Sacramentality, Aircraft Rivets, and the Deformation of the Cross

By: David Keran, Seminarian, Diocese of Alexandria

“And so you see,” I concluded with great excitement to the vice rector of the seminary, who asked for further details with the qualified curiosity of a sacramental theologian, “aircraft rivets are quite illustrative of the concept of sacramentality!” 

As I recounted over the summer, some months ago I began an airplane construction project in the basement of the seminary. I now find myself deep in the process of building the spars that support the wings and center of the airplane. The raw materials arrived in my driveway as flat sheet metal and eight-foot lengths of aluminum angle and various and sundry bar stock, so the spars have been some time in the fashioning. 

As these pieces become proper wing spars, one of the final tasks is to rivet the various components together (rivets have a higher “binding” strength than bolts). Rivets, as you may know, are simple fasteners: they look like small, short bolts without threads, and have a rounded head, like a mushroom. A hole is drilled through all of the metal pieces to be joined, the rivet is inserted, and the mushroom head is pounded with an air hammer behind eighty pounds of pressure, while the other end is “bucked” against a steel block until that end mushrooms out. The result is that it firmly and permanently squeezes the layers of metal together into one practically solid beam of aluminum. 

I was sitting in class one day when the theology of marriage lecture started getting mixed up with these hundreds of aluminum rivets in my head, and all of a sudden, sitting next to the classroom crucifix, I had an epiphany of sorts: 

The Cross is the “rivet” binding together the supernatural and the natural, Heaven and earth, two “worlds” that mix through the ex opere operato efficacy of the sacraments.  

A single word had prompted this thought: Deformation. 

The transformation of the rivet as it is driven into metal is described in technical terms as a “deformation”, i.e., through a particular kind of deformation, the rivet draws all of these pieces of metal together in a very permanent way. It cannot be removed without being destroyed. The deformation becomes, really, a new formation.  

If you have ever seen a realistically-painted crucifix, deformation is a word that comes to mind. The “ecce, homo” is the presentation of a scourged, beaten, tortured figure, a living reality of Psalm 22: “They have pierced my hands and my feet; I can count all my bones.” 

And yet, it was through that same deformation that “two worlds were united that day,” in a way “they had never been united before,” speaking a “language”, to use all these words of Dr. Neal (in whose class I was “spiritually daydreaming” as this epiphany took place), “that had never been heard before.” The paschal mystery was taking place in time, once for all, in a sacramental world that, in the Augustinian gloss, is “ever ancient, ever new” to us now as then, all in the sacramental realm. 

As with the cross, driving rivets is not an easy thing to manage at first. The air gun is blasting away to the tune of a gatling gun, the vibrations remain in your hands for a time, the rivet head gets sideways and the rivet tail gets contorted this way and that – basically, it exhausts you. But eventually, it begins to smooth out, and, after several hundred of them, they start dropping in with consistency. Small rivets are easier than long rivets, and I recommend starting with the little ones, then proceeding to the bigger ones – did I say rivets? I meant crosses. The noise, the vibrations, the horror, the terror, the clatter of the deformation doesn’t go away, but it does become easier. In both cases, the deformation grips the frontiers of two worlds and draws them permanently, irrevocably together with a strength that cannot be broken.

There are many ways to experience deformation in a fallen world – among them, the deformation of “the old man”, the being-shaped into the new. Getting hit with eighty pounds per square inch a hundred times a minute will leave a bruise, but in the case of the cross, it is a sanctifying bruise. That is the deformation of the cross – may we always be at the center of it. 

May our wing spars never fail. 

About the Author: David Keran, Seminarian, Diocese of Alexandria

David is from the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana, and is in his fourth year of formation at Notre Dame Seminary. He enjoys finding connections between airplanes and theology by creating new analogies that can be helpful in the task of the New Evangelization.


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