Friday, August 31, 2007

Credo

My last few posts took the institutional Roman Catholic Church to task for perceived failings. Lest I come across as too unforgiving, let me repeat here from previous posts what I value in my own Roman Catholic upbringing, education and life experience.

For all of my agnosticism, I am quite willing to call myself a Catholic. Not because I can recite the Creed (I can't), or because I practice that particular faith (I don't), but because the substance of Catholicism went into my system like mother's milk. None of us can be free entirely from the cultural influences that shaped our ways of thinking and experiencing the world. Nor would I want to if I could. I cosset in my heart an unquenchable affection for Catholic tradition.

I am repelled, of course, by the triumphalism, paternalism and authoritarianism of the Church, its Jansenism, supernaturalism, miracle-mongering, and misogyny. But the sacramental tradition is a treasured part of my being. A sacrament is a "visible sign of invisible grace," according to the Church, and "invisible" need not imply "supernatural." I experience every aspect of the natural world as the "visible" manifestation of an "inscape" that is deep and mysterious beyond my knowing. A hundred years ago, who could have imagined the dervish dance of the DNA or the ripples in the energy of the big bang that gave rise to galaxies. Who today can imagine what we will know a hundred years hence. The world is shot through with a grandeur that now and again flames out "like shining from shook foil." In Catholic tradition, one must be predisposed to grace to receive it. I wait, alert. Always. For the shining.

I love Catholic liturgical tradition -- the wax, water, fire, chrism, candlelight, bread, wine, palm fronds, colors, chants, bells -- the whole sensual celebration of the material world. I love the Campbellesque, sun-centered cycle of the liturgical year, and the canonical hours of the day. I love the monastic tradition of life lived with a balance of physical labor, intellectual study, and prayer, the last of which I would define -- with Thomas Merton -- as a quiet listening of the heart, or, more simply, attention. I love the tradition of creation spirituality, heretical to be sure, but in love with the world and suspicious of dualities -- Columbanus, John Scotus Eriugena, Meister Eckhart, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich, Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Teilhard de Chardin, and all the rest. I love the whole smoky, sexy physicality of Catholicism that inspired the art of Gislebertus, Bernini, and Undset, that sent Heloise and Abelard careening into mad abandon and smote Clare and Francis. I love the quintessentially Catholic dark night of the soul as much as I love the luminous Easter symbolism that goes with a planet tipped cockeyed on its axis.

Can I have all of that and still eschew the shabby panoply of miracles and the supernatural? This is my Credo. I am an atheist, if by God one means a transcendent Person who acts willfully within the creation. I am an agnostic in that I believe our knowledge of "what is" is partial and tentative -- a tiny flickering flame in the overwhelming shadows of our ignorance. I am a pantheist in that I believe empirical knowledge of the sensate world is the surest revelation of whatever is worthy of being called divine. I am a Catholic by accident of birth.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The urgency of belief

A few more thoughts on Archbishop Brady's recent talk, as published in the Irish Times.

Archbishop Brady avers that a lack of trust in God's providence is leading more and more Irish people to rely on superstitious practices that claim to unveil the future: astrology, palm reading, tarot cards, clairvoyants, channelers, and the like. He is right, of course, that these practices are shams and a waste of money. What he does not admit is that the future-enhancing practices of his own institution are based on no more reliable evidence of efficacy than the paranormal flim-flam he condemns. Prayers, novenas, pilgrimages, votive candles, paid-for Masses, holy water, and the like appeal to precisely the same need for assurance about the future that brings people to the astrologer or clairvoyant. (The Archbishop gave his talk at the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock, where an image of the Virgin supposedly miraculously appeared on the gable of a church.)

Voltaire wrote of superstition: "A Frenchman traveling in Italy finds almost everything superstitious, and is hardly wrong. The archbishop of Canterbury claims that the archbishop of Paris is superstitious; the Presbyterians levy the same reproach against his Grace of Canterbury, and are in turn called superstitious by the Quakers, who are the most superstitious of men in the eyes of other Christians." An astrologer writing on the Letters page of the Times took Archbishop Brady to task for superstition, while trumpeting the reasonableness of his own occupation. One person's sensible dogma is another person's nonsense.

Does science then fall into the same category? Science is the one avenue to knowledge that tries as hard to prove a theory wrong as prove it right. The test is reproducible empirical evidence that is as readily available to the skeptic as to the believer. Anecdotal evidence is not admitted. And the proof is in the pudding. The most fervent co-religionist of the Archbishop or customer of the astrologer will opt for science over holy water and horoscopes when faced, say, with a life-threatening disease.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Colorless and uninspiring interior spirit

The Catholic Primate of Ireland Archbishop Sean Brady got the country's dander up recently for a talk he gave about this newly prosperous and increasingly secular nation. "The land of saints and scholars has become the land of stocks and shares," he said. "Tragically, it has also become a land of increasing stress and substance abuse. All of this has occurred as the external practice of faith has declined."

I have been living in Ireland on and off for 40 years. I knew the old Ireland, ruled with an iron hand by the Church, and I know the new Ireland, which has quite suddenly become one of the most prosperous nations on the planet. Contrary to what the Archbishop says, I see much less "stress" today, if by "stress" you include the various forms of guilt, begrudgery, mental anxiety and depression. As for substance abuse! Well, maybe some affluent folks are snorting coke, and maybe some kids are smoking pot, but the old days are gone when half the clients in the local pub staggered home blind drunk.

By and large, I see a people who are happier, healthier, wealthier, and more secure. The arts flourish. Scientific research is first rate. When I first visited Dublin many years ago it was a gray, dreary, littered city, with beggars on every corner. Today it is one of the most colorful and lively cities of Europe, and the Irish people are justly proud.

A report made in 1962 -- and long suppressed by the Church -- about the state of a major industrial school run by the Christian Brothers has just been made public. "The very structure of the school is in dilapidated condition, colorless and uninspiring, and reflects the interior spirit," wrote the author, the school's chaplain, who then went on to catalogue brutal arbitrary punishments, material deprivations, and sexual anomalies. As the clerical abuse scandals of the 90s made clear, such conditions were not uncommon in the Ireland where God's earthly agents held sway.

This is not to disparage the countless good-hearted Irish men and women of faith and religious vocation who dedicated their lives to health care, education and service to the poor. Archbishop Brady is himself, by all reports, a good and kindly man. But I dare say few people in Ireland today would chose to return to "the land of saints and scholars." They will remember particularly John Charles McQuaid, Archbishop of Dublin, who from 1940 to 1962 ruled Catholic Ireland with an inflexible theology befitting an ayatollah. Scientific humanism, secular democracy and feminism were the archevils of the modern world, according to McQuaid. Jews and Protestants were lackeys of the devil. The only source of truth was Holy Mother Church, and woe betide any Irish Catholic, lay or religious, who got out of line; the hammer of orthodoxy came down with swift and brutal force.

The most dispiriting message in Archbishop Brady's talk was this: "People are seeking to control their future rather than entrust their future to God's promise and plan." It was, of course, the Church, as represented by the Archbishop's predecessors, who interpreted "God's promise and plan," and made a right fine mess of it.

Yes, in the new Ireland people are seeking to shape their futures. They have embraced the secular humanistic message that we are not the helpless playthings of the gods, that we can create a better world for ourselves and our children. Archbishop Brady is right, of course, when he points out that a consumerist culture can lead to lives of empty self-obsession. The Church can play a valuable role inculcating a joyous, colorful spirit of creativity and selflessness among the faithful. It will make itself increasingly irrelevant by preaching helpless resignation to "God's plan."

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sleeping giants


Readers of Honey From Stone will recognize this place from Bob O'Cathail's linocut for the chapter Lauds. It is an Early Bronze Age wedge grave on Caherard Hill above the village, on a grand site looking out over Dingle Bay. One long narrow chamber that was once mounded over with earth. The earth, of course, has long since eroded away. The stones have tumbled somewhat. Leaba an Fhir Mhuimhnuigh, "the bed of the Munsterman," it is called locally. Or more simply, the Giant's Bed.

I've been up there many times, including the equinoctial sunrise I wrote about in Honey. Recently I was there with the archeologist Isabel Bennett, who knows as much as anyone about these relics of a mostly forgotten time. There are ten wedge tombs on the Dingle Peninsula (along with countless other megalithic monuments). Isabel has visited all of them, and they are described in detail in the Archeological Survey of the Dingle Peninsula, of which she is a co-author.

From the time I was a child I have had romantic notions of archeologists and their recovery of vanished civilizations. I suppose I was influenced by the National Geographic series of articles, "Everyday Life in Ancient Times," from the 40s and early 50s. How we poured over those full-page paintings! The legions of Lagash, led by King Eannatum in a golden chariot, cutting down the armies of Umma; the battlefield littered with arrow-pierced bodies. A haughty visitor to the slave markets of Babylonia in the 18th century B.C making her choice from among nubile young women. Na'r, King of Upper Egypt smashing the heads of his enemies with a mace of ivory and gold. Scantily-clad boys and girls of Crete doing hand-springs between the horns of a charging bull. The courtesan Phryne posing nude for the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles. Alexander, in golden helmet fashioned in the form of a lion, routing Darius at the battle of Issus; his spear transfixes a hapless Persian.

This was heady stuff for kids of the 40s and 50s, about as rich a diet of sex and violence as one could find in those days. It had the advantage of conveying a healthy dose of history along with the titillation -- and a lingering respect for archeologists such as Isabel, who standing on Caherard Hill made even this tumbled pile of stones come alive under her expert eye.

Monday, August 27, 2007

One vision, one knowledge, one love

(What follows is from the introductory notes I made for a reading at the Dingle Bookshop last Saturday evening.)

Susan Sontag, the essayist, once said (I rely on memory): "The great thing about being a writer is that nothing is irrelevant." Writing is all about making connections, tracing the threads that hold the world together. Some of those threads are physical: the gravity, for example, that holds your foot to the sod. Some of the threads are metaphorical: "Under the black weight of their own breathing," says Seamus Heaney in a poem about the Gallarus Oratory, tying breath to other elements of his poem, peat and stone. Scientific connections are communal -- public knowledge, the philosopher John Ziman calls it. Scientific metaphors are taut and resilient, so much so that they might not be recognized as metaphors at all. The writer's connections are more idiosyncratic (although no less exact), and depend for their effectiveness upon an unspoken alliance between author and reader. "The sea a censer," writes Heaney in the same poem; the metaphor works in the religious context of the poem, but finds its full usefulness only if the reader has experienced the glittering gold of the swinging liturgical vessel in a darkened sanctuary.

For thirty-seven years, I have lived part of each year on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. Four books have emerged from this landscape -- two non-fiction, two fiction -- and more essays than I can count. All of them have begun in the landscape itself: the rock, the wet, the flora and fauna, the wind, the stars, the layers upon layers of human habitation. To this topography I have brought my own concerns, most especially this one: Learning to stand astonished in a world without miracles. I have tried to take the best of my religious heritage -- Roman Catholicism -- and marry it to the skeptical empiricism of my scientific education. "Nothing is too wonderful to be true," wrote the early 19th-century physicist Michael Faraday. I would turn the phrase on its ear: Nothing is too true to be wonderful. In my writing I have sought to show how the reliable, communal truths of science infuse the world with wonder. How? By making connections.

Like many of you, I suppose, I was raised in a tradition that makes distinctions between natural and supernatural, matter and spirit, body and soul, law and miracle. If I have learned anything from my lifelong study of science, it is that these distinctions are not only artificial, they serve to fragment a world that might be more usefully viewed entire. As a writer, I try to cast a net of metaphors -- scientific and writerly -- that catches up the world as one. In that task, as Susan Sontag said, nothing is irrelevant.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Celebrating the here and now

Along our road here in the west of Ireland there are two marked stones built into a roadside wall. One, of medieval origin, is inscribed with a cross, and undoubtedly came from the monastic settlement that formerly resided in the field below the road. The other is a benchmark of the 19th-century survey of Ireland, a curious four-stroke design, called in Irish Lapa na circe, "the hen's foot." One of the stones evokes a supernatural world beyond; the other celebrates knowledge of the here and now. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday art.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The surface of things

"Facts! What else is there? What else do we need?" growled Edward Abbey, nature writer and cantankerous champion of the American West . We know where he was coming from. He was tired to the death of idle speculation -- philosophy, theology, government reports. He would have preferred to find a rattlesnake under his bed than a shelf full of Thomas Aquinas, or a cold beer in a crossroads bar with a couple of grizzly desert rats like himself than dinner in the Harvard faculty club with a brace of metaphysicians. Facts! "There is a kind of poetry, even a kind of truth, in the simple fact," he wrote.

The other day I spent six hours in the company of Bernie Goggin and Isabel Bennett visiting some of the more interesting natural and archeological sites of West Kerry. Bernie is our most knowledgeable local naturalist; Isabel is a co-author of the monumental archeological survey of the Dingle Peninsula. Between the two of them they carry around in their heads an astonishing accumulation of facts. Every plant, every stone, every seashell crumbling out of a seaside sandbank had a story to tell. I stumbled along behind as Bernie and Isabel painted the landscape with facts. No idle speculations. No pathways to heaven. Just names, dates, relationships, dimensions. "How do you remember all this stuff?" I asked Bernie. He just smiled from behind his Edward Abbey beard. I had the feeling he wouldn't mind finding a rattlesnake under his bed if it meant he could add one more nugget to his storehouse of facts.

Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian. Shell middens, ring barrows, holy wells, bullauns. Stonecrop, crowfoot, nettle, and spurrey. There is indeed a kind of poetry in the names of things, and more, much more, than "a kind of truth." If truth means anything, it takes its meat and merit from its nearness to simple facts. I came home with wet boots and grass-stained jeans and felt I had been closer to truth than I had ever been in a church or classroom.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A weight of intellect

Robert Lloyd Praeger, in his classic work on Irish natural history, The Way That I Went, recounts an anecdote that captures as well as anything I have ever read the spirit of science. The incident took place in Roundstone Bog, Connemara, in August, 1935.
A number of botanists had foregathered at Roundstone, and the particular occasion was a kind of symposium on bogs, held in the middle of the wettest of them. There were A. G. Tansley from Oxford, H. E. Godwin from Cambridge, Hugo Osvald from Stockholm, Knud Jessen and H. Jonassen from Copenhagen, G. F. Mitchell from Dublin, Margaret Dunlop from Manchester. We stood in a ring in that shelterless expanse while the discussion raged on the application of the terms soligenous, topogenous and ombrogenous; the rain and wind, like the discussion, waxed in intensity, and under the unusual superincumbent weight, whether of mere flesh and bone or of intellect, the floating surface of the bog slowly sank till we were half-way up to our knees in water. The only pause in the flow of argument was when Jessen or Osvald, in an endeavor to solve the question of the origin of the peat, would chew some of the mud brought up by the boring tool from the bottom of the bog, to test the presence or absence of gritty material in the vegetable mass. But out of such occasions does knowledge come.
I love the image of this ring of naturalists standing in peaty water in the wild west of Ireland, all of the men no doubt wearing coats, ties and vests under their waxed outerwear, their mustaches dripping, rain poring off Margaret Dunlop's broad-brimmed hat. A multinational, multigenerational, bigendered congregation, united by sopping feet and omnivorous curiosity. The bogs of Ireland, once their provenance was understood, became -- with their almost magical preservative powers, of pollen, timber, fossils, and human artifacts -- repositories of the island's natural and human history.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Rising damp?

The summer, such as it was, draws to a close. Showers still sweep in off of the Atlantic with predictable regularity, as they have been doing all summer long. The grass in the upper field has a harried, hangdog look. The seed in the bird feeders is sprouting. The ground is sodden.

My walking boots haven't had the opportunity to dry out. They have a fine wet stink to them; I might as well walk the bogs in my socks. As I write, Mount Eagle spreads its usual blanket of grey mist over the parish. They say the sun will be out for the next few days. We'll wait and see.

My writing studio is snug and dry. It is built into the hill and covered with earth, like a Hobbit house. At the front, big windows look out over Ventry Harbor, Dingle Bay, the Atlantic -- a panorama of dubious weather.

The plants at the windows press their leaves against the glass as if begging for a few rays of sunshine. The morning glory leaves are bigger than ever, but not a blossom to be seen. The tomato plants are falling into themselves under a weight of unripened fruit. The cukes and peas and leeks have made but a grudging return on what they must surely feel was an underabundance of warmth and light. I keep them watered. Their roots are as waterlogged as my boots.

Even the Met (the Irish Meteorological Office) has taken to blaming the wet weather on global warming. I would be more circumspect in assigning cause. The Irish weather was never good. I recall many Julys and Augusts wetter than this one. Time to start thinking about tossing the plants into the compost. Give them another chance next summer.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Mass on the world

In his published journals, the famed historian of religions Mircea Eliade makes note of a 1950 conversation with the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin.

Teilhard was insistent that the Church be ready to renovate dogma as science discovers more about the world. "The Church is like a crustacean," said Teilhard, in Eliade's account, "she must throw off her shell in order to grow." This is not, of course, a message that the institutional Church wanted to hear. Any institution that claims infallibility will not want to admit that dogma is anything other than -- well, dogmatic. Teilhard was held on a short leash by his religious superiors, and towards the end of his life he was banished from his beloved France to the gulag of New York.

Eliade asked Teilhard how he understood the immortality of the soul. What interested Teilhard, according to Eliade, was "conservation of human experience." Teilhard was enough of a scientist and sufficiently aware of developments in biology and neurology to know that traditional notions of immortality and resurrection of the body were among those crusty shells that the Church must shed. Still, he insisted, no part of the human self must be lost. All experience must be expressed by language or culture and preserved in the noosphere, a planetary wrap of immaterial intelligence that seems to be taking on a physical embodiment in the present World Wide Web. The difficulty comes in passing on the "mysterious, irreducible, incommunicable foundation" of a self that cannot be expressed in language or culture. This too Teilhard imagined somehow "passes into the beyond," although exactly how Eliade does not elucidate.

It is this vagueness in Teilhard's thought that exasperates his scientific critics. But give Teilhard this: He had great confidence in science, even to the point of embracing what the Church considered heretical. Science had for him a religious function, in bringing not just the Greco-Roman world, but also the entire galactic universe, into consonance with the Christological mystery as he understood it. We forgive his vagueness out of respect for the depth of his personal integrity in the face of official disapprobation.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Discorruption

The great foundational poem of religious naturalism is Walt Whitman's I Sing the Body Electric. Not for the first time, of course, but for the first time with a modern voice, a poet sings of the material soul. How long we labored in the Judeo-Christian West with a distrust of the body, seeing in it something verminous and corruptible. How long we dreamed of flying free of the blood and visera and foul excretions -- the immaterial soul like a whiff of luminous vapor, ascending.
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws and jaw hinges...
All those centuries that we lived in cloaks of flesh that dissolved with disease into oozing pustules and suppurating sores. Limbs thinned and belly bloated with hunger. Eyes that ran dark with effluents. Diarrhea.
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean...
Bleeding, leeching, trepanation. The mortal danger of childbirth. The paralyzing pain of cancer. Toothache, nearly continuous. Who would choose to go back to the days before the advent of modern medical science, when the only thing that made physical existence bearable was the dream of leaving bone and sinew behind?
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you and me...
The gifts of modern medicine, sanitation engineering, agronomy. And with them, for the first time in history, the body rises up and claims its own, dispels the phantasm of the immaterial soul -- and sings.
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Morning song

Let's be blunt. Death is final. Against the expectations of most people everywhere since the dawn of time, there is no such thing as personal immortality.

Egyptian kings who built colossal pyramids to ensure their comfortable passage to the afterlife wasted their treasure. Christians martyrs found no Heaven, Viking pagans no Valhalla. The Chinese emperor who filled his tomb with clay armies never met them on the other side.

Everything that can be counted part of a human self -- soma, immune system, consciousness, self-awareness, memory -- has been shown to be inextricably material. No hint of a ghost in the machine. Not a whiff of immortal soul. Nothing has been more decisively demonstrated. Anyone who believes otherwise has not been paying attention, or is afflicted by a intractable case of wishful thinking.

Near death experiences? Poltergeists? Channeling? Table-rapping? Straws. Grasping at straws. Nothing that passes empirical muster.

But surely science can't disprove the soul's immortality? True enough, and far be it from me to dissuade anyone from their faith-based hope of heaven (except where a fanatical faith in an afterlife facilitates mayhem, as with the Catholic Inquisition and Islamic suicide bombers). Here's the Pascalean catch: If believers turn out to be right, they'll get the last laugh; if disbelievers turn out to be right, we won't have the consolation of knowing it.

Do we lapse then into morbidity? Do we rage, rage against the dying of the light? The poet Czeslaw Milosz, writing about Philip Larkin's gloomy Aubade, tells why the poem dissatisfies: "Death in the poem is endowed with the supreme authority of law and universal necessity, while man is reduced to nothing but a bundle of perceptions, or even less, to an interchangeable statistical unit." Is that it? A glimmer of candlelight. Then -- pffft!

Not quite. Milosz is more hopeful: "Faith in life-everlasting has accompanied man in his wanderings through time, and it has always been larger and deeper than religious or philosophical creeds which expressed only one of its forms." For Milosz, poetry is one affirmation of the transcendence of an individual life. Even a rhyme can thumb its nose at death, says Seamus Heaney. Even a rhyme represents (in Heaney's words) an "Orphic effort to haul life back up the slope against all the odds," by adding to language what is strictly unnecessary.

The dream of immortality is so universal it would seem to be part of our biological natures, and even the scientific agnostic who accepts the finality of death will be inspired to join "the Orphic effort." We can each of us try to live our lives as poetry. To add to life an element of graciousness that is not strictly necessary. To leave behind a spoor of rhymes that marks our passage on the Earth.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

A woman's lot

Maria Branwell Bronte, wife of a country clergyman, gave birth to six precocious children in quick succession, then died. Not an uncommon fate for a woman in the early 19th century. What measure of the children's genius was in the mother's genes? See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday pic.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Chasing rainbows


A summer of sun and showers here in the west of Ireland, which means lots of rainbows. The other evening we watched a bow that persisted out there in Dingle Bay for 45 minutes, and perhaps longer (since it may have been there a while before we noticed it). I can't remember seeing a bow of longer duration.

The Irish meteorologist, Brendan McWilliams, who has a daily column in the Irish Times, mentioned recently the record for longest lasting rainbow. As I recall, it was a full three hours for a bow that persisted over North Wales on August 14, 1979, the same day as the ill-fated Fastnet yacht race between England and Ireland in which 19 sailors lost their lives.

Of course, that doesn't mean some colored object hung there in the air over Wales for three hours. Rainbows exist only on the retina of an observer's eye. So for some group of observers, conditions of sun and showers were such to allow them to perceive a bow for that duration. The bow we saw persist for 45 minutes might not have lasted as long for a neighbor a mile away. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow because there is no such place.

I looked on the web for the record for longest-lasting bow -- not easy with my plodding dial-up connection. I saw a number of references to a rainbow that purportedly endured over Sheffield, England for 6 hours, from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. on March 14, 1994. Given the conditions necessary to form a bow, including a sun low in the sky, this claim seems dubious. I calculate that on that day, in that place, the sun at noon was 32 degrees above an ideal horizon, which means any glimpse of bow would have been only 10 degrees above an ideal horizon. Given Sheffield's topology, hard up against the Pennines to the west, I'll stick with McWilliams until I'm offered more convincing evidence.

Friday, August 17, 2007

An anniversary (and a commercial)

The jacket illustration of the Irish edition of Honey From Stone shows an almost full moon rising beyond an alignment of megalithic standing stones. A meteor streaks the sky. Why did my Irish publisher chose to leave off the jacket is the subtitle of the American edition: A Naturalist's Search for God. Too religious? Not religious enough?

The word "God" appears only twice in the book. Once at the end of the Introduction:
This is not a work of metaphysics or theology. It is instead a kind of serendipitous adventure, a spiritual vagabond's quest. I have tramped the landscapes of the Dingle Peninsula, studying the rocks, the sky, the flora and the fauna, and I took whatever scraps of revelation I could find. I sought the burning bush and did not find it. But I found the honeysuckle and the fuchsia, and I found the gorse and the heather. When I called out for the Absolute, I was answered by the wind. If it was God's voice in the wind, then I heard it.
And in the very last paragraph of the book, where I have been talking about the star Vega:
A grainy stuttering of light on a photograph -- knowledge condensing from a sea of mystery, extending the shore along which we might encounter God. (Can that ancient, much abused word still have currency in an age of science? Perhaps not. But let it stand, like a distant horizon, like a foreign shore.) Este saber no sabiendo, "this knowing that unknows," is what John of the Cross called it, the knowing that takes place just here on the surface of the eye where Vega and the thought of Vega are one. Photons of radiant energy stream across the light-years, wind-whipped whitecaps of visible light and the longer swells of the infrared, to fall upon the Earth out of the dark night -- denying, revealing, hiding, making plain. I am soaked by starlight; I am blown by a stellar wind. I am bent low in that downpour of revelation.
Those words first appeared in print twenty years ago, in the beautiful edition of the book published by Dodd, Mead (just before that venerable company went out of business). If I were writing the same book today, I would surely tone down that last paragraph; as a more experienced writer, I have greater respect for steady, unadorned prose. But the ideas I developed in Honey From Stone (which has recently been reissued by Rowman & Littlefield) remain at the heart of my work. Seeing is revelation, Description is praise. A Naturalist's Search for God was the subtitle. Did he find God? Nope. Nor does he hope to, if by God one means a personal supernatural being who hears and answers prayers and intervenes in the creation. But twenty years on I still hold true to the book's epigraph from St. Bernard of Clairvaux (alluding to the Old Testament in a letter to a young monk): "More things are learnt in the woods than from books; trees and rocks will teach you things not to be heard elsewhere. You will see for yourselves that honey may be gathered from stones and oil from the hardest rock." The search was always more important than the finding.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Doomsday?

Comet Swift-Tuttle, the parent of the Perseid meteor shower of August, was "discovered" during its apparition of 1862. It was one of the brightest comets of the 19th century.

As comets travel their elliptical courses, they shed part of their substance. Eventually the tracks of comets become dirty spaces, littered with icy grit and bits of stone. Once each year, the Earth intersects the orbit of Swift-Tuttle and sweeps up debris. We see these tiny bits of comet stuff, heated to incandescence by atmospheric friction, as "shooting stars."

In 1867, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli announced that he had calculated the orbit of Swift-Tuttle and that it was coincident with the tracks of the Perseids. It was the first time that a recurring meteor shower was convincingly linked to a periodic comet.

It was predicted that Swift-Tuttle would return in the early 1980s, after a long, slow sojourn in the outer reaches of the solar system. It did not appear on schedule. Brian Marsden, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, thought the calculations might be wrong. Ten years wrong. He calculated a return in 1992, and he was right. This time around, however, the comet did not achieve naked-eye visibility, which is why you probably don't remember it.

Keep in mind that the orbits of the Earth and the comet intersect. In 1992, the comet arrived at the intersection in December, four months after the Earth had passed by. That's why Swift-Tuttle wasn't as bright as on its 19th-century visit, when the encounter was closer.

Brian Marsden has another interesting prediction. When Swift-Tuttle makes its next appearance in 2126, he calculates a nearer rendezvous with Earth, even a very slim chance of collision. When the Earth reaches the appointed spot in mid-August of that year, it may not find just a sprinkling of cometary dust but the progenitor itself. Mark your calendars.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mmmmm!

The Perseids appeared through gaps in the Irish clouds this year. The meteors of mid-August are crumbs of Comet Swift-Tuttle, which sweeps around the solar system on a 130-year orbit, scattering dust along its path. Once each year the Earth plows through that dusty band.

The comet takes its name from its discoverers, the amateur comet watcher Lewis Swift, a farmer of Marathon, New York, and Horace Tuttle, a professional astronomer at the Harvard College Observatory. Swift was the first to see it, with his four-and-a-quarter inch refracting telescope attached to a platform on his barn, on the night of July 15, 1862. At first he mistook it for a previously reported comet, Comet Schmidt. Three nights later, he realized his mistake and reported his discovery. By then, Tuttle had made his observation. The two men shared the honor.

Swift was an amateur astronomer in the original sense of the word: the am- derives from the Latin word for love. What unites amateur astronomers is love of the night.

It has been suggested that the root of the Latin for love, am, had its origin in baby talk, like yum-yum or mmmm! an expression of delight. That's what propels amateur stargazers into the night when everyone else is settled down indoors. They seek the mmmm!, that special moment when the a comet reveals itself against the dark, or a meteor streaks the sky.

My dictionary of English usage says that the word amateur has acquired "a faint flavor of bungling and a strong flavor of enthusiasm." That faint flavor of bungling devalues an otherwise honorable word. Swift, certainly, was no bungler. He discovered a total of thirteen comets, although none equaled in brightness the comet of 1862. For his work with comets he was awarded a gold medal by the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Vienna. In the 1880s he was appointed director of the Warner Observatory in Rochester, New York, and granted use of the fourth largest telescope in the United States at the time. With that instrument he discovered more than a thousand nebulas, among them hundreds of distant galaxies, star systems as extensive as the Milky Way.

(Shouldn't Comet Swift-Tuttle have returned by now? More tomorrow.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

God's plover

Sixty years ago today -- at the stroke of midnight, August 14-15 1947 -- Britain ceded India to the Indians, having agreed to a partition of that country with the Hindu leader Nehru and the Muslim leader Jinnah. Thereupon, fifteen million people migrated from the reduced Hindu state of India to the newborn Muslim state of Pakistan, and vice versa. One million of them died amid rioting and looting. As I write, I am looking at a photograph of Nehru and Jinnah, sitting to either side of Lord Mountbatten, the British facilitator of partition. From the photograph alone, I would not be able to tell you who is the Hindu and who the Muslim. Ah, religion.

In The Soul of the Night, I quote lines from a poem that described the effects on the poet of a Catholic education at the hands of priests, passed on to me by a friend, himself a cleric: "They flushed sin from the coverts of our souls with/ fear and drove God's sacred plover crying into the upland rain/ where it remains." To the poem, my friend had affixed a note: "Is this what happened to your plover too?"

Well, not exactly. My Catholic education was by and large a rewarding experience. It was not so much what happened to me at the hands of my teachers that drove God's sacred plover into the upland rain, as what was happening in the world around me at the hands of people of consuming faith. The religion-based savagery that accompanied the partition of India was a case in point. Shias and Sunnis, Christians and Jews, Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Muslims and Christians in the Balkans: The story is ongoing.

No wonder God's sacred plover absconded. No wonder it hides. No wonder it choses the upland moors and barren heaths where humans have not yet set their proselytizing plows. No wonder my own lifelong attention has been to the hidden bird, and not to the fundamentalists of any stripe who believe they know God's will. I was raised to believe that only baptized Christians had a crack at achieving the Beatific Vision, and Catholics the best crack of all. I will settle for the rustle of the wind where a bird is hiding in the wet grass.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, and the Sunday crossword...

If, like Joseph Smith, I were going to write the scriptures for a new religion, the first chapter would begin with an all-powerful deity -- call him Shortz -- creating a weekly series of crossword puzzles, easy on Monday, getting harder each day until devilishly difficult on Saturday, then a Sunday puz, ingeniously themed, not as hard as Friday's or Saturday's, but bigger and more languorously pleasurable.

That done, our all-powerful deity could turn over the details of creation -- Sun, Moon, Earth, land and sea, plants and animals -- to lesser demigods.

I never worked crosswords until in retirement I took up the New York Times puzzles at my mother's urging, "to keep your brain sharp." Seemed to work for her, still sharp as a tack when she passed on at age 92. Now the puzzles order my life, one each day, starting at 5 PM, and, if all goes well, finished handily in time for glass of wine at 6. Except on Sunday, when with coffee and Bach I sprawl on the sofa, sunlight streaming in the window, and savor the 21x21 with delicious antemeridial repose.

Is that a word? Well, never mind. As long as we have the great god Shortz creating divine posers, he can concoct any word he wants. And, now that I think about it, my version of creation is not all that different from what cosmologists believe actually happened. It wasn't stars and planets, land and sea, plants and animals that were created during the first moments of creation. Rather, the really interesting act of invention was the laws of nature that determine how the universe unfolds.

What gives science its vigor is the way the whole thing hangs together like a crossword puzzle, vertical and horizontal. It is not any one clue or answer that is interesting, but the way it works as a web. Lots of people think they can pick and chose among scientific theories -- accept chemistry and physics, say, but not certain aspects of geology or biology. It doesn't work that way. It would be like a crossword with all downs and no acrosses. Or a crossword with nonsense words threaded through an otherwise ingenious construction. The very best crosswords have a satisfying consistency, and that is what we look for in science too. And speaking for myself, I like themed crosswords, a puz with some lovely trick up its sleeve. A theme that is perfectly consistent with the laws of the crossword universe, but still has the power to delight and surprise.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Soaring across the universe

What was that statement of Lewis Wolpert's I quoted last week that stretched the limits of common sense? "There are more water molecules in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in all of the oceans of the Earth." See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday art.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Painting the planet in darkness


A week or so ago I posted a map showing the track of the solar eclipse that coincided with the Siege of Delhi in 1857. Here is another map from the same NASA atlas of eclipses, showing (in blue) all of the total solar eclipses between 2001 and 2020 (click to enlarge). I was on the southern coast of Turkey for the eclipse of March 29, 2006. I hope to be in China for the July 2009 eclipse. And if I can hang on for another decade, I will certainly be somewhere along the track of the eclipse that slices across the United States in 2017.

The Moon's conical shadow is as long and thin as a rapier, and by coincidence it is just about as long as the slightly variable distance between the Moon and Earth. Sometimes when the Moon gets between the Sun and Earth the tip of the shadow doesn't quite reach to the surface of the Earth and we have an annular eclipse (a thin ring of sunlight surrounds the Moon); these are the red bands on the map. But the really spectacular events are totality, when the tip of the shadow-rapier slices into the body of the Earth. The "gash" is the path of totality, the blue bands on the map. If you want to see a total solar eclipse you must be standing somewhere in this band, preferably near the centerline.

If the Moon were a bit smaller or a bit farther away, we wouldn't have total solar eclipses at all. If the Moon were bigger or closer, eclipses would be more common. As it is, the sizes and distances are such the these mind-blowing events are deliciously rare. As you look at the 20-year map, you can guess that the chance of having a total eclipse at the place where you live during your lifetime is small.

How long would it take for the entire map of the Earth to be "painted blue"? That is, what is the longest time any particular place on Earth would have to wait for a total solar eclipse? The answer: 4,500 years. Unless you want to travel, don't hold your breath. For more on this sort of thing, see my An Intimate Look At the Night Sky.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Deep history

As I write, my daughter and my two grandsons are touring the invasion beaches and battlefields of Normandy. The boys recently watched Tom Hanks' and Steven Spielberg's epic film Band of Brothers, and now they will see the places where the momentous events took place. Including, of course, the acres and acres of white markers in the military cemeteries.

And while they are at it, they will see a famous record of another cross-channel invasion: the Bayeux Tapestry.

According to a recent paper in Nature (July 19), England and France have not always been separated by water, even at times when sea level was as high as today. Apparently, the two landmasses were once connected by a rocky ridge between Dover and Calais. Then, sometime during successive advances and retreats of the last Ice Ages, a huge meltwater lake collected in what is now the North Sea basin, hemmed at the north by glacier and dammed at the south by the Dover-Calais ridge. To the west of the ridge, what is now the English Channel was a dry valley sloping down to the Atlantic shore; with so much ice on the continents, sea level was considerably lower than today.

As the North Sea basin filled, a trickle of cold meltwater overtopped the ridge, eroding a thin outflow channel in the sedimentary rock. The trickle became a gush, and the ridge gave way in a colossal washout. The North Sea meltwater lake emptied into the Atlantic in a surging flood the likes of which the world has seldom seen. Seldom, but not never. Geologists have long recognized that something similar happened in eastern Washington State about 15,000 years ago, creating the distinctive landscape features known as the Scablands. British geologists have now mapped identical landforms on the floor of the English Channel, indicating a flood from east to west.

My daughter is a geologist, and reads Nature every week. As she stands with my grandsons on the German pillbox at Pointe du Hoc, looking out into the Channel from which appeared the Allied armada of 1944, I hope she tells them the story of the Great Channel Megaflood. Human history is almost invariably influenced by geography. How sad it is that (according to polls) almost half of my grandsons' fellow Americans reject the glorious ongoing human quest to discover the planet-shaping history of deep time.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Celebrating the real

Richard Dawkins is at it again. Fresh from the success of The God Delusion, which has sold a million copies worldwide, he now takes on a much broader array of superstitions. His television series The Enemies of Reason begins next week on Channel 4 in Britain. We can expect a book to follow.

Astrologers, channelers, fortune tellers, psychics, homeopaths, dowsers, faith healers, crystal therapists -- you name it. Dawkins is out to debunk. And more power to him, I say. I covered much of the same ground in Skeptics and True Believers. He does it with more smarts and wit than I could muster.

It is not the ordinary folks who believe these things who Dawkins pans; as he says, what consenting adults do in private is no concern of his. It is the practitioners who charge for their superstitious services that he accuses of fraud at worst, or self-delusion at best. He is deeply chagrined, for example, that the cash-strapped National Health Service spends millions on the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, when there is not a shred of scientific evidence that homeopathy works as other than a placebo. As Dawkins says: "Either there is no effect, in which case you shouldn't be charging people money, or there is an effect, in which case you should prove it and win the Nobel prize." I look forward to the book; it should be great fun.

I would not, however, be as militant about all this as is Dawkins. People spend their money on stupider things than homeopathic remedies -- such as gas-guzzling Hummers, AK-47s, hate-mongering televangelists, war-mongering politicians, violent video games, and slasher movies. As for myself, I find more to celebrate in the real biology of the tomato plant at my elbow than in all the pseudoscientific claptrap in the world. And it's free.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The place within

Several years ago I quoted here a line from Richard Nelson's The Island Within, an account of life in Sitka, Alaska.: "As time went by, I realized that the particular place I'd chosen was less important than the fact that I'd chosen a place and focused my life around it."

I once had the pleasure of visiting with Rick and his wife in their beautiful home near cold Alaskan waters. Their simple house was filled with bright plants, crafts of all kinds, delicious home grown (and hunted) food. It was the sort of place that made you want to pull up stakes and move to the wild Northwest. Which was exactly the last thing that Rick and Nita wanted. Rick is coy in his book about the location of the place he writes about. Enjoy my book, he seems to say, but stay home.

Twice now I've gone and settled in places off the beaten track, seeking a life that is simpler and closer to nature than the one I live in New England. For the first ten years we lived here in the west of Ireland, we didn't have electricity, or telephone, and even our water supply was precarious. Our cottage was furnished entirely with the crafts of local carpenters, potters, weavers and artists. That was twenty-eight years ago. The place has since been discovered. It is now a Cape Cod of Ireland.

The same thing happened in Exuma. Our scruffy little island with wonderful people and long, empty white beaches has been discovered.

It was inevitable, I suppose. In any case, we are too old to go looking again for another "Outermost House" or "Tinker Creek." Our home in New England of 43 years, with lightning-fast broadband and access to the best medical services in the country is looking more and more attractive. Time to take to heart what Rick Nelson says in his book: "What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it's flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which its bounty is received."

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Gratitude


Yeah, I know, I know. I write about this at least once every summer. I can't help it. Nothing else happens during the year quite as extraordinary as what's happening just to my left at this very moment.

My studio here on the hill in Ireland has big south-facing windows. Like a greenhouse. And every year I line up my pots and stick in seeds. By August the windows have curtains of green. Tomatoes. Peas. Cukes. Morning glories.

I know this isn't a big deal. Everybody has plants in the windows. But still the whole thing reduces me to blubbering awe. Those tiny seeds transform dirt, water and air into these gorgeous, distinctive plants and fruits, each one different, each of its own kind.

That unexpected molecule, the double helix. Who could have guessed? GATACGATACC... A four-note song singing a tomato plant into existence. Yeats has a little four-line poem, called Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors:
What they undertook to do

They brought to pass;

All things hang like a drop of dew

Upon a blade of grass.

Monday, August 06, 2007

One impossible thing

I read the following in a review of Lewis Wolpert's new book, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief: "There are more molecules in a glass of water than glasses of water in the oceans." Apparently, Wolpert uses this as an example of the almost miraculous breakaway of scientific thinking from our intuitive understanding of the world.

And, indeed, when you think about it, there is absolutely no way one could make a statement like this without the full array of mathematical reasoning and quantitative observation that has characterized the scientific way of thinking since the time of the Alexandrians. Archimedes, for example, might have made a reasonable guess for the number of glasses of water in the oceans. (He had a fair idea of the size of the Earth and might have made a decent stab at the depth of the oceans.) He would not, of course, have been able to estimate the number of molecules in a glass of water.

Anyone even modestly trained in science today can do both. By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, there are about 10 to the 25th water molecules in a glass (1 followed by 25 zeros), and about 10 to the 22nd glasses of water in the oceans.

No shaman, magician or high priest of yore had such power at his fingertips.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The modern tenderness for human life

The Hindu and Muslim soldiers who rose against their British officers in the Indian Mutiny of 1587 justified terrible atrocities against Europeans as God's work. When the mutiny collapsed following the siege of Delhi, the British exacted their own terrible vengeance, also as God's work. As one British general put it: "The Word of God gives no authority to the modern tenderness for human life." The British chaplain at Delhi wrote that the Mutiny was "a conflict of truth against error" that justified any barbarism. See this week's Musing.

Click to enlarge Anne's Sunday gift.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Once again into the breach

Again, Dalrymple's The Last Muhgal, an account of the siege of Delhi by the British in the autumn of 1857.

Earlier in the year, Indian mutineers from the British army, Hindus and Muslims, had seized the city, and sought the leadership and protection of Bahadur Shah Zafar II, last of the Mughal emperors, a proud but ineffectual puppet of the British. The British gathered their forces and prepared to retake the city.

After a fierce cannonade, the gates were breached. The invaders gained a foothold inside the walls, but at great cost. Street-to-street fighting took a heavy toll on the greatly outnumbered Europeans and their native allies. The battle, and perhaps British control of India, hung in the balance. Then, says Dalrymple, "In the middle of the following morning, 18 September, the sun was completely eclipsed for five minutes. The city darkened ominously for nearly three hours, before the light slowly returned." The ordinary British soldiers were unnerved by the event, since no one had warned them to expect it. But for the defenders of the city, the eclipse was "the ultimate ill omen, a signal of extreme divine displeasure." They panicked and fled.

This is the sort of thing that happens only in the movies.

But was it a total solar eclipse, as Dalrymple implies? You will see below a portion of a map from the NASA atlas of historical eclipses between 1841 and 1860. The red swaths are paths of annular eclipses; that is, the moon does not completely cover the face of the sun, but leaves exposed a thin ring of light. The blue bands are paths of totality. The eclipse of September 18, 1857 was annular, and Delhi does not lie in the path of annularity. But it is not far out. What the invaders and defenders of Delhi saw on that critical morning was a very deep partial eclipse (which I watched using Starry Night software). Still, to the superstitious mind, it was enough to turn the tide of battle.

When the sun went dark, it was not military prowess that prevailed in Delhi. It was, in a sense, an encounter of minds disposed to miracles versus minds disposed to natural law. Which is not to say, of course, that the British did not also believe they were doing God's work as they set about butchering the innocent Delhians -- men, women and children -- who remained in the battered city.

More tomorrow. Click to enlarge map.

Friday, August 03, 2007

To the manner born

William James wrote: "At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe." Since I posted yesterday, I've read more of Robert Michael Pyle's Sky Time in Gray's River, and I've been reminded what it is I so admire about Bob. His manner of acceptance.

On our first encounter with James's phrase we are likely to focus on the word "acceptance." We think , for example, of the poet E. E. Cummings' acceptance "for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes" -- taking the world as we find it and not as we wish it to be. But acceptance easily drifts into stolid resignation. Boredom, even. "That's the way of it," my neighbor here will sometimes say. Nothing to be done.

What struck me as I read Bob last evening was the manner of his acceptance. "Manners" in its plural meaning implies a certain grace, a politeness, a civilizing virtue. "She has good manners," we say. There is nothing passive about Bob's manner. It is rich with a restless desire to learn, with celebration. He knows what sort of world he wants to live in, but there is nothing in his voice of the proselytizer. His manner is without anger, without contention. Rather, there is a kind of hands-on, or manual, quality to his acceptance -- there it is, the same Latin root, manus, hand. A random few sentences:
The first wood nymph comes dancing around the corner of the porch, announcing the arrival of summer's long last stand. Doug Larson is cutting hay. Around and around Lenore Sorenson's field the old Farmall, baling-wired together for yet another season, spins a narrowing ellipse. Spud, the brown dog, runs alongside but gives the machine plenty of room, his brother having gone under the flair last year.
Not high adventure, but necessary and real. Not afloat in the stratosphere of pious posturings or wistful longing. Just what Donald Hall said about his own Eagle Pond in New England: "There's no reason to live here except for love."

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Knowledge and love

By the kindness of the author or the publisher, Robert Michael Pyle's new book, Sky Time in Gray's River, has showed up on my doorstep in Ireland. Bob is one of the most genuine guys I've ever met, and a wonderful columnist for Orion Magazine. Any book of his is welcome. This one takes us though the change of season's at Bob's home in Gray's River, Washington. I see that the book is blurbed by another of my favorite writers, Brian Doyle of Portland. What is it about the Northwestern U. S. that produces (or attracts to itself) so many fine nature writers?

Bob says of his place and what happens there: "None of this is high adventure, but it meets my hope for a home where boredom remains at bay." And that, it seems to me is what it's all about --keeping one's self engaged in the elements and the rhythms of a place. As I wrote in the introduction to The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe: "Any path can become the Path if attended to with care, without preconceptions, informed by knowledge, and open to surprise." These are qualities that Bob Pyle possesses in spades.

Bob is not only a writer. He is also a lepidopterist who knows as much about butterflies as anyone else on the planet. He wrote a lovely book called Chasing Monarchs, which recounted a jaunty journey with his dog across the American West, following western monarchs on their annual migration. I once met up with Bob in the mountains of central Mexico, where all of the eastern monarchs had gathered to spend the winter -- millions of them. What a gift it was to be in the company of one who brings knowledge and love, science and poetry, so seamlessly together. "Put on your jumping shoes," said the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, "which are intellect and love." Bob jumps.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Care of body and soul -- Part 2

I've never choked on a fish bone or required a Heimlich maneuver. For this I suppose I should credit Saint Blaise, an early Christian martyr whose intercession is counted helpful in matters of the throat. I don't know if it still happens, but when I was a kid, every February 3rd, Saint Blaise's feast day, the kids at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School were trooped to the church to have our throats blessed. We knelt along the altar rail and Father Shea came along with crossed beeswax candles -- tied together with a pretty silk ribbon, as I recall -- and holding the vee of the candles to our throats, pronounced the magic words that conferred immunity from choking. The candles were not lighted.

As you will guess, I managed to finagle a place at the altar rail next to Carmen Costello, and behind prayerfully folded hands I watched discreetly as Carmen held up her slim white neck to receive the blessing.

One a month or so, I was lucky enough to be the Mass server -- in chaste white surplice -- when Carmen came to the rail to receive Communion. Now I could look directly at her as I held the paten under her chin. Eyes closed, she tipped back her head, opened her adorable mouth, and stuck out her tongue to take the Host.

Once, as Father Shea placed the wafer on her tongue, she suddenly opened her eyes, looking directly into mine. I was so startled, I dropped the paten. Clang! Those tiny crumbs of the body of Jesus dumped into the dust! The nuns and my schoolmates gasped. But Father Shea, bless him, leaned over, picked up the paten, placed it in my hand, and continued along the rail as if nothing had happened.

I suspect that episode was still in my mind when I wrote the following passage from In the Falcon's Claw: A Novel of the Year 1000. Aileran, a priest, is giving the Eucharist to his secret love Melisande, in the chapel of the house of Odo, her brutish husband:
I turned from the altar to bring the communion to the master and mistress of the house. Whom should I approach first? Would Odo see and know? Would he rise up from his knees like the God of wrath and strike the chalice from my hands? I placed the host into his hands, into that dark basket of hairy, gnarled fingers. I turned to Melisande.

Corpus Christi, I whispered.

She lifted her head and I placed the wafer on her tongue. Her tongue furled back and carried the host into her mouth. She opened her eyes, and for a moment, perhaps only a second, I saw into her soul. I knew then that I was not alone, and that whatever followed was necessary and inevitable.

Quod ore sampsimus, Domine, pura mente capiamus, I murmured: What we have taken with our mouth, O Lord, may we receive with a pure heart.