Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Falling stars

The Perseids are the most reliable meteor shower of the year, and occur (in the northern hemisphere) when nights are warm and the sky has a good chance of being clear. According to Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar, this year might yield a particularly bountiful harvest of meteors, especially around Europe's midnight on the night of August 12-13.

The shower is called the Perseids because the "shooting stars" all seem to radiate from a spot in the constellation Perseus, which here in Ireland at midnight will be in the northeast. So, if the night is clear, spread your blanket on the lawn and enjoy the show.

And to celebrate, fetch out your copy of Honey From Stone and read again:
In many rural parts of Europe the Perseid meteors are called the Tears of Saint Lawrence. I have known the story of Lawrence since I was a child. It is the kind of story that was certain to make an impression upon a young mind. Even now, forty years later, I remember its first telling: how Decius, upon becoming emperor of the Roman Empire, began a persecution of Christians. For Lawrence he devised a special torture. He prepared a sort of barbeque grill that he placed above a fire of glowing coals. He stripped Lawrence and pressed him upon the grill to roast. "Turn me over," said the saint after an appropriate interval of torment. "I'm done on this side."

The story of the martyrdom of Lawrence, like much hagiography of early saints, is almost certainly apocryphal. There is little primary historical evidence that would verify the saint's existence. The characters in the story, as I heard it, did not even live at the same time. Still, when I heard the story as a child. I regarded it as fact. Lawrence was presented to me as a real-life actor in the drama of faith and salvation. "Whom should I adore," asked the saint accusingly, when the emperor demanded worship of the ancient gods, "the Creator or the creature?" It was a huge question. And in reply, Decius had Lawrence whipped with scorpions.

What am I to make of the story now, forty years later? Lawrence's story is a child's story. But the question asked by the saint echoes across the years: Whom should I adore, the Creator or the creature? And what is the answer? The creation is here, palpably present, on this night of shooting stars. The sky weeps meteors. The Milky Way stands like a pillar on the sea. And where is the Creator, the God of Lawrence? Gone. Flown away on some heavenward trajectory, like Comet Swift-Tuttle, into the darkness at the edge of knowing.
It has been a quarter-century since I wrote that. Honey From Stone is still in print, and the God of Lawrence is still absconditus.

Of Comet Swift-Tuttle, the progenitor of the saint's tears, more tomorrow.