Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Packing Lightly

They say when you go on vacation to pack, then take out half your clothes and take twice as much money. My corollary for retreat packing is to take out half the books and take twice as many pairs of socks (I always muck up several pairs walking somewhere muddy, weedy, sandy...).

Four books: Seeds of Contemplation by Merton, Spiritual Writings by Albert Delp, breviary and the latest Julia Spencer-Fleming mystery. (The last was recommended by my spiritual director...well, not the book, but the concept of bringing something recreational to read...)

And I took my mug...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Wading in

I'm off to retreat tomorrow, spending eight days in silence a stone's throw from the Atlantic ocean. Last year I blew into my retreat like a squall. I was working up until the moment it began (and truth be told, a bit after it started). I went to my first meeting with my director for the week, laptop in hand - then wondered why he brought up the issue of how one might enter into a retreat?!

Rather than hurtle in, going from full throttle -- the heat still shimmering off my jets -- to stillness; this year, I'm trying to ease into this retreat. Imagining myself walking into the sea, slowly getting deeper, slowly letting myself be supported. Packing contemplatively, driving up part way the day before, having dinner with a friend...

I have set my soul in stillness; like a weaned child in its mother's arm, so, too is my soul.
Ps 131:2

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Imprudent Lights

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times June 19, 2008]

I have called to you, Lord; hasten to help me!
Hear my voice when I cry to you.
Let my prayer arise before you like incense…[Ps. 141:1-2]

Lit by Santa Fe’s late afternoon sun, the cathedral facade shimmered in the heat like melted gold. Walking through the warm ochre stone arches and into the cool interior, I joined a stream of tourists, hoping perhaps to see what inspired Willa Cather’s fictional archbishop.

What I was looking for wasn’t listed on the brochure that the charming docent at the door offered. Instead, I followed a trickle of locals to a small chapel tucked away to the side of the main altar, in what remained of the original adobe church. Flickering in the dimness, a veritable constellation of candles surrounded a rococo altar in which was enshrined a four-century-old Madonna.

I lit a candle, setting it amidst its tiny companions: prayers of remembrance, hope, thanksgiving and mercy rising like incense to mingle with the steady light of Christ, present on the altar. I knelt, as I have so many times before, in churches as far distant as Rome and as close as my parents’ parish, and prayed for the repose of my husband’s soul.

It’s getting harder to find a church where I can light a candle for Tom. I understand why — it’s not prudent to leave matches and flames unattended in a church. Still, I miss these liminal prayer spaces, and find electric candles that light with the drop of a coin or the flip of a switch to be unsatisfying substitutes.

Candles are sacramentals, tangible signs of God’s care for us, pointing to a reality beyond the reach of our seemingly sophisticated world. While the electric versions reproduce the most fundamental feature of the real thing — they light up — my sense of a real candle’s sacramental nature encompasses far more than the light it produces.

Candles are not safe. Prayer is an immoderate exercise, too. As Annie Dillard points out in her essay “Polar Expeditions,” if we truly grasped how encounters with God in prayer could change us, it would be “madness to wear ladies’ straw hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

A burning candle is transformed from something thoroughly solid and bounded, into something ethereal and unseen. Our lives also should be oriented to what is unseen, to what is to come. When its time is up, the electric simulacrum goes out, unchanged by the experience.

Like our prayers, real candles require a bit of effort to start, and like God’s grace, even when you blow them out, a burning ember remains, ready to spring to life with the barest breath. God’s love is always present, burning beneath the surface even when we try to smother it. There is no off switch.

Real flames flicker unpredictably, a potent reminder that God’s response to our prayers may be beyond our capacity to imagine or anticipate. In their capricious light, we can see only dimly, as in St. Paul’s mirror.

We don’t pray alone, the Church prays with us and for us, and unceasingly. The multitude of candles that burn on even as I turn to leave, reassures that my prayers will not be forgotten.

Candles are risky, unpredictable things, but then so is prayer. We never know what God’s grace might make of us if we were only willing to cast prudence aside, light a candle and say a prayer.

may the helper, the Spirit who comes from You,
fill our hearts with light
and lead us to all truth,
as Your Son promised,
for He lives and reigns with You and
the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

By the book

A couple of weeks ago I signed a contract for a book. Now I'm knee deep in writing it...or at least ankle deep. The working title is A Field Guide to the Molecular World - what a scientist, particularly a chemist sees as she walks about. I've got a reasonable working draft of a chapter done - on molecular clocks. There are natural stopwatches and timers all around, if you know how to read them.

I've written about 1500 words a day so can watch the count on the sidebar.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

When Worlds Collide: Science and Faith

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times June 12, 2008]

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jn 20:27-28

“When Worlds Collide” sounds like the title of a campy 1950s science fiction film, which it is. But it could be the perfect title for my biography. Colliding worlds are my lot in life. My trajectory crisscrosses the orbits of family, students, science and faith. Most days I succeed in avoiding astronomical catastrophes, but last week two of my worlds came brushing past each other at warp speed. Science and God, reason and faith, intersected in the question: Is God truly present to us, here and now?

Early Saturday morning, at a conference in Santa Fe, N.M., a science writer whirled us through a tour of her new book. She ended by showing us evidence suggesting spiritual experiences are localized in one part of the brain. Religious people, she remarked, experience these moments as the presence of God, but it is just your neural network firing in a particular way. Science proves it. God is not here.

As it happens, it was the vigil of Corpus Christi and some of the late afternoon chatter in the plaza was about the upcoming Eucharistic procession through the streets. My scientist’s ears pricked up at the comment: “…They did a DNA test and it proved that it was Christ’s own blood in the chalice.” Science proves it. God is here.

Where was faith in all this? The science writer wants me to believe there is no one to have faith in; the murmurs in the streets seem to say science has made faith unnecessary.

This serendipitous juxtaposition of believers and unbelievers looking to science to address matters of faith sent me in prayer to the moment in the Gospels where faith and empirical evidence collide in the person of Thomas.

The scientist in me sympathizes with St. Thomas’ desire for proof he can literally lay his hands on: “Unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.” Christ offers him the certainty of the experiment. But was the experiment alone sufficient to convince him? I wonder. John’s Gospel does not even tell us whether Thomas took Jesus up on the offer.

I think the mere appearance of a wounded man claiming to have risen from the dead would not have been enough to convince Thomas of the resurrection. He was instead confronted with a man he already knew intimately in life and death. To believe in Jesus risen, he had to have already known Jesus alive, known His voice and heard His Word. The tangible evidence could only take him so far, without the experience of God, without the existence of faith.

Scientific evidence may show that certain parts of our brains fire when we have a transcendent experience, but it is faith that tells us that this is God working through His own marvelous creation, touching our hearts through our minds. Not surprisingly, without faith, you might think it’s just your neurons.

The DNA proof of God hinges on faith as well. If you don’t have a sample of DNA known to come from Jesus, you can’t match it. We need to have already had an experience of God, a certain knowledge of God, to prove God in this way. What is this, but faith?

We believe. Not in spite of science, not because of science, but because we have encountered Christ, in Word and Flesh, and He has blessed us with faith.

Keep before us the wisdom and love
You have revealed in your Son.
Help us to be like Him
In word and deed,
For He lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Off the clock

The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future,
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
The bell.

T.S. Eliot - The Dry Salvages
On the first day of June I took off my watch - and haven't put it back on. And turned off the time on the front of my cell phone. I'm floating free of time, at least as much as you can in this day and age.

The time is everywhere, as it turns out. In my study upstairs the time is displayed in five different places: a clock on the wall, a clock on the kids' desk, a clock on the printer, a clock on the desktop computer, a clock on my laptop computer. If I wanted to dig for it, I could also find the time on my iPod. I can watch time fly without a watch.

The lack of a watch has made me both more and less attentive to the time. I'm more attentive to alternative cues (the kids coming home from the neighborhood school - must be 3:30). I'm less worried about what time it is when I'm talking to someone, or taking a walk, or driving.

I'm in the midst of writing a piece about ignoring time...which ironically has a due date. Back on the clock!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

I am an IT goddess

This has been the week of IT infrastructure changes:
  • new printer & copier for my study (so I can work more easily at home)
  • new ISP (speedy FIOS)
  • new email/calendaring at work
  • new router at home

The email is still not up (it's not my problem), but I've resolved most of the IT issues on the home front. Crash and Barnacle Boy still aren't connected to the web on their computer, but everything else is working. Networking the printer in Math Man's office was a pain in the neck. The instructions were worse than useless. I finally convinced it to talk to the new network 30 minutes ago. Math Man thinks I'm a goddess. I made dinner using the veggies from our CSA farm share AND fixed his printer.