Monday, January 27, 2014

Grace Unsought

A wedding in St. Paul, MN, put my family in a part of the country we have never visited.  Wanting to make the most of this opportunity, I managed to convince my wife that we should visit Fargo, ND.  It was only four hours away, and who knew when we would be in the upper midwest again?  "Why do you want to go to Fargo?" was a regular question from the locals in St. Paul.  The answer, as many things seem to be, was convoluted.  In the beginning, it was because, well, it's Fargo - the inspiration for the Coen Brothers' movie, the land of funny accents.  As I looked into Fargo, though, I discovered that it had a pretty decent looking Air Museum, a Children's Museum, and a full size Viking ship!  In the end, we only had time for one activity in Fargo, and I figured the Viking Ship was the most important (no offense to the other sites, but the world is full of Air and Children's Museums).

The Viking Ship was at the Hjemkomst Center, which, humorously, is in Moorhead, MN, not Fargo (So we never actually had to go to Fargo, but we stayed there anyway).  Hjemkomst is Norwegian for Homecoming, and it celebrates the dream and work of Robert Asp.  In the 1970s, Robert Asp decided to build a full-size Viking longship and to sail it back to Norway, the land of his ancestors.  Mr. Asp worked through the summers, milling the wood and building his ship.  He didn't stop, even when diagnosed with leukemia, and he eventually sailed the Hjemkomst on Lake Superior.  Sadly, he died that winter, but his children kept his dream alive and sailed the Hjemkomst to Norway during the summer of 1982.  I came because of the ship, but was mesmerized by the story and inspired by the man. Seeing that ship was worth the drive and extra day on our journey.  It would have been worth the trip if it had just been sitting in a tent with nothing else in the Center, but it wasn't the only thing to see.

Outside the building, on the grounds of the Hjemkomst Center, is a replica of the Hopperstad Stave Church in Vik, Norway.  A college professor named Guy Paulson built it, combining his love for wood-carving with his ancestral heritage.  I must admit that, at the time when I was grabbing our coats to brave the freezing temperatures outside, I wasn't exactly excited by the prospect of the church.  To me, it was an add-on, an "also ran" - I was there for the ship!  I quickly came around, though, as we took in this marvel of craftsmanship.  The structure of the church is gorgeous - the columns, roofs, beams, everything about it is beautiful.  Then, you get up close and you see the carvings, each piece a work of art.  You can mark the ages and the religious feelings of the ages through the carvings and other art, which Dr. Paulson meticulously copied.

The tour did not last nearly long enough, as everyone was freezing and ready to return to the Center.  We hurriedly went up to the apse and looked around.  It was perfunctory, as the real artwork was behind us.  But then, off to the right, cut into the exterior wall, was a small little window, which I believe the guide told us was called the lepers' gate.  From the outside, it is stationed on the ambulatory, a covered walkway where lepers and other undesirables could congregate and participate in the mass.  I was at once awed and repulsed by the lepers' gate.  It represented a dichotomy to me; it was an avenue through which those who were isolated could receive grace, yet also a barrier - part of the isolation from the community.

I had not gone to Moorhead to see the church, least of all the lepers' gate.  Yet, once I saw it, I couldn't stop thinking about it.  It has stayed with me since that trip, and I have not been able to shake it.  I loved the dream and the triumph of the Hjemkomst - Robert Asp's story inspires me, but the lepers' gate haunts me.  It is this haunting that inspires this blog.