Ohio Valley Canticle

Ohio Valley Canticle June 28, 2017


It was hard to leave the conference, and come back “home.”

I hadn’t been away from the Ohio Valley overnight for years and years. Coming back felt like being stuffed back into a cage. As the flat land turned into hills all dotted with factories, I almost cried.

I’ve been told that “acceptance of one’s place” is a virtue, but that didn’t really help. This has never been my place. I’ve been trying to fit in here for almost eleven years now– trying to find a place, any place, in Steubenville, but it hasn’t worked out.

It’s funny to remember now– when I first came to school here, the RD said “welcome home,” and I believed her.

It’s a very good home if you like toxic waste. It’s good if you like lead dust in the soil and rust in the water, or if you’re fond of abandoned buildings and dark, Satanic mills. It’s nice if you embrace that oddly Catholic-looking, sacramental-laden version of the prosperity gospel; if you believe that suffering is a sign of Divine punishment, and that being devout has something to do with being comfortable. You’ll fit right in if you like to march a bier with a statue of Theotokos across the city, praying the Rosary and singing hymns, and then go back to ostracizing the poor and the sick and calling it righteousness.

I was never meant to fit into places, anyway. I am not of places. We who are Christians are not of Steubenville or South Bend; we do not belong to Peter or Paul or Barnabas; we are not liberals or conservatives. We surrender all of that in favor of a brighter Kingdom, when we abandon ourselves to Christ.

This is my Magnificat– not sung like that first Magnificat, perfectly by a perfect voice to a saint who mothered a prophet. This is my Magnificat, the song of a sinner and a madwoman, a failure and a leper, cried out in the streets for other lepers to hear. Not because I’m worthy to sing it, but because I need to, and because there may be someone who needs to hear and join with me. This is a Magnificat sung by discordant voices, broken into facets like the windows on a crack house in LaBelle. This this is my Ohio Valley Canticle, the song of wonder and praise from this bizarre little collision site where the Rust Belt meets Appalachia. This is the anthem not heady enough for the Charismatics on Holy Hill and not prim enough for the “traditional” parish downtown, too Latin for the three Orthodox churches here and too Greek for the staunch Latins. This is the dirge, the threnody for the prostitutes on Fourth Street, the fragmented and dying families all over LaBelle, the suicides on the bridge, the souls who lose their faith from the spiritual abuse at the university. This is the resurrection song.

For I am made of rusted steel, but the Lord is making me flesh.

For I have died, but the Lord will raise me up on the Last Day.

For we were dead indeed, our bodies cast into the pit, covered over away from the daylight. Corpses rotted into loam from which the trees grew, but the loggers cut us down and threw us into the fiery furnace. Some of the loam sunk deep and became coal, but the miners vivisected us with pickaxes and threw us into the fiery furnace.  Some of the loam  formed rock-hard shale. The shale of the earth was tortured by machines until it gave up a little oil, and the oil was used to stoke the fiery furnace. But what do you see in the fiery furnace? You see live men unbound, dancing, and one of them looks like the Son of God.

For we were lost indeed; the lions devoured and the hired hand ran away; he was struck, and the sheep were scattered, or maybe the hired hand himself was a lion. Some of us were dragged deep in the lion’s den, with the opening sealed by the earthly king so that no authority in this world could move the stone away. But there in the deep dark we saw light, for the Son of God had been sealed in there with us. The lions called good evil and evil good, down in the dark, but we saw through it because we had been filled with Light. They told us that we were darkness and ought to be content here, but we knew it wasn’t true, because we remembered Light. The lions came to devour us, but the Angel of the Lord shut the lions’ mouths, and now that angel is rolling back the stone.

For the river that flows through the valley is a ribbon of red poison, but the Lord will make it water again.

For the fog is thick and reeks of sulfur, but the Sun of Justice is melting it away.

For the coal is becoming a diamond, and diamonds do not burn.

For honey and balm are flowing from the shale rock, where the greedy hoped to find oil.

For the greedy will go away empty, and we who are too poor to leave will be filled.

For for all I know, the labor pains may last until the Judgement Day, but that day is coming swiftly, and on that day the Child thought dead will be born alive.

I am not of places, but I sing my canticle here, because this is the place where I am until the Lord calls me away.

This is the Steel Magnificat.

(image via Wikimedia Commons.)



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