- Weekly I read that someone “sees the handwriting on the wall” and quits her job or leaves a bad situation of innumerable sorts. A small sampling reveals that people know what it means, as in something bad is about to happen, but not its source.
Strictly written, the phrase began as “a hand writing on the wall.” That’s literally what happens in Daniel 5; a hand appears at Belshazzar’s feast and writes four words: MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSHIN (These Aramaic words mean “numbered weighted divided.”). As usual, the usual suspects –magicians, sorcerers, astrologists—can’t interpret. Daniel comes and explains the meaning of each. By extrapolation, he can see that the kingdom is finished and will be conquered. Sure enough, Darius invades that night, Belshazzar is killed, and a kingdom comes into being. Daniel is made chief among the 120 princes and a friend to the king. His time in the lions’ den doesn’t come until Chapter 6. And then we’ll have another phrase people use when something bad is happening. (In Darius’ defense, he didn’t want to throw Daniel in but had to etc…)
[Two earlier stories also lend idioms to our language. In Daniel 2, we learn about the dream Nebuchadnezzar forgot but wanted interpreted. Only Daniel could see the figure with a head of gold and “feet of clay” and explain the future of the world that it revealed. In Daniel 3, we have his friends endure the fiery furnace when they won’t bow down to a 98-foot tall statue when certain music plays. They come out unsinged and unsmoked. [Random—hiking the Arches National Park’s Fiery Furnace in July must be daunting.]
Since no one is likely to say “hand writing,” the use of “writing” is fine, but “handwriting” isn’t, not quite. You’ll see one in the next week, I’d expect.
That is all well and good, but it’s not the title, BEHIND the wall. Or under would work, too.
There is a new tradition—probably hundreds of years old but not to me—of writing on the wall beams of new construction. A friend in Utah showed me how her new friends took Sharpies and wrote sweet notes on the beams in her basement. Another just did it on her brand-new build—the “love words” she and her late husband shared. Someone else talked about a preacher’s beams covered with scriptures his congregation had added. And—how cool is this?—a photographer I know wrote his name within the walls of the Walt Disney Concert Hall AND The Getty Center. (I haven’t been to the Disney but have seen The Simpsons episode where Marge writes Frank Gehry to ask him to design Springfield’s hall. That counts, right? I have been to The Getty a number of times; it could be me in the picture above except I prefer more color.)
The picture for today was from Pompeii, one of the Italian cities buried by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. It’s a fascinating story. People had time to flee but not all did (Lesson #17 for the Ages: Flee!) and thousands died. People like Pliny watched it happen and wrote about the horror. So, when the city was covered for hundreds of years, the “writing on the wall” was also covered. The word “graffiti” is, after all, an Italian word for “scribbling” first used in 1851 to describe the writing uncovered in Pompei. This article proclaims it as art, and its prime artist about whom I know nothing is Banksy. Well, that’s not true because I did read the article.
To conclude: The idea of words hidden behind our walls is talismanic, which has to do not only with the magic that wards off evil but also with its roots in consecration. It seems a comforting thing regardless, words of beauty or grace or blessing holding, supporting us silently and secretly. No way to do that on a house built in the 1970s? Why not imagine words? Close your eyes and wish them there. It’s a planned, retro-consecration…