Monday, March 14, 2016

Of coal and diamonds

Yesterday, the Lord’s day of Forgiveness, I was standing in the doorway of a little country church, the doorway between the narthex, which was hardly large enough to hold ten people, and the nave, where people were sitting about cross-legged on the floor or on wall-side benches and a few folding chairs, to hear the homily after the reading of the Holy Gospel.

I’m too proud to sit on a chair or bench in a traditional Orthodox temple, and this morning I was feeling the stiffness of my sixty-five year old frame too much to try rumping it on the rug-covered wood floor. I thought, maybe I can lean against the doorpost and both preserve my false humility and watch out for my beloved god-children, who hadn’t arrived yet.

In fact, I had originally planned to sneak outside the narthex and sit on a wooden bench in the temple porch, where it was cool and uncrowded, and I could still listen to the sermon, and be there to welcome my kids. But the narthex was so crowded, I couldn’t get to the outer door and just stood in the other doorway, and at that moment my god-children stepped in.

Father preached a short, loving, and reasonable message, drawing frequently on Holy and Divine Scripture for example and inspiration. Then, at one point, when expanding on how we should not draw attention to ourselves fasting as did the Pharisees, he contrasted those who begin Lent by dabbing ashes on their foreheads with us, who do no such thing.

Something inside me squeamed (yes, that’s a real word, but only in the ‘Urban Dictionary,’ a back-formation from ‘squeamish’). It was like hearing someone scratch their finger nail across a blackboard, making that awful sound. I hate it when Orthodox people compare our faith and practices to those of other Christians who are a few or more notches beneath us.

I swallowed hard, remembering how many times I’ve spouted worse things, and just kept listening to what was otherwise a humble message. I wouldn’t have even noticed what he said or heard it amiss, were I innocent myself. But hearing him bring up the ‘dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return’ reminded me of one of my favorite analogies, of coal and diamonds…

I know that man was made out of the dust of the earth, that he is red like the clay out of which he was fashioned. I know that of the body it is said, ‘Remember, O man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return,’ while the soul is not addressed at all, since ‘the soul of man is immortal, and cannot die,’ as some church formularies have it (that’s what I was taught as a child).

But in my metaphoric mind, I like to think of man as a lump of coal. Why? Because coal is carbon, for one, the building block of life. For another, because, take coal and subject it to intense heat and pressure and, voilà, you have a diamond. This is what I see makes a man bright and hard (in the sense of indestructible), that he is subjected to heat and pressure, and instead of burning up, turns into a diamond, the brightest and hardest of all gems. A man who reaches this I call ‘Adamantios.’

There are plenty of man-made diamonds around, maybe as good as the real thing, I don’t know. I’ve also seen what used to be called rhinestones, maybe they still are. That’s the kind of jewelry my mom had, (her only real diamonds were tiny ones in her wedding band). But rhinestones are not diamonds at all. They try to glisten, they try to look real, but they’re only glass, just sand melted up and crystallized.

Everyone starts out, continuing my metaphor, as a lump of coal. Some of those lumps want to become diamonds, but they don’t want to have to go through the ‘treatment.’ Instead of turning themselves in, letting themselves be buried deep in the earth where heat and pressure can crunch them into what they want to be, they stay on the surface. Some of them pretend to do the heat and pressure treatment, but they’re like pieces of coal that just jump into a furnace of their choice, thinking that’ll be enough heat and, hey, who needs the pressure anyway? But what happens to them? They only glow red for awhile, then they burn up, carbon in the form of soot, smoke and ash. So much for just wanting to become a diamond!

But there are those who know that there’s no way around it: to become a diamond, you have to let yourself be buried. You’re afraid that maybe you’ll be crushed, but that won’t happen, so long as you let yourself be buried deep enough. That’s another problem with being buried, that has to be deep too, otherwise you just get crushed. But crunched, not crushed, is what you want to be. That’s how a diamond is made. So the lump of coal has to first ask, ‘Is this what I really want?’ and then if the answer is ‘Yes,’ to turn itself over to the Diamond Maker.

Why this silly metaphor? Well, I really do think like this. I look around me at the lumps of coal that go rolling by, up above the dig that I’m in (by the way, I hope my dig is deep enough!) and some of them that I see will stop by, and stay a spell. We’ll have a little chat, lump to lump, and I’ll look hard to see if there’s a diamond lurking in there somewhere. Sometimes the lump will come right out and tell me he wants to be a diamond. A few even tell me they’re diamonds already. Heck, I’m not color-blind! And I admit, sometimes I want to see diamonds so bad, I’ll even talk myself into thinking a passing lump of coal is a potential. Then again, sometimes I’m wrong. It’s one thing to just read about the bell of Dharma, and quite another to ring it.

So, in closing, my brother lumps and lumpettes, I ask your prayers for this lump to get crunched enough to join the brethren in the diadem of the King of kings of kings (blessed be He!). It’s dark down here, but I know it’ll be, I will be, light soon.

Man makes an end of darkness
when he pierces to the uttermost depths
the black and lightless rock.

Job 28:3 Jerusalem Bible

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