Friday, September 30, 2011

Seeing green: Moss temple and kiwi ice cream

We went to the Moss temple today, an amazing place with an ancient tea house. It's still hot and humid (though the weather promises to be cooler tomorrow). The adventures of the crew are here. I'm hoping to get a chance to post some photos here and there and perhaps write a bit for this blog on the bus trip to Osaka tomorrow.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jesuit bells and Zen abbots

My class is in Japan, exploring Zen Buddhism and contemplation, but not forgetting the work we are doing on Western contemplation and on psychology and neuroscience. I'm way too tired to blog twice (we were up at 5 am today for services up the hill), but you can read the adventures of my crew here. Find out what Jesuits, bells and a Zen temple have in common.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Into great silence

It might be the modern day equivalent of a medieval monastic enclosure. Everyone sleeps in a common dormer; we sit in our assigned places, as if in choir; once the doors are closed, you can't leave; you eat what is served, when it is served; we have made temporary promises of obedience; bells rings and we tighten our belts. There are no cell phones, no landlines, no wi-fi. It is a remarkably silent place, and I imagine not a few of us are praying.

No, I'm not on retreat, I'm on a China Air 747 somewhere between New York and Osaka, traveling with my students and two colleagues to Japan. We're off to see and experience Buddhist practices of mindfullness and meditation in particular, but we are also keeping our eyes open to the ways in which silent spaces are constructed. What constitutes a sacred architecture of silence? of solitude? of stillness? How many of these constructs, physical and metaphorical, cross traditions?

I watched Into Great Silence during the night, preparing to watch it with my students when we are back. This time, I was struck by the sheer physicality of the monks' lives, not only in the quotidian chopping of wood and hauling of water, but in prayer. The young monk lifted off his feet by the bell, the monk prostrate on the floor in his cell, the elderly monk with his canes hurrying to the church.

And I wondered if the monastery I long for is right under my nose.

Extravagance in the desert

I am reading Stones laid before the Lord, a history of monastic architecture written by a French Trappist monk in the 1960s (which thanks to Cistercian studies is translated into English). He opens with a brief history of the growth of monasticism from its desert roots in which he mentions the competitions between ascetics to see who could fast or go without sleep the longest. This notion of competitive or heroic acestism has been showing up occasionally in the readings/discussions from the other two courses. How much of the current (or even the past) interest in meditation and contemplation is fueled by curiousity about the physiological external effects, and less about the internal landscape? How long can you go without sleep? Who can dry their wet cloak fastest? more completely? Your pulse during meditation is what?! Can learning to meditate make your psoraisis better? (We read a paper by Jon Kabat-Zinn and co-workers on MBSR as a co-adjuvant to phototherapy for psoraisis.)

The author of is wary of these heroics and sees them as extragavances which were rightly curbed by monastic rules of life. Only a Cistercian of the Strict Observance would call the desert fathers "extravagant."

I'm less intrigued by the physiological side effects than I am by the sheer extravagance of it all. There is an extravagance, a sort of luxury, to the desert ascetics who threw themselves, for the most part without the protection a community affords, into the torrents of prayer, into the fire of God. It's like setting sail for England from Gloucester, MA in a rowboat — alone.

I have a memory of a small fishing dory in the musueum at Gloucester that I visited on one of the days of repose during the Exercises that made the trip, but can recall none of the details!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Schrodinger's cat

Fluffy double checks my marking of the quantum mechanics assignment. But no, she's not substituting for mPublish Poste while I'm away. I've got a real quantum chemist doing that for me. (Thanks, Dr. Lisa!)

I'm off to Japan on Monday with my contemplative students. The Boy is having separation anxiety, Crash wonders how many essay drafts I can read on the road, I'm in denial about packing, Math Man is watching football. A regular Saturday evening....

Friday, September 23, 2011

What all the cool kids are doing...

...on a Friday night.

Overheard in my sunroom: "So, do you need a domain restriction?" The Boy and Math Man are discussing Riemann sums. How long before The Boy re-invents the calculus? Place your bets below.

The Rules: Seven Motifs of Disgust

[Warning: This post offers no deep spiritual insights. Contains references to adolescent humor.]

The house rules have been posted on our refrigerator since 2005:

1. If you open it, close it.
2. If you use it up, throw it away.
3. Put it in the hamper.
4. Flush.
5. No Greek choruses.

Last year, when I was writing this piece on urban legends of chemistry we added an unwritten rule to the list. Conversation invoking one of the seven motifs of disgust were banned at the dinner table.

Tonight The Boy asked me if I could list the seven motifs for him. "Uh, not off hand, why?" "In Latin class today my teacher told us three topics that should never be raised in polite conversation and I told her that at my house the seven motifs of disgust were banned. When she asked what they were, I told her the only one I remembered was bestiality."

Oh, no. Now I wonder just what this teacher thinks we talk about at the dinner table.

The legendary seven 'motifs' of disgust were described in a paper by a colleague ("Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: a scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors" Haidt, McCauley and Rozin, Person. Indiv. Diff. 16, 701-713 (1994)). I promised The Boy I would look them up, so here goes (with examples mostly drawn from conversations vetoed under the policy at our dinner table similar to the items on the "official" scale - these are not for the faint of heart, and after reading them you may understand why I ban the topics).

Food: Eating olives and vanilla ice cream at the same time.
Animals: You are walking barefoot and step on something that Fluffy left on the mat.
Body Products: I have teen-aged I need to say anything else?
Sex: (This is the bestiality one...and no, we don't talk about that at the table, it's just what they invoke when I bring up the Seven Motif ban.)
Envelope violations: Remember when The Boy cut his foot and....
Death: Picking up one of Fluffy's offerings...
Hygiene: Learning that someone else was using your toothbrush in the (mistaken) belief it was his.
Sympathetic Magic: Thinking that tongs that have been used to pick up a dead mouse can be used for food if well washed (a proposal actually made by a male person in my house and which I firmly squashed)

And who said that psychology research is merely an academic exercise?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Invisible gorillas and me

The commentary I wrote on women in science led to an invitation to be on Future Proof - an Irish weekly radio show on science (it's a great show - subscribe on iTunes, do....). The interview was recorded on the first day of classes, sandwiched between my history of contemplation in the West class in the morning and quantum mechanics in the afternoon. I was so nervous that afterwards when Math Man asked me what I'd been asked, I had to tell him I had not the slightest clue. Complete anterograde amnesia.

It made listening to the broadcast with my guys all the more fun, it was like an all new experience. Really, they asked that??

And the gorillas? They interviewed the author of the Invisible Gorilla. Watch the video and tell me how attentive you are!

My interview starts at about 31:00

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do I have the strength?

"But shall I have the strength to write this book? For there is a great distance between the words we speak uninhibitedly to a friendly audience and the discipline needed to write a book. When we are lecturing, we become animated by the joy of teaching, and at times, our words think for us. But to write a book requires really serious reflection." Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space p. xxxix

Gaston Bachelard ends the introduction to his philosophical exploration of the architecture of intimate spaces (which my class on silent spaces and the history of contemplation in the West has been reading) wondering if he has the strength to undertake the hard work of turning words that shimmer and dance in space, words that have a life and breath of their own, into words that burrow in between the covers of a book, that wait on light to breathe again. It takes strength to corral words like that, to hold them in place long enough to pin them onto paper.

It's become clear to me over the last few weeks just how much strength and energy it takes for me to write. I've been juggling the teaching of two quite different classes (and despite her delight in my desk and my pen, Fluffy has been no help in grading papers or writing lectures!), Crash's college angst and various unblog-able work issues. The result has been too many fifteen hour days and six hour nights.

It's not just the energy to grab a pen or keyboard and pull the words into place, the ideas themselves seem to mope about in my head, draping themselves exhaustedly around my neural pathways, ashen shadows utterly unwilling to dance for me.

I have a work meeting this weekend, so am taking tomorrow afternoon off to shake the cobwebs out in the silence and see Patient Spiritual Director — holding a friend in prayer as I go, offering my exhaustion and burnt out spirit for her intentions.

For the record, I did have the strength to finish the little book I wrote this summer on the hidden graces of penance....

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What's not to do?

Sometime midweek tasks were landing on my desk (and in my inbox and tossed onto the kitchen counter and...) at such a rate that I couldn't even manage to jot them on my to-do list. I felt like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer's Apprentice scene from Fantasia, the pails — uh, tasks — multiplying with abandon.

I scribbled reminders on post-its, ran through mental lists of emails I had to answer as I dashed up the stairs from meetings to teach class and reminded people to remind me later (just in case). Half-forgotten tasks lurk around mental corners and jump out at me at the least provocation. (Write check for choral uniforms ambushed me even as I sat here on the sofa nominally relaxing.) I keep looking over my mental shoulder — sure there's something major I've forgotten to do stalking me. (So far so good, but now that I mention it, am I supposed to cantor this weekend?)

As I was flipping through a magazine (which promised a month of stress-free dinners, if only people in my house would eat pork loin with sauteed cauliflower and capers), one piece of advice caught my eye: write an "ignore list."

I wonder if what I need more than a to-do list is a not-to-do list. What can I let go of before I even pick it up? or spend mental space and energy on coralling?

Sunday, September 11, 2011


The Philadelphia archdiocese not only has a new archbishop (who rumor has it is a Star Trek fan), but a new archdiocesan publication. I've yet to see a print copy, but this is modern evangelization and so "there's an app for that": on the iPad, and on the web. My article is here. (If the text in the call out looks familiar to anyone who's made the Exercises, that's because it's St. Ignatius, which the article makes clear!)

And while I may look dressed up on top, the photo was taken this summer, and I've got on capris and tennis shoes along with the pearls!

Zen and the art of mother maintenance

I'll admit straight off that I've never read Robert Pirsig's book Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. Excavating my desk this afternoon, I found a note to myself which says only, "Zen and the art of mother maintenance." Would that I could remember exactly what I meant by that!
Could it have something to do with the conversation I had two weeks ago with Patient Spiritual Director in which I said I wanted to find a Carthusian abbey? Where my cell is sacrosanct?

Breathing space has been in short supply (as the lack of blog posting suggests!) and my guys have been doing their best on the home front to help me maintain some equanimity. Math Man had a class tonight and as the boys and I cleaned up after dinner, we talked about who had what for homework. I told them I had a column to write and they promised me at least one uninterrupted hour (and gave me two!). At this point in my life, a more cherished gift than roses or chocolates for the maintenance of their wishfully contemplative mother. It's an art!

Photo of 1954 Triumph. Used under Creative Commons license.

Thursday, September 01, 2011


Classes began on Monday. I'm a veteran of 48 first days of school (will I ever grow up?), I know what to do to be ready the night before. My books were collected, my lunch organized, my clothes laid out (though no shiny new saddle shoes). Alarm set, check.

My alarm went off on time, but hearing Math Man in the shower, I hit the snooze button. And snooze I did. I didn't notice that Math Man was done, and long gone downstairs to have breakfast — or that my alarm was gently chiming — before I woke up again. Yipes. Well, at least I was organized, I could still make morning prayer.

At 8:13 I was ready to sail out the door. Math Man offered to put some air in my bike tires, but I demurred. "I really need that prayer time with my community." I reached for my keys. Which. were. not. there. Or any of the next four logical places I looked. No keys, no way to (un)lock the bike. And no morning prayer.

"Breathe," I chanted under my breath. I hadn't had my keys since before the hurricane hit. Where would I have tucked them on Thursday afternoon? My contemplative stance is fraying fast. Breathe. I finally located them tucked into the bag I taken to the academic fair. Too late for morning prayer, but still in time to get set up for my class on spaces for contemplation. Breathe.

Math Man offered again to add some air to my tires. I decided my soul could use some pnuema as well. Now. Not when I got to my office. I pulled a chair from the garage (stored there against the winds of the hurricane), set it on the lawn, pulled my breviary out of my bag and prayed morning prayer. (It was the feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptist, by comparison, I was having a fine day.) Breathe. Math Man pushed air into my tires, the Spirit gently wafted Her way into my soul. Air. Spirit. Breath.

My bike ran more smoothly with full tires. My day felt less frantic with a full soul (though it wasn't at all smooth!).

Breathe in me O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy; Act in me O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy; Draw my heart O Holy Spirit, that I love but what is holy; Strengthen me O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy; Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit, that I always may be holy. Amen. — Prayer of St. Augustine

Column: Calming storms

Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean that they aren't after you. Could I extrapolate that to just because I'm anxious, doesn't mean that there isn't actually something to be anxious about? Who knows, but out of 4 classes this week, I've had serious tech fails in 3. The teaching week is over for me, but next week brings travel for the course on contemplation. I'm about to discover the difference between being a retreatant on a silent retreat and a director on a silent retreat. I suspect the former is more restful than the latter.

The music is Margaret Rizza's Exaudi Nos Domine:

Exaudi nos Domine. Dona nobis pacem. Hear us, O Lord. Grant us peace.

Just listening to it, calms the storms....

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 1 September 2011.

A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was great calm. Mk 4: 37-39

The wind runs up the canyon most afternoons at my dad’s, sending anything imprudently still hung out to dry sailing into the hillside rosemary patch.

Late one day, I sought the solitude of the old lath house by the south pasture. The silence was so profound I could sense the wind gathering strength at the bottom of the canyon, a mile or more away.

I could hear each gust hit the almond trees at the canyon's mouth, set the live oaks shivering in the gully below me finally tumbling through the high barley until like a giant's breath — or perhaps the Spirit's — it burst through the open wall of my temporary hermitage. Not even the chapel at Wernersville in the depths of a winter's night is this silent, this still, this pregnant with possibility.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of the way in which silence teaches us to be in “the grip of the present,” to be alert and aware of what might be possible in this moment. The contemplative, Merton notes, attends closely to what is, not what might blow through the door in the next moment. It is a silence that doesn’t cling to itself, that doesn’t “demand light instead of darkness,” or even, I suspect, soundlessness instead of noise. It “waits on the Word of God.” Silence is open to possibility.

I’m tucked in my silent study at the moment, literally and figuratively in the calm before the storm. Hurricane Irene’s clouds shroud the sky, and a multitude of new students are ready to pour through the college’s hallways, their voices rolling like thunder off of the stone walls. Like the disciples bobbing in a tiny boat on the Sea of Galilee, I’m anxious about possibilities. About my flood prone basement, about the course I’m teaching for the first time, about the tumult the fall will inevitably bring.

St. Cyril of Alexander, a fifth century bishop and theologian, is not critical of the storm wracked disciples’ nerves — and perhaps by extension, mine. He suggests instead that such anxiety “sharpens our sense of what is to come.” My start of the semester jitters remind me, even after a quarter century of teaching, to be attentive to what is unfolding in the hubbub. We become watchful in storms of all sorts, alert to ports where we can shelter, open to stepping into places where we can be still with God. Storms, too, are open to possibility.

The winds of Irene batter at my study window and questions from students and colleagues pop in and out of my inboxes. Suddenly I am sharply aware of my need for Jesus to speak His Word to the churning sea of my life, “Quiet!” and keenly alert for God’s invitation to be still within Him. I can’t cling to the silence much longer; I wait instead on the possibilities.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,While to that refuge clinging;Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,How can I keep from singing? — From the traditional hymn “How can I keep from singing?”