Thursday, April 25, 2019

An unimaginable Easter imagined

It's the picture of the single shoe that haunts me. An overturned red shoe on the asphalt, and shattered glass, so much glass, glass like snow on the ground.  I woke on Easter not to photos of Mass at St. Peter's or to small children in their best romping on green lawns with Easter baskets in hand, but to scenes from the bombings in Sri Lanka. To visions of pews scattered about St. Sebastian's sanctuary and its roof blown open. And that one shoe.

Over the last week I've been correcting the proofs for a book of Lenten reflections. The last reflection in the book is not for Lent, but for Easter Sunday, and reads in part.
"Why do I not see everything overset? Why are the pews not scattered like matchsticks, the altar covered in dust from a dome broken open to the sky, a great wind whipping the trees about? And instead of children dressed in their best for Easter brunch, why are there not people milling about in confusion and fear, their clothes torn and shoes unmatched in their haste to come see what happened here last night?"
When I wrote it, I wasn't imagining a disaster, but mulling over this passage from Matthew
And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men. (Mt 28:2-4) 
Which in turn reminded me of Annie Dillard's essay "An Expedition to the Pole" where she wonders at our inability to grasp the powers at work when we gather for liturgy, to truly grasp the resurrection.
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
My reflection goes on to imagine a reassuring angel sitting amidst the debris, gently shooing people back out into the world. I imagined it as if a storm had come and gone in the night and while people are bewildered and overset, they are not wounded or dying. Now I indeed see everything overset. I can't get the images of Sri Lanka out of my head, where the pews are scattered like matchsticks and the roof has been broken open so that you can see the sky through it. And that shoe.

I wonder how that reflection will read next Easter. Will we remember those who died this year?

The photos are #29 and #38 in this gallery at the Washington Post.

This reminded me, too, of the attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem and the power of images to drive my prayer.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Overflowing with glory

In the beginning there was God.  And there was chaos and confusion, a universe unshaped and restless, smoldering in the darkness.  The Spirit hovered over the waters, living and breathing above the abyss.  With a word, there was light, or so we read in the book of Genesis.

To hear the astrophysicists tell the tale, when the universe was one millionth of a second old, it was the size of a grapefruit. I could set it on my desk, cup it in my hands. Everything that would be was contained in that unimaginably hot, inconceivably dark, dense sphere. Matter was so tangled in its depths that even light could not wriggle its way out.  A quarter of a million years later, unable to bear the strain, the universe unfurls into the emptiness.  So now we have light.

Sometimes I imagine God cradling this rough-hewn and snarling mass of darkness in his hands, turning the inchoate universe over and around, pondering what will be.  Perhaps he set it on the desk for a while, leaning back in his chair with a creak to get a new perspective.  And when the time came, with a breath and a prayer—Spirit and Word— God’s hands opened and let what was within spill into the emptiness. God from God, Light from Light.

Humankind once held, all unknowing, the entirety of the universe, and more, in our hands. Inconceivable energy pushed into an impossibly small space.  The all-powerful, ever-living God contained in the body of a man, come to unravel the chaos. Perhaps the strain on the universe was again unbearable, for we hung God-become-man on a tree, and watched as he strained for breath and died. All that is, was and will be, pulled from the cross and cradled in his mother’s lap. We wrapped his body in linen, and set it aside. Only to have Light once more spill forth from the emptiness, washing out the darkness.

“Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” said T. S. Eliot. Certainly I cannot. I can contemplate with delight the small ball that was the universe in God’s hand. I will fall on my knees before Christ, who emptied himself out on that cross. But when again and again I cradle in my hands the Body of Christ, take the cup that bears God's very blood, I can’t bear to imagine the immensity of what is contained within.

I say, far too quickly, “Amen.”  I believe.  I assent.  But will I become? In receiving the Eucharistic, St. Augustine observed, “You are saying 'Amen' to what you are.” Can I stop, wait, and contemplate that in receiving this gift, those unimaginable forces have come to reside in me? What have I become?  And if I can bear that, can I imagine my neighbors holding such power in their hands, overflowing with God’s glory?

Perhaps what I really cannot bear is what this means I must do.  For what should come forth from my hands when I open them, if not light from Light.  What should I see in my neighbor, then, if not God? If I truly understood who I had become, would I not pour myself out for the kingdom of God?

Christus Resurrexit! 
Vere Resurrexit! 
Alleluia, Alleluia! 

From an essay in Give Us This Day, April 2017

Warning: salt and alcohol alternatives to the Paschal Fire

The overlap between chemists and liturgists is likely vanishingly small, hence this warning.

It the the custom in many Christian denominations to light a Pascal fire at their Easter rites. For Catholics, this is done after sunset on Saturday night. The fire is kindled outside the church and in many traditions a large candle and/or many candles are lit from the flames. Lighting the fire is often problematic, it should be visible to the people assembled, but confined to prevent hazards. It can be smoky.  This weekend I became aware of an alternative to the traditional wood fire, replacing it with a rock salt and alcohol mixture.  This sounds like a great idea.  It is smoke free — you could do it inside — and that as these sets of directions suggest, you can add other salts to make beautiful colors in the flames.  It is, in fact, a TERRIBLE idea.

This is just a version of a chemistry demonstration, often called the rainbow demonstration, that is so dangerous it should not be done. Period. The rainbow demonstration has led to many serious burn injuries in onlookers and teachers, the Washington Post has an overview here.  Under certain circumstances it can produce a flame jet. See this notice from the American Chemical Society, and this longer article about the hazards at the Journal of Chemical Education.

The dangers is that vapors from the alcohol can travel out of the container or the salt/alcohol mixture and along the ground, then ignite in a ribbon of flame. I note that the National Altar Guild
link with instructions recognizes the vapors might escape, but doesn't seem to realize the hazard this presents.

Some years back the American Chemical Society urged chemists to contact their local high school chemistry teachers about the rainbow demonstration to be sure the warnings reached them. It might be time to encourage chemists to reach out to their local churches to be sure they are aware as well.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Giving up Lent

More than ever I find myself in the hands of God.
This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth.
But now there is a difference;
the initiative is entirely with God.
It is indeed a profound spiritual experience
to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.
— Pedro Arrupe, SJ

It's very nearly Holy Thursday, where Lent gives way to the Triduum and Lenten disciplines are put aside for another year. What did I give up this year? Not chocolate, not the internet.  I gave up oxygen, having come down with pneumonia at the end of March. I am still wheezy, still stripped of my singing voice — and to some extent my lecturing voice — still thinking more about breathing than I might otherwise. 

It wasn't my choice to surrender this. For the last couple of days I've been thinking about this prayer by Pedro Arrupe, SJ, written after his stroke in 1981, and the end of the Suscipe: "I give it all back to you, I surrender it wholly to be governed by Your will." There is a difference between choosing to give up a little luxury, and having something so essential stripped from me.  It pushes me into the depths, forces me to look at what it means to commend myself entirely into God's hands. This is what I profess to desire, to want God like air.  Theory is one thing, the practice, it turns out, is something else again.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The light is red

The light is red.
I'm 10th in a line of cars.
I am, perforce, stopped.
I have not blocked the entrance to the side street.
The car behind me is black and expensive.
And honking.
And impatiently pulls around me.
To block the side street and be 10th in a line of cars.
The light, sir, is still red.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

When we were young

Several of my siblings have spent hours in the attic of the barn at my parent's house, sorting through boxes of stuff, some of which have been untouched for decades.

Today my brother texted me this photo, taken on a September morning in 1983 in the 5th floor seminar room at UC Irvine. That's me, moments after defending my doctoral dissertation, with a former post-doc from the group who had been a terrific mentor (and who I just had dinner with a couple of weeks ago!). I was 25 — the same age Crash will be on his next birthday.

 I can still remember some of the questions from my defense, it seems not so very long ago.  I still roll up my sleeves when I lecture, still have that silk bow tie in my drawer, though I can't recall the last time I wore it.  My hair is far shorter and grayer, my glasses equally dorky. I can remember the softness of Tom's favorite sweatshirt, tossed on the table while he takes this photo. We had budgeted for a dinner out to celebrate, but by the time we arrived at the restaurant near the South Coast Plaza mall, Tom was feeling ill, and we just went back to the empty apartment, most of our stuff gone on a moving truck to New Jersey.

Things I can't remember - did I use overheads or give a chalk talk? Had I gone to the trouble of making 35 mm slides? Did we drink the champagne right then (it's not even noon as I can see from the clock!)? What was the date?  It's not in my thesis (I checked - there's a copy on the shelf behind my chair).

Less than fours years later, I would be a widow. I would find that sweatshirt tossed on the bed at home, worn to ward off the chill of an early spring morning. I look at these pictures sometimes and wonder, if future me could have warned past me of what awaited her, what would she say? Anything?

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The weight of water

It's the UN's international year of the periodic table, so I've been writing and thinking about the elements. While writing a piece for Nature Chemistry about the hidden depths of the periodic table (the more than 3000 isotopes that could be stacked onto their elemental spots), I wandered across an interesting set of papers on heavy water and isotopic tracing, which along with some questions my students had in the intro chem course led to another piece for Nature Chemistry (The weight of water).

Heavy water (D2O) is water where the hydrogens have been replaced with deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen that weighs about twice as much as standard hydrogen. Heavy water weighs just over 10% more than regular water, a tablespoon weighs only about a gram more, so it is probably not noticeable should you heft a glass of it.  (Heavy water was a key element of some nuclear weapons programs, check out the harrowing story of the raids on a Norwegian heavy water production facility in WW II.)

In one of the papers I read, future Nobelist George de Hevesy stuffed some twenty (albeit tiny) goldfish into 60 ml of water, in another he reports drinking heavy water and making thousands of distillations of urine to recapture the water, measure its density and track deuterium through the human body.

Drinking your experiement sounds dicey, but in small amounts heavy water is safe to drink, and as I recently learned, used in human metabolic studies in doses of about 10 ml. An interesting question raised in the papers I read was about the taste of heavy water. One report suggests a burning sensation might be felt when drinking it, another (by Harold Urey, who discovered deuterium) suggests it tastes like undeuterated water. But other reports say it tastes sweet.

With a bit of help from my youngest son, I set up a repeat of Urey's blind taste test. And was surprised to find I could indeed taste the difference. It is sweet.

And for the next few weeks, until the last of the extra deuterium clears my systems, I'll be just a little bit heavier than usual.

Shameless self-promotion, George de Hevesy is one of the Catholic scientists featured in the audio series I did last year with Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, the director of the Vatican Observatory.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Done is good.

There is a saying at Bryn Mawr, "Done is good." A way of reminding students (and ourselves) not to hang on to a project beyond its time, that the enemy of the good is sometimes the perfect. And also a reminder to celebrate what has been finished, that to finish something is itself an accomplishment.

The book of Lenten reflections I have been working on for the last six months is done, the last of the copy edits made and sent off. And it is good. At least I hope it is good!  But it has been nice to begin to clear up my office, to re-shelve the books (a selection of the books that I referred to in the text are in the photo: Augustine, Eliot, Levertov, Ignatius....). It's a chance to clear physical space to work, but also the mental space this writing has been holding in my brain.  To be done is a good thing.

So I should celebrate...a dinner out? a good movie with Math Man? A long walk? So many things I could do — but most of all what I crave is more time to read....books! I'm midway through Radium Girls, Kate Moore's compelling read about an industrial accident that played out in slow and awful motion, and have ordered Balaam's Donkey to dip in and out of.

Monday, February 25, 2019

1950s Male Academic Privilege

About two weeks ago I declared that I was invoking "1950s male academic privilege." To be clear, not the kind that has been in the news lately (as in here or here or...oh, never mind, that kind of behavior is unfortunately not confined to the 1950s.) What I meant was that I was electing to focus entirely on my writing, not on doing household chores, or fixing dinner. I felt free to stack up books on the floor and turn my back on dishes in the sink. I worked after dinner and early in the morning, my door firmly closed (to keep out the cat). I did draw the line at demanding a tray be brought up for my dinner.

It worked. I made the last revisions on a book manuscript I had been working on for the last year and put the finishing touches on an essay. The talk I'm giving on Thursday is in reasonable shape. My classes got prepped, an exam got written, office hours happened, a teaching plan was made.

But of course, I'm not a 1950s male academic, so all the "1950s faculty wife" things I didn't tend to are now popping back onto my to-do list. Memos to write. A dinner party for a newly minted faculty chair to organize. Books to reshelve and return to the library. A study to lightly tidy — only lightly so as not to disturb the intellectual work of the occupant. Grocery shopping. Laundry. Except for getting a haircut. Math Man called and made me an appointment.  He's the perfect faculty spouse.

Math Man and I watched The Wife last week. I saw the ending coming a mile away.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019


I was responding to a spate of emails from students — it's the start of the semester and my inbox is filled with small, urgent requests.  Yes, I told a student, that's fine. And closed with "Beset, Dr. Francl".  Oops!

Sometimes my fingers know before my mind does, what is going on.  Beset indeed. This morning I am channelling my inner anchoress and closing my door to write, write, write.

1000 words for the day, if I can. And no, I'm not checking email. Thanks for asking.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Overreading Nehehmiah

Lots to see here for even the littlest!
Sunday's first reading has provoked some interesting exegetical conversation about the presence of young children within the sanctuary,
In the square in front of the Water Gate, Ezra read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand; and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law. Nehemiah 8:3
Fr. Michael White reads this passage to support excluding children from the sanctuary, falling clearly on the side that the Mass is entirely a rational experience and those without the intellectual capacity to understand (presumably including those with dementia or other cognitive deficits) should be provided for in other ways, e.g. by investing in strong children's programs. Worship should be serene and uninterrupted by the messy realities of everyday life.

White mocks those who sit where their children can see, "as if they’re looking." Certainly my experience in a church which does not provide differently for children, or those otherwise unable to "understand," is that children are far more attentive to what is happening on the altar than you might think. The three year-old boy next to me who joins in the prayers of the faithful, the little girl dancing to our song — Alleluia — or my own son, who on hearing the opening to the second reading, "St. Paul's letter to the Romans" leaned over to say, "Rome, I've been to Rome." He was 4. Father White might spend a few weekends sitting incognito in the pews somewhere to see where children are looking and what they are doing and how parents are investing in their formation, and then revisit the issues he takes up in his essay.

Listening to the reading this weekend, I was struck by who was in the assembly. If all the people, the men and the women alike were there, who was home with the children too young to understand?  I had visions of houses with infants abandoned in cradles and toddlers wandering the streets. Perhaps the meaning to be wrung from this passage isn't that we shouldn't bring children into the church until they are old enough to understand, but that they are old enough to grasp out for and onto God from the very start. For are we not to love and worship God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength.  Frankly, it's more than any of us can understand.

H/T to Fritz Bauerschmidt at PrayTell, "Suffering the Little Children"

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Ten year challenge

Chair in the basement laundry room at Eastern 
Point, which was an apt place to work with the 
material of the First Week. Note the journal.
There's a meme going around on social media recently, often tagged "How hard did aging hit you?" with the invitation to post current photos next to photos from ten years ago.  Ten years ago today I was at Eastern Point, on the coast of Massachusetts, deep into the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola as laid out in the 20th annotation. Thirty days of silence, away from home and family, free to pray.

In the fall, I wondered how I might revisit the Exercises this winter. And then my father died and I tossed my winter break plans out the window. Now I wonder if I shouldn't reframe that 10-year challenge question: how hard did the Long Retreat hit me?

I pulled the black Moleskine journal I kept out to browse, flicking through the pages, stopping to look the photos that I added when I came home, wondering at the neatly printed notes I made each day on post-it notes about my prayer to prepare for my meetings with my director.  I would stick them to the front of my journal and then generally never once refer to them.  Much of what was written there went unsaid, as is true of so much of the Exercises. But I'm grateful for those notes that I carefully taped into the journal now, because they are about the only thing I can read. The Exercises might change lives, but they did nothing to improve my handwriting. I'm equally grateful for the letter my director suggested I write to future me, noting what I might want to re-visit later.

How hard did that Long Retreat hit me? Hard enough that a decade later it is still unfolding. #fifthWeek

Letters to and from the past

A section of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Wikimedia.
I taught a Balch seminar (a required first year course for all Bryn Mawr students) last fall. Emily Balch was a Bryn Mawr alumna, a graduate of the college's first class in 1889, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for her work at The Hague on forging peace in the wake of WWI and through the first half of the 20th century.  She was a founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and contributed to the development of international disarmament policy. She had been a faculty member at Wellesley for more than 20 years, but when she asked for an extension of a leave of absence from Wellesley to continue the work she was doing, the board fired her.

We began each class with a short writing prompt, one of the last ones was "Write a letter to one of your great-great grandmothers."  I knew one of my great-grandmothers, Mary Bach Chapp, but not any of my great-great grandmothers.  And I know only one story about any of them, one from my mother who heard it from her grandmother. It's the story of a woman living in 19th century Wales who each night traced a blessing over the banked embers of the fireplace, to be sure a fire could be roused in the morning. Her life and mine, separated by a century, what would I tell her? What would she want to know? What would I want to know about her and her life? What if we could write to each other?

I've been writing about Isaiah, who had things to say to the Israelites in that present moment, but who also has something to say to the far distant future. For what is Scripture, but letters to the future from people who cherished God so much they could not help but let themselves be opened to the Eternal and write and sing of such love for generations living in a future they could not imagine.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

A homily for my father

Mission San Miguel Arcangel - my parents' parish church.
When I visited him in the care home last October, my father asked me if I would take care of planning his funeral. Sure, I said, is there anything in particular you want?  No, not really; like your mother's.  At the Mission. (My parents' parish was one of the original California missions, San Miguel Arcangel). I went home, and a couple of weeks later my dad went home, where he could be with his wife and his beloved dogs. We didn't talk about it again. Now he has truly gone home, to be with my mother and all those who went before him. So last week I was faced with selecting readings and music, but not a homily. But this is what I would have said if I could have preached at his funeral Mass.

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 27; 1 John 3:1-2, Matthew 11:25-30

My dad had bad knees, a trait he passed on to most of his offspring, much to our dismay. So when I sat down to consider readings for his funeral Mass, a line from a favorite section of Isaiah came to mind: Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak. It's not a traditional reading for a funeral, but the imagery that surrounds that verse was so rich, so warm, it seemed the reading to send my dad home on.  And those weak knees being made firm — well, they made me laugh and so firmed up my soul.

The prophet promises much to a people in travail.  Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water.

Water here is precious.  It doesn't burst forth from the hillsides, or even run in the river beds, but winds its way unseen beneath our feet. The ground is always thirsty, our tongues and hands dry. So we pull water up from the depths, and dribble it out through irrigation systems. We hoard water from our showers and drag it bucket by bucket out to our gardens to keep a rose bush alive, or let an olive tree bear.

So to live here is to know better than most how to thirst, how to ration, how to live with the least you can. It becomes hard to imagine what to do if suddenly faced with an abundance of water.  I have lived back East for more than thirty years, in a place where my biggest worry about water is how much is in my basement during a deluging rainstorm, and yet...each and every time I cross over the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia, I am awestruck. All that water, flowing and flowing down to the confluence with the Delaware River and out into the sea.

To thirst is a gift. It's a potent reminder that we are visitors here, that we live ever on the road to Zion, with just enough to enable us keep us moving.  We long for firm knees, we thirst to see again those who have gone before us - wives and husbands and parents and siblings...and dogs. To thirst here, is to leave ourselves open to be awestruck by what awaits us at our end.

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song. 
They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.

Light, too, is precious here. I walked outside the other night, it was too dark to see the ground I walked on. I walked by faith, the crunching of the gravel under my feet reassuring me I was on the right path. The glory and splendor of the numberless stars above took my breath away, yet each is known to God.

We are each walking in darkness,  occasionally catching a flash of something that lets us know we are on a right path, occasionally allowed to see a glimpse of one another as we truly are, beloved children of God, lights in the darkness of this world. We walk in worry, and doubt, uncertain if the next step will be on sure ground.

My father knew how precious water and light were. He kneaded flour and water into dough, feeding family and friends and people he didn't even know. He handed on light — the light of faith, the light of education, the light of a warped and wicked sense of humor — to his children and grandchildren, to people he knew and people he didn't.

Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; They will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.

My father was ransomed - as were we all. He has been met with joy and gladness, crowned with everlasting life, awash in water and light. May we all be graced to thirst, that we might be eternally awestruck at what has been done for us.

And dad, I know you were once worried that you'd be bored in heaven, resting was never high on your list. But surely heaven, of all places, is well set up for carpenters? I have faith you are well loved. May eternal rest be his, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.