Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pray Tell what makes a good homily?

Last December, St. John's Seminary/School of Theology and Liturgical Press launched PrayTell - a blog devoted to things liturgical, which I've been enjoying. For someone who hears far more homilies than she gives, I've been thinking quite a bit lately about what makes a good homily. I finally sat down to write something and sent it to PrayTell, where it appeared today.

The hallowed dictum ex opere operato says that sacraments work automatically, apart from the dispostion of the minister or recipient, if the rite is done validly, because grace comes from Christ and not from human effort. Does ex opere operato apply to the homily? Could it be that it doesn’t matter how well or poorly prepared or preached a homily is, since the homilist is acting not as himself but in persona Christi (”in the person of Christ”)? That like baptism, or transubstantiation, it works, no matter what state the homilist – or the homily - is in?

I recently came across an op-ed in a Catholic publication that just brushed the edge of this argument. The quality of a Mass doesn’t depend on the homily, the writer suggested, nor should we should expect it to. To yearn for good preaching, to seek it out, undervalues the true point of the Mass, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I was left with the vague sense that my desire to have an effective “living commentary” [GIRM 29] on the Scriptures was at best something of an imposition on busy priests, and at worst, a sign of failing faith in the Eucharist. It is sufficient that there is a homily.

I don’t buy it.......

Read the rest here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sustained Silent Reading

When my kids were in elementary school one of their favorite parts of the curriculum was SSR: sustained silent reading. They still both love to read, and much of their discretionary income goes to acquiring new books to read (come to think of it, that's where mine goes, too). The Boy is reviewing books for the local children's book store this summer, and Crash is in the midst of God is Not One.

Robin of Metanoia and I have started a blog dialogue about Into the Silent Land (see the first posts here and here), which turns out not to be the only book that's on both our reading lists.

I'm reading about silence in a sustained way this summer - partly to prepare for a course that I might (or might not) teach in the fall of 2011. So for what it's worth, here is what I'm reading - silently. If you have other suggestions for me, I 'd love to hear them...or if you're reading some of these, let me know what you think.

  • Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird, OSA. Reflections on the contemplative Christian life.
  • A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. Travels to literally silent lands (the Sinai, a hermitage on a remote island). Read the NY Times review.
  • Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life by Patricia Hampl. Another travelogue, this one goes on pilgrimage to trace the steps of saints Francis and Clare and to a monastery in California.
  • In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik. A look at the sonic landscape from many perspectives, including the scientific.
  • Being Still by Jean-Yves Leloup. An Orthodox theologian looks at the early roots of the contemplative Christian tradition. The opening stories of a young monk's training on Mount Athos which set the stage for the rest of the book are marvelous reflections in themselves.
  • Earthen Vessels by Gabriel Bunge OSB. A Benedictine hermit reflects on the contemplative life, richly interwoven with bits from the desert fathers. Its subtitle — The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Traditions — says it all.
  • The Power of Pause by Terry Hershey. Practical suggestions for just stopping. Less academic and more advice driven.

The photo is of my reading spot of choice - in my freshly weeded back yard.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Column: On the breath

I was fascinated with the most recent version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which only tangentially speaks to why anyone might pray - though does have much wonderful to say on the when, where and how....

Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord. — Ps. 150:6

“Why do you pray?” My 16-year-old son posted this question on Facebook a few weeks ago. His English class was reading Night, Elie Wiesel’s powerful reflection on the Holocaust. Early on, Wiesel’s narrator poses this question and Mike used it as the frame for his project on the book.

Mike got an A+ on the assignment (yes, you can talk about God and prayer in public school), posted his video on his blog and is (I think) contemplating less heady questions these days, such as summer vacation. Me? A month after the project was due, I’m still thinking about how to answer his question.

My professorial persona kept trying to turn the question into an answerable one — why should I pray? But that’s not quite the question Mike asked. Why do I pray?

You might as well ask me why I breathe. I breathe so I can sing. I breathe to pause. I breathe, awake or asleep, whether I’m aware of it or not. I have many answers, but no single one that encompasses the whole of the mystery.

Over pizza last week, my friend Lisa and I tugged at the question for a bit. A couple of days later, she offered a forthright and wise question in return, “Why not?” Like Lisa, the psalmist implies we are created to pray. To breathe is to be called to prayer.

Poet Mary Oliver reflects that “Breath [is] our first language.” Though she is writing about metrical poetry, in noting how breath binds us to the rhythms of the world, signals our thoughts and moods, sets a tempo, flows and ebbs, repeats, she might well be writing about prayer.

Centuries earlier, St. Gregory of Nazianzus used the image of the ever present tempo of our breath to vividly underscore St. Paul’s exhortation to pray at all times: “We must remember God more often than we draw breath.”

The Christian tradition draws a yet deeper connection between breathing and prayer. Breathing is more than a model for how to pray. St. Anthony, a fourth century desert monastic, sometimes called the Father of Monasticism, advised his monks to “breathe Christ at all times.” To these men and women of the desert, prayer was not like breathing, it was breathing — prayer was God’s breath in us.

A millennia later, in a commentary on his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross speaks of prayer as an intimate encounter with God: “this breathing of God in the soul, of the soul in God.” For St. John, this joining of breath was transformative. Just as the physical act of breathing puts flesh on our bones, so God takes flesh in us in prayer.

Why do you pray? Mike had no answers, only questions: Do you pray for peace? For strength, for comfort, for understanding? There are many reasons, each true in any moment. In the end he echoes the desert fathers’ struggles with this particular mystery of our relationship to God and asks, “Or do you just pray?”

Why do I pray? I pray, like I breathe, for many reasons: to sing, to be still, to ask, to thank. But ultimately, I do “just pray” for the same reason I just breathe: to live.

Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.
Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I may love only what is holy.
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, that I may defend all that is holy.
Guard me, O Holy Spirit, that I myself may always be holy.
— St. Augustine of Hippo

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Coming and going

Math Man is a faithful second reader and critic of my writing (just don't ask him to check the spelling). Before I sent off the piece on urban legends of chemistry, he read through it and marked a line, "Alas, pride goes before a fall."

"Isn't that pride comes before a fall?" "No, goes." "Are you sure?" "Certain." Well, not that certain. I googled it. Math Man has Canadian roots. His pride comes before his fall. Where I come from, pride goes first.

So, we wondered, what would happen when my proverb met a British copy editor? Today my proofs came back and "alas, I must confess, pride comes before a fall"! Math Man feels quite smug about it all.

The whole thing reminded me of this Gershwin song I first learned from my mother: you say tah-MAY-toe and I say tah-MAH-toe..... (That would be /təˈmeɪtəʊ/ or /təˈmɑtəʊ/ for the linguists amongst us.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Column: Elected Silence

A while back Cindy at artandsoul wondered if I would write more about what it is like to be on a silent retreat. And so I have. The column that follows is drawn from the twelve or so pages of vignettes I wrote while on this last retreat. Editing it down to fit my column without it becoming a laundry list proved daunting -- and the last bits were hard to prune. All my thanks to Cindy who was willing to cast her poetic eye over it and edit...

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 17 June 2010.

He would withdraw to deserted places to pray.
Lk. 5:16b

Earlier this spring, a friend wondered if I would write more about what it is like to be on a long silent retreat. This account of my travels to the silent land is an invitation to taste — or for those who have been, a reminder of — the graces to be found there.

Elected silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. from The Habit of Perfection

Tuesday, 5:45 a.m.: I posted this tidbit of Hopkins as my status on Facebook, then walked to the station, more lines of Hopkins’ running through my mind. In the warm stillness I sense the Holy Ghost brooding over the bent world, stirring day into being. It seems retreat starts now.

7 p.m.: We gather in the fireplace room, poised to begin in earnest. We pray, then stand for introductions. Silence already settling over us, we are spare of words. Our directors beckon, offer a brief reflection and arrange times to meet. I claim an afternoon slot, sheepishly confessing that I inhabit the night on retreat. We scatter and the silence descends.

Wednesday: Finishing my shower, I hear a plaintive, “There must be lights here somewhere.” I break my own silence to tell the anonymous questioner where to look. In this old house, higher up the walls than you would expect. This silence is not meant to be a burden, but a freedom.

1:15 p.m.: Meeting with my director for the first time, we speak about what brought me to retreat and how I approach prayer. I’ve forgotten a hat, and she loans me a battered baseball cap. A good director makes it easier to see — in this case both the ocean and God.

9:30 p.m.: A storm crashes in. I sit in the chapel, wrapped in my shawl, safe within its rocky fastness, then retreat to the dining room for hot chocolate. I scratch a few notes about my prayer as the wind rattles the windows. I wonder what things this retreat will shake up in my life.

Thursday, 12:20 p.m.: I page through my journal and sift through my prayer, looking for threads, jotting notes before I see my director. I stick them to the front of my journal, then never once refer to them in our half-hour conversation.

Friday, 4:30 a.m.: I wake with a start; dawn has just begun to color the sky. I grab my camera and clamber out onto the rocks. The dawn over the Atlantic is stunning. Yet when I turn it’s the moon, full and rose colored from the rays of the sun I do not yet see, that captures my attention — what marvels might I see, if I were to simply look at life from a different direction? Long after the sun has breached the horizon, I’m still there. Praying.

9 a.m.: The dining room is hushed, though a half dozen of us are sprinkled about the tables. I wait for the kettle to boil. Behind me I hear the water running into the coffee maker, the drip and hiss as it hits the pot, the metallic shru-ush of the bread descending, to rise again with a ding as toast. This is the music of Matins in this silent place.

5 p.m. Mass: We’ve struggled to master a haunting plainchant. Today the celebrant quips, “we’ll sing it Al Capone.” It seems a gentle way to say he expects we’ll murder it without the support of the piano. He counsels us to sing lightly, be attentive to each other and be willing to fish around a bit for the notes. We sound marvelous. On retreat profound preaching is not confined to the homily.

Tuesday, 3:25 p.m.: When the first raindrop falls I hurry inside. Never mind that I was settled into my chair; after a week, I’m attentive to the first stirrings of many things. Water sluices off the roof in shimmering sheets of silk. The waters of the cove emerge, then the shoal on the far side. Here we sit, drenched in grace, waiting for the veil to lift, for clarity.

10:40 p.m.: A last hour’s meditation in the chapel. Back in my room the bare flicker of the Presence Lamp seen through my window reminds that I sleep under God’s eye, here — and I realize, always.

Wednesday, 2:12 p.m.: On the train, headed home. A torrent of words pours forth from a man holding a battered tweed suitcase. From the cradled silence of the last eight days I am lavishly flung forth into the world.

We are cradled close in Your hands — and lavishly flung forth.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Pilgrimages

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Fiery Furnaces

(Cross posted from RevGalBlogPals - Crash Kid's choir did this piece this year....and somehow on this hot, fiery, humid Sunday it seemed a good piece to choose for the Sunday Afternoon Music Video feature!)

Repentant, weeping, anointed and anointing, we are delivered from the lion's den, untouched by the fiery furnace. I love the looks on the faces of chorus and director. There is a deeply rooted joy amid their fierce concentration. I wonder if this is how the woman with the alabaster jar looked?! And it's an amazing piece of music, too.

May you know joy today,
may it sink deeply into your soul,
and may it rise higher than these sopranos' voices!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Column: Pilgrimages

Traveling to and from retreat was as much a part of retreat as the time spent on the brink of the ocean...the photo is of the ducks on Niles Pond in Gloucester returning home at the end of the day.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 10 June 2010.

Send forth Your light and Your truth. It is they that will guide me. They will bring me to Your holy mountain and to Your dwelling-place. And let me come to God’s altar, to God, my keenest joy. — Ps. 43:3-4a.

My train vanished at 6:43 p.m. last Wednesday evening — with me and 100 other travelers aboard. Heralded by a chiming triplet, the raspy voice of the conductor delivered the news. “This train has been annulled due to technical difficulties. This train’s last stop will be New Haven. Next stop, New Haven!” And if New Haven was not your intended destination? I sighed. The nature of pilgrimages, I supposed, is that the traveling isn’t always easy.

I’d left home a week ago, swinging my backpack onto my shoulders and easing out the front door to walk to the train station as the first tinge of dawn graced the eastern sky. On foot and by train, I was gone to seek God in the silence of an eight-day retreat, braced in the rocks of the Massachusetts’ coast.

I, like the psalmist and countless others before us, take to the road on occasion, seeking God with body and soul, praying for light and truth along the way. Salvation history and our personal histories abound with journeys to sacred places: be it the Magi who trekked from lands unknown to see God made flesh — or my mother and father, mustering their half dozen kids to walk to Sunday Mass. We are all pilgrims — through time, if not to far distant shrines.

In a homily on the Epiphany theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., reminds us of the mysteries inherent in our pilgrimages. Though far beyond us in so many ways, God is not a moving target, backing off as we approach. He is a destination we can actually reach.

The God we seek might be incomprehensible — a “boundless immensity” — but He is not the far distant end of a journey. Rahner notes our end is simultaneously our constant companion. We might physically or spiritually put our feet on the road, but all along we are led there by God. Or as a hymn from the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa melodically puts it, “You are awaited, my people, and I declare to you, people of God, I am going with you.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola, himself a pilgrim, warns us not to become overly enamored with the places along the way, no matter how inspiring: “We must always remind ourselves that we are pilgrims until we arrive at our heavenly homeland, and we must not let our affections delay us in the roadside inns and lands through which we pass, otherwise we will forget our destination...” While the time I spent admiring the breathtakingly vast ocean and sitting in the exquisite chapel was graced, the clearest trace of God I uncovered along the way was heard on the phone an hour before I got home.

In the end Amtrak mustered a train for those of us left on the platform in New Haven. As we made our way through the dark hours, discharging passengers in nearly deserted stations, I called home to tell my husband that I would be very late and not to wait for me. I would take a taxi home. A bemused laugh rippled through the phone. “Don’t be silly. Of course I’ll be there.” How could I have imagined otherwise?

When I came up the stairs at 30th Street Station, weary, wrinkled and lugging a backpack full of dirty laundry, Victor’s insouciant grin was there to greet me. A gentle embrace, a wordless lifting of my burden onto his own shoulder and I was home.

I traveled 700 miles, only to be reminded at my doorstep that I am awaited, and of what awaits me at my final destination: God, my keenest joy.

May He support us all the day long, till the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over and our work is done — then in His mercy — may He give us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last. — Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Venturing Into the Silent Land I

And the dialog begins. Robin of Metanoia and I are spending some time this summer having a blog dialog with each other about the book Into the Silent Land, by Martin Laird - an Augustinian friar.

Robin, a recent M.Div. who is on the path toward ordination in the Presbyterian Church, writes evocatively and beautifully, about prayer and silence, studies and family and heart-wrenching grief. About God present and God absent. Her eye for the world, as she captures it with both camera and words, catches reflections of God and holds them still enough for the rest of us to enter into them. I'm delighted and honored to have her as a guest here!

My first question to Robin was about what Laird calls the Second Doorway of the Present Moment - the spot where a sensitivity to the patterns that elicit the feelings which steal away attention begins to emerge. This the place where we recognize the stories we tell ourselves about people and events that can pull our minds in a thousand directions. Yet who we are, and so what we bring to God, is shaped by events.
Theophan is a 19th century Russian Orthodox saint and contemplative (who I wrote about in a column earlier this year). He holds that the use of a prayer word is not merely a refuge from distractions, but "will draw you together" (p. 65 if you are reading along!)— out of the stories. Who are we without our stories?

Meanwhile Robin wondered about what it might be like to be part of an Augustinian community. You can read my answer at Robin's blog.

Here is Robin's response to my first question:

It is an honor to visit Michelle's blog. Her exquisitely gentle writing is a grace-filled reflection of the contemplative life: attentiveness to the minutiae of daily experience, whether in the laundry or in the college chemistry classroom. That said, she has hardly made it easier to attend to my own life with her first challenging question: I might ask you about your sense of what it might mean emotionally and spiritually to let go of the narratives, of any need for the stories -- yet at the same time to let the prayer, as Theophan suggests, "draw you together" into a whole? Are we still ourselves without our stories?

My religious upbringing was a hodgepodge of other people's priorities and did not lend itself to a prayerful experience of God. I was a little girl in a small town Methodist church in which we made things -- plaster of Paris praying hands, for instance -- but I am not a successful craftsperson. Sunday School was a tortuous experience for me. I was a young teenager in a pre-Vatican II Catholic boarding school, fascinated but baffled by shiny rosaries and golden chalices and Latin ritual, and intrigued but confused by the blend of a Catholic convent commitment to a faith of mystery and a Protestant family indifferent to all matters religious. I was a high school student in yet another boarding school, that one founded by a famous evangelist in which religion was presented as a blend of German scholarship, New England preaching, and alignment with social justice. When my husband and I found our way into a Methodist church in our late twenties, it seemed that faith was about familiarity with the Bible and participation in the community, and that prayer was a matter of petition and intercession. And when I wandered down the road to the Presbyterians, I discovered much the same.

I suppose that it was inevitable that such a conglomeration would produce a woman initially more curious about all religious paths than wedded to a single one, and one who would eventually become intent upon engagement with the God behind (and over, and under, and around, and beside, and within) it all. The God of prepositional being! It was perhaps also inevitable that someone who learned to read, like Scout Finch, by osmosis, and who became a student of literature as a college English major and a wielder of words as an attorney, would be drawn to the narrative of faith: the sacred writings and interactions of all faiths, the history of Christianity, the stories of its proponents and purveyors and, woven through it all, the Biblical texts: as revelation, as history, as literature, and as the foundation of prayer.

A couple of months ago, in a class focused on the work of ethicist Stanley Hauerwas (formerly at Notre Dame University and now at Duke Divinity School, and most recently the author of the very readable autobiography Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir), my classmates and I debated his sense of the foundation of faith: narrative or church? I argued vociferously for narrative: without the story ~ no church. Many of my friends argued persuasively for church: without the tradition to canonize, transmit, and interpret it ~ no story. I don't think that we ever reached a conclusion as to what Hauerwas thinks, but the debate occasioned a recognition on my part of how attached to narrative I myself am.

No surprise, then, that I should also have become, over the past few years, glued to Ignatian spirituality as a venue for exploring and expressing faith. While Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises suggests a multitude of possibilities for prayer, imaginative prayer is a hallmark of his approach ~ prayer as a movement into the story of Scripture and into the story of one's life. Prayer as an experience of companionship with Jesus by imagining the texture of his life; by observing or participating in the events of his days by seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, tasting the meals. Prayer as an invitation to Jesus to enter into my own life, via an ongoing and endless conversation with him.

I knew that behind the prayer of imagination, of conversation, of petition and intercession, of ritual ~ behind the revelation of God in the stories of Scripture, of tradition, of nature ~ was the silence of the God who is I Am. Other than through a brief flirtation with centering prayer, however, that silence seemed neither accessible nor particularly appealing to me. I was all for narrative, all for words ~ and as, eventually, a Presbyterian, the Jesuit tradition of "contemplatives in action" spoke directly to me. Prayer grounded in the stories of Scripture that propels us outward; prayer that helps us get to know God through the words and actions of Jesus and encourages us into the world in service of others. I was well versed in prayer as listening, and I tried to spend more time listening for God than talking to God ~ but I was listening for words.

And then. And then my son died and I was enveloped in silence. Excruciating, all-enveloping, deafening silence. For many, many months, I experienced and described it as the absence of God, as complete abandonment by God. I didn't stop listening for God, but I heard nothing in response. Nothing that I, at least, could interpret as being from God. And how, I think now, could it have been otherwise? Not only because the experience of a mother's grief is akin to the experience of a seabird drenched and weighted down by impenetrably viscous oil, but because I myself was so attuned to word and story, and those no longer provided adequate illumination.

I see things a little differently these days, as the second summer without my child begins. I see a God who is profoundly silent in the face of agonizing catastrophe, but a God who continues to labor ~ perhaps outside, or alongside, the stories we think we know. One of the ways God works is to make God's own silence more available, to enfold us in something greater than the stories we hear and tell and though which we have tried to understand ourselves.

Yesterday afternoon, as a friend and I walked to her car after an overnight stay at a workshop for spiritual directors, she mentioned having gotten up early to go for a walk, and asked me how I sleep. "I don't so much, not anymore," I said. "I don't usually sleep for more than a couple of consecutive hours at a time since Josh died." We continued to walk, in silence. Later, I told her what a gift it had been to me, that she had heard what I had said without any compulsion to provide words of support or to suggest solutions ~ she simply offered silent companionship. Perhaps that was the silence of God at work.

This book, Into the Silent Land, came into my hands via another spiritual friend, a Jesuit and former spiritual director of mine, who said that he had been told that it is the best book on prayer that there is. I tend to listen carefully to his eighty years of experience, and so I read the book, and told him that I wasn't at all sure that it's the best book, but that the last sections are, really, quite wonderful. I am so looking forward to unpacking the whole work more carefully and with Michelle this summer.

The photo is of dawn at Eastern Point Retreat House.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Looking out

I just finished another piece for Nature Chemistry - Urban Legends of Chemistry. In case there is any doubt that I am a geek, I quote both Carl Jung and Locutus, the Borg (the assimilated Jean Luc Picard, for those of you not up on your Trek lore).

The editor asked for a graphic to accompany each piece, and I'm still looking around and about for just the right image for this piece from Nativity Episcopal Church in Michigan. I talk about stained glass and the play of light and color (maybe it's the piece by Stratoz that hangs over my desk?), which is why this graphic appealed. Or perhaps some riff on Jung? or Locutus? It's due Thursday....anyone who wants to read a draft and offer suggestions is welcome! Send me an email...

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Column: Traveling Essentials

This piece has its genesis in two blog posts: The Role of Mature Females and The Things I Carry — or don't and in the ritual cleaning out of my purse before I travel, for retreat or not.

In the end, I walked 5 some miles, traveled another 350 miles on 3 trains and 2 subway lines, carrying only what I hoped I truly needed. It was enough to know its weight the last half mile I walked, but not so much that I couldn't carry it all the way.

The full blessing poem For the traveler (from To Bless the Space Between Us by John O'Donohue) is a wonderfully Ignatian blessing for the start of retreat, or really any trip to spaces outside your usual orbit.

The photo is of the front door to the Jesuit's Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester, MA and my bags, packed now to return home.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times, 3 June 2010.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
— Mk. 10:25

“The mature female is perfect to carry the transmitter,” the sonorous voice of the Shark Week narrator drifts through the doorway of the kitchen. The scientist in me spent a moment wondering why tracking a female shark was important to the experiment, but the mother in me knew this made perfect sense.

Of course a mature female — shark or human — would be the one tagged to carry anything. I can’t count the number of times one of the guys in my house has handed me something with the words, “Can you throw this in your purse for me?” It’s already bulging at the seams, so why not add one more thing?

Before I went away last week, I cleaned out my purse. It was both a practical and a spiritual exercise. Practical for certain, I would have a couple of long walks and three changes of trains; a light load was essential. But spiritual?

In his poem, “For the Traveler,” priest and hermit John O’Donohue suggests that a traveler
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you ...
The clearing out of my bag was a chance to ask what holds me down, what prevents my moving in freedom.

Some Scripture scholars have suggested that the “eye of the needle” was a narrow gate in Jerusalem, through which a fully loaded camel could not pass. Like the young man that Jesus is lovingly advising about what it will take to travel the road to the kingdom of God, there is much in my purse that I would be shocked to be told to leave behind.

Like most mothers, I suspect, I have something for almost every eventuality in my bag: cell phone, snacks and water bottle, tissues, band-aids, pens and paper, sunscreen and lip balm, safety pins and paper clips, amusements (to keep the kids from going crazy) and a rosary (to keep me from going crazy). Add in the old receipts, lists of things to do from weeks ago and ... I doubt that I would fit through a narrow gate, any more than a loaded camel would.

I carry things to clean, feed, heal, communicate, record, hold together, protect, distract, engage. Stuff I think I might need in a pinch to save or be saved, stuff that creeps thoughtlessly in, slowly and inexorably adding ballast to the bottom of my bag.

Asked to empty out his treasury of stuff, the young man left shocked and grieving, and the disciples wondered if anyone could make it through the door. Jesus reassures them that while they can’t save themselves — no matter how much they have or carry with them — God, and God alone, can save them.

Emptying out my purse was a shock in many ways (the crumbs in the bottom could feed a colony of ants). But its most potent effect was the reminder that no matter how much I have tucked in there, ultimately, I can’t save myself or even those I love. For only in God is there true hope of rescue.

I shook the crumbs out of the bottom, tossed the crumpled reminders of errands long completed and put back a much pared down collection of “essentials.” No camels will be necessary to lug it along on my travels, I should be able to sail through the gates to the Boston T. The one thing I added weighs nothing; in fact it lightens my load: the knowledge that nothing I carry is essential — except my faith in God.

Defend us, Lord, against every distress so that unencumbered in body and soul, we may devote ourselves to your service in freedom and joy. We make our prayer through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. — Closing prayer for Morning Prayer, 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Emerging into the torrent

We are cradled close in your hands — and lavishly flung forth.

Rainer Marie Rilke/Anita Barrow & Joanna Marie Macy trs.
Book of Hours, II, 26

I'm on the train back from Gloucester, headed toward Boston and ultimately home. The week has been one of grace and of deep stillness. I was grateful for a group of fellow pilgrims into the silent lands who were themselves vessels of silence. Even the usual bustle of unpacking seemed barely to ruffle the waters.

We are now all lavishly flung forth back into the world. The train is filled with people from the local psychiatric outpatient program (or so I gather from the conversations). From one man in particular, carrying a battered tweed suitcase, comes a veritable torrent of words. The contrast between the cradled silence of the last 8 days, and these overlapping, free flowing, slightly too frantic conversations is almost too much to contemplate.

There is just the one car on this off-peak train, so perforce this is my community of the moment. They seem as welcoming as the one I left behind, if less still — several pace the train restlessly — admiring my backpack without envy, respecting my boundaries (no one has asked me for a smoke), greeting me as though I might be a new found friend.

Which begs the question, what do I look like after more than a week on retreat?

Addendum: I'm posting this via wi-fi on the train from Boston to Philly and perhaps have an inkling of an answer. With my back-pack, sweatshirt (reads Chemistry Chick spelled out using elements from the periodic table), bright green shirt and capris I look nothing like the people on riding the Acela. The line ahead of me is monochromatic. Everyone, and I mean without exception, is wearing some shade of black or grey, carrying briefcases and laptop bags. I blended in much better with the crowd on the last train!

Next question: are the people on this train any more sane than the people on the last?