I’ve been reflecting lately in the course of contemplating the idea of transubstantiation on the processes of digestion and assimilation. I’ll write about transubstantiation later, but as to digestion and assimilation it is fascinating to me of late how the chemical factory in my body, or better, perhaps, the chemical factory that IS my body, transforms a carrot or an egg or a piece of bread into my eyes, my brain, my blood, my fingernails. And it just happens; I can’t cause it to happen by an act of thought or will. (I can of course frustrate its happening by throwing strange new things into the mix, like artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated oil, pesticides and such.) Or consider how a rattlesnake eats a mouse, and the chemical factory that is in, or rather, is, the rattlesnake transforms the mouse into the snake’s rattle, scales, and, wonder of wonders, into a complex hydrocarbon concentrated in a sac connected to the fangs, which is toxic to other animals. How does it happen that the hydrocarbon molecules that comprise the mouse are transformed into that particular toxic liquid hydrocarbon? But I’m lately even more struck by something I read a few year ago about plant growth, specifically trees. Someone had pondered where the mass of an oak tree in his yard had come from, and through measurements and deductive reasoning concluded that it had not come from the soil in which the tree was planted because the soil had not diminished as the tree had grown, and neither could it have come from the fertilizer he has put on it or the water that fell as rain or from his care, because even though there had been a lot of water, it hadn’t been enough to account for the mass of the tree. He concluded that the substance of the tree had come from the carbon dioxide in the air. Now, like you I suppose, I learned in grade school about photosynthesis, that the chlorophyl in the leaves of plants converts sunlight into food, and I knew that trees aspirated oxygen, but I had never heard about this transformation of carbon dioxide. Just think about it – a great oak tree is made out of — air. Air! I guess the reason this is a bit more mysterious to me than my own body’s assimilation of food is because I’m aware of the organs involved in digestion, assimilation and circulation. For where is the oak tree’s stomach, intestines, liver, and veins and arteries? And it isn’t just oaks but all trees, rose bushes, tomato plants, and so on, busily transforming air into – themselves. And it isn’t a transformation that is one-way or which happens and stops. But all the carbon-based life forms eventually die, and their component elements are transformed into yet other forms of life, sometimes making stops along the way as non-living forms such as smoke. A realization by the sages of eastern religions of this cyclical, ongoing process of the constant transformation of carbon into different form, as different in appearance as air and oak trees – as cats and coal – is perhaps what gives rise to notions of reincarnation. And it is definitely close to Thich Nhat Hanh’s notion that the rose is in the compost and the compost is in the rose. One might wonder if god is the carbon atom, eternally transforming itself into infinitely varied forms? But if not that, clearly this process is one of the mysterious ways in which God works. Mysterious indeed.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC.
(Posting from Hong Kong, on birth of new grandchild watch.)