Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Advent Ordo

"Tree Cave, by RA Paulette, Feb 2013" 
by Max shred - Canon Digital Camera. 
Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons
Commenter Katherine wondered on my last post how I carve out retreat space within the end of the year chaos.  Probably in much the same way Ra Paulette carves these incredible spaces out of the sandstone caves in the desert. Painfully, slowly and by hand.

This Advent, having decided to try to carve out what retreat time I could within daily life (as my director of the Long Retreat would say - channelling Ignatius, "adapt, adapt, adapt.."), I began by thinking what were the retreat essentials for me.  Besides post-it notes and my own pillow.

They sound obvious.  Prayer, liturgy, confession, sacred reading, good preaching, walks.  Structure, a daily ordo, with a sensitivity to the Spirit's movements.  And solitude. Right.  With a line outside my office.

The caves were a helpful image.  I was not going to be able to construct a cathedral sized retreat over the course of these three weeks, this was going to scratched out of the stone of my calendar, carved with the tools I had to hand, not some precision sandblaster.

Mass and morning prayer are already there, a skeleton on which to hang this retreat time.

So, I picked a book of Advent readings off the shelf (Watch for the Light which includes readings from Alfred Delp SJ, Annie Dillard , Dorothy Day, and Thomas Aquinas).  One a night.

I put as inviolable on the calendar two events:  an evening of Advent lessons and carols, and an Advent vespers service (with a short talk on the women of Advent:  Anna, Elizabeth and Mary).

I did the same with confession.  Yes, it would be lovely to make an appointment to celebrate the sacrament with my long time confessor.  Instead, it would have to be a gray Saturday in a cold, dark church.  Grace wins out , regardless of the space.  Ex opere operato.  Grace wins out, even with a perfunctory confessor (which I hasten to add was not the case!).

Ah...yes, and solitude.  I've been parking further up the hill, necessitating a walk each evening.  I've seen snow fall, pressed into a relentless rain, wondered at stars spangled across the sky and at the deep blues and pinks of these Advent sunsets.  It's five minutes -- and full of grace.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A Long Retreat




I would run away from it all if I could.  The end of the semester chaos hath descended.  Stacks of grading totter on my shelf, no sooner cleared than the next assignment comes sliding under my door.  Exams are being written (more grading!).

Fraught meetings alternate with cheery social events (often featuring the same players).  Writing deadlines peer 'round the corner, waiting to pounce when I'm not looking.  I long for a hermitage to flee to.

When Sunday's homilist talked of Advent as a long retreat, I was transported six Advents back, to an end of the semester that was arguably crazier than this one (surgery, overseas trip, major project for the college, writing), and the last days before I left to make a long retreat, the Long Retreat — the Spiritual Exercises.

I've been itchy to get away, to spend a night on retreat, but for various reasons cannot.  So instead, I'm making a long retreat, carving out spaces for silence and prayer in my days and in my week. Slowly, painfully, by hand (much like sculptor Ra Paulette has carved these caves into the desert).



Photo is of my sunrise at Eastern Point, on the Long Retreat.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Silent preaching: Sick and you cared for me


...as we cannot preach the word of God by our mouths, we may do so with our hands. — from Chapter 28 of Consuetudines Cartusiae

Guigo, the fifth prior of the Carthuisan monastery of the Grand Chartreuse, 1was reflecting on the work of copyists, not of homilists, in this line from his collection of Carthusian customs, but I thought of his image of preaching with our hands when I was asked to contribute two homilies to the third volume of of the Homilists for the Homeless project.

Edited by Deacon Jim Knipper, Sick and You Cared For Me contains homilies for each of the Sundays of Year B in the lectionary cycle.2 Each of the writers contributed his or her work to the book, preaching literally with their hands, and all the proceeds go to care for the poor.  We have raised more than thirty thousand dollars with the first two volumes.

I am preaching on the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time (which won't appear next year, or any year soon) and on the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time. The homily for the 9th Sunday reflects on the story of the man with the withered hand, who was healed by Jesus on the Sabbath - about Simon the Stylite on his pillar and the ways in which Sabbath is a time for noticing.  On the 21st Sunday, where the readings are from Joshua ("as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord") and John ("these teachings are hard"), it's about Ignatius and the meditation on the two Standards. Choose.3 

There are homilies from many voices and traditions. Contributors include Richard Rohr, Jesuits Rick Malloy SJ (his mother was my neighbor for many years) and James Martin, Mike Leach, Fran Szpylczyn, Jan Richardson, Mags Blackie (how many books of homilies have two Ph.D. physical chemists in them?!).

I am giving away a copy of Sick and You Cared For Me to celebrate the start of the new liturgical year. Leave a comment, and on Friday, I'll draw a winner.  Prefer a sure thing?  You can order a copy from Clearfaith.


1. This is the monastery featured in Into Great Silence - a beautiful film that opens in Advent and covers a full liturgical year.
2.  Homilies for cycles A and C are in Naked and You Clothed Me, and Hungry and You Fed Me, both of which won awards from the Catholic Press Association.
3.  I chose in writing this not to reflect on the "wives be submissive to your husbands" passage from Paul.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

An outsized hunger

Math Man gave a public lecture as part of his new professorial chair, and in it he spoke about math and social justice.  He begins every math class he teaches by asking students what world problems they are most concerned about, and then they talk about ways in which math can make an impact.

The next day, over lunch, I was reading an article about immigration reform which noted  "For a rich country, the United States has an unusually high level of food insecurity—a polite term for hunger—in part because hunger is so common among unauthorized immigrant families, who can’t collect SNAP benefits. "

This seemed unlikely to me, given what I know about the demographics of hunger, and the relative populations, so I looked up a few numbers and did a rough calculation. Estimates are (based on surveys in LA and NYC) that 40% of households with undocumented immigrants in them are food insecure. There are about 4 million undocumented immigrant households in the US. About 18 million households are food insecure in the US (15% of all households). If you ignored the undocumented immigrant households completely, 14% of US households would be food insecure. Hunger is common among immigrant household, but those are only a small percentage of the total households. We are a rich nation with a hunger problem that cannot be principally ascribed to undocumented immigrant families.

So why does the author of the Slate piece think the undocumented immigrant population is so large that it accounts for much of the hunger in the US?  Probably because we are not very good at estimating the size of populations, and as this recent study shows, people in the US are particularly bad at it, worse than almost any other country in the world.  If you ask people in the US what percentage of the US population are immigrants, the average guess is 32% while the actual value is 13%.  We think 15% of the population are Muslims (it's 1%).  As a country, our mental image of who our neighbors are is woefully inaccurate, particularly when it comes to those we consider 'other' or troublesome.

I think of Colbert's quip:  “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”  We are a rich nation with an outsized hunger problem.



For more math and social justice in the recent news, Math Man pointed out this analysis of data on Pennsylvania school funding as one example of simple math that uncovers an uncomfortable truth: poor districts with a higher percentage of non-white students get less funding than equally poor school districts with mostly white students.  The math can't tell you why, but it can show you what is — a contemplative stance.

The image is from this post at Macmillan's dictionary blog by Michael Rundell, about the use of the word "hunger."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

O Lord, open my lips


"O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall proclaim your praise."  These are the first words I say when I come to the Liturgy of the Hours each day.  They come from Psalm 51, the Miserere.

They are said, too, before the first words of תפילת העמידה, Tefilat HaAmidah, the Standing Prayer, the keystone of the Jewish liturgy:  יז אֲדֹנָי, שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח; וּפִי, יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ.

The prayer that should never be interruped, was interrupted on Tuesday in a synagogue in Jerusalem. And then seven people were dead.  Four rabbis, a police officer, two attackers.

This morning I prayed with this unsparing photo of the carnage up on my computer: the prayer book soaked in blood, the white and black stripes of a man's tallit stark against the crimson, the strands of the tallit tangled with the detritus of the emergency response.  I wanted to look unflinchingly into the horror, not to pretty it up for prayer, or to try to tuck it onto my list of terrors to pray never come close.  I thought many times about whether to use the photo to illustrate this post.  But for now, it is merely linked, and instead my prayer space is here, the red strands of the stole gently evocative of the scene in Jerusalem.  Perhaps too gently.

As I prayed, I was acutely aware that nearly every word coming from my mouth was sacred first to the Jewish tradition.  Psalm 36, Judith, Psalm 47, Tobit.  Our texts weave in and out of each other, the Benedictus and the Amidah.  May the dawn from on high break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness.... He who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace for us...

We pray, and our prayers weave in and out of one another's sacred texts, criss-cross through one another's sacred spaces.  We cannot separate ourselves from this horror, say that what has happened has not happened to us, does not call us to wail aloud, to beg with the psalmist that the bones that have been crushed might be made whole.

We want to call the words our own, to possess them, yet we begin by acknowledging that we do not even hold the key.

Open our lips, O Lord, and guide our feet into the way of peace.  Make us whole.



Fran of There Will Be Bread pointed us to Alden Solovy's prayer for mothers at To Bend Light this morning.  The last line of the prayer kept winding me back to the Benedictus:  May the dawn from on high break upons us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace.