Being lost for the fun of it. A blog post as meandering as it sounds.

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Streets keep turning up where they shouldn’t—unless my map’s the wrong way ’round. It’s useless anyway: the streets here are unlabled. Daylight’s quickly drifting off in no discernible direction.

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My viewfinder has led me here, although I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly. Traces of something…but how would I recognize it? Here, old and new run together, and, as anywhere new meets old, it tends to gobble it up. Few of these buildings seem to want to share the stories they so clearly have to tell. They collude with unsigned streets to maintain anonymity.

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“LITTLE PETER STREET!” one non-compliant edifice shouts, placing me back on the map. Now I must feign being lost. I turn my lens toward the railroad tracks, whose massive Victorian arches I follow. Red bricks, blackened with damp, and green with lichen and moss, recount lifetimes of industry, dereliction, reuse—whatever my eye will read into them. Surely there was a history here. Mundane as a train schedule, unrelenting as rain, ubiquitous as cotton thread, or: unrelenting as trains, ubiquitous as rain, mundane as cotton. No matter. Ponderous and decayed but lasting as the capitalist’s monument to himself.

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I’m no archaeologist, nor historian, nor even a photographer. I’m merely recording memories, impressions. Memories may congeal around photographs, but in the end, they are more painterly. My feet ache, my body stiffens, the light is all but gone, and I can’t stop taking pictures.

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A month ago, I was in Manchester, UK, where I presented a paper (“A Wounded Presence: The Virgin of Vladimir Icon”) at a conference (“Images, Icons, and Idols”) at the University of Manchester. I had a couple days free to wander around City Centre, which resulted in what you’ve just read above. These are also some of the photos I took. They’re dreadful photos, and heavily reworked in Photoshop. But they’re all I’ve got. I’ve made a promise to myself that I’ll spend some time learning how to use a camera once the weather turns nice again here in Detroit (and the daylight sticks around longer). You know, June. May, if we’re lucky.

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Here’s another photo from my Manchester trip, of “the Wheel” in Piccadilly Gardens, which is less of a garden and more of a public square with civic statues, this big Rerris wheel (which is for seeing the vista, like the London Eye), and the convergence of Manchester’s utterly chaotic bus lines. Seriously, the buses will make you want to walk even if you don’t happen to love walking to begin with.


So, this is a blog about “Poetry, God, and Detroit, in no particular order.” The above italicized musings don’t quite amount to a poem, I admit. My trip was God-related, since I was there for a theological conference. But I’ve also always wanted to go to Manchester, in part because some of my favorite music has come out of that city, but even more so because it’s often (been) compared to Detroit. Both cities are northern (in their respective countries), and both have an industrial past, complete with all the building projects wealthy industrialists like to engage in (as they’re a socially acceptable sort of pissing contest), and the ensuing economic depression from their respective industries’ inevitable declines. Both have offered their industrial ruins to photographers’ lenses. Both have working-class populations who take an inordinate pride in their cities—here’s mine; as I always say, I have a “chosen delusion” ( <–right there, I admit it’s a delusion) that when I mention I’m from Detroit, people will be jealous. And, of course, both cities have given the world plenty to dance to.

I take issue with this.

Poster on the exterior of the former Factory Records headquarters, now a nightclub called Fac51.

The sign pictured above says: “FACT: Statistically there are more rock stars per capita of population from Manchester than any other city in the world. …” Leaving aside the redundant wording, I think the facticity of this claim depends on how you define “rock star,” “city,” and “from.” There’s no need, really, to point out that in Detroit, we invented punk, and techno, which, incidentally, featured on the dance floor even in “Madchester.” Oh, and there was that record label a factory worker started out of his house on Grand Boulevard. But it’s not my intention to start a pond war or anything. There’s been some nice cross-pollination between the two scenes.

Manchester’s seen a revitalization, though, in the past couple of decades. John Gallagher includes it among the cities he compares to the D in his book, Revolution Detroit. I made a point of getting a copy of the book before my trip in order to read the section on Manchester while on the plane over. Beginning in the late ’90s, I remember hearing and reading the opinion that the music scene essentially brought about the city’s transformation, but I never could believe that would be the whole story. In Gallagher’s book, he reports a more sensible assessment: that it was thanks to creative, sustained, hard work on the part of various city leaders. And then there was that other factor…

…which my friend, who picked me up from the airport, also mentioned. “But we’re not supposed to talk about that,” he quickly added. This was something I’d never heard of till I read it in Gallagher’s book, so, well done, Mancunians. But it’s not really quite a secret, just because I was unaware. I was living in Holt, MI and working at a TV station in Lansing in 1996…how could I have possibly heard of something so newsworthy?

Don't mention it!

Polite circumlocution in the Manchester Cathedral

What that plaque is not quite saying is that the IRA bombed City Centre (very near the cathedral, I’m told) in 1996. Following that attack, naturally, people rallied to rebuild whatever was damaged, and it mobilized a lot of good energy, it seems.

I’m not qualified to really analyze all that after one week in the city all these years later. But I can report on this little bit I’ve seen, heard, and read. In my not-so-qualified opinion, despite all their similarities, Detroit and Manchester have very different stories, especially from their lowest points on up. The cities have, have had, and will have very different paths, and quite possibly the only thing Detroit can learn from Manchester’s success is that such things are possible, and they take a lot of work, and a lot of civic-mindedness.

Crap. We don’t really have that in Southeastern Michigan. We have a toxic city-suburb divide, which is largely our own circumlocution to bypass actually talking about race and class. (Except that we’re always talking about race and class, just not productively.)

The Metro Times (Southeast Michigan’s alternative newsweekly) recently published a blog post anyone fascinated with Detroit should read, titled, “Please, please, please: Stop ‘saving’ Detroit.” Just as Manchester wasn’t “saved” by a single factor (or, ahem, Factory), Detroit won’t be either. Detroit’s already a great city, just as it’s been for a long time (by American standards, that is), and it will continue to be. The good news is that the good things happening here are piece-meal, grass-roots, and idiosyncratic, just as you’d want them to be. You might not want to get lost in our streets just yet…but there’s a lot to explore here. And a lot of creative, sustained, hard work to do. Just as you’d want it to be.

You’ve made it to the end of this post. Enjoy a couple more photos from my trip!

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My flight, which went through Paris, was the day after the Charlie Hebdo incident. This photo was taken on January 10, 2015.

My flight, which went through Paris, was the day after the Charlie Hebdo incident. This photo of a street artist at work (with chalks) was taken on January 10, 2015 in Manchester City Centre.

Closing in on Christmas (an Advent poem)

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
CLOSING IN ON CHRISTMAS

I do not come bearing gifts like the magi,
or introduced by angels like the shepherds.
I have mistimed and miscalculated and misunderstood,
and the Christ I seek

is still a fetus, still developing the fingers he used
to form the world, the eyes that surveyed it,
perceiving it as “Good.”

Mary, you grow this human God inside you.
Eternity now bears your DNA.
Here, at the navel of the cosmos,
you prepare a place for him.

Holy Mary, Gestator of God,
I can only wait with you.
But tell me:

is the kicking I feel inside me
also Life? Is the emptiness around me
at work to make him room?

Your presence is the Lord’s coming.
Let me linger here and learn from you;
for soon you will be wearied with new motherhood,

and all the world will come to suckle
at your breast.

zen cadenza

Elaine Elizabeth Belz
ZEN CADENZA

what music
does the sea transmit across its channels
pulling you out wave upon wave
to crash a wave against some distant coast?

the noise of sea gulls cyclically
builds crests disintegrates
rebuilds

and the silence
intones your mother tongue.

there is no language
without the sea, no music
without oceans

steadily these fitful waves
emerge from the placid horizon


Detroit’s Song

I’d have to hear them, but I rather like the title, “Hang your hat in Detroit.” Which is odd, ’cause I don’t wear hats.

Look what we found!

The Detroit Schottisch, 1854 The Detroit Schottisch, 1854

We all know “New York, New York” and “Sweet Home Chicago”, but does Detroit have its own quintessential anthem? Browsing through the many hundreds of sheet music titles in our online digital collection, you will come across dozens of pieces that have been written about the city through the years. Most were probably published with the hopes of becoming that one song to endure as the city’s calling card. It seems that each generation takes a stab at composing a memorable melody about Detroit, but none have yet to stick. Which of these do you think we should revive?

The Detroit, 1886 The Detroit, 1886

Our earliest examples are instrumentals, played to accompany dances in the 1850s. The first to have lyrics was “Detroit”, composed in 1899. Several songs were written for events: “Hang Your Hat in Detroit” welcomed the 1910 Elks Grand Lodge Reunion, “A Real, Live…

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Wherein the poet casts herself in the role of the Gerasene Demoniac.

I’ve been away from this blog for a while, dealing with life…

To at least check in, I figured I’d post a poem. It grew out of hearing the story of the “Gerasene Demoniac” one Sunday Evensong a couple years ago (or so). I recognized myself in the passage.

I feel the need to add a TRIGGER WARNING, as this deals with bipolar and self-injury. But other than that—I’ve been told I shouldn’t over-explain a poem before presenting it, so here it is:


Elaine Elizabeth Belz
MY NAME IS LEGION
Luke 8.26-39

I could be the madman in this passage: mine
the howling, the bruises, the manic
smashing of all constraint.

What have you to do
with me,
Love?
.                               I train my voice
to his, in case finding myself in the drama
might amount to faith.
Fractured shackles
still inscribe their false creed;
feigned hope bleeds into the margins.

But what if I were to profess
these dark stains, stark ciphers
set down on the page? Would belief
leap from dead paper, call forth
my name, and quiet
the clanging
hollow space between words?

The story plays out as arranged:

Pigs flee the scene,
the madman ambles off, perplexed
—though in his right mind;

.                                           but I
remain in white tombs of the text
poring over my Gerasene scars.

 


 

In case this seems familiar, I did blog on the text. You can find that post here.

 

Happy birthday, Detroit

Today was Detroit’s 313th birthday, which is significant for the arbitrary reason that 313 is the city’s area code and one of its nicknames. Arbitrary, yes; but significant enough to warrant month-long $3.13 meals at McDonalds and week-long celebrations Downtown and in the Cultural Center. And significant enough to guilt me into a blog post…about Detroit, of course. (Well, it was that, or poetry, or God, right?)

This didn't happen today, but it seemed like an appropriate photo. (From 23 June 2014 International Fireworks)

This didn’t happen today, but it seemed like an appropriate photo. (From 23 June 2014 International Fireworks)

I had a strange dream last night that centered around the street in Detroit where my dad grew up. In real life, I’d visited that house when his parents still lived there when I was so little I vaguely remember it at all. I have no idea where on the street my dad’s family lived, and it’s a long street. My dream last night is irrelevant, except that it got me thinking today about my family history in Detroit.

I didn’t grow up in the city. My mother’s family had relocated to Farmington Hills when she was a kid, and we lived in that city until I was 4, when we moved out to the boondocks (now exurbs) I lovingly refer to as “the woods I crawled out of.”

Said woods.

Said woods.

But I moved to the city as an adult, landing first in Palmer Park, which is at the northwest corner of 6 Mile (McNichols) and Woodward. Unknowingly, I had arrived in an area full of my family’s history.

Not far away was the hospital where I was born, where my older sisters were born, and I think where my mother also was born. The house where my grandmother grew up, where my mom also lived till she was a year old, is gone now, but was off 7 Mile between Woodward and John R, the area now known as Chaldeantown. When my grandmother was growing up, her aunt and uncle also lived next door, and her aunt played the organ in Detroit’s famous movie houses in Grand Circus Park. (Her brother, my great-grandfather, was a church musician. Such a musical family. Alas, I didn’t get those genes.)

One great story, from that ancestral house I never saw, involved my grandfather. After my grandparents married, they lived for a little while in a trailer in my great-grandparents’ backyard. My great-grandparents’ house didn’t have a basement, but they wanted one. My grandfather helped his father-in-law dig out a basement under the existing house. In true Detroit fashion (see how long this sort of thing’s been going on?), they didn’t bother getting permits. Instead, they worked at night, digging from behind the house, and dumping the dirt around the city to hide the evidence. And this was when there were fewer places to dump dirt, or other things, without being noticed. But I don’t know whether they were working so stealthily out of paranoia, or if the city was on top of such things more than it is now.

My mother has said that when she was little, after her father’s job was transferred out of the city, they used to come visit her grandparents at that house. She and her sister would be taken to play in nearby Palmer Park, or they would ride the streetcars downtown to shop. One time she was visiting me, and at the corner of Woodward and 6, she looked around and said, “I have dreams about this intersection.” It looked completely different, of course, but was apparently still recognizable enough—but not a little disorienting, either.

While we were living in Palmer Park, some friends and I bought an abandoned house in the area around 6 and Livernois. Later, I learned that my great aunt (my grandmother’s sister) and her husband had lived on a street just several blocks down.

On the other side of the family, I learned from my dad’s mother that she had him baptized at All Saints Episcopal Church on 7 Mile near Woodward. She was Catholic, and my grandfather, an agnostic who had been raised Christian Scientist, wouldn’t let her have their baby baptized in a Catholic church. My grandmother was always a good, pragmatic ecumenist. She told me the Episcopal Church is “like the Catholic Church.” Now, I had just become Episcopalian, and telling her about it was the occasion for her sharing this story with me. Naturally, I teased my dad (who is Evangelical) that he was really Episcopalian. Although we don’t actually think about baptism in sectarian terms. But still.

Now, at this point, I could venture off into the suburbs and tell you about how I grew up attending a church on 6 Mile in Northville, or how, when I was 14, my femur was broken by a drunk driver on 6 Mile in Livonia. So much of my life has happened on or around 6 Mile…and I live just off 6 Mile now. That’s where I’d rather take you, dear reader: to a place called home.

Our house came with a basement.

Our house came with a basement. Sorry, Grandpa.

No, not that place called home. This place:

f88157682…or, more accurately, this sense of belonging. Not just “you are here,” but “you belong here.”

I never felt such a sense of belonging anywhere like I did when, in my 20s, I arrived (back) in Detroit. And now I’ve been away for almost nine years, and am back yet again, and that sense of home has remained—so much that I’ve got the city’s logo tattooed on my wrist, where you find my pulse.

"If found, return to Detroit" seemed too wordy.

“If found, please return to Detroit” seemed too wordy.

There’s a part of me—probably the part that’s a poet—that wants to think the same place to which my ancestors gravitated had somehow called me too. But if that’s too mystical-sounding, I think it’s still a perfectly good metaphor for the spirit a place can have. A place, a home, isn’t just a map imposed onto a blank canvas (even if it’s drawn up on a blank piece of paper). Place, say all the scholars who work on the subject—Casey, Sheldrake, Gorringe, and others—precedes space; we’ve gotten so used to the geometric abstraction of place that we forget it’s an abstraction. Place is storied: it has a history, a name, memories, even legends. Many would say it has a sort of personality—a “spirit”—as well.

Without anthropomorphizing the city, however, it’s not hard to notice that some themes do recur in Detroit’s history. From the founder of the city on, it’s a place where people have come to forget the past and reinvent themselves. People have often flocked here for opportunity: first, French settlers, who heard of the “paradise” of fruit trees and good vegetation; then English-speaking Americans from the East Coast, who came for opportunities in the city’s early industries and in the distribution of Michigan lumber and farm products; and later, people from the US South and all over the world, who came looking for work in the automobile industry. Now people are coming for cheap real estate and the opportunity to start their own businesses; others are coming here specifically to be in a place where they can make a noticeable difference.

It’s been a contested place. Detroit’s location was chosen by the French for strategic reasons—strategic, primarily, for controlling the fur trade along the Great Lakes. But first, it was populated by native tribes such as the Hurons and Wyandots. Later, it was valued as a strategic military site, and changed hands several times (the French, British, and US flags have all flown here; and under the French and British, Detroit was part of Canada). The original French settlers were pushed to the margins by English-speaking settlers from the US East Coast. Various immigrant groups would coexist with mixed success, as in all US cities. Race riots occurred from time to time—1833, 1943, and 1967. Racist policies in government, housing, and business—not least of which involved the destruction of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley—along with “white flight” to the suburbs changed Detroit to the largest majority Black city in the US. It’s also a city where you can find a Polish or (historically) French church with Masses in English and Spanish.

Early French settlers were known for what the later English settlers thought was an inordinate love of music and dancing—and, more recently, Detroit has given the world the musical genres of Motown, punk, and techno, and many talented artists in hip hop, rap, jazz, blues, folk, gospel, and rock’n’roll. Not to mention the world-famous DSO.

We’re an industrial center. Before cars, we made stoves, ships, train cars, and just about anything you could make by bending and stamping metal. Industry is an obvious part of our civic character. Currently, we’re making clothing, watches, bikes, food, and lots of arts and crafts.

Farming may be another theme. Detroit’s earliest settlers grew their food here, and, once they had enough to satisfy their needs (the land was generous, it seems), they enjoyed the good life. (The later English settlers called that “lazy.”) During an economic recession in the 1890s, mayor Hazen Pingree launched a program of urban gardening whereby Detroit’s poor could farm vacant lots. It earned him the nickname “Potato Patch Pingree,” but it worked (eventually). And now, as everyone knows, urban farming has returned to Detroit. Local farmers (in and around the city) provide produce for local restaurants and stores.

Remember the recent bad mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who was driven out of office in disgrace? So was the city’s first leader, its founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (though not for quite the same reasons).

And, if you followed the above link about Pingree’s potato patches, you might have noticed words like “insolvency” and the city’s treasury being “almost empty.” I really don’t have to say more about that.

Our motto is all about things burning down, which they’ve tended to do rather frequently here. I hope that’s not part of the spirit of this place. Speramus Meliora—Resurgit Cineribus: “We hope for better; it will rise from the ashes.” We’ve rebuilt this city before.

Official city seal. Photo by the author.

Official city seal. The woman on the left is mourning after the 1805 fire that destroyed the city; the woman on the right is trying to console her with a vision of the city’s future. We haven’t added a third woman yet. It just seems cruel.

I hope if you’ve noticed other themes in this city’s history, you will share them in the comments. So far, it seems to me we can characterize this city as  a place whose people, whatever their ethnicity, whatever language they speak, work hard, enjoy the good life, make music, suffer hardships, reinvent themselves, and keep hoping and rebuilding.

Does that sound like Detroit to you?

It sounds like home to me.

313 years is still young in the grand scheme of things. Happy birthday, Detroit, and many returns.

I seem to be writing again!

A few days ago, I finally had that feeling other poets surely know, that sense of, I’ve got a poem to write.” It was the first time since my move home to Detroit at the beginning of June—the first time in several months, actually.

Over the past few days, I’ve drafted and revised two poems (which now need time to simmer, perhaps some input from others, and more revision). Both are slice-of-life narratives, both about a single afternoon: the afternoon I learned it takes longer to bus home to the University District from Eastpointe (née East Detroit) than it does to drive home from Flint during rush hour (which my roommate was doing at the time).

Now, since I’ve been home, I’ve enjoyed some of the great activities and places Detroit has to offer. I’ve been back to my church—jumped back into lectoring again already!—and have shopped at Eastern Market several times, including the new Sunday artists’ market; I checked out Log Cabin Day at Palmer Park, and enjoyed the RiverWalk (or River Front; it’s unclear to me), the Detroit Ford Fireworks (formerly known as the Windsor-Detroit International Freedom Festival), and, just today, the Concert of Colors. None of these inspired poetry. A bus ride, however, inspired two.

(I’m not going to post them here. I know, I’m such a tease.)

This has me thinking now about Detroit’s rebirth, which is largely contained in Midtown and Downtown, and the everyday lives those of us in the neighborhoods experience. It has me wondering why all the good things, the things I intend to celebrate, with more than a hyperlink, in this blog, things which are beautiful, which are welcome, which welcome me home—none of these births poetry in me. A bus ride along McNichols (a.k.a. 6 Mile), however, produced twins.

It definitely has me looking more closely at the ordinary things in life.

 

In my neighborhood, though, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen five burned-out houses on my street demolished, the rubble removed, and, finally, today, the holes filled in with dirt. I’m the kind of poet this should inspire, but no. Not that either. I guess the poetic muse isn’t interested in bulldozers.

Why it’s been quiet here for a month…

I just wanted to briefly note here that I’m in the process of moving back to Detroit! Yay!!!

Things have been quiet here as I’ve been wrapping up my life in California, finishing up my comprehensive exams (part of the PhD program I’m in), saying good-byes, sorting through and getting rid of all that stuff that somehow accumulates in closets and drawers (and, let’s be honest, pretty much anywhere it can), moving out of my apartment, house-sitting, planning, and shopping for a cheap car.

Yes, I’m driving back to Detroit, which should be an adventure in an old car with a slightly less old cat. Good people are providing me with places to stay all along the way. Perhaps I’ll be able to post here as I travel, but if not, I’ll see you in Detroit!

(I passed my comps yesterday, though! Woo hoo! On to the dissertation proposal…)

The ordinariness of God

I work in a church—literally, in the church, not in the offices attached to it. My work is mostly preparing for worship services.

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, which involved a fair amount of preparation. But that’s not what I want to write about.

Because the church where I work combines all our Palm Sunday services, so that there is only one big service in the morning, I was able to ready the side chapel today for Monday’s 12:10 Eucharist. As I was setting the chalice (dressed with paten, purificator, host, pall, and corporal), water and wine, and lavabo bowl on the credence table, I noticed that I was barely paying attention to what I was doing. I’ve been doing this for over eight years; it’s fairly automatic.

Credence

I did this in my sleep.

Working in a church, you develop a very intimate relationship with the sacred space and its vessels and furnishings. When we think of intimacy, we usually think first of special moments of tenderness and delight shared between persons in a close relationship. But as anyone in any kind of intimate relationship (romantic or otherwise) knows, they are also full of the mundane. No matter how hard we may try, we will at times take the other for granted. We’ll fail sometimes to pay full attention; we’ll miss seeing the love and grace and beauty that really are always there.

The vessels for daily Mass are among the plainest that we have. They also pretty much never get put away, and so they tarnish a bit, and sometimes are duller than they ought to be. Those of us who wash, dry, and re-set them tend to take them for granted and treat them as utilitarian objects. It’s one more task to wash and re-set them. Even the Reserved Sacrament does not automatically arouse a sense of awe. You have to be paying attention.

So when I noticed I was working on auto-pilot, I first felt a tinge of…not quite guilt, but a sense that maybe I should be working with more reverence. I thought about how a hypothetical visitor or attendee at Mass might respond if given the object to handle these sacred objects, how they might react to see me treating these items so casually.

But quickly my attention turned instead to one of the things I value most about the Sacraments:

My awe or lack thereof is actually as immaterial to the Sacrament as it was to the prep work I was doing. No matter how carefully I were to line the vessels up neatly, turn the chalice with the cross facing forward, or adjust the linens—or how carelessly I might have performed the same task—these relatively humble vessels will fulfil their function, and they will contain the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. Similarly, when we receive Communion, our attention or inattention does not alter the objective reality of what is happening: we are receiving Christ and being incorporated into his Body. Our devoted mindfulness benefits us, to be sure, but either way, Christ always shows up, is always there, always receives whatever we offer, and always gives of himself to us fully. Even if we don’t notice.

This isn’t to encourage inattention this Passiontide—on the contrary: recognizing God’s generosity and condescension to be so ordinary, to risk going unnoticed, can clearly be seen in Jesus’ dwelling and walking with us, even through suffering and death. Christ’s willingness—eagerness, really—to enter our world, and there shed his tears, his sweat, his blood into whatever matter would receive them (clothing, the wood of the Cross, the thin air), his willingness to entrust his body to the tomb—this very human humility of Christ can inspire us to value and imitate his self-outpouring all the more.

Perhaps I might as well have been pre-setting a table in a low-end restaurant with placemats and ketchup bottles. Instead, I was setting a credence table for the celebration of the Mass, and was suddenly caught by the profound significance of those vessels.

Shouldn’t we also be caught by the profound sacredness of all matter? The cosmos, after all, was created for Christ to inhabit, and we are told in Scripture that Christ “fills all things.” His presence in such ordinary things as ketchup or a sock is certainly of a different character than his presence in the Eucharist. But, whether we notice it or not, he fills all things.