This Poor Gray Ember of Creation

From where I’m standing, the slope of the land falls away in waves, the silver tops and knotted trunks of olive trees growing smaller. At the bottom of the drop, the ground rises again and then curves out of sight into a second shallow valley before angling steeply to a ridge in the distance, where I see the ruins of a temple, its columns, frieze, and pediment crisp against the sky. The Greeks built a line of temples here to honor their gods twenty-five hundred years ago.

Today, we call this ridge the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Only one temple and the bones of a few others still stand, the rest have been tumbled to the ground by earthquakes, plundering, and the erosion of time.

I take in this wide vista from the doorway of my cottage at the Villa San Marco, a slice of heaven Linda and I have fallen into by pure chance.

We found the Villa San Marco while looking for a stay in Agrigento, Sicily. You never know what you’re going to get when you use these online agencies, but the place looked respectable, so we booked it. As we follow the directions to the Villa, we begin to have our doubts. The last mile is a single lane of gravel hard-pack threaded through the brush, more a patchwork of ruts than a road. We inch our rental car along the dips and dust until we turn the last corner and enter through the gates. Our worries evaporate, our stomachs start to unclench, and we drive into paradise.

The Villa San Marco is a sprawling acreage that has been owned by the same family for 200 years. Through a twisted history of settlement, recorded and unrecorded deeds, and Sicilian bureaucracy that even the owners do not fully fathom, they have maintained their homestead on the grounds of what has become a national park that oversees the Valley of the Temples. The Villa is a splatter of colorful buildings, flowered gardens, peacocks, chickens, three happy free-range dogs, all spread about in a contradiction of well-tended care and spontaneous delight. We are sleeping in what was once the groundkeeper’s cottage and are welcome to wander anywhere, including the orchards, the pool, the terra cotta patios, and the big house at the center of the complex.

The big house is the original family home, though these days the family lives on the second floor, leaving the downstairs open to guests. The furnishings are not staged, they are heirloom possessions, the photos, artwork, overstuffed bookshelves, heavy wood furniture, ceramic tiles, alter pieces and other well-loved ephemera that collect over generations. If it were a genre, you might call it Sicilian Rural Aristocratic. As I walk about, the mortar between my internal bricks begins to loosen.

Vincenzo, the owner and patriarch, is a friendly host, heftier than he appears in the wedding photo tucked in a corner of the sitting room. He and his family attend to the grounds and to us, cooking and serving simple, elegant food. In the morning, we hear the comfortable noise of kitchen clatter while Vincenzo visits each table and explains the local cuisine, speaking Italian, French or English as his guests require. His barrel-chested smile makes it easy to feel you are part of the family.

The tension leaks from my body by latitude:  the contours of my face and jaw, the muscle straps across my shoulders, the hollow column of my breath, the settle of my hips, and finally, the sauntering pace of my footsteps. I have gone from weary traveler fighting the tight roads and mad drivers of Sicily to honored guest; no – more than that, I am a lost cousin welcomed home. I have been folded into the pages of a history book, or a fable, tumbled like the stones of a temple.

Sitting on the terrace, watching the sun set on the ancient columns of Magna Graecia, it becomes obvious that life is a gift, that Being itself is a sparkling gem, and that our appreciation of it cannot be overdone. Absorbed by the moment, I feel both ordinary and elevated, as if there is no distinction, as if I could be absorbed into any moment, or every moment, exactly as I am, if I would unwind myself from the worries of the road.

I am reminded of the words of Marilynne Robinson in the closing of her tender novel Gilead,

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance – for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light.

… [T]o acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.

When I am in the ordinary-elevated state, I am filled with a generosity of spirit that wants to embrace creation with a mother’s love; to see the radiance of the world as fire or light; and to shine the light of my attention on precious things, honoring them at least as much as the gods of ancient Greece.

Photo by Steve Sphar

2 Replies to “This Poor Gray Ember of Creation”

  1. Wow! I feel like I am there. This is stunningly beautiful writing, Steve. Thank you. I am uplifted by it.

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