Sunday, October 04, 2015

One Flesh

It's a complicated Sunday. World Communion Sunday. Respect Life Sunday. Opening of the Synod on the Family in Rome. Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. On my more local calendar, we are anointing the sick at my parish this week, I gave a talk at the a nearby Episcopal Church on science and religion, and went to a friend's husband's funeral. In the greater world, there are floods and shootings and mudslides and "collateral damage" at hospitals.

It has me thinking about what it means to share in the sufferings of the Body of Christ, of the world.

And in this reflection, written many months ago for Give Us This Day, I wonder if we are missing something about the sacramental sign that is matrimony.

Do we weep for each other, as we would weep for a beloved spouse?
"'Are you trying to tell me that my husband is dead?' I asked the surgeon. 'Yes.' In that harrowing moment of my first marriage’s dissolution, I finally grasped in my bones the reality of these words: They are no longer two but one flesh. Half of me had been torn off, and what remained was pouring out onto the floor in a pool of tears.

It is tempting to hear these readings from Genesis and Mark as mere marriage instruction, demanding husbands and wives to cleave to each other no matter the cost. I see in them instead potent images of what it feels like to be one body, not just in marriage but as the People of God: you are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. We proclaim in the Communion antiphon that we are one body. But do we feel in our bones that we are one flesh, mingled with Christ in our communion, as the water and wine mingle in the cup we share? One. Inseparable.

These readings point us to realities beyond marriage, challenging us to deepen our fidelity to one another and to Christ as members of his One Body. This indeed is a hard teaching for all of us, not just those struggling with marriage. Are we torn open by the sufferings of our brothers and sisters? Do we weep for each other as we would weep for a beloved spouse? We are no longer two, but one flesh."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Column: Lovely in eyes not his

The faces, everyone's faces. That's what I will remember from the Papal Mass on the Parkway this weekend.  Christ, lovely in eyes not his.  The sister caught singing on the Jumbotron, her eyes closed, her face alight. The smile of the man sitting on cardboard on Market Street, watching the pilgrims head out toward the parkway, as memorable as Pope Francis' smile.  And a brief glimpse of my own first born son on the big screen, with a seat all the way up front, singing the psalm.

Hopkins' poem, When Kingfishers Catch Fire, and Jeremiah's prophetic words kept running through my mind all day.  I had to pay careful attention to sign posts and road markers — at one point I lost Crash in the crowd, even having marked our place (between Latvia and Lebanon on the inner drive).  As I stood there scanning the crowd, someone asked me if I needed help finding someone.  Soon I had a team peering at Crash's photo on my phone and looking for him. And they found him.  Not 10 feet away.

While there are more traditional reading of Hopkins out there (male, British accents), this chanted polyphonic version by female vocalists  felt truest to his style.

This column appeared at on 29 September 2015.

Hear the word of the Lord, you nations,
proclaim it on distant coasts, and say:
The One who scattered Israel, now gathers them;
he guards them as a shepherd his flock.

Shouting, they shall mount the heights of Zion,
they shall come streaming to the Lord’s blessings…
— Jeremiah 31: 10,12a

A thousand priests and deacons began to wend their way from the altar on Eakins Oval out into the parkway. As I watched the steady line of men in white, their companions holding bright white and yellow umbrellas over their heads, carry the Eucharist to the waiting crowd, this line from the 31st chapter of Jeremiah ran through my head: “They shall come streaming to the Lord’s blessings.”

“Faith opens a ‘window’ to the presence and working the Spirit,” said Pope Francis in his Sunday homily. “It shows us that … holiness is always tied to little gestures.” This morning, I went back and read all of the 31st chapter of the prophet Jeremiah, letting its images wash over my memories of all the little gestures that pointed to God’s presence during this extraordinary weekend.

In it, God speaks of the families of Israel, loved and showered with his mercy. We are an enduring structure, God tells Jeremiah. Living stones, literally holding each other up as we waited hours along the barricade around Independence Mall for the pope to drive by, that lifted children high to see Francis’ motorcade. We shared chairs when we were too tired to stand, and water when we were thirsty.

“Carrying your festive tambourines, you shall go forth dancing,” proclaims the Lord. Representatives of the Neocatechumenal Way from the U.S. and Tanzania led dancing across the mall in the morning, and the festive tambourines of a delegation from Puerto Rico kept time as we sang in the afternoon, welcome counterpoints to being packed into long lines, and a soundscape of sirens.

“Set up road markers, put up signposts; Turn your attention to the highway, the road you walked,” cries the Lord. As I made my way back to the El, I thought about Pope Francis’ question, “What about you?” What should I turn my attention to as I go forth from this celebration? What about me? What will I take from these days?

Two things to start. A deep sense of the unity of believers, and of our shared responsibility for each other in the small things. And the eyes to see the people that that came streaming to receive the blessings of these days, Christ playing in ten thousand places, lovely in all those eyes not his.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

What about you?

We left home before 7 this morning, arriving at an empty parting lot on Villanova's campus headed to hear the Pope speak on Independence Mall.  Travel was smooth, though the train we were directed to board at 69th street made a loop and deposited us at — 69th Street.  We switched again and were soon at 2nd & Market in Philly.  No waiting at security, and we set our blanket out on the grass.

At 8 am in the morning, view of stage utterly blocked by
press bleachers.  Not Philadelphia's finest moment.
Next to us were visitors from Maryland and Seattle.  They had brought the liturgy of the hours along to pray, so we ended up praying it together there on the lawn. It was a lovely way to start this event.

What was not so lovely was the view. The press area had been set up between the standing crowd and the reserved seating directly in front of the Pope. This meant that at an event where we were about 300 or so feet away from the Pope you couldn't see him, even as a dot.  People who had driven from as far away as Montreal were very disappointed. The Jumbotrons were set low, so even though I was about 20 feet away from one, it was hard to see in the press of people when the Pope was speaking.

New friends with whom to pray Morning Prayer.
Since I really wanted to see the Pope in person, not on a screen, I decided to camp out on Market street along the barricades, as the word was the Pope would come down Market on his way to the event. So there I stayed, from 8ish until indeed the Pope drove by at 4:20.  He was 10 feet away, it was amazing.  But equally amazing was the wonderful group of people from Puerto Rico I stood with.  There was such tender care taking going on, including for me.  Water bottles appeared and snacks were shared.  Math Man had thought to bring one of those tripod camp seats, which I had brought up to the barricade to sit on, but which ended up providing relief for the older members of the group. Places were carefully saved for those who had to use the bathroom.

I did two media interviews: one at the start of the day and one at the end. I met Giovanni, whose mother stood next to me on Market, who was singing for the Papal Mass the next day.   I played peek-a-boo with two delightful kids across the street from me.  I prayed.  I read a book about hermits and recluses.  I watched the clouds.

I loved watching the Mass, and hearing the voices of those around singing the responses, the Sanctus in Latin, the Amen.  I read the text of his homily on line!  What about you, he asked. How will you respond?

What was the Philly Pops playing as the Pope emerged from Independence Hall, wondered the college aged people standing next to me.  "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copland.  Not some Star Trek theme.  No, I assured them.

I strained to listen to every word of the Pope's talk, on religious freedom and immigrants.  We are the voices of the those at the margins.  We are voice for the transcendent.

I loved listening to all the voice praying the Our Father, Pope Francis' voice gradually fading out, and ours carrying it.  What about us?  Can we carry the work forward as well as the prayer?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Column: What All the Dark Cannot Extinguish

Maybe the lines from Frank Sherlock's poem stuck because I've been writing about light in other contexts.  (It's the International Year of Light, marking 1,000 years since Persian natural philosopher Ibn al-Haytham published his work on optics and I wrote an essay about chemistry and light for Nature Chemistry.) Or maybe it was the plea to "give me what it takes to dejewel" and thinking again of the jewel-like interior of the Fish Church?

I had already written the section about Merton's epiphany in Louisville before I listened to the Pope's address to Congress, where he highlighted the Cistercian monk's dedication to peace through dialog. Maybe all those papal documents I read had an effect too.

You can read Frank Sherlock's What All the Dark Cannot Extinguish here, scroll down to the end.

This column appeared at on 24 September 2015.

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” — St. Francis of Assisi

I spent yesterday at the World Meeting of Families, walking through the convention center. There are talks to go to, and hundreds of exhibits to browse and so many wonderful books on display. But it’s the people that keep drawing my attention.

The group wearing matching orange sunhats, maps in hand, standing at a crossroads, trying to find their session. A family with four overtired little ones fleeing for a quiet corner. Lidia, in front of me in the long line to pick up tickets for the Papal Mass, waving her Colombian flag so her parents could find her. The homeless men hidden away on the thin stretch of grass between JFK and the train tracks. The sisters waiting for the traffic light to change at Broad and Arch, veils fluttering in the wind, faces raised to the warming sun.

Standing there watching them, I couldn’t help but think of Cistercian monk Thomas Merton’s epiphany at a street corner in Louisville, his sudden realization that we were not strangers to each other, but one family, one people, all walking around “shining like the sun.”

If only we could see each other as God sees us, he prays — as I do, now, here in Philadelphia. Each person a light, each a light capable of sweeping away darkness by its mere presence, each a light to be tenderly shielded from the winds that buffet each of our lives.

I heard, too, fragments of Philadelphia poet laureate Frank Sherlock’s poem “What All the Dark Cannot Extinguish,” written for this historic visit. “Allow me to be passage for the newest arrivers; eyes to see sisters/brother in the convent the rowhouse the tent…”

I prayed as I walked: Give me eyes to see my sisters and brothers, the ones newly arrived, the visitors, those who live in convents and those whose only shelter is a blanket or bundle of newspapers.

This morning Pope Francis went St. Patrick’s Church in Washington where he was to have lunch with the homeless. In his remarks there he reminded us that beginning with the Our Father, prayer teaches us to “see one another as brothers and sisters.” Jesus, he said, keeps knocking on our doors, not with fireworks, but in the faces of the people next to us. We are called to answer, in love and compassion and service to each other.

I am, of course, eager to hear Pope Francis speak in person this weekend, but as the time draws near, I find myself even more joyfully looking forward to hearing Jesus knock on the door of my heart in the faces of everyone I encounter. I pray that I might be a channel of peace, an image of love, a witness to the light that all the darkness cannot dim. Not just this weekend, but all the days of my life.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A visitor from the Vatican: having a conversation with Pope Francis

So someone from the Holy See reads my blog — do you suppose it's the Pope?  I'm sure it's not (because even though the Pope is in Cuba, there are still visitors from the Vatican in my summary of blog stats this morning), but it is fun to find all these visits from the Vatican in the midst of Philly Pope fever.  For weeks now, our local news radio station has been prefacing news about the upcoming visit with the tag "A Visitor From the Vatican" (you can practically hear the uppercase!).

Earlier this summer, AL DÍA's managing editor asked me if I would write an imagined conversation between two scientists:  myself and Pope Francis.  In Spanish and in English.  Fiction. Dialog.  A language I haven't written more than a paragraph in since 1980. (Which in my mind isn't all that long ago, but math.  That's 35 years.)  Really?  What was I thinking?
Any panic over language or narrative form was quickly eclipsed by the realization that I was going to put words in the mouth of a living Pope. I read and listened to everything Pope Francis had said or written about science that I could find in English and in Spanish (and even a bit of Italian). (Thank you, Holy See web masters!) I re-read his interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J.  I prayed.  I did.

Where would I run into the Pope where we would have time to talk?  Certainly not on the streets of Philly during this visit!  After watching his address to young astronomers at the Vatican Observatory's Summer School, it occurred to me that of all places, the Observatory would be the most likely for this unlikeliest of encounters.  Next year the theme is water — I could almost imagine going.

So I wrote of encountering Pope Francis in the gardens, out for a walk. We talked about that infamous line suggesting "the Pope should leave science to the scientists," and whether scientists are mystics and about Catholic women who were also professors of physics and chemistry (do you know about Laura Bassi?)  I wrote it in English, I worked on the Spanish version, then rewrote the English, trying to capture the rhythm and power of the Pope's Spanish in my first language.

A gentle friend waded through my rusty and tense-impaired Spanish (which an editor at AL DÍA nicely cleaned up) and off it went, to come out in the beautiful special issue put out for the Pope's visit.

Funnily, I almost feel as if I really have had a conversation with Pope Francis about science and faith.

You can read the interview here in English or here in Spanish.