Friday, June 20, 2008

Will No One Help the Widow's Son?**

Eight years after the widely-accepted Future Demarcation Line, the past still has power.

West Hartford center has undergone a transformative binge of construction in the past few months, cutting into the last vestiges of pastoralism surrounding Hartford proper. It's added a small but modern theater, plus a Cheesecake Factory and a White House, Black Market. The place is good for a walk now, and has brought out the younger element in the area.

All this development stands in marked contrast to an old church, the First Church of Christ, West Hartford, which looms over Main Street like a great brick elephant. You have seen a million of these churches if you've ever lived in New England. They seek to impose the terror and majesty of their religion through sheer height. Once, they were the tallest buildings for miles around, marking God's country to all who could see. This is no longer the case in the city, but places like West Hartford never had a need for skyscrapers, so the great white spire of a church is still king.

I never gave these churches, and indeed this particular church, a second look, up until a few weeks ago. On my way to pick up some groceries, a hawks' cry caused me to look in the direction of the church. I took it in as a full entity for the first time, and for one bare second, it was if my vision had blurred and contorted.

I had seen this church before.

There is a graphic novel out there called From Hell. It's written by the great Alan Moore, master of subtext and structure, a storyteller without peer. The book concerns one particular theory about the 1888 murder of five prostitutes in the Whitechapel section of London--all killed in brutal and horrifying fashion by a madman who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper*.

*Every once in a while, history will surprise you by injecting a little bit of modernity into events which seem remote and ancient. In this case, you may not know that the police actually took photographs of all of Jack the Ripper's victims. I will now provide you with a link to that of Mary Jane Kelly, the fifth victim. Don't look at it. I apologize for saying this, because now you will.

The novel postulates that Jack the Ripper was one Dr. William Gull, Royal Physician to the Queen of England, and that the murders were actually part of an elaborate and arcane ritual. Gull was a Freemason, part of a fraternal brotherhood of powerful and influential men. Freemasonry figures heavily in a number of conspiracy theories, most concerning things like shadow governments, the Illuminati--tinfoil hat stuff. Anyway, Gull remarks on several occasions on a church in Whitechapel that holds particular significance to Masonry and Masons--Christchurch, Spitalfields. It's full of pagan symbolism, most notably the fact that the steeple is essentially an obelisk. Here's what it looks like:

Incidentally, Christchurch is supposed to be unsettling in person. The architect, one Nicholas Hawksmoor, designed it so that it it appears as if it's going to fall on you. It won't. But still.

This is what the First Church of Christ in West Hartford looks like:


They aren't carbon copies of one another, obviously (actually, after I took a closer look, there are big differences in certain structural aspects), but the key elements are all there. Most notably, the obelisk on top stands out, a weirdly pagan symbol atop a Christian building.

There is, I think, a bit more at work here than mere coincidence. I do not believe in conspiracy theories (how would you keep half these things secret, for instance). But I have to admit, a small thrill ran up my spine when I realized that the church is right across the street from a Masonic temple.

Later, driving to a party, I found myself flying past churches, all topped with a history's cold stone dagger. I will never not notice it now.

The past looms over us all.

**The title of this piece comes from what is rumored to be a Masonic distress call. Bend your elbows, hold both your palms up in a gesture of acceptance, and say it, and a Mason is obliged to help you. Or so the story goes. I did it for kicks in front of the temple on Main Street. Nothing yet.

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