Monday, December 01, 2008

Advent 2008 Week One Monday

Where do we begin if we are to talk about food? As we hear from our title, food is the bricks and mortar - the building blocks - the "elements" of life. But there is something more fundamental even than food - something the ancients considered elemental. You may recall the famous scene in "The Ten Commandments" when the Israelites are told they are to make bricks without straw... it was just a way of forcing them to do more work - but it would be sheer insanity for Pharoah to command that bricks be made without water.

Water. It deserves a book to itself. So profoundly important that ancient peoples deified it wherever they found it: the rain, the spring, the river, the sea; they claimed it as an "element", as something so simple and so important and so fundamental - and so irreducible - that they were convinced it was something essential and raw and singular.

They were, as usual when they tried to do science, quite wrong, but had seen some very important facts, which we still adhere to, and which no new science has come to upset. Water is not chemically an element - we know it can be reduced to simpler components. But the ancient four-fold "elemental" structure once seen still remains, in the four "physical states" of solid (earth), liquid (water), gas (air), and plasma (fire). We know far better than they how important water is to life - it is not simply "necessary" in the sense that (say) gasoline is to a car, but rather it is required in the way that air is for music - or do I mean silence? (See I told you I would forget and be poetical. But you'll see more poetry later.) Why is it required? Because the very machines of life - the enzymes, the proteins which "make things happen" in all living cells - they are nothing but long and strangely complex organic compounds, until there is water which gives them their proper forms, and enables them to do their work!

And of course water has been demoted from any claim to divinity - or has it? Chesterton reminds us of how the pagan view of nature is dangerous:
The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:317]
But a greater poet than Chesterton gave us a verse which might summarize the matter for us:
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,
So useful, lowly, precious, and pure.
[St. Francis of Assisi: "The Canticle of the Creatures"]
And recall the Master of both GKC and Francis, Who told us:
"And on the last, and great day of the festivity, Jesus stood and cried, saying: If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink. He that believeth in me, as the scripture saith: Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. [Jn 7:37-8, see Zc 14:8, Ez 14:1ff]
Now, before we get into the mystery of water as it is, let us first treat one minor objection to the topic.

How is water to be considered a "sacrifice"?

We could recall how the pagans would offer libations: they would pour out a cup of the first wine, or a cup of water when they were thirsty, in token of sacrifice:
...a thing very deep in humanity indeed; the idea of surrendering something as the portion of the unknown powers; of pouring out wine upon the ground, of throwing a ring into the sea; in a word, of sacrifice. It is the wise and worthy idea of not taking our advantage to the full; of putting something in the other balance to ballast our dubious pride, of paying tithes to nature for our land. ... When the man makes the gesture of salutation and of sacrifice, when he pours out the libation or lifts up the sword, he knows he is doing a worthy and a virile thing. He knows he is doing one of the things for which a man was made.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:242, 244]
But that only tells us half of the picture. There are two other halves. (You are, alas, hearing a Chestertonian speak to you, who has four parts to his trilogies and three halves in his whole...) One I must defer for now, but not for long.

The other is paradoxical.

It is simply phrased:
I thirst. [Jn 19:28]
You may recall that He said those words on the cross - which is that third half I alluded to. (Just hold on and I'll explain!) But this "thirst" won't make any sense until we recall the earlier line where He was speaking to the woman in Samaria:
If thou didst know the gift of God and who he is that saith to thee: Give me to drink; thou perhaps wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. [Jn 4:10]
So? Well, you have to understand that "living water" means a spring or other water source which is flowing - so you need to know about things that flow. For example: if you have ever been indoors, and someone (like your grandmother) comes in from the cold outdoors (say at Christmas) and you kiss her cheek, you'll find that her cheek is cold. Likewise, if you are the grandmother and your little grandchild gives you a kiss, you feel he is warm. The flow of heat works that way. In the same way, if one is supplied with water and thus has his thirst alleviated, the water source might be said to experience a lessening - it has "a thirst". Is that poetical? Maybe. But for the Infinite Source to be athirst? That is a mystery.

Let us turn, then, to this third half of our whole, the cross, and see how it appears in the simple thing called water. In order to see this, and begin our serious scientific study, we need to open the various references of chemistry and other related subjects, so we can begin to know more about our Sister Water.

Water, as you know, is H2O. Two hydrogens attached to one oxygen. It is truly a strange, and a very wonderful substance. One of my reference books, Biochemistry by J. David Rawn, spends a whole chapter (some 20 pages) on water, treating of its structure and its properties, but that is just an introduction for the purposes of that text. Whole books, whole branches of knowledge are founded on water: oceanography, limnology, hydrology, hydraulics, various branches of engineering, of geology... As Chesterton pointed out, "It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning." [What's Wrong With the World CW4:43] But for now we'll leave these other aspects and consider just one thing you need to know about water.

The molecule of water is a kind of lopsided triangle, which you might envision as two small spheres stuck onto a much larger one. Viewed from the center of the oxygen, the two hydrogens make an angle of 104.5° If that is too hard to imagine, think of a tetrahedron - a pyramid with a triangular base, having all its sides equal. Put the big sphere (oxygen) at its center, and the two little ones (hydrogens) at two corners. That's water. But leave the outline - because there are other things you cannot see.

The water molecule is balanced - that is, each hydrogen has an electron which they "share" with the oxygen, thus completing its outer shell of electrons. It is not an ion - in pure water, only one out of every ten million molecules are ionized (that is what we call having the "neutral" pH of 7.0!) But the oxygen with its eight protons in the nucleus pulls very strongly on those "shared" electrons - so much so that the water molecule shows what are called partial charges - there are two "positive" poles, in the corners where the two hydrogens are, and there are two "negative" poles, which point out the two opposite corners of the tetrahedron.

Why is that a cross? Well, if one looks at it from one of the edges, one will see a cross of the four partial poles:

This partial or dipolar nature of water is responsible for some of the odd characteristics of water - why it is hard to heat, why it gets lighter when it freezes, and other strange things. It is why water - and water alone - dictates the precise unvarying shapes of most chemicals of living things - we shall hear more about that when we get to proteins.

And thus, we must begin to grasp that there are sound biochemical reasons for using phrases like "living water" - and for the sacramental matter of Baptism. Just as water gives proteins their correct and living shapes, the Water of Baptism gives us our new Life a new shape... (again, a bit of poetry, perhaps.)

We'll proceed to study some more about water tomorrow.


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