Thursday, May 08, 2008

Remembering a first flame

When I heard on Maine Public Radio that the Olympic Torch had made it to the top of Mount Everest, it immediately occurred to me that the idea of someone climbing up Mount Everest one-handed with a flaming torch held aloft in the other was kind of ludicrous.

The news reader explained, however, that the Olympic flame was being carried in a special lantern so the torch could be lit from it once they reached the summit.

Ah, I see. Well, excuse my cynicism for suspecting that somewhere on that “special lantern” was inscribed the word “BIC.”

I started bailing out on the Olympics back when Peter Uberoff saved them by turning them from a gathering of amateur athletes into a money-making machine, but I bailed out on eternal flames well before that.

I may go to hell for what I’m about to tell you. There are deep secrets altar boys know that they should probably not disclose to the laity.

I was an altar boy back in the pre-Vatican days when the Mass was said in Latin and only by those of us privileged to be on the altar, where we kept our backs to the congregation and mumbled a lot.

But that also means I grew up in a time of medieval awe, and one Sunday when I was a very young lad, I noticed during Mass that the sacristy candle, the big one in red glass, was burning down to the end.

The nuns had explained to us that this candle meant God was in the church and that it must never, ever go out. But Father hadn’t gotten to the Last Gospel yet and the sacristy candle was already just an anchored wick in about an inch of clear, molten wax.

We finally finished Mass, got off the altar, knelt for the Jube Domine Benedicere and then I hurried back out with a new candle and a taper.

I guess my hand shook as I tried to light the taper from the flame, because the wick was jostled down into the molten wax.

It went out.

I was horrified. I hoped they could get a light from St. Anthony’s, which was about five miles away, but would they then have to have some kind of special ceremony to re-consecrate the church? Would the bishop have to come? How much trouble was I in, in this world and the next?

Though I feared he would tell God and also my parents, I approached the priest and confessed: “The sacristy candle went out.”

He looked at me for a moment, puzzled. “Well, light another one.”

So I struck a match, lit another one, and life went on, a little less mysterious, a little more cynical, a little more inclined to suspect that, if their “special lantern” had failed, the Chinese weren’t going to climb back down the mountain and head to Athens for a relight.

(An editor's note from the Franklin Journal, 5/09/08. I don't normally repost these,
but thought people here might get a kick out of this one.)


ronnie said...

The news coverage of this debacle led me to wonder how they transport the thing by air, since a flaming torch seemed to be a very poor choice of carry-on baggage. There are actually two very sophisticated modern versions of miner's lamps, enclosed flames lit from the Athens flame. The big torch the runners use are lit from one of them. And re-lit as necessary - apparently the thing goes out all the time, most often from runners who take too long and the fuel runs out.

Beyond the fact that the whole thing seems like ridiculous theatre to me now, given how far the modern Olympics have come from their idealistic beginnings, there is a practical question for me: the flame in Athens was ignited by the sun. Wouldn't it be equally legitimate to re-light the torch from any source concentrating the rays of that same sun, anywhere on earth - including Mount Everest - and call that the same flame?

Anyway, given what we've seen over the past few months (and the mainstream press is printing very little of the stories I'm seeing in the alternative press about the human rights abuses that have accompanied China's preparations for the Olympics - near-slave-labour working conditions, thousands of people displaced, thousands of others, like the homeless, 'encouraged' to migrate out of Beijing) - I certainly won't be watching the games this year, a sentiment I hear repeated a lot by my friends on all parts of the political spectrum.

Finally, as if this comment wasn't already WAY too long, I love the fact that you came up immediately with the ingenious plan to re-light the Sacristy candle from St. Anthony's candle. That's pretty creative thinking for a kid!


Uncle Jed said...

"the flame in Athens was ignited by the sun. Wouldn't it be equally legitimate to re-light the torch from any source concentrating the rays of that same sun, anywhere on earth - including Mount Everest - and call that the same flame?"

Nice one we've offended God and Zeus...

Anyone else want to wiegh in, or can we just let the destruction and damnation begin?

Brian Fies said...

I didn't know you were a Catholic boy. NOW we've got something to talk about!

I witnessed a moment similar to your candle experience. As I recall, the priest was walking past some pews to give communion and didn't notice that one of his wafers had fallen to the floor. An elederly man immediately leaped up and positioned himself over it, one foot on each side like a sentinel. That was the literal Body of Christ on the ground and he'd be damned (for real?) if he allowed anybody to step on it! I remember wondering if the Church had some special Holy Hazmat procedure for such a crisis; although times had changed, I grew up trained that unconsecrated hands couldn't even touch the host. The priest eventually noticed what was going on, turned to an altar boy and said something like, "Hey kid, go get that," and the kid retrieved it with no fuss at all. And I'm pretty sure I saw the poor old Catholic sentinel's heart break just a little.

I understand that for a priest a lot of what they do is probably just a job like any other. But it seems to me they ought to take it at least as seriously as their most devout parishoner.

Sherwood Harrington said...

You didn't know that, Brian? I have long thought that there's a lot of Stephen Dedalus in Mike's work.

This whole thing of a flame's integrity is an example of how old misconceptions live on and on and on: we haven't thought that fire is an element (along with earth, air, and water) for quite some time now, and yet this torch ceremony treats it as though it is. Ronnie's suggestion is perfect -- and, as a side-benefit, obviates any need for this kind of sideshow.