Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Word for Wednesday: Catacombs (A Series of Posts about Words)

When I was a junior in high school one of my classes was a creative writing class focused exclusively on poetry. I had no patience for poetry, I'm afraid to say. I believed that words are best when they are in the good company of many other words, strung together in sentences and contained appropriate punctuation. But after a semester (and then two more) of living in poetry, I learned to cherish words, just words, for their power and joy and unexpected meaning. So I take some time every Wednesday to think about a word with you. Glad you are here. 

Word for Today: Catacombs

Definition: My dictionary says underground passageways, usually used for tombs. A "subterranean cemetery." The third definition says that it is a "complex set of interrelated things" - a labyrinth, a maze, hidden from view. We need words of construction and hiding, secret passageways. 

Catacombs, noun. It is June 2007 and I am in the Catacombs of Paris. Skeletons surround us and are more frightening when we realize the silence these bones are keeping. We hear water dripping from ceilings and from an ancient aqueduct Allegra tells us is from the time of the Romans. But all is still. Our footsteps betray our aliveness. I hear my heart thump its thready rhythm through my chest. I smell the quiet. And Rachel, Tatiana, Archie and I, together with Danielle (one of our leaders) and Peter, the head of our school, come upon an round little alcove, or part of the passageway, that echoes perfectly. The acoustics of our footsteps sound like music. 

Danielle whispers to us that we should sing. That we should sing a melody, a harmony, a simple refrain we all know. We look at each other, scandalized. Can we sing here? Isn't it disturbing the rest, the silence? Shouldn't we sneak out and sit in our silences, each of our heads and hearts in our own galaxies (silence will make distance between you and others seem vast, almost infinite). But she insists, we should sing. 

And we do. Clustered around the small shaft of light from the gutter grate above us, we sing under the streets of Paris "All Ye Who Music" (at Archie's suggestion). The words go like this: 

All ye who music, all ye who music love, 
and would its pleasures prove
oh come, oh come to us
who cease not daily, cease not daily, cease not daily
from morn to eve, to warble gaily, warble gaily
from morn to eve to warble gaily... 

And we sing it, harmonies all - sopranos melting into that gorgeous alto line, and the tenor soars above, and Peter's bass. We cease not to warble gaily, our voices in the catacombs groaning with the life, life, life of music. For in some moments, we must break the silence with song. 

(Photo Credit: Hannah Cochran)
Catacombs, noun. It is Ash Wednesday, 2009. My first year at Gordon. There is an Ash Wednesday service at Gordon with the imposition of ashes in the shape of a cross. And I tiptoe forward, in part boldly showing off my liturgical heritage {forgive me, Father, for believing that to be my possession} and in another part terribly afraid of the words I know Father Michael will whisper right to me: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

(Photo from:
Catacombs is the dustiness of our selves. We shake it off everywhere we go. We leave dirt trails of our presence. We are creatures formed of the dust, with the very life-breath of God in us, but catacombs is that whispered remembrance. We are dust. We are not God. My eighteen year old body quivers (and my twenty year old body does, too) when I hear him say this and press his thumb firmly on my forehead. And I walk into the cold harsh light of winter, ashes to ashes. What can I boast in? It is His breath in me, not mine. I? I am catacomb dust, the silence of a million particles that only glimmer, only burst with light when they catch His light. 

Catacombs, noun. It is February 27, 2011. The door to the Chapel sanctuary creaks open and announces my arrival into the semi-darkness. Why, oh why is that door never oiled? I think to myself as I scamper into a pew alone and hope desperately that no one notices me. It is 10 at night, and Catacombs is our worship in the darkness of the Chapel. Acoustic guitar and djembe, voices threading together on the stage from shadowy figures, the flickering light of candles on the piano. And it is the worship music I do not know, that I normally do not sing. But Catacombs is full on heart surrender. And I do. They play this one, and it sears into my gut:

Lead me to the Cross, where Your love poured out,
bring me to my knees, Lord I lay me down,
rid me of myself, I belong to You... 

I am dust. I am not my own. I belong to Him, raise my voice in song to Him. Catacombs is the place of encounter. It is the labyrinth of meeting God. It is the chaos of infinite dimensions of love. It is the secret place in my heart I hide - only to find Him waiting there for me. It is the living out surrender, the echo chamber of praise, the dusty self at the Cross. 

Catacombs is a word for surrender. Catacombs is a word for presence. Catacombs is a word for the God-flamed life


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