Friday, March 30, 2012

Via Crucis X: There is nothing left to us

Jesus is stripped of his garments. There is nothing left to us but our naked faith that this is the Son of Man, the King of Glory, the Savior of the World.

I was struck in listening to the Passion today by the line in Mark's account: "And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him out to crucify him." I came home this week from giving a talk, dressed in good clothes and nice shoes, and couldn't wait to get back into 'my own clothes' — my comfortable cords and a turtleneck, my feet cuddled in warm socks and clogs. Somehow this line brought out the dissonance of the crucifixion, following so close upon the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the joy of the Passover celebration. They dressed him in his clothes, which brought not comfort, but pain.

Twenty-five years ago on Palm Sunday, I turned 29. Spring was bursting forth, the weather unseasonably warm, and Tom dragged me out to play tennis and to enjoy the day. Hope, security, joy, warmth, life welling up and out. But I was about to be stripped of all these comforts, of any illusion of safety and left clinging to God by my fingernails.

Photo of the 10th station is from St. John the Baptist in Bennington, Vermont.

Meditation is from the feature published in the March issue of the Catholic Standard & Times. Follow the meditations under the tab above: Via Crucis: Meditation on the Passion.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Asparagus Fingers

"Can someone with asparagus fingers give me a hand with the steamer?" called The Boy from the kitchen. Years ago one of my nieces watched my dad pick up a pot from the stove without a hot mitt and wondered if he had "asparagus fingers." A synthetic organic chemist, handling hot equipment was par for the course for my dad, no need for asbestos gloves!

The Boy had another school project going in the kitchen, though at least this time it did not involve animal intestines and our kitchen now has such essentials as counters and running water back on line. He read Daughter of Heaven for his English class. Its subtitle, A Memoir with Earthly Recipes, explains a lot about why he picked this particular memoir to read.

He made enough steamed sponge cake for his class as part of his oral presentation. To steam it he had to lower a filled pan into a pot of boiling water with a steamer at the bottom. With only a quarter inch to spare between cake pan and pot this meant having a high tolerance for heat and some ingenuity. We ended up lowering the pan down with a sling made of cooking twine.

There was a bit left over for the sous chef - it's pretty good with a dusting of powdered sugar and tea!

Photo is from Muffet at Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Via Crucis IX: The taste of dust

Jesus falls the third time. The taste of dust, the dry taste of death, the very stuff of life. God-made-man lies stretched out in the dirt from which we were fashioned, that we might be created anew.

Meditation is from the feature published in the March issue of the Catholic Standard & Times. Follow the meditations under the tab above: Via Crucis: Meditation on the Passion.

Image is of a watercolor of the Ninth Station of the Cross, © Carolyn Gates. Used with permission. More information about Carolyn Gates and her work.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Disney Princess - not

I missed (or was spared, depending on your point of view) the Disney Princess stage — neither Crash nor The Boy were much into pink or tulle. One of the things I've been doing on this leave is playing with new software. I've wanted to learn to animate for a while, but the tools (outside of Mathematica) had a long and steep learning curve. Enter my iPad and a great app for making quick and dirty animations. I watched 3 videos, less than two minutes each, and in less than an hour put together a very rough animation of a Möbius strip for my talk on Wednesday at local Jesuit University. Disney has nothing to worry about, but at least now that I know what I'm doing, I should be fast enough to do things on the fly for class — or the blog.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Via Crucis VIII: That our tears might soak the ground

Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem. Weep; weep that our tears might soak the ground until this dry and barren land can once again sustain life.

The gift of tears in prayer was one that the desert fathers cherished and that the Eastern tradition continues to acknowledge (the purpose of the tassel on the end of an Orthodox prayer rope is to soak up the tears of one's prayer, for instance). In Ignatius' day, ardent Jesuits hoped for the gift of tears, though as Ignatius, graced at times with this gift, notes in a letter, be careful what you pray for, it might more difficult than you anticipate. Modern mystics who, as Ignatius puts it, "melt into tears," might be a bit more disconcerted than their medieval counterparts. Gabriel Bunge OSB writes beautifully about this gift, set into the context of the desert fathers and mothers, in In Earthern Vessels, while Mike Hayes of Googling God reflects on his open experiences here.

Meditation is from the feature published in the March issue of the Catholic Standard & Times. Follow the meditations under the tab above: Via Crucis: Meditation on the Passion.

To see a detail from the luminous Stations of the Cross at St. Basil's Chapel at the University of Houston, see here.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Friends from another century

I've spent the last two months reading 10 years worth of a 19th century chemistry journal (
Chemical News, which served as one of the models for Nature, which began publication about a decade later). That would be about 250 pages a day, on average. It's an immersion experience, I sometimes had a tough time remembering that the people whose names appear in these pages were real, at other times, they seemed so real I was ready to jot them a note to ask about some small point or another.

Like old friends, some names appear again and again (Bertram Blount and H. Droop Richmond). Others, whose acquaintance I would quite like to make, appear but once (Wilhemina Green, an analytical chemist who determined the caffeine content of tea infusions). Some were already known to me (Ramsay and Crookes), others new (Helen Abbott, a plant chemist at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy). And imagine my surprise this afternoon to round a corner and come face to face with a portrait of E. Squibb (of pharmaceutical fame), whose delightfully humble letter to the editor acknowledging an error in a previously submitted paper I'd read yesterday.

But some names are so over the top that have made me laugh. My top two? Spencer Umfreville Pickering, MA and W. Popplewell Bloxam. They sound like something out of a children's novel -- but they lived and breathed a century back -- and at least in the case of Mr. Pickering, did quite a bit of interesting chemistry.

Cartoon is from XKCD.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Via Crucis VII: Will I walk past unseeing?

Jesus falls the second time. In the midst of a jostling crowd, the Savior of all sprawls, gasping, on a street corner. He was still there yesterday. Will I walk past unseeing again?

'Let me help. A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He'll recommend those three words even over 'I love you.' - James T. Kirk in The City on the Edge of Forever

Would I have helped that day in Jerusalem? Will I help now? How? A couple of weeks ago, at the height of rush hour, a man stood frozen on the steps up from the Market-Frankford platform. The crowd flowed around him, almost as if he were a statue, not a person. Not one of us said to him, "Let me help." Not one of us asked, "Can I help?"

It made me think about the Jerusalem to Jericho study described in a link left in a comment on the essay I wrote at This Ignatian Life. It prompting me to reflect about whether compassion is a hobby for me, or integral to who I am. Is helping others something I do if I'm not in a rush, or is my way of proceeding (to borrow a turn of phrase from the Jesuits)? I've been practicing waiting for a while, and slowly it's becoming how I move through the world. Do not run ahead of what you can do, advised Evagrius when it came to prayer, and it's likely good advice here as well.

(And yes, I do know that I'm a geek.)

Photo is from Walwyn via flickr used under Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Via Crucis VI: Become what you seek.

Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. Hands reach out, seeking the face of God, holding it tenderly within hand and heart. Become what you seek.

St. Augustine on the Eucharist: "You are saying "Amen" to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear "The body of Christ", you reply "Amen." Be a member of Christ's body, then, so that your "Amen" may ring true! ... Be what you see; receive what you are."

What am I reaching for outside of Mass? Does it ring true with what I reach for at the Eucharistic liturgy?

Become what you receive.

A study for the sixth station of the cross by Henri Matisse for the Chapel of the Rosary.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Silent. Surrendered.

"Silent, surrendered.
Silent, surrendered, calm and still,
open to the word of God...."

This is the video I posted this week for the RevGalBlogPals Sunday feature. I found it while chaperoning the high school crew. They are in the throes of the final weekend of building the sets for their spring production of The Wiz. The music here is pounding, the saws are whining and every so often a voice comes over the sound system asking for a hand with the lights. Silent. Not. Still. No way!

And here I am tucked up in the back, getting warmed up to write a column that is due later this week. There is something quite wonderful about being "in" on the mysteries of constructing a set, of watching ideas take flesh. The giant green oval of yesterday that today is clearly an emerald throne, the props staff hunched over the computer hunting down a traffic signal they can afford (and that will get here in time). The myriads of details that only a few people might notice, the hammered flat soda cans affixed to the flats, the stuff atop the cabinets stage left.

I see the production with different eyes, knowing what's been poured into it. I'm writing a piece for the feast of Mary, Mother of God next year, I just gave a night of reflection on Mary in the Lenten Gospels (wrestling again with the time paradox of being a writer bound to both the liturgical year and printer's deadlines - there's a crucifixion metaphor there, I'm sure, but it might be more properly reserved to editors), and this has me reflecting on how Mary saw things, knowing so intimately what was poured into the Incarnation.

Tangential reads: Robin on shifting perspectives in prayer and the feminine in the divine which made me think a bit more deeply about what shifts when we consider the quieter perspectives, the silent voices, in the Scriptures...

and Jayme Stayer SJ's Sh*t Christian Poets Say: The Problems of God-Talk, Sentimentality, and Style. I loved the piece, which is sharp and scholarly without sacrificing wit. As I wrote the bit for RevGals I did imagine Stayer would find the lyrics to this piece somewhat wanting. I have to admit his piece nearly made me terrified to ever pick up a pen again to write reflectively about prayer or theology, though he allows that prose writers have a bit more space to work: "A large part of the problem is the medium of poetry itself: the pressure that the lyric mode exerts on language makes the words vibrate with intensity. The problem of style is solved much more easily in prose. The casual, button-down modes of prose—such as narrative, memoir, or personal essay—are roomier places to switch registers of discourse."

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Via Crucis V: What of the crosses that aren't ours?

They press Simon of Cyrene to bear the cross. Perhaps it is not sufficient to bear only our own crosses, what of the cross thrust upon our neighbor?

I've been continuing to think about my response to the burdens of those around us. I often think about bearing my own crosses, responding to Jesus' in Luke's Gospel: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me." This year, I'm thinking more about the crosses that aren't mine, that aren't voluntary. In the comments on the essay I wrote last week about responding to the invisible and marginalized on city streets, someone posted a link to a modern day study of the Good Samaratian. The conclusion drawn in a commentary about the paper, that we are compassionate as a hobby, in other words, when we have time, is one I find challenging, and I'm afraid all too true of myself.

In a conversation with Patient Spiritual Director yesterday, he noted that at one point in his career he was required by his superior to do a particular service assignment once a week. Each week he would internally lament that he didn't have time for this, and yet each week he found it a grace-filled experience. Even the week someone stole his jacket.

I'm reflecting on the press of time, the press of the needs of others, and how I can practice compassion in more than my spare time. Can I pick up the crosses that belong to my neighbor?

Photo is of a 15th century pilgrim's badge, perhaps depicting Simon of Cyrene.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Via Crucis IV: A second Annunciation. Jesus meets his mother.

Mary meets Jesus. A second Annunciation. She labors again to say, "let this be done according to Your will."

Last night I gave a reflection on two of the Marys of the Lenten Gospels: Mary, the Mother of God and Mary of Magdala. As I prepared, I was struck again by the steadfast strength of the women. They remained. A (very rough) bit from the reflection:

"The mood at the crucifixion had to have been ugly. Peter, a fisherman, “the rock” — hardly a man we imagine couldn't hold his own in a fight, so feared for his life he could not bring himself to admit that he knew the man he left everything to follow, the man he saw transfigured on the mountain top, conversing with Elijah and Moses, of whom he heard it said, “This is my beloved Son.” Surely someone must have have urged the women to leave, wanting to shield them from possible violence, from the scandal — wanting to spare Mary from having to watch her child suffer and die.

But Mary stayed. Both tradition and scripture say she stayed to the bitter end, drinking the dregs of the cup her Son had begged to be spared. This is what she said yes to all those many years ago. To staying. To being a witness to faith and to hope, amid fear and despair. To martyrdom.

I wonder if Mary drew her strength in this moment from the graces that emerged from her years of reflection on the mystery of God made man, not in theory, but within her body, living in her house. She could stay because even the bitter despair of this moment could not erase what was so ingrained in her heart. Her yes. Her son. This was the “fruit” of her contemplations.

We often see Mary through the lens of the story’s beginning. A young girl’s strong “yes” to God, a model of obedience. But at my age, I find myself drawn to the much older Mary – the Mary who would have been in her early 50s. A woman who lived a life of contemplative prayer who could face martyrdom with a "yes" born of that life. Who once before let herself be emptied of Christ, acquiescing again to an even deeper poverty. All a mother's riches, poured out here and now. This is the prayer life I long to have...the poverty of spirit I aspire to."

The fourth station is by glass artist James Ceaser. See the rest of these luminously moving pieces here.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Phaith: If God rested, why do we want to multi-task?

Are you old enough to remember the test pattern?

From my latest column in Phaith magazine:

... I remembered how exciting it was to stay up late when I was a kid: the TV turned down to a hush so as not to wake my younger siblings, the old B movies that showed after the 11 o'clock news, and the cut-rate commercials for used cars, the bright sunshine glinting off the cars at odds with the midnight black lapping against the living room window. And when the national anthem played and the test pattern appeared, I would creep up the stairs, adventure at an end.

In this era of "on demand" it's hard for my kids to imagine that once upon a time TV programming didn't run 24/7, that at some point the local station called it a day, leaving a technicolor pattern of stripes and squares to hold the space for morning.

The third commandment pushes back at a world that demands we — or someone — be endlessly available to work: "Keep holy the Sabbath Day." ...

Read the rest here

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Two upcoming public talks in the Philadelphia area

If you are in the Philadelphia area and want to hear me talk (Midwest pre-rhotic merger and all), you can here mespeaking at Our Mother of Good Counsel's Lenten adult education series on Women in the Lenten Scriptures — What Women? this Wednesday from 7:30-8:30 in Bryn Mawr (more details here).

And on March 17th I'm giving a talk at the MOM-Heart of the Home day of renewal in Downingtown, PA. (more details here).

Ignatian Life: Custody of the Eyes

I've been following the conversation at the Deacon's Bench on the prudential judgement that needs to be exercised in deciding — in the moment — who should be admitted to the Eucharist. There is a lot of slicing and dicing of canon law, Eucharistic theology and moral theology being done (who has what rights, what is a correct disposition...) as well as a great deal of Monday morning quarterbacking going on.

It's been making me think, not about Eucharistic theology per se, but rather about the decisions we make — in the moment — when we come face to face with Christ in a "distressing diguise." Those can be tough, as a young Jesuit Volunteer courageously recounts here. What happens at the altar, does not stay at the altar, but plays out on the altar of the world. It's easy to be critical of the decisions made on all sides when there is time to think and discuss, not so easy when the decision is standing in front of you, asking to be fed.

I'm struggling with how to respond in these encounters with Christ as well — as you can read in my latest reflection at This Ignatian Life.

"We issue lists of grave sins, delicta graviora. We wrangle over translations, theological nuances and liturgical praxis. We worry whether we are sufficiently reverent with the body of Christ when we receive in the hand, and all the while the body of Christ lies crumpled and abandoned on the sidewalk. And I walk past, averting my eyes.

'And what about His hunger, cold, chains, nakedness and sickness? What about His homelessness? Are these sufferings not sufficient to overcome your alienation?' challenged John Chrysostom sixteen centuries ago. How can you continue to walk through the city, pretending not to see, failing to recognize what is before you? It’s not just new perspectives in science I seek on this sabbatical. What about His homelessness? I chose to work in the city on this leave, not just because the materials I needed were here, but because I wanted to look at this horizon, to struggle with my response to these challenging questions. To face what I had walked away from two summers previously."

Read the rest here.

Photo is from rubygold, used under Creative Commons license.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Via Crucis III: The Narrow Way

Jesus falls the first time. This is the narrow way, a steep and torturous path, not metaphor nor allusion, but writ upon earth and flesh.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Column: Praying in Pain

Times are difficult in the local Church of Philadelphia. Schools are closing and being reorganized, parishes will close, there are financial difficulties. There is scandal. Times are difficult for family and friends. A friend's husband will die, tonight, or perhaps tomorrow. My brother has lost his job.

In the months after Tom died, I found an odd sort of comfort in this passage from Habakkuk, which appears regularly as one of the canticles of Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. I wanted to be able to hope, I wanted to be able to have such faith. I had the desire for the desire. But I prayed in pain. Years later, the passage returned to played a role in my experience of the Spiritual Exercises, prompted in no little part by an excerpt my director gave me from Dean Brackley SJ's book, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, and has become a place of prayer that I return to regularly.

For another take on prayer and pain, particularly in Lent, I highly recommend Matt Spott SJ's thought provoking piece on the Jesuit Post: Spiritual Painkillers. His piece reminded me of a snippet from Walter Brueggemann's little book: Praying the Psalms, where he wryly observes that we often strive for a “cool, detached serenity” in prayer. (Full disclosure, Matt made the Exercises at Gloucester at the same time I did!)

Our own pain can strip us of our dignity, of our focus. It can distract us from we conceive of as prayer, a time with God that is serene and well collected. It can strip from us even the desire for the desire to pray. Yet this plaintive exultation of Habakkuk's reminds me that even when I cannot see the triumph in travail, nor even bear to think about the possibility, trial and exultation remain mysteriously intertwined, and that whatever I bring before God, in whatever state I am, is prayer.

(You can listen to Paul Campbell SJ's short and vibrant reflection on desiring the desire, part of Loyola Press' Lenten Retreat series here.)

This column appeared in the March 2012 edition of the Catholic Standard & Times.

For though the fig tree blossom not nor fruit be on the vines, though the yield of the olive fail and the terraces produce no nourishment, though the flocks disappear from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet will I rejoice in the Lord and exult in my saving God. — Habakkuk 3:17-18

The trumpet soared, the organ thundered, my voice echoed off the ceiling in the packed church “joyfully sing out all you lands!” as I led the psalm on Christmas morning. The whole of Christendom rejoiced in the Lord and exulted in our salvation at God’s hand.

But even as I sang of joy and comfort and peace, I hurt. Every breath, every step, even my bow before the tabernacle as I crossed to the ambo was a source of unremitting pain. To kneel, to stand, to sit, to move to prayer, was an act of endurance, not an occasion for rejoicing.

To be frank, the pain that insinuated its way into my prayer a few months ago was more than physical. The words which once moved effortlessly from heart to lips at Mass, tangled on my tongue. It was like learning to waltz again, except instead of relentlessly counting one-two-three under my breath as my partner twirls me round, I was mentally chanting “And with your spirit.” as the priest carried the book of the Gospels to the ambo.

Even now the hinges on which my prayer turns each day, Morning and Evening Prayer, rasp at my serenity as I hold out the intentions of family members who have lost jobs, of friends who are grieving, and of a local Church tried by difficulties secular and spiritual. In the midst of all this pain, distress and disruption, how can I — how can anyone — rejoice in the Lord?

The prophet Habakkuk, trembling at the difficulties he sees ahead, pleads not for relief, but brashly insists he will still rejoice no matter what comes: Though the fig tree blossom not…yet will I exult in my God. It’s an almost unimaginable faith. Yet underneath the almost swaggering surety of this prayer, I sense uncertainty. For at the head of the text is placed the note: “sung to a plaintive tune.” I wonder if the prophet struggled as I do, with the mystery of exultation and travail inextricably intertwined. Is Habakkuk’s prayer as much a plea for assurance as it is a declaration of faith?

Thomas Moore, in
Care of the Soul, suggests that just as our modern scientific selves seek the one magic bullet that will cure our illness, we want events to speak in a single voice. Exult in this moment. Mourn in that. He urges us to read difficulties as we do poetry, to listen for a multitude of meanings that can continue to enfold us and unfold for us. Endure and exult. Rejoice and mourn. Stumble and stride forth. One reading does not overwrite another; the meanings interpenetrate, weaving into an intricate and mysterious whole.

Mysteries by their nature do not have a resolution. There is no simple salve I can apply to my raw prayer. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, prayed to learn how Jesus met suffering, His own and that of others, desiring most of all to know “how You supported the extreme pain of the cross, including the abandonment of Your Father.”

I suspect that some things can only be learned in the doing. I learn to pray with certainty in the face of tribulation, by praying as Habakkuk did, with certainty. I learn to pray with pain by praying in pain, by praying within the space that Jesus holds open for us, arms outstretched between heaven and earth. I reach as He did for the familiar words of the Psalms:
Into your hands I commend my spirit. I sing exultantly, I sing in hope and with certainty, but in a plaintive key.

Teach me how to be compassionate to the suffering, to the poor, the blind, the lame, and the lepers; show me how you revealed your deepest emotions, as when you shed tears, or when you felt sorrow and anguish to the point of sweating blood and needed an angel to console you. Above all, I want to learn how you supported the extreme pain of the cross, including the abandonment of your Father.
— Pedro Arrupe SJ from Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits