What they don’t tell you about glaciers is that they’re filthy. Ancient ice, full of pure, colorless, extinct breath, captures ash too. It gets streaked with it. At Jokulsarlon in the south of Iceland, the fridge-sized ice blocks that bob in the water that runs off Europe’s largest glacier are as black as they are blue. They contain pieces of Vesuvius, Etna, Krakatoa. They look like broken glass on asphalt. They slide out into the North Atlantic past a black volcanic beach. They bleed black into the sea.
I think of her like that. In my favorite image of her, she is swept up in the blue of her robes, surrounded by angels in duller but similar blues. Colored with crushed lapis, the robes are sapphire, as are her eyes. She holds him in the blue of the robe. They are frozen there. He is a baby but he is already scourged, crucified, buried. The raising and the rearing are over. His veins are cold and hollow. Her life is past, but she cannot forget what she has endured, cannot forget that the baby she’s holding has been sacrificed. She is ice streaked with ash.
It would make sense that a girl who grew the desert would grow up to be a woman in blue. Deserts are gold and red and brown like bodies. They don’t allow you to be disembodied. You can’t forget that you are meat in one. As a sweaty, sunburnt child, you grow up dreaming of snow, of feeling clean and dry and glacial. The Aramaic word for ice is “gleeda.” It is an abstract noun. She is a girl who never sees or feels it. There is no ice in Palestine, where she lives. There is no ice in Ephesus, where she dies.
She grew up conscious of the fact that she was flesh. At 12, pregnant and poor and resigned and promptly married off to a man at least twice her age, she would’ve had that fact reinforced. At 45, collecting drops of blood from the dirt to bury with her son, she would’ve become horrified with it. At 60, caught up in a whirlwind of angels, her body transformed into cloud, she would’ve doubted the transformation, even as it was occurring. Through the centuries, she would never fully lose the feeling.
The blue that she wears in the rose window, on the panel, in the mosaic tiles is the way she is reminded that she’s changed. It’s how the peasant girl gets psyched up into acting like a queen. It’s how God tries to make her forget who she was, tries to make her act like a being that has never known what it is to scream or menstruate or marry a stranger or give birth or bury a son. He knows ice, though, and now so does she. But she still knows ash. Knows it in a way God cannot. God is blue, through and through. She is still streaked with black.
This is the reason we whisper to her when my grandmother’s gasps quicken and the death rattle comes and she collapses under those ice gray eyes. This is the reason we speak her name when my father succeeds in drinking himself to death and we go to see his body before it’s cremated and they take it out of the deep freeze and we’re shocked by the fact that the face of this frozen corpse is what we remember his face looking like. This is the reason I’ve never flown without a rosary, so that the moment that my red body breaks on the cold water, the soul that it contains can cover itself in the blue mantle of a being who knows what it’s like to break. She will not reject it. She will not look on it with disdain or judgment.
In the 14th century, two centuries before the Protestant Reformation turned Iceland Lutheran, an Icelandic poet named Drapa af Mariugrat wrote:
“For her part the blessed mother of the prince of the wind-vault (Christ), merciful, more famous than all womankind, speaks thus to Christians: ‘Where do you know of that mortal woman who bears greater sorrow than the mother of the Lord? Truly it is as if the shining, stiff steel is stuck through my heart.”
I imagine that the shining, stiff steel is pure crystal. I imagine that she receives it as she’s received everything else in the hard, black years of her mortality and the long, blue centuries of her immortality, with grace and acceptance. I imagine that the sharp blue icicle that impales her contains within it a vein of black, a streak of the suffering that we all bear as her children.
The Pink-Red Christ
There was a time when I tired of seeing him like this. By then, I’d gone more than a decade praying to images of him dying. In a hundred churches, I had received his blood and his body, listened to a hundred priests reenact the terror of the last full day of his life. I’d looked up from the floor at a hundred sculpted wooden and stone mimics of him, caught in the agonizing final throes of strangulation, impaled by his palms on his dying-post, his lungs collapsing under his own weight. Raised to meditate on his suffering, I was used to seeing him in pinks and reds. “My Jesus” was a god who twisted and buckled and burst, who reddened as he fell. I worshipped him in pieces, sectioned. His heart, his blood, his body, the wound in his side. Adhered to a cross, falling to his knees on the cobble stones, flayed, nailed, pierced. Always just shy of achieving his impossible mission to usher in a kingdom not of this world. Always unfulfilled.
The pink-redness of Christ is the pink-redness of tongues. It’s the pink-redness of all yielding things, of wombs and babies and oysters and laxatives and pimples and booty call martinis and soft socialism and anticipation. In Saigon in the 1880s, the French build a pink Catholic church for the small number of their imperial subjects who have converted to Catholicism. Like all pink things, it’s expectant. It awaits a reckoning. The fulfilment of its conversion mission or its incineration, its priests torn away from the tabernacle and hung up to redden in the sun. Neither happened. It is pink and unsatisfied to this day.
In the 1670s, a French nun named Margaret Mary Alacoque has several visions of Christ. In the visions, he comes to her in a pink-red robe pulled back to reveal a flaming red heart. “See, My well-beloved, I give thee a precious token of My love, having enclosed within thy side a little spark of its glowing flames, that it may serve thee for a heart and consume thee to the last moment of thy life; its ardour will never be exhausted, and thou wilt be able to find some slight relief only by bleeding.” The heart gives her no satisfaction. She starves and scourges herself and only ever temporarily delays the inevitable return of the pain and discomfort that comes with taking in something she can never fully assimilate. Never comfortably bear.
He must’ve thought it would accomplish something, this extravagant show of suffering. At the very beginning, he appeared in different ways. The good shepherd, a beardless teenage boy tending his flocks, sun-dappled and alive. The god-emperor, enthroned in the cosmos, weightless and breathless, his lineless brow untroubled by a world he could spin and stop without an ounce of effort. The vine, the door, the lamb. A man in white, with the air on his bare feet, already resurrected.
And then, around 900, a man hung from the ceiling in every church in a Europe that knew blood in its dead children and its raped wives and its impaled peasants, a Europe in which the body lived to be destroyed. In churches large and small, rich and poor, across every border, across every boundary of language, the faithful bow to the king of the dead children and the raped wife and the impaled peasant, their stand-in, their mascot. The poor and weak see him and perhaps feel less alone, whatever good that does them. The rich and strong see him and continue to polish to their knives. If the tortured body’s intended to pacify, it doesn’t succeed.
At 13, I reach peak Christianity. I go to church three times a week. I feel a call to the priesthood. I dream of being a martyr, cut into pink pieces for God. I do ridiculous things. I burn my Harry Potter books. I punish myself for masturbating; each wank means a skipped meal. I stay up late watching horrible early morning Christian television. I watch an old woman with 3 foot high pink sorbet for hair tell a story about a dream in which a bunch of “Jewish-looking” scholars tell her that the rapture is imminent. I am pink and striving and chaste and self-hating and expecting to be rewarded for it.
The same year, my grandparents die. The rosary my grandmother holds at the end is pink. Each bead is heart shaped. She holds it until her hand can’t hold anything, until the morphine pulls her fingers off of it. I triple wrap it around my hand and press it against her palm. I hold one bead after another and think on then, but forget the accompanying prayers. What comes out of her lungs at the end, in the rasping coughs that occupy the last two hours, is pink and cloudy. It is thick. There are pieces of her in it. The halo around my grandfather’s head isn’t pink but brown when I find him. Was presumably pink at the moment of death. There are pink cuts on his forehead. His mouth is ajar. Their pink-redness is not what I expected. It’s the pink-redness of Christ. It’s not fulfilling.
In 1898, another nun receives a vision of Christ. Saint Mary of the Divine Heart transcribes the prayer he gives her:
“To You I consecrate my body with all its senses, my soul with all its faculties, and my whole being. To you I consecrate all my thoughts, words and works; all my sufferings and labors; all my hopes, consolations and joys; and chiefly I consecrate to You my poor heart that I may love but You, and be consumed as a victim in the flames of Your love.”
The consecration is a transaction, an exchange in kind. The servant gives her flesh and her freedom; the master gives the hope of catharsis through suffering, through life and death. What she gets from him is pink-red. It’s not achieved. While she may burn, she cannot fully be consumed, cannot fully cease to suffer. The prayer is said and said again. The request is made and made again. It wears off. Daily, it ceases to satisfy. Daily, it must be repeated. Again and again, the believer returns to tortured body on the cross, her mirror image, begging fruitlessly to be put out of her misery, just as he fruitlessly begs to be put out of his.
Chris Records is a grantwriter and community organizer living in Los Angeles. He works for two nonprofits: USC Shoah Foundation, which collects the testimonies of survivors of genocide and uses them in schools around the world; and Karam Foundation’s Books Not Bombs initiative, which advocates for the creation of scholarships for Syrian refugee students. In his free time, you can find him being queer and Catholic at the same time. This is his first publication.