Thursday, July 28, 2011

An Inconvenience Rightly Considered

I'm back up at Wernersville for the night. Yes, I know I was just here — on retreat and to see Robin when she came on her retreat. But I've an appointment to see Patient Spiritual Director and a need to spend some prayerfully unplugged time with my writing. Crash is along for the ride. Literally. He enjoyed flying up the turnpike in my Mini. I doubt I'll be allowed to drive back either.

He's silent, too, and I haven't seen him since dinner last night. I haven't tried to find him, either, as I think this is a bit like going off to sleep-away camp and then having your mother decide to stay. (He's writing poetry about his visit to the Silent Land.)

Last night I took two long walks, the second with the intention of ending up at the pool for a late evening swim. As I walked down the front steps and out of the house, I noticed it had grown overcast and breezy. What a relief! The thought briefly occurred to me that it look rather like it might rain, but I knew the forecast was for sun and heat, so clearly it wasn't going to precipitate. When I was at the far end of my planned loop, it started to rain. Just a bit at first, the pond looked liked like a mirror with polka dots. Perhaps I should head back.

The rain is falling harder now, the surface of the water sparkled with tiny effervescent explosions as drops hit, sending water up, and leaving a visible trail of turbulence as they slid into the pond. I notice the few dry patches on the path, shielded by both looming cypress and dense oak trees, and took refuge in one. Now the wind has kicked up, pushing the water across the pond in puffs. The drops are setting up their own interference patterns. The water hits the retaining wall on the far side, and weaves its way back across, creating a series of furiously oscillating standing waves just in front of me.

Now I'm getting more than a little wet. But no matter which way I go, it's the same distance unless I want to risk going straight up the hill through the brush -- but having seen Patient Spiritual Director's case of poison ivy a couple years back, I think I'd rather be wet. G.K. Chesterton's line, "an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered" floated through my mind. If I got soaked, just how inconvenient would it be? Not all that much, since my plan had been to get cooled off with water in the first place.

By the time I reached the pool, I realized that the rain was letting up, so I stopped and swam. Why not, I was already wet!

Photo is of the pond at Wernersville, when it's not raining.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Column: Fierce prayers

The image of praying fiercely comes via the late Fr. Eric Werts here. The essay project is almost ready to go to press, it's been a wild and wonderful ride so far -- to hear from so many friends and colleagues was a great joy.

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

I cry aloud to God, cry to God to hear me. On the day of my distress I seek the Lord; by night my hands are raised unceasingly; I refuse to be consoled. — Ps. 77:2-3

I’m in the midst of a project that has gone viral. Last week I asked a number of colleagues for photos to illustrate an essay I wrote. They asked their friends, who in turn invited yet more people to help out. Now my inboxes — e-mail and postal — are brimming with several hundred photographs, inquiries and release forms that must be downloaded, scanned, answered, filed, printed and collated.

As a result I’ve dashed off more than a hundred notes of thanks, resisting the temptation to resort to a blanket e-mail of gratitude. Tucked into this delightfully helpful deluge were two e-mails from friends, seriously seeking my help in ways far less tangible. Each ended with “Prayers, please.” My response flew back, “Of course, I will.”

In assuring each of my friends that I would pray for them, I wasn’t offering to make some generic noise in the direction of God’s ear and move on. I meant that I was willing to wrestle with God on their behalf, to cry aloud to God that He might hear them. To ask God for what they need, specifically and repeatedly.

Walter Brueggemann, in his short book “Praying the Psalms,” notes that we often strive for a “cool, detached serenity” in prayer. We want to approach God gracefully and well collected.

Yet the prayers and songs that are the psalms, Brueggemann points out, are uncomfortably concrete. The psalmists do not shy away from asking God for exactly what they desire, couching their petitions in everyday words and images. Wheat and water. Bees and mud.

Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner in “The Need and the Blessing of Prayer” similarly warns against an overly resolute detachment in prayer. It is tempting, he says, to try to limit our prayer to the interior, to dispassionate requests for the “noble goods of the soul.” Rahner advises us to look instead at Christ praying, gasping out His prayers that the cup might pass Him by. He is not afraid to ask directly. He is sure He is heard. And yet simultaneously He offers His unconditional submission to what God wills.

These are not diffident “whatever you wish” prayers, these are fierce prayers that transfigure “I beg You” into “I offer all that I am for You.” The mystery of this sort of prayer — our determination to express our desires to God, our willingness to accede to God’s desires for us — is ultimately the mystery of Christ, both true God and true man.

So I reach for the Psalter, for the Liturgy of the Hours, to enfold my friends’ prayers in these ancient songs from one end of the day to the other. I press my ongoing round of psalms into this service, not because I’m afraid I will forget to pray otherwise, but because the psalms themselves sing candidly and fiercely of our needs in this world as much as the next. They speak of a world that is messy and uncertain, that seeks “the ear of God’s mercy.”

Most of all I pray the psalms for my friends and their needs because these are the words that Jesus prayed in his most difficult hours. Jesus trusted He was heard in these words. I trust, too, that nothing in God’s inbox, however overflowing, goes unheard, or is answered with anything less than God’s full and loving attention.

Beg so that your continuing prayer of petition appears to be a pledge of your faith in the light of God in the darkness of the world, for your hope for life in this constant dying, for your loyalty of love that loves without reward. — Father Karl Rahner, S.J., “The Prayer of Need” in
The Need and the Blessing of Prayer

Monday, July 25, 2011

Time will tell - or not

After realizing last summer how much having clocks in my face created an artifical sense of urgency, I made a conscious effort to keep them out of sight. I turned off the clock in the corner of my computer screen, take off my watch unless I have a reason to wear it, and have moved the clock off my physical desktop as well.

I really didn't need to know what time it was as often as I looked to see what time it was. I watch the clock when I teach, I wear a watch when I have an appointment (or set an alarm), but most of the time I can be "off the clock." And more and more I'm choosing that option.

Last week Math Man had some minor surgery done. There's a lot of waiting involved, but once you are there, no real need to know the time. It takes what it takes, as my mother might have said. At one point, I looked at my wrist, wondering what time it was, only to realize (1) I had been writing before we left, so wasn't wearing it and (2) I didn't need to know, they'd be done when they were done. It was just a reflex. (And it's clearly a hard habit to break. I've been trying for a year!)

Somewhat counterintuitively, I tend to wear my watch more often on retreat. Meals, Mass, meetings with my director -- none of these are good to miss, and unlike at home, no one is going to come looking for me for the first two. Still, on principle I prefer not to use my watch for prayer, but instead set a timer (I have a lovely virtual meditation timer on my iPad). On retreat at Wernersville last month it was hot (though not as hot as it's gotten lately) and my favorite spot for prayer in the chapel (third floor balcony) was unbearably hot. Instead I went outside and lay on the grass near the eastern cloister, looking up at the midnight stars.

The second night I went out there, I realized that I'd forgotten my iPad with the timer and wasn't wearing my watch. I thought about going back to my room to fetch a timing device, but given that my knee was seriously unhappy about stairs and taking the elevator at that hour threatens the peaceful sleep of those whose rooms are nearby, I decided to simply stay until I was done and trust that I would take the customary hour.

As I lay there, I realized that the constellation that had fed my contemplations of the previous night was once again overhead (the heavens do run like clockwork). I remembered that as I had finished, the constellation was just edging out of my sight behind the cloister roof. And so I let God's clock time my prayer, aware again of God turning my face toward the immensity of creation, letting one more strand fall from my hands.

You can watch me talk about unplugging during the Spiritual Exercises and afterwards here. Click on the square with my name (and find out how old I am).

The column I wrote about watching the night on retreat last year is here. And if you want to see a magnificent photo of the night sky at Wernerville, check out Robin's vignettes of her retreat.

Gateway vegetables

It's been hideously hot here for much of the last week, with the heat index topping out above 100oF. Cooking without heat is decidedly an oxymoron — but I've been trying to keep the number of BTUs generated in the kitchen down. My solution has been sandwiches, which not only are cool to make, but quick and relatively easy to vary.

Or at least I thought I was changing things up enough. Math Man, however, pleaded on Saturday for anything but sandwiches for dinner. As Barnacle Boy and I were headed out on a couple of errands, he wondered what was for dinner. “Anything but sandwiches! Dad's had enough of those. I was thinking of salad, with chicken or salmon.” There was a long pause.

"You know I only like the unhealthy kind of lettuce." Barnacle Boy is more than a bit of a foodie, and I think is chagrined that he doesn't find a spring mix of greens enticing.

"Iceberg? I know. It's OK, it's how I started. When I was your age I loved cold iceberg lettuce with way too much French dressing on it. And now I eat all kinds of stuff in a salad." I reassured him.

"So iceberg lettuce is a gateway vegetable." He's got it.

At dinner (where there was one bowl of iceberg lettuce for the teen set and another with more interesting stuff in it for those of us who appreciate the bitter with the sweet), Crash Kid and his girlfriend, Cupcake Artist, wondered just what iceberg lettuce might be a gateway too.

"Brussel sprouts," I shot back. Only for the hard core.

For the record, I adore brussel sprouts, but I know I am nearly alone in this. My family thinks I'm nuts.

I've been musing on my other blog about how keeping cool works — or doesn't, if you need a bit of a science fix.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Column: Frenetic Diligence

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 30 June 2011.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Lk 12: 22b-23

The smell of steaming starch and suds transports me to my grandmother's laundry room. I was fascinated by the mangle, which could wring water from bed sheets I was sure were not even damp. I loved watching my grandmother's expert hands folding and feeding the laundry through the rollers, marveling at her skill — a skill the operation of the electric dryer in our basement didn't require.

As I ran the iron across yet another linen shirt last weekend, while the boys’ laundry chugged away nearby, I wondered (not for the first time) why I buy summer clothes that need extra maintenance. While my grandmother had no choice but to starch my grandfather’s collars and painstakingly press the wrinkles out of my aunt’s sundresses, I am a child of the permanent press era. Wash, dry, hang and wear. It’s nothing if not efficient.

These days I’m not so sure efficiency should be the overriding goal. The minute or two it takes me to stuff a load of clothes into the washer and toss it wholesale into the dryer, sandwiched in between starting dinner and grading a stack of paper, leaves me feeling simultaneously inattentive to what I have — food for the table, clothes to wear, a job — and anxious over keeping all the tasks in line and efficiently moving along.

Yet here is Jesus in this passage in Luke telling his disciples, “do not be anxious about your life.” The body is more than just what our soul wears, we are created to do more than put the next meal on the table. Reflecting on this Gospel in the 5th century, St. Cyril of Alexandria warned his congregation to foreswear a “frenetic diligence” that drove them to gather more than what they needed. I suspect my efficient ways are an attempt to gather more time than I need. I sense, too, that my frenzied diligence isn’t always producing more time for God or family or rest, but just more time to be frenzied.

It remains hard for me to remember that for all I pour into getting dinner on the table, or the laundry done, or the next lecture written, the success of these ventures does not ultimately depend on my efforts alone — frenzied or otherwise. If the smallest things are outside your control, asks Jesus, why worry about the rest?

As the line of pressed shirts hanging on the rack grew, I realized that the scent of starch brought back more than nostalgia for the summer days of my youth. I learned in that sunny space off my grandmother’s kitchen a certain rhythm of work. I learned that an unforced pace attentive to the present moment, not caught up in what was coming next, could get done what needed to be done. Diligence and care did not demand frenzy or undue anxiety.

I have tucked the shirts into the closet, but left the lesson out where I could be reminded. Life is more than the sum of my to-do list.

Be with us, Lord, as we take up our daily tasks: and help us to remember that it is in your world that we live and work. — From the Intercessions for Morning Prayer, Monday Week III

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Passing notes

Last Thursday I moderated a panel discussion on getting your scientific work into print for the American Chemical Society. About 1000 people registered for the hour long event. And I did it from the little cafe table in the sunroom on the back of the house. No need to get packed, on a plane or wear pantyhose. I like this tech.

While I'm engaged in this high tech communication, headset on, I realised I'd left my notes for the presentation in the printer. Crash Kid is sprawled in front of the computer on the far side of the room. I can't get his attention (he's got on headphones) and he doesn't have anything with chat capabilities open. I finally resorted to a low tech communication tool - I made a paper airplane with a note in it and flew it across the room.

I want to tell Sr. Jane that I've finally found a use for paper airplanes and notes passed during class. As Crash would say, it's a mad skill.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Noisy silence

"I come home from the soaring
in which I lost myself.
I was song, and the refrain which is God
is still roaring in my ears.

Now I am still
and plain:
no more words."

Rainer Marie Rilke The Book of a Monastic Life I, 50

After four full days of wading deeper and deeper into the practice of silence, I arrived at this retreat already clearly on retreat and my director gently suggested that I might forgo the talking dinner, and "carry on" -- which I did.

Until, that is, four days into my retreat proper and after eight days of virtually complete silence. I got up (long past the official breakfast) took my tea and prayer to the edge of the eastern cloister garden, where the only noise was of the small fountain and the birds who frequent its cool waters. I went to Mass and after a lunch of fruit and yogurt headed to prayer again. I came down the stairs, rounded the corner toward the chapel to nearly run into an grey-haired sister, who stopped me and inquired, "Are you afraid of bats?"

Taken aback by this seeming non sequitur, I was momentarily speechless, finally spitting out a respectfully quiet "Yes, Sister."

"Well, there's is a bat in the Holy Spirit chapel." Oh. My.

Bats on the floor in the middle of the day are not a good thing. It was the fourth of July, so staff were in short supply. The rector, however, was in his office. Recruited to the bat banishing project, I was issued a mop and we went off to do battle.

Bat duly dispatched and disposed of, I decided that a walk might be in order. Let's just say I needed to settle a bit more before sitting down to pray. Walking out to the far fields, I leaned against the fence to watch a vintage combine cutting straw. On it's next pass, it comes to a lurching halt and out pops the farmer to say hello. Silence??

Back to the house, by now hot, drenched in sweat and interiorly, at least, still disquieted. I was dreaming of a cold shower, a bag of ice for the knee that felt as if someone had stuffed a dish sponge inside, something very cold to drink and the quiet of the garden. Heading down the first floor hall, I run into (nearly literally) Urban Spiritual Director, here to start his own retreat that evening. Twice he wonders, are you keeping silence? Well, not that you would notice today.

Cooled off and once again settled (and quiet), I cautiously ventured forth in prayer again. Whew. No flying furry mammals, no farmers, no friends. I’m back...yes!

Or not. I walked that evening, down the hedgerow path. Halfway down, I startled an owl, who came plummeting through the tree above me. I screamed (like a girl, as my brothers would say).

Noisy silence.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Extreme retreats

My retreats often seem to feature extreme weather. There was the retreat where it rained. And rained. And rained. Or the year of the relentless heat, where five retreatants went off to the hospital. Or the Long Retreat, where blizzards (plural) and below zero temperatures were on tap.

This year was it was the heat again (though truly, what do you expect when you go on retreat over the fourth of July), and though there is no air conditioning in most of the Jesuit Center the heat wasn’t a particular distraction, and in many ways, welcome. A few days after my retreat, I was back up to see Robin (of Metanoia) who was here to make her retreat, and the talk at the dinner table was of ways to cope with the heat on retreat.

There are the obvious. Windows: open them. Shades: close them. Fans: turn them on. Water: don’t neglect to drink it. The pool: go — multiple times.

And the not so obvious. Use the wastebasket, or your running/walking shoes, to prop the door open enough for air circulation while preserving privacy. Look for cool places to pray -- the small air conditioned chapel, outside on the grass at midnight, sitting on the cool stone of the cloister or on the marble of the main chapel. Climb the weeping beech tree. Go to confession. (I teased my confessor that an unlooked for grace of celebrating the sacrament with him was a brief respite from the heat -- his office was air conditioned!)

And I will admit that one day, out to pick up a prescription, I made an unauthorized by my director stop at Rita’s Water Ice and had a vanilla custard with hot caramel sauce (for dinner). My director’s comment the next day when I confessed to seeking grace outside the gates? “If you turn right instead of left on 422, there’s a much closer ice cream place.”

Friday, July 15, 2011

Usefuls (Furoshiki)

Years ago I read a sci-fi novel in which beautiful fabric squares called "usefuls" played a role. Everything from tents to packs to hammocks were ingeniously made by folding and tying knots in the fabric. I've forgotten the rest of the plot,but have been reminded of the usefuls whenever I pulled out a shawl from my bag to keep me warm or stuff one into the bag cushion my camera or pulled one over my head as an impromptu rain shield in a drizzle.

In Japan, I discovered real life usefuls — furoshiki. Fabric squares of various sizes that can be folded and tied into all sort of, well, useful shapes. I have four, two different size and fabrics.

I’ve learned to tie them into a bag to bring home tomatoes from the farmer’s market, to pack clean clothes, to carry my swim stuff to the pool, to keep all my lunch stuff together in my tote bag and to make a great little package for my books on retreat. And I used one to provide a cheery disguise for a bag of ice to take down the swelling on my knee...
(see the photo on the lower right)

Instructions for 86 different ways to fold and tie a furoshiki into anything from an apron to a backpack are here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Column: Old landscapes and new eyes

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

I rejoiced when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD." And now our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem. Ps 122:1-2

The suitcases were hauled up from their basement resting places, while the kitchen door sprouted lists of chores that must be done, things that must not be forgotten before we headed off in three different directions. Water the plants; be sure to take the sandwiches from the refrigerator. Did anyone remember to close the windows upstairs?

Mike and Victor were headed north to look at colleges, Chris, east to the shore for a holiday with a friend. Me? I was bound west to for an eight-day silent retreat.

After a year in which I circumnavigated the globe — twice — and packed and unpacked my bags so often I lost count, I longed for silence and stillness. I rejoiced as I drove through the Jesuit Center’s gates, to plant my feet firmly in one spot for a week. Pilgrimages were the last thing on my mind. God had other plans.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes,” suggested French essayist Marcel Proust. I had come to be still, in a familiar place, where I did not have to struggle to negotiate a strange landscape. Instead God sent me on pilgrimage, to see with new eyes rather than to see new places.

In reflecting on the reasons for his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Pope John Paul II mused, “We go to see where God has pitched his tent.” If we ourselves are dwelling places of God in the Spirit, as St. Paul tells us, then God has pitched his tent within us, and there is no escaping the pilgrim way - familiar landscapes or not.

A Christian pilgrimage, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People tells us, has four movements: the departure, walking, the visit to the shrine, and the return. So, too, this retreat.

Though I didn’t move physically far from my usual neighborhood, I did depart from my usual ways, leaving behind both my writing and my customary prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours. I ventured onto unfamiliar roads, seeking God.

Not only did I literally walk miles through the hedgerows, but I walked in silence with the other men and women come on retreat with the same desire — to let God be at work in their lives. I walked with Jesus, meditating on the Gospels, seeing with new eyes the places where God had pitched his tent in my life.

I stopped, again and again. Held in the warm stillness of the chapel, supported by the cool stone of the cloister, overshadowed by the expanse of creation above my head as I slipped out to pray on the grass at midnight. I listened to God’s Word echo in my inmost being.

And I came back, only to find I’m still on the road. Seeing with new eyes where God has pitched his tent, in the aisles of the grocery store, in my email, in the kitchen with my sons. In me.

You teach all the faithful to perceive the signs of your presence along all the pathways of life; grant that like the disciples of Emmaus we may come to recognize Christ as the companion of our journey and know him in the breaking of the bread. — From the intercessions for the Blessing of Pilgrims After Their Return

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Occam's razor or mom's?

Crash Kid — now the proud holder of a junior license to drive — has been getting up early (well, actually late by his usual academic schedule, just early for summer) and taking The Boy to his rehearsals for summer stage. They tooled out of the driveway at 8:30 am (precisely, The Boy is nothing if not punctual, and reproducibly so). Crash is usually back by 9. At 10, Math Man wanders into my study upstairs and says, "Where's Mike?" Whoosh. All the air flies out of my lungs. Where is he?

"Ah...he did say he was going walking with The Chem Obsessed One today." And of course, given the heat, early would be good for that, but I don't remember when he said they were going. Neither phone call nor text raises any response. Occam's razor suggests the simple explanation is that he is walking or running and has left his phone in the car rather than bouncing in his pocket, and assumes that his wifty mother has remembered since last night his stated plans. As the kids would say, "Let's go with that."

But Mom's razor can't quite slice things so neatly. Did something happen with the car? Would they call if the Boy didn't show for rehearsal (he has a lead, they would miss him quickly)? Was there an accident? Rationally I realize my history makes me think zebras when I hear hoofbeats, but when was being rational ever a criteria for being a mother?

Forty minutes later the phone rings, caller ID reassuringly announcing it's Crash on the other end. He pops into my study a few minutes later to reassure me in person, with an "Of course, if he's not answering his phone, he's been squashed by an 16-wheeler." He teases me that I wasn't too panicked. Only 2 phone calls and 3 texts. I point out one phone call is Math Man's. So a rough estimate of the ratio of maternal worry to paternal worry would be 4:1.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Breaking silence

The wind blows hard against this mountain side
Across the sea into my soul
It reaches into where I cannot hide
Setting my feet upon the road


Kyrie eleison
Down the road that I must travel
Kyrie eleison
Through the darkness of the night
Kyrie eleison
Where I'm going would you follow?
Kyrie eleison
on the highway in the light — from Kyrie by Mr. Mister

I'm back from almost 2 full weeks of silence, the last 8 days of them on retreat here. When I got back in the car to drive home Friday and hit play on the iPod, this song by Mr. Mister was at the top of my play list. Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy down the road that I must travel. I loved the joyous beat of it all, propelling me back out into the world.

I gave up two things for the duration of the retreat — praying the Liturgy of the Hours and writing — as I waded deeply into the waters of the Exercises. It was hard to let go of these stalwart companions. And it was easy at the same time. All the while that wind reached far into the place where I could not hide....

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Column (Redux): Doing Dishes

(Michelle is on retreat here, but thanks to the scheduled post feature, she virtually inhabits this space as well. The ability to bilocate used to be considered a saintly characteristic....)

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times March 27, 2008 - the very first one I wrote for the Standard. It resurfaced as I packed for a retreat where one thing on my mind is what it means to dispose of things. What I discard does not simply vanish, what responsibility do I take for what I acquire?

When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” [Jn 21:9-12]

It’s nearly 6 p.m. and the lab is dark. My students have gathered up their things and retreated to the dining halls for a well-deserved meal. I’m in the small departmental kitchen, up to my elbows in hot, soapy water, washing the mugs we used at the mid-afternoon break.

“You could use styrofoam cups,” offers a colleague, clearly perplexed at the sight of the department chair doing the dishes. My offhanded, “We’re trying to be green” satisfies her, though truthfully, the environment is the least of my reasons for taking on this mundane chore.

How else would I have known how many of my students this year drink milk, not coffee? Do they like chocolate chip or lemon cookies? Each week I brew less coffee and make an effort to pick up a quart of milk.

Slowly, over the course of the semester, I grow to anticipate what they need — I hold the signs in my hands, they’re not tossed aside in the trash. It’s in my power not to do the dishes, but I suspect I’m missing something critical if I don’t.

As I read this passage from John, I am caught not so much by the miracle of the groaning net, as I am by Jesus’ anticipation of the needs of the men He had called to serve His body, His Church.

The fire is lit, there is bread waiting — made ready with His own hands, not called down like manna from heaven. “Come, have breakfast.” Appended to a Gospel rich in theological reflection on the mysteries of the Eucharist and the mystery of the Incarnation, I wonder what inspired the author to record this decidedly unmiraculous encounter, this unadorned invitation.

In her essay “The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and ‘Women’s Work,’” Kathleen Norris remembers being struck how, in the Mass, “homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink. The chalice, which had held the very blood of Christ, was no exception.”

She reflects that our culture’s ideal self aspires to be above the doing of “humble, everyday tasks.” If we must wash the dishes, we want to make the work as undemanding as possible — get paper plates and toss them. Let someone else take care of the trash.

I suspect that the early Christians hearing John’s Gospel struggled as much as we do with the uninspiring chores of daily life — with loaves of bread that do not multiply and nets that do not fill with fish at a word. And so John’s heady and mystical Gospel ends by reminding us of the sacredness of the quotidian, of the daily.

We follow Christ not only through His passion, death and resurrection, but in the everyday ways we tend to each other’s needs. “Come, have breakfast.”

As we join the Apostles in encountering the risen Lord in our daily lives, may we be inspired by Christ’s example to become quotidian mystics. Finding God in the dishes, the laundry and the making of breakfast.

God our Father,
work is your gift to us,
a call to reach new heights
by using our talents for the good of all.
Guide us as we work and teach us to live
in the spirit that has made us your sons and daughters,
in the love that has made us brothers and sisters.
Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Column (Redux): Let your imagination off the leash in prayer

(Michelle is on retreat here, but thanks to the scheduled post feature, she virtually inhabits this space as well. The ability to bilocate used to be considered a saintly characteristic....)

I've never been able to hear this passage from Isaiah in quite the same way, every time it appears at Morning Prayer I can remember the frantic beat of the lamb's heart against my (now utterly ruined) shirt. This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times April 10, 2008.

He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes.
[Is 40:10]

My 75 year-old father’s faint call for help drifted over the top of the hill.

The clang of the kitchen garden’s iron gate echoed behind me as I pounded down the vineyard steps to the back pasture, worst-case scenarios flashing through my mind. Ducking under the huge cypress that shades the gates, I was momentarily taken aback to find my father on his feet and apparently fine.

“Here — take her.” He thrust a wet, bloody bundle of wool over the fence at me and jogged back down the hill. Heedless of my white shirt, I cradled a terrified newborn lamb against my chest, feeling her pounding heart slow as I held her close. Meanwhile, my father was trying, without much success, to corral her mother as she struggled to deliver my charge’s twin.

Holy cards of the Good Shepherd favor white robes, fluffy lambs and bucolic scenery. After my summer sojourn as a shepherdess, I realized we’d been sold the sanitized version. Newborn lambs are not fluffy and white, the ewes do not always trot sweetly along at your side, and those white robes will never be the same after a day in the pasture.

Our urbanized culture pulls a misty, nostalgic curtain over Isaiah’s images, impeding our ability to use this gate to enter into the mystery of God’s relationship with us. We become like the people that St. Gregory the Great once chided in a sermon about the Good Shepherd: “foolish travelers who are so distracted by the pleasant meadows … that they forget where they are going.”

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, offers us a remedy for our tendency to fasten onto the pleasant superficialities of the rich and enduring images in Scripture: Pray with our imagination.

Ignatius encourages us to ask God for the grace to enter into the scene, itself. Don’t merely read a passage from Scripture, but take a part in it. Engage all your senses. Historical accuracy is not the point; opening yourself to hearing God at work in your own history is.

Slowly read the verse from Isaiah. Who are you in this encounter? Who else is there? What are you doing?

Smell the hay. Hear the ewe bleating for her lamb. Feel the dust tickle your nose. See the Good Shepherd try to charm the panicked ewe to His side — and never mind that he is wearing khaki shorts and a trout fishing t-shirt. Share His joy as He brings new life safely into being.

What does God want you to know? Ask God to reveal His will for you as the scene unfolds.

Ignatius challenges us to let ourselves be surprised by God in these lively, yet prayerful, encounters. Before the summer of the sheep, I had never quite understood how hard it was to lead a ewe. Now, when I pray with this passage, I wonder how hard God finds it to lead me.

Let God escape the confines of the holy cards. We need to move beyond our static, two-dimensional images of Creator, Redeemer and Spirit, and experience the reality of these Persons active in our lives.

Use your imagination. Allow the Word to become flesh in you.

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, faith in Your word is the way to wisdom, and to ponder Your divine plan is to grow in the truth. Open our eyes to Your deeds, our ears to the sound of Your call, so that our every act may increase our sharing in the life You have offered us. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.