There’s been quite a bit of buzz about this photograph of lightning striking the dome of St Peter’s today, on the day that Pope Benedict XVI’s intention to renounce the papacy was made public.
Of course, there’s been global buzz about every aspect of that announcement—from instantly produced Facebook memes to Vegas odds on the March Madness conclave brackets. Some of it’s good buzz: the outpouring of respect for the Holy Father’s candor, humility, and courage; the chance to enlighten one another and the always-clueless-but-at-times-like-this-truly-curious media about the intricacies of Catholic history and pontifical election etiquette; the opportunity to share the wide range of emotions, from grief to hopeful anticipation, that this news elicits from each individual Catholic. (It’s a worldwide headline, but the buzz is deeply personal; the Patheos landing page contains a wide sample of my colleagues’ responses.)
And a lot of the buzz is, predictably, bad. Hate tweets. Obscene comments. Every bad thing that can and has been said about the Church in general and this pope in particular, repeated ad nauseum. The old Nostradamus/BlackPope/Antichrist hoohah. And some is just plain silly: Catholics should be allowed to vote online for a pope who’s more hep to the yoots, or who’ll nip this Latin Mass stuff in the germinis, or who has a girlfriend (or *winkwink* a boyfriend) he’s not afraid to bring home to lunch in the Vatican or take for a spin in the popemobile, or who’s (really, I heard it put just this way) got a vagina.
I’ve been up since the news broke on the US West Coast around 3 a.m., and my head is buzzing. So when I first saw the lightning strike photo making the rounds, and raising a buzz of Uh Oh, Now He’s Gone and Made God Mad or Look Out, Catholics, You’re Gonna Get Yours, it took me a little while and a nudge from my Patheos editor, Elizabeth Scalia, to remember the powerful message for all of us that today’s Morning Prayer contained.
It was a message I needed at dawn when I availed myself of the Liturgy of the Hours online at Divine Office, because I’ll admit that ABC News’ abrupt jump cut from the Special Report about the papal resignation to footage of the firelit, masked, writhing dancers cavorting at Carnaval in Rio (most of them violating every item of the CBS Standards and Practices dress code for the Grammys, with its careful prohibition of the exhibition of “female breast nipples,” “fleshy undercurves,” and “genital puffy parts”) made me more than a little uneasy. It was—visually only, because I have nothing at all against Carnaval or fleshy undercurves, most days—too much like Hell throwing a We Won and Now We’re Goin’ to Nakedland! parade.
But no. Amid the buzz, here’s what we know. God is not Zeus or Thor, hurling lightning bolts when he’s pissed off, or this world would’ve been a-sizzle long, long ago. Neither does Hell win, no matter what it looks like when we’re jolted awake in the middle of the night. No, the psalmist reminds us, lightning is the awesome splendor of God’s power, the grandeur of God flaming out, as Hopkins said, “like shining from shook foil.” In all our speculation and wagering, our fear and our hope, the only thing that counts is that we are in God’s hands. He alone—no prince of the world or of the Church—is sovereign:
O give the Lord, you sons of God,
give the Lord glory and power;
give the Lord the glory of his name.
Adore the Lord in his holy court.
The Lord’s voice resounding on the waters,
the Lord on the immensity of waters;
the voice of the Lord, full of power,
the voice of the Lord, full of splendor.
The Lord’s voice shattering the cedars,
the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon;
he makes Lebanon leap like a calf
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The Lord’s voice flashes flames of fire.
The Lord’s voice shaking the wilderness,
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh;
the Lord’s voice rending the oak tree
and stripping the forest bare. (Psalm 29)
“The Lord’s voice flashes flames of fire.” Tonight, in Rome and at home, that’s the only buzz that counts. Like a pillar of fire, a bolt of lightning, God leads us and always will. His Spirit, in tongues of fire, descends upon the Church bringing new Pentecost after new Pentecost, as the smoke from the ashes of the consistory ballots rises like incense. No matter if, as today’s morning prayer also acknowledges, there are
. . . those who lie in wait;
No truth can be found in their mouths,
their heart is all mischief,
their throat a wide-open grave,
all honey their speech. (Psalm 5)
No matter. Let the buzz and the fear and the sadness and the silliness go. In the Holy Father’s words of resignation (and I choose that word purposely, because he seems resigned to what God asks of him), I noted with special attention his mention of diminished mental energy and health, in addition to the physical limitations to which most have attributed this decision, and I have been wondering all day whether this brilliant man might not now be experiencing the particular agony of beginning memory loss or other mental impairment or illness—a challenge more insurmountable to a scholar and a reader and a writer than any physical frailty. Yet his calm certainty, even in the face of what must be a fearful time, was also evident.
He has seen the lightning and rejoiced, and—like every one of us around the world who turned to the Divine Office for comfort this morning, and every morning—he knows how Psalm 29 ends.
The God of glory thunders.
In his temple they all cry: Glory!
The Lord sat enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits as king for ever.
The Lord will give strength to his people,
the Lord will bless his people with peace.