Tuesday, January 28, 2014
We sing it every week, some of us every day. Alleluia. Three times, nine times. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. A single clear voice chants in the silence. Alleluia. Trumpets fly and organs resound. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Praise the Lord. We sing it, we say it. Do we mean it? Is it just walking music, something to cover the movement of the priest from chair to ambo? Or has it become mere punctuation, as I suspect we treat the "amen"? (I often wonder if we stopped a liturgy after the opening prayer, to which we have all just assented with the word "amen," and asked everyone to say what we just prayed for, most of us would have not the slightest idea.)
The Boy sang Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah at his recital on Sunday. I had heard it before, but listening to this I was struck with by all the ways alleluia sounds. From the Chepponis Festival Alleluia to the flat spoken "alleluia" I sometimes hear at a daily Mass. I'm as puzzled as Cohen's David, "the baffled king composing hallelujah."
I am struck, too, by the thought that we might consider responding to everything that happens with that one word, "alleluia" — praise the Lord. Chanted with passion. Hummed in the ordinary. Spit through clenched teeth. Cried out in joy. Howled in grief. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
Could I stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but "hallelujah"? Could I stand before God with anything on my tongue, but alleluia?
Hear how Leonard Cohen sings Hallelujah. The Boy told me that the triple over the duple beats in their Hallelujah is how you "make it dance"....
"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night." ― Rainer Maria Rilke
I am finishing up a piece on colors, and ran across these two quotes. The fierceness and glory of white is evident to me these days, with everything covered in glittery snow and fiercely cold. The Rilke makes me think of the humid heat of Singapore's botanical gardens, in the night. Orchids were recklessly blooming, and fiercely colored.
Along the way to writing this piece I learned much. Guanine can be used as a colorant (but it's not a dye), and castoreum (extracted from the place where a beaver sits) enhances flavors, particularly my favorite, raspberry, but also vanillas. The FDA classifies it as GRAS (generally regarded as safe). I am not joking. Given the travails of acquiring it, no one actually uses it commercially. But you could.
Shades of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans....
Posted by Michelle at 2:30 PM
Thursday, January 23, 2014
|View from New Camaldoli Monastery at Big Sur.|
"...some of the most sustained efforts man's intellect has ever made to keep still living on that subtle edge of things where speech and thought expire..."
Seen here. Read the context here.
Posted by Michelle at 1:17 PM
Monday, January 20, 2014
St. Anthony the Abbot, detail from panel originally
in Santo Spirito in Florence. Somehow I doubt
that Anthony went in for robes this ornate, and
reading glasses were a millennium away.
There was time to write in a large chair with a beautiful view, awash in the late afternoon sun.
A grilled cheese sandwich and an orange at lunch.
Watching the sunrise, sitting up in bed, wrapped up in a quilt.
The very plump (nearly spherical) cardinal in the bushes, wondering if spring had come. (Short answer, no, we are about to get 5 to 9 inches of snow.)
I walked across the fields and stood under the statue of Jesus in the far corner of the old novitiate and wondered what it might have been like to sit in a field and listen to Jesus.
Two long walks.
Listening to the pipes rattle in the walls of the chapel late at night. It sounded as if the saints had all peeled themselves out of the stained glass windows and were having a ceilidh.
Posted by Michelle at 4:25 PM
Saturday, January 18, 2014
Chair in basement laundry room at Eastern Point
Any poems that scratch the surface of these ordinary, dull winter days for you? Share some in the comments!
A version of this column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 17 January 2014.
A friend wrote to me yesterday, poem hunting. Could I send her some poems? She was seeking words that could help her traverse the spaces where the suffering and the sacramental mingle with tomatoes and birds and dust.
I sent her Dusting by Marilyn Nelson — perhaps because that’s what I’ve been doing a lot of lately, as I clear out the detritus from last semester.
Thank you for these tinyOn the Church’s liturgical calendar, we returned to Ordinary Time this week, and while “ordinary” in this context really means “counted,” for most of us it is also a return to more ordinary times. The busy season of sparkling lights, Christmas gifts, holiday concerts, and traditional treats has vanished, and its place we face a long string of ordinary, undistinguished days. Work. School. Winter vegetables. Tomatoes tough enough to travel.
particles of ocean salt,
for the infinite
Yet somehow underneath the routine sameness lurks an invitation from God to celebrate this ordinariness, with a deep joy. A joy that is perhaps different in texture — quieter, less sparkly — but as full and richly consoling as that which inspired us to thunder “Joy to the World” at the end of Midnight Mass.
As part of the poem hunting project, I came across Heather McHugh’s Etymological Dirge, where she riffs on the hidden history of words, “Calm comes from burning/Tall comes from fast.” Her poem hints at the ways in which the extraordinary and unexpected lie underneath the surface of the commonplace. Scratch the surface of the everyday and you find the mystical, the sacred.
And so I found myself in search of poetic keys to the plain space of Ordinary Time, with its large windows and well-scrubbed wooden floor, a single comfortable chair, and the dust motes, those particles of ocean salt, pearl necklace viruses and winged protozoans, dancing in sheer swaths of warm, winter light. Seeking the sacred space hidden within.
During the Christmas season, the beautiful and haunting Canticle of the Three Young Men from the book of Daniel is recited again and again at Morning Prayer. All you winds, bless the Lord. Fire, frost, cold, chill, even ice and snow. Bless the Lord.
Ah, like the lone soda can found under the sofa after a party, the Christmas season has left a key behind for me in this litany of the ordinary. A reminder that everything, no matter how mundane or commonplace has the capacity to unlock the sacred, the mystical. Lentil soup, bless the Lord. Dust and mud, bless the Lord.
Posted by Michelle at 11:45 AM
Friday, January 17, 2014
Taken on the way back to the hermitage I was staying at
at New Camaldoli after the Office of Readings. The
edge of dawn.
Read Brian Doyle's extraordinary piece on sin and forgiveness, then save it for Lent and read it again. I thought of this again while listening to today's Gospel: "I do not know how sins can be forgiven. I grasp the concept, I admire the genius of the idea, I suspect it to be the seed of all real peace, I savor the Tutus and Gandhis who have the mad courage to live by it, but I do not understand how foul can be made fair."
My own experiences sleeping with the homeless were an interesting lens through which to read Kerry Weber's brilliant piece at America Magazine, "Making Room." It brought to mind, too, the last lines of a Hopkin's poem (As Kingfishers Catch Fire):
I say móre: the just man justices;Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam., the prior of New Camaldoli Monastery in Big Sur, offers a rich set of images in his homily for The Baptism of the Lord, from Joan Baez to Indian monks.
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.
And finally for a start of the semester laugh -- Course Evals from the Sermon on the Mount. Dr. Christ rocks!
Thursday, January 16, 2014
|Used under a Creative Commons License. c. John Arnold|
Last night I gave a reflection at a local retreat house for their annual blessing of calendars and clocks. It is a lovely custom, starting with a simple dinner. Soup and bread, cookies and tea. As we moved into the chapel after dinner, people began coming up to the foot of the altar and leaving their planners and calendars on the steps, stripping off their watches and setting them on top. Here, in front of the tabernacle, we moved from chronos to kairos, not just in mind, but in body. We literally stripped ourselves of the things that which mark and measure, cajole and contain counted time for us.
As I stood in front of the altar and set down my calendar and took off my watch, I had a moment of angst. I wanted to say to God, "You want what?" My watch? How would I keep track of the time when I spoke? Mind you, I have a prepared text, and no tendency to stray far from it. At 1500-ish words, it's a 12-15 minute reflection.
Despite the two angels sternly guarding either side of the altar, no divine help was apparently forthcoming. No cherubim appeared to peel off my watch and bear it with glee to the altar. No seraphim stood before me and boomed, "Step away from your time piece." I just had to. Take. It. Off. And walk away.
I will admit to having a somewhat fraught and fragile relationship with time. As a scientist, I know something of time and how it measured by clocks and by calendars. One second, the time it takes for a particular atom (Cs-133) to move between two states 9,192, 631,770 times. Exactly 9,192, 631,770 times. The very atoms from which we are made are ticking clocks.Less than one half-life of C-14 has passed since a man named Jesus, the Nazarean, hung on a cross on a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem. As a person of faith, I get that God set time into motion with the creation of the universe. But time and I are still at odd with each other more often than not.
In an article written ten years ago in America, Jesuit Dennis Hamm suggests praying not just over, but with, one’s calendar in hand, as part of the Examen. I’m going to admit that when my spiritual director first suggested this, my reaction was visceral. After a crazy day, the last thing I wanted in my prayer space was my calendar. I wanted to meditate on the eternal, to sink into the vast stillness of God. Not contemplate the to-do list that chases me from one end of campus to the next. No. No way.
But my ever patient director kept gently suggesting it. At first I couldn’t even open the thing, it would sit on the carpet in my prayer space, where I would watch it carefully. Would the demons trapped inside fly out if I cracked the cover? Gradually I found the courage to open the @#$$% thing, and found that praying with my calendar helped me discover the moments of consolation, that even if I appreciated them in the moment — the uninterrupted lunch, the walk from one building to the next, the student who finally figured out the tricky titration proclems — by the time I reached the end of the day, were lost in the evening maelstrom of dinner making, homework and lecture preparation.
Crash calls once a week, via Skype from WJU (Wonderful Jesuit University), and when I ask “How has your week been?” he pulls up his calendar and uses that to prompt his memory. I’m delighted to be welcomed into his life, to walk along with him, through both the quotidian — the math test, finding a barber to cut his hair — and the memorable — he spoke to Madeleine Albright, he got into the class he really wanted to. To hear what he thinks these events mean, and a chance for him to ask me for what he needs. Books and key deposits. Calculus help.
I wonder if God takes equal delight in my invitation to be welcome within my calendar, my days, the seconds he set the beat for? As happy to hear how I feel about my finally getting the laundry not only done, but folded and put away, as He is to know that I went to Mass this morning. To know where I might have encountered “Garlic and sapphires in the mud."
My relationship to time is still a complicated one, but there are blessings here, year round. But God, can I have my watch back now?
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
At People for Others, Paul Campbell SJ has posted a rundown on the world if it were reduced to 100 people. The video clip here shows a similar breakdown. We've become so inured to percentages, 14.5% of people in the US went hungry at some point last year, the top 1% of wage earner took home 20% of the total US earned income, it can be hard to get a gut feel for what they mean to people, to put faces to numbers. One percent seems different, smaller somehow, than one person in a hundred — or one person I know.
Crash gave me a great book for Christmas about sticky ideas (Made To Stick), and the miniature earth concept is by their definition, pretty sticky.
So I'm trying this as a spiritual exercise, in the spirit of St. Ignatius' First Week. Take the percentage du jour from the news, or one that is close to my heart. Now imagine it reduced down to 100 people. Twenty of one hundred people in the United States live in poverty or near poverty (for a single person, this means an income of less than $15,000 per year — roughly what you would make working full time at minimum wage with no vacations). Now imagine ten close friends, and that two of them are living with such limited resources. What would I say to them? How would I share what I have with them? How open is my heart to their needs in relationship to my own?
Friday, January 10, 2014
|Sign on the Nyonimichi, the women's trail, on Mt. Koya |
in Japan. © Michelle M. Francl 2013.
Blessed Fran of the Many Consonants had two posts that spoke to me, "What Now?" reminded me to check my orientation, where am I going, what am I following? I enjoyed her focus, not on resolutions, but on the questions. It made me think, too, of the recent papal exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, in which Pope Francis reminds us of the importance of not just having an orientation, but living it out: "Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and gnosticism." [EG 233] Her other post, on "Hard Hearts" got me digging into the Greek. The Greek used for hardened in the Gospel she quotes is not the same as the word translated as hardened elsewhere in the New Testament.
At Gentle Reign, composer Rory Cooney is hoping for some help along the way, asking how seriously we take the Word we hear proclaimed, and how good preaching might support us in our actively bringing the Word to light.
We think about this season of the year as one of beginnings — babies and baptisms — or travelers — the journey to Bethlehem and the Magi — but at Gone Walkabout, Jim McDermott SJ has posted a haunting poem by Peter Steele SJ which reminded me that not only did the Magi come, but they left. As do we.
Finally, since it is "back to the grind" for many of us, enjoy this list of coffee heresies.
What did you read this week that caught not only your eye, but your heart?
For the curious, πεπωρωμενη is hardened, the sense is of dulling or calloused, rather than σκληρύνω ("skleruno" - as in sclerosis in medicine) which is used elsewhere and carries the connotation of dried out or inflexible
Posted by Michelle at 10:30 AM
Thursday, January 09, 2014
The altar at the old Jesuit noviate of
St. Isaac Jogues in Wernersville, taken from
the space behind the grille where women
could attend Mass there in the old days.
I waded into the conversation (with a bit of trepidation) with this comment:
"Despite the statement that it is well known that altar serving develops priestly vocations, it is worth noting, I think, that the data from the US is not clear about the connection between priestly vocations and serving at the altar. Two thirds of newly ordained priests report having been an altar server, but without any comparison data (What percentage of priestly vocations can be attributed to serving in a parish/diocese which forbids women to do so? What percentage of men — or women — marrying in the Church were altar servers? and in the future, what percentage of priests will report have had a mother who was an altar server?) it really doesn't answer the question of whether restricting the ministry to males serves the Church — the Body of Christ — well one way or the other.
Saying the rosary, participating in Eucharistic adoration are equally strongly correlated to becoming a priest, but we hear no arguments are restricting these practices to males."
Perhaps not surprisingly, given my own reflection of the Gospel of John, my favorite comment of all is this one:
"And then, if they are really interested in having something “special” for the boys only, they could perhaps institute something like an all-male cleaning squad to inspire those young men to follow the path of Jesus in the true spirit of humility and service.
Which incidentally reminds of this “classic Bergoglio story”: After becoming archbishop he was invited to have dinner at the seminary, and the rector asked if he wanted to say something to the seminarians. Bergoglio proceeded to say, “I’ll wash the plates tonight.” After that… it became fashionable for faculty to clean their own dishes." Elizabeth Ahn
Posted by Michelle at 11:18 AM
Tuesday, January 07, 2014
|Image of star formation near spiral galaxy NGC 1097 NASA.gov|
Traditionally, today — January 6 — is the date for the feast of the Epiphany, though we celebrated it on Sunday. Very early this morning I sat in my parish church. It was dark, inside and out, and the rain lashed against the stained glass windows. Just the crèche was lit, the infant with arms outstretched and three kings on bended knee, their gifts in hand. Gold robes, glittering gifts, a holy child. Christ, made manifest to the nations. There was no mistaking the message. Come, let us adore Him.
The wise ones followed a star to find this child who would be a king. The refrain to the familiar hymn notwithstanding, this star of wonder was more than a guide to “thy perfect Light.”
Father of the Church John Chrysostom, in a homily on the Gospel of Matthew, says the wise men needed the star to see Jesus for who he was, “for there was nothing conspicuous about the place. The inn was ordinary. The mother was not celebrated or notable.”
Well before dawn this morning, I knelt down before another infant. No glittering star above, just the dim glow of the Acme sign across the street to show me the way as I chased down an escaping babe intent on exploring the dark hallway outside his mother’s room at the shelter. I hefted him on my hip and with his older brother wondered at the lights of the trucks making their deliveries in the darkness, while their mother packed her lunch, and gathered their things for the day — they will not return until dinner.
As they head out the door, I hand his mother a new thermos, filled with coffee. In the face of all that she needs for her children and herself, it is perhaps as impractical as gold, frankincense and myrrh were to Mary. And I cringe to think that it was instant coffee, though that’s all there was in the small pantry. But as imperfect and impractical as they were, these were the gifts I could give her this morning, the gifts of company and care — and coffee.
In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium [231-233] Pope Francis reminds us that, “Realities are greater than ideas. This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice … this principle impels us to put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful.”
On this 12th day of Christmas, can I remember to look for the stars that let me see Christ in the ordinary places? Can I pray for the grace to realistically put the word I hear into practice where God has placed me? Not lamenting what I do not have to offer, not dreaming of far off lands, but breaking open what I do have to share. Here. Now. In this place.
There is nothing conspicuous about this place. It is an ordinary school hallway. You would not notice the mothers in line at the grocery store. But make no mistake about it, I have seen Christ by the light of the Acme, and laid real gifts at His feet.
Monday, January 06, 2014
|The view from the door.|
“When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door, and I remained 40 years." Brother André Bessette CSC
Last night I slept at our parish's shelter for the homeless, something I've been doing pretty regularly for a while. I sleep on a mattress near the door, easily available in case anyone needs anything in the night. I am the night portress.
At the end of my shift this morning I went, along with the overnight host (who sleeps in an actual room with a door!), to 6:30 am Mass, arriving 2 minutes late, something that's hard to miss in our small chapel. The presider noted with puzzlement the appearance of several regulars from the 8 am crowd, but went on to preach about St. André Bessette and the job of the porter in a community.
It was an apt reflection after my night at the door. The door is such a liminal space to inhabit, the hallway so public, so spare. In the summer there is no air conditioning there, in the winter, the drafts are noticeable. There are no shades to draw, no way to block out the light from the streetlamp, or from the headlamps of the cars that use the parking lot as a short cut. And when the little ones stir in the night, their mothers are not the only ones awakened.
To sleep here is a privilege. It is a privilege to hold, at least for one night and however symbolically, the difficulties of the outside world at bay, and let those within sleep safe. It is a privilege to ease the passing back out into the world of those who have taken refuge for the night, to make a thermos of coffee at 4:30 am for a mother who must get up, get her small children ready to leave, and out the door by 5:15 to get to her job on time. To carry the makeshift bag another has scrambled to assemble for daycare. To bounce the baby and amuse the toddler long enough to let their mother use the bathroom.
This is my own little theophany, no camels, no frankincense. There is a babe and a mother. And the only gift I have is a thermos of coffee.
Epiphany. It's more than a feast. It's a call to be shown the door.
Sunday, January 05, 2014
Last night I carefully built my fire, touch a match to it and watched it burst into exuberant flame. Then I stopped and prayed for all those who carefully hauled the wood, stacked the logs, arranged the kindling in my heart and soul and to the One who set it all aflame with a single touch, one dark night in Eastern Point's chapel.
Saturday, January 04, 2014
Rita Ferrone, reflecting at PrayTell on her experience of Midnight Mass, notes that the presider "gave a self-righteous scolding to the occasional attenders." Meanwhile the comments on an article I wandered onto (about ways to make Christmas Mass accessible to those who are not habitual attenders) made me nearly weep, and glad I was not a stranger showing up at their parishes for they would prefer I neither have a seat nor receive the Eucharist, for that should be reserved for those (who they know) to come regularly to Mass. Stranger? You must be a C&E (Christmas and Easter) Catholic, which is, of course, no Catholic at all.
I can't imagine what it might feel like to have made the time, even just this once a year, to go to Church and be treated to a scolding. The lost sheep has returned, do we not feast, rejoice? There is a spark, do we sniff and blow it out?
Nor can I quite imagine what it must be like for those who regularly attend to be upbraided. Is this how the Word that comes to dwell in our midst is to be preached at the celebration of the Incarnation? Do not those who regularly come to this table deserve to be fed with carefully prepared preaching appropriate to the Solemnity which they have waited for through Advent's weeks? Apparently not.
One commenter speaks of struggling with the contempt in which s/he holds the interlopers at Christmas Mass. I'm struggling, too, with my feelings about those who feel there is no room at the inn for strangers, however they've found their way to the door, and however long before their next visit.
Friday, January 03, 2014
|An amaryllis planted |
as I began.
|My room when I first walked in.|
As I type this, it's been roughly two and half million minutes — some two hundred thousand breaths — since the silence broke on the retreat, on a bright and cold February morning. And while I didn't go home having discerned a seismic shift in my life, God has done a great deal of breathing in me since.
Wednesday, January 01, 2014
This reflection appeared in Give Us This Day on 1 January 2013.
The prayers and readings for today’s feast shimmer with light, calling forth for me the fiery images that open Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sublime sonnet God’s Grandeur. I imagine God taking in his hand what has lain apart from time and space, and snapping it crisply like a cloak dusted with snow, shaking free a sparkling shower of light. Fiat lux! Let there be light. A universe emerged from chaos.
Eons grind past, the glories of that first moment fade, tarnished by sin, until Mary’s echo of that first fiat: “Let it be done unto me as you will.” And Light shook forth again, kindled itself within Mary, to be cradled close among us. We named Him Wondrous God, Prince of Peace.
At Easter’s Vigil we sing of a Light undimmed by sharing, even as we often struggle to keep candles lit in spring breezes. Mary let the Light go forth from her, but the flame remained undimmed within her. Just as we hold our hands cupped around our own glimmering share of the Paschal fire, she held her heart cupped around the mystery of God dwelling among us, her reflections keeping the Light aglow, sustaining her through the unremarkable as well as the unbearable.
Fiat lux. Let the light of the Gospel take flame in our hearts, may we learn from Mary how to shelter it with prayer and be warmed by its contemplation. Fiat. Let God’s will be done in us, shaking free a Light undimmed in its sharing.