Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Column: Prayer of the exhausted - sleep

Patient Spiritual Director suggested (not entirely in jest, I think) I consider taking up sleep as a Lenten discipline, his theory being it would be a more difficult undertaking for me than giving up chocolate. (I didn't in fact give up chocolate for Lent, but am trying a modified version of what Mark Bittman and others are attempting. At the moment all I want to say about the experience is that it has been efficacious — and far more difficult than I anticipated.)

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 31 March 2011.

I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. — Ps. 4:9

Last Thursday morning, the high school principal found Chris and his friend, asleep, on the floor outside their first block classroom. “Is everything OK?” he wondered. Roused from his slumbers, Chris responded with a laconic, “Tech week.” Those two words explained much. The principal left the two to drowse away the last few minutes before the bell rang.

The school musical opens on Friday and rehearsals are in full swing. Chris is both performing and working as tech crew: alternately singing up a storm on stage and hauling huge pieces of scenery around behind the scenes. Mike is managing the technical end of the production; with a word whispered into his headset, he can cause witches to appear in mid-air and set a darkened stage alight.

There is no shortage of creative energy flowing in my house — this crew can get a paper mache cow to give milk. Sleep, however? No one is getting very much. That includes the parents who late each night collect the exhausted thespians, and sit vigil with them as they face the homework due the next day.

As Chris crept off to bed late on Thursday night, declaring he would fall asleep as soon as he was horizontal, this verset from Psalm 4 ran through my mind. He would indeed sleep in peace, his work for this day finished, his school bag packed for the next.

St. John Chrysostom, in reflecting on this psalm, would agree with Chris. Those who live virtuously, who possess God, will “in their waking hours enjoy life and at night rest with great satisfaction.” A clear conscience (or completed homework) doesn’t nag at you in the quiet hours of the night.

Yet there is more than just the rest of the righteous in the image of repose the psalmist evokes here. Recently, a friend lent me a little book of pithy advice on prayer by Keith McClellan OSB. Number 33: Sleep is the prayer of those who rest secure in God.

In his commentary on the fourth psalm, St. Augustine proposes that sleep is a metaphor for the presence of God. Just as we close the door and pull the shades at night to shut out any commotion on the street that might disturb us, Augustine suggests we foster a similar attitude with our interior world. He might be writing about our own time when he laments the ways in which a world that clamors noisily at the gates, which measures worth in terms of possessions, leaves us fragmented.

Augustine urges us to forgo the “countless images” and demands that take our gaze away from God. Cultivate a simplicity of heart, let this be the cloak we might wrap around ourselves to shut out the world and rest in God.

As the mid-point of Lent approaches, I wonder if I, like my kids, epically short of sleep these days, might look to Augustine’s wisdom. The exterior world makes many demands, fragmenting my attention and my patience. God has but one desire, that I rest in Him alone.

Can I turn off the computer with its countless images and burgeoning inbox, close the book, ignore the laundry, and sleep — secure in God? I suspect it would be harder than giving up chocolate, and likely bear more fruit.

Lord our God, restore us again by the repose of sleep after the fatigue of our daily work: so that, continually renewed by your help, we may serve you in body and soul. Through Christ our Lord, Amen. — Closing prayer from Thursday Night Prayer

Monday, March 28, 2011

Silent notes

The deep sense of release when I unbuckled my watch, getting off the clock bound to my wrist and diving into a more timeless existence. I'd just finished celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation with my confessor, so the next time I needed to be anywhere was 11 :45 the next morning (for Mass, lunch and and appointment with Patient Spiritual Director). Absolution and the temporary respite from the tyrant of the clock, commingled relief.

The almost riotous outbreak of spring. The grass had a lively spring, the birds were warbling cheerfully, the sun was warm on my back as I walked down the hill toward the cemetery. Hard to imagine I would wake in a day or two to a car dusted in snow.

Sinking deeply into writing a reflection on the Liturgy of the Hours, tucked into a corner of the Library, so silent I could hear the pen scratch on the paper. Prayer soaked work.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Thirty-four thousand revisited

Last weekend, Math Man was on the road again. It was the start of tech week1, so I was shuttling people hither and yon, carefully choreographed runs to the high school, to the church. Dropping people at parties, delivering forgotten pieces of costumes, picking them up from shows they were reviewing. And doing the laundry, the shopping, the cooking, the

I need to say that Crash and the Boy have done their own laundry since I went on the 30-days (a fruit of the Exercises Ignatius probably never imagined). For the last two years they have alternated who washes and dries and who folds and puts away, generally with no arguments or prompting from parental parties. (Yeah, I know it's a downright miracle - if Ignatius had not already been canonized, I would submit this to the appropriate office in Rome.) However, in the
craziness of tech week, I offered to finish up a load that Crash had put in to dry before he left on Saturday. I pulled it out of the dryer and went to throw a load of whites in. I bent down, only to
notice blue streaks all over the inside of the dryer, and a greasy green splotch by the lint trap.

My heart sank. Had someone left crayons in his pocket? Weren't we past the crayon days? No time to deal, though, I was off on my next pick-up. It wasn't until I had both guys in the car on the way home that evening that I calmly3 mentioned that they should clean their pockets out before doing the wash, lest things melt in the dryer.

There was a brief silence. "Was it green?" wondered the Boy. "Well, yes," I responded. "It was me. My gum." Mystery substance identified. First step in removal. "OK, then, could you research how to get gum out of the dryer?"

He was delighted at the round number of Google hits - 34,000. The procedure wasn't too arduous (involving fabric softener, scrubbies and rags) and very effective (though I ran a load of light colored towels before committing all my white turtlenecks to the presumably now clean
dryer - I've been burned before!)

1. An essentially sleepless period before a show opens, at least if you are part of the tech crew or like Crash, the production stage manager.
2. Before you direct any sympathy my way, let me point out that as I write this, I'm on the train to Amherst, MA to give a talk at a conference — leaving Math Man to pick up 200 pounds of dry ice from South Philly for opening night. And deal with the laundry, the shopping, the bills and the chauffeuring.
3. I really was calm. I'll take credit for having some perspective on the level of crisis this constituted. The weekend before had involved a run to the emergency room.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Column: Penance is an act of hope

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 24 March 2011.

A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me. — Ps. 51:12

“…May God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen. The words of forgiveness poured over me like water. The trace of the cross, the sign of my salvation, lingered in the air above me.

I walked down the hall to the dim and still chapel to complete this sacramental encounter. Kneeling, I found the psalm in my breviary that was prescribed as my penance and began to pray. Suddenly I broke into quiet laughter.

“Truly sons are a gift from the Lord” read the psalm. Truly, both of my sons are — but there are times when a reminder is in order, and this might have been one of them.

St. Gregory of Nazianzen called the sacrament of penance, “a laborious baptism.” The words of absolution spoken by my confessor were not in response to my generic opening statement, “I have sinned;” I’m human, that probably goes without saying. Absolution came only after I had brought my contrite heart to see what, specifically, I had done, after I had faced my confessor and spoken aloud the ways in which I had failed, after I had lamented how I offended God and resolved to mend my sinful ways.

It’s not a trivial undertaking — even without the penance assigned. We are asked to confess our sins in particular, so that the penance assigned can be proper, the prescription appropriate to the wound. Absolution does not wait on my making satisfaction, on doing my penance — I am forgiven the moment the formula is spoken. The satisfaction I am to make is not demanded by God as payment, but desired by God for my healing.

I find that I, too, desire this outward sign of the inward labor that brought me to seek God’s mercy. Assigned penances are a sign of God’s steadfast spirit within me. That spirit makes me just a bit more prudent and attentive. I can’t tell you how many times that line from Psalm 127 has run through my head a nanosecond before my patience with my kids might otherwise have evaporated. (I’ll also ruefully admit on many occasions the reminder materializes a few seconds too late.)

My penance reminds me, too, that sin is serious business, that God’s mercy was not gained without cost — what I have access to in confession is not cheap grace. Costly grace, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, goes beyond a wiping away of our sins and instead demands discipleship — a spirit willing to pick up the cross and follow Christ.

My penance is not an undoing of what was done, but an act of hope. Hope for continued healing, hope that I might always have the joy of God’s help, hope that I might draw on God’s steadfast spirit within, pick up my cross and follow. I hope you, too, might consider seeking this grace.

Father, he who knew no sin was made sin for us, to save us and restore us to your friendship. Look upon our contrite heart and afflicted spirit and heal our troubled conscience, so that in the joy and strength of the Holy Spirit we may proclaim your praise and glory before all the nations.

— Prayer after Psalm 51, Liturgy of the Hours, Friday of Week I

Monday, March 21, 2011

Thirty-four thousand

I'm off to the silence tonight, and thought I'd leave behind a writing assignment (of the sort I've been posting on my other blog to go along with the course I was teaching in science writing).

Writing prompt

Google returns exactly 34,000 hits to the query "remove gum in dryer." Write the back story! (5 minutes max)

Be creative. I look forward to seeing what you imagine prompted that when I return. Feel free to invoke visits from aliens and/or angels. The actual story encompasses both.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

How has the examen changed my life?

It came as the very last question of the evening, from a retired mother of six. Holding up the pamphlet I'd shared with them, she said, "This sounds like something I might want to try, but tell me, how has the examen changed your life?"

Now I know how my graduate students feel during their oral prelim exams. Just when you think you're done, someone asks a simple, direct question that demands you defend your entire thesis in one sentence. Or three.

In the talk, I had described an experience of the examen that enabled me to find grace in a bracing cup of tea one morning (the day had been otherwise dreadful, difficult, demanding….and would have been far more so without those pre-dawn draughts of caffeine and God's steadfast spirit in the kitchen). While the examen had enabled me to see God in the rear-view mirror that night, I had to admit it would be hard to extrapolate from that one event to the effect the practice had had on my life as a whole.

I'm always afraid when I write of crossing the line from reflection to pious platitudes (or worse yet, sanctimonious preaching). What could I say — on the fly, no less — in response to this question that didn't sound trite or evasive or too self-revealing?

The examen wears paths in my life. My feet know the actual paths that I walk in daily life, even in the dark. I know where the water pools, where the uneven spots are in the sidewalk, and where the entrance to some never-yet-seen creature's house gapes, waiting to trap the ankle of the unwary. I've walked these routes for years.

The examen offers me that same familiarity with the entirety of my life. My soul can find the graced paths to follow, it's aware of where the stumbling blocks are. So I sometimes notice in real time the way the leaves rustle as though the Spirit's breath is stirring them -- having thanked God so many times in the examen for such a visitation. I occasionally catch myself before I meltdown over the dishes in the kitchen, recalling how often I've winced when replaying a similar scene with God sitting next to me on the sofa. Each passage through my day wears the path just a bit deeper, makes it just that much easier to find.

I re-read this and it still sounds like trivia, except that trivia is what my life consists of: the dishes, finding my husband's missing shoes, talking to students, and figuring out how many yards of black fabric you need for a 300 square foot backdrop. It's all small stuff, grand deeds have not been asked of me, and likely never will.

Karl Rahner, S.J. writes, in "God of My Daily Routine" that he hopes to see the few precious instances when the grace of Your love has succeeded in stealing into an obscure corner of my life”. I can hope for no more than that, and truly the examen is what gives me eyes to see the obscure and mundane as holy. It's what let's my day pray.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Column: Listing Sins

In other spaces I've been writing and talking about the Examen, pointing out it should not be confused with an examination of conscience. This piece, however, is about examining your conscience.

There are at least two lists on my desk in the photo.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 17 March 2011.

For I am well aware of my fault, I have my sin constantly in mind. Ps. 51:3

“How do you know what to say?” wondered a friend, curious about the Catholic practice of confessing your sins, not in general, but in particular. I was tempted to say, “There’s an app for that!” which of course, there is. My teen-aged son Mike downloaded it last week, just in time for Lent. An inventory of sins, suited to your age and state in life. Tick off what applies and take your personalized examination of conscience along with you to the nearest confessional.

I will fully admit to being a list-junky. There’s a form on the fridge where my guys can check off what we need from the grocery store, a list of what I need to accomplish today tucked in my bag, and a list of chores to be done scribbled on the kitchen door. Probably not surprisingly, I’ve a file folder full of lists of questions to help you in examining your conscience, picked up at retreats and sacramental preparation classes when I taught religious ed. But when it comes to preparing for confession, I try to put the lists to one side. Why?

One size does not fit all. I find some lists, particularly the ones that read as if they’ve been drawn from Dante, leave me complacent — thinking to myself, at least I haven’t done that. Reconciliation is about my failings, not someone else’s.

This is not the grocery list, where if it’s not checked off, I’m off the hook for remembering to buy it. Just because a fault isn’t on a list, doesn’t mean it’s not a fault I need to pay attention to.

This is not an interrogation by God, determined to find out what I’ve done. God knows. I’m the one that’s in the dark.

Above all, the lists are just that, lists. I want to go toward God with my whole self: heart, soul, mind and body. When I was younger, my dad — a gifted carpenter — taught me to sand a piece of wood to get its shape just so. Measurements, even careful ones with calipers, only went so far. In the end, it was his hands running over the whole piece that told him where a touch of sandpaper was needed.

In much the same way, the Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t give us a list to use when examining our conscience, even a very general one, but instead urges us to consult the Word of God. Let God’s Word in Sacred Scripture run over my life to see where it catches on a rough spot, or where the shape is not quite right. While the ten commandments might seem a logical starting place for my list-loving self, I find St. Paul’s advice to the Corinthians a better lamp by which to search my soul: Love does not seek its own interests.

St. Hugh noted that God’s sacred Word could be read not only in scripture, but also in nature and our experiences. Taking Jesus’ words in Matthew to heart: “How can you say, ‘let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your own?” I pay attention to what is annoying me, or making me angry, in others. All too often these are the splinters that point me toward the wooden beams of my own faults.

The lists in my life keep chaos at arm’s length, I’d be loath to give them up. But in preparing for confession, I seek to know the havoc that sin has wreaked in my life, not keep it at bay. For this I need not a list, but God’s loving eye on my life.

God our Father, teach us to find new life through penance. Keep us from sin, and help us live by your commandment of love. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen — Opening Prayer for Monday, the second week of Lent

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Examining the Examen

I gave a Lenten reflection at a nearby parish earlier this week, "Meeting Christ in the Everyday." My starting point was that Christ, having pitched his tent among us to become "God in the everyday," desires to meet us in the everyday. I suggested two practices which help me sharpen my awareness of the ways in which I meet God walking among us: the Examen, and a willingness to grasp the chance to be still when it presents itself at moments scattered through my day — or at least not multi-task!

There was a delightful and lively discussion after the talk, mostly centered around the practice of the Examen, which was new to many of the listeners. A commenter on an earlier post this week wondered if I might write a bit more here, as well.

So what is the Examen? For Catholics, it might be best to start with what it is not: it's not an examination of conscience. It's not an exercise directed solely at figuring out where one has "missed the mark" or sinned. It is an exercise of reflecting with God. It's immediate; this is about today - not three weeks ago. It strives for a sense of gratitude, not judgement. It seeks awareness, not condemnation.

Yes, I sometimes wince at what I've done before God, but I also laugh and delight and am in awe at what God has done before me.

The directions for making the Examen are often laid out in five steps (sometimes I think Ignatius is the saint of the organized). Here's the description I gave, but there are many other ways to frame the practice.

1. Place yourself in the presence of God. Ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Let the Light of Christ shine on your day.
2. Review the past day (or morning), hour by hour. Don’t bounce around. I find it too easy to let something slide by when I skip around my day.
3. Pay attention to your emotions. What did you feel at the time? What did your day look like through God's eyes?
4. Choose one bit of the day and pray from it. Talk to God about it. Be frank. Ask advice. Listen.
5. Look forward. What will be difficult tomorrow, this afternoon? Where should you be on the lookout for joy to break out? Where do you most want God’s help and steadfast spirit to be present?
End by praying the Our Father.
As one woman at Monday night's event wryly noted: it's not as easy at it sounds. Personally, I think it's something that takes a lifetime of practice.

The best question asked? How has practicing the Examen changed your life? That's tomorrow's post!

Want to learn more? There are a wealth of resources for learning more about the Examen — whether you are new to the practice, or have been at it a long time — at Loyola Press' Ignatian Spirituality site.

If you want to try this practice and think verbal coaching will help, try the 8 minute audio version at Pray As You Go. (Click on the box on the left that reads "At the End of the Day"). Loyola Press is featuring a series, "The Lunchtime Examen" which is another way into the practice. (H/T to Denise in the comments!)

And if it's the examination of conscience you want to know more about — read what I'm writing at the Standard this week....

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Where is God? Here and now.

On Monday night I'm giving an evening reflection at a nearby parish (St. Margaret's in Narberth). Where is God in our everyday lives? Here and now? Karl Rahner, S.J. writes in Encounters with Silence, "if there is any path at all on which I can approach You, it must lead through the middle of my very ordinary daily life." How can we seek out God in the midst of our ordinary days, in the laundry, the kids, on the drive to work or the aisle in the grocery store? How do we respond when we find Christ sitting next to us on the bus, or encounter God at dawn in the kitchen?

St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians tells us we are clothed in Christ, who was God in the everyday — so our call to be quotidian mystics, saints of the daily, is a call to seek Christ, God walking among us, seen and unseen, recognized and anonymous....

Where am I going? The examen — a practice of gratitude and attentiveness — and finding moments of stillness....I'm going to try to podcast it in sections post facto.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Podcasting Lent: Fasting makes the hungry visible

The Denver archdiocese is trying to make Lenten discipline visible with black wristbands that read "sacrificium." My Lenten fast was invisible to my neighbor, but made many things visible to me. Fasting makes the hungry visible.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Column: I confess

This is part one of three on sacramental reconciliation.

Thank you to all those who shared with me why they go. In her wonderful book (if you're looking for something for Lent - take a peek) St. Benedict's Toolbox, Jane Tomaine notes in her section on humility and obedience that one Benedictine tool is to "practice self-disclosure with someone I trust" — and in this sacrament I have the opportunity to do just that.

It is sometimes discomfiting to speak aloud the ways that I've fallen short of the mark, but like opening doors onto the monsters in the closet, light banishes darkness. My preference is to go face to face — the sacramental encounter is not just a way to let God hear me, or for me to hear God, but a moment to know that God sees me, and for me to see God.

And the Latin term for "afflicted spirit" is one that captures better than the English how I feel at times: animi cruciatis.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 10 March 2011.

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
— Joel 2:12-13a

I confess. I go, I mean. To confession. Regularly.

Why do you go, wonders a friend, in these days when so few people do? Are there not less discomfiting ways to experience God's mercy and forgiveness? Perhaps, but none so effective.

I will admit the sacrament of penance is one I've always approached with equal parts anxiety and tranquility. When I was young, I was forever worried that I would forget the words to the Act of Contrition — so worried that I never learned to be anxious about actually confessing my sins. Those, I knew, and if I didn't, one brother or another was happy to remind me.

Yet my earliest memories of going to confession are also cloaked in tranquility. Perhaps because living in a three bedroom house with six kids and a large dog, those brief Saturday sojourns to the warm, still parish church were one of the few truly quiet moments in my life. A place where I could encounter God without having to simultaneously keep an eye on a younger brother.

More than 40 years later, I'm still going to confession, still finding it to be an experienced edged with anxiety and yet remarkably replete with calm.

The anxiety I feel is no longer that of a child worried that she will forget her prayers. Instead, it is a nagging sense of dislocation, an uncomfortable realization that I've strayed from the path I would rather be on. I long to be found again by God. My desire is itself an act of contrition, what the Church calls animi cruciatis, an afflicted spirit, and compunctio cordis, repentance of heart. The path to sacramental reconciliation begins here for me, when I know that my heart is rent open, when I mourn each of the chances to follow God that I lost. I am anxious to return.

Tension might propel me through the door of my confessor's office, but tranquility holds court within. As my confessor's stole settles over his shoulders, so, too, does peace settle over me. Here I can safely shake out the dark corners of my soul, exposing to God's steadfast and loving gaze what would prefer to be hidden. God listens.

Ultimately, though, I don't go to confession because I'm anxious about what will happen if I don't, or even for the peace that unburdening my soul brings. I go because this is what Jesus died for — the forgiveness of sins. Christ gave His very life in order that I might sit in a chair in my confessor's office, and say, like the thief on the cross, I have sinned, and hear Christ, from the cross, respond, I will take you back. It's a gift I cannot refuse.

Lord Jesus Christ, you are the Lamb of God; you take away the sins of the world. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit restore me to friendship with your Father, cleanse me from every stain of sin in the blood you shed for me, and raise me to new life for the glory of your name.
— From the Rite of Penance

Monday, March 07, 2011

Podcasting Lent: Scrabble as a Lenten discipline

Scrabble remains a good discipline for me — particularly now when I'm being creamed in a game by Barnacle Boy. (Who wonders, "Are you letting me win?" For the record, absolutely not.) Humility is yet one more thing the game brings me to confront, not just once, but again and again.

What are you giving up or taking on for Lent?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Traveling scams

If it had been an email or Facebook status, I would have thought it was one of those scams, "I'm in London and my wallet was stolen, and I just need someone to wire me $400 to pay my hotel bill..." Instead, the plea came via phone with Math Man on the other end. His wallet hadn't been stolen, in fact, and he didn't need me to wire him money but his ATM card had expired. (He was on a 10-day trip, with stops in Augusta, GA and Seattle, WA.) Was the new one on his desk somewhere? (It was.) Could I send it to him? (Yes.)

He noted wryly that you can get pretty far with $2.64 in your pocket and a credit card. I said it was rather like the pilgrimages some Jesuit novices make - a bus ticket, $25 and instructions to make your way home. "Yeah, except for the credit card."

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Can you microwave duct tape?

Math Man, "Can you microwave duct tape?"

Me, "I have no idea." And I'm certain I don't want to know why he wants to know.

Math Man, "Crash? Can you microwave duct tape?"

Crash, who is production stage manager for the high school this year, is intimately familiar with the properties of duct tape. Even he was not certain.

As to why? I bought one of the enormous cold packs like they have at the physical therapists to ice my (still) aching knees. They aren't meant to go in the microwave, but Math Man didn't know that. He wanted a hot pack for his sore back, threw it in the microwave and managed to burn a couple of holes in it. Which he proceeded to duct tape and then put the pack back in the microwave?!

I've ordered a new cold pack. And one just for Math Man that will heat (safely) in the microwave.

Column: Draw my circle just

The story behind the first gift of the rosary appeared here; these days the prayers are bound to my wrist in the Orthodox fashion. Truly always to hand.

And I really did have a hard time leaving the chapel at Wernersville on my last visit - the stillness and silence were so profound that I wanted to sit there forever. St. Ignatius' advice to neither lengthen nor shorten your previously decided upon time of prayer was what got me to stand, bow and leave!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 3 March 2011.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.

I opened the note on my desk and turquoise beads spilled out into my hand. The rosary that I had given to a friend to comfort her sister, is once again made a gift, this time to me. I ran the beads through my fingers and the words rose unbidden, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” I prayed for the repose of Peg’s soul and the consolation of her family — and for my own consolation.

There is something profoundly comforting about linking my prayers to these familiar strands, to feeling their weight in my hands. Counting them on my fingers, ticking them off on my iPod, tallying them mentally, all come up short in comparison.

Moving from one bead to the next takes time, it automatically slows the pace of my prayer. Like the meters on the Blue Route ramps, the individual beads keep one prayer from crowding up against the next. In his Apostolic Exhortation, Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI encourages us to pray the rosary slowly, “By its nature the recitation of the rosary calls for a quiet rhythm and a lingering pace, helping the individual to meditate on the mysteries of the Lord’s life....”

Unlike my iPod or my fingers, which I use for so many different tasks, the rosary is a sacred object, something I use only for prayer. To handle it then is to enter into a distinctly sacred space, one so small it fits into my pocket — and at the same time so vast that the entire universe cannot contain it.

Body, mind, and spirit are not disconnected. The desert fathers knew this well and recommended that prayers be accompanied by metania — prostrations. A monk might prostrate himself fully, or he might bow and brush the floor with his hand. Such gestures, large or small, are impractical in many times and places, and so the sliding of the beads through the hands has come to take their place. Each prayer, each bead is an opportunity to practice a small metania, that I might experience in my soul metanoia, conversion.

Poet John Donne wrote, “Thy firmnesse drawes my circle just and makes me end where I begunne” The prayers kept on the rosary’s circle are the first devotion I can remember, the beads tucked into my mother’s purse and pooled on her dresser kept the sense of God at a constant simmer. Now when I’m too tired to think about what or how to pray, the habits of my hands can draw my circle just, bringing my prayer life back to where it began.

Late one night last week, I sat in a chapel so silent, so still that the very air seemed to have ceased to move. A part of me wanted to stay, wrapped in that profound stillness, held by God. I left, longing in my heart for such a place nearer to hand.

Back home, when I found the rosary on my desk, I realized that I had access to such a chapel, one was always to hand. That stillness, that center is held firmly within the circle of beads in my pocket. The Lord is with me.

God of mercy, give us strength. May we who honor the memory of the mother of God rise above our sins and failing with the help of her prayers. — from Closing Prayer from the Common of the Blessed Virgin

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Why confess?

I'll confess that I'm having trouble with confession. Not the sacrament, but writing about it.

I'm working on a 3-part series for Lent for the Standard and Times. Right now I'm grappling with articulating why I go, in the face of statistics which say that most people don't (depending on how you cut CARA's data, only about 1 in 4 Catholics in the US seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation go at least once a year).

When I was working on my master's I wrote a paper for a course on Reconciliation where I tried to tease out the reasons for the Church's epidemic of absentee penitents that might be inherent in the way we celebrate the rite. (As opposed to bemoaning the cultural shifts that might predispose people in this time and place to see no benefits in such a sacramental celebration of forgiveness.)

My sense then was that the formal satisfaction (the penance) asked of a penitent were too often out of step with what was confessed. My kids joke that when you see the school nurse she prescribes Tums no matter what the ailment: "You've cut your finger off? Have a Tums!" Penances that consisted purely of this many Hail Marys and that many Our Fathers can feel like Tums for the soul. Similarly, penances along the lines of "just be nicer to your family today" are like saying, drink your regular cup of coffee this morning to help your cold.

It's not that there is anything wrong per se with either of these penances, but when the penitent lacks a frame in which to place them, they can feel pale. One sentence of explanation by the confessor can shift a penance of 10 Hail Marys from feeling like dropping coins in the pay laundry — "ka-ching," one load of wash done — to something that heals and strengthens.

If you go, whatever your tradition, why? If you don't, why? or are you like me, and can't quite say why either way?

Photo is off confessional at Mission San Miguel.