Commentary: Truths chiseled in stone

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Finials, old and new, for the Bryn Athyn Cathedral in the stone carvers' workshop.

Beth Kephart

is the author of 21 books and the cofounder of Juncture Workshops (www.junctureworkshops.com)

You could think of limestone as the crush of marine life and time - as the afterlife of shells and coral and foraminifera. Dug out of the earth, it gets lifted up, then layered and carved into the fixed stuff of libraries and churches, lintels and sills.

But nothing is fixed. Not really. And limestone is hardly eternal. It is soft and sedimentary, vulnerable to rain, pollution, and the cold, infiltrating fingers of frost. Exposed limestone shrinks away from itself, losing mass and color. It challenges the ambitions of artists. It requires enduring care.

Bryn Athyn Cathedral, a National Historic Landmark on a preserved sector of Montgomery County, tells just this kind of story about stone and time. Built more than 100 years ago as a home to the Emanuel Swedenborg-inspired General Church of the New Jerusalem, the cathedral was created, in the words of Raymond Pitcairn, who funded and oversaw much of the construction, as a form of "living architecture."

He continued: "The art of such building abhors the impress of triangle and T-square; it loves hand work, respects always the limitations of the materials and the crafts employed. . . . The soul of such an art should be the love of use, in the doing of which is found its joy and true reward."

But today many of the decorative elements that the original stone artists put into place are at risk. My hosts for this day, Bryn Athyn's master stone carver, Jens Langlotz, and his assistant, Grayson Zuber, have taken me high into the sky, in the cathedral's tower, to see.

It is a day of extreme wind. Several yards away, a red-tailed hawk fights a thermal. Fifteen miles south, the Philadelphia skyline shines. Just above my head and below my feet, several of the cathedral's several dozen Romanesque-Gothic finials rise up - darkened, clawed, in need of repair.

One by one, these two artists are taking those finials on.

Langlotz, who learned masonry at a stone restoration company in his native Germany, first came to Bryn Athyn in 1987, having gotten a glimpse of the structure on a postcard. Cathedrals like Bryn Athyn didn't exist in the United States, Langlotz thought. How could they? The country wasn't old enough for something so medieval and seemingly solid. But there, Langlotz discovered after his long journey, it actually was, and for the next many years, in a variety of capacities, Langlotz became deeply engaged in the ongoing preservation of Bryn Athyn.

In 2010, Zuber, a rock-climbing, house-painting classical guitarist with a master's degree in music theory from Temple University, showed up on the bucolic campus and got to work repairing a stone walkway. He was meant to stay a mere eight weeks. He's never left. Point by point, finial by finial, he is learning, from Langlotz, the art of preservation and the power of primordial traditions.

Carving an entirely new suite of Bryn Athyn finials out of fresh Indiana limestone could take two artists the next 20 years. Langlotz and Zuber, who oversee a number of other building projects on the campus, are not intimidated. Together they work in a former forgery with the aid of metal chisels and wooden mallets, steel hammers and calipers.

Each chisel has its place and purpose, but what matters most, Langlotz says, as he taps away at an oak-leaf simulating crocket, is the inner eye. Carving stone is a process of subtraction. It is a deductive discovery, a kind of intelligence that ultimately influences how one sees and navigates the world.

Zuber emphasizes the ways in which each block of stone forces him to find the clearest pathway to a final form. The lessons of stone carving - boundaries and truth, for example - apply, he says, to one's own moral life. The goal is to locate, within the static stone, the lines that will lift the eye, and heart.

Watching the artists work on this windy day, I think about endurance - what it takes to build a cathedral, what it takes to keep a place alive, what it must be to show up in this former forgery every day at dawn and again lift that chisel and again lift that mallet and again begin to tap away at those crockets.

What does it take? And what would our country be without those who care, those who express their gratitude for the life they have by working things through with their hands?

Langlotz and Zuber look over their shoulders as they work at the weathered versions they're remaking. They look within. They talk about the school Langlotz is in the process of helping to create - the first four-year accredited Building Arts program in the country, to be housed, within a few years, at Bryn Athyn College. The antique arts of stone working, glass working, metal working, ceramics, and wood will be taught in the program. The wisdom that Langlotz learned from his master and is passing down to Zuber will be passed down once again.

It's analog learning in a digital age when the winds blow hard, and when truth must persevere.

bk@junctureworkshops.com

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