A live lobster, a dead moth, and the body and blood in everything.
As a child, I was very sensitive to the suffering and death of animals. There were multiple occasions when I was reduced to tears: when my dad brought home lobsters to kill for food, when boys squished frogs for fun, or when they used salamanders as bait for fishing. I was even a vegetarian for four years straddling high school and college. I can’t say I feel exactly the same way now; when I renounced my vegetarianism, I ushered it in by boiling a lobster alive and eating it. However, the anguish I felt as a boy was inordinate but from a good place. I clearly saw that suffering was bad, particular innocent suffering. How we relate to suffering and the rest of the creation is one of the questions religion must answer. One particular incident, during a cub scout summer camp as a boy, reveals how religion can address this.
One of the days spent camping, a group of us went to investigate the woods near our campsite.
There were these monstrously tall pine trees, reaching up into sky seemingly converging at some point infinitely far away. The ground was a thick pine needle mat that had the eerie effect of making all our footsteps silent. It had an almost primordial air to it, I even remember a mist hovering over the ground. It simultaneously seemed alien and undefiled by man and hazily familiar, almost as if I had seen the place in a dream. In hindsight, it seemed like the kind of place one might consider taking their shoes off; it seemed like holy ground.
In the midst of this grove lay a dead moth. In my memory, it is proportionally large to the trees, snowy white save for some patterns of green. Except for some tears in its wings, it had no signs of corruption. It was as if someone had flipped off a switch or extinguished some small spark of energy in it and that if only it could be rekindled it would be as good as new.
Its death stood out in this otherwise prelapsarian grove. It seemed cosmically unjust and tragic that it would just be dead and no one would lament its loss. It seemed that we ought to do something, we ought to give its death meaning. To merely pass it by, occasioned by nothing, seemed wrong in my mind.
What is this impulse to convey meaning, perhaps where it seems the least important? Why is this thought, that of the world being meaningless, indifferent, and neutral, so haunting? How does this creature matter? These are all things we must come to terms with. Why do we wish to enliven what is dead and meaningless?
Similarly, in Church we take dead matter and turn it into life. Bread and wine, merely reaped, crushed and burned grains and festering grape juice to the materialist, are somehow transformed into the Body and Blood of our Savior. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his essay, The World As Sacrament, points out that those very ingredients that become the Eucharist are made of the same matter as the rest of the world, including that moth and even myself. He writes, “But it is bread and wine that make that transition, and they do so not merely as fruits of this world–of this cornfield, that vineyard–but as the symbols and even as vehicles of the whole world itself in its entirety”
The Eucharist and this desire to give meaning and commemorate this moth are linked in someway. Both fulfill man’s desire to see this world fixed, mend the broken body and Christ’s very fulfillment of that desire. I am not content with living on bread alone, but need the supersubstantial bread in the Liturgy to be fed. I am not content to let this beautiful creature pass unknown, unacknowledged.
So we took this poor moth back to our campsite. We said a few words and laid him upon the embers. In nearly instant the creature combusted and disintegrated entirely. I felt more satisfied, that we had done something to honor it. In the same essay, Fr. Schmemann quotes an unnamed Russian poet, “Every time the priest celebrates the Eucharist, he holds in his hands the whole world, like an apple.” I’m reminded when the priest holds up the chalice in the Liturgy and chants “On behalf of all and for all.” In that moment, all of the faithful and perhaps the entire world and that moth are lifted up to God to enlivened and transformed.
Nathaniel Torrey is the editor of the Work channel at Humane Pursuits. He has been trying to live up to his namesake his entire life, but has only started in earnest since May 2013. He is a graduate from St. John’s College and works at the Institute on Religion & Democracy.