When I was young, my mom sometimes used to talk about the Our Lady of the Angels fire in Chicago. 92 children died, and 3 nuns. My mom grew up in Chicago, attending Catholic school. They used to pray for them at school. Those who died. She didn’t remember it herself, but she remembered praying. She remembered the stories they used to tell. She told me the stories, too.
The fire was such a horrendous disaster that it changed national fire codes forever. My mom always makes sure to say that. She will always say: “Some good came of it. They changed things.” I was always much more caught up in the stories of the nuns who fought to rescue their students, of the choking heat and smoke, of desperate children leaping out the windows. I used to picture my own Catholic school, an ancient structure from 1927 with narrow stairways and halls. It always used to smell like wood and dust. My mom said that there was a nun who, thinking quickly, grabbed her scrawny students and physically threw them over burning stairs to safety. I pictured the nun in the flames, face set and hands strong. Doing absolutely everything in her power to protect her charges. I used to imagine myself landing on the other side of the flames, shaking, as she told me to get out. As the flames roared upward and consumed her from view.
I had never met a nun. Not as far as I could tell. This was my first real picture of a nun.
My mom is a teacher at a Catholic school. I thought, and still think, she’d be the first to grab kids by the scruff of the neck and force them to safety. I’ve seen the way she treats them, and the way they treat her. Her 8th graders call her “Momma.” They sense her fierce softness, I think.
I always thought she wouldn’t cry. She’d stare through the flames searching for a way to rescue her adopted children.
I always wondered if I could do the same. If I’d be brave enough.
Sometimes I think of Christianity as unflinching. I remember stories from the early persecutions. Asked to hand over the Church’s riches to the authorities, St. Lawrence gathered the poor. “These are the true riches of the Church,” he said, and they killed him. Catherine of Siena is said to have kissed the wounds of a leper. Francis of Assisi hugged one. Or, to recall the present age, the Sisters of Mercy were some of the very few to treat AIDS patients in the Bay Area during the first wave of terror and death.
When I imagine these things together, I cannot help but picture them as I pass by an altar in a church, or through the crypts they often house underneath. Christianity began among the dead in catacombs anyway – and it began in a tomb. Some said long ago that the Church was born from Christ’s wounded side as he slept, as Eve had been born of Adam. Christian existence somehow bears in and through death.
Today, I stood in the mausoleum underneath the Christ the Light Cathedral in Oakland, California, where I live. I stared upward at the altar that sheltered the crypt, and thought of a priest saying “This is my Body.” Catholics think Christ says it. Catholics think that single event, that death and that life and those words, break through again. Christ says it and Christ does it and we pass with him through death to life. Every Baptism, every Eucharist.
I stared at the altar from underneath, crisscrossed by shadows and light.
I thought of that nun who died in the flames rescuing her students, and I thought of the nuns in Hopkins’s “Wreck of the Deutschland.”
The frown of his face
Before me, the hurtle of hell
Behind, where, where was a, where was a place?
I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.
I am soft sift
In an hourglass—at the wall
Fast, but mined with a motion, a drift,
And it crowds and it combs to the fall;
I steady as a water in a well, to a poise, to a pane,
But roped with, always, all the way down from the tall
Fells or flanks of the voel, a vein
Of the gospel proffer, a pressure, a principle, Christ’s gift.
Perhaps most of Christian existence involves passing through a storm of cruciform flames, unflinching. Involves passing through a cryptic offering. One that rises up before us everywhere. Is Christ the one with the strong hands who carries us away to safety? Or is he in the one we drag with us through the fires? Is he ahead of us? Is he behind?
Perhaps, simply – Yes.