Friday, August 27, 2010

The Place of Preaching

The Deacon's Bench has a thread running about where a homilist should be - in the pulpit or in the aisles. The discussion was prompted by this piece by Fr. Z:
"Perhaps we can learn something about the idea of preaching outside the sanctuary, and strutting about like a peacock, from the Church’s rubrics for the sign of peace. This is another occasion in which priests will jack-in-the-box out of the sanctuary where they belong and, sometimes, go to absurd lengths to see and be seen, to demonstrate how caring, warm and matey they are.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states that funerals are one of the rare occasions when the priest is permitted to leave the sanctuary for the sign of peace...If there is a person of note present, the celebrant can leave the sanctuary to give the sign of peace. These are exceptions to the general rule that the priest belongs in the sanctuary. Period."
As he notes, the rubrics do not actually forbid preaching from other than the pulpit, so I fail to see why anyone should be taken to task for it. Fr. Z draws on the rubrics around the exchange of the sign of peace to suggest (by extension) that it should not be done. He is as entitled to his opinion as I am mine (and neither of us are allowed to legislate it).

What I am seriously bothered by is his caveat that for a "person of note" it is all right for the presider to leave the sanctuary for the sign of peace. And just who might we think is a "person of note"? Particularly for one acting in persona Christi?

I imagine it would be the elderly parishioner in the front row, the mother struggling to ride herd on four young children. Or perhaps the mentally ill person pacing in the back, or the man who lives in the local shelter but who appears for the vigil Mass each week dress with painful care? If that is not who is meant, then I am mystified.

I was relieved to note that the actual instructions do not say anything about "a person of note" - just special occasions (and the limitations are not as tight as implied):

The priest may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration. In the dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic leaders are present) the priest may offer the sign of peace to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary. At the same time, in accord with the decisions of the Conference of Bishops, all offer one another a sign that expresses peace, communion, and charity. While the sign of peace is being given, one may say, Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum (The peace of the Lord be with you always), to which the response is Amen. [GIRM 154]
Fr. Z and his readers appear quite concerned about narcissistic priests. I might suggest the traditional Carthusian remedy for grandstanding homilists: preach only by reading from a written, previously prepared text. That alone would substantially improve the overall quality of preaching in the Roman Catholic communion -- regardless of where the homilist stands.

Photo is of the pulpit in Mission San Miguel in California.

Related posts:
  1. Pray Tell what makes a good homily
  2. (Not a) Homily for Holy Saturday Morning

Photo: Night Watches

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Let there be laundry

Three trips down, one to go for the kids. It seems that their clothes have spent the summer traveling not only coast to coast, but between duffel bag and laundry basket. I think a fuller caption to this could read: "God separated the light from the dark...thus two piles were created -- the first load."

And seriously, I still think that a washer and a dryer are graces!

H/T to Gone Walkabout.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Photo: Summer fruits

Monday, August 23, 2010

Column: Sensible of Conditions

The full quote from Annie Dillard's Expedition to the Poles is
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
It's a fascinating essay on liturgy and life.

Meanwhile, this article about technology and the national parks, which notes that the National Parks Service has added a category to their list of contributing factors to accidents (in addition to "darkness" and "animals"): “inattention to surroundings”

And this essay by Dennis Hamm SJ remains my favorite introduction to the Examen.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 19 August 2010.

Keep a close watch on yourself, my son, in everything you do, and discipline yourself in all your conduct. — Tobit 4:14b

We left before the sun reached the top of the ridge, hoping to make the four-mile loop before the heat became unbearable. Trooping up the mountainside after Victor’s brother, we were headed for a couple of rock formations at the top, all that can be seen of ancient mountains that once scratched the stratosphere.

Reaching the top, freed from the confines of the trail, the boys were enjoying exploring the rocks. Watching their long strides easily spanning narrow crevasses that reached 20 or more feet into the mountain, I relaxed my vigilance and sat to savor the breeze, still touched with the cool dampness of the night.

Suddenly Mike called out, “look at the snake skin!” A closer look revealed the snake was still very much inside of its skin — and a venomous copperhead to boot. Both Mike and Chris had stepped over the snake napping in the cleft of the rock before noticing its deadly coils. Those were our last carefree steps of the hike!

In her essay on liturgy, prayer and life, Expedition to the Poles, Annie Dillard muses that we are often “insufficiently sensible of conditions.” We can be easily distracted by what is around us, particularly the superficial, and fail to watch where we are stepping, or imagine what might be hidden just below the surface or around the corner.

Tobit urges his son to watch where he is going, but also to let such watchfulness teach him how to go forward. The early Christian monastics, too, understood the discipline of vigilance, the need to be “sensible of conditions” with respect to their souls. Bessarion, a fourth century desert monk, taught, “A monk ought to be like the Cherubim and Seraphim, all eye.”

How can we become “all eye?” St. Ignatius of Loyola’s discipline of the Examen is one practice of vigilance. The Examen begins by recalling that God is present and then, gratefully, reviews the day. Where did I encounter God today? What drew me closer to God? What did not? The point is to become sensible of conditions, sensitive to where God is calling me. The Examen closes by looking forward, learning from the experiences of today.

The trick on our hike was not to let the threat of snakes lurking underfoot blunt our awareness of other dangers or, perhaps more importantly, blind us to other marvels. We hiked to a second, similar set of rocks, clambered (carefully) to the top to see spread out in the distance layer after layer of blue shaded ridges. A reward for being vigilant.

The Examen seeks to work a similar balancing act for my life’s journey. Day by day I learn where I can reliably put my spiritual feet and where the footing is less sure. I grow gradually more sensible of conditions.

Let your Word, Father, be a lamp for our feet and a light to our path, so that we may understand what you wish to teach us and follow the path your light marks out for us. — from Daytime Prayer, Wednesday, Week III

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Photo: Still Life


Earlier this summer the NY Times began a series on technology and the brain. As part of the series, their Bits blog asked for volunteers to experiment with unplugging from technology and then make a short video piece about the experience. Having "unplugged" from just about everything for 30 odd days to make the Spiritual Exercises, this shorter experiment seemed a good chance to engage in a bit of Ignatian repetition around connectivity and technology.

The editor agreed that looking at the short experiment in the light of my longer experience could be interesting and so I went ahead with the experiment and made a video. I spent two days off the net, one at my usual silent haunt - the Jesuit Center - and the other at home.

I was surprised to find the shorter experiment to be harder, partly because the reminders of how easily I could connect are scattered everywhere at home, and in part, I suspect, because the Exercises keep you focussed on a rather different sort of connection! But even at Wernersville, where I regularly park the phone in the car and there is no wireless, I could hear the siren call of the computer in the small parlor next to the chapel all the way out by the cloisters. (At least I know I'm not alone, a new sign has appeared recently reminding retreatants to consider carefully before they surf the net or check their email).

The video appeared on the Times website last week. You can watch my video (and eight others) here, and read the short piece about the end of the project here. I'm the oldest of the group!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Vow days

In January of 2009 I left my family behind to spend five weeks in silence, off to make the Spiritual Exercises of St. ignatius on the very edge of the Atlantic. Twenty-four of us gathered the first night, eighteen Jesuit novices and six others. Though the course each of us would follow through the Exercises would be unique, and we would not be comparing notes along the way, the knowledge that these roads were being walked together was a gift.

Yesterday many of those eighteen young men professed their vows in the Society of Jesus. I watched in Holy Cross Church as in turn, Ricardo, Kevin, Keith, Pat, Tim, Vinnie, Rick and Brian knelt before Christ, held up by the provincial and in these words vowed perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience and promised to spend their lives in the Society of Jesus. I offered up fierce prayers for them, that God might grant them grace, strength and passion to live this life, but above all that there may be abundant joy.

Joe Lingan, SJ, the novice master, gave a beautiful homily challenging all of us there, the assembly as well as the vovendi, to consider how large our hearts were. Both the exquisite preaching, and the choice of topic, pulled me straight back into the last days of the exercises.

These mid-August days are vow days for me as well On this day twenty-nine years ago I was preparing to take vows with Tom, and eighteen years ago Math Man and I stood in a small church outside Montreal and were formally betrothed. (Done so his father, too fragile to travel to see us wed, could be part of the celebration.)

Read what Matthew Spotts has to say about his vows here, and Joe, here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Throne of King Albert

We drove to Maryland Tuesday to visit the log cabin in the Catoctin Mountains that Math Man's brother (Uncle Albert) is restoring. There are two cabins set about 100 yards apart on a mountain stream. The view from the front porch where I'm sitting as I write feels much like Frank Lloyd Wright's house Falling Water, the creek seems to run beneath my feet. (It very nearly does in fact, even in this very dry summer.) The natural and found materials Uncle Albert is using, a gorgeous spiral door handle made from a dried and polished vine for example, add to the Wright-like aesthetic in the house.

Unlike Wright's fancy retreat for a wealthy Pittsburgh couple, these cabins were once year round homes for families. Seven people, five children and their parents, lived in Uncle Albert's cabin. The cabin had one large room with a fireplace and wood burning stove, and upstairs, tucked under the eaves, three bedrooms. The main room is not even 400 square feet, upstairs (a ladder folds down from the ceiling for access) has less usable space than that.

I alternated wondering what it would be like to live in a house like this as a hermit — half way up a mountain, with the water burbling by — and as a family almost as large as the one I grew up in, where silence might be found between 1 and 2 am if you were lucky.

When I was growing up, getting six kids ready to go out was a challenge with a single bathroom, now I'm trying to imagine a house where the plumbing consisted of an outhouse and a hip bath you dragged into the kitchen. And laundry?

The plumbing in both cabins has been upgraded since they were first built. Uncle Albert's not quite finished bathroom is a masterpiece, though. The basic function of the outhouse has been taken over by an "inhouse" — a modern composting toilet. Rather than dress this technology up in modern porcelain, he's opted for a more elegant, or at least unusual, throne.

The popcorn in the dispenser you can see on the left of the photo is used to provide aerating layers in the compost.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Copper in the rocks

We left early, before the sun topped the ridge, and drove the temperature over the top as well. We hiked up the ridge, to see two sets of standing stones. Both Wolf Rock and Chimney Rock are all that can be seen of mountains that once scratched the stratosphere. Dense, hard rock, now sliced into sticks by eons of wind and rain. There must be copper here, some of the rocks have that characteristic green shade to them. Maryland greenstone.

Two miles in, the curtain of rocks can be seen between the trees. Reaching the top, where a few scraggly pines offer scanty shade, I take a rest. There's not much of a view, and the boys are enjoying negotiating the rocks, stepping over narrow crevices that reach twenty or more feet into the outcropping. Suddenly Crash calls out, "look at the snake skin!". As it happens, the snake is still very much inside of his (her?) skin.

It is a copperhead, a snake I've never seen outside of books and zoos (though there is a memorable scene on a book a read many years ago about the Johnstown flood in which a young boy is bitten by a copperhead). The guys are shouting for me to get my camera out. how close am I willing to get to this sleepy snake? My stomach is still doing flips after finding out that Barnacle Boy actually stepped over the snake and Crash within inches before he spotted it, yet its coiled, polished form has a compelling beauty. It glitters with a greenish cast, like oxidized copper which has been lacquered.

I took photos, glad to be able to capture this on film, and very glad of my telephoto which let me do it from a distance which didn't giver me an adrenaline rush. We gave her a wide berth and explored more of the rock formation, now careful to check before we stepped.

Should I ask what the two vultures sitting on the rocks a few yards further on were waiting for?

Photos will follow. No laptop along for this adventure!

UPDATE: Photo up!

Monday, August 09, 2010

Locked out

At 7:30 am this morning, my neighbor found me, soaked in sweat, in clothes that looked (and had been) slept in, sitting up against a wall, a backpack full of my belongings by my side. "Are you all right?" "I'm fine, except.." I had to admit I was locked out.

I'd walked to the church last night, to be an overnight host for an interfaith network that houses homeless families. My parish is hosting this week. A breviary, toothbrush and novel were all I had in my pack. Four boys, two mothers were staying, striving for some primacy. The oldest of the boys was the same age as my youngest, and I wondered how hard it must be to be uprooted from friends.

I spent the night on an air mattress in an un-air conditioned classroom, a fan sieving tiny sparkles of coolness from the air and sending them cart wheeling in my direction. As I sat cross-legged on the mattress to make my Examen, the bed wobbled underneath, sending me diving for my breviary and promptly tumbling my rosary and pen onto the floor. I wondered if I would have the equanimity of the women across the hall if everything under me was as uncertain as my bed.

I saw them onto the van at 6:30 this morning, helping to marshal the last of the boys into the back. In the process I managed to lock myself out of the school. I left the keys in the back sacristy and walked home. Halfway there, I realized I had no keys, and I was locked out of the house, too. No one was awake at home to let me in. So much for the cup of tea I wanted, or the shower…or any thought of making it to morning Mass.

I still don't know what it's like to be homeless, but this morning keys were handed me for more than doors.

Sunday, August 08, 2010


Credo in unum Deum..."I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth. "

I wrote about public professions of faith for this week's column in the Standard & Times, wondering what these words might mean hic et nunc, in the here and now that is my life. This morning I listened to a passionate homilist asking us to listen hard to what God is calling us to do. If only my hands were as sure of the next note to sound as Rich Mullins' are in this video.

H/T to Barb at SFO Mom for this modern rendition of the Credo; a version is cross posted at RevGalBlogPals.

Friday, August 06, 2010


Fran of There will be bread, tagged for a meme, writes about devotions. She writes of her love for the rosary and of prayers in the morning, but I love her last choice: her writing, deliberately, from her faith, and her joy in a community to share it with.

Karl Rahner, SJ, who wrote eloquent and complex theological treatises, once told a student, "Beware the man of no devotions." and spoke movingly in his homilies of the graces of simple prayer. He, like Fran, was devoted to the rosary.

I often think of devotions as schools of prayer, training our minds to reach for God on a minute's notice, but I also find them to be ports in a storm. When I can pray nothing else, I can hold a handful of beads, or pull dry words from my shelf, and hold them out, in hopes that God will yet see, yet hear, yet be within me.

So what devotions am I devoted to?

Rosary I'll admit to a lifelong need for the beads. In my pocket, in my purse, in my drawer. Their weight holds me to the prayers, keeping them from flying away like a cast off newspaper. The olive wood rosary in my pocket now comes from Jerusalem, bought to replace one I gave away to a friend's sister who had need of it and beautifully blessed by a good Augustinian friend.

Scrabble Really - you can read what I wrote one Lent here about the discipline. It's a mirror, encouraging me to see moments of grace I might otherwise miss. "In my heart, can I view seven consonants as a gift? Can I view even the annoyances in my life as sources of grace? … You can only get so many points from your letters alone; winning depends on encounters with double and triple point squares. Grace is at play in our lives, enriching what we can do with our own limited resources. "

Liturgy of the Hours The psalms are in my bones, and this prayer etches them deeper still. It joins me to the Church through time and space. I've prayed these prayers for more than a quarter of a century, half my life. I'm blessed to have a community to pray them with these days.

And here I take heart from Fran in admitting this - writing. "If we are not supposed to cease praying, then perhaps one shouldn't cease speaking about prayer; speaking about it as well and as poorly as it given to one." - Karl Rahner, SJ from the forward to The Need and The Blessing of Prayer However well or poorly I do it - prayer or writing about prayer - Rahner's writing gives me hope that it matters. Writing for me is a way to meet God, and perhaps drag a few others along with me.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Column: Credo

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 5 August 2010.

We have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.
— 1 Jn. 4:14

“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty ....” Even as I type these words, I can see Our Mother of Good Counsel Church, her warm walls lit by the light streaming in through the stained glass windows, and hear the rustling as the congregation rises to its feet. I consider the bishops gathered at Nicea, grappling with expressing in words the inexpressible: God from God, light from light.

The familiar words of the Nicene Creed make me think “Church” like almost nothing else. Church local, Church universal, Church present, Church past. Perhaps because this is where I always say them, in church.

Honestly, when is the last time anyone walked up to you on the street and asked, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ … who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?” And what would you answer?

I sometimes wonder if I could proclaim my faith with the courage of the martyrs, facing a hostile crowd, alone, outside the safe confines of my parish church. A few weeks ago, I had the chance to test those waters.

The heat on the packed subway platform was stifling. Trains rattled and rumbled on every track but ours. Sagging against the walls, draped over the benches, we waited in silent, wilting despair. On the very edge of the platform, his back to the tracks, appeared a tall man in a crisp dress shirt and tie, playing a banjo. He introduced himself as a retired minister here to preach the good news: God has sent His Son to save us.

No one appeared to be listening to him; the only good news most of us wanted to hear was the announcement that our train will be next to arrive. I marveled at his ability to preach to this stone-faced and apathetic audience, as cool and collected as if he were in the pulpit of some small New England church.

He finished and wordlessly began to pass out pamphlets. As he handed me one he bent over and asked if I might already believe in Jesus. For a moment, I wondered if I should say anything at all. I was trapped on the platform, and worried about engaging a stranger in that sort of conversation. Yet I couldn’t quite help myself. “I do,” I told him, unconsciously echoing my baptismal promises. He took my hand, said he was glad to have met a sister in Christ, and walked on, tears running down his face.

The train arrived and I got on, the words of the creed echoing in my head. It occurred to me that as unlikely as I was to have the opportunity again to profess my faith in words in the middle of the street, perhaps I was passing up a chance to make it manifest in my daily life.

Does my declaring “I believe in one God” change how I face the laundry, or is it apparent to anyone — even myself — that I hold that “He suffered, died, and was buried” in the aisle of the grocery store? Perhaps I can come to believe it does.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. — Nicene Creed

Photo is of Mission San Miguel.

California dreaming

I just spent a week at my dad's farm in the hills outside San Miguel, one of the original missions founded by Franciscan friar Junipero Serra. My brother, The Reverend, and his family, who live in the small house tucked up in the corner of the orchard, were away (camping in the redwoods with Crash and Barnacle Boy), so it was just my dad, his wife and me. It's the quietest place I've been in ages, even quieter than the old Jesuit novitiate at Wernersville, or the retreat house at Gloucester where I made the Exercises.

My recent reading of Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence left me envious of her hermitage in the Scottish highlands, and this trip only exacerbated my jealousy. No traffic noises drifted over the fields. The nearest highway is 8 miles away, the roads are dirt, gravel or chip sealed, limiting speed. No trains whistles shriek. I can hear the horse in the pasture down the road nicker, and the splash the resident swallows make when they hit the pool. The wind rustles in the dry grass, and makes the green olives clack like castanets.

In Pursuit of Silence, another summer read, George Prochnik writes about the thick silence of a Trappist chapel, dug deep into the earth, a silence that can disturb as easily as it can ease. Alone in the house one morning, I walked into the brick lined food cellar, earth surrounding it on fives sides and experienced that same sort of silence. Thick as a good hot chocolate, cool and a bit damp, absorbing even the sound of my breathing. This silence rings.

I went with Mike to Mission San Antonio this week, the only one of the missions still in a remote setting. It's a 30 mile drive out from highway 101 or a hair-raising drive of similar length from the coast highway, winding along the San Antonio river bed, and through the foothills of the Santa Lucia range. on the way back, with Mike at the wheel, I eyed these rippled golden — and empty — hills with an eye to a hermitage of my own.

My dream site would be tucked into the fold of a hill, with a view of mountains and ocean. Olive trees and vineyards rolls away from my small adobe house with the red tile roof. The bed is tucked into a loft, there is a simple kitchen, a comfortable chair and a fireplace A tiny chapel with warm frescoes, candles burning in front of a wood statue, and one small but exquisite stained glass rose window forms one side of a courtyard, with a fountain. A pool (a safety feature in these dry hills, a reservoir of water to fight a fire!) edged by fruit trees forms the other side, and a low wall keeps the goats and sheep out. There is a cool storage cellar under my croft. And there's wi-fi. But no TV. California dreaming....of an entirely different sort than the Mommas and Poppas envisioned.

Reality check: I rather think my dream of a hermitage would need a practice green out back for Math Man, and easy access to good golfing. And frankly I suspect my E of a spouse would soon find such a place to be the closest thing to be had on earth to purgatory.