Thursday, September 30, 2010

Getting down in Chicago style

Q. When quoting from Scriptures, which are often interpreted as God literally speaking, is it grammatically correct to say “Psalm 1:1 reads” or “Psalm 1:1 says”?

A. You’re confusing grammar and theology here. Both sentences have perfect grammar; the choice of what to imply about the words’ origins is yours.

From the Chicago Style Manual, where I also learned that "down style" (which I prefer) is to eschew initial capitals for such things as College (when referring to a particular College). I wonder if this is related to my tendencies toward a low Christology?

photo credit

Column: Prayer tips from around the world

Over the summer I read portions of Evagrius' Pratikos - his advice to other monks -- particularly the sections on prayer. The compact nature of much of the advice there made it easy to hold up as a measure to my own prayer. So when Joe Koczera SJ wrote about the 10 Maxims for Prayer posted at Torn Notebook, which closed with a restatement of the line I quote from the Catechism: "You cannot pray at all times if you do not pray at specific times. (Fr Jean Corbon, via The Catechism of the Catholic Church §2697)."

Do read the maxims. What concise advice would you have for other pray-ers? Share, if you will.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 30 September 2010.

Prayer is the life of the new heart. It ought to animate us at every moment…But we cannot pray “at all times” if we do not pray at specific times.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church [2697]

“So, I just FOIL this, even though it has derivatives?” the student in my office puzzled aloud. I assured her that the mnemonic she learned in high school for multiplying polynomials — first, outer, inner, last — would serve her just as well in this more sophisticated setting.

The class I am teaching this fall, physical chemistry, is thought by many students to be the make or break moment of their chemistry major.

It’s not the complicated math or the intricate details of molecular structure that they struggle with, it’s figuring out how to think like a mathematician and a chemist at the same time — to balance the real and the practical against the theoretical and philosophical. It’s easier to hold onto and keep track of what they know when it’s captured in small packets — a handy collection of mnemonics and maxims, like FOIL and “Do as you ‘oughta,’ add acid to water.”

I’m sympathetic. I, too, am trying to reconcile the practical with the transcendent. How can I make sure the cat gets fed, those forms for taking the SAT are filled out and office hours get held while still praying at all times — or even at specific times? The breadth of things requiring my attention some days makes me long for mnemonics of my own, straightforward signposts to direct me back to where I should be — animated by prayer, not my to-do list.

Recently Jesuit scholastic Joseph Koczera’s blog pointed me to 10 maxims on prayer, sifted from the ageless wisdom of the Church by another blogger on the far side of the world. Wei Hsein’s pithy yet pointed list starts with “The essentials: pray in the morning and before you go to bed.” It ends with the reminder from the Catechism that my prayer life grows best from seeds intentionally planted in my calendar, not scattered haphazardly as I careen through my day: “We cannot pray ‘at all times’ if we do not pray at specific times.”

Like one of my students allowed a few precious notes on a three by five card for an exam, I pondered what maxims on prayer I might choose for my crib sheet. What am I most at risk of forgetting?

Be at home with prayer. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s advice is a good prod, “Prayer is not a stratagem for occasional use, a refuge to resort to now and then. It is rather like an established residence for the inmost self.” I dwell in God and God in me, this is where to start.

Don’t try to carry on two conversations at the same time. St. Augustine, writing to the widow Proba, who had asked for his advice about prayer, reminded her that “multiplied words are one thing, long-continued warmth of desire is another.” I can lecture to my students about quantum mechanics (or my teens about unfinished household chores) and simultaneously let my heart wordlessly express its desire to be with God.

Simply listen. Mary Oliver’s poem Praying eloquently argues for leaving elaborate words behind, “this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice can speak.” Enough said.

Though I need no reminder to give voice to the psalms, my favorite maxim is Wei Hsien’s paraphrase of the desert father Evagrius: “Pray the Psalms aloud; it makes the demons tremble.”

Perhaps the psalms can even tame the math that so bedevils my students?

When I go toward you
It is with my whole life.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of a Monastic Life I, 51

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Oprah's take on quantum mechanics - and mine

I was checking my stats (read seriously procrastinating folding the laundry) and noticed that one of the search terms that was sending surfers my way was "Oprah's take on quantum mechanics". She has one?

I promptly popped it into Google to see what would come up. I had to know.

I found out. The Law of Attraction. Think and you can change what happens. Proven by quantum mechanics. The Quantum Cleanse. (Don't ask - you don't want to know.)

Somehow the word "quantum" manages to sound simultaneously mysterious and scientific, and so people attach it to things that they want to sound simultaneously mysterious and scientific. Like diets and the power of positive thinking, or even theology.

I named this blog "Quantum Theology" as a play on the two fields I'm trained in: quantum mechanics and theology. Recently a friend of almost forty years wondered just exactly what was quantum mechanics - just what do I do for a living. Repair broken quantums?

To a physicist or physical chemist, a quantum is a fixed portion of energy. (The word was coined by Max Planck in 1900.) Quantum mechanics considers the interaction of energy and matter on the atomic level. What happens when light hits an atom? Why is it that only certain amounts of energy can be absorbed? How is it that matter can behave as a particle, and as a wave?

When I say something is quantized, I don't mean it's mysterious, I mean that only certain values are allowed, and nothing in between. A good everyday example is your shoe size. You are a 5 or a 5 1/2, but never a 5 1/6. Off the rack shoes (are there any other kind these days?) are quantized.

Evidence that matter could behave like a wave suggested to Erwin Schrodinger that he could write an equation to find a mathematical description of this behavior. (There's a steamy Oprah show for you - about Schrodinger, his mistress, the twins he was tutoring in physics, the pearls he put in his ears - and the development of wave mechanics!)

So what is it I actually do? I use quantum mechanics — specifically solving Schrodinger's handy little equation — to predict the structures of molecules and their energy, then use that information to think about what molecules might exist, or how hard it would be for them to react and what products are likely to form. Right now I'm exploring molecules that are uncomfortably twisted - and topologically "interesting" (Moebius strip molecules).

Want a bit of quantum theology? One of my Jesuit friends asked me a few years ago how I could manage to reconcile the idea that an electron could behave like light and like matter. "The same way I can believe that Christ is both God and man." It's rare you can render a Jesuit speechless.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Attenuating Email

I send an email, you respond, I confirm, you say thank you....

I've been using Gmail's priority mailbox - which does a reasonably good job of deciding which email I want to see (ok, it took a bit of training to discourage it from prioritizing reminders from the college about random activities - but other than that has been fine).

Sometimes I wish Gmail would decide for me when an email exchange is finished and file it away without further ado. Instead I read the latest addition to a thread, and wonder, do I need to respond, am I expected to respond, should I respond?

Figure is of an attenuator circuit.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

To do lists

It is the (recent) custom in our house for me to inscribe a list of chores on the door to which I expect the teens to attend. In return, I promise not to nag. There's an incentive to get to it early, since you have your pick of chores.

Since today's list ranges from "water the plants" to "dispose of body on doorstep" - there's a significant incentive to getting there early, and not be left holding - or should I say filling? - the bag.

The fauna are out in droves fattening up for winter, filling their larders. So is Fluffy. Today's score is Fluffy 2, Fauna 0.

For the record, Barnacle Boy tackled the worst first!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Column: Broken pots

"We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?" — Dietrich Bonhoeffer (read the rest here)

MikeF at The Mercy Blog posted this quote from Bonhoeffer the day after I submitted this column. It made me think not only about showing gratitude for small gifts, but about our willingness to receive such gifts with joy.

Only the lid of the tea pot shattered, so it's still good for use at home - though the one in the photo is unbreakable and might be more practical for now!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 23 September 2010.

Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. — 1Pt. 4:10

I was standing in the hallway talking to a student when I heard the unmistakable sound of something fragile hitting the floor. I ducked my head into the kitchen where Mike and Chris, on their day off from school, were giving me a hand in setting up afternoon tea for my lab students. “Anyone hurt?” No blood, but Mike was crouched on the floor carefully picking up the pieces of my china teapot’s lid.

As we cleaned up, I told Mike the teapot was a gift from a graduate school friend when I was married the first time, almost 25 years ago. “Are you trying to make me feel guilty, Mom?” he worried. I reassured him that I was not, I was just holding in my heart for a moment both gift and giver.

I wasn’t feeling guilty either. Not about having used my “good” china for students for all these years, and not about letting my sometimes less than advertent teenagers handle it. Given how often I host a formal afternoon tea, it always seemed such a waste to leave the pot to gather dust in the china cabinet. And so it came to spend most of these years at school.

St. Augustine, in reflecting on this passage in Peter’s letter, reminds us that grace is provided “so that we will do what he has indicated should be done” — to build up the Church and to care for each other. But Augustine also points out that grace enables us to do so “not only without complaint but with joy.”

I’m reasonably certain St. Peter did not intend his advice to the early Christian community to literally mean putting material gifts to work in the way that I’ve used the teapot to serve my students tea. The subsequent verses certainly ponder more metaphysical gifts. Still, I suspect there are things to be learned about deploying the intangible gifts from these gifts we can see and hold.

Tea bags might have been more practical for the lab, each student making her own cup. But the china pot, for all its impracticality, offered us two things the tea bags could not. For just a moment, it invited us to care for each other’s needs as we poured cups for one another. And it had a permanence and a beauty a tea bag could never match.

Pulling out the teapot for my students each week for all these years transformed the ordinary into a moment of grace and the mundane into the beautifully joyous. It reminded me, too, that the grace that comes with God’s gifts is not utilitarian, merely directed at getting things done, but like the teapot, offers unexpected perspectives and holds unanticipated joys.

I’ve replaced the elegant white china teapot with a sturdy stoneware version, which serves “without complaint” but with far less joie de vivre. I wonder about other gifts I’ve been given — tangible and spiritual — which I might pull off the shelf and put to use. There may be no risk of breakage if they’re left there, but no joy to be had either.

Lord our God, give us grace to serve you always with joy, because our full and lasting happiness is to make of our lives a constant service to the Author of all that is good. We make our prayer though our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. — Closing prayer for Morning Prayer 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I've reached my limit and it looks a lot like sin(1/x)

My life is all about limits these days. Crash Kid is getting a crash course in the mathematical sorts of limits. He's taking AP Calculus — a year's high school course compressed into a semester. This course moves. He's had lots of questions for me, running along the lines of "how do you analytically find the limit of sin x2/ x as x → ∞ ?"

Since I'm in the incredible minority of people who on occasion have an actual use for mathematical limits in their work*, I'm not a bad person to ask. (I almost said "have a practical use" but that's an entirely other post about whether quantum mechanics can ever be said to be practical!). Still, my take on limits leans heavily toward the pragmatic. Crash is best off asking the resident mathematician when he wants to know about the theoretical underpinnings of these great mysteries. So sometimes I say, "Go ask your father!"

There's no escaping at work though. Evaluating the usability of some mathematical functions for quantum mechanics requires that you take a limit - and so my students have been dropping by my office all week to ask various questions about limits.

"Enough," I want to say, "I've reached my limit when it comes to limits!" And since it's the start of a new school year, I'm still working out the limits of how many plates I can keep spinning and how well I can keep the camels confined (cue the occasional crashing plate and spitting camel here). I made some remark at the dinner table to this effect tonight — at which point Math Man turned to Crash and said, "I'd say Mom's life is a bit like sin(1/x) as x approaches zero." They both snicker.

Don't get the joke? Check out the graph of sin(1/x) in the picture. The closer you get to zero, the more wildly the function oscillates, until it's just quivering.

There's nothing quite like getting snarked with math by your 16 year-old at your own dinner table. Especially when he's right on the money. Sigh. I think I need to set a few more limits.

*My Fermi calculation suggests the population of people who might take a limit as part of their job is less than 0.01% of the population.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Radio waves

I was listening to the radio this afternoon as I unloaded the groceries from a pilgrimage to the huge (and I mean huge!) grocery store about half an hour away (catering to the family's taste for a particular soda that you can't find anywhere in Pennsylvania).

I'm almost done when Barnacle Boy bounces in the door with Frisbee Friend. "Are you listening to the radio?" he demanded. Uh - what else would be belting tunes from the 70s and 80s in the kitchen? Then I had a moment of cultural shock. It seemed obvious to me that the music would be coming from the radio -- that's the default. But to the Boy, there's many more possibilities: iPod playlist playing through the speakers on the radio, Pandora, YouTube...

I remember playing with a radio much like the one in the photo at my paternal grandparent's house. It was huge, built into a cabinet about the size of a modern big screen TV. The bass notes of the carrier hum seemed to make my very insides vibrate.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Column: Bound to prayer

The rosary in the photo is the one I took with me on the Long Retreat - next to my journal adorned with sticky notes, ready to see my director. This must be early on in the Exercises, since by the end, the journal was bulging at the seams with various inclusions.

St. Pachomius was St. Anthony's (not the Anthony of lost objects, but the Father of Monasticism Anthony) mentor in the ermitic life. One legend about the prayer ropes is that the devil kept untying the knots that St. Anthony tied, so Mary (or the archangel Raphael in some tellings) taught Anthony in a vision (or dream) how to tie the crossed crosses, which the devil could not untie.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 16 September 2010.

My times are in Your hand — O save me from the hand of my enemies, my pursuers. — Ps. 31:16

I’ve lost my rosary. Well, one of them at any rate. I had it when I went for a walk last week, but later that day, when my fingers sought out the smooth olive wood beads in my pocket, they came up empty. All afternoon, their loss nagged at the edge of my consciousness.

In my life, rosaries are a bit like socks. I’m always finding them in odd places around the house; I’m always missing some, and I always have extras, just in case. So why was I so bothered by the loss of this particular round of beads? After all, I could keep count of the 10 Hail Marys I was about to say on my fingers, and dig a spare set of beads out of the drawer when I got home.

Perhaps it was because the rosary I lost was, for once, not a replacement for a rosary I’d misplaced, but for one I’d given away to a friend for her sister who is ill. That rosary, which had accompanied me while I made the Spiritual Exercises two winters ago, was soaked in the prayers of those 30 days in silence. So when Marilyn sought prayers for her sister after Mass one Saturday evening, I surrendered my rosary. It carried with it not only my prayers, but Marilyn’s for her sister, and through the Augustinian friar who blessed it again for Peg’s use, those of the entire Church.

Every time I picked up the rosary in my pocket after that, I offered a quick prayer for Peg. When I saw her at Mass a few months later, she told me that even when she could not say the rosary, she found solace in just holding it — it was as if she had a handful of prayers cupped in her palm. I told I held her in prayer each time I held my own rosary, our prayers crisscrossing through these beads.

Legend has it that St. Pachomius, who founded a community of desert hermits in the fourth century, taught his monks to count their prayers by counting off knots tied in a rope. The purpose was not to say a certain number of prayers, but to use the rope as a reminder to be faithful to your prayer time, to hold you to the practice of keeping God in your mind and heart at all times.

Orthodox monastics still carry prayer ropes, sliding the intricately tied knots — seven tightly intertwined crosses in each — through their fingers when they pray. Even when they are not praying, the ropes are to hand, worn on their left wrists. Like Peg, they hold prayer in their hands, even when not counting the prayers.

I suspect I missed not the ability to keep count of my prayers, but the rosary that reminded me to be accountable to prayer. The rosary that reminded me, like the knots in the prayer rope, that our prayers are intertwined. The rosary that reminded me that we are held, at all times, in the prayers of friends, in the prayers of the Church and indeed in the very hand of God.

In memory of the mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and in honor of the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ and mother of the Church, may those who devoutly use this rosary to pray be blessed, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen — from the Blessing of Rosaries

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Psalm for a Rainy Sunday Afternoon

I sang a sparer, far less elegant version of Psalm 51 yesterday evening at the vigil Mass. The Miserere — from the first word in the Latin translation of this psalm - is one of my favorite psalms, despite its penitential character. I appreciate having words to directly acknowledge the ways I fail — no waffling — but I also love the way the psalmist pleas, not just for mercy, not just for forgiveness, but for wisdom, for growth.

It's rainy and cool here today — a soft healing rain that we need badly, a surcease from the heat of summer. This somber, gentle arrangement of Psalm 51 - Bach's riff on Pergolesi's Stabat Mater - fit my contemplative mood.

Pergolesi's Stabat Mater is another favorite. When I made the Long Retreat, one of the other three women along wanted music to accompany her through the contemplations of the Passion. I (who wanted utter shattering silence) lent her my iPod for the week, loaded with the music she'd wanted (Bach's St. Matthew's Passion) plus the rest of my Lenten list, and a note saying that if she needed help with the device to ask our mutual director for help. A couple of days later, my director wanted to know just how many different versions of the Stabat Mater I'd left Yvonne! More than I could tell him offhand....

Cross posted from the RevGalBlogPals.

Related posts:

1. Dangerous Mirrors (thoughts about Allegri's setting of Psalm 51)
2. All things counter, original, spare, strange

Teen wisdom

Barnacle Boy: "Men have hormones to propagate the species; women have hormones to get us to clean up."

(Prompted by my praise of the clean sunroom...which was cleaned in response to a maternal meltdown the previous weekend over the state of the house.)

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Column: Orationis Angulus/Prayer in a Corner

The mosaic which lights up my prayer space was made by Mosaic Woman, the wife of Stratoz (who - if I ever did have space and need of a chapel, I would commission to make the rose window for me!). I re-did a closet , but you can read about the results when artandsoul decided to carve out a space to pray out of doors.

This column appeared on 9 September 2010 in the Catholic Standard and Times.

My sister-in-law has a marvelous eye for space and color. Her tiny house nestled in the hills of California simultaneously manages to look both lived in and like something out of a magazine spread. I, alas, have no such talent. In my house, the guiding principle of interior decoration is “less is more:” fewer socks on the floor, fewer dishes on the counter, fewer school papers on the stairs. I aspire to house organized, not house beautiful.

At least until this summer. It began when I read Sara Maitland’s Book of Silence in which she chronicles her search for her ideal home — an isolated hermitage. Everywhere I drive now — the hills of California, the coast of Maine, even the PA turnpike — I watch the scenery with an eye to where I would plant a hermitage.

I dream of a small adobe house, tucked into the fold of a hill, olive trees and vineyards spilling down the slope. Or a clapboard house on a island in Penobscot Bay in the midst of an apple orchard. In my imagination there is always a tiny chapel with warm frescoes, candles burning in front of a carved wooden crucifix and one small but exquisite stained glass rose window piercing the western wall. I’m starting to covet, not my neighbor’s house, but a house without neighbors.

Of course, each time I pull into the driveway, reality rapidly reasserts itself. As I dodge the bikes in the driveway and pick my way past the backpacks abandoned in the sunroom, I’m reminded that hermitages are not a practical residence for someone with teens, a cat, fish and a husband. Still, the vision of light streaming through the stained glass at the end of the day and spilling onto the floor of the silent chapel remains tantalizing.

The psalmist, too, has dreams of a place in the courts of the Lord — with warm springs and abundant rainfall. St. Jerome, in reflecting on this psalm, urges us to take the psalmist at face value, to hear in this song our own desires for a real spot where we can have an altar, a place to sing to God. Not eventually, not in the life to come, but now.

Perhaps it is not envy of the solitude that feeds my dreams, but an eminently reasonable desire to make more space for God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sounds a similar theme: “The choice of a favorable place for prayer is truly not a matter of indifference” [2691]. I certainly can (and do) pray on the back stoop, but is that the best place? The Catechism encourages us to set aside a dedicated place for prayer.

In Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer Benedictine monk — and hermit — Gabriel Bunge offers a wealth of practical advice on creating a place of prayer. It should be secluded and peaceful, lit gently by candles or a lamp. Face east, face Christ on the cross. Add an icon of Mary, and one of a favorite saint. And have your tools for prayer close at hand: Sacred Scripture, a Psalter, a rosary, a book or two, perhaps a journal. Make a sacred space, even if it has to be tucked into a basket by the chair in your room.

I still don’t have the chapel of my dreams in the back yard, but I did organize myself an oratory. Tucked into what was once a cluttered closet in my study is an “orationis angulus,” a prayer corner. Beeswax candles from a local farm offer gentle illumination, a crucifix orients the space and, in place of the rose window, a mosaic of deep blue and gold spills light across the floor.

My oratory has not the graceful lines, nor the beauty of my parish church. It is perhaps only remarkable in my house for the lack of socks on the floor. But like the psalmist’s sparrows, I’ve built myself a nest within the walls of God’s temple, a hermitage within my house.

The whole world is Your temple, shaped to resound with Your name.
Yet you also allow us to dedicate to Your service places designed for Your worship.
From the preface for the dedication of a church

Related posts:
1. California dreaming

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Venturing Into the Silent Land III: Stillness of Body and Soul

The book discussion Robin (of Metanoia) and I began earlier this summer continues with this guest post by Robin.

While I had found the advice in Into the Silent Land about prayer posture and breathing to be succinct and helpful, I wondered what Robin's response was, given that I know she prays afoot with regularity. I pray on my feet as well, but also sit to meditate -- usually at the end of the day.

I sympathize with her over the interruptions. I've been burst in on 3 of the last 5 nights (a determined cat, a spouse wondering about sheets for making the bed...). I blockade the door with the CRC and the atlas and still they come!
The photo is of a place where I've yet to be interrupted while sitting in prayer - it's just too far to get to at night, except in my memories.

Without further ado, Robin's thoughts about sitting still — or not:

We make certain assumptions about the postures we should adopt for prayer.

Little children are often taught to pray by kneeling at their bedsides or sitting in bed, hands carefully folded, head bowed.

Throughout the Bible, various postures are referenced in instructions for prayer. In church, those of us who are Protestant generally sit, bow our heads, and close our eyes for corporate prayers; Catholics sometimes kneel. Christians of all kinds often raise arms and hands in praise or supplication. Muslims prostrate themselves on the ground. Jews bow repeatedly as they daven.

Some years ago, when I was somewhat frantic and confused about how to deal with a particular issue in prayer (I think I wailed, "What am I supposed to do?"), my spiritual director of many months began, patiently, with "Sit or kneel, and . . . ".

In other words, prayer is generally understood to engage the body as well as the mind and spirit.

I tend to be a walker. I am easily distracted, and walking helps to focus my mind as well as my body. I usually walk three or four miles a day, and if I am praying for people or about events, I will often sort of divide my topics by blocks (or distances, if I am out n the country). I'm not at all rigid about it, but if I happen to cross a street and realize that I am completely off track ~ thinking about overdue library books, for instance ~ the geographical marker pulls me back. And since I generally pray in either a lectio divina or imaginative kind of way, the forward motion of walking seems to help my mind move in the same general direction.

In Into the Silent Land, Martin Laird urges us to sit still. More specifically, he says to sit up straight in a wooden chair, hands resting on your knees, and to pay attention to your breathing. He falls within a well-worn tradition with respect to contemplative prayer in this regard. And there's no question in my mind that he's right, in that it's very hard to be quietly attentive to God when you are on the move. I have often found my walks prolonged by the realization, somewhere in the middle, that what I really have to do is sit down and pay attention.

Since Michelle and I have been thinking about this book together, I have spent a lot more time sitting in prayer. I can't claim that I am perched on the edge of a hard chair, hands in my lap. But in my Adirondack chair out back, next to the hostas and St. Francis statue. On various monuments and benches in the cemetery. On the bridge over the dam at the Little Lakes.

Looking back at a few of my journal entries, I see four things. First, I am becoming increasingly aware of sounds. Cicadas, machines, catbirds, raised voices (they carry a long way in the silence of early morning). One day I wrote that while I found no inner sense of God, I did at least experience a few minutes of attentiveness to my tiny patch of the world as it sounds early in the day.

Second, I am more conscious of seeing God in all things. The other morning, sitting on a bench near one of the Little Lakes, I opened my eyes to see the great blue heron who fishes on the other side every morning stretch her wings wide and arc her neck outward, no doubt in hope that breakfast was about to swim by. I had a deep sense of God's rest in and embrace of creation at that moment.

Third, I am finding it somewhat humorous and somewhat irritating to realize how unaware of silence ~ and of others ~ we are. Twice in the past couple of weeks I have been seated, on a bench or on the ground, at the Little Lakes, eyes closed, clearly praying or meditating or otherwise disengaged from the immediate world around me, only to have runners or walkers stop RIGHT NEXT TO ME to carry on an extended conversation. It's clear that, if they notice me at all, it doesn't occur to them that I am doing anything beyond soaking up the sun.

And finally ~ much as I am enjoying this time of very focused prayer (well, it might be better characterized as "attempted focus"), I am an endless procrastinator and often skip it all together. Fifteen, twenty minutes ~ and yet I manage not to get there. What is that about, I wonder? Why would I rather walk through my neighborhood, turning this and that over in my mind, looking at a Scriptural passage through a multitude of perspectives or rummaging about in response to the questions posed by that day's Pray As You Go, than settle down to open my mind and heart to Silence?

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Warning Labels

I learned from this post at the New York Times about labels you can put on your kids (real labels, not metaphorical ones). At the time I teased Barnacle Boy about them, wondering if he would feel more secure if he had a temporary tattoo with my contact information on it. (For the record, he does have a sheet of emergency information in his wallet and an ICE entry in his cell phone.) "Uh, absolutely not, Mom..."

I did wonder if I should order the ones for peanut allergy, saving me from having an awkward conversation with casual dining partners. Would anyone think to look at the inside of my wrist if I did keel over at dinner?

This morning I began to suspect I should have ordered a custom set for the Boy. Today is his first day of high school. No, I'm not worried he'll get lost and forget his phone number. It's his unsuspecting teachers I'm concerned about.

For reasons I can't recall at the moment (honestly, I'm not really awake before I've had my tea) this morning in the kitchen, Math Man was trying to surface the term for fear of open spaces. I tossed him a one word assist, "agoraphobia". The Boy was at the counter making his morning mango smoothie and threw in for good measure, "from agora, the large open marketplace in Rome". Math Man was rendered speechless. I wonder if his Latin teacher will know what hit her? Should I send in a note that says, "Just FYI this kid has a geeky sense of humor and a mind like a steel trap when it comes to trivia...?? Or apply a warning label?

I'll admit, if past history is any predictor, his teachers will have no trouble appreciating his particular sense of humor. Most have been pretty geeky themselves...

And while I get the utility of having contact information on your very young kid, there is something about the "tats" that bothers me....I just can't quite put my finger on it.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Column: Little Exiles

The photo is of the confessional tucked into the corner of Mission San Miguel, my parents' parish.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 2 September 2010.

A little after 7 on a sultry August morning, my neighbor found me sitting on my driveway, leaning up against the brick wall, my backpack beside me. My clothes looked like they’d been slept in — which in fact, they had. I was hot and sweaty and desperately wanted a shower. “Are you all right?” she wondered. “I’m fine, except….” I sheepishly admitted I was locked out.

The day before I had walked the mile and a bit to be the overnight host at my parish’s shelter for the homeless. Because I hadn’t driven, I hadn’t thought to take my keys. And earlier that morning, as I helped the youngest guest into the van that would take him to the day center, I let the door to the parish school swing shut. It locked, and I didn’t have the key. Unworried about being locked out of one place, I headed home. What I hadn’t banked on was that my usually early-to-rise husband would choose that morning to sleep in.

For a moment, I was an exile, a wanderer with only my toothbrush, my prayer book and a novel for company.

In the early morning stillness, sure of my eventual rescue, I found myself contemplating what it might be like if I were in truth turned out of my house, really exiled. What would I do? Where would I go? In his Confessions, St. Augustine suggests two approaches to exile: struggling on through “trackless wastes, or turning to the way that is protected.”

As I waited, more or less patiently, for the first stirrings of life in my house, the prayer that so often ends my day ran through my head. Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae ... ad te clamamus, exsules filli Evae... "Hail, holy Queen, mother of you we do cry, poor banished children of Eve." We beg her to show us the way out of exile, her Son — Augustine’s “way that is protected.”

Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the fourth century and Augustine’s teacher, sketches a map of the path out of exile, “Forgive me...once You have forgiven me, I will no longer be in foreign parts...I shall be a member of God’s household.”

Amidst Ordinary time, and summer’s abundant graces of light and warmth, I stop to consider if I’ve lost track of the paths that I trod in Lent, seeking in that traditional desert time the ways of repentance and forgiveness. Like ads for sunscreen in January, thoughts of penance and mercy seem out of season.

But for us, mercy is always on offer, the sacramental graces of forgiveness are not seasonal, but abundantly provided in confession and the Eucharist. Forgiveness isn’t just for Lent, but a way out of exile in any season.

In the end, all I had to do to get back in the house was phone and rouse my sleeping spouse. Knock, and the door will be opened. My physical exile ended with a shower and clean clothes. My sense of spiritual exile? Confession is likewise a phone call away. I think I can find my way, even in these ordinary times.

Hail, holy Queen, mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.
To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To you do we send up our sighs mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us, and after this exile show us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.
O Clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.