Cabinet of Colloquial Curiosities, VI: Interfulgent
Bill: So the word from Paul Anthony Jones's clever collection of obsolete words that sort of popped intuitively and spontaneously into our imaginations for a Service of Tenebrae, a service of shadows, is the word ‘interfulgent’. It's an obsolete word, but if you took even a year of Latin in prep school, you can take it apart, right?
It is made up of two Latin words, the Latin preposition inter as in ‘internal’ or ‘interior’ or ‘interstate’, which is a road that travels between or through states. So that Latin preposition inter and this Latin word fulgent which comes from a Latin verb fulgere, which means ‘to shine’. And so ‘interfulgent’ is something that shines through.
Maybe light and sun rays shining through the leaves and limbs of a dark forest. If you Google on the internet these are the sorts of photos that will pop up.
So Katie when you hear the word interfulgent what do you see or feel in your mind's eye?
Katie: I love that interplay of light and darkness. I just think it's so important for us as Christians. And the first thing that comes to mind actually for me is that Leonard Cohen quote where “There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in”. I think something about interfulgence just admits that things are hard, that things are impossible, and yet doesn't quite give up on hope.
Bill: Yeah so why did that word ‘interfulgent’, a beautiful word, beautiful image, why did that pop into our heads spontaneously for this service of shadows do you think?
Katie: I mean for me, I think it's that sense that last year maybe we couldn't have held on to a word like interfulgent, right? We were in a really disorienting time, and it seemed like darkness just cut the truth, right? But after a year of holding on to darkness, we need to see this interplay of darkness and light, in order to see that there's a way out.
So at Christmas, you talked about this lunar spirituality, that sometimes Christianity has this solar light. Happy kind of rainbows and puppy dogs kind of theology, but that we really are lunar people.
I think interfulgent has that same tone to it for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday this year, where do you see just that interfulgent texture in the gospel stories that we just talked about?
Bill: Great, it's a great question. Saint John's Passion story, of course, is full more of shadow than of light. It's a very grim and sad story, a tragic story. And yet here and there are glimmers of light. I think John is foreshadowing for us the victory that's going to come in three days on Easter Sunday morning.
We've read the whole story many times, so we know how this ends. That helps a little bit, that's interfulgence in itself.
But even besides that, in the story itself, in the story of Jesus passion, John gives us these little rays of hope.
For instance, the shadow of grief. Mary of Bethany, one of Jesus’ best friends, understands the importance of his life and the imminence of his death. She says farewell before it's too late. She breaks open this jar of expensive perfume. A huge amount of very expensive perfume. John tells us, that it was worth about a year's salary.
So what is that for a working person in Palestine? $50,000 a year? This irritates Jesus’ CFO Judas Iscariot. And I get it, he's got a point, and yet as I mentioned before, John tells us that when Mary broke open this lavish perfume, dumps it on his feet and wipes it up with her hair, which was not done by a proper Palestinian woman in the first century. The house was filled with the fragrance of perfume, but then of course, Katie, we get to the crucifixion story. Is there any shining of light in the in the crucifixion story itself? Do you see any interfulgence at that point?
Katie: Yeah, it seems like, you know when you look through on a forest path, and you see that interplay of light and darkness. It's easy to see the trees, right? The things that are blocking the light. And I think the crucifixion story has that tone to it, that we see, I mean literally, right? The tree of the crucifixion and the darkness that the shadows cause but they're…we talk about them as shadows, right? And so a shadow implies that there is light, so, I tried to unpack a little bit in that story of Jesus.
Talking to his beloved best friend, his disciple, and his only relative, his mother, he tries to create something new and beautiful for them. Even in the shadow of pain, and in the shadow of grief, I think you know there is a place to see that light, even when we see the shadows.
Bill: Yeah, and even when he dies finally. Before Jesus dies, before he gives up the spirit to his father, he cries out in a loud voice “It is finished”. One word in Greek: tetelestai. But it's not a sigh of despair. It is an acclamation of triumph, right? Not “It is finished”—I’m defeated—but “It is finished”—It's accomplished; I’ve finished my work; even death is finished, and so that little interfulgence, even at the point of Jesus’ last breath, I think John means for us to see.
And so Katie that was then this is now, is there any interfulgence facing us here in April of 2021, see any glimmers of light?
Katie: Day after day more people are vaccinated, which gives us hope. We are having Easter in person this year. A small handful of people here in our sanctuary, two services out in our garden, and so that gives me hope.
Our confirmation students were so delighted that the football season started for New Trier, thank God. Basketball arenas are full again, not full full but there's people there, right? We're starting to be re-anchored, we're not out in the middle of the ocean. We're heading home.
Bill: Thank you for the interfulgence in April of 2021. For what we're facing here in Northern Illinois at this time of the pandemic. Christine Hides pointed Katie and me to this wonderful poem by Jan Richardson, which is sort of adjacent to that line from Leonard Cohen, “There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in”. Please listen to this poem and then we'll finish this little conversation.
Ms. Richardson said:
is for when
it is difficult to dream
the fracture, the rupture,
the cleaving through which
has come a life
you do not recognize
as your own.
When all that inhabits you
your heart made strange
and beating a broken
and unfamiliar cadence,
let there come
a word of solace,
a voice that speaks
into the shattering,
that who you are
the whole of you
that you cannot see
but is taking shape
piece joining to piece
in an ancient,
that bears you
not toward restoration,
nor toward return—
as if you could somehow
but steadily deeper
into the heart of the one
who has already dreamed you
 Jones, Paul Anthony, Cabinet of Calm: Soothing Words for Troubled Time, Elliott & Thompson, 2021).
Richardson, Jan L. The Cure for Sorrow: a Book of Blessings for Times of Grief. Wanton Gospeller Press, 2020. This poem was slightly edited.