Thursday, April 28, 2011

Column: translating Lent into Easter

I ate a lot of fish in Lent, along with the bread and vegetables...the photo is from the market in Singapore last fall.

I love the image from Rilke, which always reminds me of nestlings taking their first flight, urged on with great enthusiasm by their parents.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 28 April 2011.

And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.— Mt. 28:20b

As I write this, Lent has not quite spent itself. Still, wisps of resurrection are beginning to show themselves amidst the solemn violet trappings of Holy Week. At choir last night, we practiced Pange Lingua, anticipating the stripping of the altar on Holy Thursday; half an hour later, the Easter sequence was rising. A stray alleluia escaped at Morning Prayer, even as we read from Isaiah of the suffering servant. And Mike is doing his laundry, to be sure of enough white dress shirts for the liturgies to come.

My eyes are already looking for the rising of the Son, though there is yet the passion to pass through. I’m ready to bring back the alleluias in full voice, see the church filled with light and life, and let go of my self-imposed Lenten disciplines.

A friend, a recent convert to Catholicism, asked me one morning after Mass what happens with our Lenten practices when Easter dawns. Do we end them with a sigh of relief and stop thinking about them until next Ash Wednesday?

I gave up meat this Lent; my family did not. Six days a week, I have been making steak sandwiches, dishing out sloppy joes and putting roast chicken on the table, all the while eating bread and cheese and vegetable soup. Quite aside from the challenges that has presented to my resolve, the shopping list has grown more complex, and it has made whoever cooks a bit more harried when two different menus need to land on the table simultaneously.

There was certainly a penitential aspect to my Lenten practice, a not unnecessary sense of expiation. As St. Gregory the Great recommended, “in doing penance it is necessary to deprive oneself of as many lawful pleasures as we had the misfortune to indulge in unlawful ones.” I like roast chicken, I felt deprived.

But this particular Lenten journey has provided me with something more than the chance to atone for my sins. It has been what Pope Benedict XVI called in his Lenten address of 2009 “an itinerary of intense spiritual training.”

Pope Benedict suggests the work doesn’t end with Lent. My Lenten discipline was not merely a temporary swapping of indulgence for deprivation, somehow seeking to balance the books with God. As with any sort of training, the practice is not the goal, but the means to something else. When we freely embrace self-denial, says Pope Benedict, “we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger.” Self-denial, particularly fasting, teaches us to maintain “a welcoming and attentive attitude towards our brothers and sisters.”

This period of intense training, of a developing awareness of the difficulty of scarcity in the midst of plenty, is about to give way to the joys of Easter, but it has left me with questions to ponder amid the celebration of this season of redemption. How can I be aware of those around me who do not have what they require to meet bodily needs? In what ways can I welcome the poor into my life, as brothers and sisters, not strangers?

I leave the training of Lent behind, but not without thought for what comes next. In the words of poet Rainer Marie Rilke, “We who have been cradled close in your hands, are lavishly flung forth.” And so I go, to love and serve the Lord — and care for my sisters and brothers.

Use us and our gifts for your newness that pushes beyond all that we can say or imagine. We are grateful for words given us; we are more grateful for your word fleshed among us.

— Walter Brueggemann in Called beyond Comfort Zone

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

From The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot

I love the scent of my neighbor's lilacs, which perfume the whole street. Memories stir: of Crash's birth, of Tom's funeral, of my own birthdays. Cool and warm, sweet and stinging.

I'm submerged in the end of semester, a swirling chaos of endings and beginnings. Planning for next year, closing off this year, graduation. Writing (four pieces due in the next week, all in various stages of completion or not, scattered across the floor of my study...).

I've little time or energy to write here, but hope keeps me pinning bits up on the wall in my study, waiting for May's open burst of time.

Photo is from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Fire and Water

In the tender compassion of our God,
the dawn from on high shall break up on us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet in the way of peace.

Christ is risen, alleluia, alleluia!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Column: We wait in prayer, as one

Holy Thursday always feels like waiting to me. Twenty-four years ago, I waited on a Holy Thursday, praying with Christ in the garden at Gesthemane, to hear whether my beloved husband would live or die. The cup I prayed that night might pass, did not, and I was plunged into the shock and agony of Good Friday. I wade into these days of the Triduum with trepidation and with hope, to let God work in the grief and pain that even now I can reach out and touch.

Photo is of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on Holy Thursday, 21 April 2011.

Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace. — Antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis, Night Prayer

I saw the film “Of Gods and Men” last weekend. The movie is extraordinary: simple, beautiful and difficult. If you get a chance to see it, go.

“Of Gods and Men” tells the story of the Trappists of the Abbey of Our Lady of Atlas, in Tibhirine, Algeria. The situation in which the monks found themselves was politically unstable, and threatened not only their lives, but also the lives of those who lived in the village that had grown up around the monastery. Though many urged the monks to flee, and they themselves struggled with the decision, ultimately they chose to stay, to watch over and watch with the community of which they were an integral part.

I first learned of the story through a poem, The Contemplative Life, written by Marilyn Nelson, which quotes a letter left by the prior of the monastery, Father Christian de Cherge. The Triduum is nearly upon us, and with it, my thoughts turn to what it means as a Christian to watch and to wait, as these monks did for more than three years, from the first time men with guns pounded on the door of the enclosure, until they were taken away to face their own Calvary.

I hear in Father Christian’s letter a way of waiting in hope, a way of waiting that does not seek anything for himself, other than God’s mercy. “I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems to me important to state this.”

What moved me most in the film were the scenes of the monks praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Just eight monks, facing one another in a small chapel, looking not so different from the community I pray with each morning, their choir habits white instead of the black habits the Augustinians wear. There was the same antiphon I pray each night, “Protect us, Lord…,” the Salve Regina sung, as I do, in Latin, the psalm intoned to a familiar Gelineau melody.

I realized at one point that I knew the time and the day by the psalms and their antiphons; if it were Psalm 143, it must be Tuesday’s Night Prayer. Suddenly this was not an experience distant in time and space. When this was happening, I was pregnant with Chris, my breviary precariously balanced on my burgeoning belly, praying those same psalms with the whole Church — including the monks at Tibhirine. In some way, united through this common prayer, I and the rest of the Church, was present to what happened in Tibhirine.

As we enter into these last days before Easter, once again we wait in prayer, we wait as one, undivided by time or space. We wait in the garden, by the fire in the high priest’s courtyard, and before the cross. We are all called to keep watch: with each other, for each other, with the Church, for the Church, with Christ and in Christ. May God grant us the courage and the grace to do so.

All-powerful God, by the suffering and death of Your Son, strengthen and protect us in our weakness. We ask this through our Lord, Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer for Monday of Holy Week

Friday, April 15, 2011

Finicky eaters

We've recently been invaded by ants. In the kitchen, of course, where I'm reluctant to use an insecticide. I couldn't figure out what was attracting them. I was vigilant about stray crumbs, damp sponges, but still they came. Not in waves (or better yet, lines that I could follow back), but more than a few wanderers greeted me each time I made a cup of tea.

The mystery was solved when Crash (he may need a new nom d'blog) who has recently acquired a license to operate a motor vehicle, but not yet his own set of car keys, left my key to Math Man's car in the small ceramic sunflower that I use to stash small things by the door. As I retrieved it, I noted an odd, sadly pink residue in the bottom. Oh dear. It had been a piece of hard candy. Emphasis on the had been. The ants had not left much.

I cleaned things up and the ants are slowly getting the idea that we are no longer destination dining (I'm sure the Michelin Guide pour la Fourmi has downgraded us).

Tonight I went to heat up a piece of the pizza Math Man had picked up on his way home. "Put a piece in for me, too, would you?" I opened the box and grabbed a piece, then looked twice. "Do you want yours with or without roasted ant?" "I'm not finicky." Implying that I am?? I sent the lone ant wandering the box to its reward (sorry!) and threw the pieces in the oven, declaring laughingly, "This will blog!" Math Man was unsure what was so funny...."I'm hungry, that's all!"

Photo is from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Column: May my life bear the mark of Christ crucified

The photo is of a side chapel at Mission San Antonio in California.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 14 April 2011.

Jews demand “signs” and Greeks look for “wisdom,” but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, and an absurdity to Gentiles. — 1 Cor. 1:22

For more than 20 years I’ve sat on the same side of the chapel for Morning Prayer, facing the statue of St. Joseph holding the child Jesus in his arms. Each time I settle to pray, I notice the tender look on the saint’s face as he gazes at the young Christ and am reminded of the loving fathers in my life — my own, my brothers, my husband — and our heavenly Father. That is, until a few weeks ago.

As I bent to gather my keys and breviary at the end of Morning Prayer, the gentleman behind me asked me if I’d ever noticed anything odd about the statue of St. Joseph. I turned once again to look, wondering what after all these years I had missed. “Not really, no.”

“The infant Jesus is holding a cross.”

I murmured an affirmative, wondering where this was going.

“Well, what kind of father would give his child an instrument of torture for a toy?”

I haven’t seen the statue the same way since.

It is difficult for us who make the sign of the cross when we pray, who let the crucifix lead us into and out of the church, who finger the rosary in our pockets when we are worried to see the cross as anything other than a familiar icon of protection and comfort.

“Human kind,” says poet T.S. Eliot, “cannot bear very much reality.” And so I rarely choose to confront the harsh reality of the crucifixion, a ruthlessly cruel and public death meted out to those who mattered least. I’m more likely to stumble into its depths upon hearing it proclaimed in the Gospel on Palm Sunday or Good Friday, or in turning a corner in a museum to see a particularly evocative painting of the Passion, than to deliberately walk into those torrents.

Now when I face St. Joseph each morning I cannot get out of my head the absurd notion of a Father who would allow His beloved Son to embrace a horrific death — for us. I am challenged again and again to see Christ crucified, head on.

Death on a cross is not a rational act. I cannot reconcile the Father who so tenderly loves the Son with the Son left to die, crying out that He has been abandoned by God. St. Augustine reflected, “there is no way this gospel truth could have been made acceptable.” In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says the crucifixion can be a stumbling block, a skandalon in Greek, for those whose eyes are fixed on other things, whether they be prophetic signs or the world’s wisdom — or beloved statues.

Paul calls me to turn the usual order of things in my life upside down, to shake out the bits and pieces of the world that obscure my vision of the cross, that it make something I occasionally trip over rather than what grounds and shapes my life. In the crucifixion, I confront the fullness of what it means to give your life for others. In the crucifixion, I see modeled the ultimate obedience to God’s will. Christ’s death not only brings us life, it teaches me how to live.

I began this Lent marked with the sign of the cross. The ashes on my forehead have long been washed away; instead I strive to bear what reality I can and so let my life bear the mark of Christ crucified for all to see.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable,
a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
— John Updike from Seven Stanzas at Easter

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace. - Antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis

I saw the film Of Gods and Men tonight. It left me almost speechless in its simplicity, beauty and difficulty.

I wrote about the Trappist monks of Tibhirine two years ago in a column for the Standard & Times. I'd learned of them through a poem written by Marilyn Nelson, The Contemplative Life, which quotes the letter left by the prior of the monastery, Christian de Cherge, OCSO. The last lines have stuck with me:
And you too, my last minute friend, who will not know what you are doing, Yes, for you too I say this THANK YOU AND THIS “A-DIEU”-—to commend you to this God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy “good thieves” in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. . . AMEN!

I've been pondering divisiveness lately, the intercession that appears at Morning Prayer on occasion: Forgive us for failing to Christ in the poor, the distressed and the troublesome, and for our failure to reverence your Son in these persons.

It's a strong statement, it's not about seeing Christ, or serving Christ, but to reverence Him. As you might in the Eucharist. I'm trying to keep my mind on this statement as I read comments and blog posts. Can I reverence those I find most difficult, most troublesome? Not tolerate, not dismiss, reverence. And I'm fascinated that the Office assumes this is where we all run aground!

The movie: is extraordinary (as any number of other people have said). But what moved me particularly were the scenes of the monks praying the Office. Just eight monks, facing each other in a small chapel, looking not so different from the community I pray with each morning (the Augustinians wear different habits). There was same antiphon I say each night, the Salve Regina that I pray (in Latin), the psalms. I realized at one point that the Office was telling me the time and the day of the week (Psalm 143, Tuesday, Night Prayer); something perhaps no one else in the theater was seeing. It somehow made it far more potent an experience. That and the realization that as this was happening, I was pregnant with Chris, praying that same Office balancing my breviary on my burgeoning belly, with the whole Church — including those men. In some way through this common prayer, I was present to those monks, a part of what happened there. United, not divided.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Practical periphrasis


1. (of speech or writing) Indirect and circumlocutory.
2. (of a case or tense) Formed by a combination of words rather than by inflection (such as did go and of the people rather than went and the people's)

I'm in the midst of writing a piece for Nature Chemistry about scientific neologisms — the ways in new technical terms are coined (and why some last and some don't). The example that got me started was the coining of a linguistically economical term to replace a periphrastic one: "detor" for "Slater determinant wave function constructed from orthogonal normalized single-electron functions." The latter is most certainly a lengthy combination of words, if not truly circumlocutory.

I get periphrasticity, as the Boy is quite adept in its practice. The description he gave (at age 6) to his pediatrician of "a bouncing headache" was vivid and precise, and eminently practical, enabling the pediatrician to give him both a more economical term and a diagnosis: migraine.

There is a touch of the poetic in a pleasing periphrasis, which is perhaps what I enjoy about Chris' ability to deploy what words he has to hand to describe something for which he as yet has no concise descriptor. It is the sort of "close, naked, natural" language that the Royal Society long ago (1667) advocated for scientists.

An argument I would say, for teaching scientists to write poetry. To let them hone the ability to use close, naked language to describe something so well, we can ultimately put a word to it.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Column: All that is hidden

My kids think I'm crazy, and love to tweak me by waving their hands through the smoke, cutting short my contemplation. I've loved watching the smoke trails since I was very young, and knew nothing of molecules or diffusion or random walks.

The photo is of Gloucester harbor last summer, shrouded in smoke from Québécois forest fires.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 7 April 2011.

For there is nothing hidden but it must be disclosed, nothing kept secret except to be brought to light. — Mk. 4:22

Mike deftly douses the candles on the dinner table and takes his plate off to the kitchen. I am left to sit in the silent dining room, savoring a few seconds of tranquility before the evening bustles in, with its forms to fill in and complex after school plans to sort out.

I watch the smoke twirl like a ribbon up toward the ceiling, pale silken threads spinning off in elaborate whorls. For just this moment, the intricate and ever present dance of the air molecules is revealed. The air that seemed so still is transfigured, revealed as alive with motion. It’s an ephemeral revelation; all too soon the mystery is again veiled in an ordinary smudge of smoke hovering over the remains of dinner.

Clouds and smoke both hide and reveal, shield and expose. Clouds shield us from the sun; smoke exposes even the gentlest of air currents. God led the Israelites through the desert, His presence revealed by a pillar of cloud, His countenance cloaked in its misty depths.

I’m entranced whenever the invisible movements of the air reveal themselves, whether in candle smoke after an elegant dinner or in the dust devils trapped in a Philadelphia alleyway. Still, I have to admit that most of the time — despite all the hours I spend teaching about it — I’m thoroughly oblivious to the molecular ballet going on all around me. It makes me wonder how often I’m similarly blithely unaware of God. The gap between what I know and profess, and what I am conscious of is sometimes vast.

As one way to bridge that chasm, Jesuit Father David Townsend suggests we deliberately make space in our lives in order to have the chance to experience “a flash of discerning awareness of the presence of God.” Between meetings, walking from the car to the grocery store, we might ask for the grace to see where God has been in the last few minutes of our lives. Like St. Ignatius, who would stop briefly at the start of each hour of his day to look for the subtle movements of God in the last hour, I, too, can take a breath before I unload the dishwasher or the next student walks through the door and notice what I already know: God is, was and will be here.

I find the psalms equally call forth that contemplative capacity in me. These ancient songs grab hold of the ordinary — bread from the earth and olive trees, snow and torrents of water — and use it to make God within and without visible. The psalms are a bridge between what is seen and unseen.

Picking up the Liturgy of the Hours and praying the psalms off and on throughout my day, is like blowing out the candles, the movement of God that stirs every corner of the universe is momentarily visible.

Neither the praying of the psalms nor the practice of looking for the movements of God within my day are ends in themselves. It’s not enough to know that God is there. Each seeks to pull me into the movement, caught up in God’s Word and work. Here I am Lord, I come to do Your will.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Do I dare?

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
There were dinners where my mother would put her face in her hands, not sure whether to laugh or cry at my sibs' antics. My brothers eventually dubbed this reaction the "laugh-cry" and felt they had scored points if they drove my mother to this state of exasperation before a meal's end.

Crash and the Boy sit diagonally across from each other at the dinner table, a configuration deliberately chosen to put as much space between them as possible in the (usually vain) hope that this will limit the ways in which they can irritate each other to the merely verbal. And , despite have banned any material which incorporates one or more of the seven motifs of disgust as topics, the verbal alone is often enough to drive me to "laugh-cry."

The guys have grown lanky over the last year. There never seems to be quite enough room under the table for their long legs and suddenly enormous feet, and the sub rosa jockeying for space not infrequently erupts into overt sparring. The other night, the Boy reached his limit and grabbing a fork full of his dinner, held it up in firing position ("food fight" and Revenge of the Nerds flashed through my brain). Then he quoted the tidbit above from T.S. Eliot, and treated us to a soliloquy on decision making.

He finished by turning to me and inquiring if I appreciated the irony. "Of someone mature enough to quote Eliot and immature enough to throw food?" I shot back. "Believe me, I do."

Disclaimer: No food was actually thrown in the incident recounted here (or in the writing of this post).