Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Remembering Life is Not Stoichiometry

I loved chemistry my sophomore year of high school. I loved drawing lines from one element to another, as I imagined how copper could possibly rearrange the molecules of itself into silver, as I watched the beaker burn away gases and leave a smoldering residue of a totally transformed element.

There is cleanliness in chemistry, how it models the shifting shapes of carbon through the Kreb's cycle in our cells, or watching the exploding balloon and knowing that we created water. I remember weighing carefully measured portions of the cement of our cells and our selves, and wondering how it was that this could be true, and how a gram balance could help me predict what would happen in moments or even days.

But lately, and strangely, I've had this temptation to map my life like a chemistry equation. In stoichiometry, you predict how the reaction will run - how much water, carbon dioxide, copper, silver will be made by adding this much, or that little. And I've wanted to predict how much the elements in my life - departures, arrivals, disappointments, plans, fearful and trembling hope - how much is all that going to weigh next week and month and year? Maybe if I can map the strange wayward paths of sadness and confusion and excitement in and out of my heart I can prepare myself, make myself ready. I can stock up on reserves of worldly wisdom. I can hide pithy phrases in the storage room in my mind and wheel them out as summer bends to the pressing of fall, and I won't be sad. I won't be confused.

And though our selves may be built of the periodic table combining and recombining, aligning and rearranging (like Sodium [Na] that binds itself ionically to Chloride [Cl] to make salt [NaCl]), binding and unbinding, I have that sinking feeling I cannot measure out my heart on a gram balance. I cannot make stoichiometry tell me the story of what To Kill a Mockingbird will do to me curled under the blankets late at night. I cannot manipulate the equation to predict with any accuracy the way an idea - an idea about God or about Jacques Maritain or about how to read books or about how to teach on a farm - will root itself so firmly somewhere in my clavicle bone that I can't shake it.

I sit in my office before the day begins, staring at this screen, hoping to make equations sing like muses about me, who it is I'm becoming, what it is I'll find myself doing next week and month and year, how I'll find my footing. I want to know if there are three parts joy and one part fear, and if I add the humming energy of praying and a carefully measured portion of throwing my hands in the air - how much will it yield? And I am now copper and God wants to make me gold, if I am fallen and He wants to make me whole, how much waiting will it take? How much patience learned, how many wrong paths trod over and over, how much stumbling? How many years, O Lord, will I wander in the desert looking at the manna from heaven and wondering if it is food? 

And my heart fears and wishes and longs for measurement and calculation, for the ordering, the penciled Q.E.D. at the end of the equation, the neatly typed notes, the finishing. And who hasn't at some point wanted the delicate prediction of science to make you a promise about how this will feel, and what it will do, and who you will become afterwards?

And there is no stoichiometry anywhere to be found, but the words of the One who watches over the wandering promise:

Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you. 

Observe the commands of the LORD your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills. (Deuteronomy 8.2-9)

So I wander on, hands itching for a pencil, hoping instead that the unmeasurable love of God meets His unmeasurable goodness meets my unmeasurable heart - and begins the mystery of becoming.



  1. This is stunning, Hilary.

    Almost a full generation ahead of you, I still struggle with over-analysing, control, and take too much care that my experiments don't go awry. I remain in conflict with the idea that unmeasured faith, when added to the mix, creates a chemistry that defies science and is a sweet aroma to the Father.

  2. Hilary- what a tremendous post! I am in awe. I do not know a thing about Chemistry, as I was a humanities major ;) but WOW. I got what you were saying and it was amazing. This is beautifully written! Bless you!! I am finding that there is a certain beauty in not knowing the formula, a grace in wandering and waiting for Him to feed us, to lead us, trusting that he will move when it is time. And an unimagined joy that comes through the process of being refined into something more....

  3. Hilary, may I ask, I noticed All Saints Anglican church mentioned in your sidebar, where is that church located?

  4. Hi Kris! The Church is actually up by my home here in Massachusetts - in Amesbury, MA. I grew up there! Thank you for your kind words - this post has been percolating for a while in my mind. Today was the first day I could put words to it! I'm always so glad you come by for a visit. Bless you today!

  5. I enjoy stopping by to read ;)


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