Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Column: Through the Cross you Brought Joy to the World

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 1 January 2009]

An angel of the Lord stood over them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Lk. 2:9-10

“So that’s where the trapdoor leads!” exclaims Mike as we troop through the small sacristy at the back of the church. He and Chris peer down into the mysterious and hitherto unsuspected depths of the basement, a bright yellow gate the only thing keeping them from tumbling down the steps in their curiosity. One mystery leads to another.

Like St. Nicholas in “The Night Before Christmas,” the guys are not distracted by the unexpected in their path, but get straight to their work — their annual duty of setting out the parish’s collection of Nativity scenes in the daily chapel. They carefully unwrap each piece — a roundly joyous Holy Family from Peru, Roman centurions to guard Bethlehem’s gate, an elegant marble carving of a remarkably serene Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms as they flee for their lives.

As the sets emerge from their bubble wrap cocoons, Mike and Chris chatter animatedly about how they are going to arrange things this year, recalling what they’d done in years past, and through it all re-telling for themselves the story of Christ’s coming to earth. For me, it’s not only a window on what they know about their faith, but sets a rich table for my own contemplation of the Nativity.

This year, they have used Christ’s perilous flight as a backdrop to joyous scenes of the shepherds and the kings. I’m reminded that the cross was not the first time the Son had obediently subjected himself to the perils of earth at the Father’s will.

Christopher, my aptly named “Christ-bearer,” carefully removes each figure of the infant Jesus, readying them to hide, awaiting the first Mass of Christmas when he will tuck them into their places. For a moment, he places the marble statue of Mary and Jesus fleeing into Egypt on the altar. Just as he cannot separate the infant from His mother, in that fleeting moment I see the sacrifice of the Incarnation as inseparable from the sacrifice on Calvary. “This is my body, which I have given up for you.”

We’re enraptured by the gentle baby, not to mention the angels singing in the heavens and the wise men bearing gifts, but do we really grasp the enormity of this first sacrifice? Christ chose freely to become human — coming not as a man speaking with authority, but as a helpless infant unable to hold up His own head or meet His own most basic needs. Through Him all things were made, yet He submitted to our human limitations, not for three days, but for years.

His willingness to yield to the Father’s will a second time in His passion and death is all the more powerful to me seen in the light of that first surrender at Bethlehem. It takes courage to undertake such a sacrifice again knowing what it might entail; He’d already placed himself, helpless, in our hands once before.

St. Augustine, preaching to a packed church on Christmas day, recognized that Christ’s human birth provided a grounding for his crucifixion: “Your faith, which has gathered you all here in this large crowd, is well aware that a Savior was born for us today. He was born of the Father always, of his mother once...And the reason he was prepared to come through this latter birth was so that he might become obedient to the death and by dying might conquer death.”

Each morning, at the close of Morning Prayer, the Augustinians pray, “Through the cross you brought joy to the world.” This Christmas, as I hear of angels proclaiming “joy to the world,” I am brought to see the cross. One mystery leads to another.

God sent his angels to shepherds to herald the great joy of our Savior’s birth. May he fill you with joy and make you heralds of his gospel. Amen. — From the solemn blessing for Christmas Mass at Midnight

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Exercising in tight quarters

It's less than a week until I head north to make the Spiritual Exercises. There are loose ends to tie up for work and for the family (Barnacle Boy tonight created the dinner menus for the entire five weeks I'll be away - he's taking no chances!). My current refrain: What am I forgetting?

I'm mindful of the tight quarters I'll occupy for these next five weeks, as well as the generously empty self I wish to bring to God. So the packing itself is turning out to be a spiritual exercise of sorts. Do I need to bring (fill in the blank)? Do I need an extra (another blank)? At the moment, my stance is that if I'm asking the question, the answer is probably "no". No to an extra pillow, to an extra tin of tea, to books....

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Schrodinger's Cat

With help from Fluffy, seen here trying to help me derive the skin depth (the distance a quantum mechanical particle will sink into a wall) while I was simultaneously making dinner, I finished my grading ! I may be as relieved as my students. It's a great way to start the holidays (usually my grading is hanging over my head like some kind of evil Christmas ornament).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dot to Dot

When I was a kid, I might not have been a "waiting kind" of girl either. My brothers and sister and I often passed "waiting" time playing "dots", and I long ago taught my kids the skill. While waiting with Crash at the pediatrician's on Friday, I was all set to pull out a pen and start a game on the paper covering the examining table. Meanwhile, Barnacle Boy had pulled out my iPod touch, checked for a wireless signal AND downloaded an electronic version for us to play - in roughly the time it took for me to dig out a pen from the black hole that is my purse.

Ever changing, ever the same.Link

Friday, December 19, 2008

Crash crashes

This afternoon I was part of a conference call, on the phone in an office tucked into a corner of an old building. So I wasn't home, or in my own office, or answering my cell phone.

What was Crash doing? Playing ga-ga ball (I and the pediatrician had to be briefed on what that was - she wanted to know the size and mass of the ball, not the rules - which are usefully on Wikipedia!). He's also crashing - with the result that his wrist got bent in an odd direction. When the school nurse couldn't raise either parent, she phoned our back-up contact and sent him home on the bus (given the traffic between the college and the high school and home, I think that was faster than my fetching him in fact!).

The good news is no fracture, just a bad sprain. He's clearly got strong bones (as previous experience suggested).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Column: Poor Gifts

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

Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus: who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humans.— Phil. 2:6-8

I came early to the vigil Mass on the first Sunday of Advent this year. Kneeling to pray, I was distracted by stirrings at the front of the church: the jangling of a chain and murmuring voices. I looked up to see a tall young man preparing the censer, his low voice barely rippling the stillness, sweeping me into the memory of an Advent 15 years past.

That first Sunday of Advent found me early to the vigil Mass as well. It had been a chaotic week as I juggled teaching and preparing a paper for a conference overseas, all overlaid with the exhaustion of pregnancy. Within the church, the candles were lit, the light soft and gentle. I could just stop, like a breath suspended in time.

In that incredible stillness, I was suddenly distracted. The stirrings were gentle, but unmistakable. What I had rationally known for almost five months, but never quite believed, was suddenly made manifest — I carried a child within me, the same child whose movements drew my eye this year, at this Mass. I remembered the joy of cradling him in my arms for the first time, tinged with the loss of that hidden, mysterious time we shared when my entire being enfolded him.

I wonder how Mary felt after Jesus’ birth. She held God within her, knew His movements intimately, only to surrender Him to a cold, uncertain and unwelcoming world. Her willingness to be filled with the Holy Spirit was equally a willingness to be emptied of God’s Son — a foreshadowing of Christ’s own emptying so eloquently described by Paul in his letter to the Philippians.

Pondering the Magnificat, I sense that Mary was aware of this paradox, of the necessary tension between emptiness and fullness, between richness and poverty of spirit, and of the challenges embracing such a way poses. She proclaims: He has routed the arrogant of heart … He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty. Mary held the riches of the universe within her, and labored hard to surrender them to us.

In his treatise Poverty of Spirit Johannes Baptist Metz, a Bavarian priest and theologian, argues that since Christ — who emptied himself — shows us what it means to be fully human, it follows that the essence of being human is this complete poverty of spirit: “A human being with grace is a human being who has been emptied, who stands impoverished before God.”

Mary, full of grace, is emptied, and stands poor in a humble stable before the God she has given birth to. Mary’s poverty of spirit enabled heaven and earth to meet in the saving mystery of the Incarnation. The fullness of God’s work requires emptiness: Mary’s, Christ’s and so ours as well.

Poverty of spirit is not something we can give ourselves. If we hold it as a possession, we’ve lost it. We can’t grasp for it, we must instead assent to it. It is a gift to us that demands we give our very selves away.

The gift that Mary holds for us, that we await so eagerly this Advent season, is not one of riches, but the gift of utter poverty.

Here in our midst, O God of mystery, You disclose the secret hidden for countless ages. For You we wait, for You we listen. Upon hearing Your voice may we, like Mary, embrace Your will and become a dwelling fit for Your Word. Grant this through Him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Opening prayer for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year B.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wants and Needs

I want chocolate caramels. I have chocolate caramels. Do I need chocolate caramels? Probably not. Can I have chocolate caramels? Not after today's emergency dental visit. I'm glued back together, but a bit sore, so I'm having a bowl of tangy, plain, thick yogurt. All told, it's been a good day (despite the need to see the dentist). Much was accomplished, and the day ended with a delight. I went to my office after the dentist, to see my grad student. In my box was a large padded envelope. I opened it up to find a gorgeous red and silver shawl. I'd admired a similar one on a colleague at a meeting last week, and she'd offered to send me one the next time she went to the market where she got hers. There was joy to balance the day of affliction!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Saturday Soup

Math Man is under the weather, and the weather we're all under here is pretty cold. So it seemed like a good night for soup and bread. I made carrot soup and oatmeal bread. Add a dollup of thick Greek yogurt to the soup and some cheese to the warm bread and this is a meal for heart and soul.

For the soup:

olive oil
3 medium onions, sliced
2 stalks of celery, 1" dice
5 large carrots, peeled and 1" dice
3 medium potatoes, russet or Yukon gold work well
2 cups of chicken broth or water
thick plain yogurt or cheese for garnish

In soup pot, saute onions in olive oil. Add celery, carrots, and potatoes as they are prepped. Pour broth over the top, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until carrots and potatoes are tender to a fork, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Using an immersion blender or blender, puree soup until smooth.

Serve with dollop of yogurt, or sprinkle with grated cheese. Reheats well.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Column: Bound up in waiting

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

Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary. -- Is. 40:31

I was standing at the sink one afternoon when Chris was about 5. I can’t recall what he wanted, but whatever it was, he couldn’t have it. I counseled patience. “But Mom, I’m not a waiting kind of guy!” he retorted — a response that has lived on in family lore.

Even at 12, Chris is still not a “waiting kind of guy.” This weekend, at that very same sink, he mused that if he could, he would skip the next four years — he can’t wait to be to able to drive the car. (Needless to say, I can wait.)

We have just moved from the long stretch of Ordinary Time, the counted weeks of the Church year, into Advent, into uncounted time. Wreaths and calendars let us mark off the weeks of Advent and the days until Christmas. Still the season nudges us to think about the unknowable, unmeasurable, uncountable time until Christ comes again. It demands that we be a “waiting kind” of people.

Chris sees no point in waiting, and so no reason to cultivate patience. Isaiah does. Those who wait for the Lord, he proclaims, will gain strength; they will walk and not become weary. Waiting is not a passive marking of time; it is more than simply getting through the days. Isaiah expects waiting to change us.

In the Hebrew text of Isaiah, the word we translate as “wait,” or sometimes “hope,” in this verse is transliterated “qavah.” The word comes from a root that means to bind together, to twist up like a strand of rope. I find this image of a gathering of strands teaches me a great deal about how to become part of a waiting people.

I wait for the Lord, but not passively and not alone. I’m bound together in the waiting with God, who chose in Jesus to inextricably entwine His life into our humanity. The Eternal became entangled in our ordinary reckoned time. If we are gathered into His life even as we wait, I could see how we might draw on His strength, and not become weary. In the process of waiting, we are both caught up into God’s saving work and strengthened for it.

In a homily for the third Sunday of Advent, Pope John Paul II also draws on this sense of waiting as one that gathers, rather than sits apart until the expected moment arrives: “This vigilant patience, as the Apostle James stresses … favors the strengthening of human ties in the Christian community.” Waiting not only allows our relationship with God to unfold and grow, but our relationships with each other as well. If we are all caught up with God, we are bound to each other.

Perhaps the “waiting kind” of people we are called to be aren’t ones who are anxious to have the time pass by, or even ones who will patiently endure its passage. We are called to be people willing to bind our lives into the Eternal and in doing so surrender our individual strands to the whole of God’s work. Waiting people are willing to be changed in the waiting.

We can learn, as Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin advised, to “trust in the slow work of God.” We can wait for the Lord, counting off the days until Christmas, or we can choose to wait with the Lord, allowing our lives to become ever more bound into His.

O God who is to come, grant me the grace to live now, in the hour of your Advent, in such a way that I may merit to live in You forever, in the blissful hour of Your Eternity. Amen.

Prayer ending essay, “God Who is to Come” in Encounters in Silence by Karl Rahner, S.J.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Shifting Gears

We're shopping for a new car. Math Man's minivan is limping along - going only on drives so local we could walk home if pressed. Last time we shopped for a car for the family we had one kid and two cats; we worried about whether our infant and toddler seats would fit in the car. This time we have two kids and one cat and we're worried about whether the driver's seat feels comfortable to Crash Kid and Barnacle Boy.

Eek doesn't cover the dissonance I feel at this moment...

Meanwhile, poor Crash is not feeling well. It's 1:15 am and I'm still up with him, though he's drifted to sleep on the sofa at last. I finally banished the cat to the basement, since she seemed to find his toes irresistible, which was hardly conducive to sleeping.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Minimal Surfaces and Maximum Storage

Math Man has been know to refer to my purse as a black hole - particularly after one memorable night. There was a raging ice storm, I had to be at a board of trustees meeting. Math Man parked his car for me at the far end of campus, and took my tiny Mini home before things got truly dire out. At the end of the meeting, I couldn't find my car keys. I dug through my bag, certain I'd put them in there. "They must be in my office," I thought. A quarter-mile trudge across campus through sleet and ice, to my office. A colleague lets me in, but no keys.

No keys? I search under papers, and in the few odd spots I might have tucked them. Not there. As a last ditch effort to avoid calling Math Man and confessing I had lost my keys, I emptied my bag on my desk. Bingo. The keys. Where were they when I was looking for them, I wondered.

My current theory, hatched as I dug through things to tuck into my briefcase before a trip yesterday, is that my purse is roughly speaking a sphere (at least when I have it pretty full). A sphere is a minimal surface, the smallest amount of material that can enclose a given volume. In other words, it has the most "inside" stuff in the least "outside" stuff. No wonder I can't find anything! It's all in the middle...

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Extravagant Unbusyness

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 4 December 2008]

Martha, who was distracted with all the serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered, “Martha, Martha,” he said, “you worry and fret about so many things and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part and it is not to be taken from her.”
Lk. 10: 40-42

In chess, the end game often means that play has been reduced to very few pieces. In my life, the end game is when the pieces multiply, often out of control. The end of the semester is coming, the end of the calendar year is coming, the end of the liturgical year is upon us, and I have loose ends everywhere.

This is also an extravagant time of year. My students are investing extravagantly in study time, as am I in grading and having office hours. Extravagance creeps into family life, too. There are decorations to be put up, marvelous holiday meals to be prepared, gifts to be found and family visits to be made. The richness of the coming liturgical season cries out for extravagant attention — to music, to texts, to preaching. As a result of all this extravagance, we are extravagantly tired and perhaps, like Martha in Luke’s Gospel, extravagantly stressed.

At this time of year, in particular, I am torn between Martha’s bustling practicality and Mary’s extravagantly impractical choice to sit down with Jesus. I am stretched between the swirling chaos of the season and the still simplicity of Advent that draws me deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation.

John Cassian, one of the Desert Fathers writing in the 4th century, has difficult words for Martha, “To cling always to God and to the things of God — this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly. Any diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary … and certainly dangerous.”

With all due respect to John Cassian, to ignore my Martha role seems to be the dangerous road, not the reverse. Choir rehearsal? Final grades? Christmas dinner! If I didn’t fret about these, it could be disastrous. And yet … sharing a meal with my family, sitting with my husband in front of the fire, taking a few moments before Mass to wait in silence in the presence of Christ — if I was too busy to stop for these things, what might happen? It could be dangerous.

This Gospel invites us to be with God, rather than do for God, as much as that flies in the face of the pressing, and even necessary, needs of the present moment. The needs are ephemeral; God is eternal. To know how to prepare, we must listen so that we can grasp what we are preparing for. To lose sight of that is indeed a perilous path.

Perhaps it’s time to consider the extravagance of being unbusy, to cease preparing long enough to know Who it is we are preparing for? Though we usually think of Lent or New Year’s as the times to give up bad habits or take up healthy ones, Advent, which was once known as St. Martin’s Lent and is the start of the Church’s new liturgical year, could also be a time to make new choices in our lives. We could follow Mary’s lavishly impractical example and firmly set aside a few minutes each day to be still and know God.

This Advent I am resolving to choose the better part.

Father, let the gift of Your life continue to grow in us, drawing us from death to faith, hope and love. Keep us alive in Christ Jesus. Keep us watchful in prayer and true to His teaching till your glory is revealed in us. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Opening prayer from the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Times and Seasons

I can tell the season by the searches. The day before Thanksgiving, the top keywords searches which led to my chemistry blogs included:

  • the chemistry of jello
  • how to pronounce tryptophan
  • does cranberry sauce cause a reaction with silver?

For this blog, the top search for two weeks now has been:
  • my soul in stillness waits
I'm striving for some stillness - and found this question to be a good one to think on: Is patience still waiting?