Friday, December 05, 2008

Advent 2008: Week One Friday

We are still considering water as the elementary step to our study of food. Today, Friday, it is well that ponder the sacrificial character of our subject - and so we shall hear about two extreme aspects of water - its origin and its use.

In order to talk about the origin of water, we need to touch a little on atomic physics, but I hardly have time or space (hee hee) to deal with that subject very well. Instead let us hear a line from a rock song:
I am made from the dust of the stars, and the ocean runs in my veins....
[Rush, "Presto"]
Yes, indeed, since the human body is mostly water. (We shall hear more about its other constituents as we proceed.) As you may know, most stars are mostly hydrogen:
Twinkle twinkle little star:
We know much of what you are!

Atomic fusion makes you shine,
Giving us your light so fine...
Twinkle twinkle little star:
We know much of what you are.

Now to you our eyes we lift,
Thanking God for His great gift,
Twinkle twinkle little star:
We know much of what you are.
[from "Stellar Mechanics for Kids" one of my many unpublished works.]
Ahem. And in 1783 the great French chemist Lavoisier named it "water-former" from the Greek for "that which gives birth (gen) to water (hydor). But hydrogen is a simple thing, as elementary an element as there is - just a proton, and an electron.

Yes, the stars "burn" hydrogen as fuel - it is an atomic reaction, not a chemical one; there is no "flame" as we have on earth - and they form "ashes" which are other elements. The usual "ash" is helium, which is named the "sun's element", but there are three others which are so very important we shall hear more about them next week: carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. So, in a most appropriate way for Chestertonians, we see that water is a paradoxical joining of stellar fuel (hydrogen) with stellar ash (oxygen) - that means (as hard as it will be to believe) water is the result of a sacrifice. In all cultures, from most ancient times, sacrifice is a ritual destruction of something as a religious act - we burn candles in church, partly for light, partly for symbolic reasons (Jesus said "I am the light of the world" [Jn9:5]) but also as sacrifice. No human "intends" the destruction of hydrogen within stars as a sacrifice, but it is so - they are fused together in an atomic reaction, and become helium, lithium, beryllium, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and others. But the sacrifice only begins in the stars, which we only know like the Magi, from afar by their light. But we have plenty of water on earth to play with.

Our water on earth is essential to life. (Some will want to know why I do not add here "as we know it" - but you shall learn why as you continue into our study.) As I mentioned, the human body is mostly water, and so are most other living things. The machinery of life requires water for its very existence, and for the performance of its "work" - again, more of which we shall hear about in the next week. But for today, when we recall that Friday when Jesus said "I thirst" [Jn 19:28] let us ponder how we humans use it. The quickest summary I know is a verse of a famous Hobbit bathing poem:
O! Water cool we may pour at need
Down a thirsty throat and be glad indeed;
But better is Beer, if drink we lack,
And water hot poured down the back.
[JRRT The Lord of the Rings]
Having mentioned that detail about water being star-fuel plus star-ash, I feel I ought to mention Gandalf's famous line from somewhat later in that same text:
"I cannot burn snow."
Which is as true for living things as it is for wizards. It is true that oxygen can be "burnt" in certain stellar reactions, but water (for all its importance) is cannot be used as fuel by living things. Much silliness is spoken about the eating of living things - after all, this book is about food as sacrifice - but there are only three non-living things we can safely ingest, or will appear in the typical kitchen: water, salt (sodium chloride), and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). But we need to have more water all the time, even if we drink it as milk, coffee, tea, beer or wine - which suggests another important verse for our guidance:
Feast on wine or fast on water
And your honour shall stand sure,
God Almighty's son and daughter
He the valiant, she the pure;
If an angel out of heaven
Brings you other things to drink,
Thank him for his kind attentions,
Go and pour them down the sink.
[GKC, in The Flying Inn and CW10:475]
Since I have dragged Chesterton in as a reference, we also ought to hear this very important dictum:
...we should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.
[GKC, Orthodoxy CW1:268]
Why do we need to have water all the time? Because it gets "lost" in various ways. Water is used in certain reactions, but water evaporates as we sweat, and it is used in removing certain waste products - let us not get uncomfortable here; the kidneys and related plumbing are very important, and we must learn their dignity as St. Paul tells us:
Yea, much, more those that seem to be the more feeble members of the body are more necessary. And such as we think to be the less houourable members of the body, about these we put more abundant honour: and those that are our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. [1 Cor 12:22-23]
We have already mentioned that water is the essential matter for the sacrament of baptism: the Greek root of which refers to bathing, or washing, and we think of this in our usual way as we wash our hands or take baths or showers to cleanse our bodies. But there is a far more mystical, if far more hidden truth in the other uses of water within our body, and we shall just hint at a larger discussion for now:
1. Blood is mostly water, and it brings the body into a unity (the blood is a communion of the body!)
2. By evaporating as we sweat, it cools us. (There are hints of this in the famous "Golden Sequence" of Pentecost.)
3. By transporting deadly wastes out of the blood (in the kidneys, and thence out of the body)

But, as we heard in that line from Rush's "Presto", it is the ocean that runs through our blood vessels. And not just the mere salts of the ocean, for there are many other things, both good (the components of food, our nourishment) and bad (the waste, broken or useless things), which travel there.

Tomorrow we shall conclude by summarizing our study of water; next week we shall begin to see what those components are.


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