Thursday, April 25, 2019

An unimaginable Easter imagined

It's the picture of the single shoe that haunts me. An overturned red shoe on the asphalt, and shattered glass, so much glass, glass like snow on the ground.  I woke on Easter not to photos of Mass at St. Peter's or to small children in their best romping on green lawns with Easter baskets in hand, but to scenes from the bombings in Sri Lanka. To visions of pews scattered about St. Sebastian's sanctuary and its roof blown open. And that one shoe.

Over the last week I've been correcting the proofs for a book of Lenten reflections. The last reflection in the book is not for Lent, but for Easter Sunday, and reads in part.
"Why do I not see everything overset? Why are the pews not scattered like matchsticks, the altar covered in dust from a dome broken open to the sky, a great wind whipping the trees about? And instead of children dressed in their best for Easter brunch, why are there not people milling about in confusion and fear, their clothes torn and shoes unmatched in their haste to come see what happened here last night?"
When I wrote it, I wasn't imagining a disaster, but mulling over this passage from Matthew
And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men. (Mt 28:2-4) 
Which in turn reminded me of Annie Dillard's essay "An Expedition to the Pole" where she wonders at our inability to grasp the powers at work when we gather for liturgy, to truly grasp the resurrection.
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
My reflection goes on to imagine a reassuring angel sitting amidst the debris, gently shooing people back out into the world. I imagined it as if a storm had come and gone in the night and while people are bewildered and overset, they are not wounded or dying. Now I indeed see everything overset. I can't get the images of Sri Lanka out of my head, where the pews are scattered like matchsticks and the roof has been broken open so that you can see the sky through it. And that shoe.

I wonder how that reflection will read next Easter. Will we remember those who died this year?



The photos are #29 and #38 in this gallery at the Washington Post.

This reminded me, too, of the attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem and the power of images to drive my prayer.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Overflowing with glory

In the beginning there was God.  And there was chaos and confusion, a universe unshaped and restless, smoldering in the darkness.  The Spirit hovered over the waters, living and breathing above the abyss.  With a word, there was light, or so we read in the book of Genesis.

To hear the astrophysicists tell the tale, when the universe was one millionth of a second old, it was the size of a grapefruit. I could set it on my desk, cup it in my hands. Everything that would be was contained in that unimaginably hot, inconceivably dark, dense sphere. Matter was so tangled in its depths that even light could not wriggle its way out.  A quarter of a million years later, unable to bear the strain, the universe unfurls into the emptiness.  So now we have light.

Sometimes I imagine God cradling this rough-hewn and snarling mass of darkness in his hands, turning the inchoate universe over and around, pondering what will be.  Perhaps he set it on the desk for a while, leaning back in his chair with a creak to get a new perspective.  And when the time came, with a breath and a prayer—Spirit and Word— God’s hands opened and let what was within spill into the emptiness. God from God, Light from Light.

Humankind once held, all unknowing, the entirety of the universe, and more, in our hands. Inconceivable energy pushed into an impossibly small space.  The all-powerful, ever-living God contained in the body of a man, come to unravel the chaos. Perhaps the strain on the universe was again unbearable, for we hung God-become-man on a tree, and watched as he strained for breath and died. All that is, was and will be, pulled from the cross and cradled in his mother’s lap. We wrapped his body in linen, and set it aside. Only to have Light once more spill forth from the emptiness, washing out the darkness.

“Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” said T. S. Eliot. Certainly I cannot. I can contemplate with delight the small ball that was the universe in God’s hand. I will fall on my knees before Christ, who emptied himself out on that cross. But when again and again I cradle in my hands the Body of Christ, take the cup that bears God's very blood, I can’t bear to imagine the immensity of what is contained within.

I say, far too quickly, “Amen.”  I believe.  I assent.  But will I become? In receiving the Eucharistic, St. Augustine observed, “You are saying 'Amen' to what you are.” Can I stop, wait, and contemplate that in receiving this gift, those unimaginable forces have come to reside in me? What have I become?  And if I can bear that, can I imagine my neighbors holding such power in their hands, overflowing with God’s glory?

Perhaps what I really cannot bear is what this means I must do.  For what should come forth from my hands when I open them, if not light from Light.  What should I see in my neighbor, then, if not God? If I truly understood who I had become, would I not pour myself out for the kingdom of God?

Christus Resurrexit! 
Vere Resurrexit! 
Alleluia, Alleluia! 

From an essay in Give Us This Day, April 2017


Warning: salt and alcohol alternatives to the Paschal Fire

The overlap between chemists and liturgists is likely vanishingly small, hence this warning.

It the the custom in many Christian denominations to light a Pascal fire at their Easter rites. For Catholics, this is done after sunset on Saturday night. The fire is kindled outside the church and in many traditions a large candle and/or many candles are lit from the flames. Lighting the fire is often problematic, it should be visible to the people assembled, but confined to prevent hazards. It can be smoky.  This weekend I became aware of an alternative to the traditional wood fire, replacing it with a rock salt and alcohol mixture.  This sounds like a great idea.  It is smoke free — you could do it inside — and that as these sets of directions suggest, you can add other salts to make beautiful colors in the flames.  It is, in fact, a TERRIBLE idea.

This is just a version of a chemistry demonstration, often called the rainbow demonstration, that is so dangerous it should not be done. Period. The rainbow demonstration has led to many serious burn injuries in onlookers and teachers, the Washington Post has an overview here.  Under certain circumstances it can produce a flame jet. See this notice from the American Chemical Society, and this longer article about the hazards at the Journal of Chemical Education.

The dangers is that vapors from the alcohol can travel out of the container or the salt/alcohol mixture and along the ground, then ignite in a ribbon of flame. I note that the National Altar Guild
link with instructions recognizes the vapors might escape, but doesn't seem to realize the hazard this presents.

Some years back the American Chemical Society urged chemists to contact their local high school chemistry teachers about the rainbow demonstration to be sure the warnings reached them. It might be time to encourage chemists to reach out to their local churches to be sure they are aware as well.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Giving up Lent

More than ever I find myself in the hands of God.
This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth.
But now there is a difference;
the initiative is entirely with God.
It is indeed a profound spiritual experience
to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.
— Pedro Arrupe, SJ

It's very nearly Holy Thursday, where Lent gives way to the Triduum and Lenten disciplines are put aside for another year. What did I give up this year? Not chocolate, not the internet.  I gave up oxygen, having come down with pneumonia at the end of March. I am still wheezy, still stripped of my singing voice — and to some extent my lecturing voice — still thinking more about breathing than I might otherwise. 

It wasn't my choice to surrender this. For the last couple of days I've been thinking about this prayer by Pedro Arrupe, SJ, written after his stroke in 1981, and the end of the Suscipe: "I give it all back to you, I surrender it wholly to be governed by Your will." There is a difference between choosing to give up a little luxury, and having something so essential stripped from me.  It pushes me into the depths, forces me to look at what it means to commend myself entirely into God's hands. This is what I profess to desire, to want God like air.  Theory is one thing, the practice, it turns out, is something else again.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The light is red

The light is red.
I'm 10th in a line of cars.
I am, perforce, stopped.
I have not blocked the entrance to the side street.
The car behind me is black and expensive.
And honking.
And impatiently pulls around me.
To block the side street and be 10th in a line of cars.
The light, sir, is still red.