As we gather around a bonfire on the grounds of the Dominican motherhouse I call home, my ministry colleague pulls out an old lectionary from his backpack. The red-covered book embossed with Greek letters contains the Scripture readings for the Catholic Mass, but we can’t use it for liturgies anymore since it contains old translations. He has brought it to burn, keeping with Church teaching that items that have been blessed for liturgical use must be buried or burned. After he carefully places the open book in the flames, the pages curl and blacken.
“Sister Rhonda, why are we burning a book?” a college student asks, sounding confused and even a bit alarmed.
Items that have been blessed for liturgical use must be buried or burned.
The concern in her question is understandable. The act of burning books is often associated with censorship, even fascism – think of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, or ISIS deliberately burning the library in Mosul, Iraq.
“Don’t worry,” I reassure her. “This is showing respect. This is the proper way to dispose of sacred books when they can no longer be used. Something that is blessed shouldn’t just be thrown in the trash. It’s like how we burn palms from Palm Sunday to use on Ash Wednesday.”
The student nods, and I watch her watch the book in the fire, the smoke billowing up to the starry night sky as the pages become ash. I feel a surge of gratitude that she – and all of us – are witnessing this earthy, elemental practice of reverence. What has been dedicated for holy purpose is returned to God, returned to God’s good earth. The practice shows respect that this isn’t just any old book. It also points to the goodness of the physical world, referred to by Saint Augustine as God’s first revelation. There is something mesmerizing and grounding about sitting before a fire, gazing into the flames, listening to the quiet crackle, and catching the scent of smoke when the wind shifts.
What has been dedicated for holy purpose is returned to God, returned to God’s good earth.
This student – and her peers on the retreat – are so-called digital natives at 19, 20, 21 years old. Even I, some twenty years their senior, am adapted to a world in which nearly every element of life is increasingly virtual, tidily mediated through screens and detached from the natural world. Moreover, living in Chicago means that, unless I make an intentional effort, I am separated from the processes of the natural world which support my life. Unlike the majority of people throughout human history, my daily life doesn’t require me to cultivate or harvest plants, care for or hunt animals, tend fires, draw and carry water, or otherwise engage in the world which provides me with what I need. This frees me, of course, to engage with words and ideas and people. I’m not idealizing some back-to-the-land vision here.
But something is lost in how divorced I – and maybe you, too? – can become from the earth if I never get dirt under my fingernails while gardening, swim in a lake, or share space with an animal. It gets more difficult to feel connected with the rest of creation and inhabit the truth that we live amid “a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects,” to quote Passionist Thomas Berry.
Given my urban, digital context, I deeply appreciate the Catholic practices that draw me into nature and help me plant my feet on the earth, something I sense powerfully while around the fire. To be Catholic is to engage our five senses and come back to our bodies. In our worship we chew and swallow, touch water to parts of our bodies, breathe incense, fill our lungs with air in order to sing, have our faces smudged with ashes, and offer our bodies to be anointed with oil in the sacraments. We stand, sit, genuflect, kneel, bow, and sometimes even dance, intending for the shift in body posture to reflect an internal shift in our spirit.
To be Catholic is to engage our five senses and come back to our bodies.
And, for the most significant celebration of the liturgical year after the long Lenten season, the Easter Vigil, we gather around another fire. We leave our climate-controlled sanctuaries with statuary and stained glass and we go outside, just as spring is emerging from the long hibernation of winter months. As the sun sets on Holy Saturday night, we stand on the earth and the new fire is blessed. At the parish where I ministered in Virginia, the deacon would build a fire so large the flames could leap to fifteen or twenty feet high when caught by a gust of wind. From this new fire, the Paschal candle and then each individual worshipper’s taper candle will be lit, as we hear the words, “may the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds.”
The elemental reverence of the Easter Vigil fire rises in me again around this simple summer bonfire where the pages of lectionary burn. As the edges of the pages blacken, I catch a glimpse of a Gospel acclamation, the antiphon which appears between the alleluias before the proclamation of the Gospel. I think of the hands that carried the book, the voices which proclaimed those alleluias, the eyes which followed that text in proclaiming sung praise. I remember Sister Clemente Davlin, OP, who served as sacristan in the university chapel. I imagine her bright blue eyes falling on those words, her clear voice proclaiming sacred words from the very page now in the fire.
As the edges of the pages blacken, I catch a glimpse of a Gospel acclamation.
The lectionary ashes that will rest in the earth here at our motherhouse are just a stone’s throw from where the body of Clemente and the bodies of so many Sisters rest. Throughout their lives, these Sisters consumed words by chanting them, speaking them, singing them, reading them. Year after year in the cyclical rhythms of common worship, these words sank into them, as I now sense them beginning to sink into me, the newest Sister in the congregation.
“Your words were found, and I ate them,” wrote the prophet Jeremiah. Saint Benedict, too, in teaching lectio divina referenced chewing on and digesting the Word of God. The Word becomes flesh in us, nourishment which is knit into the very stuff of our person over a lifetime of prayer. The same holy ground that holds the physical remains of their blessed, beautiful bodies also holds the physical remains of these blessed, beautiful words which once provided them sustenance.
As the smoke continues to rise towards the stars above, and the light of the fire illumines the rows of grave markers on the other side of the path, with my feet planted on the earth below me, I give thanks for words proclaimed, received, made flesh, and finally returned to God in reverence.