Saturday, March 26, 2016

Chrism on my hands: science and faith

Practical theology.
In the library of the Convent of San Marco, Florence.
More than thirty years ago, I moved to the East Coast from California.  We registered in our local parish, where I was surprised to find that women could not be lectors or cantors or Eucharistic Ministers.  "The only time a woman should be on the altar," the pastor told me when I asked, "is to clean it."  Ah.  He had many gifts to share, not the least the ways in which he modeled a deep and abiding life of prayer, but this was a mindset he couldn't shake.

Last week, our associate pastor caught me after Morning Prayer, with a question about cleaning.  The question came, not because he thinks that the only role women have to play in the liturgies of Holy Week is cleaning the altar and vessels (which he most certainly does not!), but because I'm a chemist.  One of the chrismaria, the glass vessels used to store the parish's stock of oils for anointing, hadn't come clean with a first round of soap or with a second round of bleach.  It had held the chrism.  What might I suggest?

I looked at the glass container and noticed it was coated in a fluffy, waxy substance.  I rubbed some of it between my fingers.  (Yes, yes, I know, chemists shouldn't touch their stuff; buried somewhere in here is a reflection about humeral veils and gloves in the lab.)  Bleach is an oxidizing agent.  Fats, like olive oil, which form the base of chrism, when oxidized can give you esters — and alcohols.  The chemical mantra when it comes to dissolving things is "like dissolves like." So....

"Try some rubbing alcohol." I offered.

With this I went off to teach quantum mechanics, to find an email when I was done that the alcohol had done the trick.  Science in the service of the faith.

My hands smelled of chrism all morning, each time I raised my hands to write on the board, this reminder of my own baptismal anointing brushed my senses.  As priest, as prophet.  The catechism of the Catholic Church notes that service is intrinsically linked to the sacramental priesthood [CCC 876], and I see its traces in Ignatius' Suscipe, "Whatsoever I have or hold, You have given me; I give it all back to You and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will."  What do I return?  What do I turn toward God?  Toward service?

I thought, too, of Kathleen Norris' short book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and 'Women's Work,' in which she writes, "But laundry and worship are repetitive activities with a potential for tedium, and I hate to admit it, but laundry often seems like the more useful of the tasks. But both are the work that God has given us to do."  The laundry and the dishes are inextricably entwined with worship.  We learn to do one by doing the other.

Chrismaria that look like they belong in the lab!

1 comment:

  1. Katherine1:52 PM

    Thank you! I'll remember that suggestion about rubbing alcohol if our chrism flask ever refuses to come clean.

    One of my joys as a sacristan is pouring the old oils into a jar, to be added to the Easter fire, then cleaning and refilling the flasks with the new oils.

    I love the smell of chrism ... baptismal anointing, confirmation anointing, calling us to be prophets and priests, to serve in sacristy and sanctuary, classroom and kitchen ...

    I'll watch for that reflection on humeral veils and lab gloves.