Saturday, April 22, 2017

Marching -- and Speaking -- for Science



Speaking at the March for Science in Philly
Science.  It's what I have done most days for the last 40 years. To paraphrase Pedro Arupe SJ (or not - see this article on pseudo-Ignatian quotes) it is what seizes my imagination, it get me out of bed in the morning, determines what I read, and who I know and what amazes me with joy and gratitude.

What amazed me today were the thousands of scientists who brave a raw and rainy April day in Philadelphia to march for science.  I met some of my students early this morning and we took a train already packed into the city and found our way to the start of the march at City Hall.  We marched the not quite 2 miles to Penn's landing, waving signs and occasionally even chanting. Scientists are quiet sorts, it turns out.

I enjoyed listening to snatches of conversation about people's work as they walked and talked. Science was happening even on the march!  The signs were great - lots of old science jokes, some politics, some just...odd.  "If you aren't part of the solution -- you are part of the precipitate." "What do Trump and atoms have in common?  They make up everything."

At CityHall, waiting to march.
One sign reading "It was the year they finally immanentized the eschaton." puzzled my students — which led to a conversation about eschatology and "end times" theories as we walked. I teach at a liberal arts college - can you tell?  [I didn't realize until writing this tonight that it is a line from a 1970s novel, we could have had a while other conversation!]

with some of my students
I gave a speech, a nanosecond of which was featured on the evening news, I did an interview for CBS news in Philly, also on the news. The camera guy had a hard time getting the camera low enough to film me.  My youngest brother will be amused.

If you want to know what I had to say, I did an interview with Sabrina Vourvoulias of NBC 10 in Philly —A Chemist, A Feminist and a Theologian Go to the March for Science.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Ashes and incense

Fragment of press for making bread for Eucharist. Byzantine.
There are little flecks of ash on my alb, from where I brushed up too close to the censer.  Ashes to ashes. I walk the church through a cloud of incense.  A shroud, a veil, for the Sacrament behind me.  A pillar of cloud in the night.

I fall on my knees in the chapel.  The smoke that curls around me smells of incense and oh, so faintly of ashes.  Of prayer and of destruction. The chant pours over the two of us kneeling before the altar, piles up and spills out the door like a wave, there is a moment where all is still, and song washes back in.  We remain until the music is spent and I step into the clear cool air on the other side of the wall to let the embers die.



For whom shall we pray? For Mother Church.  For public officials. For those who believe and those who don't.  For pilgrims, return, and salvation for the dying.  I kneel and I stand until I wonder if I can stand again with this weight on my shoulders, or whether like Jesus I will stumble and fall.



I watch the choir recoil at the stark news.  Ecce lignum Crucis.  A member has been suddenly widowed, can we lean on you? Now? Today? Behold the wood of the cross. It's 9:00 pm and part of me is in an office outside a hospital waiting room 30 years and 3000 feet away, as a nurse offers to call someone for me.  All I can see are her hands, poised over the dial.

A psalm in the darkness, I can see nothing beyond the pool of light on the text. Have mercy on me, O God.



Black silk pants, black silk shirt. A white pall flows over the coffin. The alb slides over my head. "See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity." Water from the aspersorium splashes against my hand, and arcs overhead.  Renew me.

The sacrament of salvation lies broken in my hand, and I breathe in Easter.




Sunday, April 09, 2017

A widow's mite

Graduation, UCI.  June 1980.
It was half a lifetime ago.  Literally.  I was not quite 30.  I will be not-quite-60 this week.

Really, it was such a short time.  We didn't even know each other for 10 years all together. Married, another not quite.  Five not quite six.  This was not half a lifetime even then.  Nor even a third or a quarter. A fraction that grows smaller with each passing moment, sliding through my hands as I try to pin it down.

When can we neglect a term, my students wonder, desiring simple solutions?  When it's one part in five, or one part in ten? One part in a hundred - not something I'll have to face then.  Or the mathematical limit, where the one part in forever becomes nothing.  Somehow there, but not.  Evanescent increments, to use Bishop Berkeley's term.

It will be 30 years on Easter that I became a widow.  And yet I could still have written this essay from a woman widowed a scant three years — young, she suggests, at 36 with a loss that she had 42 days to see coming, where my 29 year old self had less than 42 hours.  I know those odd moments, curiously devoid of grief, where "call Tom to tell him you got tenure" shows up on my mental to-do list.  Or the dreams where you are trying to explain to people that you must rush, because even though Tom is next to you, you know he is dead and will vanish at sunset.  Or sunrise. Or.

I have, too, the memory of my mother confessing she had no idea what to tell me about mourning a spouse. Her friends had not yet reached that age.  There was no pool of experience she could draw on, except one unspoken moment.  Though I remembered then, and now, my mother's voice, whispered words of explanation in a back pew at St. Luke's as a neighbor's coffin drifted down the aisle, followed by a weeping woman in a black coat, "no mother should have to endure the death of a child."  Was it the year she lost the baby, or years later? I can't quite place it in time. Was the neighbor's name Angela? Her daughter baby sat for us, a teen-ager to my seven whose name I can't recall, just how sophisticated I thought she was.

The young widow wonders about remarriage, which overrides the widow effect, the damage being widowed does to your body.  You can't replace a person, she exclaims. True, and yet your heart might open to accommodate another.  Victor has not taken over some spot reserved for Tom, but has his own space in my heart.

It changes you, she says "I think it’s about withstanding a blow that fundamentally changes your architecture."  I would not disagree.  Our check-box demographics can't capture the complex plane of my life, or hers.


"And what are these same evanescent increments? They are neither finite quantities, nor quantities infinitely small, nor yet nothing. May we not call them the ghosts of departed quantities?" Bishop George Berkeley mocks the calculus, and the infidel mathematicians who entertained such thoughts.





Monday, April 03, 2017

Playing poetry ping-pong

Renga is a 15th century Japanese collaborative poetry form. The kick-off poet writes a hokku (three lines, 5-7-5 syllables each, what we now call a haiku), the next poet adds two 7 syllable lines.  The third poet takes the 2 lines and adds a 5/7/5 set of verses.  And so on...see this example taken from Miner's book Japanese Linked Poetry.  

Renga can be serious or funny (haikai no renga), but the game is not so much as to follow a single through line in the imagery, but to link and shift.  I enjoy the ways in which the shifts can make me blink, and tsukeai, unusual and evocative juxtapositions of words.

One way to play this sort of linked verse game is to write a series of 5/7/5 verses, each one starting with the last line of the previous.  A friend shared the hokku for a recent renga he had started:
without my glasses
i’m groping trying to find
where my glasses are
If I'd been in the game, I might have responded with
where my glasses are
smudged by thoughts I cannot catch
I see drops of grace 
Anyone is welcome to play!

Saturday, April 01, 2017

April: poetry and passion

April...the cruelest month said T.S. Eliot.

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

It's a cruel start to April here.  The weather has been cold and damp, the late March snow on top of a warm February killed the blossoms on my cherry and pear trees.  There are a few dozen blooms on the forsythia.  Branches scratch at the sky. There is still almost a quarter of Lent to go.

I'm seeking solace in poetry of all sorts, giving a series on the psalms for my parish, nibbling at Marie Howe's The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.

PrayTell has an April litany of intercessions for fools, apt for both the day and season.  My favorite
For acrobats and poets and kite fliers, and all who do things that are not merely useful, that they may know the pleasure they give to others.
And a litany of prayers for the 5th Sunday in Lent, from the depths:
For the People of God, as we watch for Easter's dawn in our lives…we pray…


For refugees and immigrants, for all those in need of new homes in which to settle…we pray
For those trapped in the depths of war and of poverty…we pray
For hope, when all possibilities seem exhausted…we pray

For the sick and for the dying, and for those who accompany them…we pray
For our beloved dead, brought to life everlasting through God's Spirit dwelling within them …we pray. 


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dot Magis: Signs of an early morning Examen

The photo is from Ireland, taken in the parking lot by a small pier. There wasn't much of a divider between the water and the pavement, and I suspect more than one distracted motorist had gone over the edge there.  Signs matter.

One of the nearby bridges over the railway track is out, which has changed the local traffic patterns. My drive to Mass and morning prayer now involves fewer traffic lights, more stop signs and a need to be very alert for those who view stopping at stop signs as optional. I'm oddly grateful for it all, which led to this reflection for DotMagis.

"I imagine God at each intersection point asking, 'Do you see me?' I think of the last line of Mary Oliver’s poem, What I Have Learned So Far: 'The gospel of / light is the crossroads of—indolence, or action. / Be ignited, or be gone.'

...I pray for the grace to see the stop signs, that when I reach each crossroad, I might stop long enough to see the light of God on every corner. I pray that I might not be gone, zipping on to the next thing, but aflame. Ignited."

Read the whole thing at DotMagis.

Friday, March 24, 2017

On Being on dusting



A few weeks ago I got an email from one of the producers of On Being letting me know that Krista Tippett had used an excerpt from a blog post I had written for DotMagis during her interview with poet Marilyn Nelson.

Nelson is one of my favorite contemporary poets, in part because her work tangles with such a wide range of themes, from the desert fathers to modern Trappist martyrs, she is unafraid to draw on scientific imagery, and brings a unflinching eye to the gouges racism has left in our country.  I'm still haunted by Fortune's bones, or more precisely by the thought of Fortune's wife dusting her husband's bones.

During the interview Tippett tells Nelson:
"To that point — I don’t know if this is something you’re aware of — we found this blog post that was written actually by a professor who had just gotten back from sabbatical, and she was dusting her office. Have you read this? I mean, this is the things you can find on the internet. This is the upside of the internet. Is your poem, Dusting?'"
It reminded me of a story one of the Jesuits at the observatory told me about going into the Rome to pick up a piece of paperwork he needed that the government website had shown was ready. When he finally got to the window, he was told to come back.  "But it said it was ready on the internet," he pleaded.  But the Italian bureaucrat was unmoved, "The internet says many things.  Next!"

The internet does say many things, and so it was quite nice to hear my writing called part of the upside of the internet. It was also fascinating to hear a little bit of my own work read aloud, which Tippett does (you can hear it around 25:00 minutes in the segment).

In the "Case for Dusting" I suggested that the dust on my desk might have alien origins: "fragments ...burnt off comets that blundered into Earth’s atmosphere. Crumbs of the infinite lie scattered across my desk."  So I particularly enjoyed the recent piece in the New York Times about jazz musician Jon Larsen's work identifying the micrometeorites in ordinary, every day dust.  The photographs are gorgeous.  Now I really can't bear to dust my desk, knowing what I'm wiping away.



Saturday, March 18, 2017

Sliding scales

The Egg bought me this slide rule, I also have the somewhat 
more sophisticated K&E slide rule that my mother-in-law, 
Gai Hamburger Donnay, bought with them money she 
earned tutoring Jackie Robinson in chemistry during her 
undergraduate days at UCLA. The log tables are from my 
father's, in his CRC Handbook of Mathematics.
I've been playing with scales off and on for the last couple of weeks. Not musical scales, or pay scales, or sliding fee schedules, but logarithmic scales on a slide rule for an essay I'm writing about computational methods.  What do we use, what did we use, and how do these options affect what we do in research and what we teach?

As part of this effort I learned to add and subtract on a slide rule.  I mentioned this to a younger colleague who seemed unimpressed, why not, weren't slide rules just the equivalent of the calculator, instead of pressing buttons, operations were done by some sort of sliding algorithm?

Ah, but the miracle1 of using logarithms to do computations was that you could multiply two numbers by adding two numbers. To multiply two numbers, say 2378 and 3467, you looked up the logarithm of each in a table — 7.774 and 8.151 respectively — added them together (15.925) and found the number corresponding to this new logarithm to arrive at the answer:  8,240,000 (to 3 significant figures, the exact answer is 8,244,526).  Put in symbolic form LOG(A x B) = LOG (A) + LOG (B).  These "logs" didn't help with addition in any way.

But you can use multiplication to add in an admittedly roundabout way.2 To add A and B:
  • Divide A by B.
  • Add 1. (Ok, yes, this is addition, but trivial to do in your head).
  • Now multiply the result by B.
  • The result is the sum of A and B.
This is supposedly handy if you are mid-calculation on a slide rule and don't want to pull a number off to paper, then return to working the rest out on the slide rule.

With a bit of practice, I'm once again getting quick with doing equilibrium problems for general chemistry, faster mid-lecture than pulling out and unlocking my phone to use the calculator on it (and my last standalone calculator bit the dust this week, after a long, long, useful life.)  Then again, when I have a quadratic to solve, these days I can just say "Hey, Siri...."


There were other methods for doing multiplication of two number by adding two numbers based on trigonometric relationships, which led me to learn the word prosthaphaeresis.

I note that one should be impressed with the tables.  It took Napier 20 years of calculations to construct those tables.


1.  And a miracle they were thought to be from the very first, John Napier's book describing his invention (published in 1614) was titled  Mirifici Logarithmorum Canonis Descriptio (A Description of the Wonderful Rule of Logarithms).
2. For the algebraically inclined,  this translates to A+B = B (A/B + 1)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Factoring in change

The balance of my life is shifting again, neither Crash nor the Egg will be home this summer, one is doing math research on the east coast, the other stage managing a production of Macbeth in the west.  The last time Math Man and I had no children at home in a summer, we'd been married less than a year.  This coming fall we'll have been married for a quarter of a century. So it's been a long time, and things are shifting.

One marker of the shift is the pizza dough recipe, posted at the moment for easy Lenten reference on the hood of the stove.  It has pencilled in amounts  for 1 crust, a version for 2 (the standard recipe), for 4, for 6.  I've made it just for me, living solo, for us as a couple, for a family including teenaged boys, enough for snacks for a party of hungry teens.

It's such a tangible marker, the size of the ball of dough under my hands as I knead it before a quick rise. Like a family, it's a living, ever changing thing.  Growing and shrinking in turns, many possibilities caught in its web of proteins.  I miss the substantial feel of the larger ball, but take heart in knowing that the dough is rising in other places, too.


Friday, February 24, 2017

The Comma Section

The book I've been working on is done, or rather, it's out of my hands and in the hands of my editor.  It will be back on my desk soon enough.  Now I'm excited to clean my study, putting away the books I used and generally re-organizing life with a bit less writing in it.  I have stacks of reference books — Ancient Christian Commentaries on the Scriptures, Rahner's sermons, Tillich — and a small heap of commas that were sieved out of the text.

The commas got pulled after Crash did a read through, along with some light editing, noting: "General comment: You use a LOT of commas in the reflections and sometimes, as here, they obscure rather than clarify your sentence structure."  He's right.  I tend to use commas to help me pace the reading of the text, rather than as the framework on which I am hanging phrases.  This is fine when I am the sole user of the text, otherwise, it obfuscates.

I don't know how many commas I took out (though I could know), but I do know there are 1528 still left in the text, one every 13 words.

Prompted by Ben Blatt's recent short piece in the Atlantic about the number of exclamation points great writers use, I counted those up, too.  They range over two orders of magnitude; a low of 50 per hundred thousand words for Hemingway to 1000 for James Joyce. As it turns out, in this instantiation of my writing, I'm more in line with Hemingway than Joyce: 78 ! per hundred thousand words.

I've been resisting writing the code to produce a version of these cool images of punctuation patterns by Adam Calhoun.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Judica me, Deus



Judica me, Deus, et discerne causam meam 
de gente non sancta, 
ab homine iniquo et doloso 
erue me.

...from unholy people and from deceitful and cunning ones rescue me.

I have been praying Psalm 43 since the president of the US abruptly halted the entrance into the country of refugees and immigrants, including at the start, permanent residents, who could not return to their homes and jobs.  Called a "temporary inconvenience" by some White House staff, I wonder if they would consider it a temporary inconvenience to be barred from their homes, and their incomes, for three months?  Or if most parents of five year olds would consider being separated from their child for three months merely inconvenient?  Military parents certainly don't view it that way, we call it a sacrifice in those cases, because it is so painful.

The president calls it a success, we are safer he says.  We were safe before, not perfectly safe, for we never are, but safe enough.  So safe, that those whose cities are in ruins, whose children are dying, want to come here.  Not a single refugee who has come to the US, from any country, has carried out a fatal attack here.  And if one were to do so next week, we would still be safe.

Do not be taken in by screaming anecdotes from either side.  Stories may be true, but they may not reveal the truth.  Ask for data. Data that shows the policy is working, data that shows it is not.  Pray for light, not noise, to guide you.

O send forth your light and your truth;
let these be my guide.
Let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.



Sunday, January 29, 2017

God chose the lowly and despised of the world

My mother-in-law, Gabrielle Donnay,
an eminent scientistwho arrived in the 
US at 17, a refugee from Nazi Germany
Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.
Not many of you were wise by human standards,
not many were powerful,
not many were of noble birth.
Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.
It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus,
who became for us wisdom from God,
as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,
so that, as it is written,
"Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord."
—Paul, Apostle


For justice:  for those whose rights have been ignored, for those whose lives are threatened, for the oppressed and the vulnerable, we pray…

For the strangers among us: for refugees, for immigrants, …we pray

For the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned…we pray

For the courage to be faithful to the truth...we pray

For humilty...we pray…

Prayers of the faithful. Written on Wednesday night. #HolySpirit

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Galactic language for the liturgy?

Stairs up to the Vatican Observatory's
Zeiss Double Astrograph in 
Castelgandolfo 

"With joy we give you thanks and praise.
Where once was nothing, your love
brought matter into being and motion,
thus creating time itself,
and countless galaxies, each with its countless stars,
and, to prepare a home for us,
delicately circling round one single star,
this one small globe, our mother earth." — John Daly, SJ

Recently on PrayTell there has been a discussion about a draft of a Eucharistic prayer by John Daly, SJ, that uses language and imagery drawn from modern science — a prayer for the 21st century.  [UPDATE: Kimberly Belcher of Notre Dame now has a post up at PrayTell extending the conversation.]The post grabbed my attention both because of the science and because I'm currently writing prayers for a book that is nearing completion. What should go in them?

There's a lot to critique in the draft (which you can read here, along with Thomas Reese, SJ's commentary here) but Fritz Bauerschmidt posed the question which interests me: "But a more general question might be whether we want eucharistic prayers that are so thoroughly invested in a particular scientific worldview that they are likely to sound outdated before too long."

That said, I would suggest Bauerschmidt's question is moot.  To my eye, the science in this Eucharistic prayer is isn't going to get outdated period, let alone next week.  It's all pretty settled at the level of the broad strokes used to describe in the text, and despite the title of the PrayTell post none of it is from the 21st century, some of it dates back hundreds of years.  For example, the universe is indeed billions of years old, as the prayer implies. we've known the age of the universe is on the order of billions of years for almost a century.  Whether that's 13.81 billion years or 13.77 billion years might still be up for grabs in the cosmology community, but it's immaterial in this context, Daly didn't get into that level of detail.
David Brown, SJ observing using the Zeiss
refractor at the Vatican Observatory in
Castelgandolfo

The rest of the science is similarly situated: baryogenesis did happen (i.e. matter came into being) even if the details are yet a bit murky, the earth circles the sun and is not flat. Evolution is a biological process, life on earth began at single cell level, humans evolved much later. The word chaos is used several times, but not in its technical mathematical sense.  Primal chaos is a pretty reasonable word to use to describe the universe as it existed in its earliest second, so tangled and so dense even light could not escape its clutches.

But I sense in the conversation something of the notion that scientific imagery and language just isn't sacred enough, perhaps a subtext of 'doesn't it sound silly to be thanking God for having discovered the Higgs-Bosun [sic]?' in one of the first comments.1 The serious question I'd like to raise is,  is it really laughable to be grateful to God for scientific discoveries in general?  If not in general, then for specific ones?  May we pray for "scientists," but not for "computational chemists," or for "galaxies" but not "Bose-Einstein condensates"?  On the telescope domes atop the old papal summer palace are inscribed the words, Deum creatorem venite adoremus, come adore God the Creator.  The laws of physics are as much God's creation as the dewfall.  Dew and rain, bless the Lord.  Bosons and fermions, bless the Lord, too.

Science is not a merely secular pursuit, I would argue it's very much a dialog with God about creation.  In that sense, it's prayer.  Contemplative prayer.

It's a more than a bit ironic to deprive our liturgical spaces of any mention of "science", bearing in mind that science has always made these spaces possible, from the engineering and math that ensures the buildings stay up, to the vinter's chemistry, to the dyes used on the vestments, and these days, made those albs resist wrinkles in ways linen ones never would.

When the book is done, perhaps I'll try my hand at a litany of praise for science, galactic and otherwise.



1.  Well, yes it does sound silly, because there is no Higgs-Bosun, it's the Higgs boson that got discovered; bosons are a particle type, not a person's name, but I know that because I deal in bosons and fermions on a daily basis!)

And while we are on the subject of science imagery in the liturgy, I remain distracted by dewfall (which doesn't fall, it condenses), and the bath of regeneration in the blessing over the way, which also distract me, but freely admit the failing is with me.  I'm certain everyone encounters language in the liturgy that abruptly bumps them out of the prayer and into something else.  Prevenient, anyone?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Syllabi, world creation and via ferrata

Via ferrata in Austria
By Luidger - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
I'm spending my days layering class prep over the final work on a book manuscript due to the publisher in about a month.

Writing today felt a bit like I was climbing up this cliff. Strapped onto a cable, exposed to the elements and grabbing for any handhold I could.  (Thanks, Flannery O'Connor for the lift midafternoon and to Crash who read a texted version of a couple of paragraphs on his phone between planes).

These fixed climbing routes are called a via ferrata - an "iron road" in Italian.  In some ways my intro chemistry class is a via ferrata, a way to climb through some tough material using fixed points I've constructed. It's a collaboration between the climbers and the creator of the route, and work is required on both parts.  (I have climbed a couple of easy routes this way - in Acadia and in New Mexico - the views were great, but I was pretty terrified the whole way, which hopefully my students will not be.)

I also read somewhere, by someone, a great essay about syllabi as a genre, specifically "world creation" genre.  I wish I could find it again.



Book report:  100% drafted; 77% in reasonable draft; 43% in near final draft; 23% in rather drafty draft.  This week's goal - to get those pieces in drafty draft well on their way to final draft.

And if you're wondering how I stumbled onto the term via ferrata -it's how you get to this hotel.  Warning, the photos are not for the height averse. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Effects of Incipient Predation on the Cognitive Abilities of Perimenopausal Women

Evolution has primed humans to give high attentional priority to potential predators in near proximity. This study quantified the effect of predator threats on cognitively demanding tasks in perimenopausal women.

Subjects were recruited through direct contact from the principal investigator's familial network. One subject, age >50, menopause status self-reported.   

Control Subjects played two rounds of Bananagrams(tm) with the principal investigator (PI).  Only subjects suitably matched to the verbal proficiency of the PI were allowed to proceed on to the second stage of the study.  Suitable matches were declared if the subject won one round and PI one round.

Predator exposure protocol A common local predator, Felis catus domestica, was obtained from the local SPCA and acclimated to the laboratory environment over a period of more than a decade.  To establish its predatory capabilities, the predator was allowed to regularly hunt rodents in its residence's motor vehicle storage unit.

The predator was roused from a nap and introduced into the area where the subject and PI were confined.  The subject was encouraged to play another round of Bananagrams(tm) with the PI, while the predator tracked her hands and sat on her tiles.  The outcome measure was the success or failure of the subject to beat the PI in rounds when she was being stalked by a predator known to her to be successful.  

Results and discussion The subject lost the round.  We hypothesize that the significant cognitive load placed on the subject by the need to track the predator, as well as regularly removing the predator from her tiles, decreased the attention she could devote to the game.  A potential confound is the need for the subject to more slowly retrieve tiles from the common pile when prompted by the "peel" stimulus, inviting the predator to pounce on her hand.

Conclusions If you want to beat your mother at a word game, get the cat to stalk her game play.


Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Letter Box

The number seems overwhelming - 19,700. It's number of emails I have sent using my gmail account since I began using the service 10 years ago this week. Though it seems impossible, it's really only 5 or 6 a day, on average.  It still feels like a lot of emails -- and it doesn't count the real mail that I still send.

I wrote a reflection for DotMagis this month about St. Ignatius and the grace of writing (and receiving) hand written notes, but closed by noting that there is joy, too, in the personal notes that come into my email inbox.  A note from my sister, another from a college-aged niece.

Today (coincidently?) there was a note from an editor, sharing a reader's reaction to a reflection I'd written which warmed my heart and my soul.  The Holy Spirit has a sense of humor.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Bird Watching on The Baptism of Our Lord

It was 14oF when I went out to pick up the newspaper from the end of the driveway.  It was unusually quiet for a Sunday morning.  It was too early for the murmuring exodus of cars headed to church or too cold for the dogs who yip at every dashing squirrel, and there were no leaf blowers howling   — any unraked leaves being conveniently buried under 4 inches of icy snow. All of which made the sharp knocks from across the street hard to miss.  

I spotted his red crest first.  Undeterred by the cold, or the darting wrens, a pileated woodpecker was digging into a tree across the street.  I stood and watched him until I was shivering, then slipped inside to grab something to take a photo with (Math Man's phone sitting right inside the door). The dried leaves shimmied in the rising breeze, sounding as if a rushing river had materialized overnight on the next street, and the woodpecker processed his way up the trunk, unruffled by the wind, huge in dignity.  The Lord God Bird, or rather its cousin.

Tomorrow is the last day of the Christmas season, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (at least on the current calendar, the note in my breviary for Epiphany is clear that if January 8th falls on a Sunday, Baptism of the Lord is omitted and Ordinary Time starts immediately on Monday).  The Gospel will leave us with the image of the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus in the Jordan - in the form of a περιστεραν (peristera).  The translation will say "dove" but it could equally well have been rendered "pigeon" -- the Greek gets translated both ways in the New Testament, and there is no clear line between doves and pigeons.  I suspect we get dove because pigeon pulls up images of splattered statues and aggressive birds 

I went to a talk last spring where the speaker referred to the Holy Spirit as a  "feral pigeon" as a matter of course (and which also featured an extended reflection on the ivory billed woodpecker, also known as the Lord God Bird.)  This characterization of God as feral continues to haunt me, it seems both almost profane, dancing with heresy.  But then I think what's the opposite of feral?  Domesticated? Could I really think of God, of the Holy Spirit, as "domesticated"?  That, I think, is heresy. God as a creature we have gradually accustomed to living with us?  God who doesn't endanger us?  God who is subordinate to us?  No, no and absolutely not.

Feral, which carries the sense of unruly, even dangerous, seems more apt for God, who promises us not tranquility, but presence in the storms.

The Holy Spirit shakes things up, blesses the unexpected as well as the ordinary.  Of course She is feral, and not in the least domesticated. She may even be a pigeon, strutting on the streets of Philadelphia.





A snippet from the interwebs that sticks with me, about disturbing word choices.  Child to waitstaff:  "I wish to devour the unborn."  Waitstaff: "Excuse me."  Mother (with a long sigh):  "He wants eggs.  Scrambled eggs."

Dodos are in the same family as pigeons (Columbidae).



Varying language lets us dance, pick up and shake something

Friday, January 06, 2017

The Art of Packing a Camel (Redux)

Things I learned last year:  that camels originated in North America (in South Dakota! and were originally the size of a rabbit) and that the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles contain many a camel skeleton.

This is a version of a piece I wrote four years ago for This Ignatian Life, which is alas, no longer available on the web.  I'm thinking again, on this traditional feast of the Epiphany about what I lug around with me, and how well balanced my load is. Full disclosure, while I have (once) ridden an actual camel, I’ve never packed one.

"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow." — T. S. Eliot from The Journey of the Magi

Four years ago today, on Epiphany, I walked resolutely (so says my journal) out of the retreat house dining room and into the Spiritual Exercises.  Like Matthew’s magi, I had had a long journey there, though it required not that I follow a star, but instead have the stars in my life align.  One by one, the pieces had fallen into place. A sabbatical leave in the spring semester, space left in the January 30-day retreat, kids’ schedules, and suddenly I found myself packing a duffel and driving (north)east.

The Exercises are designed to flow back into everyday life, what some call “the fifth week”.  For me, the Exercises truly began not when I walked out of that dining room, but when I started jotting a list of things to pack: this was my zeroth week.  I packed with the First Principle and Foundation tacked up on my bulletin board:  “And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.”

The choice of a composition of place and Gospel text for these meditations was obvious, for at least in December, it was hard to pack without having the magi hovering over my shoulder.  What exactly goes into your camel’s saddlebags? What do you take on a journey to pay homage to a King, to meet God in the flesh, to walk with Jesus in the Exercises?  And what do you rid yourself of before you leave?

In the end I took very little: two sweaters, an extra pair of jeans, snow boots — for the ways were surely deep and the weather sharp where I was going — and my knitting.  I still took too much.  Four translations of the Psalms. Four?  And a set of watercolors that I never once touched.

I confess I still find it hard to be a minimalist packer in a culture where big cars and bigger box stores make it easy to buy in bulk, where spectators routinely roll tents and and chairs and packed coolers across the athletic fields for an afternoon, and a trip to the mall with a small child requires more gear than your average camel could cart.  Their subtexts are difficult for me to tune out:  Don’t run out.  Be prepared.  Keep your options open.

Me, my traveling bag and camel at La Brea.
In themselves, these desires are not evils.  My family’s life runs more smoothly when the household doesn’t run out of laundry detergent or toilet paper; my students are well served when I have everything I need for the day’s demonstration tucked into my teaching bag. Yet I worry that I so insulate myself from needs that it becomes difficult for me to grasp that everything I have comes from and returns to God. Even the everyday things like laundry detergent.

So four years later I find myself returning to the contemplations of my zeroth week — even when I pack so much as my lunch.  I ask the questions that the magi must have faced with a long journey ahead, where the weight of what you carried could — quite literally — drain the life from your camels.  Where you might have to sit on what you had packed, so that with each passing mile the lumps and edges of your luggage gives you galls.  Where balance is not a metaphor, but a hard reality.

To choose to travel in this way is to make manifest that I do not know what the journey will bring.  It is to practice trust in the workings of the Spirit.  It is to grasp that empty spaces are opportunities, not to stash yet another gadget to be better prepared for some eventuality, but to be able to stow an unforeseen gift given along the way.  That what I bring in my saddlebags is not just for myself, but much is meant to be left with those I meet.

I learned on the Exercises that there is an art to packing a camel.  One I can keep practicing, even if the journey is only to my office, and my saddlebags hang not on the sides of a camel, but on the back of my bike.


You can listen to T.S. Eliot read his poem Journey of the Magi here.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Advice on Tweeting from Ignatius of Loyola



Perhaps someone should send these to PEOTUS?

First two tweets are from letter to Robert Claysson, SJ whose letters Ignatius felt to be blustery, inflated, and repetitious; third tweet is from a letter to Pierre Favre, SJ from Ignatius of Loyola on the subject of writing letters in which he begged his companions in the society to edit their letters to him to keep him from having to redact them for organization and clarity before they can be shown to outside eyes.