[First Things Online; November 6, 2007]
For some time now I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s terrific 2003 book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. (You should interpret “some time” to mean “a pretty long time,” because not only is this a hefty-sized book, it’s about science.) In his introduction Bryson, an entertaining travel writer, explains how he came to write a book about the origins of life, the universe, and everything. He says that when he was in the fourth or fifth grade the cover of his science text showed the earth with a quarter cut away, revealing an interior neatly arranged in colorful layers. Not only did Bryson enjoy the thought of unsuspecting motorists sailing off the edge, he was also awed by the scope of science. He wondered, “How do they know that?” But eagerness turned to disappointment as he discovered that the text didn’t address that question, and in fact managed to make science seem boring. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the book Bryson wanted to read. It’s a marvelous work, built upon a truly immense amount of research, and delivered in a style that is inviting and clear.
But while it’s clear, it’s not always comprehensible, because there are aspects of our earthly life that are beyond understanding. For example, “When scientists calculate the amount of matter needed to hold things together, they always come up desperately short. It appears that at least 90 percent of the universe, and perhaps as much as 99 percent, is composed of [astrophysicist] Fritz Zwicky’s ‘dark matter’—stuff that is by its nature invisible to us.”
Think about that: up to 99 percent of the universe is invisible. It’s kind of eerie. (Despite conventional wisdom that science is the enemy of religion, there’s a reason the typical university science department is more faith-friendly than the humanities department. A belief that Proust was a transsexual cannot be falsified, but scientists are going to keep running into hard facts about the real world that make their hair stand on end.) What is all that invisible stuff? The line in the Nicene Creed about God being creator of “all things, visible and invisible” leapt to mind. There are the “bodiless powers,” the angels, but what else might there be? Bryson comments, “It is slightly galling to think that we live in a universe that, for the most part, we can’t even see.”
I was also arrested by the thought that matter cannot be created or destroyed. That would mean that everything that has ever existed—every tree, every jeweled crown, every house, every piece of clothing—is still here somewhere, though in a disassembled state. As I thought about that I became puzzled by the fact that there are indisputably new things, such as new baby tigers in the jungle. My son Stephen was also reading the book, and he has a better head for science than I do, so I asked him, “If matter can be neither created nor destroyed, where do babies come from?” Steve explained that a new baby, just like a new roll of fat around the middle, comes from the food we eat: we convert food molecules into body cells, our own or our offspring’s. Then he shook his head and said, “I’m going to have to tell my friends that my mom asked me where babies come from.”
The persistence of matter also came up in a surprising, even disturbing, way in Chapter 9, “The Mighty Atom.” Bryson begins by stressing how tiny and ubiquitous atoms and their neighborhood associations, molecules, are: in a cubic centimeter of air (about the size of a sugar cube), there are 45 billion billion molecules. Bryson goes on to say that atoms are not only abundant but “fantastically durable. Because they are so long-lived, atoms really get around.” Here’s the astounding part: “Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death”—there’s a phrase to stick in the mind—“that a significant number of our atoms—up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested—probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed; however much you may wish it, you are not yet one with Elvis Presley.)”
Not only is that fairly creepy, it also boggles the mind. If I’m carrying “up to a billion” atoms from each of these historic persons, I must be carrying similar souvenirs of every other person who has lived in the history of the world; there would be no way to select only famous folks. Bryson goes on, “We are all reincarnations—though short-lived ones. When we die our atoms will disassemble and moved off to find new uses elsewhere–as part of a leaf or other human being or a drop of dew.” I can help but understand that “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) means something much dustier than I had previously imagined. It’s dust whirled in a blender.
Perhaps the scale of things becomes slightly more comprehensible when we learn that “half a million [atoms] lined up shoulder to shoulder could hide behind a human hair.” But I can’t help but balk at the thought that every person who has ever lived is actually part of my body. I’ve become very companionable with my body over the years, and always felt confident of exclusive ownership. Now it seems as if these atoms are in a temporary federation, agreeing to live together for some decades in order to provide a habitation for “me,” whatever that is. (And here we could go shooting of into other imponderables: how do matter and energy coincide, what is life, what is consciousness, does the mind live in the brain, is the mind generated by brain chemistry, and so forth). Today atoms of my body are working diligently together like the citizens of an ant colony. One day I’ll clonk over, and they’ll tell each other “Bye!” and cheerfully go off to be part of seals and salamanders and office buildings and (I don’t like this thought much) other people.
To confuse things further, there’s also the fact that the body I inhabit is not itself continuous. The folk science claim that every seven years all the cells in a human body are replaced turns out to be true, though seven is an average figure; some tissues are longer-lived than others. So not only are we living in a building made of recycled materials, even while we’re here it’s undergoing constant renovation. The brain, at least, is pretty durable, and on average a mere three years younger than its owner.
So if I’m made up of other people, and will contribute to other people, what exactly is going to be resurrected on the Last Day? St. Paul acknowledges the perennial question: “‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’” (I Corinthians 15:35). He continues, “You foolish man!” (I guess it’s not a smart question.) “What you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel….God gives it a body, as it is pleasing to him,…to every seed its special body.” I don’t entirely grasp this, but I can understand how a seed relates to a plant. An acorn doesn’t look like an oak tree, but there is real continuity between them. Whatever my resurrection body is like, it will be connected to this current body in some physical way. I’ll have to be content with that for now.
You no doubt noticed that when Bryson was listing historic personages who’ve contributed to the makeup of our bodies, he didn’t name Jesus Christ. When our Lord ascended, he took his body with him. But he did leave something behind. At his crucifixion, the Gospel of St. John tells us, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and there came out blood and water” (John 19:34).
Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, an émigré from Soviet Russia who became dean of the Russian Orthodox seminary in Paris, published an essay reflecting on that verse in 1932. It’s titled “The Holy Grail,” but he makes clear that he’s not talking about the Grail of medieval legend, the cup which St. Joseph of Arimathea supposedly held to catch the blood flowing from Christ’s side. Bulgakov says that the myth of the Grail is nevertheless trying to tell us something. It “expresses precisely the idea that, even though the Lord ascended in His honorable flesh to heaven, the world received His holy relic in the blood and water flowed out of His side.”
The vessel which caught the blood of Christ, Bulgakov proposes, was not a cup. It was that span of weary earth lying at the foot of the cross. “The life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev 17:11), and our Lord’s lifeblood soaked into the dry and rocky soil of that graveyard outside the city gates. His blood was hidden there in the ground, and, in Bulgakov’s lovely image, thereby consecrated that ground, all ground, the entirety of material Creation.
“The whole world is the chalice of the Holy Grail,” Bulgakov writes. “The Holy Grail is inaccessible to veneration; in its holiness is hidden in the world from the world. However, it exists in the world as an invisible power…[It] is not offered for communion but abides in the world as the mysterious holiness of the world, as the power of life, as the fire in which the world will be transfigured into a new heaven and new earth.”
He explores this idea further later on. The world is the Grail, “for it has received into itself and contains Christ’s precious blood and water. The whole world is the chalice of Christ’s blood and water; the whole world partook of them in communion at the hour of Christ’s death. And the whole world hides the blood and water within itself. …[A]ll the blood and water of Christ that flowed forth into the world sanctified the world. This blood and water made the world a place of the presence of Christ’s power, prepared the world for its future transfiguration, for the meeting with Christ come in glory.
“The world was not deprived of Christ’s presence (‘ I will not leave you comfortless’ [John 14:18]). Christ is not alien to the world; the world lives by Christ’s power. The world has become Christ, for it is the holy chalice, the Holy Grail. The world has become indestructible and incorruptible, for in Christ’s blood and water it has received the power of incorruption, which will be manifested in its transfiguration. The world is already paradise, for it has produced ‘the tri-blessed tree on which Christ was crucified.’”
The gift of Christ’s blood hidden in the earth means that he is present in our midst; not merely a spiritual or inspirational presence, but a participant in the ceaseless tide of matter as it surges now together, now apart. Christ didn’t just visit our world, but continues here, mingled with the atoms we see and touch every day. I am looking at my computer monitor screen, and then at the monitor, the pens and papers on my desk, the lamp and stapler, the photos of those I love. Everything is going to be returned to dust. Throughout the history of the world this convulsive dance of alliances forming and dissolving will go on. But on Good Friday something was added, and by it the world becomes the True Grail.
It’s unnerving to think that every atom of my familiar body, this body I’ve inhabited for more than fifty years and cherish as my dearest home, is so fragile; one day it will be disassembled and “vigorously recycled” into other forms. But the atoms of Christ’s blood have been doing that as well, and have mingled secretly with the dust of our common life for two thousand years. We may now carry some of those atoms in our own bodies, or ingest them with our food, a mysterious parallel Communion. Though I live in a temporary building, it is literally a Temple of the Holy Spirit. It is a blessing and a consolation to know that, and to mingle in this ancient dance, until it pleases the Creator of all things to ring down the curtain and call his creatures home.