Sunday, November 10, 2019

The maw of the semester

I got a letter at work earlier this semester addressed to me at Bryn Maw. I'm finding the word "maw" quite apt at the moment.

I feel as if the semester, or my email, or both are like huge mouths rising up from the deep ready to engulf me. I'm being swallowed whole, like that poor sea lion in Monterey Bay this summer that just happened to be underneath a lunging humpback. There's no animus involved, no hunger being sated. Like the sea lion, I'm just in the way of something with more momentum than I can stop.

But I guess that even if I did get sucked into the mouth of a whale, I'd get spit back out again like this diver.

Technically I couldn't actually end up in the maw of a humpback whale, as maw derives from the German for "stomach" rather than mouth, and I wouldn't fit down a humpback's esophagus. The sea lion apparently escaped, too.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Despicable me

I opened up my email this afternoon to see an email titled "Vaping and Vitamin E." The snippet read

Hi There,  I just read the article posted in regards...

I was quoted in September (and it turns out today, too) in a couple of articles in the Washington Post about the chemicals considered possible causes of lung damage from vaping. I've gotten occasional emails since, ranging from on-the-ball analytical chemistry sales staff hoping I'm in the market for some new instruments to predatory journals hoping I'll 'contribute' an article or join their editorial board. This, I guessed from the chipper start would be more of the same, my money was on analytical instruments (the predatory journal entreaties are more likely to start with "Dear esteemed professor...")

(Double-click) Oops, nope, it's a howler!
My entire reason for writing to you today is to tell you how incredibly irresponsible and cruel you are to suggest animal testing. SHAME ON YOU. Animal testing is horrific and there is no reason an innocent being should suffer for the stupidity of people. I hate that I have to walk to the same earth as people like you who can disregard other living beings for the sake of "science". Despicable. 
Please re-think your stance as it's so undeniably cruel and wrong. There is no justification no matter how you try to spin it. I don't know how you sleep at night.
Whoa. I can almost see the whole thing crumple up and turn to ash.

I'm very confused. I'd spoken about molecular structure and properties, not animal testing. I pull up the most recent article to find I'm quoted about molecular structure and properties, not animal testing. The comment about animal testing is further down and not attributed to me.

I toy with many answers to this email.
Snark. ("I sleep just fine, thank you.")
Demanding. ("I want an apology for this cruel and unwarranted attack.")
Shaming. ("How dare you send this to the wrong person? Can't you read?")
Demanding and shaming. ("I demand an apology for your carelessness!")
None. (Probably the best option).
Flat denial. (What I went with.)
I went with denial, in part because the writer was on social media and if I could keep this from becoming a social media thing, I wanted to. But it was inarguably a mistake, and if I had made it I would not want to get flames in response. So I simply said, "not me." And I did get an apology in return.

Bonus! I've never seen Despicable Me - so now it's cued up to watch while I grade tomorrow.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Reefing the sails of our oration

I've been to a lot of meetings in the last few weeks. A lot. In the last four days I've spent more than 8 hours in one meeting or another. A whole working day. This morning I was reading St. Methodius (the fourth century bishop, martyr and Church Father, not St. Cyril's brother). To signal that he is wrapping up an oration on Simeon and Anna, he declaims, "let us reef the sails of our oration." There were a few moments this week when I wished I had the nerve to make a similar suggestion to whoever was speaking.

I do note that when Methodius suggested reefing his sails, he wasn't ready to bring them down all together. That reflection still had almost 10 minutes to run, for a total of about an hour and a half.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Teal Pumpkin Project

I have been allergic to peanuts and coconut all my life. No PB&Js. No Reeses. No Mounds. No peanut M&Ms.  Vigilance is a habit, and I’m grateful it’s been a long time since I’ve had anything worse than hives. But Halloween always ended with dumping my candy out on the table and pulling out all the stuff I couldn’t eat. My mother would stash it away for the adults.

Now that I’m on the treat buying end of this annual transaction, I’ve been sure to include something non-food in the assortment on offer. This year I noticed the Teal Pumpkin Project, where you used a teal pumpkin to signal that you had treats that were safe for kids with food allergies, or who otherwise couldn’t eat candy. So I posted a sign on the door.  First set of kids, with one allergic member of the gang (5th grade-ish boys) looked at the spiral glow bracelets and said, “Sick!” (Which I took to be a compliment.) I try hard to find non-edible treats that are equally attractive, so felt this year was a win.

The loss of a significant amount of my Halloween candy every year got me thinking about abundance. My mother didn’t make my siblings share their haul with me, but there was always an abundance, a full measure.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Science nostalgia

Last week I went through the files from some of my early journal articles for an essay I'm writing, and for a talk I gave. It had me thinking about how many things have changed around my work over the last 40 years.  In no particular order...

The watch on my wrist has a thousand times — yes, that's a thousand — more data storage than the "big" 80 MB (no, that's not a typo either, megabytes, not gigabytes) hard drive my research group shared in graduate school. That hard drive was roughly the size of a washing machine.

PDFs weren't a thing, nor were email attachments, until after I had tenure. You submitted articles to journals by postal mail. And you might be notified of their acceptance by a small postcard. You ordered reprints.

I haven't hand drawn a figure using pen and ink for a technical article since before my kids were born (though I have for a few Nature Chemistry Thesis pieces). I note here they have both graduated from college.

Conference posters weren't carried in tubes (or as pieces of fabric), but in folders as single sheets of paper. Wise people brought their own tacks to the meeting to mount their posters. Color? Color? Only if you used colored ink.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Jaw-dropping floral arrangements: true feminine genius

The tweet captures one man's list of appropriate ways for women to minister in a Roman Catholic Church. In an earlier tweet he'd been really clear. No woman altar servers, lectors, eucharistic ministers. It's heretical.

As one not endowed by the Holy Spirit with the ability make jaw-dropping floral arrangements, or linens, or vestments I suppose I should just sit down and be quiet. Which actually is my preferred way of being inside sacred space, to be honest.

But I cannot countenance this reframing of "feminine genius" as "good with crafts." This is certainly not what Pope John Paul II meant with the term in his Letter to Women nor in Mulieris Dignitatem. He was focussed on service - women are to serve. (So why not women altar servers? How much do are you willing to bet the persons setting and clearing the table at the Last Supper were women?) Women, he suggested, are moral forces. And women love unreservedly.

What does moral force have to do with embroidery or flower arrangements?

I will confess, I'm not at all sure what "feminine genius" really means. Should not men be moral forces? Serve? Love unreservedly? I've looked at the documents and I still honestly cannot reconcile a God who created women able to do quantum physics or theology with a God who would say, "but don't do that.."

But all of this is just dross in the face of the Gospel, which calls us to a jaw-dropping radical acknowledgement of each other's human dignity. We are told that we are to feed the hungry, see that those who are thirsty have water to drink, to welcome the stranger (with no mention of checking their immigration status), to care for the sick.

We come to the Eucharist to learn how to recognize and tend to the Holy in each other, to celebrate the care that we have been given in God's name, to be filled so that we might spill over. It is absolutely the summit of our life of faith, it is equally its font. To paraphrase St. John Chrysostom: "If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice." Or in a floral arrangement.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Man up!

I ran across a tweet this morning which suggested that "manned" as in "manned spaceflight" was derived not from "man" (the word commonly used for a  male human being) but from the Latin for hand "manos[sic]".  In other words the tweet suggests, it is related to manual, and so doesn't actually have sexist roots.

The Latin for hand is manus, and indeed it is the root for things like manual and manuscript and manufacture (and perhaps even manuensis). All referents to things done (or once done) by hand, and all with the stem manu-.

But it is not true that manus is the the root for manned . Historically manned does mean "something done by a group of dudes." The OED has a clear explanation of the origins of the word. The root is mannen from Dutch and Germanic sources. The link expressed by the tweeter to doing things by hand is a folk etymology, and one that I suspect has its origins in actual and overt sexism. I can trace it back to a letter from James Daniels in Physics Today (51(10), 11 (1998). He doesn't give a source for his etymology, and two issues later he will be forcefully corrected by an Oxford linguist.

Why do I think it's overtly sexist? Ah, because that letter from Daniels also makes snide remarks about women and LGBTQ physicists.

Interestingly "innocent" suffers from a similar etymological mix-up of its Latin root. It's not from noscere (to know) but from nocere (harmless).

Friday, October 18, 2019

Balaam's Donkey

St. Luke drawing the Virgin
Rogier van der Weyden
From Wikimedia.
I'm steadily chipping away at writing a set of Advent reflections for 2020, and yesterday was dancing with this reading from Numbers, featuring the beleaguered Balaam dragged from mountain top to mountain top in hopes he would eventually say what people wanted to hear. Meanwhile, on my own reading list is Balaam's Donkey, an eclectic collections of reconstructed homilies by Cistercian Michael Casey OCSO.

Casey's book is a "daily devotional" in the sense that there is an entry for each day, but the entries are not keyed to the lectionary or even to the liturgical seasons. Given that I am so often writing out of  time and season, I am always delighted to find someone else to wander this trackless desert with me.

Today's entry was titled "Service" and the last paragraph made me think of the Church's current struggles to speak with authority (a theme clearly sounded in the Advent pericopes I am working with) in the modern world.

"Sometimes the service that needs to be rendered is the offering of advice or correction.  My first abbot used to insist that this will work only if persons in authority have a solid history of genuine concern for the welfare of the other."  (from Balaam's Donkey, by Michael Casey OCSO p 377)

Electronic rosaries aren't going to cut it. Nor are strident "no true Scotsman" arguments about what it means to be Catholic and only if we were louder and more unbending will we be appreciated. To be heard as a voice of truth, one first must genuinely live out that truth.

Happy feast of St. Luke!

Monday, October 14, 2019

"Vocatus — for the discerning." read the door. The "t," he noticed, was a discrete crucifix.

He'd gotten the email asking him to make an appointment almost a month ago. The woman who'd taken his call wouldn't answer any of his questions, saying only, "Our certified spiritual genomicist will walk you through your results."

The softly lit waiting room was unremarkable, stock chairs and table lamps, blue industrial carpet. 
By Brian0918 
Or it was until you noticed the bowls of branded rosaries on the side tables, "Vocatus ™" on one side of the center medal, an image of Our Lady of Graces on the other. Virginal white plastic beads. High grade, but plastic nonetheless.

Click, click. The guy next to him was nervously fingering a rosary in his pocket. Definitely not a candidate for the Trappists, he thought. And what about that guy in the corner, in a leather jacket and jeans so black he nearly vanished into the shadows. Goth or Jesuit?

"Xavier," called the receptionist and he followed her down the hall. A thin man in a Benedictine habit stood up behind a desk and reached across to shake his hand and introduce himself with a word, "John."  A bar chart was up on the monitor, he saw.

"Sit, please," John gestured to the chair across from him.

"We appreciate your interest in discernment, and let me start by saying that your results indicate you have a strong vocation." He turned toward the monitor. "As you see, the markers for mysticism are clear, you carry all three of the known genes: NUM3, XTC9 and NEF1. These, in combination with the ascetic gene, at 7q31.2," he touched a pad and a gene map appeared, marked up in red, "suggest the Carthusians could be a fit for you.  Now, here we see..."

I went to a talk last week by an anthropologist who mentioned genomic markers for experiencing the numinous, which has me musing about  a world in which vocations directors would use gene maps.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Holy kicks

I need new walking shoes, and Keen no longer makes the ones that have taken me more than a thousand miles (yes, they should have been replaced at half that, but....). Searching the interwebs for something suitable, these shoes came up. INRI shoes, Nikes with 60 ml of water from the Jordan (holy water, blessed by a priest). Complete with red wool insoles (to remind you of the previous Pope's Pradas and sorry, I couldn't resist the alliteration), a "papal" seal and a crucifix. Cost? $1425 because the verse in which Jesus walks on the water is Matthew 14:25. (I think they missed a connection when they made 24 pairs, not 12.) They sold out in 1 minute, but you can get them on the resale market.

You could argue the shoes are reliquaries, holding water from the Jordan in which Jesus was baptized, though the actual water poured over his head is long flowed to the sea. Still, over two millennia and assuming good mixing, the probability is high that some of those molecules (perhaps a hundred) are once again in the Jordan and now in the INRI shoes that once poured over Jesus' head. By the same arguments, there might be a thousand molecules of water in my tea that once poured over Jesus's head.  Does this make the shoes a first class relic? My tea?

It's all holy ground we walk on, $1425 holy kicks or not. And I still need to find new walking shoes.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Rom-com at the Rite Aid

Math Man took in the expanse of wood floor, the waltz-y music and reached for me. "It seems the perfect spot to dance." I laughed and said, "There's a scene from a movie!" We were on an exciting Saturday morning date to get our flu shots.

I spent the 15 minutes we had to wait imagining the movie, scribbling bits on an old flyer from the Edinburg Fringe stuffed at the bottom of my bag. (Because I'd left my trusty 3x5" black notebook in my other bag.) Surely a rom-com? Or just maybe a Bond knock-off? Nope, definitely a rom-com. How would I have written this scene? Were we the main characters or are we having a cameo in someone else's film? Was this a prologue, the epilog, a set-up for a flashback? Would we dance, or not quite touch and head to the chairs at the edge?

We are the main characters. The pharmacist is a cameo by Awkwafina. It's the prologue, which is the set-up for a flashback, to Princeton University in the fall. It's October 1987, the main characters are crossing campus, the crisp leaves swirling around our feet. Each of us is deep in conversation with a colleague. We brush pass by each other as strangers would. Next scene shows a handsome mathematician in a light blue oxford shirt, his sleeves rolled up past his wrists, standing in front of a blackboard covered in arcane symbols. The phone rings. Flip to a woman standing in front of a set of mailboxes, unfolding a stiff piece of stationery....

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Perpetual adoration by the light of the Acme

Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and clamorous discord.

The rash one has no integrity;
but the just one, because of his faith, shall live. Hab 1:3b

It's hard for me to look at the first reading for this Sunday without thinking of the current political situation. I am horrified, appalled, sickened that the president of the United States would suggest shooting people in the leg at the border to slow them down. I am ill watching the smug smile of the UK home secretary as she firmly asserts she will stop the free movement of people here and now.

Have they — have we — no regard for human dignity, of the homeless, of women, of those living in with violence and in peril?

I'm writing this in the dark and quiet of a local shelter for homeless families, keeping station at the door. The families are asleep, the van will come early tomorrow morning. A parish I was at years ago hosted perpetual adoration, and I had a weekly late night shift. Now I come again to sit with the Body of Christ, in the dark and thin hours, contemplating not a gold chased tabernacle lit by a single candle, but cream painted block walls awash in the lights of the Acme parking lot across the street. Tantum ergo Sacramentum veneremur cernui.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Raids on the ineffable

A open book with chant on one side, a black and white drawing of the evangelist St. Mark with a lion. A small white clay hemisphere sits on the right hand page.
Cycle B. Mostly Mark. And an empty crib, an empty shell
within a rough fired clay support.
I have 252 "drafts" sitting in my blog queue. Some with just a title, others with one or two lines suggesting what I was thinking of writing about (but didn't at the moment have the time.) Some of them are more than a decade old, the oldest one dates to April 2005, which is roughly when I began regularly posting to this space.

What was "The Litany of the Snacks"? Hint: Crash Kid and Barnacle Boy often lack inspiration in the morning. 1/31/2006.  Or the inchoate post, "prostrate on the floor," from the middle of May 2005? It was the end of the semester, I had a 9 year old and an about to be 7 year old, of course I was prostrate on the floor. On the kitchen floor, apparently: "rule of benedict has prostrate on the floor when change kitchen detail...I'm prostrate just _from_ the kitchen detail"

More recently I abandoned a piece titled "Raids on the ineffable" which contained no useful clues to what I was thinking, including where the title came from. Google was no help, while "raids on the ineffable" is the subtitle of a relatively recent book on the philosophy of mysticism (which I've now added to my wanting-to-read list) I'm nearly certain that wasn't the source. For some reason I think it's a fragment from a poem? There's a similar line in T. S. Eliot's East Coker, "a raid on the inarticulate" that appears to be frequently misquoted as "raids on the ineffable." But I don't think that's it either. Huh.

My current writing project could certainly be framed as a raid on the ineffable, a book of reflections on the readings of Advent, sending me deep into Isaiah and Luke's territory with the hope that I will return with some little bit of something for someone and then wraps completely inadequate words around what surely/hopefully/perhaps is treasure. Eliot is not encouraging on this front.
...And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.
Or perhaps he is.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
I'm trying.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Meted out

From Wikimedia. 
We enjoy family board games, where each of has strengths. Math Man never loses at Azul, and when it comes to Bananagrams I rule (though I'm not quite as dominant as Math Man at Azul). Math Man, our youngest and I played last month on a short holiday "down the shore" (as they say in Philly). 

As we walked through my layout on one game, my youngest questioned "mete." Which I cheerfully defined, noting a typical usage is "meted out."  I admitted I didn't think of it as particularly odd word, but a quick web search not only confirmed it was indeed a word, but that its "use has been falling since 1890..." I fear this describes too much of my vocabulary. There was lour.  And allochthonous.

Only the former is likely to be played in Bananagrams.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Release the penguins! A score for the start of classes

I am in my last year as chair of the chemistry department, I'm also chairing a major committee for the college. The last three weeks have been...packed? I ran across this music meme again last week and realized it's the perfect score to accompany the start of the semester for a department chair (or faculty member, or support staff, or student, or parent...the slope of the ramp from summer to fall is steep for us all!).

When the day gets chaotic (and they all have), I visualize the score, and find my spot on it. Before school began its advice to "keep both feet together" and to "cool the timpani with a small fan" reminded me to plant my feet, stand my ground and attend to self-care and care for my students and faculty. Of course, nothing goes as planned, as the "light explosives" portended.  But now the saxes have moved downstage (where hopefully they will calm down. Honestly, I didn't mean to double book their rehearsal room and I'm so sorry the piccolos drove them out with that shrill arpeggio. If your hearing doesn't return soon, do let me know.)

"Play ball!" and the first day of classes was upon us, even though I still needed a relief pitcher for Thursday afternoon organic lab, and yes, a tempo of 788 beats per minutes seems about how we usually play this section, why do you ask?  Of course, two measures later you can certainly understand why I've "gradually become agitated"given that metronome setting.

But here we are, at the end of the second week, and I'm relieved to say I've reached the measure where I'm instructed to "release the penguins." Watch out, they've gotten quite grumpy cooped up in my office these last two weeks, but once on the loose, not my problem any more.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Scottish tern signs

[Ed: No, the title is not misspelled.]

Math Man has spent the last three days chasing a small ball around the Scottish dunes, in the hopes of managing to put it in one of eighteen 4.25" diameter holes (or since we are, at least for the moment, in the EU, 108 mm holes). Meanwhile, I've walked many miles along the shorelines of the dunes. Yesterday, at Brora, the views and the walk were extraordinary. The day was spectacular, the beach perfect for walking, and the occasional bench perched on the dunes above the beach a perfect spot to sit and think, take in the view, or even write a bit.  All of which I did. It was a day I hope to return to in memory again and again. But what stands out almost as much as the day were the signs.

At the far end of the beach, there were signs on the dunes, warning of nesting arctic terns. Don't disturb the nests and keep your dogs under control.  I carefully avoided the fenced off dune areas. Not carefully enough, apparently, as a tern came swooping down, chirping wildly.  I moved quickly off the dunes and down to the water. Yeah, no. I am still too close. Now the tern is diving closer and closer, I can feel the air pushed down as she swoops across the back of my neck. I flash on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.  I pull my back pack over the back of my neck to protect it and head off the beach. I run into Math Man at the top of the dunes, and while telling him about the terns, get dive bombed again. He suggests — firmly — that I should depart and take the tetchy tern with me. I finally get far enough down the beach to reassure her that I'm not going to disturb her chicks. Promise.

There were signs on the road for: deer crossing, heavy plant crossing, elderly people crossing...and otters crossing. There is a robust population of river otters in Scotland and they occasionally cross the roads (for the same reason as the chicken — to get to the other side.) I note that the heavy plant sign is not warning of weighty plants stalking cars, but an industrial plant truck exit. I love how the language shifts make my brain turn sideways. I'm with the late Toni Morrison, perhaps the tower of Babel was not a loss, but a gain. A gain of perspective, a gain of narratives, a gain of joy.

Read (or listen) to Toni Morrison's beautiful Nobel prize address. My favorite lines: "Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable. Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction."

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Scottish turns

Math Man and I went to Edinburgh last week, to see the Fringe Festival (Crash Kid is the stage manager for Four Woke Baes which is on at the Fringe - go see it :). Also see comedian Tiff Stevenson and Kiinalik at the International Festival...or any of the literally thousands of other performances on right now).

On Sunday morning we undertook to meet Crash for breakfast on the other side of Edinburgh, he's got limited availability around rehearsals, performances and the need to pre-cook s'mores for those performances. Having more or less mastered the Lothian buses, we checked times on Google maps and saw we were just in time for the bus a short walk away. Fabulous!

We follow Google maps directions to the bus stop. Alas, Google left us 40 feet away from the bus stop. Why alas? That would be 40 vertical feet below the bus stop. Edinburgh, the birthplace of Harry Potter, is a city of multiple levels and tiny alleys and staircases that wind between them. We found steps up and dashed up them and around the corner to just make the bus, now dripping in sweat and hearts pounding. Whew. We had a lovely breakfast with Crash and an incredible ramble through the botanical gardens. A nice ending to our time in Edinburgh, Google maps notwithstanding.

Yesterday we drove up north of Inverness. (We are in the birth country of golf, and Math Man gets a bit excited about golf, so we are planted up for a few days while he indulges in some sea side walking chasing a ball and I indulge in walking, period). Math Man played a course on a spit out into a firth, I walked down to the point to (hopefully) see dolphins. No dolphins, but some amazing lighting bolts. Math Man gives up the game after 10 holes and we get in the car to head to where we are staying about an hour away.

I fire up Google maps, and we head off down the country roads. We go through a little town, turning every 50 feet it seems. "Go left," I say firmly. Math Man turns left and say, "Ferry?" I look down at Google maps and the next direction shown is a little ferry icon. Indeed, with no warning at all, Google maps has directed us to a ferry. Which is here. Which is ready to go. We drive on and they winch up the ramp most of the way and we're off. The timing was so smooth it was like a scene from a James Bond movie, where the bad guys chasing 007 are just a fraction of a second to catch him before he flies/sails/motors away.

Turns out we are on the smallest car ferry in the UK, it holds two cars (barely, the ramp won't go up the whole way with us on board) or one van.  And despite the joke when we asked where it was going, it was going to Nidd across the bay, not Norway. And it certainly did save us time. Slàinte mhath!

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A short Roman archeological expedition

Termini Station at midmorning

I got an early train into Rome on Monday, headed to the physics library at Sapienza to look at a copy of the proceedings from the first conference on the periodic table, held in 1969 in Rome (and Vatican City) and Turin. I was hoping to find a photo of the conference attendees, or barring that a list of participants, but was destined to be disappointed.

Smaller than Bryn Mawr geology van, but a sign that I was
in the science zone.
Sapienza is about a 10 minute walk from Termini Station in Rome, so an easy trip. I had no trouble finding the physics buildings, I just followed the physicists. I can spot them anywhere (I think). The stacks are closed, but the student at the desk was delighted that I'd brought all the information he needed to pull it for me. I was surprised to find the book was for the most unopened, that is it had come with the folded pages uncut. The reader was supposed to cut them with the paper knife that surely lay on the little side table next to the comfortable leather wing chair. Unsupplied with a paper knife (and trying to imagine the reaction of the desk staff to my taking out such a knife and slicing into the book given that I was scolded for trying to scan with my phone a single paper from the volume), I was glad the one paper I really wanted, along with the lists of contributors and table of contents, had been opened.

I was interested to discover that this meeting on the periodic table was attended mostly by physicists, or at least the contributors to the proceedings were physicists, and eminent physicists at that: Emilio Segré, John Wheeler, spectroscopist Charlotte Moore from the National Bureau of Standards (who discovered technetium (element 43) in nature, after it had been produced artificially) and Georgy Flerov (for whom flerovium (element 114) would be named).

One of Fermi's early accelerators.
The best tidbit that I won't use in the talk is from Segré's paper, where he starts imagining that there might be worlds made of anti-matter in some remote corner of the universe, where anti-chemists would be doing anti-chemistry. But of course, that anti-chemistry would be anticlimactic, or at least uninteresting, as it would be the same as as the chemistry here. Somehow positing the existence of alien civilizations doesn't strike me an uninteresting (even if their chemistry mirrors ours)!

I arrived back to chaos at Termini. A fire had been deliberately set at a main junction north of the city and every long distance train was delayed 3 hours or outright cancelled. The place was filled with anxious travelers and long lines. Thankfully the train to Albano was running on time, and I walked the quarter mile out to the platform and an hour later was sitting at my desk in the Specola.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The ancient and the inaccessible: the moon and the periodic table

Pope Paul VI looks at the moon through a telescope at the
Vatican Observatory in July 1969. The then director of the
Observatory, Fr. Daniel O'Connell SJ, stands at his side. 
Next week I am off to St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida) to give an invited lecture at the 4th International Conference on the Periodic Table — a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Dmitri Mendeleev's proposal that the chemical elements could be laid out in a table where elements in each row (now columns) shared many properties. This periodicity of properties led this method of organization to be called a "periodic table."

Pope Paul VI in one of the Vatican Observatory's domes
reading a message to the Apollo 11 astronauts.
The lecture I've been asked to give is based on an essay I wrote for Nature Chemistry earlier this year, "Isotopic Enrichment" (Isotopes are variants on elements. For example, carbon-14 dating tracks the radioactive decay of a heavier than normal variant of a carbon atom.  Most carbon is carbon-12, where the number indicates the mass of a single atom,) The title of this blog post comes from an article ten years ago in Science by Frank Poitrasson on what the distribution of the isotopes of iron can tell us about the history of the earth and the moon. (He describes events so cataclysmic as to be unimaginable. Think two planets colliding and some of the iron on earth vaporizing off into space.) History has a literal weight.

Bob Macke SJ  (left) and Guy Consolmagno SJ (attired for
the occasion) in front of a display of ephemera from Apollo
missions at the Vatican Observatory outside Rome.
When I was 11 or 12, a touring moon rock (I presume from Apollo 11 or 12) was on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I was long space obsessed and having devoured Heinlein's Have Space Suit Will Travel, anxious to go traipsing across the surface of the moon myself. (That's also the book where I first learned about isotopes, half-lives and their use as clocks to measure huge stretches of time.  The same potassium you find in a banana contains an isotopic "clock" — potassium-40 — that ticks off time on the billion year time scale, back to the birth of the universe.) So I was anxious to see this off-world connection.

A lunar sample collected by Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan
and Harrison Schmitt, sealed in acrylic. I was |<- -="" this="">| close!
There was a field trip to the museum. I rode the yellow school bus in from the tiny Illinois town I lived in. I stashed my lunch in its wrinkled brown bag along with the rest of my groups' lunches to be picked up at our set time. Then I made a mad dash to the moon rock display. There was already a long line, which inched forward. Finally I was close enough to see the case — a Star Trek-esque dias, from which a light glowed in the dim room.  People passed the case, oohing and aahing. At last I was there. To discover there was nothing I could see. Even standing on my tiptoes, all I could see was the very top of the glass dome over the sample. The moon was as inaccessible to me as ever.

When I came to Bryn Mawr, I was excited to discover that one of  my new colleagues, Weecha Crawford, had been one of the first geologists to study the lunar specimens, which had to be handled as if they were precious jewels (which they are). But still, I had yet to see a moon rock.

Fast forward to yesterday, where Bob Macke, the Jesuit brother who is the curator of meteorites for the Vatican Observatory, assembled the observatory's collection of Apollo ephemera for us to enjoy at the morning coffee. One piece of which is a moon rock from Apollo 17, along with a small Vatican City State flag that went to the moon and returned! (Samples and country flags from that mission were given to each sovereign state at the time, including the Holy See.)

At last, I have been as close to (a piece of) the moon as I will get. Like St. Thomas, I didn't need to touch it, to know it was real. Unlike Thomas, I didn't even need to have seen to have believed.  Happy anniversary to Apollo 11!

Read about the goodwill moon rocks here.
A wonderful piece by Bob Macke SJ about what it is like to do the scientific research that continues on the lunar specimens is here, "Moon Rocks and Me".
There is a front page story at the Vatican paper L'Osservatore Romano by my colleague, the director of the Specola, Guy Consolmagno: Pallida luce dei nostri sogni (it's in Italian, but click to translate and read the memories of one of the Jesuits who was in the gardens the night Pope Paul VI came to watch the moon landing and read a message to the astronauts. More about that night is at the Vatican Observatory's Sacred Space blog.)

Friday, July 19, 2019

Vignettes via Vignetta

There are saints on every corner here.
The weather in the Alban Hills has been pleasant (unlike the East Coast), so I've enjoyed walking around the town — as it seems others are doing as well. There is the clutch of small children who have been filling a seemingly endless supply of water balloon at the fountain at the end of the street. They have been out there every day since I arrived. They offered to deluge me one afternoon, when I appeared hot and sweaty from my in-lieu-of-riposo walk.  I opted for the regular shower.

There was the lady walking down the side walk, lab goggles on her face. The man walking a duo of dachshunds. They left a perfect emoji shaped pile of poop on the street (I'm always watching where I'm walking), then tried to harass the large cat that polices the warehouse across the street. She outweighed the pair of them, and was having none of their nonsense. She hissed once and regally walked away.  Still, I wonder if the eviscerated mouse she left on the street later is a warning to them.  And then there was the scene from the early morning bus I took to catch a train into the city: an elderly man on his balcony, stark naked, except for a towel around his neck.

And yes, I've walked to Arricia.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Plugged in

I showed up at the Vatican Observatory yesterday, wrung out and exhausted by jet lag and more. I'd spent part of a night sleeping on a plane between the US and Rome. The next night my sleep was broken by a fierce 3 am thunderstorm, the thunder echoing oddly in Lake Albano's crater. But last night I'd been awakened in the middle of the night by a text from a colleague's husband: She was dying. Please let my colleagues know.

It was still waking hours in the US, so I got up and sent emails and texts to those who would want to know. I crept back to bed about four in the morning, dragging myself out of bed four hours later, still bleary, but determined to make 10 am coffee at the Specola where I could plug in to electrons and wi-fi and restorative collegial conversation.

By late afternoon I was desperate for a nap, un riposo, but more desperate to pray. I went up to the small chapel with the tabernacle by mosaicist Marko Rupnik SJ to pray in the hour my colleague was being taken off life support 4400 miles and six time zones away.  A Jesuit chapel seemed the right spot to sit prayerfully present to the dying, to be pulled back into the meditations of the third week of the Exercises. Somewhere in the midst of this, I noticed an electrical outlet at the very bottom of the nearly floor to ceiling tabernacle. Not in the wall next to it, but in the base of the tabernacle itself.

What on earth was an outlet doing in this work of art? My mind wandered not to the pragmatic, but to the metaphorical. I could pray anywhere — at my desk, in the apartment, on a walk in the gardens, in any of the three churches within a five minute walk or the cathedral basilica across the piazza —but had been pulled here, to this tiny chapel where I could draw close to Christ crucified, Christ in truth. I wanted to be plugged in to Christ.

These days we look for outlets to pull electrons from for our phones, to bring them back to life. Do we equally have eyes for the places where we can recharge our spiritual life?

A day later, I realize that it is likely that when the tabernacle was installed, there was an outlet located in the wall that was rerouted to the base. Though why not to the wall next to it? There must be a reason.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Lunar landings

Front page of NY Times for July 21, 1969. 
I listened to WHYY's The Pulse's piece on the Apollo moon landing this morning while I tidied the kitchen and made my tea. Interspersed throughout the program were people's memories of that moment 50 years ago when Neil Armstrong's scratchy announcement reached earth, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

Someone recalled the flags her mother had bought for her and her brother to plant in cinnamon bun "moons." What do I recall of those days? I can remember the characteristic earthy smell of the air conditioner in our midwest basement where our black and white TV was kept in a corner and see the vinyl cushions we sprawled on to watch. The rough green concrete walls with the small windows cut into them, framing the TV where I watched every launches from Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy I could. I can recall the tension when countdowns were put on hold — "T-minus 30 and holding" — and those agonizing seconds before contact was re-established with Apollo 13 during reentry. Once a space nerd, always a space nerd.

I suspect I come by this honestly, my mother read science fiction as avidly as I did, and when I was clearing out a box of her keepsakes a few years after she died, one of things I found was this carefully preserved copy of the New York Times announcing the moon landing tucked in with my baby shoes and her own baby book. I'm guessing either her brother or father sent it to her, both worked in the city (and this is a city edition).

Thursday, July 11, 2019

All art is ephemeral, Mom

Not precisely a pancake. A crepe from an earlier day's breakfast.
Crash and I were getting ready to leave my brother The Reverend's house early in one morning last month and he was making us pancakes. Crash snagged one, picked up the maple syrup and carefully drew a face on his pancake with it.  He took a moment to appreciate the cute nose he'd made, then picked up his fork and used it to spread the syrup in an even layer over the flapjack — obliterating his artwork.

He looked up at my sharp intake of breath and remarked, "All art is ephemeral, Mom," and calmly returned to eating his breakfast.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The egg song: some observations on chicken vocalizations

The view at dawn
I'm visiting my brother and his wife, enjoying a respite from the East Coast's humidity and some time with family. They have an outdoor bed, on an second story deck tucked within the trees. They also have chickens.

I hadn't quite realized the range of chicken vocalizations. I have just been treated to the "egg song," the victorious cackle hens make when they lay an egg. There are apparently at least two dozen distinct chicken vocalizations, including different alarms for aerial and ground predators. A rapid clucking supposedly indicates a ground predator.

I've been sleeping on the outdoor bed. It's amazing to fall asleep to the rustling of the leaves in an evening breeze as the temperature drops 30 or 40 degrees in this high desert place. What does this have to do with chicken vocalizations, you might ask?

Two nights ago, about 4:30 in the morning, I was awakened by a frantic screeching and wild flapping of wings as a possum chased a loose chicken across the  yard. No rapid clucking in response to this ground predator, just frantic shrieks. By the time I grabbed glasses and flashlight, there was no helping the chicken, alas. And the hissing, bared teeth of the possum did not encourage me to get any closer.

Despite the early morning alarms, the bed is a marvelous place to sleep among Paso Robles' namesake oaks.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Cheerio Section

Daniel Schwen - Own work, CC BY 3.0
Periodically I hear rumblings about parents who bring their children to Mass. The children are noisy, they won't sit still. And the Cheerios. All those crumbs. If you are going to bring children and their Cheerios, better bring your dust buster and clean them up.

Sometimes I think the subtext is that these parents haven't taught their children how to behave at Mass. Can't they get through an hour without eating? Can't they sit still?

I sat in the Cheerio section for Mass on Sunday, a little one to the right of me, a little one in front of me. Each with their Cheerios. As I knelt after communion, a little face popped up in front of me, her bag of Cheerios in hand. She ate one and flashed a contented smile. Meanwhile, we are singing "I am the Bread of Life, you who come to me shall not hunger..."

It occurred to me that parents who bring Cheerios for their kids are teaching them that the Mass is a place where their hunger can be fed. And is that such a bad thing?

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Saints in the broom closet

A few weeks ago I misplaced my breviary, the one that generally I keep in my work bag, wrapped up in a furoshiki so that it does not suffer the fate of its predecessor (which disintegrated after 30 years of prayer). There had been an epic house tidy, so I thought it had just been moved to a new spot in the house. Or perhaps I'd left it on my desk at the office. Or in the back of the car. Really, it's not in the back of the car? Not in my office?

Did I leave it in the chapel? in the sacristy? No way to check as I was on and off the road, in and out of early meetings, and not at the parish in the morning. I made do with the iPad breviary and my little travel breviary. And the four volume set. All right, yes, I have...five different breviaries: a UK travel version, a US travel version, the four volume set and the one volume Christian Prayer. And the electronic one. And a couple of psalters. Lack of monastic simplicity, or simply a hunger for the psalms? You pick.

Finally back at the parish, I checked the chapel and sacristy. No luck, but several of the Augustinians remarked it had been in the chapel, then disappeared. They helped me do a quick search of the sacristy drawers and closets. No luck. Not in the music cabinet (where my breviary had once landed after being mistaken for a choir book and "put away" by a helpful choir member). Not stashed in the meditation space behind the tabernacle. Not stripped of its cover and popped into the collection of breviaries kept in a basket in the chapel.

I joked that it would reappear once I ordered a new one, but inwardly I mourned that necessity. I could let go of the book itself and its wrapper, the furoshiki bought in a small town at the head of a pilgrimage route in Japan that each time I tie it reminds of all those on pilgrimage and of friends who have walked the Camino. The grace imparted by the blessings of the book did not vanish with the volume. Even the holy cards and notes that it has collected over the years could not truly be mourned, they are just physical talismans of prayers made and promised. What I mourned was the way the book had subtly molded itself to my hand, the softness of the ribbons, shifted multiple times a day to mark the passage of hours and days and seasons. The constant reminder of the ways in which prayer had adhered to my daily life.

Stoically, I ordered a new breviary. And on the way out of morning prayer last Friday, as a friend reminded me to pray to Pope St. John XXIII (a sure-fire finder of lost things), and as I responded that I should really pray to my mother, who even after she had lost much of her sight could find almost anything, the pastor appeared around the corner triumphantly holding up my wrapped breviary.  Until that moment none of us had thought to look in the closet behind the confessional where microphones and brooms are kept. And of course that everyday book of prayer would be stored not with music for feasts or linens to safeguard the holy of holies, but with the brooms.

Thanks, Mom (who I imagined having celestial coffee with that sainted Pope John and laughingly conspiring to send a brief dusting of grace my way.)

Friday, June 07, 2019


I'm working on a short book on Isaiah. I'm at the very beginning of my work, and am reading a couple of translations of the book straight through, including Robert Alter's. The opening lines ring in my head, but the 5th through 7th verses could have been pulled from my heart.
“Every head is sick
and every heart in pain.
From footsole to head
no place in him intact,
wound, bruise,
and open sore —
not drained, not bandaged,
not soothed with oil.
Your land is desolate,
your towns are burned in fire.
Your soil, before your eyes
strangers devour it,
and desolation like an upheaval by strangers.”
For I am desolate, aching with the pain of the revelations that continue to ooze forth. Wounds that go to the bone, that are undrained and unsoothed.  West Virginia, Baltimore, Memphis...what were these men thinking? doing?

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Hey Siri, will you take a memo?

Secretarial staff, circa 1930 Library of Congress
Siri. In my dreams, I can call out to the air and my personal virtual assistant will calmly do my bidding. Set a timer. Add something to my to-do list. Take note of an idea and file it where I (or she) can find it later. Check the traffic and remind me when to leave for the DC train station. She's the dream of some 1950s executive, minus the typewriter, steno pad, salary and corporeal existence.

Instead, I've got Siri. She's like a sulky secretary with a Brooklyn accent in a cheap private eye's office. I ask her to set a timer and get, "Hang on...I'll tap you when I'm ready." "Not now, boss..." she snaps her gum, "I'll let you know when I'm ready." Or this morning, when I had my hands full, but wanted her to add a few things to my to-do list. She cheerfully added the first errand to the list. When I asked her to add another one, "You'll have to continue in Things." I waited a couple of minutes and tried again. Yeah. No. I can hear her subtext, "Boss, if you've got more than one, find yer list on that desk and start addin' 'em yerself." She crosses her legs, and takes out her compact. Little puffs of powder dance in the early morning sun.

I think I'd be happier if Siri's subtext was just her text.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Attendite et videte

O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte: Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus.

The text comes from the Vulgate translation of Lamentations 1:12, a current translation reads

Come, all who pass by the way,
pay attention and see:
Is there any pain like my pain...

It's a common refrain on Holy Week, for Good Friday in particular. So why is it showing up in my mental sound track this week, between Ascension (Thursday in my diocese) and Pentecost?

I took the photo at the left from the train just outside Union Station in Washington DC yesterday morning. I wanted to capture the sign on the building, Mathematica, as it is coincidently the name of a software package I use with my students to do technical computing. I grabbed the photos as the train rumbled past, stuffed my phone back in my bag and continued on my way.

When I got home yesterday afternoon, I pulled down the photos from the weekend and flipped through them. It wasn't the building that caught my eye this time, but the homeless encampment in the foreground. O vos omnes I chanted under my breath.

I had spoken at Daylesford Abbey on Sunday about science and faith, about the ways in which a serene and tender attentiveness to the world — something scientists can perhaps model for those of faith — ought to move us toward what Pope Francis referred to in Laudato sí as a painful awareness.We should dare, the suggests, to dare to turn what is happening in the world into our own pain, then use that pain to help us decide how we can and must respond.

I told the story at the Daylesford talk of the two men and the bagel, and noted every time I went past that intersection outside Union Station in DC, I thought about that encounter. And how each time I regret my lack of a response in the moment. It made me painfully aware, to say the least, of both the problem of hunger and poverty and of my own lumbering response to it. Someone commented in the question period that perhaps God's desired response is that I continue to tell the story. True, perhaps, but I don't think God is letting me off the hook quite so easily. Do I really think that Paul wrote letters about the Christian life, but didn't live it and live it immoderately? I can't imagine that Matthew's account of Jesus life was drawn not just out of Mark and the Q source, but out of his own response to Christ's call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger.

Nor do I think that whatever response I've made or will make— the giving of alms or working in a shelter or food bank — is sufficient either. Perhaps this is just another way to frame the kenosis, the emptying, we are called to. That whatever we do, we are always emptying ourselves out for the Gospel. Come, all who pass by, pay attention and see, for
All her people groan,
searching for bread;
They give their precious things for food,
to retain the breath of life. — Lamentations 1:11a

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Sacred space

Yesterday I went down to Georgetown, to give a talk for the annual Vatican Observatory Foundation seminar. Before the talks, we got a tour of the old Georgetown astronomical observatory, which might be the oldest observatories in the US still in its original location and with its vintage equipment. (The Mt. Holyoke telescope is from 1881 which predates this scope from 1888, but this building is older).

The astronomy department was closed in 1972, one of my colleagues at the Observatory, Rich Boyle, SJ, was one of the last Ph.D.'s from that program.

Both building and telescope are in need of work: the dome moves, but not 360o; the gears on the telescope mount are frozen (perhaps), so you can't change the angle of the scope; and the top of the stairwell, with no railing, is downright terrifying. But there is an active group of student astronomers who gather there, to see what can be seen past Washington DC's lights and to talk space and stars with each other. Given Crash Kid's experience at Georgetown working with the student theater group, I can see the same kind of enthusiasm in this group.

The observatory building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is surrounded by a conservation garden, replete with ponds and native flora and fauna, used by the biology department.

The photo to the left is of Br. Guy Consolmagno SJ, the current director of the Vatican Observatory. It looks to me like a set up for a 19th century painting (minus the camping chair!).

The evening went well, I enjoyed hearing Paul Mueller, SJ  talk about pastoral approaches to the perceived conflicts between science and religion, along with some background about the Catholic tradition vis a vis science. Both Paul and I quoted Thomas Aquinas. David Brown, SJ, talked about the collaboration between the Vatican Observatory and a group from Potsdam to get high resolution spectra of stars about which there may be planets. As he summed up his talk, "it's an exciting time to be an astronomer."

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Why Aren't You Writing?

Story board for talk.
This was the subject of an email in my box on Sunday afternoon. It's from a series directed at young faculty that I subscribe to (because while I'm not a young faculty member any more, it's good to know what advice is floating around out there for my junior colleagues). I always find it somewhat ironic that these emails land on Sunday afternoons when their stated raison d'etre is to help academics stop working endlessly, while still getting tenured and promoted. But then again, there I am, looking at my email on a Sunday.

The email repeats the basic advice this group gives embedded in a cautionary tale: write at least 30 minutes every weekday, do not let anyone or anything keep you from your appointed task. Or else you will be the tearful and unaccomplished academic featured in the email.

Why am I not writing? I haven't posted anything on the blog since Easter, which is not to say I haven't written anything —I have. An essay for Nature Chemistry on chirality, three talks in the last two weeks, a reflection for a retreat. A stack of letters of recommendation (rec letters are a genre in their own right, so should count!). And a final exam. Which then generated a thousand pages of grading.

Why am I not writing? In large part because the pneumonia disrupted my regular writing habits, first literally taking the air from my lungs, and then stealing the metaphorical wind from my sails as I recovered from it, careful not to do too much even as the work I didn't manage while I was sick mocked me from the corners of my desk. As of yesterday, I seem to have finally caught my breath.

I have missed the rhythm of exploratory writing as well as the vastness that open up when I'm not pressed up hard against a deadline.  I opened up a blank screen this morning, intending to sketch out a piece, but founds myself pouring whole chunks into it, like water finally freed from the ice dams of late spring. Cool and clear and overflowing.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Amazing. Grace.

Last night, about 10 pm,  Math Man and I found ourselves surrounded on our own driveway by the young people who make up Pomona College's Glee Club. They are touring the East Coast and we had them to dinner.  And before they left, they gathered around the ping-pong table that The Egg had set up on the driveway and which moments before had been the scene of a madcap round robin game and sang. Their voices were so clear, so crystalline, I could hardly bear to listen. I loved watching their faces, the eyes that danced, the quirky smile on my own son's face as he took a spot in the ring for their second piece.

They sang Vaughn Williams "Rest" (from this Christina Rossetti poem)... and a setting of "Amazing Grace" that I first heard when they sang in Rome. It was amazing. It was grace. They were bright and shining like the sun.

I've been thinking today gratitude. The notes that students have left for me. The music last night. How gratitude perdures. How it is sweet and bracing both, like my tea.

...thank you what in us rackets glad
what gladrackets us...
From a Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay

What a glad and wonderful racket. 

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.