Monday, October 24, 2005

Light From the Rosary (Part 3)

Light From the Rosary (Part 3)

Light From the Rosary (Part 1)
Light From the Rosary (Part 2)

I neglected to indicate the abbreviation scheme I use in this paper. It is very simple: each the mysteries are indicated by a single letter (J, L, S, G) followed by a digit (1,2,3,4,5). So J1 is the Annunciation, L4 is the Transfiguration, etc.

The Johanno-Pauline Mysteries
The Pope himself calls the Rosary "the compendium of the Gospel" [Rosarium Virginis Mariae 1 and 18-19] – for all that its 15 traditional mysteries are limited to the joyful events of the first 12 years of our Lord, and the sorrowful and glorious events of the Sacred Triduum and subsequent 50 days culminating in Pentecost. (I am not sure what time span to assign to G4; I have already hinted that G5 may actually be yet to come.) But this span is a rather small fraction of the entire Gospel story – and thus, the Pope proposes five new mysteries which deal with the "public ministry" of our Lord. These complete the strictly chronological view by filling in the roughly 21 year gap between J5 and S1. [Chesterton has an interesting perspective on this gap: see The Everlasting Man CW2:321-322. Another view, arising from modern knowledge of developmental anatomy, has to do with the bone in the shoulder called the clavicle, which is not completely developed until about 30 – thus Jesus waited until He was "full-grown" to begin His public ministry.]

These Johanno-Pauline mysteries form a marvellous design which only can come about when a master artist exerts his talents to their utmost and draws upon all his knowledge at the supreme moment of inspiration. And, since this was the Pope writing, I have no doubt that this is the case. Indeed I have no inside knowledge of the work John Paul II went through to write his letter, but it is evident that these mysteries were selected with great care and what I will call true ingenuity – the selection has artistic beauty as well as engineering cleverness.
I mention "engineering" for a very good reason. One of the titles of the Pope, inherited (or taken as a trophy) from Ancient Rome is Pontifex Maximus – the "Greatest Bridge-Builder" – which was the title of the Roman high priest. Bridge building, a very special and important branch of engineering, has the remarkable honor of being considered a "work of mercy" during the Middle Ages, and was even mentioned by St. Thomas Aquinas as one of the reasons (along with building of a church) one might beg for money. [Summa Theologica II-II Q187 A5] Anyhow, it requires a great effort and very special knowledge to erect a bridge. It is also a great effort to maintain that bridge – as the Popes surely know! And if one were to modify or extend or strengthen a bridge, perhaps to accomodate greater traffic, and preserve its usefulness and safety – and even its artistic elegance – that also is a great effort, and requires truly deep awareness of the principles of design of that bridge.
The Pope, working undoubtedly by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has beautifully enlarged and strengthened the Rosary. And I say this honestly, though with perhaps a tongue-in-cheek view, not as an engineer who knows about bridges, but as a computer scientist who knows about graph theory, which is also about "connecting" things.
Graph theory is the branch of mathematics which examines collections of "things" which are said to have "relations" with each other. The "things" are called nodes or vertices, and the "relations" are called edges. In one simple form of notation, the nodes are given names (words or numbers or codes), and the edges are written simply by putting the names of the two nodes inside parentheses. Here is an example graph of the Holy Family:




(Joseph Mary)
(Mary Jesus)
(Jesus Joseph)

(I should note that there can be both directed and undirected graphs. The edges of a directed graph have a specified order of the names within each pair – in the drawing, the edge has an arrowhead pointing from one node to another. In an undirected graph, the order does not matter: (a b) and (b a) are the same, and either the edges in the drawing won't have any arrowheads, or else they always have both. It is simply the difference between city streets which can be one-way or two-way.)

One can make interesting little diagrams, reminiscent of the "connect-the-dots" pictures of youth. (See the back cover for an example!) Graph theory may sound very theoretical, but it is very important to such practical things [*] as mail and freight delivery, or electrical power lines, or the arrangement of the networks forming the INTERNET, or even biology problems like the structure of DNA or or protein molecules.

[*] A footnote from GKC:
A long time ago I pointed out, in these pages, the fallacy of crying out for a practical man. I noted, what should be obvious enough, that when a problem is really bad and basic, we should rather wail and pray and cry aloud for an unpractical man. The practical man only knows the machine in practice; just as many a man can drive a motor-car who could not mend it, still less design it. The more serious is the trouble, the more probable it is that some knowledge of scientific theory will be required; and though the theorist will be called unpractical, he will probably be also indispensable. What is generally meant by a business man is a man who knows the way in which our particular sort of modern business does generally work. It does not follow that he is imaginative enough to suggest something else when ours obviously does not work. And (unless I very much misread the signs of the modern transition) we are soon coming to a time when everybody will be looking for somebody who can suggest something else.
[G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News March 29, 1930 CW35:279-280]

Now I mention DNA and protein for a very important reason, as these things are the fundamental components of the living thing – yes, even the human body itself, as Chesterton points out:

The Body was no longer what it was when Plato and Porphyry and the old mystics had left it for dead. It had hung upon a gibbet. It had risen from a tomb. It was no longer possible for the soul to despise the senses, which had been the organs of something that was more than man. Plato might despise the flesh; but God had not despised it. [Compare with the verse in the Te Deum: Non horruisti virginis uterum – "You (God) did not despise the Virgin's womb."] The senses had truly become sanctified; as they are blessed one by one at a Catholic baptism. "Seeing is believing" was no longer the platitude of a mere idiot, or common individual, as in Plato's world; it was mixed up with real conditions of real belief. Those revolving mirrors that send messages to the brain of man, that light that breaks upon the brain, these had truly revealed to God himself the path to Bethany or the light on the high rock of Jerusalem. These ears that resound with common noises had reported also to the secret knowledge of God the noise of the crowd that strewed palms and the crowd that cried for Crucifixion. After the Incarnation had become the idea that is central in our civilisation, it was inevitable that there should be a return to materialism, in the sense of the serious value of matter and the making of the body. [G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas CW 2:49]

I have been reading Gray's Anatomy because the human body is so interesting and St. Paul had some very important things to say about it in connection with Christ (See e.g. 1Cor 12:12). In particular, he wrote to the Ephesians (4:16) about the body being "fitted and joined together" and each joint adding its strength. At the simplest and the deepest level, DNA and protein are merely long chains of simple molecules, tied or bonded together. Chains or "strings" made out of the four "bases" of DNA – four chemicals called nucleotides, symbolized by the four letters A, C, G, T – linked together by phospodiester bonds. (There are about 3 billion of these bases in the DNA for one human cell.) Similarly, each of the thousands of kinds of proteins start out as chains of the twenty amino acids, linked together by peptide bonds. The units of these chains or DNA or protein are called monomers (they are the nucleotides, or the amino acids) and the chains are polymers. The phosphodiester bonds between the DNA monomers (A, C, G, T) form the "backbone" of DNA, and the peptide bonds between the amino acids form the "backbone" of protein.
The particular order of the monomers along these backbones is called the primary structure by molecular biologists. Styrene and other plastics are also polymers, but they are simple repeats of the same monomer over and over. The order of the nucleotides or amino acids looks random, but are actually arranged according to a far more complex set of rules, for they "spell out" the working structures of life! The letters are no more random than they are in English words – in fact, you can think of our human DNA simply as the "spelling" of a word of three billion nucleotide letters. You need not be disturbed by the DNA alphabet of four letters: Morse code and computers use fewer!
This ordering like spelling occurs whenever words are being handled. In a computer, the letters are bytes, and the bytes of a word or string appear next to each other in memory. If, however, you are from an older technology and know about printing, you can think of the old "type" made of metal (yes, like Gutenberg) which slides into a form to produce a line of print. The order is imposed by one type (metal block) being next to another one, just as you see these letters next to each other on the page in front of you! Note that this relation, whether in the computer or in typesetting, is most transitory: but once printing occurs, the word (hitherto merely adjacent characters) takes on a new kind of being, having been "enfleshed" into print.
In the same way as letters are composed into words, this formation of a chain happens in living things: the duplication of the three billion characters of DNA, or in the translation of a portion of DNA into protein. (Note that the relevant excerpt of DNA is first transcribed (copied) into an intermediate form called mRNA or messenger RNA – how strange where the "angelic" function shows up!) Here is an analogy which may help: A master blueprint (DNA), or permanent memory, is kept in a safe place (the nucleus), and when work needs to be done, the necessary portion is duplicated into a working copy (messenger RNA); that working copy is rendered or built by the construction crew (ribosomes) into an actual structure (protein) out of raw materials (amino acids).
Also in the same way, the chronological sequence of the Rosary Mysteries might be said to be its "backbone" or primary structure. But there is more to be said about both things, for DNA and RNA and protein molecules can have various links within themselves which are called their secondary structure – and there are even higher orders of structure, when the molecules fold up, and are joined with other molecules! Likewise we will see that the various Mysteries might be seen to have "links" or cross-references to each other – and even to other prayers and liturgical acts.

(to be continued...)


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