Thursday, July 31, 2008

Teaching Silence

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times July 31, 2008]

Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a child has rest in its mother’s arms, even so my soul. Ps. 131

“My big sister, quiet for three days? LOL!” reads the text message from my brother, John. “Eight,” I sent back cheekily. I’m stuck in traffic on my way to retreat, where I’ll spend eight days in silence. The highway reopens, and John gets the last word: “No way.”

John is not the first person to wonder about my penchant for silence. When my kids were young they used to tell everyone who asked while I was away not only where I was but what I wasn’t doing — talking.

I’d come home to comments that ranged from the incredulous “you mean like a monk?” to sighs of “sounds like heaven” — the latter from other parents. Most were riffs from my brother teasing — “isn’t it hard?”

As the psalmist says, I set my soul in silence and peace — and in a world where sound tracks and packed calendars abound, it can be hard to choose stillness. For just those reasons, the exercise has much to recommend it.

Silence and the sacred have long been entwined. The prophet Elijah found God, not in the earthquake, not in the wind, but in the stillness. Early Christians took to caves and pillars to escape the noise of the world. When we cease to speak, we can hear.

Even Jesus sought the silence of the desert when the clamor of the crowds grew to a roar. We can rest in silence, it renews. With teens in my house, silence is as rare as angelic visitations. The chance to listen for God and to refresh body and soul in His peace is similarly heavenly, but these are not the only graces to be found in silence.

In his rule for monastic living, St. Benedict devotes a chapter to silence and points out that the purpose of silence in a communal life is to both listen and learn.

Silence teaches us to move with deliberate care, to discern how our choices in life might deprive others of what they need. When the small everyday noises are amplified — the clang of silverware against a plate, or the wind slamming shut a door left ajar — I am gradually made aware of how my life in the world might deprive and disturb others. Do I need to rush to beat someone else into line at the grocery store?

Silence invites us to learn humility and trust. When we choose to refrain from speaking, becoming unable to express our needs to others, we learn to accept what is offered, to trust that what we need will be provided.

On a silent retreat one autumn, I had taken a long walk and returned ravenous. Hoping for a reprise of the previous night’s chocolate cake, instead I found figs roasted with honey on the dessert table. I didn’t like figs and breakfast was a long way off. Go hungry? Break the silence and beg the kitchen staff for cake? Or trust that what I needed was there for me? I trusted, and learned of the marvelous taste of honeyed figs and God’s care for me.

The enveloping silence of my eight days is a memory, but I can still hear it reverberating through my life, inviting me to move with more thought for others, and less for myself, to make manifest what I learned in silence. What we hear in whispers, says St. Matthew’s Gospel, proclaim from the housetops.

As we pray before you, Lord, we ask you, in your mercy, for the grace always to ponder in our hearts what we proclaim with our lips. Amen.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Boy gets Moxie

Travel is often culinarily broadening, and this summer's travels have been no exception. I not only brought home a taste for our new favorite soda from retreat, but a case of it as well. Barnacle Boy adores it, too. When he met a family at camp who came from Cape Ann (Eastern Point is at the tip of Cape Ann) he waxed eloquent over his new found delight. They were surprised to find that it was a regional specialty, and not shipped much beyond New England - a rarity in modern, homogeneous, translation invariant America.

They told Barnacle Boy about Moxie, a soda unique to Maine. He was warned that it was an aquired taste (some peopel suggested it wasn't worth aquiring a taste for!). The Boy was determined that we snag some Moxie while we were in Maine (and pick up a few cases of his other regional favorite). On our way home yesterday, we stopped at a small cafe and the Boy headed to the soda case. "They have Moxie! Can I try it?" How not?

It tasted like unsweetened cough syrup - bracing might be the best word for it.
Whew! We all ceremonially had a try, then dumped the rest of the 20 oz bottle.

The company used to advertise that it gave you "spunk", which I think that the Boy had to have to try it -- either that or moxie!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Translation Invariant

[Warning: This post contains geeky content.]

We drove from Pennsylvania to Maine for camp last week (that would be one week of living in a tent with no electricity, no WiFi, no lights; sleeping on cots; rising to reveille; riding a yellow school bus to hikes - the whole nine yards). On the way out of town we stopped at Big Box Shopping Mall to get Math Man a new travel bag for his golf clubs.

We drove to near Worcester, MA (home of our new favorite soda, a taste for which I brought home from retreat). Just north of there, I looked out the window to see a near perfect duplicate of Big Box Mall. I pointed it out to Math Man, who noted dryly, "America is translation invariant."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Martyrdom by Teen

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times July 24, 2008]

“You do not know what you are asking.” Jesus answered. “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” James and John
replied, “We can.” Mt 20:22

I missed the sign on the door. “Enter at your own risk. Wake time: Never!” Still, in my second year of parenting teenaged sons, I was not taken entirely unaware when my Sunday morning foray into my youngest son’s room was met with a churlish, “What time is it?” Ten a.m. and we’re leaving for Mass in just under an hour. Things got a little frosty after that.

Barnacle Boy’s face is an open book, and without a word (since he was not speaking to me) he let me know all the way to the church he was not pleased. He plopped down in the front pew and gave God the silent treatment as well. Not a note, not a word passed his lips.

I refrained from commenting, though I (silently) beseeched the Spirit for fortitude. As we reach the point in the creed, “by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the Virgin Mary,” I noticed movement to my right. As I bow, so does my wordless son. It’s as if he can’t help himself. The Boy mutely sits, stands and kneels with the rest of us.

The look the Boy shot me during the sign of peace was not conciliatory, but he did voluntarily go to Communion. As the last note of the recessional rang out, he snagged my car keys and headed for the door. It would be another hour before he gave over torturing me and apologized.

My parish frequently sings the Litany of the Saints, and each time we reach Felicity and Perpetua, I wonder if I could die for the faith as these mothers did. Could I drink this cup if presented to me? In Matthew’s Gospel, James and John are certain. I’m not — at least not until Chris put me to the test. It would have been easier to let him sleep.

Martyr comes from the Greek root martys — or witness. While we associate it with death for the faith, its original sense is that of testifying publicly, or of a spectator at a trial. In the Acts of the Apostles, the word is used not only to describe Stephen’s death at the hands of the mob, but to refer to those who watched his death.

While I may never know if I could follow the martyrs to my own death, I learned from the Boy that I could join their company in modest ways.

Perpetua and her companions’ behavior was such that their prison warden became a Christian. My son bows, stands and kneels because this community and I have been martyrs for him, our faith made visible in our movements.

Like those who watched Stephen die, faithful to the end, I was a witness to the Boy's struggle with faith, and God’s ultimate victory. He may be angry with me, he may be caught in a battle between God and his pride, but he goes forward to meet Christ in the Eucharist, and says, “Amen.” I am humbled; we are both martyrs.

In recalling the early martyrs for the second century Church at Corinth, St. Clement enjoins them to “go straight to the glorious venerable norm which is our tradition.” Martyrdom is what we do — some face lions, others, tired teens.

He may not have been thinking of mothers or teens in the 21st century, but I take hope in his words and hope that my weekly martyrdoms and theirs will be as Clement hoped: “acceptable in the sight of Him who made us.”

Father, you sanctified the Church of Rome with the blood of its first martyrs. May we find strength from their courage and rejoice in their triumph.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, July 21, 2008


A few months back, I celebrated a significant birthday. Ffity years to be precise. It did not go unrecognized.

My dad sent a photo of me at age 10 - enlarged to poster size - to the colleague in the office next door. He happily posted it on my office door for all to see. There was a surprise before the afternoon's doctoral exam: a cake, gorgeous daffodils from a friend's garden.

Crash and the Boy put an ad in the program for their school musical: Happy 50th Birthday, Mom! If you were a horse, we would have shot you by

It was all a delight.

A week ago Friday, three months after my big day, I took the boys to pirate camp in the morning. We came back in the late afternoon to spend some time at the pool. I had a lovely swim, after which I towel dried my hair, didn't even stop to brush it, and threw a sun dress on. Barnacle Boy wanted a pizza for dinner, Crash was harassing me to leave, but I wanted to catch up with a friend who'd stopped by on her walk. He went off to amuse himself by giving someone a hand setting up for the next event at the pool - a kid birthday party.

Five minutes later I look up as the guests come in the gate, and reach to gather my things to go feed my hungry horde. Why, I wonder, are my neighbors here? And my colleague from the English department? I don't clue in until Barnacle Boy carols, "Happy Birthday, Mom!" Oh's a surprise party. For me.

Apparently when I went on retreat, the planning for this top secret event went into high gear. The invitiation from Math Man noted that since they'd waited until three months after my birthday, I was sure to be surprised. I was.

What touched me the most was how well my husband knew all the parts of my life. Friends of long standing, students now turned into colleagues, my morning prayer community, from far and wide - around the pool and virtually present (Math Man had a folder of collected greetings.)

Friday, July 18, 2008

Camp Ignatius

The boys may be at pirate camp, but I got some "camp" experience in this summer, too. Though I promised Gannet Girl I wouldn't torment her with photos of Eastern Point, I can't resist one more...and confess to Stratoz that I didn't read any of the books I brought (except the novel)!

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times July 17, 2008]

He instructed them to take nothing for their journey except a staff – no bread, no haversack, no coppers for their purses. They were to wear sandals but he added, “Do not take a spare tunic.” Mk 6: 8-9

As summer approached, the stack of letters on my desk grew. “Dear Michael and Chris, welcome to camp!” they began, and were inevitably followed by lists: when to come and leave, what to bring, what to leave home, what new and exciting things you will learn. Sailing camp, day camp, golf camp…the calendar filled up.

Finally, the letter I’d been waiting for arrived. “Dear Michelle, we are pleased to welcome you to Eastern Point,” complete with its own list of where’s, when’s and what’s. I’m headed off – not to sail or hike or work on my putting – but for an eight-day silent retreat.

Last week, as I packed to leave, it occurred to me I was embarking on an experience not so different from my sons. I was going, as my snarky 14-year-old put it, to God camp. The brochure might as well have read: Camp Ignatius — 500 years of experience in helping people find God in all things. Deepen your relationship with God — opportunities to practice simplicity and stillness offered daily.

Instead of the counselors assigned to cheer on the campers, to keep them from drowning and make sure they go to bed at a reasonable hour, I get a spiritual director. She offers guidance for my times of prayer — both the formal hours and the informal moments where the Holy Spirit decides to open my eyes in the midst of a walk, makes sure I come up for air periodically and insists I don’t get up too early.

What do we need to bring? The kids’ camp letters are clear: sunscreen and swimsuits top every list. It’s left to me to discern what belongs in my bags. One summer I gave another retreatant a ride home. As I stuffed two bulging bags, a pillow and a stack of books into the trunk, my passenger tucked one small bag behind the front seat. This year I pack my sandals, and leave the extra tunic and books behind.

Every camp reminds campers to leave cell phones and electronics home, and to put their name on everything. On retreat, the electronic paraphernalia of modern life is equally unwelcome, but the simplicity we are called to on retreat goes further than surrendering these material conveniences.

For this short time we leave behind our names, professions, communities and responsibilities. I have no idea if the man sitting next to me at Mass is a Bishop or high school teacher – I’ve been on retreat with both – and it doesn’t matter. We are all here to let God see us simply as we are, not as how we are cloaked in the world.

All this is profound practice for the ultimate moment when we face God at the end of this life, alone and stripped of all that we have and all that we think we are. Jesuit Walter Ciszek recalled realizing as he faced a firing squad, “in a fraction of a second I would stand before God, dumbfounded and unprepared” and how acutely aware he was in that moment that no matter who we are and how we’ve lived, we are finally utterly dependent on God for our redemption.

The kids and I are all back from our summer camp sojourns. We’re all three sun burnt around the edges, and perhaps a tad less dependent on our electronics and a bit more on the God who made us.

Lord God, by whom our lives are governed with unfailing wisdom and love, take away from us all that is harmful and give us all that will be for our good. We make our prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pirate Camp

I think I signed them up for sailing camp, but really's pirate camp. Right now I'm watching two catamarans, each with 5 boys on board, jockeying for position on the lake in front of me. The goal? To board the other boat, unhook the main sheet (temporarily incapacitating the enemy) and regain the safety of one's own boat. Getting wet? That's a plus.

Crash and Barnacle Boy are on the left hand boat.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Time and Time Again

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times July 10, 2008]

And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Lk. 9:61-62

Every summer my parents would pour six sleepy kids and the dog into our turquoise unair-conditioned station wagon and drive us north through the cool morning hours to camp on the shores of Lake Michigan.

There were no video games, iPods or DVD players to while away the long drive. Instead, we played word games and tormented our siblings — undoubtedly leading my mother to contemplate the prophet Habakkuk: “How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ Yet You do not save.”

When these delights failed, we’d plead with my father: “How long?”

“Two more hours!” he would tease us, no matter how close we really were.

Yesterday, in the early morning coolness, I climbed into my tiny car for a summer sojourn. This trip there were no little brothers to annoy (or be annoyed by) and no dog panting in the back seat but a full complement of electronic devices to guide and entertain me.

Still, old habits die hard. I automatically brought up the directions on my navigation system. How much longer? “2 hrs.” shone on my dash.

Unlike my dad, the car wasn’t trying to tease me. But it occurred to me that its answer — while more precise — wasn’t any more helpful.

Would I get there any faster by knowing how much time is left? My mind seemed more on my destination than on my location, the journey just a means to an end. Was I like the disciple in this passage from Luke — looking to the furrows behind me, or worried about what lies ahead, but not present here and now? A bit chastened, I turned off the guidance.

Last winter I wrote a review of Nancy McGuire’s An Infinity of Little Hours, an account of the lives of five Carthusian novices. Carthusians seek to keep their hearts utterly open to God in each moment, to live, as they say, hic et nunc, here and now. I could empathize with the novices’ struggles to keep their eyes on God where He is — here and now.

Luke’s account of the hesitant disciple implies the contest is not a new one. Evagrius, a fourth century monastic, called it the noonday demon — acedia. It tempted a monk to watch the clock, “to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour.”

We can look to the wisdom of the desert monastics for a way to drive out these time-obsessed spirits.

Amma Syncletica, herself a desert hermit of the early Church, advised reciting the psalms when acedia crept in the door. The psalmists call out to God in the moment, and are certain of His reply. “When he calls I shall answer: I am with you,” says Psalm 91 — not “I was here” or “I will come” but “I am here” — now.

When I returned home, I tucked a few lines from “Burnt Norton,” T.S. Eliot’s magnificent meditation on time, into my breviary at Psalm 91. Both are gentle reminders that even when I am preyed upon by time’s demons, God is ever here. Hic et nunc.

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

T. S. Eliot

Lord God,
Open our hearts to Your grace.
Let it go before us and be with us,
that we may always be intent upon doing Your will.
We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mom Overboard

We brought the boat along today so I could sail while the boys had their class. The wind was great - at one point I was hiked all the way out, and the lee rail was 9" under water. Wheeeee.....

After class, the boys took my boat out for some more practice. I let Crash take the helm, and he offered to sail me out to the neat rock outcropping they'd sailed to after lunch. In an attempt to avoid being too much of a back seat skipper, I sprawled on the bow deck, on my back with my eyes closed, chatting with Crash. We're about 2/3 of the way there when a gust hits. I feel the boat heel over, decide maybe I should sit up. Too late. Next thing I know I'm headed into the water, head first, completely expecting the boat to be following me. Crash sensibly lets go of the sheet and lets the boat head up into the wind and it rights itself. Good work, Crash!

He is such a good guy; he manfully contains his laughter as I try to drag my soaking body back over the side. I finally get in by essentially chinning myself on the boom while Crash drags me aboard by the feet. Then we break down in helpless laughter.

My gentleman of a son offers to take me back to shore to dry off, rather than continue the tour. That and I think he couldn't wait to tell Math Man and Barnacle Boy about the whole thing...

The photo is of Crash going for a dunk...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Blessings and Curses

Crash and Barnacle Boy are going to sailing camp. They've been keeping vampire hours of late - up past midnight, sleep until noon, at least. (Crash says he likes to sleep when it's coolest - nothing to do with being a teen. Right.) We had to be out of the house by 8:30 am the first day and they were remarkably cheerful about it -- or maybe they were still asleep.

On the drive up, I coughed and the Boy wondered aloud what you said when someone coughed, "Is there an equivalent to 'bless you'?" "Not in this culture, I think, but it's a nice idea. " Forty-five minutes later, as we're pulling into the state park where the camp is being held, I cough again (@#$% allergies!). Barnacle Boy offers me a blessing, but Crash, "Curse you, Mother!" Crash?!? "Well, what if you get me sick?"

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Flotsam and Jetsam

What floated through and what tossed up on the rocks while on retreat...

A church made of living stones - praying on the rocks, watching a bird that kept alighting on the rocks, finally realizing that the rocks were alive with insects, and the bird was feasting on the stones.

The dog that followed me on one of my walks, well-trained and at heel. It quietly left me when I headed down the road to the retreat house.

The Indiana Jones path to my prayer space: through the wild rose arbor, down the tunnel of trees, past the rushes, to the green encrusted rock, turn right at the Queen Anne's lace, step over the clover in bloom to walk down the basalt stairway - there to find the throne of God? or at least a bird's eye (literally) view of His waters. I could hear his voice on the immensity of waters as I sat there.

Praying with a quote from Jeremiah: a frantic she-camel bolts for the desert

The night someone threw incense on the fire in the common room.

The Kind You Make Yourself

While I was away on retreat, Barnacle Boy and friends had many adventures and ate much popcorn. Last year I taught him how to make popcorn on the stove - with a pan, a bit of oil and a lid. He was floored by how much better it tasted than the microwave stuff - and impressed that it didn't take any longer to produce a batch this way. The little microwave bags haven't been seen in my house for months.

Today I went to the grocery store to restock his supply (and to buy more milk - we could keep a cow in business). They have just remodeled and I had to hunt to find the popcorn section. Feeling flush with success when I located it, I was quickly dismayed. No plain popcorn kernels. It's microwave or nothing.

I ventured forth to customer service where the very helpful young woman responded incredulously to my query about non-microwave popcorn with, "You mean the kind you make yourself?" Are we the last ones to make it this way? And where will I find the raw kernels??

Amazon sells the kernels by the case.