Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Last Chance

Today is the last day to vote for the Catholic New Media Awards...will anyone beat "What Does the Prayer Really Say"? Vote for me instead...or The Deacon's Bench or Adam's Ale or....

Catholic New Media Awards

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Contemplative Sailing: Waiting on Grace

The gang went sailing today, hoping for good wind and no rain or thunder. The forecast called for "winds variable between 5 and 10 mph" - and the weather was as advertised. I took the boat out mid afternoon and as soon as I got to the far side of the lake, the wind died to a whisper. I set my sail, and patiently drifted back. There was nothing else to do - other than hold my course and contemplate. I felt like I was waiting on grace. I'd done my part, now it was in the hands of God - who sends the winds or not!

Later in the afternoon the wind started to pick up as the promised front moved through. Here I'm hiked all the way out to hold the boat down! I had one gib where I thought I might end up in the water.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Column: Where is My God?

Matthew Spotts' writing about his experiences with the homeless in Washington DC, as well as my own encounters sketched here, were the seeds for this piece. I learned the story of the monks of Tibhirine from a poem by Marilyn Nelson, The Contemplative Life, published in Image (61, p. 15).

Abba Jacob wiped his eyes.
Interval of birdsong from the veranda.

He's seeing not an abstract God,
but a God who has assumed a face,
a God who shows him this face
in every one of those Muslim brothers and sisters,
including the one who kills him.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 25 June 2009.

My tears became my bread day and night, as they said to me all the day long, “Where is your God?” — Ps. 42:3

We have the same conversation each time we meet. Most often he happens upon me sitting in the pews of the city church where my spiritual director lives, though once we met on the street outside.

“What is your parish?” he wants to know.

“Our Mother of Good Counsel.”

“In Bryn Mawr?”

“Yes.” I am terse as he.

“Why are you here?”

“To pray.”

“What are you praying for?” And here is where I inevitably falter, faced with a question I’m unwilling to answer, even to myself.

At first my reaction was irritation. I’m there to gather my thoughts before I see my director, to slow down, to be still before God. This felt like an intrusion. “Why are you here?” I would think. Until the day it occurred to me that I was walking out of this recurring, slightly exasperating conversation into a recurring one with my director that sounded the very same themes: “How is your prayer?” he asks.

The psalmist struggles with these questions, too. “Where is your God?” he is asked. “Where is my God?” I wonder. Mother Teresa spoke of encountering Christ in His most distressing disguises, in the poor, the neglected and the rejected. The people who make us uncomfortable. Is this Christ standing here before me, distressing me with questions? Is this the God for whom I eat salt tears, for whom I thirst?

Laid out here on paper, the answer seems easy. Yes. Yet when I’m confronting the reality in the aisle of Old St. Joe’s, my response seems muddled and I wonder what to do.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ reminds us that in caring for our brothers and sisters, particularly those on the margins, we are caring for Him. Mother Teresa was so drawn to Christ in these challenging guises that she founded a religious order to care for the poor and dying. Yet John Chrysostom, in reflecting on Matthew, knew that meeting Christ in these places was potentially uncomfortable. “And what about His hunger, cold, chains, nakedness and sickness? What about His homelessness? Are these sufferings not sufficient to overcome your alienation?” Or to overcome my reluctance to answer?

While we might think it enough in these moments to care for the need that immediately presents itself, Jesus invites us to enter more deeply into a relationship. To listen to what He is asking and to respond, in word as well as deed. To engage him in conversation, to answer hard questions.

What might we say to Christ encountered under difficult and even harrowing circumstances? Perhaps thank you. In 1996 seven Trappist monks of the Abbey of Tibhirine in Algeria were brutally murdered. The monks had known they were in danger, but mindful of their vow of stability they remained, continuing to be present to their neighbors who were not able to flee. Prior Christian de Cherge left behind a letter with a message for his killers “who would not be aware of what [they] were doing. “Thank you,” he said, “for in you, too, I see the face of God.”

Where is my God? He walks among us, bearing the welcome embraces of friends and the disconcerting questions of strangers. What will I say the next time Christ, in a distressing disguise, walks up to me and asks, “What are you praying for?” I’m praying for gratitude, for the gift of His presence in your presence.

God and judge of all, You show us the way to Your kingdom is through humility and service. Keep us true to the path of justice and give us the reward promised to those who make a place for the rejected and the poor. 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, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ignatian Principles

I left early Friday morning on a train to New York City -- with plan to see my brother midday (and give the lunch talk where he works), then out to Fordham for a weekend conference on Ignatian spirituality - organized by the Jesuit Collaborative. I elected the theology track, the focus of the conference was on the Foundation and Principle, which more or less frames Ignatius' pre-requisites for giving the Exercises.

Four hundred people came, three hundred and ninety eight strangers and the director who gave me the Exercises - who walked in the door of the registration area right after I did. I had no idea he would be there (though in retrospect I might have expected it), and with so many people and so many possible tracks, I might never have seen him otherwise. On the other hand, when quite a few in the crowd are trained spiritual directors, adept at making people feel welcome, it's hard to remain strangers - I left knowing far more people than Jim Carr, SJ.

I enjoyed the talk by Ed McCormack from WTU on the mystical underpinnings of Ignatius' spirituality most of all - it made me miss my theology courses (though not quite enough to sign up for one!). The conference was bilingual, and it was nice to realize that I would respond in the right language in the elevator. The oddest thing was to share a suite with two other (I presume) women - neither of whom I ever saw. Our schedules were totally off. (The first night I crashed early - Barnacle Boy had been up the night before with a bad asthma attack, so I too, had been awake.) The boys teased me about traveling light - "you are a woman of the Exercises" they joked. My bags for the weekend are in the photo - there would have been a bit less if I hadn't talked at DESRES.

My favorite translation of the Foundation and Principle is the one by David Fleming, SJ from which this excerpt is taken:

We should not fix our desires on health or sickness,
wealth or poverty, success or failure,
a long life or short one.
For everything has the potential of calling
forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.

Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.

- St. Ignatius as paraphrased by David L. Fleming, S.J.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Column: Amen is a mystery in any language

All I can think about when I re-read this is Gannet Girl's struggles with Hebrew (not yet begun when I wrote the piece)- could that be why the translators left things alone?!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 18 June 2009.

Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and amen.
Ps. 89:53

My four younger brothers would map their strategy before they sat down, jockeying for the best positions -- nowhere near the vegetables and as close to the mashed potatoes as possible. The dog would curl up between my father and the baby's highchair. My mother would sit down (sometimes I suspect for the first time that day) and take a deep breath. This was the calm before the storm.

Eight voices would sound as one "...which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, our Lord. Amen. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen." At this point chaos would erupt -- everyone trying to talk at once, dishes crisscrossing the table, accompanied by the inevitable overturning of a glass of milk.

When I was growing up, woe unto any of us who touched our forks or sipped our milk until that final amen left our lips. I suspect if you'd asked any of us at the time what "amen" meant, we might have said "Let's eat!" Amen was a beginning.

Press me now, four decades and a bit later, and I might be more inclined to say that amen is an ending. The doxology and doublet of amens tacked to the end of Psalm 89 closes not the psalm, but a whole collection of psalms: 73-89. Amens likewise wrap up each prayer I say, a sprinkling of commas and semi-colons that bring release to the pauses in my day, until I say it one last time and bring the day to a full stop.

In reflecting on John's Gospel, on all the passages in which Jesus begins with "Amen, amen I say to you" St. Augustine notes that none of the Gospel writers and the translators that followed them "dared" to put the Hebrew "amen" into Greek or Latin -- though they knew full well what it meant. He supposed that they intended "that it might be honored by a veil of mystery, not that it be disavowed, but that it be not cheapened by being laid bare."

Amen means "so be it" or "truly" - an affirmation of belief - and is a traditional and eminently sensible ending for our prayers. But if I stop there, with its meaning laid bare, its place in my life well established, does the word that, according to St. Jerome, once shook the temples of Rome like thunder, go flat? Have I missed the mystery?

For Augustine, amen goes well beyond punctuating a prayer or checking off a box on a list of what we believe: "If, therefore, you are the Body of Christ and His members, your mystery is presented at the table of the Lord, you receive your mystery. To that which you are, you answer: 'Amen'; and by answering, you subscribe to it."

With one word we simultaneously confirm our belief and are confirmed by God in living out that faith. To say amen is not to subscribe to certainty, but instead to assent to be changed by the mystery that is Christ's death and resurrection.

Amens are not cheap but could and should cost me dearly. I'm not sure I dare say it now, unless I mean it.

Eternal Father, confirm me; Eternal Son, confirm me; Holy Spirit, confirm me; Holy Trinity, confirm me; My one and only God, confirm me. Amen. --From the journal of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Monday, June 15, 2009

Time Off

From xkcd.

I think I know something about the discipline needed to keep my hands off the keyboard. On the Long Retreat I disconnected for 30-days with nary a backward glance. On the rare occasions I wanted to find something online, my ever patient director was happy to Google my search terms and print out the results. I kept my journal, by hand, in a bound book. I wrote letters, not emails. And the day that I needed to email my column in to the Standard and Times, I borrowed my director's computer - and found the grace not to read any email while I sent off the column (it struck me at the time that it would be incredibly ironic to flout the rules using your director's internet connection).

Now my right hand is bothering me again, and I've been taking the occasional keyboard break for a day or a half-day. Why is it so much harder to marshal the discipline to stick to a rest break?

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Math Man and I enjoyed a lovely, last second dinner in Philadelphia last night. We parked near Rittenhouse Square and walked in the rain until we happened on this place. I loved the logo (choosing a restaurant by the sign, like wine by the label?) - which is not the meme of the Internet but Mémé. The food was terrific (sizzling mussels in a pan with lemon and garlic and...), and I could write a forever about the people watching. The two young women at the next table, with the Bohemian young man, one saying breathlessly, "so you get a stipend? You must be set, for like six years, in graduate school!" The woman of my age with curly dark hair in the most amazing red dress, it looked comfortable and chic - that I was too chicken to ask where she found it. The Palm Beach crows in Lilly P and heels and hair that was just too, too, done. The grey haired geeky couple...oh wait, that would be us!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Going it alone

Matthew Spotts, a Jesuit novice who made the Long Retreat at the same time I did has written a short reflection about the film The Soloist. The film looks at the relationship between a journalist (Steve Lopez, who used to write for my hometown paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer) and a homeless man - and gifted cellist - he tries to help. Coming as he is out of a short period working with homeless men in Washington, DC, Matthew's comments are thought provoking.

As I traipse into and through Philadelphia every few weeks, homelessness and the mental illness that is so often part and parcel of it is more visible to me than it is in my sheltered surburban neighborhood. Nearly every time I go, I encounter the same gentleman in the church where my spiritual director is pastor. We have the same conversation each time. He wants to know my parish, if I'm a nun, why I've come, what am I praying for. At first I resented the intrusion into my silence, into my time to prepare to see my director. Until the parallel to that very meeting struck me. My director often begins by asking, "How is your prayer?"

Who am I encountering in that space between spaces? Between the street and the pastor's office? Would I brush off Christ if he stopped by me in the pew and asked, "What are you praying for?" As, of course, I was. And I'd likely be just as tongue-tied in response.

Column: The Work of our Hands

The cradle is still in my basement, waiting for the third generation to sleep in it. (That's me in the photo, with my mom and maternal grandmother.)

This was not the easiest column to write -- I couldn't quite get what I wanted to say onto paper (and still don't think I managed all that well). I sympathize with Augustine of Hippo who said, "...I am nearly always dissatistfied with my discourse. For I am desirous of something better...but when I find that my powers of expression come short...I am sore disappointed that my tongue has not been able to answer the demands of my mind." Walter Burghardt, SJ sums up Augustine's advice to those similarly distraught more or less this way: (1) It's never as bad as you think. (2) Endure for the sake of love. (3) As best you can, step out of the way and let God work.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 11 June 2009.

Show forth your work to your servants; let your glory shine on their children. Let the favor of the Lord be upon us: give success to the work of our hands, give success to the work of our hands. — Ps. 90:16-17

Thirteen years ago tonight, I tucked a 2-year-old Mike into bed. On my way out his door I grabbed a clean sheet and small blanket from the dresser and made up the cradle Victor had carried up from the basement to set by our bed, then packed my bag to go to the hospital. Two days later, I would carry a newborn Chris up the stairs and tuck him, sleeping, into its safe confines.

The cradle is the work of my father’s hands. He found the plans, altered them to suit, ordered the cherry planks and braved snowy streets to pick them up. He measured, cut, glued, sanded and waxed the wood and set it out to await the arrival of his first-born — me. The work of his hands has since cradled eight babies and two generations.

The psalmist sought God’s favor — not in the abstract, but for the very tangible — grant success to the work of our hands, or as some translations put it, make firm the work of our hands. I wonder if we feel that desire even more so now, where so much is mass produced and disposable. We long to create that which will last, like the cradle, from one generation to the next.

We often cherish things handmade, not so much for their beauty, but because of what they reveal to us of the hands that made them. My desk is replete with such revelations. A lime green origami swan, painstakingly folded by a one-handed Chris, perches atop my computer, while Mike’s first efforts at pottery serve to keep my emergency chocolate supply within reach. I rarely register the uneven folds and lopsided edges of the bowl; I always see their hands in love on these objects.

The works of our hands have the potential to be more than small reminders of love. In one of his general audiences Pope John Paul II reflected, too, on the very end of this psalm, noting “the person praying asks something more of God: that His grace support and gladden our days, even while they are so fragile … may he grant us to taste the flavor of hope … Only the grace of the Lord can give our daily actions consistency and perpetuity.”

We look for success not in our efforts, but ask instead for God to pull them firmly into His work. The work of our hands, even with its uneven edges and lopsidedness, can be acts of hope and faith as much as love when grounded in God’s work.

The cradle my father’s hands made for his children yet unborn speaks volumes both of love and of hope, of his willingness to be drawn into the work of God’s hands — the work of hope and love that made us all. Grant success to the work of our hands, grant success to the work of our hands.

Eternal Father, You give us life despite our guilt and even add days and years to our lives in order to bring us wisdom. Make us love and obey You, so that the works of our hands may always display what Your hands have done, until the day we gaze upon the beauty of Your face. Amen.— from the Office of Readings, Thursday Week III

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Putting one foot in front of the other

My odometer turned over. I'm looking to hit 1000 before the end of July. (Fifty miles a month more or less - you can do the math!)

Monday, June 08, 2009

Sacristan's Secrets

Crash has his first job - as a weekend sacristan at our parish, Our Lady of the Railroad Tracks. He spent Sunday morning learning the ropes. Last night as I tucked him in, I asked what secret lore had been passed on during his initiation. Not much, as it turns out, but he did tell me how the number of hosts to be sent up in the offertory procession is computed. The formula is:

where ho is the number of hosts to be brought up, ht is the number of consecrated hosts in the tabernacle, and n the number of people over 4' 5". The funky brackets

represent the ceiling function (not to be confused with ceiling cats!), which means take the nearest integer larger than the value inside the brackets. (So for x = 17.4, the result would be 18.)
There were 179 people at the 11:15 Mass, so Crash set out 160 hosts.

[Math in translation: Take the number of people who look old enough to go to communion, round it up to the next highest 10 (so if there are 197 people at Mass, round up to 180). Subtract the number of consecrated hosts reserved in the tabernacle (in our example 20) to get the number of hosts to send up to the altar to be consecrated at this Mass.]

If Nike+ used the ceiling function on my mileage, I'd be at 900 miles now. As it is, I must take another walk.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Laundry Magic

"Where did the pile of socks on the floor go?" wonders Math Man - trying to organize the laundry on a Sunday night.

"Maybe they crawled away under their own power," I suggested from the kitchen. "Crash put them in the hamper," offers Barnacle Boy. Math Man decides this is a better spot for them than the middle of the sunroom floor and calls it a night.

Fifteen minutes later, the Boy is back. "I don't have any underwear," comes the plea. I suggest where he might check. No dice, he's all out.

"Get me some dirty ones and I'll create you some clean ones by morning," I offer. He giggles at the thought of his mom waving her wand and clean boxers wafting their way into his drawer. Which reminds me -- time to put them in the dryer!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Secrets of Book Writing

My big sabbatical project is writing a book - about how scientists think. I've been working on this steadily since the fall. I was about half-done (ca 40,000 words done anyway) when I wrote the introductory chapter. I tell my students that writing can clarify your thinking. This did - although what is clarified was that the way I had structured the book overall could have been better. So now I am engaged in serious verbal carnage, ripping apart 6 chapters and reassembling them according to the new plan.

The day I began, an ad appeared on my Gmail for "how to write a book in two weeks" -- sometimes those ads cut a little too close to home! As if? If only!

On deck for the coming week: finish an essay tentatively titled "topophilia" for Nature Chemistry, column for the Catholic Standard & Times and two chapters for The Book.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Column: Stretched between heaven and earth

I did go up to my study last week intending to write an entirely different reflection -- on God's delight in playing games with us, and our delight, and sometimes frustration in trying to figure out just how the game is played. Events intervened - and I was interrupted even more times than I listed here!

I'd been reading the Ancrene Wisse for entirely different reasons (thinking about spaces for a series of essays I'm writing on teaching), but the line about "a sensible woman" floated through my brain as the two sides of my life pulled at me like a rubber band. Other tidbits from the Wisse that resonated with me -- if you must have an animal, you are advised to have a cat (check!), and bloodletting is encouraged four times a year (I give mine away about that often). Still, I don't think I'm searching for an anchorhold anytime soon.

This column appeared on 4 June 2009 in the Catholic Standard and Times.

Let your thoughts be on things above, not on the things are on the earth, because you have died and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God.
— Col. 3:2-3

“If a mad lion was running through the streets, would not a sensible woman shut herself in?” So asks the author of the Ancrene Wisse, a 13th century guide to life for anchoresses — women who elected to spend their lives in prayer, sealed into anchorholds within the walls of churches and monasteries.

There were waiting lists for some anchorholds. Frankly, at the moment, I’m not surprised. At quarter past eight, dinner cleared up, I went up to my study, leaving teens busy with homework and husband off to his night class. I imagined I might write this column. But…by 8:27, “Mom, can you help me?” At 8:49 settle squabble over computer; 9:19 locate clean socks; 9:31 bedtime; 9:42 phone rings.

Never mind the mad lion, this is enough to drive me to barricade myself in my room, if not seek an anchorhold within the walls of my parish church.

Anchoress derives not from anchor but from the Greek “anachorein,” to withdraw. Yet in some ways, the lives of these medieval women were no more or less withdrawn from the world than mine. Their cells had two windows, one looked into the church, the other out into the world — so passersby might seek their counsel, ask their prayers and be inspired by their lives.

Much like mine, an anchoress’ life oscillated between “sitting … stone-still at God’s feet, listening to Him alone” and earth’s interruptions at the window. In her essay, Holy the Firm, written while she lived in what amounted to a modern-day anchorhold on the Puget Sound, Annie Dillard captured this tension: “You can serve or you can sing, and wreck your heart in prayer, working the world’s hard work.” There is prayer and work to be done on either side of the wall.

The unknown writer of the anchoress’ rule of life drew a parallel between the cross on which Christ hung and the cell in which she was held. An anchoress was dead in the eyes of the world — she would have been given Extreme Unction before she was enclosed — and now, as St. Paul would say, her life is “hidden with Christ in God.” As I read this section of the “Ancrene Wisse,” it stirred me to recall the words of one of the Eucharistic prayers: “he stretched out his arms between heaven and earth.”

If my life is now hidden in Christ, why am I surprised to find my arms stretched out between heaven and earth? To find that my times of stillness and silence succumb to the realities of life as the mother of teens when I least expect it?

My life is just an anchoress’ cell writ large. I look through one open window toward God in whom my life is rooted, through the other toward the responsibilities He has given me. My ability to weather mad lions (or teenagers’ tiffs) depends not on barricades, but on the balance between heaven and earth that the cross, like the anchoress’ cell, holds me to.

The anonymous author of the Ancrene Wisse ends by asking that each reader of anything in the rule “greet the Lady with an Ave Maria for him who wrote it…[m]oderate enough I am, who ask so little.”

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Naked Places

The NY Times has an article today on an exhibition exploring the ethics of photography - when do photos cross the line (and there are more lines to consider than you might think). Along these same lines, photographer Mark Menjivar has been exploring what it means to be hungry in America. As part of the project, he took a series of photos that captures what we eat - or at least what we keep in our refrigerators. One of his subjects noted that asking "May I photograph the interior of your fridge?" was akin to asking someone to pose nude for the camera (a question this blogger asks upon occasion).

And yes, I've gone naked for my blog: that is my (unretouched) refrigerator.

The photos and a description of Mark Menjivar's project are posted here, click on "Portfolio" on the left hand side bar. Read more about this project from Laura Helmuth at the Smithsonian's Food and Think.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Catholic New Media Awards

Catholic New Media Awards

I've been nominated for three Catholic New Media Awards!

Best Blog by a Woman
Best Written Blog
Most Spiritual Blog

If you're willing to register, and sign in, you can vote here, for me or for someone else - other nominees that regularly appear on my blogroll include The Deacon's Bench and Adam's Ale.

Like no shepherd you've seen

This is far too funny not to pass on!

Silence of all sorts

Sabrina Vourvoulias has posted a beautiful reflection on Silence and Voice, considering her own experiences in the silence that comes with being "off the grid" with the silences that imposed on the voices we do not wish to hear. This line from Sabrina's essay is sticking with me today: "Turns out there is a difference between a silence elected and one exacted." Much as I cherish the silences that I choose, the few silences that are imposed on me do chafe -- how raw must such silence rub those who have no place to be heard?

What voices crying in the wilderness am I ignoring?