Volume 2, Number 1 of Wonder
Theme: Water and the Spirit
by William Kopcha
By Fr. Steven Belonick
By Dave Wanik
More information about the authors can be found here.
Volume 2, Number 1 of Wonder
Theme: Water and the Spirit
by William Kopcha
By Fr. Steven Belonick
By Dave Wanik
More information about the authors can be found here.
by William Kopcha
“Water,” “Adam’s Ale,” “aqua” as a prefix, “H-two-OHHH YEAH!”… This liquid that we know by many names is perhaps the substance with which we are the most intimately acquainted on Earth. And why not? Weighing in at an impressive 70% of the planet’s surface, it’s one of the most, if not THE most, common substance that we encounter on a daily basis. But why do we love it so much? Well, apart from the fact that it’s also the number one ingredient in people (55 to 78%, not so different from the rest of the planet housing this water), and, as we know from the eternal wisdom of The Waterboy, that it’s better than Gatorade, it also happens to be one of the most unique and intriguing chemicals that we know of – and many of the things that make it so unique also, consequently, enable the sheer existence of life as we know it.
The uniqueness of water rests largely in the existence of the hydrogen bond. Rather than being an actual bond between two atoms, a hydrogen bond is essentially a magnetic attraction between an atom that pulls electrons very strongly and a hydrogen that is directly attached to a similarly “strong” atom. The “weakness” of hydrogen in pulling electrons results in the “strong atom” pulling the electrons toward itself, thereby accumulating electrons and essentially becoming the negative pole of a minuscule magnet, leaving the hydrogen depleted and therefore the positive pole of this same magnet. Luckily for water, oxygen, the central atom in a water molecule, is the second strongest known element in “pulling” electrons and, unlike a vast number of other small molecules, contains not one, but two hydrogens, enabling two hydrogen bonds to be formed instead of one. (The strongest element, fluorine (F), is only able to bind one hydrogen, resulting in one possible hydrogen bond; HF (hydrofluoric acid) is also extremely corrosive and can result in bone damage by simply being absorbed through the skin.)
As a result, water holds together strongly. For comparison, it would take a non-hydrogen-bonding molecule about 5.5 times as large to equal water’s boiling point (heptane, a major component of gasoline, specifically; it has a boiling point of 97oC and a molecular weight of 100.20 g/mol, compared to water’s 100oC and 18.02 g/mol. Basically, water is the Takeru Kobayashi of the chemistry world. Removing one hydrogen bond results in a boiling point of only 65oC (methanol or “wood alcohol” – what made bootleggers go blind in the ’20’s), while swapping the oxygen out for a nitrogen results in compound that isn’t even liquid at room temperature despite the ability to attach one more hydrogen to the molecule (ammonia, which boils at a measly -33oC. The stuff you buy in the store is probably mostly water. Interestingly, though, the third hydrogen-bonding site in ammonia means that it can help water to pack more densely (i.e., one gallon of water and one gallon of a concentrated ammonia solution do not make two gallons of liquid).
Another reason why water is so cool – ice floats. Ever think about that? My guess is that, given the prevalence of things you can throw into liquids and the small number of liquids that you can throw them into (basically, water and things made out of water), probably not. But if you really want a way to get a headache in 5 minutes or less, try wrapping your head around what makes a solid a solid and a liquid a liquid, especially given that basically any pure substance can be either one (or a gas, or a supercritical fluid) depending on the temperature and pressure. From a chemistry or materials standpoint, solids are solids because some force stops or slows molecular motion, allowing something to hold a shape. In the vast majority of cases, this also means that the molecules get closer together (i.e., they stop knocking into each other, which generally causes expansion, like when you break in a game of pool), increasing density, and causing the solid to sink. Not so with water. Water is one of the few materials that is denser as a liquid than as a solid, thanks to – you guessed it – hydrogen bonding. The intense attraction that water molecules have for one another allows them to bunch up when in a flexible state (i.e., liquid). When forming ice crystals, on the other hand, the water molecules must fall into regimented columns with regularly-repeating patterns, actually forcing them farther apart. Ice floats.
Aside from causing my jaw to drop at the infinite complexity that goes into even the smallest, simplest component of creation, this has another important consequence – icebergs float. If all of the icebergs were to suddenly fall to the bottom of the sea, we would also suddenly have a much smaller patch of earth to live on, since the water that used to be at the bottom of the sea would now be on the streets of New York.
If we were to look still deeper into the nature of water, we would see that this double-hydrogen-bonding is responsible for a great many other crucial properties – the ability to retain heat energy like it’s water’s job, the ability to dissolve ions, the ability to have acidity and basicity, to name a very small fraction of all of the possible directions we could go. Really, though, that’s the essence of this whole reflection – that even a slightly deeper look at the ordinary can open a world of shockingly vast complexity – the glory and infinite brilliance of the Creator reflected in His Creation. We say in the hymns for the Blessing of the Water on Theophany that “Today, the nature of water is sanctified.” Truly, if we are to take the understanding that sanctification is the revelation of the original glory with which creation was created, then I can’t imagine an easier or more beautiful case to embrace than good, old, plain water.
By Fr. Steven Belonick
It was said of Abba Arsenius that on Saturday evenings, preparing for the glory of Sunday, he would turn his back on the sun and stretch out his hands in prayer towards the heavens till once again the sun shone on his face. Then he would sit down. (Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
This description of Abba Arsenius has much to teach us about holy waiting and keeping vigil. Just as importantly, it describes the wonder a heart senses when it experiences God’s limitless glory in the everyday things of life.
Such other-worldly, “Arsenius-like” experiences are not fantastic legends, reserved for the few. Rather, wonder, and the joy associated with it, lie at the center of Christian life, and are given to those who have “eyes to see and ears to hear.” As Orthodox Christians, we believe that we were created to behold God’s glory in all things—as we sing weekly at the Divine Liturgy: “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.”
The ancient Jews recognized that all things, both small and great, came from God’s hand. King David wrote, “The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). The Jews believed that God’s extraordinary hand worked through ordinary objects and circumstances; thus, food, clothing, sexual relationships, birth, and death, were all “regulated” by the Jewish Law to reflect God’s glory. Every speck of earthly dust could reflect heavenly light. In fact, God intended for the terrestrial to unite with the divine. He intended for the “sun to shine” on our faces to remind us of His glory, and, He even intended for our “smudged” faces to shine with His glory!
The late 20th-century author and Jewish rabbi, Abraham Heschel, wrote about seeing the world through this “lens of wonder”:
Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God. Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement; get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually; to be spiritual is to be amazed.” (Between God and Man)
Heschel’s perspective is as radical as it is ancient. It challenges our present-day view, in which we compartmentalize our lives, separating the sacred and profane, the earthly and heavenly. Heschel invites us to see the earth imbued with the heavenly. He invites us to live beyond the temptations of selfish consumerism and ever-more-electrifying entertainment, both of which simply lead to boredom. For when God’s Spirit is absent from the things of the earth, those things become lifeless shells and hollow containers that simply lead to endless yearning for “more stuff” and “more stimulation.” But when God’s Spirit invades the “stuff of life,” earthly objects become not “supernatural” but “natural”: they find their place within the cosmos as intended by the Creator; and, when used as intended, they lead to our peace, joy, and fulfillment.
Heschel’s perspective comes from his understanding of the berakah —the ancient Jewish prayer of blessing, the predecessor of our Christian Eucharist, which begins: “Blessed be Thou, our God, King of the Universe, who….” The berakah can conclude with blessing a myriad of objects: bread, drink, rain, first fruits, and so forth.
Berakah transcends thanksgiving and praise: it confesses the wonders of God and opens us to God’s active participation in our lives. Every prayer of blessing (berakah) refers back to God each item that is blessed. In doing so, the blessing establishes a relationship, a covenant, with God. The berakah links the human with the divine, by acknowledging God as the source of all of creation and His Spirit as the fulfillment of all of creation.
A “blessing” is not a magical act. Nor does it endow the object with a supernatural force. Instead, a blessing recognizes the earth as belonging to God, and earthly objects as means of communication with Him. As such, a blessing reclaims and restores earthly things, and allows us, as Oliver Clement, an Orthodox writer of the 20th century, said, “to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.”
On the Feast of Epiphany, we acknowledge the importance of “blessings.” The priest stands before a font of water and, in awe, proclaims three times: “Great art Thou, O God, and marvelous are Thy works, and there are no words to suffice to hymn Thy wonders.” In blessing water—material liquid—we acknowledge it as the gift from God that supports all of life. “Holy Water” is not supernatural water, but rather water that is recognized as gift and sustenance from the hand of our Creator.
We use Holy Water, sanctified waters, to bless the things of everyday life. The priests’ Book of Needs index includes blessings for homes, icons, crosses, fruit, flowers, beehives, vehicles, fire engines, ambulances, and so forth. Some of these blessings may seem strange and funny to us. But each blessing is a reminder that God provides for us and that He remains active in our lives.
Each blessing also reminds us of our proper relationship to the holy and to the everyday: in fact, how we are to become the human link between the divine and earthly. “Holy Water” cleanses the lenses of our eyes, so that we see and understand how we are to live spiritual lives within earthly bodies; how we are to utilize earthly objects in a spiritual manner; how to become godly humans.
Blessings, by word or by water, reaffirm our covenant with our God. Through blessings, we reaffirm His presence and activity in our lives; we reaffirm His desire to communicate Himself to us through His creation. And like St. Arsenius, we stand in wonder at His graciousness.
By Dave Wanik
Earth’s Early Atmosphere and the Origins of Water
As an environmental scientist, I have a passion for studying the Earth and solving environmental problems. The planet itself is fascinating: it’s a large oblate, spheroid heat engine that’s transferring energy from the equator to the poles, and hurdling around the sun at over 65,000 miles per hour. There are hundreds of energy-transferring processes, atmospheric processes, oceanic processes, geologic processes, occurring at any given moment. The start of the Earth is assumed to have begun six billion years ago (when it was just a ball of rock). It is assumed that continental plates began crashing into each other which opening the Earth’s interior to space. This resulted in an outgassing of hydrogen, helium and water vapor which created a primitive atmosphere that was quite acidic. It is hypothesized that offgasing alone from geologic features could not be responsible for the vast amount of water on Earth. Some suggest that comets collided with Earth and brought over water, methane and other chemical elements. Since Earth was very warm back then, the water from the comets probably evaporated immediately making the air very thick. The Earth’s silicate geology can sequester vast amounts of carbon dioxide when the rock is weathered by converting the carbon dioxide gas to bicarbonate acid ions.
Many scientists assume the geology (as determined by the carbonate-silicate cycle) caught up with the atmosphere and removed much of the atmospheric carbon over millions of years. The Earth cooled and water condensed out of the atmosphere forming our oceans. Later green algae and other small bacterium started photosynthesizing and producing oxygen. A cool experiment from the mid-twentieth century was the Miller-Urey experiment; the first of its kind to reenact this scenario. They took inorganic compounds like methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water vapor and were able to form over twenty essential amino acids by using an electric spark as the major input of energy. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins which in turn are the building blocks of many organisms.
The Source of Life
Water as we know it is the source of all life. A nice parallel is to describe Jesus and his love fountains of living water (Jeremiah 17:13). When we give ourselves to Christ we are baptized in water. When we bless anything in the Church it is sprinkled with water. Since biblical times then we can see that water has been held as something sacred. Water is one of the most intriguing compounds on Earth and it covers nearly 71% of Earth’s surface. While water may seem abundant, you may be surprised to find out that only 1% of the water on Earth is fresh water, and most of it is tied up in glaciers. Water can be easily contaminated by animal waste, road salts and sands or non-source pollutants like agricultural fertilizers. Large amounts of nitrogen can contribute to eutrophication resulting in the formation of large algal blooms that suffocate the biota. If there’s enough road salt in your drinking water it has the potential to trigger heart attacks. Clearly we must take proactive steps to protect water contamination.
Your Campus Water Use
Let’s consider conservation in addition to contamination. Where does your campus get its water? How much water does your campus use? The average college student will probably use a large amount of water each day, whether directly or indirectly. It takes water and energy to cook food, to run power plants, to run lab equipment, to bathe etc. The majority of your campuses probably get their water from ground water well fields. These wells may be close or far away to campus, but as you can imagine it takes a lot of energy to operate a pump. Depending on your geographic location, ground water must be pumped up from a few to thousands of feet underground (the deeper the groundwater table, the more energy needed to get it out of the ground). Once it’s pumped up the water must then be pumped to campus and treated with a little bit of residual chlorine or ozone and then it’s ready to drink. If your campus drinking water comes from a reservoir then even more treatments are necessary. Surface waters are open to the atmosphere and runoff so more treatments are necessary to ensure the water is safe to drink. Unlike ground water, surface-derived drinking water must go through large settling tanks and filtering apparatuses. Both sources of drinking water get a little bit of fluoride and residual chlorine, ozone or ultraviolet treatment to prevent contamination.
Personal Water Conservation
It’s important to conserve because natural groundwater recharge rates are so slow, and precipitation can be unusual. As global average temperature changes so does pressure thereby altering precipitation regimes and the availability of water. Here are some things you can do around campus to save water:
By Maria Simakova
Images of water permeate the hymns of Theophany services. Familiar themes – the revelation of God as Trinity, the sanctification of creation, the Baptism of the Sinless One, the cleansing of our sins – become concrete as we listen to the ancient songs whose language echoes the lectionary readings for this feast. The evangelists’ accounts of Christ’s Baptism, along with the stories of creation, the parting of Jordan before Moses and Joshua, the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah’ call to purification, and the sign given to Gideon, shape our understanding of this season.
Despite this wealth of Scriptural imagery, I find myself thinking about the story of the Samaritan woman in the Gospel of John. In this remarkable passage, water does virtually everything: from providing a useful conversation starter to revealing Christ as the true protagonist of the Old Testament well stories; from supplying the writer with a vibrant metaphor for Christian life to pointing to Jesus as the Son of God. One thing is missing, however: the living water of John 4 does not cleanse.
This may seem out of season. Doesn’t the Church encourage us to reflect on the cleansing mystery of our baptism as we sing about the Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan? Shouldn’t we take account of our lives and “wash [our]selves, make [our]selves clean” (Is 1:16) as we celebrate the Epiphany of the Sinless Christ? After all, water is the means of purification throughout Scripture: the antidote for various ritual impurities of Leviticus, the agent of moral rebirth for John the Baptist’s followers, and, finally, the vehicle of our death to sin in Christ. Perhaps I shouldn’t let my thoughts stray from traditional images of Theophany to the strange water of John’s well.
Yet I thirst for this water. We Orthodox have become obsessed with cleansing and cleanliness. Not content with incessantly washing ourselves, we inundate our neighbors with “spiritual grooming” advice. I hear priests bemoaning the dissolution of the concept of sin in our society, but, judging by the average length of my and my fellow-parishioners’ confessions, we consider ourselves really dirty. We include every little sin on confession “laundry lists” because our focus remains on us – our good Christian standing, our salvation. We take our purity seriously (although not as seriously as the moral and doctrinal pollution of the guy that stands next to us in church or lives next door).
But Christ is not interested in the purity of the Samaritan woman. He simply says, “Give Me a drink” (Jn 4:7). He asks for an action, for a shift of her focus. What is more, He offers Himself to her, since His very pose – sitting by the well of Jacob asking a strange woman for water – brings to mind the ancient patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob, searching for brides in this land. The water of John 4 serves as a means not of purification, but of introduction, the introduction of Christ the Lowly, Christ the Bridegroom. To a careful reader, this water also speaks of Christ Who was Crucified at the sixth hour – the hour He speaks with the Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:6 and 19:14), the hour in which He thirsts (Jn 19:28).
The woman’s initial responses are self-involved. She is concerned with religious divisions between Jews and Samaritans, with the comparative “Orthodoxy” of their worship (Jn 4:9; 4:19-20). She even takes Jesus’s offer of the “living water” (Jn 4:10) rather pragmatically: she does not want to come to the well anymore. But Christ’s gift is not for individual consumption or obsessive ablutions. The “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14) promised by Him is, by definition, other-directed.
As the evangelist tells us, this spring of water symbolizes the Spirit of Christ, given to those who believe in Jesus as the Son of God (cf. Jn 7:37-39), to those who worship the Father “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24). The symbol is not abstract. Christ is the Living Water because He “is poured out like water” (Ps 22:14) on the Cross, offering us water and blood gushing from His side (Jn 19:34). Through dying the shameful death of a common criminal, He gives His Spirit and reveals Himself as the Truth. As the apostle says, Christ, the Son of God, “is He who came by water and blood, […] not with the water only but with the water and the blood” (1Jn 1:5-6). His very Passion, the pouring out of Christ as the Water of Life, reveals His divinity. Should we, then, use this Water for self-sanctification or, worse, for the cleansing of the perceived taints of others? Or should we follow the Samaritan woman, whose final response is to witness, to give Christ to others, forgetting her religious concerns, forgetting even to be ashamed of the dirt in her past.
I do not want to minimize our need for repentance and cleansing. But I know how quickly my pious reflections on the meaning of baptism morph into passing judgment on my sins and on the sins of others. All too often, Christ the Living Water becomes a means to an end – my cleanliness, my salvation. All too often, I am more concerned with the laws of sacrifice than with sacrificial love. All too often, I recoil from “obvious sinners,” crucified and shamed according to my purity rules. And so I am grateful for the living water that does not cleanse. Christ at the well does not care for orthopraxia or even orthodoxia. He requires an action, a shift of my focus: “seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Is 1:17). He wants me to forget my ideas of right and wrong, sin and shame and pour out my life in witness to Him, the Living Water slaking our thirst from the ignominy and loneliness of His dirty Cross.
William Kopcha is a 2nd-year graduate student at the University of Connecticut in Chemistry and Materials Science. He grew up in Connecticut and Vermont. He attends Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Willimantic, Connecticut. He is an active member and former president of the University of Connecticut Orthodox Christian Fellowship. He is a frequent contributor to this blog.
Fr. Steven Belonick was ordained to the priesthood in 1979. Over the last thirty-two years, he has served two parishes, and has spent the last eleven years working in various capacities at St Vladimir’s Seminary. Presently, he is the Campus Chaplain, providing pastoral care to the students and their families.
Dave Wanik is from New Britain, CT and is a senior undergraduate environmental science major at the University of Connecticut. He is treasurer of the UConn OCF Chapter and an avid outdoorsman. His academic interests include hydrology, atmospheric science and mathematical modeling. His home parish is Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in New Britain, CT.