Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sittin' and Thinkin': a day for carrying the One - yes, with both hands

Today is the seventh day in the Octave of Christmas, and the feast of St. Sylvester II. Some others (like you perhaps) celebrate it as the last day of 2009, since tomorrow's date will be the first in 2010. It's kind of fun to think about what I was doing 10 years ago - just about a 1/3 of a billion seconds - laughing my head off about the famous Eetook Comet which had been predicted to hit the Earth just after 23:59:59 on December 31 1999. Very funny! (Actually I was in church, ringing the bells; we had just sung the Te Deum; awesome.) Of course, as all computer scientists know, the comet was averted, because someone left a whole bulb of garlic on his computer and so (by the magic of the "internet") the power of garlic seeped out into the e-cosmos and protected us! And so the predicted catastrophes did not occur, so the newspapers had to find something else to whine about the next day.

Oy, Eetook! What a joke. But that was 1999, and this is 2009. I know there is another rumour that another kind of terror is scheduled - supposedly by some guys who really liked carving dates into monuments, though they did not know to make a wheel... I don't think we'll even need a whole bulb this time. And it is a well-known dictum of theology (the study of God) that "God does not watch the odometer" - that is, he doesn't schedule big events just because some dial has turned all the way around and caused the machinery to carry the one - like your car's odometer, where the gear turns and a cog ticks over the next wheel to the left. Oh, but remember they didn't have wheels on this side of the Atlantic, just as the Italians had to do without tomatoes until Columbus got back... back then all their pizzas were white, like Christmas. Ahem.

No; as we read recently for Christmas, it was in "the fulness of time" [Gal 4:4] - when everything was just right, not when the dials read off the right string of digits! But the mere fact that numbers, like words, have to be spelled - oh, does that word bother you? It sounds like, magic, doesn't it? It is magic, one of the greatest of all (indeed, the one form of magic required as a prerequisite to get into Hogwarts, and even taught to Muggles!) but it is such a big kind of magic it does not get noticed. And as we Chestertonians know, in so many cases it is the big things that are good, that we count on (no pun intended) that we expect to be there always - and that therefore we ignore:
"Perhaps the weapon was too big to be noticed," said the priest, with an odd little giggle.
[GKC "The Three Tools of Death" in The Innocence of Father Brown]
Yes: today is a good day to sit and notice the big things, like days and years, the spelling of numbers, and something which GKC found "much more troublesome": I mean Right and Left.

Yes, in that strange world where I live and work, today might be called the Feast Day of Chirality: the day for recalling that we have two hands - a left hand and a right hand: so similar, and yet so different. (Note: "chirality" means "handedness" and among other things applies to chemicals like sugar - why do you think "dextrose" means "right-hand sugar"? Ask Dr. Pasteur about it when you have some time. "Chiral" comes from the Greek word cheir which means "hand".)

Our hands - what a gift. Please pause for a moment and take a look at your hands. (Or see here for a poem, or here for a book.) There they are - you have seen them countless times, almost since you were born, you began waving them so as to begin the training of your eyes to synchronize vision to reality... What a gift! They are two incredible marvels of mechanics and sensory technology: for each hand there are 27 bones and more than a dozen muscles which provide fine - no, exquisitely, terribly fine powers of control: these enable us to wave, to eat, to throw and catch - they enable motion for surgery or music, for knitting clothes or kneading dough, for moving the pen or the brush... And the hand is not simply for moving. We can grip an egg in one hand and a heavy hammer in the other, yet drop neither, because we can sense as well as act. How many senses are combined in the hand! We can detect texture, heat, cold, pressure, pain... and there are the very wonderful sensors called "proprioceptors" - which measure the degrees of pressure at the joints and in the tendons, to keep us aware of "where" our hand is - we might paraphrase our Lord and say "every finger on our hand is being monitored" Yea, even though we may not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing!

But as fascinating as the hand is, it is not its anatomy I wish to examine. No, it is a little-noted property of hands which I wish to call your attention.

We could call it the freight train property, or what the English call a "goods train". This property is a remarkable thing, very easily overlooked, and yet so terribly important - you and I are relying on it at this very moment! It is the true property which is possessed by certain things we play with countless times each day, and which we pay no attention to... even though it is as critical to the existence of those things as the two couplers on (say) a boxcar or a tank-car or a hopper-car are to the existence of a train. You know how a typical train car is coupled (connected or linked) with one neighbouring car towards the front of the train, and another towards the back of the train. No one has been insane enough to try to connect a tank car with the middle of a boxcar, or with the top of a hopper-car! It might make a funny picture, but it would not make a very good train. It would be better to call it a train-wreck.

Hey Doc (you moan) - What does all that have to do with Hands - and with New Year's Eve - or with the Octave of Christmas?

Why, you are paying attention. I thought perhaps you had run off to buy some garlic. (hee hee!)

You see, it is this chiral property of train cars - yes we could say they have a "right hand" coupler and a "left hand" coupler, even though they are quite interchangable, but let us just proceed. As I say, it is this chirality which permits the formation of trains. We might make a wreck of things piling car on top of car, but we won't ever get to Victoria, as the policeman-poet and Thursday-to-be, Gabriel Syme, alludes to in his argument with the anarchist Gregory. [See CW6:479]

But it is not only train cars which are chiral. [On re-reading this post, I feel I ought to consider them ambidextrous, as there is no inherent front or back to the typical freight car - but even the word "ambidextrous" emphasizes the chiral property for in Latin it literally means "both (ambo) hands are right (dexter) hands"!] As I hinted, there is something else, something far far more common than trains, which also is chiral, and which you rely on constantly as you deal with these things innumerable times every day - so much so that you are almost as unaware of them having that property as you are unaware of your hands!

I mean, of course, the letters of the alphabet, which we "couple" together to form words and sentences and paragraphs and essays or blogg-posts or books. (I defer for the moment any discussion of things like the "space" or punctuation or paragraph and other conveniences; these things have been added to make our work of reading simpler, but they also carry a similar chirality; another day perhaps we can talk about that. of course if you know ASCII, I mention the magic numbers 32 and 13 and 10, and the idea will be clear.)

Yes, if we are railroad people, we could call them "letter-trains". If we were chemists we could call them "literal polymers". As computer scientists, we use the word "concatenation" to describe this coupling, for the Latin catena means "chain" which is what we are doing when we bind the left-hand of one letter to the right-hand of its neighbour... and we do the same even when we are talking about what most people call "numbers", for the number "2009" is "spelled" that way because we use the base-ten scheme with Hindu-Arabic symbols. If we were writing Roman numerals we would spell it "MMIX", or in Greek numerals, ",bq’"... These number "words" are not words in the usual sense, but they are trains of linked cars, tied together left and right.

Very nice (you say) but what, o verbose Doctor, does this have about the times and the seasons?

Well... this linkage of letters might suggest the linkage of time. The moment of NOW has its left-hand to the past, and its right-hand to the future. The moments bind into seconds, which are strung into days and into years... It is a time for pondering that mystic notation from the Pascal Candle, and the words which go with it:

Christus heri et hodie
Principium et Finis
Alpha et Omega
Ipsius sunt tempora et saecula
Ipsi gloria et imperium
per universa aeternitatis saecula.

which means:

Christ yesterday and today,
the Beginning and the End,
the Alpha
and the Omega,
His are the times
and the ages,
To Him be glory and empire
Throughout all the ages of eternity. Amen.

Yes, it is a time, as the great Sir Henry Merrivale (the detective invented by Carter Dickson) would say, a time for sittin' and thinkin'. It is a time to recall what our Lord said:
For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle shall not pass of the law, till all be fulfilled. ... Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.
[Mt 5:18, Lk 21:33]
It is the height of reason, to grasp - with both hands, as the Red Queen told Alice - that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us in time: He was willing to be bound like letters in a word, or cars in a train, just as He submitted to be bound in swaddling clothes in Bethlehem, or with ropes in Gethsemani - He is with us even now, as the train of time hurtles on.

May that Word - Who is bound with both hands - bound to us in our little world - grant you and yours a holy and peaceful New Year of 2010!

--Dr. Thursday

1 comment:

  1. Here, here! Let's give a rousing hand to thank Dr. Thursday for his "hand"some service to this blog!

    *claps loudly and long*

    Thanks for the great and thoughtful post!


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