Pope Francis elevates the chalice during Mass outside the Basilica of St. John Lateran in observance of the feast of Corpus Christi in Rome June 2015. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Figure of speech: Is anything so beautiful as the magical alchemy of sacred language?

  • June 19, 2018

I grew up in a hardware store. Not one of the fancy big box stores that occupy acres of inner city landscapes. My dad’s store was a small, rundown shack that he built as far out in the city as he could in order to afford the land. 

Year after year, we would surreptitiously build small extensions to the structure when we knew the city inspectors weren’t working. And so the little building grew inexorably and at times grotesquely. I once came back from summer camp to discover the front door to our house had moved. 

“I needed more storage space,” my dad explained matter-of-factly. 

“Where’s the door?” I asked. 

He pointed to a gloomy hole under the stairwell. It looked appalling. 

“Mum won’t like that,” I muttered. 

Dad nodded. “Yeah, she’s staying with her sister for a few days.”

One year, worn down by the hours he spent in the poorly heated store, my father decided to cut a hole in the living room floor of the apartment he had built above the shop. His plan was to install a trap door in the floor and hang an electric buzzer nearby connected to the front entrance so that whenever a customer came in he’d know. The idea was that he could sit in the heated upstairs, get his paperwork done and then climb down whenever someone needed to be served. 

He failed to anticipate that once installed, every time the bell went off during mealtimes everyone would propel the food from their forks in startled spasms. A bigger flaw in the plan was that he would have to cut through my mother’s recently installed plush wall-to-wall carpeting, the first new thing he’d bought her in years. 

“I really don’t think this will go down well,” I started to say, but my father shook his head. 

“You have to be positive about change, son. Don’t be defeatist.” 

He paused, deep in thought. “But we’ll wait until she goes away for the weekend just to be on the safe side.”

While heartbreaking for my mom, the changing space was a joy for a young boy. There were crawl spaces that materialized out of nowhere, trap doors leading to nowhere and false walls that were the envy of any medieval castle — except for the fact that they were made out of discarded plasterboard instead of 1,000-year-old granite. 

The hardware, too, was magical. There were tools for every task — screws and eyelets for every purpose — and an infinite variety of odds and sods for every plumbing task under the sun. For a kid who read the dictionary for fun, studying the catalogue of hardware goods was even cooler. 

“What are these?” I’d ask dad, lost in the contents of a random page. 

“Aglets,” he’d say, “to hold the tips of shoelaces together.” 

He said it as though he were describing the most ordinary thing in the world. In reality he was naming the magic of the universe, as it lived in the objects of the every day. 

Is it too much to believe that God, in His infinite wisdom, lived in all of these quirks and quarks? That thought was given possibility when I began to pay more attention to the architecture of Church proceedings. At Mass I began to notice a similar poetic and complex naming at work and tried desperately to memorize the objects of the church — the chasuble, the ambo, the mitre or the monstrance. 

In French Canada, virtually all of the main swear words are drawn from religious objects, but suddenly I began to see their deeper majesty. Tabernacle. Chalice. And then the smaller details. The white cloth used to clean the chalice after we receive the Blood of Jesus: a purificator. The paten that holds the host, the stiffened square pall that covers the chalice, the ciborium that stores the consecrated hosts. 

There was even a sink that drained straight into the ground called a sacrarium, so that the water used to clean sacred vessels was appropriately drained. Was there ever anything so beautiful as the magical alchemy of sacred language?

I began to feel that there must be an infinite divine in the creation and naming of all things. Yes, this spoke of human ingenuity, but surely it also provided evidence of a higher craft — a creativity that far outshone the reaches of our own imaginings. 

I don’t think my mother always saw my father’s infuriating schemes in quite that way, but when she spoke of love, especially for my dad, you could almost sense her understanding of this deeper mystery. I’m sure there’s a name for that as well. 

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.