Monday, March 30, 2009

The Need and the Blessing of Prayer

Today is the 25th anniversary of the death of Karl Rahner, SJ.

"If we are not supposed to cease praying, then perhaps one shouldn't cease speaking about prayer; speaking about it as well and as poorly as it given to one." - from the forward to The Need and The Blessing of Prayer

However well or poorly I do it - prayer or writing about prayer - Rahner's writing gives me hope that it is of value.

The photo is of my desk, on which no less than three of Fr. Rahner's tomes are resting at the moment. Can you tell I'm writing?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Math Mad Man

Math Man's advertising slogan du jour (I did something that eased his morning, but cannot remember what!):

Women: Do more with less. Better.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Column: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

The photo is of the basement laundry room at Eastern Point. I took it to try to capture for my spiritual director the sense of warm prayerfulness I encountered in that space. For, as a good friend wisely remarks, "It's all about the laundry!" This is the first of four columns for the Standard on the principle graces of the Exercises.

This column appeared in the Philadelphia Archdiocese's Catholic Standard & Times 26 March 2009.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, that He may grant you in accord with the riches of His glory to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.Eph. 3:14a, 15-19

Lather, rinse, repeat. The standard instructions on the back of shampoo bottles are an apt description of my experience of Lent this year — I feel as if I have just been through Lent’s wash cycle and have been inadvertently returned to the laundry bin.

As the calendar year began, I was sequestered in silence, making the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. The exercises are structured around four “weeks” or graces, as my director said. The first grace sought was to know how profoundly we are loved by God and how often we have failed to respond to that love.

Just as we hear the call of the prophet Joel in Lent to “Rend your hearts,” so in that first period of the exercises Ignatius invites us to open our hearts to God, to see what sin has done to the world, to us and our own role in it. In a word, Lent, collapsed into a week.

Spending a week asking God for the grace to see evil at work in the world and in your own life sounds miserable, but Ignatius builds his exercises on the same foundation that Paul offers the Ephesians: rooted and grounded in God’s love. It is only from this stance that we can risk looking so deeply at how we, together and individually, in this time and in our history, have violated our covenant with God.

It is from these depths that we can begin to grasp the enormity of the love and mercy that was and is ours. The ultimate point of this exercise, as it was in Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, is not to wallow in sin, but to enable us to “be filled with all the fullness of God.”

No matter how much time we spend looking into this mirror, we are ultimately myopic. We can never know quite how tightly sin has bound us, how deeply its strands are embedded in our lives. Still the merciful grace of God flows over it all, whether we see our failings clearly, dimly or not at all. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner puts it bluntly in a Good Friday homily, “the world could not escape His mercy.”

Late in the afternoon of the very last day of that first week, God’s mercy found me in the basement of the old retreat house. Standing amid almost 50 years worth of cast-off furniture and dishes, waiting for the dryer to finish, it seemed just the place to examine my conscience one last time. After dinner I would gather my almost 50 years worth of cast off sins and make a general confession — and return to my room with clean clothes and heart.

I’ve lathered and rinsed — is there any point in repeating, in taking another look at my sins? Buoyed by St. Catherine of Siena’s advice, “The more you see, the more you will love. Once you love, you will follow and you will clothe yourself in His will.” I’m ready to look again, to see more, that I may love more. I can do a bit more Lenten laundry — and be clothed again in God’s will.

God of power, God of mercy, You bring forth springs in the wasteland and turn despair into hope. Look not upon the sins of our past, but lift from our hearts the failures that weigh us down, that we may find refreshment and life in Christ, our deliverance and our hope, who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer for the 5th Sunday of Lent Year C

Saturday, March 21, 2009


In Marie Curie's biography, her daughter recalls how focused her mother could be. When she was a child, she would be so intent on her reading that her siblings could build stacks of chairs around her - all unnoticed.

After a rousing few rounds of Mau with Barnacle Boy and some of his friends, I retired to my study to read for a while. Fluffy came up, but for once did not want to sleep on whatever I was working with. I kept reading (William Barry's Letting God Come Close). Suddenly the Boy is at the door, camera in hand. "Is the cat in here?" he demanded. "She was." "Did she have the mouse with her?" "The mouse??"

I hadn't noticed. At all.

Friday, March 20, 2009

column: God alone is enough

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

Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than a great fortune with anxiety. — Proverbs 15:16

There is a math joke that says that mathematicians are God’s way of turning coffee into theorems. Or in my case, tea into words. On sabbatical leave this spring, I’m spending many hours writing, a cup of tea always within reach. I seem to bring a new spoon up every time I make a fresh cup. On a good day of writing there might be more than a half-dozen spoons scattered across my desk.

“How many spoons do you have?” wondered a friend, slightly aghast, when I mentioned that you could track my scholarly productivity by the daily spoon count.

“At last count? A few dozen, maybe.” I responded sheepishly.

When I was in graduate school I knew exactly how many spoons I had — four. If I had more people than that for dinner, my guests had to bring their own silverware! Now I have spoons for more guests than my house could hold. Enough that I might not notice how many have migrated to various spots in the house for a week or more.

In his 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI reminds us, “The pursuit of life’s necessities is quite legitimate; hence we are duty-bound to do the work which enables us to obtain them: ‘If anyone is unwilling to work, do not let him eat.’ But the acquisition of worldly goods can lead … to the unrelenting desire for more … Rich and poor alike — be they individuals, families or nations — can fall prey to avarice and soul stifling materialism.”

Do I really need all those spoons? Searching the house for spoons I had left lying about and loading them into the dishwasher, I contemplated this verse from Proverbs. I wondered if tending to my current surfeit of spoons — and other worldly goods — might be taking time and attention I would rather devote to other things, might indeed be stifling my soul.

Lent is a season of fast; we undertake to deprive ourselves of what is necessary. Fasting strips away the excess and invites us to reflect how much is enough — not only of food but also of all the material things in our lives. In calling the Church to a renewed sense of fasting this year, Pope Benedict quoted St. Gregory’s Lenten hymn Ex more docti mystico: “Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses.”

Haunted by a vision of a Dickensian chain of clanking spoons pursuing me through purgatory, I’m finding myself gradually more alert to the unnecessary things that have collected in my life that stifle my sense of God’s providence. I look to strip out the excess, not just during this short season of Lent but permanently.

In Lent, or outside of it, God alone is enough.

Nada te turbe, nada te espante, todo pasa;
Dios no se muda.
La paciencia todo lo alcanza;
Quien a Dios tiene, nada le falta;
Solo Dios basta.

Let nothing disturb you, nothing distress you. All things fade away.
God is unchanging.
Patience obtains everything.
Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone is enough.

— Found on a bookmark in St. Teresa of Avila’s breviary

Friday, March 13, 2009


Barnacle Boy played one round of dodge ball this week. Or not quite one round - he gave it up after a ball collided with his hand. His little finger swelled up, turned purple and green. Off we went to the pediatrician, then to get an X-ray, then back to the pediatrician. Monday we're for the hand surgeon. Happy Friday the 13th?

Thankfully, we have good insurance coverage and the Boy isn't in significant pain. He's grown enough to solo with the X-ray tech (who, along with the radiologist, stayed overtime so we wouldn't have to go to the ER on a Friday night - an unlooked for grace of the day). He reappeared marveling at how the technology has improved since his last encounter with radiology (a partially severed Achilles tendon - all I'll say is that when your mother says don't play with scissors, she generally has a good reason). "It was just like iPhoto, Mom. They dragged and dropped the images they wanted on the screen." We decided they could call it iRay.

Column: Scrabbling through Lent

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

Yes, that is my mug - and a tray ready to go up to my office. (The tray was $1 at the local thrift store, but always let me imagine a butler just might tiptoe into my study to take my tray when I'm done, and just as silently return it full again.)

To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one - to each according to his ability. Then he went away. Immediately the one who received five talents went and traded with them, and made another five. Likewise, the one who received two made another two. But the man who received one went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master's money. Mt. 25:15-18

I've come downstairs for a late afternoon cup of tea to find Mike leaning against the counter with a glass of milk kibitzing, while Chris and Anna make dinner. We are one day into Lent and the hot question in my kitchen is "What are you giving up for Lent?"

At 22, with almost as many Lenten seasons under her belt as the boys put together, Anna is impressed that Mike has successfully given up chocolate in a past Lent. "Are you going to give up coffee?" the boys tease her. "No way!"

All eyes are now on me. With a fresh cup of tea in hand, it was clear I wasn't giving up caffeine either. "So, Mom, What are you giving up?" "Well, last year I took up playing Scrabble every day," I said. That got their attention.

Scrabble is not included in the traditional triad of Roman Catholic penitential practices: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I will admit, too, that I hadn't intended at the outset that my daily Scrabble round be part of my Lenten practice. Nevertheless, the games that began Ash Wednesday yielded a rich source of reflection for me throughout the season. What did I learn?

Letters are given to you; gifts not of your own choosing perhaps but gifts nonetheless. In my heart, can I view seven consonants as a gift? Can I view even the annoyances in my life as sources of grace?

Letters are meant to make words from, even the letters you can't see how to use at first glance. You might want to trade letters in, but doing so as a matter of course is not a winning strategy. As St. Paul reminds the Corinthians, "If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? God placed the parts in the body as He intended."

Hold onto your letters in hopes of using them later and you risk missing other, possibly richer, opportunities along the way.

Narthex was a delicious word, but were there other wonderful and better scoring words I failed to make in the waiting? What in my life do I cling to that blinds me to God's desires for me?

You can only get so many points from your letters alone; winning depends on encounters with double and triple point squares. Grace is at play in our lives, enriching what we can do with our own limited resources. We should be alert to the signs of God's presence and place ourselves in His path.

Hoarding the letters you were granted loses you points in the end. Like the servant in Matthew's Gospel left holding the single talent when his master returns, gifts earn when they are put to work, not held in the hand. Hanging onto the U waiting for the Q was not a good idea.

Playing Scrabble for Lent might seem irreverent or even profane - the thought certainly startled the kids in my kitchen. We often choose to do things differently in Lent as penance. We can also choose to see things differently in Lent, even things as trivial as Scrabble, as a way to break down the artificial barriers between our spiritual lives and our daily lives. All our life comes from God and is oriented to God as its end, the trivial and profound alike.

Lent invites us to grow in grace not only through the Sacraments and the traditional devotional practices of prayer and penance but in every act of our lives, even those that seem firmly "of the world."

Father, you have taught us to overcome our sins by prayer, fasting and works of mercy. When we are discouraged by our weakness, give us confidence in your love. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for even and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Romantic Moonlit Memories

Barnacle Boy noticed that tonight is a full moon. As we came back from skiing this afternoon, he also noticed that the sign was up for the "romantic moonlight dinner". The place where we are staying offers a once a week romantic dinner adventure, with a great perk for parents of young kids - babysitting is included! The parents ride up the ski lift with a bottle of wine, snowshoe across the ridge to see views of Lake Champlain and Stowe, the return for a candlelit feast in a hut on top of the mountain. The finale is a snow shoe down the mountain by moonlight. Meanwhile your kids are entertained at a pizza and ice cream party.

Sound good? A few years back, when Crash and the Boy were smaller, it did to us. Math Man booked it as a surprise for me. The kids were excited about their night out, too. The weather was clear, not too cold and there would be a full moon to illuminate the walk down the mountain.

Off we all went on our respective adventures. The ride up the chairlift was beautiful and the views from the ridge up top unparalleled. Our dinner companions were interesting, the food beautifully presented. Still, I was just picking at it. "Don't you like it?" Math Man murmured. "It's great, I'm just not that hungry." Soon, though I realized it wasn't just lack of an appetite, I was ill. Miserably ill, in fact. So ill, there was no walk down the mountain for me; the ski patrol took me down.

"So, do you want to do the dinner this year?" wonders Math Man. Some memories do not fade with time. I think not!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Column: People of the Cross

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

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” — Mt. 16:24

“Why were you carrying that?” Chris wonders aloud as he watches me transfer my rosary from my bag to the pocket of my jeans.

“There’s always one in my pocket, or my purse,” I tell him.

“Oh, I thought you were worried!” Turns out he’s just discovered, courtesy of old M*A*S*H episodes, that rosaries are sometimes called worry beads!

How many crosses do you carry? There is a crucifix in my pocket as I write this — on my “worry beads” — another on the wall behind me, and a plain wooden cross on my desk as I write. How many times a day do you make the Sign of the Cross? Christopher’s question is a good one. Why do we carry this sign?

We are truly and properly a people of the cross. As we hear in this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, we are called by Christ to follow Him by carrying our own crosses. From the earliest days of the Church, the cross has physically marked us as followers of Christ. The beautiful, though apocryphal, Odes to Solomon from the first century remind us that even our bodies themselves are signs of the cross. “I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord, for the expansion of my hands is His sign. And my extension is the upright cross.”

Early in the third century, Church father Tertullian noted “At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out…when we light the lamps, when we sit down, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross].”

In keeping with this most ancient of traditions, I have traced the cross on my children’s’ foreheads every night before they go to sleep.

How closely do I look at all these crosses that I carry in my hands, tuck in my pockets, furrow onto my sons’ brows? What do I see? Virtuous habit or Christ crucified? “Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” says poet T.S. Eliot in the first of the Four Quartets, Burnt Norton, and I fear I am all too human in this.

In a Good Friday homily, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner invites us to consider the variety of encounters we may have with the cross. Some pass by and though saddened, move on with their lives; others look away, afraid of the challenge the cross presents to their comfortable and orderly lives. But those who remain, “who have come to know the mercy of God kneel before the cross … They prostrate themselves. They are silent. They weep.”

To face the reality of the cross, we must first bear the reality of our need for God’s mercy, that we are sinners. Each time I see a crucifix, each time I make the sign of the cross, each time I stretch out my arms in praise of God, I am called to confront my own failings.

Each of these daily encounters should sharpen my awareness of the depths to which I am loved, the lengths to which God has gone to redeem me. Perhaps then in the recesses of my soul, I will cease to pass by, but instead choose to remain for that brief moment face to face with Christ crucified. And so I practice, bearing what reality I can.

Now I am facing the cross through the veil of the remaining weeks of Lent. What is it I want to see when I come face to face with the cross unveiled on Good Friday? The wood of the cross, on which hangs the salvation I so need, before which I can only bow and bend low.

Lifted up among us, O God, is Jesus the crucified: sign of Your steadfast love and pledge of Your will to save. To those who look upon the cross with faith grant healing of soul and life eternal. 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. — Opening Prayer for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Geeky Delights

I'm on the road for a few days - and took the train north this afternoon. Alas there were delays, which left me time to eat my lunch and browse the NY Times while waiting in Philly's restored train station when I happened upon this article: Amazon to sell E-Books for Apple Devices. This is the 21st century - before I finished my yogurt I had downloaded the free Kindle app, picked a book to read and updated my iPod.

In the interest of traveling light (and of getting a lot of writing done on various projects while on the train) I'd left behind an extra book. Without adding an ounce, and for less than the cost of a paperback in the station bookshop, I now have a book for the trip. I read the first chaper while waiting in line to board.

Amazon notes that the Kindle is better if you're doing lots of ebook reading, and I agree, and I prefer book books to electronics as a rule, but it's nice to have for the road!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Tied up for the day

We had snow. Enough snow to close schools (though Math Man still had classes). My kitchen was home base for home-bound pre-teens. By 9:30 they were on the move, off to sled. But Barnacle Boy, whose feet are growing by the day, needed to find a pair of boots. An old pair of Math Man's were found - and they fit! They were all kitted up and antsy to go, but the Boy still needed Mom for one last thing: "Can you tie my boots?" So I knelt at his feet and double-knotted them.

By 11 they were back, red-cheeked and hungry. The water looked to be half an inch deep on the kitchen floor as they shed all their layers. Barnacle Boy took charge of seeing that everyone got a hot lunch while I holed up in my study. As I went up with my tea after lunch, I heard him instruct the crowd, "We need to be quiet, my mom is writing!"

(Post script - at dinner the Boy wondered if they'd disturbed me. "No," I assured him, "growing up in a house with six kids, when I'm concentrating, I don't hear anything!" In retrospect, I'm not sure I should have told him that...)