The Tremendum of Whirlwinds

After the church fire and the tornado
Stoughton, Wisconsin, August, 2005

Standing at the edge of the storm
I saw the circles and vortices form
out of pregnant mammalus clouds;
and then the storm reached down
its thick brutal fingers and scoured out
a half-mile wide and township-long track;
cornfields flattened, oak trees shattered,
and house after house reduced
to kindling, a wall or two still
standing, foundations scraped off
with shocked householders on
sunlit picnic chairs sitting, after, silent,
sullen, shocked, too numb to complain.

The day before, the town’s Main Street
church burned down. No one knows how
or why that fire started. All that is left
are scorched brick walls and soot stained
glass windows, Jesus of the charred face;
and two days after that a terrifying
hurricane hits Florida and then
Louisiana. Category: cataclysmic! Scores
are dead. By a four hundred mile wide
twister. Winds reaching tornado strength.

And then I swim under the Pacific and
encounter a vast ocean mountain range
and it is icy and esctatic and silent;
the Atlantic storms of my childhood
were just as mountainous and frightening;
how would this little ship to Germany, this
frail metal splinter, ever last? Mountains
above and below, the ranges are enormous;
and pitiless sky above, all empty space
beyond comprehension, sublime and
terrible, with novas like tornados and
hurricanes infinite in power exploding,
to chew up whole planets, with mouths
grinning trillions of teeth, each tooth
a million atom bombs; and black
holes that suck up galaxies and gobble
light and time and space; infinite
distances more disturbing than Job’s
El Shaddai shouting out of the wind, or
Cormac McCarthy’s savage landscapes.

It was hard for me to worship
that household God of my Lutheran
childhood. Now give me tornados and
hurricanes and pulsars and supernovas
and atomic and hydrogen bombs
and blizzards and killing winters and
the Big Bang itself! That kind of terror
brings me to my knees. And the sublime
and awesome monsters of unlimited
space and the equivalent rages of my
own predatory heart...yes, yess,
o so numinous, yes, o so holy! That is
my proud testimony that may be silent
Job’s shocked submission as well.
If there is a sacred, a living, a fire that
animates the monsters of that tornado
day, it is strange, fearsome, unheimlich,
that uncanniness is of our enigmatic
cobra hearts, whose chambers hold
the power that can blast open seeds
push plants through rock, only to have
them destroyed by weed, drought,
neglect, religious strife, war, and wind.

The services after the fire that Sunday
were held under a sunlit sky on picnic
chairs in the church parking lot:
proper worship for a congregation,
outside their ruined temple, its walls too
shattered to contain the god they
may have thought their church was for.

Batter my heart o Galaxies billion, o
endless time. Kyrie. Prodigious power.
Impenetrable fierceness. Kyrie eleison.

I lay supine in this grass, expectant, mute.
These words, o Lord without mercy,
only point to the words I can never say.

Steven Fortney

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