On a butter cow and the Transfiguration
For a couple of summers when I was in college I worked at a small diocesan Catholic newspaper. I accepted the job thinking it would be my first step to the Pulitzer Prize that I was certain was to follow, but – as worthy a publication as it was – it wasn't exactly hard-hitting journalism. My pieces tended to be of a “a good time was had by all at the parish fête” style of journalism. But – lest you think I was travelling about enjoying tea and cakes all over the diocese –I didn't ever actually attend any of the fêtes themselves, rather just wrote things based on reports and photographs that others had sent in whilst I sat in an airless and soulless cubicle.
But one day in August of 1987 all that was destined to change. My editor, a smiley guy by the name of Ed, said he thought it was time I went out on assignment to cover a story. When I asked which parish fête I would be attending, he said he was entrusting me with something much, much bigger than simply a parochial event. Was this the journalistic break I had been hoping for? I imagined the crime empire which would be trampled due to my writing, imagined hooded-eyed mobsters being led away to prison shaking their fists in anger at the boy-journalist who had precipitated their downfall. (“We would have got away with it, if it weren't for that snooping Lewis!”) I imagined initially having to go on the run, but then emerging in the light of justice (and publicity!) when all the baddies were behind bars. I imagined being interviewed, Oprah herself tearing up as I recounted my shocking bravery in the never-ending quest to ensure that justice and truth triumph. I imagined becoming best friends with Richard Gere (who would naturally play me in the film version of my story), imagined the pride I would feel when he, accepting an Oscar for his portrayal of Alaric Lewis (“that young-but-hard-nosed-and-unswerving-champion-of-the-truth”) thanked me for my bravery and inspiring words. (“I would not be the actor I am – nay, the human being I am – without him!”). I imagined Ronald Reagan giving me the Presidential Medal of Freedom as my proud father looked on, whispering “I knew this day would come” to Secretary of State George Shultz, who nodded and responded, “Didn't we all, Mr. Lewis. Didn't we all.”
Lips quivering with the enormity of what was beginning in and around me, I said to Ed: “I'm ready. I'm going to write the best darned story this rag has ever published!”
Ed's smile dimmed somewhat, as if he, too, were aware of the genesis of journalistic greatness which was clearly unfolding before his very eyes. He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Lewis,” he said slowly, as if the very name was possessed of a consequential weight, “I've got two words for you: butter cow.”
I was, it turned out, to write a story about the butter cow at the Illinois State Fair. Sculpted each year out of 500 pounds of butter, the cow was displayed in a refrigerated case at the Dairy Building, and was (arguably) the highlight of the ten-day event held each August. That year's sculptor was a member of one of the parishes in the diocese, and Ed thought it would be a nice human interest story to meet the sculptor at the fair and hear him talk about his inspiration for that year's oleaginous oeuvre. Somewhat dejected, I headed out into the sweltering summer heat to talk about a cow made out of butter – not the journalistic masterpiece I had been hoping for, definitely not Oprah-worthy, and most certainly not soon to be a Hollywood blockbuster with Richard Gere. But in the Midwest the State Fair is pretty big, and at least I was able to escape my cubicle for the afternoon, so my mood lightened significantly as I arrived, flashed my “press pass” (a thing I made myself on the office photocopier) and made a beeline for the Dairy Building.
To say the sculptor was not chatty would be a gross understatement. One would think that the decision to sculpt a cow out of 500 pounds of butter would be worthy of an anecdote or two, but all of my questions were met with monosyllabic answers. It was an impressive sculpture (not exactly Michelangelo but – to be fair – we don't know how Michelangelo would have worked with butter so the comparison is not really appropriate) but the artist was really unable to convey anything about what inspired his art. After several minutes in which I discovered nothing about the butter cow's creation, the sculptor said, “Excuse me – I've got to go because WICS television is going to interview me.” What a crushing blow; this guy would probably be on Oprah before I would.
I sat with a nearly empty notepad and studied the cow. As I was admiring the udder work, I saw, on the other side of the case, a small boy of about four years with his nose pressed up against the glass, viewing the cow with what I guess I would call restrained curiosity. Just then a gentleman – I think it was his grandfather – bent down and said something in the boy's ear, probably that the cow was made out of the same Prairie Farms butter that graced the family table. The boy's eyes suddenly grew enormous (would writing “like two saucers of milk” be over the top in its dairy-icity?) and his mouth formed into that particularly resolute O which trumpets the wonder of children.
And it dawned on me: I had planned on writing a story of transformation from butter to art, but the real story was the transformation that I saw on that child's face. And the more I reflected on it, the more I realised that I had got it backwards. I had originally thought the boy's wide-eye wonder was symbolic of the transformation in front of him, but it was indeed the opposite. That cow and every piece of art everywhere was tapping into that boy's smile, tapping into the human dynamic of being changed by wonder and surprised by beauty. It passed, of course – the boy soon trotted off – but it was there for a moment. And I think it changed him somehow. And it certainly changed me.
We celebrate the sublime Feast of the Transfiguration today – one of my favourites – and I think we frequently see it as an explosion of white-hot divinity; and it was. Before the wide eyes of Peter, James, and John Jesus is transfigured and they see for a moment who he really is. How breathtakingly glorious.
But the transformation does not belong to Jesus alone, for those three men are every bit as transformed, changed by wonder and surprised by beauty. Their experience on that mountain will stay with them forever, the memory of that wonder and beauty will most certainly strengthen them for the different manifestation of divinity that they will experience when the Transfigured One is bathed in blood on another hill. They need only to remember and celebrate, to look for the transformative moments that will happen in the world around them for the rest of their lives. And they will be changed. And we will be changed.
In Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner writes: The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it's almost beyond bearing.
May we pay attention. And may we be changed.