Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Aliens among us

I was walking down the hedgerow path at the old Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville a couple of weeks ago, when I spotted in the distance what looked like an ostrich egg. As I got closer, I realized there were a dozen or so scattered along the path.

As I got closer, I could see they weren't ostrich eggs, but what were they? Alien pods? Fungi, I believe...

The watch on this partially munched specimen gives you some sense of scale...

Monday, September 29, 2008

Monastic Habits

I spent much of today tucked away in my office working on "the book" - reworking the chapter I finished the weekend before last. I'm so delighted to have my mind clearly back in my brain. It was pretty chilly that weekend, and despite Barnacle Boy's pleas, I declined to turn on the heat. He teased me about being "Nanook of the North" as I donned my official (!) brown Blogger sweatshirt, pulled up the hood and went to work. The look was vaguely monastic...maybe I've picked up more from the Augustinians than I think?

I was cold again today, so donned my "habit" and that coupled with my enforced silence and "enclosure" (to keep Fluffy off of my keyboard) - made for a monastic day. For the record, silence is easier when everyone else around you is keeping it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Without a sound

No utterance at all, no speech,
no sound that anyone can hear;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their message to the ends of the world.

Ps. 19

My voice is not dependable right now. A sentence here and there, gently voiced, is fine, but a long way from the voice that reached every corner when I cantored at Wernersville last weekend.

It's instructive to be silent in the midst of all the noise at my house. More or less back on duty as "mom", people call for me, but to answer them, I need to be right in front of their faces. The requests tend to become increasingly strident as I make my way to a speakable distance, I find myself increasingly impatient with their impatience. How often do we think we're being ignored, when really, it's just silent transit time - waiting for someone to get into the right space, physically or metaphorically?

On the other hand, you can learn fascinating things when the teens in the room forget you are there...I'm now au courant on who is "going with" who in the neighborhood!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Troubled Teens

I think I have a troubled teen on my hands. My resident problem child stays out all night, brings home completely unsuitable friends, seems to be experiencing mood swings, is on occasion defiant, and has once run away from home for several days. Thank heavens it's the cat, and not one of my sons. Since Fluffy's recent experience being AWOL, she seems to have entered a wild stage.

She's been out all night and returned with a nick in her ear, but otherwise unscathed.

On Monday I learned a new thing about cat behavior, they can meow (loudly) with their mouths full. After I absently-mindedly opened the door to her plaint, I discovered belatedly she had a friend with her (I know, I learn slowly!). A live friend. I suggest firmly that she and her friend go back outside. No. I chase her and her wriggling captive into the living room. The chipmunk valiantly grabs onto the area rug and earns its freedom. God is good, no? Certainly from the chipmunk's point of view. Me? I'm having visions of a family of chipmunks living in the kids' closet. Fluffy and I both make haste to capture the critter. Grabbing a trashcan as I go, I win. Now I have a very anxious chipmunk trapped against the wall, Fluffy batting at my ankles and no lid within easy reach. The trio moves down the hallway, I put my foot against the trashcan and reach into the hall supply closet. Voila! A manila envelope to top off my trap. I slide it in, tip the contraption upright and we're well on our way to a chipmunk free house.

Right now, Fluffy is sweetly sleeping next to me, on silk pillow, looking for all the world like a pampered pet. Just don't cross her...

Friday, September 26, 2008

POST post

So I have POST (post-operative sore throat - does that really need an acronym??) as a result of being intubated on Wednesday - or I have the viral sore throat that Barnacle Boy and Crash had last week, or both. No matter, at this point I'm pretty much voiceless. I was so silent sitting in the sunroom that the gaggle of teens in there getting geared up to watch the presidential debate by watching political videos on YouTube forgot I was there.

I did learn that an azulene derivative (sodium azulene sulfonate) is thought to be effective in topically treating sore-throat from either cause, and that it's extracted from chamomile. So I've been drinking chamomile and rose hips tea sweetened with honey, which does make my throat feel better, even if it's purely hydration and placebo effect.

I also learned that sick-leave for a mother is limited. Barnacle Boy roused me out of bed at 6:30 this morning to help him find his sweatshirt (hanging on the coat rack where it belongs), a colleague called to clarify some work stuff, and Math Man phoned home and asked what was for dinner. I punted that last. If you're conscious as a mother, you're fair game. Coherent isn't necessary.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Woman on the edge

"She's a woman on the edge," I hear my surgeon say, as in scooting onto the operating table, I missed the mark and nearly went spilling onto the floor. She, the anesthesiologist and I had been talking about quantum mechanics on the way to the OR. I'm dressed in a Bair Paws gown (a very funky outfit that allows them to plug you into a warming hose and stay warm before surgery - it reminded me of when I was small, living outside of Chicago, and would stand in my nightgown on the hot air vents in the living room floor to get warm on winter mornings) and am wearing a silver hat also designed to help me retain heat (the nurse called it a Jiffy Pop hat and it's an apt description). The 6-ft plus anesthesiologist is holding my IV high in the air, towering over both me and the surgeon. We must have made quite a procession.

I was trying so hard not to be nervous, but when they hooked me up to the monitors, my secret was out. My usual pulse rate is between 60 and 65 - in the OR? 102. The last things I remember as I went under, were my surgeon holding my hand, and of praying the litany of the saints. Next thing I know, I'm in the recovery room - with a big sticker on my gown that said "Star Patient". I still don't know what I did to deserve that, since I proceeded to feel very "high maintenance" in the recovery unit. Suffice it to say I was glad of modern chemistry and medicine, and of a good friend willing to sit there through it all.

The team at home was sweet in their own ways. I woke to find a tray placed on the bed next to me, with a bowl of mashed potatoes and a cold drink (no napkin - we're talking men in the kitchen). Math Man had to go to back-to-school night for the mandatory choral meeting, so the boys reminded me how to use the cordless phones as an intercom system, in case I needed anything.

Since I'd sworn to the discharge nurse I would not get up without a spotter, when I needed to use the bathroom, I called up Barnacle Boy - who very gently took my arm. Then he pops out with "I don't have to say in there with you, do I??" "No sweetheart..." all the while thinking of those years not so long ago when he'd come popping right in the bathroom door without knocking, or decide to chat me up while I was in the shower. I think he's growing up!

Later, Barnacle Boy decided that the cat sleeping on top of me was photo material, grabbed my camera and clicked away. This morning I looked - the cat is indeed cute, I on the other hand look like something the cat dragged in.

The Psalms are in our bones

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 25 September 2008]

This piece had its formal genesis in the reflection I wrote a couple of Sundays ago for the RevGalBlogPals. I couldn't let go of the images of Gannet Girl grieving, and simply decided that I should not. The night after Tom died, I woke up crying in the night. My mother held me, repeating over and over again that she knew there was nothing she could to take away the pain, but that she would be with me. The psalms don't necessarily bring comfort or ease in grief, but like my mother, everyone who prays them, is with me, and with each other. Can we be with others in their inconsolable grief?

At the sight of her tears, and those of the Jews who followed her, Jesus said in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart, “Where have you put him?” They said, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. — Jn. 11:33-35

A friend lost her son last week, dragged from a long awaited retreat in silence into a maelstrom of pain. Over and over people told her that they could not imagine her grief. Perhaps what we really meant was that we did not want to experience her grief ourselves.

Returning to Bethany to find his friends Martha and Mary mourning their brother Lazarus, Jesus did not fail to imagine their grief, to experience this pain, though He could, and would, wipe it away in an instant. Jesus wept.

My friend sought the psalms in her grief. Not the green pastures and clear streams of Psalm 23, but the penetrating, inescapable love of Psalm 139. “If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there,” she prays.

Father Joseph Gelineau, S.J., whose now familiar psalm tones regrounded us in our own ancient chant traditions, said in his introduction to the Grail Psalter, “[the psalms] force us to widen our hearts to the full dimensions of redemption."

The psalms give us a way to voice the anguishes we have not experienced, the joys that might have never been ours, the fears that besiege and beset those around us. They force us to widen our hearts, and like Christ with Martha and Mary, be willing to go beyond acknowledging another’s pain, and imagine it. The psalms let us weep with each other.

In this way the psalms become for us more than the sacred songs of a generation long past, they are our own voices ringing in the wilderness of everyday life. As Andre Chouraqi, a distinguished Jewish theologian and linguist, noted, “We were born with this book in our very bones … 150 poems … 150 mirrors of our agonies and our resurrections.”

Literally, of course, the psalms are the skeleton upon which the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s daily work of prayer, hangs. On a deeper level, I find this image of the psalms as bones reminds me that these “150 mirrors” are not a superstructure shielding us from the difficulties of each other’s lives, nor are they an exoskeleton that bounds our growth.

Instead, they hold up for us what we need to see in our own lives, in the lives of those around us. They support us while we grow, through these shared experiences of joys and sorrows, virtues and transgressions.

As I prayed Psalm 139 this week, for my friend and for her son, it brought me back to the dark hours of a Holy Thursday more than 20 years ago. I sat in a hospital waiting room, facing the news that my husband would not live to see the morning. My breviary had disappeared in the chaos of the night before, but the psalms turned out to be in my bones and therefore my memory. When I could not hope, Psalm 30 could hope for me: “At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn.”

The psalms still give voice to my griefs, my joys, my angers, my failings, my triumphs — they hold me up. They are my very bones. Through them we hold each other up. They are our very bones.

Lord God, deepen our faith, strengthen our hope, enkindle our love: and so that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command. 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.
— from Evening Prayer I, 30th Sunday in Ordinary time, Liturgy of the Hours

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


...and relieved of my previously circular worries. Now just my head is going in circles...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Circular Anxiety

Tomorrow I'm scheduled for surgery. It's not huge, it's not life-threatening, it should be life improving - but it's general anesthesia. I'm anxious -- not about having the surgery, about not having the surgery. I'm anxious that it will get postponed at the last minute and I'll have to be anxious all over again. And what anxiety would that be...that it would be put off again. And so on ad infinitum...

Time to take up a contemplation on redemptive suffering...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

All Who Hunger

The photo is of my mother - dressed in her First Communion finery, putting a crown of flowers on a statue of Mary. The veil was almost floor length on me (I was much shorter than my mom at the same age - or ever for that matter!)

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 18 September 2008]

“Sir,” they said, “give us that bread always.” Jesus answered: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not be hungry; He who believes in me shall never thirst.”
Jn. 6:34-35

Thinking back, I imagine my mother just wanted to reduce the odds for my father. She was teaching the CCD First Communion class on Sunday mornings, and taking me along meant my dad only had to chase after three little ones — not four. At 6, I, at least, could be counted on to sit quietly in the back of the classroom and read.

When spring came, bringing with it first confessions and Communions, I asked my mother why I wasn’t making my first Communion, too. “You’ll learn about it all next year and make yours next spring,” she comforted me.

“But I learned all about it this year,” I wailed. Which is when my mother discovered that instead of amusing myself with Dr. Seuss in the back, I’d been listening to her. I had learned along with her students, and like them, I was hungry to meet Christ in the Eucharist. Now. At 6, waiting another year seemed impossible.

An interview with the pastor convinced him I’d been paying attention, too. Forty-three years ago this week, on the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary, wearing the same veil my mother had, I received my first Communion with little fanfare and great joy at the regular Sunday Mass.

A few months ago, I stood as a sponsor for a young woman convert. Standing before the community who had shared daily Mass and morning prayer with her for the last year, she received her Lord for the first time. Afterward, as I knelt beside her, I struggled to remember my own longing for that moment, for the only bread that would satisfy.

Later this summer, two consecutive Sundays found me too far from civilization to be able to get to church. Mea culpa, I missed Mass. And miss it, I did; my hunger took me quite by surprise. So when a fellow scientist (an astronomer at the Vatican observatory, no less) leaned conspiratorially across the dinner table at a conference the following weekend, and said, “I found a parish with a 7 a.m. Mass — want to go?” I was ready. Even if it meant a two-mile walk each way — since neither of us had a car!

Here on my home ground, with five parishes within a few minutes drive, I can go to Mass and receive the Eucharist every Sunday and any day I wish. In the midst of such riches, I had forgotten how to hunger. It took an unintentional fast to help me rediscover it.

Alfred Delp was a Jesuit priest executed by the Nazis in 1945. He was beaten, sleep deprived and starved, of food and of the Eucharist. Two months after he was arrested, friends bribed a guard to bring him bread and wine to celebrate Mass with. In a letter smuggled out with the laundry he wrote, “[t]he experience that a piece of bread can be a great grace is a new one for me.” Physical hunger opened him to “discover ever new sides to God.”

This summer, God took advantage of my absence from the celebration of the Eucharist to remind me that there are graces to be discovered in hunger, as well as in plenty. Now, when I begin each morning with the Augustinian community, I can remember again what it is to long for life and its very source, as we pray together:

O Sacrament of love, sign of our unity, bond of our community, whoever longs for life, has here its very source, let him come here and believe, united with You and live. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood, will live in Me and I in him.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Prodigal Cat

Fluffy returned this morning. Clearly happy to back home. I called the school to ask them to tell Barnacle Boy, and we sent a text message to Crash which he'll pick up at lunch.

Hope is a difficult virtue.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Fluffy has wandered off, she slipped out on Saturday morning when I got up, and hasn't come back. Barnacle Boy is worried and saddened by turns.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Inverted Direction

My wise and Patient Spiritual Director has left on sabbatical for the year, so I've been in search of a director willing to take over for the year, and walk with me up to and then out of the Spiritual Exercises. (All presuming I'm accepted - this weekend, among various other writing tasks, I need to produce a draft of a several page spiritual autobiography!)

Over the last month, I've interviewed four potential directors, and done the work to discern the next step. And having discerned and decided, am ready to embark with a new director.

Over the last few years, my visits for direction have fallen into a pattern (hopefully not a rut!): a drive, a several mile silent walk through hedgerows where I might see fawns, hawks and cardinals, time for meditation, Mass, lunch in the old novitiate refectory, and direction. The new pattern inverts the old one in almost every particular: a train ride, a several mile walk through the noisy city streets of Philadelphia, direction, then lunch...outside in a lovely square.

Direction always ended with some chocolate treat pulled from Patient Spiritual Director's stash. A potent reminder to "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord." Before he left, I told him that while I was certain there would be new graces to be found with the next director, I would miss this particular graced moment!

The Spirit provided, however, and as I walked back to the train, I passed a marvelous chocolate shop. And tasted once again the goodness of the Lord...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Mini Confessions

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 11 September 2008]

Then some men appeared, carrying on a bed a paralyzed man whom they were trying to bring in and lay down in front of him. But as the crowd made it impossible to find a way of getting him in, they went up on to the flat roof and lowered him and his str
etcher down through the tile into the middle of the gathering, in front of Jesus. Seeing their faith he said, “My friend, your sins are forgiven you.”
Lk 5:18-20

The house rules are posted on our refrigerator, ready for those not infrequent moments when someone needs reminding that if you take it out, you should put it away. The one rule my sons never forget is, “What happens in Mom’s Mini, stays in Mom’s Mini.” The seal on conversations in my car is nearly as sacrosanct as that of the confessional.

The questions the boys let fly as we traverse the Main Line are at times silly, and at times poignant: “Were you sad when Tom died?” Chris asked one day after a visit from my late husband’s father. Then, there are the questions for which I have no answers, as when stopped at a light on Montgomery Avenue last spring, Michael asked me why God let evil things happen.

The “ask anything” atmosphere in my car extends to their friends as well. Last spring, I was hauling home a load of young men from school when the conversation turned to confirmation. “I have to go to a penance service tonight!” grumbled one, unworried that I might report his reluctance to his mother. Sympathetic sighs emanated from his buddies, except for Mike. “Don’t go,” he urged.

To the astonishment of his friends (and me, I must confess), he regaled the car with the tale of how I had made him go to confession, rather than a communal penance service, before his own confirmation the previous year. And how much better it was — or at least shorter and less boring. “Just go to confession” was the moral of his story.

The men in the account of the paralytic in Luke’s Gospel remind me of Mike and his friends. I can imagine them scheming to find the best way to get their buddy in front of Jesus, chortling when they discover they can get around the crowd by taking off the roof. Their ingenuity on behalf of a friend knows no bounds.

St. Augustine’s teacher, Ambrose, reflecting on this passage in his exposition on Luke’s Gospel, reminds us “to call intercessors, call the church” even when we ourselves cannot see the way clear to find Christ. “Because of His regard for the church, the Lord forgives what He may refuse you.”

Watching Mike work to get his friends before Christ in the sacrament of Penance, delighted to have found a way “around” the crowd, I realized anew how much we depend on each other for our access to God’s forgiveness of our sins. Even in this most private of sacraments, we need each other.

Almighty, ever-living God,
Whose love surpasses all that we ask or deserve, open up for us the treasures of Your mercy.
Forgive us all that weighs on our conscience, and grant us more even than we dare to ask.
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.

Photo credit to two stout monks.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Re-purposed Pain

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 4 September 2008.]

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.

Col. 1:24

“One thousand and ninety five,” sighed my friend as he pushed his chair back from the dinner table. He was not referring to the date of the first Crusade, but the number of e-mails awaiting his attention after two weeks out of the office.

I winced in sympathy, recalling the piles of mail, real and virtual, that had greeted my own return from vacation. “Offer it up for the souls in purgatory?” I suggested, only half in jest. “For sure, it’s one piece of pre-Vatican II theology I still subscribe to!” bounced back across the table. “Suffering shouldn’t go to waste.”

My mother’s salve for the hurts of childhood she could not immediately remedy always included the injunction to “offer it up” in addition to the requisite Band-aids and gentle kisses. In my pre-Vatican II childhood, burned fingers and broken toes offered chances not only to be tended to, but also to tend. Little was wasted in a house full of kids, not even suffering.

The conversation led me to wonder if I’ve failed to pass on a key lesson to my own children. Mike, at 14, seems aware of the ascetic value of pain (or at least he is fond of reminding his younger brother, groaning under the weight of some hideous chore, that “suffering is good for the soul”). Rarely does Mike articulate the sense that his sufferings, or even the annoyances that come with having a younger brother, might be good for someone else’s soul, even teasingly.

Yet the concept of redirecting suffering to another end beyond the purification of one’s own soul might not be as foreign as we think to a generation for whom the catchphrase “recycle, reuse, repurpose” rolls so trippingly off the tongue. Waste is to be avoided.

My kids view the “repurposing” of old stuff as a creative activity. What can you do with an outgrown life jacket and a roll of duct tape? Amazing things, if you have the imagination to see it, and the patience to carry it through.

Pope John Paul II, reflecting on the passage above from St. Paul in his apostolic letter, Salvific Doloris, asserts that redemptive suffering is also a creative activity: “The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s redemption… . No man can add anything to it. But at the same time [Christ] opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering.” Paul’s outlook helps us imagine the “creative character of suffering.”

Maybe what I need to remind my sons, and myself, when our own pains wear us thin, is that we can creatively repurpose them, pouring our sufferings into the mystery that is Christ’s redeeming work, into His body, the Church.

It is certainly time to recycle and reuse my mother’s injunction to “offer it up” for this generation — so they, too, can imagine how to repurpose the pain.

O God, Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful, grant to the souls of our departed loved ones, the remission of all their sins, that by means of our pious supplications, they may obtain the joys of Heaven which they have ever earnestly desired. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Tails from the Godfather

Caution: This is not a tale for the faint of heart.

Today Math Man and I have been married for 16 years (for this year, we are celebrating a pair of perfect squares - which our kids think we are, anyway!).

As Math Man stepped out the door tonight (on his way to clean the gutters before the oncoming storm), I stopped him before he stepped on a suspicious furry bundle sitting on the edge of the doormat. "It's just fluff from the doormat." "I don't think so," I countered, "If you do, pick it up!" "Uh, get me a baggie will you?" my spouse counters cautiously.

"It looks like a tail. It's not Fluffy's is it?" Math Man inquired. "Not her color!" (Fluffy is a natural blonde.)

We're trying to decide if (a) Fluffy left it as an anniversay gift for us; (b) It's been left as a warning for Fluffy in the currently feline battle for dominance or (c) Fluffy has left it as a warning to other cats.

And no, we're not certain it's a cat's tail.