Last month, as Chicago and other Midwest cities made headlines for smoky skies, I donned my mask and headed outside. A certain sadness, much like the haze, enveloped me. I wondered whether the tears in my eyes were from the smoke or for the smoke, and what it meant. By the end of June, Canada had already set the record for the largest area of land burned by wildfires — some 19.5 million acres. The trees that once purified our air now blackened our lungs. For the first time in my life, I was glad I birthed no children. I was ruefully reminded of the passage when Jesus announced that “the days are coming in which they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore.’” (Luke 23:29)
That same week, I spoke with a woman who also choked back tears as she realized the cells knitting together in her womb would not become a baby for her to hold, one she dearly desired. Sometimes I struggle to comfort those who have no belief system or who don’t know what they believe. I found myself saying to her, “What we do know is that matter can be neither created nor destroyed and that this life energy within you now will continue to exist, in some way.” As she allowed her mind to create a living image, her breath became even. I wondered whether some day this never-born would be in the air we breathe. I could not cry.
A few days later, when the skies were clearer, Sister Julia told me that she and a friend had emptied the chapel in the building of a former Catholic Worker house where I once lived. The organization currently housed there had no religious affiliation, and holy objects were to be taken away. Once again my eyes stung. In a past, fervent moment, that Catholic Worker was going to be my future — a place to co-create the family I did not have. But in a few months’ time, I left that house and these dreams. Crisis always smoldered there, ready to flare up at any moment. As someone who had been invited to support its restructuring, I felt responsible for its demise. Now I was ashamed that others had to clear out the mess in its wake.
The next morning, Sister Julia invited me to help her burn the papers, such as past-dated paperbound missals and instructional materials that contained scripture but no longer had a use. An accomplished fire builder and fire tender, she kept the flames contained in a backyard fire pit. However, the abundance of printed paper transformed to black ash floating in the air — another smoky assault. Now the Word of God darkened the skies. How could that be Good News? While Julia undertook the task as a holy chore, I somberly dropped the pages into the mini-inferno — an offering of failures. While my head knows I alone could not have saved that Catholic Worker ministry anymore than I alone can save the Canadian forests, regret still tasted acrid in my mouth.
It is not lost on me that the religious contents of the Catholic Worker ended up at The Fireplace, the community I cautiously sought out in an attempt to rehabilitate my disfigured notions of intentional community. This intrusion of the past into the present disturbed me, carrying with it a sense of foreboding: Will I be able to maintain my connection to this community? Will I support it in succeeding, or will my influence harm? Sister Sharon, watching me brood, gave me a more hopeful interpretation, one of my past trials ending and my new life with community beginning. I am skeptical. But it is true that fire, for the moment, gives warmth, not burns. It even cooks a meal, or roasts a marshmallow, on occasion.
When reasons fail, my mind wanders toward the poetical. And so I catalog the mystery:
Matter can be neither created nor destroyed, at least the matter we can see. But, it can be transformed. Trees into smoke and ash. Cells into sentient beings. Marshmallows into gooey perfection. And once, we’re told, water into wine by the Word made Flesh. And you and me, well, slowly, excruciatingly, at times, Into the Body of Christ.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angela Paviglianiti practices social work in Chicago where she also completed seminary; however, she has not yet mastered divinity. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, you can find her at The Fireplace Community, and on other days, you can usually find something she forgot there.