Last year, for Christmas, I gave each of my children a copy of a big, fat, almost 550-page book by Bill Bryson, titled A Short History of Nearly Everything. I had begun reading this book and was so fascinated that I wanted each of my children to have a copy so we could talk about it. Bill Bryson talks about in childhood being so interested in science, and disappointed to find out how boring it was in the classroom. He described looking at the cover of his science text, that showed a quarter of the Earth cut away so that you cold see the layers. And he thought, ‘How do they know that? How do they discover things like that?’ And not finding that answer in the book.
So his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, is an attempt to sort of present basic Earth science and biology for the average reader, for the non-scientist like me. He’s a terrific writer. His words are so well-chosen and he makes it easy to understand even some things that are incomprehensible; he does his best. But the amount of material he’s digested in order to spit this back out again is really impressive.
As I was reading it along, I kept reading about matter and energy, and matter cannot be created or destroyed. And I kept wondering, how can that be, then? I mean, there’s new stuff all the time. If matter can’t be created, then how did I gain five pounds?
And in fact, what about new life? Where does new life come from? So, knowing that my son Stephen has a better grasp on this sort of thing than I do, I startled him by asking, ‘Steve, where do babies come from?’ [Laughter] He said he was going to have to tell his friends his mother had asked him that question.
The answer is, in terms of matter, it comes from, babies come from, and the pounds we gain, come from the food we eat. We’re always converting food into life over and over again, even when we create new life through the cells of our own bodies.
Well, I kept reading along in the Bill Bryson book and I came to another place that really blew my mind. It’s Chapter 9, titled The Mighty Atom, and let me just read, like, two paragraphs:
At sea level, at a temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, one cubic centimeter of air, that is a space about the size of a sugar cube, will contain 45 billion billion molecules. Think of how many it would take to build a universe. Atoms, in short, are very abundant. They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long-lived, atoms really get around.
Now this is the part that kind of freaked me out:
Every atom you possess—every atom of your body right now—every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been parts of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death…
Now that’s a phrase that sticks in my mind.
we are so vigorously recycled at death, 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
He says in a parenthesis,
as it takes the atoms some decades to be thoroughly redistributed. However much you may wish it, you are not yet one with Elvis Presley.)
So that’s kind of freaky, isn’t it? The part I don’t grasp is, if up to a billion of my atoms belonged previously to other owners, to other famous human figures in history, then I must have a billion also from every single un-famous human person in history, or unknown in history. I don’t know, it’s just still hard for me to grasp that, but they’re quite sure about it here. He goes on:
We are all reincarnations, although short-lived ones.
That is, our bodies are put together out of bits of previous bodies, bits of previous matter.
When we die, our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere, as a part of a leaf, or other human being, or a drop of dew. Atoms, however, go on practically forever. And above all, atoms are tiny, very tiny indeed. Half a million of them lined up shoulder to shoulder could hide behind a human hair.
Well, you realize then what the scale is, thinking in terms of millions and billions becomes more feasible, but I just don’t see how every person who ever lived is actually part of my body now.
So that has given me a different way of looking at physical reality and at my own body, this body that’s so familiar to me. I began to think of the atoms of my body as sort of being in a federation where they agree to live together temporarily in order to be the place where myself goes on. I mean, there’s something too about matter and energy, and thoughts and consciousness; and the questions about, is consciousness in the brain or is it in the mind? Or is the mind in the brain? You know, some of those big questions.
But to think that it’s like a whole colony of ants all working together for awhile and then one day I’m 85, I’m 90, clunk, I fall over, and they all say, ‘Bye!’ and go off to become parts of salamanders and seals and office buildings and who knows what all? And what about the fact that - is this a fact? I’ve always heard it - every seven years every molecule is new, that we’re always shedding. It’s like you’re always under reconstruction; you’re always being renovated and new atoms coming in and old atoms going out.
So that raised obviously a lot of questions for me, like, where is the me in all of this? Also, what about the resurrection of the body? If my body is made up of all these other bodies and things and objects, then what kind of continuity is there? I looked up where St. Paul speaks in I Corinthians 15:35:
Someone will ask: How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?
So, that’s a question that’s a perennial, isn’t it. St. Paul replies:
You foolish man.
So I guess it’s not a *smart* question.
What you sow does not come to life unless it dies, and what you sew is not the body which is to be but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. God gives it a body as it is chosen. To each kind of seed, its own body.
So I guess what I’m imagining is the connection between our present bodies and our resurrection bodies is analogous to the connection between an acorn and an oak tree. There’s some continuity there, but it’s not something that would be visible from looking at the acorn. You couldn’t reason it out if that was all you knew.
Well, maybe that’s not mind-blowing enough yet today; let me add something to it. I’ve been looking at, I can’t say reading or thoroughly grasping, a book by Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, called The Holy Grail and the Eucharist. Actually the books contains two essays or treatises, one on the Holy Grail, the other on the Eucharist. The one on the grail is just, well, let me read you some because it’s, again, kind of mind-blowing.
Now, apparently Bulgakov was intrigued by the grail legends, but he didn’t think there was historical truth in them. He says here that reflection on the grail, quote,
Has lived only in the obscure presentiments of Christian poetry, in which the holy myth is clouded by human imaginings, by romantic revelries.
But he goes on to say that the King Arthur stories are not what he’s interested in, as far as the grail goes.
The grail means the vessel which received the blood of Christ.
And not just the chalice used at the last supper, but according to legend that St. Joseph of Arimathea held the grail as Christ was dying and caught some of the blood in the grail. So there’s this resonance, the blood and the grail, and the grail being the vessel of that. Bulgakov goes on:
The whole world is the Holy Grail. For it has received into itself and contains Christ’s precious blood and water.
I’d never thought of this before, but when they pierced Jesus’ side and there came out blood and water, where did that blood and water go? It soaked into the earth. In icons we see a drop of blood touching the head of Adam and resurrecting him.
When Jesus was resurrected, when he took his resurrection body to heaven, his blood was left behind, and the whole world is the grail that secretly still contains the atoms and the molecules of Jesus’ blood, shed at the crucifixion. Bulgakov goes on:
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. 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.
Another theme is that the Ascension did not deprive us of Jesus, that he is still with us. One of the ways he’s still with us is that his blood is still soaked into the earth.
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 world is 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 thrice-blessed tree on which Christ was crucified.
So as I’m thinking about the atoms of our bodies, the atoms of trees I see out my window, the atoms of my computer screen and the icons and candles and books around me all being disassembled and reassembled, disassembled, reassembled, over and over throughout the history of the world, that we are more one with each other than we think. But on Holy and Great Friday, at the crucifixion, something was added to this world, and it was the blood of Jesus Christ that flowed into the earth, that soaked into the earth, that made the earth the true grail - the earth, the whole world, is now the grail. And that those atoms are now part of this continual process of disassembling and creating new life.
I think that’s really a beautiful idea here, in Fr. Sergius Bulgakov’s book, and it gives me a little bit of comfort. It’s kind of unnerving to think that everything that I am, everything in this familiar body that I’ve had for 55 years now, is only on loan and is going to be completely disassembled someday. It’s a blessing and a consolation to know that I will be mingling with the blood of Christ in this earth, in this dance of atoms that goes on until the end of time, until our returning Lord sees fit to ring down the curtain and bring the show to an end.