Thursday, September 24, 2009

Column: Leaps of Faith

I leapt into the waters, too. What struck me most was that there was time to think on the way down! My profound reflection? "Gee, it's a lot farther to the water than I thought."

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 24 September 2009.

So then, my brothers and dear friends, do not give way but remain faithful in the Lord.
— Philippians 4:1a

It was one of the oddest conversations I’ve had as a mother, and as any parent knows, strange conversations are standard parenting fare. Held on a rock ledge jutting out over Crater Lake late on a scorching hot July afternoon, I was trying to help my 13-year-old son, Chris, decide whether or not to jump into the incredibly blue — and deep —waters.

Part of him wanted to cling to the safety of the cliff, another part was willing to take that last step and join his brother frolicking in the cool depths.

“Don’t let anyone push you into going. I love you no matter what,” I assured him. It was a big step, physically and mentally, and he was clearly searching heart and soul to see if he was ready to make it. It would take courage either way — to pass up the chance for adventure and face the inevitable taunts of brother and cousins, or to take that leap of faith. In the end he decided to go, still nervous, but stepping deliberately off into space. Bemusedly, I turned to my husband and said, “Did I just talk my son into jumping off a cliff?”

This last Sunday at my friend Kathy’s celebration of her 50 years as a Sister of St. Joseph, I thought of my conversation on the cliffside and Chris’ great leap.

Maybe that conversation was less about facing a particular jump than practicing for all of the jumps Chris and Mike will face in their lives. What do you choose to hold on to? What will you throw yourself into space for, tumbling, unable to control your path? When? Now?

Fidelity requires the strength both to cling and to let go, to know when to take a huge step and when to wait.

In the lives of Kathy, and in her sisters in Christ, I see clearly that virtue of fidelity. Clearly rooted in God, she has surrendered to His work, which took her in directions she never imagined. She has cared for the poorest of the poor in the slums of the Philippines and taught quantum physics to doctoral students on the Main Line with equal joy and humility.

Between them, the women gathered in celebration had centuries of dyings and risings in Christ. I was, and am, in awe. Like Chris, they leapt into the unknown, having no idea where they might go or what they might become — clinging only to the knowledge that they are beloved of God.

My sons are on the cusp of their lives. I have no idea where they might go, what they might become, what cliffs they might face. I pray only that they might have such fidelity to the Gospel, such certainty in God’s love, that a half-century from now, they’ll know they were right to leap.

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming in you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Column: Prayer and Patience

I learned about writing reminders on the mirror from Crash - who started writing his list there when he started high school. On the long retreat, I wrote my schedule on the mirror in my room - principally the graces sought in the exercises of the day.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 17 September 2009.

Pray without ceasing. — 1 Th. 5:17

The reminder taped to the kitchen door read “cake.” My lunch? Hung on the doorknob. The phone rings. Can Victor bring Chris his trombone at the bus stop? He forgot. Mike plops onto a chair in my study, “Did you remember to put money in my lunch account?”

With four of us starting back to classes at three different schools, lists and notes are tacked everywhere from the back door to the bathroom mirror. Until it all becomes routine, I need the prompts. Case in point, the bright yellow sticky note on my binder notwithstanding, I arrived at my class today to find I left the problem set for my class behind in my office.

Maybe the unfamiliarity with the routine life of a Christian community is what impelled Paul, Silvanus and Timothy to end their letter to the newly formed Church at Thessalonica with their version of a to-do list for the community: Be at peace. Care for the weak. Be patient with everyone. Pray constantly.

Maybe I should tape this list to the door? Paul’s rapid-fire words of advice — a style scripture scholar Calvin Roetzel colorfully dubbed “shotgun parenesis” — seem to fit my life these days. Short and to the point, I don’t need the details right now, just the reminder. For all things give thanks to God. Hold onto what is good.

As the pace of life picks up, I need to cultivate patience, peace and unceasing prayer more than ever. But what will it take for me to remember to pray, not off and on throughout my day but as Paul advises, incessantly? Somehow I think sticky notes will not do the trick.

Maybe it would just take a small reminder? Benedictine monk Bede Thomas Mudge says of his experience of wearing his prayer beads, “The feeling of having the beads on my wrist is an almost constant reminder to prayer.” Brother Bede also writes about what happens when he forgets to put his beads on one day, realizing that their absence prodded him to pray just as effectively.

Or maybe what I need is the absence of a reminder in a life overflowing with them? Perhaps when I feel most frazzled, when I long the most for patience and peace, conceivably that longing itself, like Brother Bede’s absentee beads, is my prompt for prayer.

The anonymous 14th century English author of a classic guide to the mystical life, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” had this advice about prayer: “Let your longing relentlessly beat upon the cloud of unknowing that lies between you and your God.” So it could be that my relentless longing for peace is an incessant prayer to God. But to be sure, I scribbled a note on my mirror. Prayer, patience, peace.

Blessed be your name, O Lord, you are the fount and source of every blessing, and you look with delight upon the devout practices of the faithful. Draw near, we pray, to these your servants and, as they use this symbol of their faith and devotion, grant that they may also strive to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. Amen. — Prayer of Blessing of religious articles

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Quantum Mechanics on YouTube

I drive my kids crazy when I critique dramas based on their science content. Don't get me started on Eureka! Listen to the science consultant for Watchmen (Physicist James Kakalio of University of Minnesota) talk about the quantum mechanical underpinnings of Dr. Manhattan's powers.

Personally the power I want is the ability to diffract! One copy could make dinner, another tidy the sunroom and a third grade papers - then I could happily take a walk! Though if I recall, Calvin tried this (scroll down to Scientific Progress goes "boink"?) in Calvin and Hobbes and it did not end well for Calvin.

The video is for class today - now, it's back to grading for this version of myself!

Saturday, September 12, 2009


The transition back to scheduled life around here has had its good moments (Barnacle Boy deciding on, shopping for and making dinner the first week of classes) and its less than stellar moments (a mom meltdown over the third shopping trip for school supplies that could not wait until the weekend). When I told my merry men to chalk that last up to my being an OWM (overwhelmed working mother), Crash wondered why it wasn't OWWM. "Because overwhelmed is one word." I noted. "Seriously?" said Crash around a forkful of mashed potatoes. "I'm sure."

Overwhelmed is one word. And one that can be applied to parents in general (no matter where they work) at this time of year: OWM or OWD or OWP anyone?

The Boy's math teacher did an exercise on properties of sets where the kids had a list of text message abbreviations and were asked to circle ones they know, ones their parents knew and see what the intersection of the sets were. The result? Unlike the pitched-for-teens ring tone which I can never hear, these I can learn to hear/read. New to my vocabulary: POS = parent over shoulder.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Column: The Communion of Saints

I was in DC for the American Chemical Society national meeting. The humidity was around 80%, the temperature in the 90s. Ugh. St. Patrick's was definitely a haven (once I found it). Part of my joy in finding the saints in the apse came from the contemplations I did during the Exercises that invoked the communion of saints. Not as an abstract construct, but as enduring reality.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 10 September 2009.

Clutching my map, gone damp with sweat on this early August morning in Washington, D.C., I finally realized I’d gone too far. The church I was headed for was two long blocks back. I turned around, hoping to find sanctuary before I melted from the heat.

The church’s cool, pale interior was a blessing. I knelt in a pew toward the back, feeling suddenly lonely. I missed my family and my parish community; there was no one here I knew. Or was there?

I looked up to see at least a dozen faces that I recognized, high on the wall of the apse encircling the sanctuary: Isaac Jogues, Kateri Tekawitha, Junipero Serra, Elizabeth Ann Seton. Icons of the saints and blesseds of the Americas surrounded the altar, looking down on those gathered here to celebrate the Eucharistic feast. The words of the Apostles’ Creed leapt to mind: “I believe…in the communion of saints.”

It was a vivid reminder of a truth so much a part of the early Church that historically it was the last article of faith to be folded into the Apostles’ Creed. In this moment of encounter with the Mystical Body of Christ of which we, the beati and “all those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith” are an integral part, suddenly I felt very much at home.

The Church understands the communion of saints to be both a communion in holy things and of holy ones — sancti and sancta. In a very real sense it is who we are, and who we wish to become. Creeds are not formulas to be recited or a checklist for baptismal candidates, but realities of faith that the words allow us to embrace.

I believe in the communion of saints. And so, I believe in the reality of the saints interceding for us. I turn to St. Thomas Aquinas when my clarity of thought is failing, that he might ask the Holy Spirit to again “grant me a penetrating mind to understand.” I hope that St. Maud is seeking heavenly patience on my behalf when my sons bicker over the last Klondike bar in the freezer. Particularly at the Eucharist I am aware of the support of those who have gone before me, perhaps most especially my first husband and my mother.

A dying friend said to me that when she imagined the communion of saints, she saw all those she had loved and who had loved her in this life coming forth to greet her at heaven’s gate. It’s an image I continue to treasure.

When I got off the train at Bryn Mawr on my return from Washington, I was expecting to walk the mile and bit home in the heat and humidity, dragging my suitcase along behind. As the train pulled out, I looked up to see two tall young men standing on the platform.

Mike and Chris had sleuthed out what train I would be on and ridden their bikes to meet me. The weight of my luggage was taken on their strong shoulders, and we all rejoiced in their surprise, eager to bring me home. I have seen the communion of saints — and I believe.

Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

— From the Apostles’ Creed

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Smart Stitch Counters

The boys and I were in the car yesterday, doing some back to school shopping for me. Barnacle Boy was riding shotgun, Crash Kid in the back. "Beep." says the Boy. Huh? "Is that a row?" inquires Crash. "Huh?" "No, a stitch." says the Boy firmly. The light dawns.

"Have you convinced Crash to be your stitch counter?" "Beep." Basically, yes. We had a discussion about the various types of stitch counters you could have, including the one I use on my iPod. None, however, are as convenient as having someone tally your stitches and tell you when to change stitches or rows or whatever. "Beep." It got me wondering about how to do this without shanghai-ing your brother into it (I'm still not sure quite how "beep" the Boy got Crash to do this - and probably should not ask.) I can sort of see how you might write the code for it....

Barnacle Boy learned to crochet (as as he says jokingly, "crotch-et") this year. His friend Bead Girl taught him the basic stitch last winter while I was away and he crocheted a long (and not quite completed) beautiful scarf for me. This summer he found a book called The Happy Hooker, which had some edgier crochet patterns. We got him the book, then he discovered he needed to learn more stitches and how to read a pattern. He was undaunted.

Armed with a crochet hook, two balls of yarn and the book, he spent a week's worth of August rainy days teaching himself how to crochet. He did samples of every stitch in the book. I was wildly impressed. Now he's on his second project (an anarchist's hat - aka a black watch cap with a red edge) - using his smart (and you may read that as you wish) stitch counter whenever he can. The beeps are driving me to distraction! "Beep."

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Column: From the depths of the sabbatical

In some ways my return from sabbatical leave last week was more jarring than my return to "real life" after the silence and seclusion of the Exercises last February. Not only my shoes, but everything was more structured. My time was less my own, my wardrobe was higher maintenance with more choice that I had to make...yet some how I did not want to let go of the interior sense of detachment that has been one fruit of the Exercises in my life. Can I truly be indifferent to whether it's time to write in my jeans or sit through an excruciating meeting with blisters on my feet? Pray for what you desire, advises Ignatius!

On another subject - T.S. Eliot's advice quoted below would be good for my physical chemistry students, too. You just need to dive in and try. You may not necessarily see the way clear, but you need to make the best of hints and guesses.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 3 September 2009.]

Take care to keep my sabbaths, for that is to be the token between you and me throughout the generations, to show that it is I, the Lord, who make you holy. Therefore, you must keep the sabbath as something sacred.
— Exodus 31:13b-14

Reality set in with the blisters on my feet. After spending most of the nine months of my sabbatical tucked up in my study writing a book, comfortably attired in blue jeans, sweatshirts and sneakers, I shook out my professional wardrobe last week and went to Washington, D.C., for a conference. My feet were the first to express their dismay at being returned to a more structured environment. The rest of me was quick to chime in.

My sabbatical leave is coming to an end — meetings, classes and appointments are sprouting like weeds on my calendar. Like Sunday, the seventh day we are enjoined to keep holy, a day we are given for rest and renewal, my sabbatical was a precious gift of time. As I return to the classroom on Monday, I want to hold onto this gift of time — not as mere memory of time spent — but to let a sense of sabbath time seep into my daily life.

I’ve been thinking about what the deeper meaning of Sunday might be in my life — beyond a day that I am obliged to attend Mass, or an evening in which I am scurrying around looking for what everyone needs for school the next morning. The closing prayer for Night Prayer on Sundays reminds me what we are about: “We have celebrated today the mystery of the rising of Christ to new life.”

So sabbath time is Easter time. A day that structures the rest of our days, marking the change to a new week and the change to a new life. A time to rejoice, to be astonished again at the good news of our salvation, to rekindle our desire to know God deeply and intimately. A day given by God to remind us of our relationship to Him. In his apostolic letter, Dies Domini, Pope John Paul II observes, “even in our own difficult times, the identity of this day must be protected and above all must be lived in all its depth.”

Even as each Sunday draws to a close, the final words of Night Prayer are a potent reminder to me that the Easter stance is not meant for Sunday alone, “May we … rise again refreshed and joyful, to praise you throughout another day.” Sunday is not meant to be put in the closet like a fancy outfit awaiting the next party.

In practice, what will this mean? At the end of his poem, “The Dry Salvages,” T.S. Eliot muses “These are only hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.” I am taking my hints and guesses from my sabbatical, where my days were defined not by classes and meetings, but by prayer, walks and family meals.

Papers to grade and meetings to endure may have regained a hold on my time, but perhaps I need not let them define my day. Instead I can hang the daily burdens and trials on the same scaffold that upheld the graced time away.

I go back to teaching more convinced that I don’t want to live for the weekend, but live in the weekend — in the joyful depths of sabbath time. I pray I’ll be attentive and disciplined enough to be astonished at the everyday possibilities of the resurrection.

Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ and make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our daily lives, make us attentive to your voice and alert to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else. 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 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C.