Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bogged down

Climbing up Beefan and Glabhross

We've just finished a glorious Irish holiday.  Math Man and I have been bouncing around the west coast of Ireland for much of the last two weeks.  Some days he's been walking golf courses, while I've been walking coastal paths.  Together we've been listening to traditional Irish music in the pubs, driving the (narrow) Irish back roads and doing some hiking and touring (more driving on those roads.)

Last week, toward the end of a day in which we took a boat ride out and along the coast to see the tallest seaside cliffs in Europe, we drove to Glencolmkille, a small coast village associated with St. Columba (the founder of the famous Iona monastery).  I wanted to see Columba's Holy Well, which the map in town suggested was just at the outskirts. Up and out we drove, across a stone bridge, to the end of the road, where there was a brown sign, "Columba's Well."  We parked, grabbed our late lunches and headed off on the path that led up.  There was an incredible view of a Glenn Cove below us, we sat and watched the waves crash and the water sparkle.  A magical place to dine.

But where was the well?  How far along could it be?  I hiked up a bit, spotting what looked liked a carved stone well up the mountain.  We headed up that way, up and up, through the sheep.  To arrive to find that, no, this was not the well, just an very regular natural stone.  At this point, we decided to keep going up to the top of the mountain, where a Napoleonic watch tower was situated (these are scattered all the way up and down the coast.

The views were just amazing, each turn of the trail and revealed yet more views of the cliffs, the water, the surf and the tiny towns below.  But things got muddier as we got closer to the top.  At one point, unwilling to get my stout walking shoes too mucked up with mud and sheep droppings, I stepped off to walk around a muddy patch.  Three steps, and on the last one there was a great slurping, sucking sound and I was suddenly up to my knee in the bog.

As I tried to pull my leg out, I could feel my boot slide off.  My first thought was of the (fictional) Miles Vorkosigan and his experience in the tundra bog (from which he never did extricate his missing boot.)  I was quite stuck and it took some significant tugging from Math Man to extract me.  I now have a totally visceral feeling for what it means to be "bogged down"  -- caught in muck that won't let you go, and that you may well need help to extricate yourself from.

A bog (on another hike)
 I did the rest of the hike with a sopping wet pant leg and a shoe that squished at every turn.  But it was totally worth it.  The view from the tower was amazing.

We headed back down the mountain, and as we neared the car, finally saw the ruins of the monastery St. Columba had established there, and the marker for the well up the hill a bit.  Math Man joked that we got the better hike by failing to find the well, and I think he was right, even with the bog!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Year of Light

Antique Bunsen spectroscope. Interior.  c. Michelle M. Francl
Halloween is still a few weeks out, but I'm getting in the mood by writing a post for the UN's "Year of Light" blog.  2015 is the UN Year of Light, celebrating the 1000th anniversary of the publication of Ibn al-Haytham's Book of Optics and the 300th anniversary of Newton's Optics.

While much of the excitement around the Year of Light is directed toward the physics of light, chemistry owes a huge debt to light as well (and vice versa as I argued in a recent more scholarly essay).  Bunsen and Kirchhoff's invention of the spectroscope in 1860 would allow chemists to add more than a dozen new elements to the periodic table by looking for their spectral (ghostly) lines in the light from flames.  You can read the whole thing at the UN's blog.

Light is something I think about in many of my hats — as theologian and writer and as quantum mechanic.  What would a Year of Light look like from the religious end of things?  We have a year of Mercy coming up, why not a Year of Light?  All Advent, all the time?  My favorite season!

Sunday, October 04, 2015

One Flesh

It's a complicated Sunday. World Communion Sunday. Respect Life Sunday. Opening of the Synod on the Family in Rome. Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. On my more local calendar, we are anointing the sick at my parish this week, I gave a talk at the a nearby Episcopal Church on science and religion, and went to a friend's husband's funeral. In the greater world, there are floods and shootings and mudslides and "collateral damage" at hospitals.

It has me thinking about what it means to share in the sufferings of the Body of Christ, of the world.

And in this reflection, written many months ago for Give Us This Day, I wonder if we are missing something about the sacramental sign that is matrimony.

Do we weep for each other, as we would weep for a beloved spouse?
"'Are you trying to tell me that my husband is dead?' I asked the surgeon. 'Yes.' In that harrowing moment of my first marriage’s dissolution, I finally grasped in my bones the reality of these words: They are no longer two but one flesh. Half of me had been torn off, and what remained was pouring out onto the floor in a pool of tears.

It is tempting to hear these readings from Genesis and Mark as mere marriage instruction, demanding husbands and wives to cleave to each other no matter the cost. I see in them instead potent images of what it feels like to be one body, not just in marriage but as the People of God: you are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. We proclaim in the Communion antiphon that we are one body. But do we feel in our bones that we are one flesh, mingled with Christ in our communion, as the water and wine mingle in the cup we share? One. Inseparable.

These readings point us to realities beyond marriage, challenging us to deepen our fidelity to one another and to Christ as members of his One Body. This indeed is a hard teaching for all of us, not just those struggling with marriage. Are we torn open by the sufferings of our brothers and sisters? Do we weep for each other as we would weep for a beloved spouse? We are no longer two, but one flesh."