Lapis Lydius and Other Alchemies
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | July 11, 2019Hi friends, a few weeks ago our Gospel passage was Luke 8:26-39. In it, Jesus crosses out of Galilee into “the country of the Gerasenes, “and while there meets a “man of the city who had demons” (Luke 8:26-27). Before Jesus banishes the demons into a herd of swine, Jesus and the man have a sort of conversation. The man (or the demons in him) shouts at Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” (8:29). The verb we translate as “torment” has a metallurgical, or perhaps alchemical, weight to it. This alchemy is on my mind and heart this week.
In Greek, the verb we translate as “torment” looks like this: βασανίζω. (We can pronounce it, “bah-sah-NID-zo.”) In one sense, it means exactly what we read: to torment or to torture. The demons know Jesus has power over them, and so they’re pleading that he not use that power to torment them.
But another vein runs through this word. This same verb is used in the testing of metals to determine their purity, or whether they’ve been alloyed with something less precious. There was a special stone called lapis Lydius (from Lydia, in modern Turkey) that was believed to have the power to reveal the contents of metal. So, if a potentially untrustworthy person paid you a large sum of silver, for example, you might apply the lapis Lydius to the silver to test whether it actually was silver you had been given, or if the charlatan had alloyed it with a metal less precious. To test the silver in this way was to βασανίζω it.
Another way of understanding the Gerasene episode from Luke 8, then, is to say that our demon-haunted citizen falls under the pressure of Jesus, who is God’s lapis Lydius. All the impurities, all this man’s demons, are revealed and thereby expelled from the shining image of God within. What is left of our Gerasene citizen is his real substance. His neighbors “found [him]…sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid” (8:35).
In Jesus of Nazareth, it’s as though God reaches down and pressures each of us with a divine lapis Lydius. To bear the weight of the cross is to fall beneath this lapis Lydius of heaven: our impurities are revealed, our purer substance distilled. The prophetic weight of this Stone unsettles and discomforts. After all, to apply the lapis Lydius and to torment are the same verb. As the psalmist says, “For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried” (Ps. 66:9). Silver is purified by fire from the ore (Ps. 12:6). The metallurgy of discipleship burns with holy discomfort.
Sometimes, when we find ourselves discomforted or unsettled about something, what we are feeling is something like what the Gerasene man felt in Jesus’ presence. Our demons are provoked because they know they’re being forced to name themselves that they might be burnt away. Beneath the smears of dross, gold begins to glint. Christ the lapis Lydius is at work.
I have been discomforted and unsettled this summer, and I think it is holy. Like many of you, I have been angered and saddened and even occasionally despairing of the conditions many children are living in at Border Patrol jail cells along the border as we on this side try to decide how best to deal humanely with this influx of minors. (You may have read a recent letter from our bishops calling on our elected state and national leaders to act swiftly in response. If you’ve not read it, I commend it to you.) For me, worse than the anger and sadness has been the sense of helplessness to do anything real or meaningful.
This discomfort has converged with another. For a while now, I’ve been discomforted by how little outreach we do as a community of faith. We certainly have individuals and families who engage regularly in outreach, with Hays Drive a Senior and at Tom Green and with Meals on Wheels and elsewhere. And as a congregation we do supply drives supporting different efforts a couple times a year. I do not mean to diminish the importance of these efforts. I think it is true, however, that regular and deliberate life-giving ministry efforts beyond our physical campus are simply not yet an integral part of our common life. I am troubled by this, both as one Christian amongst others and as your priest. I have no grand plan or program or anything in mind; for now, just a persistent discomfort.
Things at St. Liz are going really well: we’ve had a year of substantial growth, new playground equipment, new roof, new air conditioners, and a new kids’ camp. We’re on track to be financially independent from the diocese soon and are even beginning to talk about the exciting milestone of transitioning from mission to parish. All of this is good.
It is also seductive, and I will admit that this is particularly true for me as your priest and most visible leader. Because growth and energy and joy and affection are some of the many gifts we enjoy at St. Liz, it would be easy just to stay put and let those things become our sole driving purpose(s) or lull us into complacency. The truth is that there are kids in our own community who don’t have multiple changes of clothes, good food, or reliable transportation. They may not be sleeping under shiny refugee blankets, but they might be sleeping on concrete. Or forced to relocate from place to place each week in a kind of migration without end in time or geography.
As I have prayed about all of this, I have come to believe that my discomfort about the border crisis and my discomfort about our own (specifically my own) comparative lack of outreach efforts at and through St. Liz are converging for a reason. They are being pressured together by the presence of Jesus, God’s lapis Lydius. On the one hand, the demon of helplessness about the border is being named and banished by an increased awareness of needs in Hays County; there are things we can do. On the other, the seductive demon of something like ecclesial success is being named and banished by the sheer magnitude of heartache I experience at the plight of children. What could parish status or financial independence or a second service or improvement to our facilities mean if it has no bearing on the lives of the least of these in our community? What irreducible substance will there be beneath those tangibles?
I offer all of this simply as my experience of the Holy Spirit’s alchemy this summer. In my own life, plans for success and a paralyzing sense of helplessness are the impurities God’s touchstone is pressuring to the surface, naming, and, I believe, ridding me of. Flashes of a more precious metal beneath are fleeting and ore’d over still, but so far they look like Love made local. You know, Church.
Again, I have no new outreach plan or program to announce, and am unsure if all this will even lead to a clear one. I just have discomfort that will not subside, a kind of inner torment at being confronted anew with the brokenness of the world and my own complicity by virtue of “what [I] have done and…what [I] have left undone.” I am doing my best not to run away from it, into the Gerasene tombs or into the wilderness, but to remain—in prayer and in front of the news—until I have learned what it’s trying to teach me.
I don’t know if any of this resonates with you, or if you share my unease. If so, and if we would find ourselves “clothed and in our right minds” at the feet of Jesus, chances are the only way out is through. That’s how it usually goes with a cross of any kind.