Sunday, July 20, 2014


I learned to wash myself with incense in Japan. 

How to douse the tiny fires with a firm blast of air from my hand, freeing the smoke to rise and dance.  How to pour it over my head, letting humility settle gently on my shoulders.  How to slowly breathe it in, purifying me from the inside out.  How to twirl it around my hand like a wisp of hair, that what ails it, too, might be made whole.

I went to Mass at the Abbey today.  Incense poured down the aisle like a carpet rolled out before the Gospel,  breaking over the monks processing in statio, urging them onward, onward, pushing them two by two over the edge into the depths.

We sang, we prayed, we proclaimed, we preached, we sacre-ed the gifts. I slid down the pew to join the procession to receive, stepping off the edge to find myself bathed in incense that had hovered patiently all this time in the aisle.  Pouring over my head, like baptism.  ...and my soul shall be healed.

This is grace that clings. Not like the water splashed on forehead, dashed onto to my shoulders, awkwardly left dripping from my hands, its molecules making a mad dash into the atmosphere. I am enveloped, infiltrated. I imagine it resting in pools in my lungs, swirling out each time I speak, seeping onto my pillow with each breath, surrounding me as I sleep. I am an indwelling of the Spirit.

Hours later I  can still smell it on my hands, reminded again and again that I am forgiven, I am healed, I am sacre-ed. Each time I raise my cup of tea, or set my glasses more firmly on my nose, its scent gathers my frayed prayers together, and sends them aloft.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Shreds of dreams

I'm staying at the apartments at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Culture Research on the grounds of St. John's Abbey this week.  The view from my back patio is gorgeous, gnarled branches, ripples fanning out over the surface of the lake.  The sound scape is equally enrapturing. Ravens caw — appropriately enough for a Benedictine abbey — leaves shiver in the wind, trees shift and groan, fat horseflies thwok against my hat.  And the abbey bells call out the hours and the Hours.

We are workshopping each other's writing each afternoon, and my piece is early in the rotation. I've never done this before, and while I didn't think I was anxious, my unconscious clearly did. The first night here I had dreams of people coming in to my apartment, which was filled with shredded white tissues.  I have no trouble reading that one, thank you.

For forty years, the apartments at the Institute have sheltered scholars and their writing.  The walls of the abbey have clearly absorbed a half-century of prayer, which begs the question, how much writing anxiety have the walls of these rooms seen?

The monks leave out a brochure to help you navigate the liturgies with "a minimum amount of anxiety."  Should there be something similar in each apartment to help with writer's block and scholarly anxieties?  Perhaps the bowl of chocolate and fruit that the incredible staff keeps stocked for us, is balm enough.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Defining pilgrimages

"Once theophanies are localized, pilgrimages necessarily follow." — from Pilgrimages in the Catholic Encylopedia

The Stella Maris chapel is across the lake from the Abbey of St. John, where I've was on retreat before heading to a writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute, which is also on St. John's campus.  The trail to the chapel from the abbey guesthouse runs for about 2 miles alongside the lake and along the way there is a sign inviting walkers to "make a pilgrimage" to the chapel

The materials on the chapel on the Saint John's website note that since its most recent renovation it has become less a place of pilgrimage than a destination for a walk.

I set out one afternoon of the retreat, with the chapel as a destination for a walk.  About three-quarters of a mile into the walk, a sign planted firmly in the middle of the trail warned of a closed trail ahead, and pointed toward a detour through the trees that ring the ridge around the lake.  I looked twice, three times at the path that led through a picture perfect marsh, with dragon flies dancing around the cat tails, clear water flowing through and around it, water lilies floating like buoys just offshore.  I imagined the fish and the pollywogs swimming under the surface.  Just how closed was closed, exactly?

Then I imagined walking in wet shoes for the next week and headed up the hill.

Away from the lake's cool breezes, the bugs grew fierce, and the walk more penance than recreation.  How far did you have to walk for something to be a pilgrimage? Was it the walk that made the pilgrim, or the destination?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


I am on retreat at St. John's Abbey, before heading tomorrow to a writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute, which is just across the street from the abbey.

Listen is the first word of the rule of St. Benedict:

Obsculta, o fili, præcepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui ...

Listen, my son, to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.

I'm listening, deeply. Chanting the Liturgy of the Hours is like drinking water, drawn up from a deep well.  The silences between the phrases are like Abba Moses' cell.  I sit in them, and they teach me everything.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Trampled by Disney princesses

I went to The Boy's show tonight.  It's a Disney revue (check out the Lilo and Stich bow tie and Lion King face paint), and the audience was packed with miniature Disney princesses.  Elsa to the left of me, Elsa to my right, Elsa behind me.

When the real Elsa came on stage, the little Aurora next to me gasped, "Elsa!" Snow came dancing down from the ceiling, thunder cannons went off.  The Electric Light Parade redux was astounding (I will date myself by saying that I saw the parade when it first played at Disneyland).  It was a great show and I loved the energy of cast and audience.

The last piece had the cast in the aisles, singing The Circle of Life. As it ended, the mother next to me almost climbed over me to get out.  Politely, I must say.  When I suggested she might want to wait until the cast cleared the aisles, she thought that was a good idea.  But once the cast was out, it was every princess for herself.

The rush to get your photo with Elsa or Merida or Jasmine was intense. The lines were long, with the staff from the show keeping the line moving.  "Just one picture, please!"  I waited in Merida's line -- not because I was a hot shot archer in college -- but because her assigned handler was so handsome I had to take his picture. #ProudMother