How two toy dinosaurs helped me see the fragile spirituality of our world.
You can tell a lot about a person by what they keep on their desk.
In my case, you can probably tell a little too much. Beyond the usual paperweights and pencil holders, my desk is covered with an overlarge collection of knick-knacks–objects that for one reason or another struck my fancy over the years and that I've been carrying around with me ever since.
Some of these objects–like a small ceramic caveman–date back to my early childhood. Others are replacements–located and secured thanks to the miracle of Ebay–of objects once treasured but long since lost.
In this latter group there is a pair of dinosaurs–a large and small stegosaurus–created by the SRG toy company. SRG dinosaur figures–which were beloved by many kids from the forties through the seventies--are made of metal. Unlike your average plastic dinosaur, they're hard and heavy in the hand like a rock, and this weightiness gives them a special–almost a mystical--kind of appeal.
I don't know why I bother to say almost mystical. The two or three specimens of these dense little dinosaurs that I owned as a child were far more than just toys to me. Turned over and over in the hand, they had the look and feel of objects that had been present since the very dawn of time. Nothing could touch them. Nothing could change them. They were…permanent.
I'm not the only person out there who as a child had a fixation with permanence. In a long essay–one of the last he wrote – called "The Heart of Matter," the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described a feeling that certain objects awakened in him.
"I was not more than six or seven," wrote Teilhard, "when I began to feel myself drawn by Matter–or, more correctly, by something which 'shone' at the heart of Matter."
This "something" the young Teilhard found especially present in objects made out of iron.
"I can still see," he wrote, "the succession of my 'idols.' In the country there was the lock-pin of a plough which I used to hide carefully in the corner of the yard. In town, there was the hexagonal head of a metal bolt which protruded above the level of the nursery floor. Later, there were shell-splinters lovingly collected on a neighboring firing-range."
Teilhard–both as a boy and later as an adult–wondered about the strange pull that these dense, super-solid objects had for him.
"Why Iron?" he asked. "And why, in particular, one special piece of iron? It can only have been because, so far as my childish experience went, nothing in the world was harder, heavier, tougher, more durable than this marvelous substance."
These little iron objects were, for Teilhard, examples of what he calls the "Incorruptible." In a world where everything is transient, breakable, and uncertain, a world where everything sooner or later cracks up or falls apart, these objects were different. They didn't change, didn't degrade, didn't decay.
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