Monday, November 29, 2010

Silent Night - Not!

The Ironic Catholic opines that being forced to listen to Christmas music in the grocery store in November makes her feel (and I quote) like a "sleazy liturgical strumpet." I get it, I do.

One of the joys of winter in my life are night time walks through the neighborhood. The sharp cold, the clear skies and bright stars tend to provoke the same clarity in my nightly examen. I don't even mind the Christmas lights, for the most part. They seem to be just stars brought down to earth.

Except. My neighbors have created a display that blinks and flashes. In time to music. Music that I can hear. And no Rudolf, it's not Advent music.

Photo is copyright 2008, wallyg. From flickr.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


My brother, Geek Guru, and family came for Thanksgiving. When they arrived Wednesday night (bearing the yet to be cooked turkey), I was tucking various already prepared dishes into the 'fridge. Favorite Facebook Nephew watched me consider which small container to put where, moving one or two others to accommodate an odd shape. The light went on in his head, "You're playing Tetris!"

I can see it now, the opening screen is a closed refrigerator door, you open it to find a 3-D game zone, with various condiments, packages and leftovers hovering in the upper right hand corner. Level 1 does not include the door or small toddlers around your ankles. The goal is to pack it as efficiently as possible without dropping items to the floor, or leaving the turkey out on the counter all night.

tetris, v. intr. to pack a fixed volume with items of irregular shape under time constaints

Photo is from xkcd.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Column: Advent is a time for rousing

The photo is from a walk on the 30-day retreat, following a suggestion from my director to enjoy the contrariness of a warm blizzard. In much the same way, this piece (the first of a four part series reflecting on the ways the prophetic call speaks to us in Advent) considers the contrariness of Advent's stillness and hecticness.

This piece appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 11 November 2010.

Lift up your eyes and look. For who made the stars but He who drills them like an army calling each one by name. So mighty is His power, so great His strength, that not one fails to answer. — Isaiah 40:26

“Why does this time of year have to be so crazy?” lamented my friend. He longed for time to sit, like Mary, with the unfolding mystery of the Incarnation but instead faced a veritable firestorm of commitments. Papers to grade, faculty meetings to attend and exams to write were balanced precariously on top of a frantic round of social activities and holiday commitments, while the routine demands of life struggled to make their presence known.

I pointed out to my childless friend that my experience as an expectant mother suggested that the last few weeks leading up to the birth of Jesus were probably not all that contemplative for Mary either.

A first-time mother, unsure of precisely when this baby will be born, or even how to be sure that the time is near, in a community that is rife with rumors about this child and perhaps less than supportive, preparing for and then undertaking an arduous journey with her new husband? All this in the days before you could buy packages of onesies and disposable diapers at the big box store or get FedEx to deliver a last minute item? I imagine that, at times, Mary felt as frazzled and stretched as we do in these last weeks before Christmas.

I admit that I, too, covet the stillness and peace that Advent so richly advertises in its hymns and psalms. May peace be within your walls, we sing in the psalm this first Sunday of Advent. I’ve tried in the past for a stance of extravagant “unbusyness” in this frantic season. A small dose of agere contra, a “pushing against” the external social cues, I have elected to watch and wait more than dash and dance through these Advent days.

It’s a radical notion, but one that I’ve recently begun to wonder might also be more than a bit rash. Have I romanticized Advent? In turning away from the hecticness could I be missing something God is trying to show me?

Jesuit Father Alfred Delp, whose moving reflections on Advent were written while he was imprisoned and awaiting execution by the Nazis and smuggled out with the laundry, pulls out a similar thread to contemplate. Delp begins with the stark statement, “Advent is the time for rousing.” He goes on to point out, “The kind of awakening that literally shocks a person’s whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea.”

Throughout Advent, we hear in the readings at Mass from the prophets: Malachi, Jeremiah, Zephaniah and above all from Isaiah. Certainly the prophets speak of peace, but less as a present reality and more as a hope and a challenge. The prophets came to rouse people.

Rabbi Abraham Herschel, in his book The Prophets points out, “Reading the words of the prophets is a strain on the emotions, wrenching one’s conscience from the state of suspended animation.” Shudder, you complacent ones, says Isaiah (Is. 49:2).

The Church feeds with the prophets in this season, not to bring us on tip toe to a softly lit manger, but to strain us, shake us, to upend things completely. We are walking toward an encounter with God incarnate, who calls the stars — and us — with such strength, who could fail to answer? This is the moment that, as Delp says, “Humanity will be shaken to its very depth.” God will dwell among us. The might and power that creates and moves the stars will become man.

We are not shaken without purpose. We hear the prophets of old to learn how to live as prophets now. We are sealed at our baptism with the oil of chrism, and in the doing, brought into Christ’s prophetic mission. The very name of the sacrament comes from the Greek word for “plunge” — surely a shock to the system. Prophets listen, call out, pour forth. They do not fail to answer.

As Advent begins, I’m seeking not a hushed stillness but the grace of a steady gaze that does not turn away from the tumultuous and the unsettling. Can I let the voices of Isaiah and Jeremiah in the liturgy wrench me out of my usual paths and turn my ear toward the world, to the place where God chose to dwell in time? Can I awaken to the Voice that drills the stars like armies? Advent is a time for rousing.

God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share His wisdom and become one with Him when he comes in glory, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer for the First Sunday in Advent

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Telegraph, Telephone, Tele-mom

As my immediate family spread out across the country in the 80's and 90's, we depended on my mom to keep us all in touch. Too many time zone, and our jobs or studies (or both) often had us on odd schedules. The joke went there were three ways to get a message out: telegraph, telegraph and tele-mom. (Email is included in the "tele-mom" process - my mom was on email from the early days...)

In search of directions to connect to the wireless, I opened the customary information binder in one of the hotels I stayed at during my peripatetic period. Included in the book were instructions on how to send a telegram. I'm over 50 and have never sent a telegram, and in fact do not even remember a telegram being delivered to my house! Does anyone still send them? Why was this considered important information (in a quite modern hotel, no less).

Western Union stopped sending telegrams in 2006, (in person delivery had ceased years before). What's old is new again, though. Like Twitter and SMS, brevity encouraged odd constructions STOP. (This booklet about how to write a proper telegram is a fascinating read.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Column: Elected Stability

Can you tell I'm ready to be home?

The photo is from a relief hanging in the western cloister at Wernersville.

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

One thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek: To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. — Ps. 27:4a

“There are four kinds of monks,” begins the Rule of St. Benedict: those that stay put and have a rule of life, those who go unbound by a common obedience and those who have neither rule nor stable community — the wanderers, the gyrovagues.

Benedict, not surprisingly, looked most favorably on those monks who lived in community, under a rule and an abbot, and even musters a word or two of praise for hermits and anchorites. But the gyratory monks who “all their lives wander in different countries staying in various monasteries for three or four days at a time,” St. Benedict can find nothing to praise in their “wretched life style.”

I need no encouragement from the good saint. After six weeks of wandering in different countries, spending three or four or 10 days sleeping in various hostels and the occasional airplane seat, I’m more than ready to give up my gyratory ways.

Though grateful for the technology that lets me see their faces as well as hear their voices wherever I go, I miss my family deeply when I travel. Drinking my morning cup of tea at a desk, while they eat their dessert half a day and half a world away, is not the same as sharing the same meal at the same table. Clearly I have, as 11th century Benedictine monk St. Anselm advised, “set down roots of love” in the community in which I have professed my vows. My family.

What surprised me, though, was how much I missed the community I pray with. The first morning back at Lauds, as the other side took up its strophe of the psalm, I felt suddenly relieved of a burden I did not know I was carrying. I was not making this time of prayer alone, but was gathered into the rhythm of the community’s voice, as we handed the work of God carefully back and forth over the altar.

St. Benedict called the community a workshop for stability, a spot to learn the virtue of being present to God in the place where you are. Here and now. In the place we have set down our roots of love. For Benedict’s monks, that place was built of real stones and mortar. Most of us must instead seek an interior stability, rooted less in an enclosed place and more in an encompassing love.

The community I celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours with been a good workshop to help me build an interior stability, a monastery of the heart. The work demands presence. It teaches me to keep my mind here and now, and simultaneously to be ready to grasp what is being handed to me.

In his Genesse Diary, Father Henri Nouwen, exhausted by his own travels, reflected on this inner stability, that whether he was “at home or … in a train, plane or airport, I would not feel irritated ... and desirous of being somewhere else ... I would know that here and now is what counts … because it is God Himself who wants me at this time in this place.”

To elect St. Benedict’s virtue of stability, is to move beyond being resigned to where I am, beyond patiently enduring the vicissitudes of travel — or of life at home — but to desire with all my heart to see what God wants me to see. Here and now. In this place and at this time.

God our Father, great builder of the heavenly Jerusalem, You know the number of the stars and call each of them by name. Heal hearts that are broken, gather together those who have been scattered, and enrich us all from the plentitude of Your eternal wisdom. Amen. — Psalm prayer from Morning Prayer, Thursday, Week IV

Monday, November 15, 2010

Advent is the time for rousing

I'm in the throes of writing four reflections on Advent for the paper. I took a long contemplative walk at the old Jesuit novitiate last week with various possiblities and by the end had settled on exploring some themes from Isaiah. What are the prophets of rousing us to here and now, how do we respond to our own baptismal call to be a prophet?

I love the stillness that Advent traditionally promotes, and have argued in the past for a stance of "extravagant unbusyness." But this year I've been reading Rabbi Abraham Herschel's book The Prophets. His initial reflection, "What manner of man is the prophet?" offers, "Reading the words of the prophets is a strain on the emotions, wrenching one's conscience from the state of suspended animation." Shudder, you complacent ones, says Isaiah [Is 49:2].

Jesuit Alfred Delp, reflecting on Advent in his last days in prison pulls out a similar thread. (He would be executed less than two months later by the Nazis for being part of a plot to kill Hitler, a bit of history in which Math Man's family plays a role, which may be at least a small part of why I find Delp's writings so deeply moving) Delp starkly states, "Advent is the time for rousing. Humanity is shaken to the very depths...The kind of awakening that literally shocks a person's whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea."

My favorite reading of all of Advent is this one from Isaiah (and in this particular translation as well), which this year is absent from the cycle (the feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th takes precedence in the calendar).

Photo is from the walk at the Jesuit center.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


gyrovague, n. an itinerant monk. From the Greek gyrus- (circle, circuit) and the Latin vagus (wandering).

It's not a compliment - at least in St. Benedict's mouth. "The fourth kind of monks are those called gyrovagues, who spend their whole lives seeking hospitality in province after province, monastery after monastery, staying three or four days at a time; always wandering and never stable...Of the most wretched life of all these it is better to remain silent than to speak. Leaving these behind us, therefore, let us proceed, with the help of God, to make provision for the cenobites–the strong kind of monks." [ed. note: I've left out the worst of Benedict's characterization of the wandering monastic - which I feel safe saying does not apply to me.]

The last of Ellis Peters' wonderful mystery novels about Benedictine Brother Cadfael, Brother Cadfael's Penance, takes up this theme. Cadfael leaves his monastery, to which he's vowed stability, to go to France. His abbot worries that Cadfael will become a gyrovague. Cadfael ultimately returns, though it was a struggle and he ends doing penance prostrate on the floor of the abbey church (a place I've actually been, though Cadfael is quite thoroughly fictional).

I'm packing up to leave one more time, for a short residency in Virginia. I'm having a hard time putting my clothes into the suitcase, I've no desire to leave again quite this soon. I've ended up packing far more than I usually would, carrying along some comforts of home (hot chocolate, a vase for flowers with the notion I'll stop at the supermarket near the campus) and tons of books. And so this time I'll drive instead of taking the train. Returning via I-95 may be penance enough, no need to prostrate myself!

Photo is of Shrewsbury Abbey church. From Wikimedia commons.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Five hours and fifty-four minutes

No, this is not a allusion to John Cage's 4' 33'' (though 5 hours and 54 minutes of silence has a certain appeal for me). It's the upper limit to the amount of sleep I got last night. My alarm is a zen bell sound, and one of the 'features' is a countdown timer. So when I hit the "start" button, I get instant feedback on the number of hours of sleep I might (under the best of circumstances) manage.

In the car this morning, taking Barnacle Boy to his radio gig, I mentioned that 5 hours and 54 minutes of sleep was just not enough. "How did you know to the minute?" he wondered. I explained. "That's creepy!" I wasn't going to argue with him.

In some ways it is a bit creepy to know to the minute the upper limit on the sleep that I can get. And depressing to be reproached by my own alarm about my sleep habits. It's sort of like opening the menu at a restaurant you've traveled a long way to eat at and seeing the calorie counts for everything, including dessert.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Column: Rending the oak tree and stripping the forest bare

Not only the church, but my whole body literally shook with the power of these bells. And they went on and on...

More on the historic churches of Singapore here.

The photo is of the bell at Mission San Antonio in California.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 11 November 2010.

The Lord’s voice shaking the wilderness, the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh; the Lord’s voice rending the oak tree and stripping the forest bare. — Ps. 29:8-9

From the street it looked just like any other city parking lot, with its glass enclosed attendant and ticket machine. A small sign on the gate, “SS. Peter and Paul. Lot closes at 9 p.m.,” was the only indication I was in the right spot. I crossed the parking lot to the old stone church set back from the street, its steeple dwarfed by the high-rises that surrounded it.

I walked up the steps and into the church, where I was promptly stunned by what the small stone facade had concealed. The white-washed plaster walls, the arcing dome overhead and the floor to ceiling side windows, open to let in even the smallest breeze in Singapore’s tropical heat, created an illusion of infinite space. The entire place seemed to breathe life into the words of the creed: “God from God, Light from Light.” The triptych of stained glass windows high above the altar were like glowing jewels in the late afternoon sun.

I slid into a pew and knelt. The sultry air encouraged stillness, and I surrendered to the quiet in front of the tabernacle, listening for the small, still voice of God in this place.

Suddenly the silence was battered by a great clamor of bells. The very church shook. They rang and rang and rang, calling the faithful to worship with full voice for more than five minutes. When the pealing at last ceased, the air still seemed to shimmer with the sound.

As I knelt under that torrent of sound, I thought of the images the psalmist uses in Psalm 29: The voice of the lord shaking the earth, and stripping the forest bare — the voice of the Lord, full of power.

For more than 1,500 years, bells have been the voice of the Church, in weal and woe, warning of danger and announcing celebration. I generally think of bells as a summons, as an invitation to a gathering whose reason is yet a mystery. Just as St. Francis Xavier’s hand bell intrigued passers-by enough to come hear what he had to say about the Gospel, I still look around for the church when I hear bells ring, wondering what news they are announcing.

Yet this deluge of sound did more than summon — even amidst the noise of the city — it reverberated with power and might. This is the voice, reflected St. Augustine, “that stirred to faith the peoples who were once without hope and without God in the world, where no prophet, no preacher of the word of God was to be found…” This was a voice that could shatter despair and shake life into stones in the desert.

The bells are more than the voice of God calling us to prayer, to come and hear. This is a call to be changed by a Voice that has an effect here and now. A Voice that makes manifest His strength, shaking me out of my complacency, stripping me of my own words, and putting His own Word to work within me.

O God of justice, hear our cry and save us. Make us heed your word to the prophets; rouse us to the demand of the gospel and impel us to carry it out. Amen. — From the Opening Prayer for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Merry, Mary and Marry

Mary-marry-merry merger (from Wikipedia)
One of the best-known pre-rhotic mergers is known as the Mary-marry-merry merger,[4] which consists of the mergers before intervocalic /r/ of /æ/ and /ɛ/ with historical /eɪ/.[5] This merger is quite widespread in North America.[sample 1] A merger of Mary and merry, while keeping marry distinct, is found in the South and as far north as Baltimore, Maryland, and Wilmington, Delaware; it is also found among Anglophones in Montreal.[6] In the Philadelphia accent the three-way contrast is preserved, but merry tends to be merged with Murray; likewise ferry can be a homophone of furry. (See furry-ferry merger below.) The three are kept distinct outside of North America, as well as in the accents of Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and Providence, Rhode Island.[7][sample 2] There is plenty of variance in the distribution of the merger, with expatriate communities of these speakers being formed all over the country.

I grew up in the Midwest, where the pre-rhotic merger is firmly entrenched. Memories of my New York mother (trying to form her own expatriate community, I presume) drilling us in the bathtub so we would preserve the "three-way contrast" came flooding back today. She was successful in that (if I concentrate) I can give each of the three a unique pronounciation. Unfortunately, occasional drills could not overcome the peer effect and at pace, it's all sounds the same coming from my mouth. Sorry, Mom!

The memories were triggered when, in the midst of a reflection I was giving for a day of renewal for mothers, I encountered this phrase in my text: "immanent and imminent". They look different on paper, sound different in my head. Alas, they don't sound different when I say them. Stuffed between two nasal consonants, my /ə/and my /ɪ/ (respectively) are indistinguishable.

The difference between writing for the column and writing to speak is significant.

Photo is of a painting that hung in the stairwell at Eastern Point Retreat House when I made the Exercises, and that I spent a fair amount of time contemplating. I used it to make prayer cards to give to the retreatants today. I think the day of renewal went well - a taste of Ignatian spirituality for mothers.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Column: Traveling Mercies

This column had its genesis in this blog post, and the various wishes for mercies on my travels. The travels were indeed full of graces, big and small. The friend of a friend who took me to Mass (murmuring the occasional explanation for the differences between the celebrations usual in Singapore and those in the US) and then out to dinner the first night I was there. The students who explained how to get to the other side of campus in a rainstorm (the campus bus!). The immigration officer who filled in my landing card (which I had screwed up royally) only teasing me I should be kind to my students on their next exam....

The photo is of a flower in the botanical gardens in Singapore.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 4 Nov 2010.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for it is by doing so that some have entertained angels without knowing it. — Hebrews 13:2

I am an itinerant scholar these days, teaching and writing far from my usual haunts. The last few weeks have seen me traveling up and down the Northeast corridor from Princeton, N.J., to Washington, D.C., and as I write this, I am on a plane headed to London, en route to Singapore.

I’ve learned to travel lightly, trusting that I will find what I need along the way — or just do without. Still, my bag coming back from Virginia last week was anything but light. I had brought almost 20 pounds of books with me to work on a writing project in between workshops and guest lectures. And I bought more while I was there — heedless of the four train connections that stood between me and home. (Small wonder I resonate with the 12th century Carthusian Abbot who as his monastery burned exhorted the monks to save not themselves, but, “The books, my brothers, the books!”)

Changing trains on my way to Union Station, I discovered to my dismay that not only were the escalators out of service, so were the elevators. So much for luggage on wheels. I resolutely picked up my bag and hauled it up the first three steps, and took a breather. Another four steps. I hoisted the bag up again, trying not to mentally count the number of steps remaining.

Suddenly my bag seemed to float, I looked back to see a young woman holding the other end high and almost dancing up the steps. In seconds we were at the top. As I turned to thank my rescuer, she grinned, murmured, “God bless you,” and dashed off; my words of gratitude and blessing bobbing along in her wake.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds the community to care for the stranger, just in case they are angels in disguise. I momentarily wondered if I’d been entertained by an angel in Metro Center, rather than the other way ‘round. Regardless, it was a profound traveling mercy.

Before I embarked on this month of travels, a friend promised me prayers for “traveling mercies” along the way. In Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith Anne Lamott writes of the older women of her church community who send travelers off with this same prayer. They mean, she says, “Love the journey. God is with you. Come home safe and sound.”

I sometimes think of traveling mercies as just-in-time grace — like the young woman who came to my aid on the stairs. But it is also grace that sharpens my eyes for God. Traveling takes me out of the places I know well, pushes me out of my comfort zone. All this reminds me that I’m equally on journey when I’m back home and so to be attentive to the mercies to be found there.

My suitcase clearly advertised my status as a traveler to my energetic helper (and my graying hair, perhaps, my need of a traveling mercy). But we are all travelers and our need of mercy is just as great at home as on the road. Now I’m looking out not only for the mercies shown me — on the road or at home — but those I might offer to my fellow travelers.

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May he look upon you with kindness, and give you peace. Amen. From the solemn blessing for Ordinary Time I.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Big Silence

Read about the BBC's "The Big Silence" - which followed five people to a Benedictine monastery and on an 8-day Ignatian retreat. The site, Growing Into Silence, is a project of the British province of the Jesuits.

I'd love to see the show...

Monday, November 01, 2010

Burn these clothes

After wearing the same clothes for 36 straight hours of brutal travel, I wanted nothing more than to burn them, or toss them down a oubliette, or throw them into the replicators to have their molecules re-arranged into something (anything) different.

I settled for a good wash. And a very long shower.

Last traveling mercy? A "ten minute beat up" by a lovely young woman staffing the express spa (isn't this an oxymoron?) at Heathrow. The massage left me in such a puddle I wondered if I'd be able to get on the plane.