Monday, November 30, 2009

Polycopies and book stops

I'm in the midst of writing a series of four columns reflecting on the Liturgy of the Hours - the third is on my desktop right now. This one is about the O Antiphons, the melodic lines that thread through the last days of Advent: O Wisdom, O Lord of Light, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Rising Sun, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel. Like the season itself, their origins are wrapped in darkness.

I was re-reading some of the commentaries on the "newly revised" Office tonight (only wincing occasionally at commentators who -- despite the instructions laid out in the Liturgy of the Hours -- spare not a moment's thought for lay people who might pray the Office either in community or individually. Finally, near the end, one gentleman recommend using "polycopies" to enable lay people to join with a religious community in prayer! I loved his coined word for photocopies (or perhaps he meant mimeographs in those days) - it evoked images of a work room of monastic copyists.

At the last I was digging around trying to find the source of the legend that the first letters of the Latin titles were arranged so that - in reverse no less - they form an acrostic: ero cras. ( I will come.) This feels like a stretch to me! I like better the theory that they are ordered to recall the history of salvation - but doubt there is any better support for that. Barnacle Boy burst into my study to ask if I had any book stops" Crash could use. "Book stops?" I inquired (thinking he meant book marks). "Yes, the things that keep books from falling over on the shelf." Book ends!

I checked the OED (the full version online) to find that it recognizes neither polycopy nor book stops. (But I did learn that book ends are more properly called "book props." ) Ever ancient, ever new.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Column: Creating Thin Space

There is much to delight in my usual spot for morning prayer with the Augustinian community: the mix of voices, the shape of the chapel, the lingering scents of incense during Advent. But even when I'm not there, I am in sacred space. During the Long Retreat, I prayed Morning Prayer sitting in my seat by the window overlooking the Atlantic at the same time my regular community gathered - 8:30 am.

This is the first of four columns written for the Standard's Advent series on the Liturgy of the Hours: We Wait in Prayer.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 26 November 2009.]

It is you whom I invoke, O Lord. In the morning you hear me; in the morning I offer you my prayer, watching and waiting.

— Ps. 5:3

It was a scene right out of some 1950s movie: four women from two countries in their pajamas sitting cross-legged on the floor of a dorm, having one of those midnight philosophical conversations you’re supposed to have in college. Except these women were not students, but professors — of chemistry, English, and of course, philosophy.

I had given a talk that morning at a retreat for faculty on contemplative practices. I told the 80-odd professors that I had prepared for that first talk of the day by taking my breviary and cup of tea to an overgrown garden behind the dorm. I prayed morning prayer.

In my talk, I had quoted one of the two psalms set out for that hour: Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced. “What is the rest of it?” wondered the English professor in that late night conversation. So I fetched my breviary, opened it and invited three contemplatives from very different traditions to explore the treasures of my tradition, to enter my monastery without walls, the holy space I had lived in for more than 25 years.

I discovered the Liturgy of the Hours when my first husband entered the Church. A friend had suggested he read convert and monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it, Merton writes of his discovery of the Hours, which eventually led him to enter the Trappists, to let his life be enveloped entirely in the cycle of psalms that anchors the Office. The Trappists were certainly not my calling, but I was drawn to this practice that could, in this small way, consecrate my days, and bind me more firmly to the Church. I found a breviary and began.

Like Merton, the breviary was tough for me to navigate at first, and in the bustle of a move 3,000 miles to the East, I set it aside. A few months later, settled in our new parish, Tom and I signed up for an hour a week of Perpetual Adoration. I brought the breviary along and in the quiet night hours, sitting with Christ before me, unworried about doing it exactly right, I slowly unraveled its mysteries.

My patience this time was richly rewarded. It was like opening a door into another place, or as the psalmist sings later in Psalm 5: “I through the greatness of your love have access to your house.” The psalms slowly traced their pattern onto my days, gracing the dawn with joyful praise, offering a breath midday. Soon, Morning Prayer was as indispensable a part of my day as my first cup of tea. One woke me physically, the other woke me to the presence of God.

I discovered that I did not need sacred space to pray the Hours; this round of prayer creates sacred space. The Celtic tradition speaks of “thin places,” places where God seems particularly near. The Liturgy of the Hours is a bit like fine sandpaper in this respect. It gently rubs away at what separates us from God, making even the most mundane of spaces thin — and so, sacred.

Each time the new liturgical year begins, I open my breviary to see Pope Paul VI’s warm invitation to join in this eternal cycle of prayer, to make whatever place and time I find myself in sacred. As we begin this year, I invite you join me in applying some prayerful sandpaper and making a thin place for yourself — and God.

Father, creator of unfailing light, give that same light to those who call to you. May our lips praise You; our lives proclaim Your goodness; our work give You honor, and our voice celebrate You for ever. Amen. — Prayer after the psalm, Morning Prayer, Sunday of Week I.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sex and Science

I am in the midst of writing an essay for Nature Chemistry - about why people are so curious about stereotypes of scientists, but seem less so about other fields. There is the DAST (draw a scientist test), but not as far as I can discover similar instruments to assess the images of other professions. Where are the DATTs (draw a teacher test) and DACTs (draw a chef test)? On the other end of the cultural spectrum there is the Big Bang Theory.

The earliest anthropological study I can find dates to the late 1950s and is by Margaret Mead (yes, that Margaret Mead) and Rhoda Metraux under the auspices of the AAAS. They analyzed thousands of essays, drawn from a set of 35,000 written by US high school students. The 1 page essays were written in response to one of three prompts. Prompt I read "When I think about a scientist, I think of..."

What took my breath away was Prompt II (italics are not mine, but as quoted in Mead's paper):
If you are a boy, complete the following statement in your own words.
If I were going to be a scientist, I should like to be the kind of scientist who...

If you are a girl, you may complete either the sentence above or this one:
If I were going to marry a scientist, I should like to marry the kind of scientist who..."
Math Man points out that I did both.

Images are from K.D. Finson, J.B. Beaver, B.L. Cramond, "Development and Field Test of a Checklist for the Draw-A-Scientist Test" School Science and Mathematics 95, p. 195 (1995).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Column: Rough Prayer

I liked Rahner's idea that even when prayer feels awkward, it has a strength to it. And suspect many (me included) need to listen to Evagrius Ponticus' advice - it applies to my teaching as much to my prayer life. Don't slew around the course, pick a style and dig into that.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 19 November 2008.

Now once he was in a certain place praying, and when he had finished one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” — Lk. 11:1

My youngest son Chris has a T-shirt that reads: “Warning: The person wearing this shirt is a roller coaster fanatic. May be prone to random screaming. Contents of head are under extreme pressure.”

For the record, I am not a roller coaster fanatic. One ride is fun. Thirteen in an afternoon might be a bit over the top. Lately my prayer life has felt a lot like the part of the roller coaster rides I enjoy least — the start.

You wait in line, trying not to be discouraged by the sign posts: “Wait time from this point two hours.” At long last you get on board, only to find yourself jerkily dragged upward, the cars clanking and banging, the whole structure seems to groan. You wonder if the ride will be worth the wait and this interminable noisy crawl to the top. And then you look down … where has the ground gone?

As the pace and pressure of the fall semester threaten to make my head explode, I struggle to find stable ground under a prayer life that seems to creak and clank and heave itself up, rather than glide tranquilly along. I find myself returning again and again to this line in Luke: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

In his treatise “On Prayer,” Church father Origen asks if we really think that a follower of Jesus would not know how to pray, at the very least be well versed in the Jewish prayers. What was this disciple seeking? What did the disciple see and hear in Christ’s prayer that begged the question — “How do I pray, O Lord?” Origen wonders if it was an awareness of “human weakness falling short of prayer in the right way.”

I, too, long to know how to pray aright — even when it feels awkward and a bit clumsy, when I cannot find the right words, or place, or time, or rhythm. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner suggests this rough sort of prayer, that is “well-intended … a little monotonous and naive,” has its own strengths. It is, he says, a prayer that doesn’t look to the experience of the one praying, but to the glory of God. No matter that I cannot muster exalted thoughts, the contrast makes God’s light shine all the brighter.

Still, I am tempted to try to change things up, to see if I can find something new and different that will smooth out the roughness in this patch of my prayer, pull me over the top so I can race delightedly down the track. Digging through a collection of counsels from the desert fathers, looking for a reference for a unrelated project, I happened on some apt advice from Evagrius Ponticus, the fourth century monastic whose writings ground much of St. John Cassian’s advice to his monks.

Evagrius had much to say about prayer — in one treatise devoting a full 153 chapters to it. It was in the 101st that I found what I was looking for. Start where you are, stretch yourself gently, do not attempt to race far ahead of what you can do. And as for my temptation to novelty, forget it. “Do not be perplexed by the many paths walked by our fathers of old, each different from the others. Do not … try to imitate them all — this would only upset your way of life.” Choose a path for prayer and stick to it, success lies in intention and persistence, not in great spiritual insights.

Both Rahner and Evagrius, though separated by nearly two millennia, reach past the practice of prayer, to lay bare the experience of praying. I do not need much, I need nothing I do not already have. In response to the disciple’s desire to grow as close to the Father as Jesus seemed to be, Jesus offered not 153 chapters, but scarcely 50 words. I’ll stick to the track laid out. My prayer is in God’s hands, not my own.

Father, may Your name be held holy,
Your kingdom come;
give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us.
And do not put us to the test. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mothers have needs, too

Crash is home sick. Flu? Who knows! He was in the kitchen getting himself a cold drink, so I asked him to refill the ice tray and an extra while he was at it. For my pains, I got a laconic, "You are very needy, Mom." You bet.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Column: Small Gifts

My mother also gave me half of her set of heart shaped pans, which I wrote about here.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 12 November 2009.

I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put in more than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.— Mk. 12:43b-44

I pulled the shiny aluminum cupcake tin from the lower shelf. Nearly an anachronism in these super-sized days, it makes only six at a time, and I can no longer find paper liners to fit its modest wells — but I use it every time I make chocolate cupcakes. Even if the cupcakes it makes will be odd-sized.

Thirty years ago, when I left home to go to graduate school, my mother gave me one of her two cupcake tins. Not an extra one, her best one, the one she’d gotten when she was married. There was no reason she couldn’t have bought me a new one, or given me the larger one that was prone to rust. She gave, not of her excess, but of her treasure.

My mother’s gift certainly did not utterly impoverish her, as the widow’s did, but it did leave her wanting in small ways. With three teenaged sons still living at home, “extra cooking pans”’ was as much an oxymoron as “leftover food.” Like the widow, the signifi-cance of the gift was not in its worth to the world, but in its worth to her. But as with the widow’s gift of her last two pieces of silver, which gained her treasure in heaven, my mother’s relinquishing of this prized piece of her culinary armamentarium was not meant to meet the needs of that one moment but would be a continuing treasure in my life.

Her gift teaches me again and again that efficiency is not the prime directive, either in gift giving or in feeding your family. Yes, it takes twice as long to bake a batch of cup-cakes when you have a half-sized pan, but it gives you time to tell the story again to your children and nieces and nephews — and yourself. And each time I put an extra fold into the not-quite-right cupcake papers, I am reminded that there is much to be said for those gifts that do not fit so perfectly into our lives that we forget we were ever given them in the first place.

These gifts turn me gently toward contemplating Christ’s ultimate gift. When we come to receive Him in the Eucharist, the goal is not efficient distribution — we could do the whole thing in 10 minutes if it were — but about taking the time to hear again the stories that brought us the gift. And on occasion, when things don’t go quite the way I wanted, but they still go, I manage to notice the gift of my own redemption.

For 30 years I’ve thought of this pan as my mother’s and not as mine. Like the life I’ve been given by Christ, I cannot think of it as my own — it remains firmly rooted in the Giver. When the moment comes, I hope that I, like my mother and Christ, can graciously hand over what is mine, be it a pan — or my life.

God our Father, gifts without measure flow from your goodness to bring us your peace. Our life is your gift. Guide our life’s journey, for only your love makes us whole. Keep us strong in your love. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen. — Opening prayer for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sixty ways to say "no" to:

My plate is threatening to overflow again. When I announced at the dinner table the other night that I was going to pitch activities which were solely a source of stress and where my only contribution seemed to be my existence, Crash had some ways to say "no" - pulled from the posters on the walls of his health classroom. So when next I'm asked to....serve on a committee...write a proposal for....evaluate a new....I could say:

"I'd rather just be friends."
"Let's just go see a movie instead!"

My favorites are the non-sequitur: "No thanks, I have asthma." and the cheeky "I'm not that kind of girl." suggested by my brother, The Wookie. Hopefully no one can read my thought bubbles!

If it works for sex, drug and cigarettes -- will it work for my to do list?? I'll keep you posted!

There is a list here.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Column: Make Haste to Help Me

I'm still contemplating St. John Cassian's reflection on these two lines of Psalm 70, which he says contain: "an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of an devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a conciousness of one's own frailty, the assurance of being heard and confidence in a protection that is always present." (You can read the rest of the conference here, though it's not quite as elegant a translation; scroll down to Chapter X.) And Math Man did chuckle when he got to the end...

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 5 November 2009.

O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me. — Ps. 70:2

“The tuna is on sale, so I thought I’d get two.” I was in line at the grocery store in Boston, waiting while the elderly woman in front of me dug for change in the bottom of her purse. The lilt in her voice said she was an immigrant. She looked up at the cashier; the distress showed on her face, “I know I had 20 more cents when I left this morning.”

The line was growing, and growing restive. I could hear the shifting of feet and the not quite stifled sighs as her bent and gnarled fingers felt for the required coins one more time.

“Could I get this for you?” I offered. I wanted to be sure she didn’t go hungry, if that’s what this can of tuna fish meant, but most of all I wanted to spare her the unkind comments that were gathering behind me and threatening to spill over my shoulder. So I paid for the tuna fish, gathered my own things and left, happy I was able to help.

A few weeks later I was out for my walk. Near the end of my two-mile loop I discovered a few dollars wadded up in my pocket. I decided to take a short detour past the convenience store and bring the boys home a treat. Thirsty, I grabbed a cold soda for me. When the young clerk totaled it all up, I was short — 25 cents. I asked him to return the soda, but instead he took a quarter from his pocket and told me not to worry. I felt awkward, accepting help I felt I did not need, but thanked him for his kindness and headed home.

In “Why I Make Sam Go to Church” Anne Lamott describes a similar reaction when the elderly women of her parish — themselves on tight budgets — pressed bags of hoarded change on her when they heard she was expecting a baby, “I was usually filled with a sense of something like shame until I’d remember that wonderful line of Blake’s — that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love.” It’s not easy to endure such a beam, I would agree.

Psalm 70 is a short but powerful prayer. It begins with the plea, “God come to my assistance.” Early monastic John Cassian reminded his monks of the advice of the desert fathers, that if you are going to use anything from the whole of sacred Scripture to pray — this verse is the one to pick.

Cassian passionately expounds on what flows from this devotion: the assurance of being heard, hope in time of despair, an awareness of the traps set for us by the devil, an antidote to pride in any spiritual consolation. Most of all, Cassian says, it keeps us ever aware that without God, we are too frail to endure. The psalm itself ends not only with another appeal for aid, but with the psalmist’s recognition, “I am lowly and needy … You are my rescuer, my help.”

I need this simple practice of prayer as much as Cassian’s monks. It can be hard for me to admit I need help in anything from anyone (my husband will chuckle knowingly when he reads this), but the truth that my moment in the Wawa drove home was this: even when we don’t think we need help — we do. O Lord, make haste to help me.

Lord God, strength of those who hope in You, support us in our prayer: because we are weak and can do nothing without You, give us always the help of Your grace so that, in fulfilling your commandments, we may please You in all we desire and do. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer, 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

You know you're cranky when... open your sons' door to say good-night and one says, "Speak of the devil!" and the other pops out with "Look, I can summon demon creatures!"

Was it the lecture on why I have to finish what I started (before someone takes the sorted clothes and puts them willy-nilly into the basket again)? or the comment about the boxer shorts in the middle of the living room floor?

I'm going up this week to see my spiritual director. I made an appointment to see my confessor, too. I think I'm in need of a time out!