Sunday, March 01, 2015

I stand here in the midst

"...I stand here in the midst of them: your house, your heart, Jerusalem." When I started rehearsing the psalm (116) for this week, my first thought was "What was Rory Cooney thinking with that F# above high C?"

I thought about taking an octave's dive.  I thought about skipping the third verse entirely, no matter how directly it responded to the first reading.  I thought about punting this setting and using the sure-to-be-less-vocally-taxing Respond and Acclaim version.  And then I thought about Abraham and Isaac and the vows that we profess with our lips, but are in truth wrung from our souls.  Vows that cost something, that risk everything.

I know I can hit the note (most of the time) in rehearsal, particularly when I am belting it out, but was worried about being able to hit the note reliably when prayerfully proclaiming a psalm in front of a few hundred people, when neither a Broadway belt nor a warbly screech will do.  But I also thought about how what we profess, who we believe in, stretches us out. We, too, are held between heaven and earth on the cross, stretching ever upward.  Like those last notes, which clamber from the depths of the B below middle C up to that almost unreachable F# in the course of a dozen words.  I understood why those notes were put to this text, so that we might know where we live and breathe.

I rehearsed, I memorized the text and the music so I would not have to look down, I woke up early enough that my voice might be really warmed up.  This psalm cost me something.  And I left the final decision in the hands of our amazingly supportive, but utterly honest, accompanist, who listened and said, "yes, sing it."  I would risk everything.

This morning, I stood in the midst of God's people, in the midst of God's house, before God's heart and I gave my breath over completely to the Word.  And when I let go that last note, I heard the assembly proclaim steadily in return, "I will walk in the presence of God."  Every breath returned to the God who made us, no matter how costly, no matter how risky.


Thanks, Rory Cooney - for an F# that stretched me out between heaven and earth.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Column: Riven by light

This column is the first in a series on the readings from the Easter Vigil for CatholicPhilly.  The reading is Genesis 1:1-22.  You can find all of CatholicPhilly's Lenten material here, including editor Matt Gambino's reflection on the collects for the Sundays in Lent. This piece appeared at CatholicPhilly on 18 February 2015.



God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of heaven to divide day from night, and them indicate festivals, days and years” (Gn. 1:14).

It was bitterly cold when I left to go home last week, but I stood for a few minutes on the walk outside my office, looking up at the crystal clear sky, shading from deep rose to midnight blue, admiring Venus hanging like a hard, bright ball in the west. “Time for Vespers,” I thought, glad to be reminded to sit down with God at the end of a tiring day. The older name for Evening Prayer means “evening star.” In the days before clocks, the planet’s appearance in the sky was a cue that it was time for evening prayers.

Lent is here. The gradually lengthening days are a hint that spring and Easter will be upon us soon, despite the sharp winds that are still howling down from the arctic. Our foreheads are signed with a cross of ashes, like the sun in the sky, orienting us to the season, reminding us of where we have come from and what our destiny is.

We are made, as this first reading of the Easter vigil reminds us, in the image of God, blessed from our beginning. In his Lenten message for this year Pope Francis urges us to contemplate this great love that created us, not in a general sense, but specifically challenging us to see God’s likeness in those in our communities who are suffering.

How do we care for the troubled and troubling among us, who are equally imago Dei — the image of God  equally redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection? God touched us in our creation; do we reach out to touch him, here and now, in the lives of our brothers and sisters?

I am reminded by this reading to marvel at the universe, fashioned to work as a whole, from the clocks embedded in the heavens, ticking off centuries as clearly as hours, to the plants that provide food for man and beast alike. But amid the magnificence, I notice, too, the brokenness of the world, and the role my own sinfulness plays in it.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, in the second week of his Spiritual Exercises, suggests contemplating the Trinity, looking down on the battered earth, seeing the aimless and despairing, the hopeful and joyous, and deciding to quietly go about the work of redemption. In comparison to this glittering tale of creation, Jesus’ coming seems almost tame. But this reading is not just a recounting of how we came to be, but a reminder of what will come. It invites us to contemplate, as theologian Frederick Buechner put it, “unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light … God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, who for us and our salvation came down from heaven.”

As we sit in the darkness of the Easter Vigil six weeks from now, may we wonder at a universe created by a Light beyond all telling, that stretched between earth and heaven to redeem us. May we be moved to carry that Light out to banish the unthinkable darkness that envelops our brothers and sisters in need.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Column: A Full Measure

This column is the second in a series on the readings from the Easter Vigil for CatholicPhilly.  The reading is Genesis 22:1-18.  You can find all of CatholicPhilly's Lenten material here, including editor Matt Gambino's reflection on the collects for the Sunday's in Lent. This piece appeared at CatholicPhilly on 23 February 2015.


Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you. (Lk. 6:38).

“How many molecules in a tablespoon of water?” I ask my class, cupping a bit of water in my hand. They shift uneasily in their seats, not sure if I’m actually asking them to count up what is too small for them to see, or if there was something they missed in last night’s reading assignment.

“How many grams are there?” I prompt in all seriousness. “How much does a mole weight?” How many, how much. I ask them to think about the measures they know, again and again, in different ways, until we settle on a number. A number so large that it exceeds the grains of sand on earth, or the number of stars in the universe.

I have taught this class for 30 years and each time I ask this question, I am still staggered by the thought of how many water molecules are cupped in my hand. I can calculate the number with precision, but I still don’t quite believe it in my gut.

In this second of the readings for the Easter vigil, in which God asks Abraham to go into the desert and sacrifice his son Isaac, I hear similar questions, with answers that are even more astonishing. How much will Abraham sacrifice for God? His only son, begotten by a miracle, a gift to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. How much does Isaac trust his father, trust God? Enough to be bound as a sacrifice, enough that even then he trusts that God will rescue him.

How many descendants will God bless Abraham and Israel with in response to this profound faith? Your descendants, the angel tells Abraham, will be more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore, than the stars in the heavens.

How much. How many. We struggle to find a way to measure a love so deep, so all embracing, that we cannot rationally grasp it. A love that will grant us an overflowing measure of grace. A love that will sacrifice a Son for our sake, for the uncountable descendants of Abraham.

We are the promise of Abraham, heirs to a love that could not be measured. On Easter night, those who stand vigil for the Morning Star will be sprinkled with water, a reminder of our baptism into this covenant with God. And each tiny drop that falls on us, made from the same elements as the stars that burn so brightly in the heavens, has vastly more molecules in it than all of Abraham’s descendants who have yet lived.

A potent reminder of the immensity of God’s mercy, poured forth upon his people.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Keeping vigil

This Lent I’m writing a series of reflections on the readings for the Easter Vigil for CatholicPhilly, selfishly wanting to spend more than a few minutes with each of these long and rich readings. The rubrics for the Easter Vigil note that a community need not use all of the nine readings laid out for the celebration, but may omit one or more if that seems pastorally necessary. Enough readings must be used that the celebration on Holy Saturday night “retains the character of a vigil.” Which has me thinking about what exactly constitutes a vigil - is it length or time or?

The word vigil comes from the Latin vigil, meaning “awake.” Two weeks ago, even before Lent began, I was keeping vigil. The Egg got more than a bit sick, infected with a nasty toxin-producing bacteria and ending up in the hospital. When he first went to the ER, I spent the night up with him, texting him and talking to him on the phone, praying and keep watch. (For the record, there are no flights to California to be had at 11 pm at night from Philadelphia.) The sun had already risen here when I crawled upstairs to bed at 7 am, knowing that he was safe and resting comfortably, at least for the moment.

When Tom died I spent a night in vigil, waiting for each report from the OR, wondering what it meant when the flow of information became a trickle, when the steady stream of lab techs ceased going by with blood samples, shaking with the shock of what my body understood was happening, long before my mind managed to grasp it. Here again I waited for word in the darkness, worried excessively when the texts paused, shivering in the cold of a house where the heat goes off at night. I was awake, not just in the sense of not sleeping, but awake to the fears that batter at hearts in those moments, imagining the demons the desert fathers encountered at night fluttering outside the sunroom windows.

My sense of vigil encompasses more than a length of time, more even than a willingness to stay awake through the hours most sleep. It means to be awake to the possibility that we will be pushed into spaces we would not willingly go.

The readings for the Vigils are not easy, despite our long familiarity with the stories. We sit in darkened churches, the scent of candles lingering in the air, dressed in Easter finery, our ears are already attuned to glory and grace as we race through millenia of salvation history. But I tell you, as I sat this week with the story of Isaac and Abraham, contemplating a son in mortal danger, I was not wrapped in the warmth of a shared history, sure in the knowlege that soon Glorias would ring out, but instead sitting vigil with a wracked Abraham in the desert. Aware he was walking a path he would not have chosen, attuned not to some expected heavenly chorus, but ears stretched to the limit, hoping to hear God’s merciful word.

We wait in hope. This is the vigil I am keeping this Lent, wracked on the edge of hope.


I am immeasurably grateful to report that The Egg is now well on the mend, thanks to antibiotics and a very alert student health service, though it will be a few weeks until all the damage wrought by the toxins is repaired. #youth

You can read the first and second installments of the reflections at CatholicPhilly.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Compassed about by bees: busy-ness


They compassed me about like bees; they blazed like a fire among thorns. Ps 118:12

On Sunday night, while everyone else was watching the Superbowl, I was in a car headed up I95 from Washington, DC to Philly.  Usually it's a nail bitingly anxious drive because of the traffic, but there was no traffic to speak of between the weather warnings (ice! sleet! freezing rain!) and the football game.

Alas, I was still biting my nails.  I told Math Man I was having anticipatory anxiety about my schedule for the next day, which included a 7 hour stretch so packed I was visualizing my path from one commitment to the next so I could figure out how to duck into the ladies' room.  Today was, if anything, worse.  And Friday, yes, well, I just shouldn't think about it.  I was compassed about, harried on all sides not by bees, but by busy-ness.

Somehow I've ended up with a schedule that gives me two nearly clear days a week and three close-packed days. In principle this is a delight — unfettered time to write, to think, to plan.  In practice, it works — last week I wrote the bulk of an NSF grant in those two days, yesterday I read papers and sketched out the core lines of argument for an essay I'm writing, tomorrow I expect to produce a substantive draft of said essay.  The part that doesn't work is the overly packed days that frame these joyous spaces.  I'm crabby before they start, I'm rushed and cranky as they progress, and by the end of the day I'm crabby, cranky AND exhausted.

I find myself clinging greedily to the two empty days, unwilling to move something into those deserts.  Nor am I willing to let go of some of what I've committed to on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  But I'm beginning to see the wisdom in St. Benedict's rule, where work, and leisure and prayer share space in each day.  No binging.