of enriching my existence.
The sight of that beautiful tree works on us almost like a sense of nostalgia. The oak tree or the rose or the ocean speak to us, they beckon us back to our beginning, they remind us, however dimly, where we came from, that beauty “east of the sun and west of the moon” which crafted every proton and fired every electron into being.
In fact, in the Greek language, the same word means both “beautiful” and “good.” When the Greeks said, “He is a good man,” what they mean is that he lives a beautiful life, he lives in harmony with others, his character is sound, fit, orderly, and harmonious. In Greek the word for both “good” and “beautiful” is kalos, which comes from the verb “to call.”
That is, the beautiful and the good are what beckon us toward them. The beautiful and the good are what attract us, summon us away from our drab pedestrian existence toward the noble and the honorable. I am summoned to a beautiful life. I am called to a noble character and an honorable existence.
So maybe that’s why this stone from Solomon’s Quarry is masoned into the arches of our Cloister Walk. It summons us to spend an hour every seventh day in the beauty of holiness, near to the heart of God, our origin and our destiny. It reminds us where we came from, and where we are going. It calls us to a life that is at once beautiful, good, and true.
Most of us, after all, spend most of our time at Target or Walmart, or in the purgatory of the DMV, or in the sleek but sterile glass and steel of a skyscraper, or in the fuselage of a 737, or in a drab Metra train car, or flying down an expressway where you think to yourself, Joni Mitchell was right:
They paved Paradise
and put up a parking lot.
They took all the trees
and put ‘em in a tree museum,
and they charged the people
a dollar and a half just to see ‘em.
And so we need a regular reminder of that beauty east of the sun and west of the moon that lies beneath, above, within, and behind the whole leaping, flying, diving, swarming zoo of creation, a place like this which coaxes out of us the silent but earnest prayer: Thank you, God, for this beautiful day. “Life is gift and birth windfall,” and just to be here at all is sheer, extravagant, unmerited privilege.
 The Song “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” by Brooks Bowman.
 Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi.”
The phrase in quotes comes from the great Episcopalian preacher John Claypool, who uses it over and over again in his books and sermons.