Ghost Phrases

Presidential Blog by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia

And to dust shall you return.

Genesis 3: 19

As a photographer, I always assumed my interests were odd. My preferred subjects were dilapidated buildings, rusted metals and abandoned spaces. I love detailed close ups of ghost phrases — slogans and ads painted on crumbling surfaces that are still just visible to the eye, decades after the products were available. Driving through the countryside I would often pull over to photograph a collapsed shed, a rusted sign, or a crumbling wall.

Given how strange I assumed my interests to be, imagine how surprised I was to be invited to put together an exhibition of these works for a gallery in Australia. And when a book was commissioned bringing these photographic images together — Border Crossings: Words & Images — I began to think that perhaps my interests weren’t so odd after all.

Of course, with the proliferation of the internet, it is now easy to see that this interest is indeed widely shared. There are so many fine artists who choose crumbling structures as the inspiration for their art, that instead we should wonder why this view is so popular. Perhaps, in part, it’s because there is something organic about seeing a wooden barn blending back into the soil, its timbers returning to the earth. There is something strangely reassuring and natural about this cycle of life. It speaks, in a wider sense, to our own mortality.

It wasn’t until I saw a beautiful photograph of an abandoned church in a ghost town in the US that I started to connect the idea of these photos to a question of faith and loss. It occurred to me that perhaps the effect of transforming the demise of a structure into beautiful art is something of a metaphor for the power of faith to similarly help us recover from loss.

Pope Francis has spoken often of the need to mourn, and the natural sadness that comes when we lose a loved one, but he reminds us always of the greater joy behind this loss — that death is a beginning, not an end. In the moment this is difficult to believe. Our hearts are broken and the loss weighs heavily. But over time we come to see the gift of the one we’ve lost, and to see that their light continues to shine. And knowing that they have returned to life, and have experienced the ultimate encounter with our Lord, is something to celebrate.

In a way, our loved ones are ghost phrases, etched on our lives, faded, but never lost. As Pope Francis has put it, ‘If my life has been a path with the Lord, of trust in his immense mercy, I will be prepared to accept the last moments of my earthly existence as the definitive trustful abandonment in his receiving hands, in awaiting to contemplate Him face to face.’ That, surely, is an image that transcends time itself.

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