unbreaking the circle


    Back in the early nineties, the town of Waxahachie, Texas almost became famous for something other than the fact that my grandmother lives there. It was to have been the home of the Superconducting Super Collider, a fifty-four mile underground oval where super charged protons would be sent around in opposite directions and then collided when they made the circle, offering scientists to the chance to see what particles came out of the collision.

    I have no idea what I’m taking about, but I did find this explanation from a guy who worked on the project (which was scrapped in 1993):

    Imagine two rings of metal pipes, eighty-seven kilometers (fifty four miles) in circumference, running through a concrete tunnel several meters below ground. The pipes themselves, separated vertically by seventy centimeters (about two feet), are only a few centimeters in diameter. They are under high vacuum and encased in powerful electromagnets held at an ultra low temperature.

    Inside the two pipes, narrow beams of protons whirl around the tunnel in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light. The particles in these beams have been accelerated to an energy of twenty trillion electron volts. This is a huge energy for a single particle to carry: particles emitted by radioactive minerals reach energies less than one millionth as great.

    At a few special points around the ring, in cavernous underground experimental halls, the beams are made to intersect. Although most of the protons simply pass by each other, there are so many protons in the beams that head on collisions occur a hundred million times every second. In each collision, energy of motion is turned to enormous heat in a tiny fireball.

    From within this minute cataclysm, a shower of sub-nuclear particles among them, perhaps, a new and exotic one speeds fleetingly outwards. Sophisticated electronic detectors catch these evanescent particles, recording their speeds, directions, and types; and physicists around the world analyze these records for clues to the innermost nature of matter and the forces that hold it together.

    Ginger and I went to the funeral of the spouse of a friend who lives in a nearby town. The last time we had been in that room was for their wedding two summers ago. Ann and Becky (not their real names) had been together for years and had two children, Massachusetts’ validation of equal marriage allowed them to become legally what they already were practically and spiritually. Last summer, Ann found out she had a rare form of cancer. This summer, she died.

    Becky, the pastor of the church where the service was held and one of Ginger’s friends and colleagues, started the service with what she called “The Opening Act,” a sing-a-long with the choir and her playing guitar. And we sang,

    will the circle be unbroken
    by and by, Lord, by and by

    “That’s a question,” I thought to myself — and then I thought of the Super Collider and what new things we see when things collide at the speed of life and leave us reeling in the wake of the explosion. I didn’t know Ann well, but the more I listened to her friends and family talk about her, the more I wish I had. We would have liked each other. She was a cook, a lover of food, a voracious reader, a teacher in both her character and her vocation, and one committed to hospitality. The four hundred or so people who packed the little church sang and talked and laughed and cried and told story after story. The altar was decorated with particles of the various aspects of her life. On most every wall were pictures of her with her kids, with Becky, with friends, at church. She was smiling in all of them. One of the things people talked about over and over was Ann’s determination to find meaning in her cancer. She wrote, she read, she talked, she prayed, and did everything she could think of also looking for “for clues to the innermost nature of matter and the forces that hold it together.”

    And we sang and talked and prayed and laughed and cried trying to make meaning of her death. We left the church and stopped at a Dunkin Donuts so we could debrief and shift gears before I had to go to work and Ginger had to come home to finish working on her sermon. As we relived the service, I said, “As I watched us join together in the ritual of remembering, the phrase that kept running through my head was ‘hopeful futility.’” She nodded and we talked awhile longer.

    Ann left behind a twelve-year old daughter and a nine-year old son. “Mama Ann,” as they called her, will not be there as they grow up no matter how many pictures are on the walls and how many stories Becky tells. Ann won’t be baking any more cakes or be there to be the catalyst for church dinners. She is gone. Dead. Therein lies the futility – a powerful word, but not the final one.

    Hope inhabits the stories and the pictures, the joyful singing as tears ran down faces, the incarnational collision of grief and grace that creates possibilities for what “eye has not seen and ear has not heard.” Ann is with God. One day, we will be, too. Therein lies the hope. We will be with God. That’s the second half of the verse:

    will the circle be unbroken
    by and by, Lord, by and by

    there’s a better home a-waiting

    in the sky, Lord, in the sky.

    I kept thinking about the question in the song as I cooked tonight, and began to hear it asking God if the circle would be repaired, or healed, on day: will it be un-broken? Will we realize how connected we are to God and to one another? Will we see what God can create out of the particles left from the collision of existence? The image that comes to mind is all of humanity sitting in a circle with God. There might even be a campfire. (Ohh – S’mores, too.)

    My faith matters to me, mostly, because of what it means to me as I live these days. If Heaven were the only reason for believing, I don’t think I would make the choice. Today, as we sang of “being there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,” which sort of freaked me out as a kid, I realized I like the circle image better than the calendar. We all came from God and we are all going back to God. When the circle is unbroken, when it is complete, who knows what new possibilities will spring forth.


    P. S. — I’ve posted the Chicken Marsala recipe.


    1. I am africakid’s sister. Once I commissioned my daughter’s high school friend to paint a picture for me with the only instructions that it be “moody and yet hopeful.” You have captured many moods in this story of Ann and the beauty of her being. Thank you for relaying the hope that is within us all. Beth

    2. Milton,
      I’m tearing up as I read your story. The realization that it all matters, that we are all spiritually and cosmically connected, that there is an unbroken story, therein lies our hope.
      Blessings friend-Tom

    3. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. I love your thoughts on the circle unbroken — and I enjoy the song very much as well.

      and thanks for the Chicken Marsala recipe. My kids are at camp this week so it will be a perfect romantic dinner for two at my house.

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