Friday, February 27, 2009

Notification Preferences

"Let me know when the pizza's ready," tosses off Crash as he heads for the basement. I'm putting pizzas 3 and 4 of the night into the oven.

"How do you want to be notified?" I inquire. "IM, text, Twitter, email, phone?"

"You could just shout?"

No need to even shout, as it turns out. He's got a sixth sense. He floated up the basement stairs as I pulled the pizza out. I made four, there are no leftovers and at least two disappointed guys in my house.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Column: Dangerous Mirrors

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 26 February 2009]

Miserere mei, Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam
et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum dele iniquitatem meam.
Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea
et a peccato meo munda me.

Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offense. O wash me more and more from my guilt
And cleanse me from my sin. Ps 51:1-3

Psalm 51. The Miserere Mei. The classic penitential psalm.

I fell in love with this psalm early in my life. In the long, hot summer between high school and college, I pulled Rumer Goden’s novel In This House of Brede off my mother’s bookshelf. In it, Benedictine novice Phillipa Talbot is advised to recite the Miserere to time her weekly penance, with the admonition that it “may not be drawn out!”

What was the Miserere, I wondered. Not for long, as my mother promptly produced a Latin missal for me when I inquired. The words were like liquid, like the clear and cleansing waters of a spring. Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor. Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

This psalm threads its way through Lent, stringing together Ash Wednesday, all the Fridays, three weekdays, the fifth Sunday and the Easter Vigil like so many beads. During Lent we will pray this psalm more times than any of the other 149. This single psalm will draw us into Lenten penitence, give us hope through the long days of Lent and capture our yearning for the joy of our salvation in Christ in the last moments before we hear the Gospel of the resurrection proclaimed.

The Miserere without a doubt evokes a deep sense of our own sinfulness and longing for forgiveness. But Psalm 51 takes us beyond the straightforward desire to have a clean slate. It is what Lutheran pastor Walter Wangerin calls a “dangerous mirror of grace.” It is not enough to see our transgressions passively in this mirror, to have them always before us. In this psalm we pray for God to be active in the midst of our sinfulness. I risk having to see a very different self in the mirror, if I let God “in the secret of my heart teach me wisdom.”

This is a psalm that calls on us to actively respond to that “steadfast spirit” we beg God to place within us. We ask to be fervent disciples and effective teachers of the good news of God’s mercy and salvation. We promise to declare God’s praise openly. We vow to offer our humble and contrite selves as sacrifices. We are promising to see ourselves in the mirror of Christ’s life, passion and death. This is a dangerous mirror indeed.

During the Renaissance, the setting of the Miserere composed by Gregorio Allegri and Tommaso Bai was so exquisite that people traveled from all over Europe to hear it sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. Unlike the version the fictional Phillipa Talbot prayed, the psalm is drawn out and gloriously ornamented. When I hear the almost inhuman treble obbligato reach its top note, I am for a moment, suspended above purgatory, held up only by God’s grace.

This Lent, I will draw out Psalm 51 even further than Allegri. I will risk looking into that dangerous mirror of grace each day by praying it, listening to it sung and said, in English and in Latin; hoping to emerge on the brink of the celebration of the resurrection to see myself in its mirror as a pleasing sacrifice to God: humble, contrite and cleansed of my sins.

Listen to the Miserere:

Gregorio Allegri: Miserere mei, Deus - St. Johns College Choir, Cambridge

God of salvation, we stand before You on holy ground, for Your name is glorified and Your mercy revealed wherever Your mighty deeds are remembered. Since You are holy and forbearing, turn us from every rash and shallow judgment to seek the ways of repentance. We ask this through Christ, our deliverance and hope, Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Discipline of Writing

There are two ways for me to see how much progress I've made on a writing project over a day - I can either count words or spoons. Yesterday I wrote 8 spoons worth! It seems that each time I go down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, I take a new spoon up to the study with me. I stir in my sugar and the absently set the spoon aside. Repeat from 9 am until midnight with occasional breaks. Final yield - 8 spoons. (For the record, not all of the tea had caffeine.)

For the last two weeks I've been writing steadily - including a number of short pieces for various audiences. I've begun to realize that writing for me is more than just producing words. Thomas Merton is often quoted as saying "to write is to pray" though I can't find the source, and this captures much of what happens when I write. Writing for me, chemistry or spirituality, is a contemplative activity.

Like any good contemplative exercise, there is a discipline to it, a regularity to the practice. I come to meditate, to pray, to write even when at times I may not "feel" like it. Part of what these exercises have to teach me is to be present no matter what the external or internal weather might be like.

Amidst the rocks

Gannet Girl has posted an excerpt from T.S. Eliot's poignant Ash Wednesday (or read the entire poem here). It reminded me of this photo I took last summer on Cape Ann - near where Eliot summered as a boy.

I used a bit of Eliot in a piece I wrote last night: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." (From Burnt Norton).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Column: Growing Up

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 19 February 2009]

We are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand. — Is. 64:8

“I know why you went on the Long Retreat, Mom,” offers Mike. “It wasn’t to pray, it was to form us as men.”

For five weeks, while I was away, my two sons and husband courageously kept the household afloat. Laundry, meal planning, permission slips and housecleaning — they did it all.

Life in this temporarily all male household was, perhaps not surprisingly, a bit more ascetic. Rumor has it that tablecloth usage went down, while easy-to-cook spaghetti consumption went up. And I returned to find that my kitchen has been rearranged to suit the more spartan sensibilities of its users.

It’s not only the kitchen that’s changed. I returned to find my sons have each grown measurably in height — an inch apiece — and in ways less easily quantifiable. As I finished my piece of the welcome home cake the boys baked for me, Chris quietly and without prompting gathered up our plates to take into the kitchen. Putting my duffel away in the basement, I ran into Mike doing a load of wash — unasked.

While I was away on retreat with the novices being formed as Jesuits, as men for others, it seems the same forces were at work on my sons at home, forming them as men, (and I hoped) men for others as well. As Isaiah tells us in this beautiful passage, we are made by God’s hands, wherever and whoever we are.

In Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, we are reminded, “If one member [of the faithful] endures anything, all the members co-endure it.” From this perspective, it makes sense that my sons could be formed by the Spiritual Exercises as the Jesuit novices were.

From my letters, Mike and Chris knew some of what the novices had given up to try their vocation as Jesuits. They were living a more ascetic life. They’d surrendered motorcycles and cell phones, facebook and iTunes accounts. Lawyers, Navy officers and scientists were now obedient to their novice masters.

Asceticism is an indispensable part of religious life as well as religious formation; it is a mirror of what Christ gave up for us in His Passion. But the call to simplicity and selflessness goes out to us all. In its Directives on Formation in Religious Institutes, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life points out “[o]ne cannot live out one’s baptism without adopting asceticism.”

Like the novices, Mike and Chris got a taste of the ascetic life, giving up some of their accustomed comforts while I was away: Mom’s homemade pizza, her goodnight hugs and her editing of their English papers. Instead of sitting down to dinners that Dad had shopped for and Mom cooked, they were uncomplainingly (or so I understand) giving of what had been their free time to help grocery shop, cook and clean. Learning to be for each other, not just for themselves.

The Directives on Formation go on to say that all Christians “have need of coaches to assist [us] in running along the ‘royal way of the Holy Cross.’ They need witnesses.” I will be ever grateful to the 18 Jesuit novices from the provinces of Detroit, Wisconsin, Chicago, New England, Maryland and New York, for even in the earliest days of their religious lives standing as witnesses for my sons to the value of a life in and for God. I’m thankful, too, for their Jesuit novice masters and my own Jesuit directors who, through their coaching, have indirectly shaped my sons’ lives.

Many of the novices grew beards over the days of retreat, but as with Mike and Chris, I suspect the growth that mattered most for them could not be measured in inches. I can see the hand of the Potter on them all — formed by God, conformed more closely.

From our earliest days, O God, You call us by name. Make our ears attentive to Your voice, our spirits eager to respond, that, having heard You in Jesus Your anointed one, we may draw others to be his disciples. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen. — From the Opening Prayer for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Word Count

3045 in the last two days. On three of the four writing projects I've got up in the air. I've read texts in five languages: Spanish, Latin, Greek, German and English.

Am I having fun? Oh, yes!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Photos of the Long Retreat

...are here.

Risks of Multitasking

This morning I was home, happily writing in my blue jeans and sweatshirt. Before I headed up to my study, I threw in a load of laundry and started the dishwasher. I took my tray with my tea up, turned on the space heater and settled down to work. I printed out two papers I wanted to read, the printer clicked, whirred and everything stopped. Who knew - but all these things are on the same circuit: dishwasher, study, washing machine.

Moral of the story? If you multi-task, you can blow a fuse.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Cogent Kids

The boys made me brunch this morning. Crepes, "mimosas" (OJ with gingerale), and tea. Roses on the table and chocolates on my plate. The conversation was scintillating (and only occasionally gross - we are talking teen-aged boys here). Barnacle Boy wanted to know if I would buy him a Segway (this is an ongoing family joke). "No," said Mom. "Can you at least give me a cogent reason?" asked my 12 year-old. I could. Would you rather have new kitchen cabinets (our are in deep failure at this point)? "No, I'd rather have a Segway." At least he agreed my reason was cogent.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Column: The Leaven of Trust

I missed baking bread while on the Long Retreat - these loaves are oatmeal - my own recipe. The first thing I cooked when I got home was pizza with homemade crust.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 12 February 2009]

And with the dough which they had brought from Egypt they baked unleavened cakes, because the dough had not risen, since they had been driven out from Egypt without time to linger or to prepare food for themselves. — Ex. 12:39

Mike swings into the kitchen, and in a glance takes in my apron, the flour on the counter and the warming oven. “Fresh bread? Sweet! You know, you rock, Mom!” I learned to bake bread from my father, who learned by watching my great-grandmother, and so the rhythm of mixing, kneading, rising and baking always remind me of how each generation feeds the next. If Mike is around, the first loaf out of the oven won’t last long enough to cool.

The first step is always proofing the yeast, stirring life into the spoors with warm water and sugar. In all the years that I have baked, I’ve never once had the yeast fail to come to life. Proofing for me is a ritual of wonder. I enjoy the show, marveling at how those tiny dry balls can create such a mass of foam, but I have no doubt the bread would rise even if I didn’t ask for the proof.

For my great-grandmother, the ritual was one of necessity. There would be no sense in using up all that flour — to say nothing of the time and effort — if the yeast could not make the bread rise! And sometimes it could not.

The canister of yeast in my refrigerator is something that the Israelite women fleeing Egypt would have considered a treasure more precious than gold. Their bread was leavened with a bit of unbaked dough saved from previous batches, carefully nurtured from one generation to the next. In their flight, they baked all of their dough, killing all the yeast. They must have wondered if they would ever eat leavened bread again. What would they have given for my jar of guaranteed leavening?

I marvel at their trust in God. Yeast is ever present in the environment. If you leave water and flour around, eventually some yeast will take up residence and you have the makings for a loaf of bread that will rise. But you must wait, likely a long time in a desert, and trust that once again you will have leavening.

To abandon your bread starter, not knowing how or when it will return to life, is to me an act of trust even deeper than that of marking the door lintels so the angel of the Lord would pass over. Medieval English bakers saw this patient trust as something so entwined with their trust in God’s loving care that they called their leavens “Godisgood.”

The desert fathers knew of this struggle to trust in God’s provident care. They tell of two monks walking by the sea. Young Abba Doulas is thirsty, so Abba Bessarion says a prayer and bids him drink from the sea. He drank his fill of the now sweet water, then went to fill his bottle. When Abba Bessarion asked him why, Abba Doulas replied, “Forgive me, it is for fear of being thirsty later on.” The older man was puzzled, for “God is here, God is everywhere.”

Like the yeast, God is everywhere. Trust can be harder to come by.

I’m not certain I have quite the courage of the Israelite women or the faith of Abba Bessarion, and so have not tossed out my canister of yeast or failed to refill my water bottle when I have the chance. Still, it makes me wonder what other things are on my shelves that lead me to put my trust, not in God’s faithful presence to me, but in my own pre-measured, stockpiled sensibilities. As the desert of Lent looms, perhaps it is time for me to open some cupboards and look to see what God invites me to trustingly leave behind, all the better to know He is everywhere.

O God, you open wide your hand, giving us food in due season. Out of your never-failing abundance, satisfy the hungers of body and soul and lead all peoples of the earth to the feast of the world to come. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Column: Letters, I get letters

The back story to this column is that I was getting letters - lots of letters, while on the Long Retreat. They were all gifts to be treasured. The mail was left on a credenza that is off screen to the left in this photo.

The clue to the code that my brother used is the periodic table. D.e.18 = D.e.Ar = dear -- the element argon, symbol Ar, is element 18. Did I bring a periodic table on retreat?? Not exactly, but it turned out I had one on my laptop that I use for students on exams.

A few other wonders appeared in the mail. Several jars of pomegranate jelly - homemade by my dad; a marvelous stained glass star by Stratoz that graced my eastern facing window for the duration of the retreat; and a CD of Barnacle Boy's choral concert, complete with a short video message for his Mom.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 29 January 2009]

Paul, by the will of God an apostle of Christ Jesus, to God’s holy people, faithful in Christ Jesus. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:1-2

For the duration of the Long Retreat, 18 Jesuit novices, five others and I have foresworn nearly all contact with the outside world. Five weeks without the sources of instant news taken for granted in the modern world: phones, radio, television, newspapers, e-mail and text messages.

It’s also five weeks without the news we get so casually we do not even realize it: in conversation with neighbors and co-workers and overheard in the streets and corridors. There is no idle chitchat to overhear; none of us are talking. I see my spiritual director once a day and hear only the news he thinks I need to know. So far, that’s been the odd weather report and not a peep about the Eagles.

What I do get are letters, written in hands familiar and not. My heart leaps with joy (and a bit of guilt — the novices are not allowed mail) when I see an envelope with my name on it.

The mail is left next to the lectionary on the credenza in the main entry. Its proximity to God’s news started me musing about how the early Christian communities might have greeted the letters they received.

“Dear Mom, It’s Mike. I know how you love hand-written letters, so I decided not to type this. It’s Monday and school wasn’t that bad (even physics).” My 14-year old has poured his day onto paper for me, his news and love moving from his hand to mine. In closing a letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul sounds just like Mike: “This greeting is in my own hand. Paul.” We get not just the words, captured by scribe or electrons, but something more — the caring touch of the writer.

One evening’s mail brought a postcard from my brother. I turned it over to read “53 90.8.92.g.1.t …” My heart sank. It was entirely written in a code I couldn’t decipher. Several days later, another coded missive appeared. I was still in the dark.

I’ve finally decoded them, receiving a gift well beyond what the scant few lines might have yielded if I’d not had to work so hard to read them. Now sitting in prayer with Paul’s letter to the Romans, I can imagine the early communities trying to decipher Paul’s’ letters, patient with what may yet unfold, what we do not yet understand.

Chris misses me. “You will take 401,771 breaths, Mom, before coming home” is tacked to the end of his latest letter. Paul may not have counted each breath until his return to Philippi, but he misses them, too. “For God will testify for me how much I long for you all,” he writes. Paul longs not just to see his friends at Philippi again, but turns it toward the deeper reality of what we should all long for: the day of Christ’s return.

Three friends who have done these same Exercises write to tell me of their ongoing prayers that this be a fruitful time not only for me but for the others here with me. Paul tells the Colossians “we have never failed to remember you in our prayers.” Fidelity in prayer is a gift that spills over.

I am intrigued to notice as I leaf through my correspondence, that just as in Paul’s letters, there is little news of the day and much news of the heart. So while Wayne did not fail to tell me the “news — Eagles are on a roll!” he closes by reflecting “God is good.”

I will treasure all the letters I have received while wrapped in the silence of these days. The scraps of news they contain will be old hat when I come home, but the warmth, love and graces they hold will not fade. I will treasure more deeply, too, these letters from Paul and his companions — for their unfading news of the faithful love of Christians for each other and of God for us all.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love is with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.— Closing of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians

Monday, February 09, 2009

Fluffy the Flebotomist

funny pictures of cats with captions

I didn't move fast enough yesterday morning to replenish Fluffy's crunchy supply, and she nipped at my ankle to get my attention. Maybe I should offer her services to the Red Cross?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Column: Long Before Dawn

The back story to this column is that I ended up praying on an odd schedule while on this retreat. I would get up around 7:30 in the morning, see my director at 10. I'd pray twice before dinner, sometimes with a nap in between, then fall asleep (usually with my knitting in my lap!) around 8 or 9, sleep until midnight or 1, then be up until around 5.

This all came to an end the day that I saw the dawn from the night side, at which point my director decided it was time to shift me back to Eastern Time. Which I did. It was only slightly painful...

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 5 February 2009]

In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house and went off to a lonely place and prayed there. -- Mk. 1:35

“I wonder if I will have jet lag when I go home?” I mused to my spiritual director one morning. While I’ve never left Philadelphia’s time zone, my schedule looks more like I’m somewhere in Madagascar. It’s 3:18 EST in the morning as I write this. The last time I saw this hour with such regularity, I was getting up to feed a 3-month-old Christopher.

During these 30 days that I am making St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, my days are marked out only by the evening liturgy and my mid-morning meeting with my spiritual director. Outside of Mass, I am spending five formal hours in prayer, but the times of these are up to me, my director and God. God seems to have given me the night watches.

I get up, like Christ in this scene from Mark’s Gospel, long before dawn, make my way to the silent chapel and pray. At midnight, at 2 a.m., sometimes again at 4.

Unlike Christ, I’m not alone in my vigil. As often as not I share the chapel with one or two of the Jesuit novices making the Exercises here with me, all of us burrowed into our hooded sweatshirts against the night chill. Nor are we the first to make use of these late hours. One of the early Christian desert fathers, Abba Isidore, recalled, “When I was younger and remained in my cell I set no limit to prayer; the night was for me as much the time of prayer as the day.”

In contrast to Abba Isidore, St. Ignatius does set some limits on prayer during these Exercises: no more than five prayer periods a day. Ignatius does offer less binding advice on the times of these periods and recommends one be at midnight. In his reading of the Spiritual Exercises, Jesuit Father David Fleming suggests that Ignatius had in mind that after a few hours of sleep, both body and mind are quiet and rested. In such a state, we are open to God in ways that we are perhaps not in the midst of even the most silent and still of days.

Ignatius believed that quieting of mind and body by withdrawing, if we can, from our usual schedules and responsibilities, by praying in these night watches, help us bring our desires to grow closer to God and to move more freely about His work into sharper focus.

Dawn is famous at this retreat house. The rising sun seen through the windows behind the tabernacle in the chapel is said to be a magnificent sight. Alas, I wouldn’t know.

Truth be told, I feel no lack in missing the dawn. What I have seen through that window is the moon on the clouds, shading layers of deepest blues; snow falling in ribbons, twirling in the sea winds and the light of the Presence lamp; shards of ice beating against the glass; and, just once, a shooting star arcing across a brilliantly clear, cold night sky.

In the burst of the dawn there is no mistaking God’s hand at work. In the more subtle beauties of the night, God is teaching me anew to hear His voice, as did Elijah, in the softest of murmurs, to wait patiently for the moments when His glory arcs in all clarity across the heavens — to live and move and have my being entirely within Him.

For this, I’ll deal with jet lag when I get home.

Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace. — The antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis, Night Prayer

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Silent Movie

Crash wondered if there was some irony in our watching Mel Brook's Silent Movie as my first flick since I came back from the Long Retreat. There might be!

Before I left, Stratoz wondered what it would be like to return from a 30-day retreat in silence, doing the Spiritual Exercises. As Joe Koczera SJ noted there is much that you can't put into words about the Long Retreat, but here is what I can muster at this moment in answer to Stratoz's query:

After packing the car, and saying good-bye to my director - my car refused to start. I trooped back up the stairs in the photo to my director's office to beg a final grace: a jump start. Maybe my car (which had started without incident the day before) was picking up my conflicted feelings about leaving? I was all joy to go home, but it was hard to let the place and people go.

I drove with no music, no audiobook, no radio, no phone for 3 hours. The pull of the silence was still strong. Finally I called my dad.

I'm losing my voice - this is the ultimate irony.

Seeing my sons, each an inch taller, and both suddenly much more grown-up.

Hugs galore.

Being overset by the number of choices I had in clothes this morning. I went with a half dozen white turtlenecks, two pairs of jeans, two sweaters (green and pink) and a hoodie. Picking a sweater this morning to top off the jeans and turtleneck seemed almost too overwhelming . There is something to contemplate here.

Flying down the highway after nearly 5 weeks of being a pedestrian felt odd. (I drove into town twice on errands, I don't think I ever got over 25 mph on the narrow, icy roads.)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

One Dawn May Be Enough

The Long Retreat has ended. Mass was at 11:15 this morning and the silence broke with the final hymn. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam - to the greater glory of God. The experience was extraordinary. The prayers, thoughts and letters that accompanied me on this journey were deeply appreciated.

I saw only one dawn - having spent much of this retreat keeping the night watches. I took this photo on one of our two days of repose, when we had Mass early in the morning and I dragged myself out of bed after a scant hour and a half of sleep to walk to the beach. It was 3oF out.

Returned firmly near the end of the retreat to more regular hours by my director - I rose obediently the first morning to find a grey sky. I greeted my director by noting the irony of my finally being awake for the dawn, and there being none to be seen. To which he replied, "Maybe one dawn was enough."

This dawn might indeed have been enough.

For another view of a single dawn at Eastern Point from a 30-day retreatant - see here.