Saturday, May 30, 2020

A strong driving wind

What might the Holy Spirit be stirring within you? from Society of the Holy Child Jesus on Vimeo.

“…suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind…
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:2a,4a

Listen to the air around you. Hear the strong wind that heralds a storm. Strain your ears until you catch a faint rustling in the leaves, the beginning of a summer breeze. Feel the rushing air that announces the subway’s arrival. Pay close attention to the bubbles that rock the lid of a pot on the stove, making it sing.

Listen to the whole reflection...and breathe!

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Breathe in Easter

From Not By Bread Alone, 2018

“I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.”  Ps 118:17

While Handel’s Hallelujah chorus with its glittering brass glissades and pounding drums may be the iconic grand Easter chorus, for me it is Eric Whitacre’s lush and complex choral setting of the single word “alleluia,” that sings of the resurrection. The chorus begins so softly, I’m never sure quite when the piece begins, or if that breath of an alleluia is only in my mind.  Soon the alleluias swell and fade in waves. At last the sopranos hit a note almost impossibly high, swirling over the rest until a tenor solo breaks in. Alleluia. This is how I imagine the resurrection, Jesus taking that first uncertain breath, his chest barely rising and falling, his breathing gradually growing in strength and regularity, until the Spirit breathes onto him, calling his voice forth again. Alleluia. This is the resurrection as I imagine it.  No trumpets, no great beams of light, simply God breathing unto God in one unbroken line of praise.  Alleluia.  He is risen. Alleluia. We are risen. Alleluia.  You will rise again. Alleluia, alleluia, an infinity of alleluias.

St. John of the Cross, expanding on his Spiritual Canticle, writes of the soul “catching its breath in God.”  God breathes into us, fashioning us in the image and likeness of the Trinity.  We breathe that same air of love back into God.  To use Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ’s powerful image from his poem, “Easter Communion,” we who have kept vigil are now breathing Easter, catching our breath again in the resurrection, brought to life from Lent’s ashes. 

We breathe in to live, we breathe out to speak, to sing, to pray.  It is an ordinary miracle we have been given. No trumpets, no gold clad angelic choruses descending to earth, simply God’s breath ever in our mouths, God’s breath ever in our souls.  Let us ever and always, breathe Easter.  Alleluia. Alleluia!

Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.
Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I may love only what is holy.
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, that I may defend all that is holy.
Guard me, O Holy Spirit, that I myself may always be holy.
— St. Augustine of Hippo

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Grieving Easter

So many of us are grieving our usual Easter celebration this year, the loss of community and sacred spaces, and then there are those grieving the losses of jobs and lives. Grief and Easter seem like they should be at odds. We somehow imagine that Easter joy should obliterate any mourning we might be doing.

I remember the dissonance of Tom's wake on Easter Sunday afternoon, the blaring trumpets and brimming light from the Vigil still sharp in my memory as I stood next to my husband's coffin in the softly lit funeral home. I believe in the resurrection and life everlasting, yet at the same moment I was standing before death's terrible stillness.

Jesus wept at Lazarus' death, though he knew that he could — and would —  raise him from the dead. He knew what the resurrection would bring, the share of everlasting life that Lazarus would enjoy. Even so he stood before that cold stillness, weeping. He mourned.

We, too, can rejoice this Easter, kindling once again the Lumen Christi, even as we mourn what has been lost. Easter's joy does not erase the pain and chaos of the Passion, instead Easter anchors our pain in salvation, orienting it toward life. We can rejoice, we can weep, for our God rejoices and weeps with us, even now.

There is also this column from almost a decade ago on paradoxical celebrations of Easter with thoughts from St. Augustine: Flustered for Joy

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Mixed messaging

Thirty-two years ago, early on Holy Thursday morning, I staggered out the door of a hospital, my life entirely upended. Twelve hours before I'd been hatching plans for a late night stop at a diner for sandwiches after a faculty meeting with my husband, who'd come down to pick me up after an evening faculty meeting. Now I was a widow, faced with planning a funeral.

My sense of disequilibrium was extraordinary. The weather was warming, spring was firmly in place, yet I couldn't get warm enough, and nothing was in its place. Everything was blooming, the trees were greening, and I was picking out not plants for the gardens, but a casket. It was not the Holy Thursday I had planned.

I didn't go to Mass that night, though I can't tell you what I did, or even where I was. Still in Bryn Mawr, I think.

This Holy Thursday tastes a bit like that Holy Thursday, off-kilter, filled with mixed messages. It's the Triduum, the most sacred of times, and I'm at home, not at church. The Pope is saying Mass in a near empty St. Peter's. The days cry out for walks, the advice is to stay home and stay in. And I think of all those staggering under the virus. Those caring for the sick. The sick and the dying. This is not the Holy Thursday any of us planned.

Their words to the end of the world

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. Psalm 19:4a

I went to Palm Sunday Mass in Detroit, or rather I opened a virtual window to the Jesuit community chapel in Detroit and immersed myself in their celebration.

As Mass began sirens could be heard screaming nearby, an apt hymn for these times.

Petals flew past my window, here in Bryn Mawr, laying a thick carpet of white across the back law. Palms before the Lord.

Have the audacity to hope, even from the depths of lamentation, the homilist pleaded with us. I hear Isaiah murmuring in the background: "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for." 

The layers of voices whispering in my ears. "I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." Here we are, if not together, one.

The intentions falling into the space at the bottom of my screen. Names and pleas scrolling past. Save us, O Lord.

Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, March 30, 2020

A rule for involuntary anchoresses

Crash is working on a podcast episode about Julian of Norwich, a late fourteenth century anchoress. Meanwhile, one of Crash's friends is bemoaning her isolation, she says she feels like an involuntary anchoress. She's right, of course. Our lives are suddenly subject to rules not terribly different from the rules of life kept by the medieval anchoresses walled into the churches of England.

Anchorites — both men and women withdrew into the walls of churches — were at their peak in Julian's time, some churches had a waiting list for their anchorhold. It can sound macabre to us now, to receive the last rites and then to be walled into a small room or rooms off a church's nave, but despite the walls keeping them physically separated from the world, anchoresses remained connected to and were integral parts of the local community. They received guests at their windows, offered spiritual guidance, and shopped in the markets.

Forthwith - my rule for today's cornonavirus-isolated anchoresses drawing on the Ancrene Wisse, an early 13th century guide for anchoresses, which was on my shelf. (Parenthetical references to the text.)
  • When you have to take anything, your hand should not go out, nor anyone's in. Neither should one touch the other. (2-10)
  • Do not go out to eat at friends' houses. (8-6)
  • No parties! (8-7)
  • Send only one person out to shop for food, they ought not to linger in the market place. (8- 31)
  • If you have a knife or a piece of cloth, or food or drink (or face masks or Chlorox wipes), or anything else that would be of should be willing to do without it yourself. (4-90)
  • Keep a cat. (8-11)
  • Dress comfortably, skip the wimple and wear a soft cap. (8-19)
  • Read assiduously and at length. (4-82)
  • Pace yourself. (8-28)
  • Take a bath. (8-29)
  • Don't snack between meals. (8-33)
  • Support each other. (4-64)
  • Be grateful. (8-32)
  • Pray. 
Crash's podcast is Missing History, two friends trying to answer the question "Why haven't I ever heard of her?"

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Prayer in the time of corona virus

To-do list on yellow pad. Went for a walk at 5:30! #self-care
God, help us to lift our eyes from our books and lists and calendars. Grant us the eyes to see you in every encounter and every task in our day. — Prayer for the 4th Thursday of Lent, Not By Bread Alone

I wrote this prayer months ago, when I had no inkling that I would be spending these days with my eyes fixed on my computer's calendar and on my books as I scramble to retrofit my course to work for students now scattered to the four winds. My to-do list grows faster than I can tick off the tasks on it. Lectures to record, worksheets to develop, memos to write, deadlines to shift, forums to start, new software to master.

And the email. Out of the depths of my email, I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! O let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. I wrote 30 emails today, over 100 dropped into my work inbox, not counting the junk. Please, O Lord, slow the torrents.

Grant, God that I might see you in the faces on my screen, encounter you in passing in my email, and experience you in the tasks that must be done to keep the house running. O Lord, I left a load in the washer....

Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Long Retreat

R2Me2, my trusty microphone, and my tea cup

We are not quite sheltered in place. The college has closed, we've pivoted to remote coursework. I'm working hard to create a situation for my students that lets them keep learning in all the different situations they are finding themselves. My students are scattered across several continents, some home, some not, some in quarantine.

I got up this morning, showered, pulled on my jeans, grabbed a white turtleneck from the stack on the shelf, and tossed a sweater over it all. I flashed back to the 30 days I spent in silence making Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, where each day I got up and showered, put on jeans and a white turtleneck and one of the two sweaters I'd brought. I made tea and prayed morning prayer. I went for a walk everyday. I didn't go into town or shop or read the news. I spent intense hours in prayer, then time processing it, in writing and with my spiritual director. All of us praying through those days joined together for the Eucharist each evening before dinner.

Now I'm getting up and making tea and praying morning prayer. I go for a walk everyday. I haven't gone grocery shopping or into the college. OK, I have read the news, but most of the day I've been so focussed on the things I need to do to make this work for my students that I haven't given the news a thought. I'm spending intense hours in class preparation, then in processing it so I can pack it up for my students. The rest of the house is equally focussed. And every night, I sit down to a meal with Math Man and Crash. I can feel my retreat habits kick in, attuned to the day's ebb and flow, holding a tight focus on the work at hand.

This retreat from daily life may be longer than 30 days, but I trust the graces of those 30 days in silence will spill over these more difficult days.

Crash is home with us because the play he was working shuttered after one night and his apartment is sublet, since he was expecting to be elsewhere. If ever there was a moment to have a live in stage manager, this migh

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Loaves and fishes and toilet paper: love in the time of COVID-19

By Brandon Blinkenberg, CC BY 2.5
It's the most poignant thing I've seen in the COVID-19 epidemic so far: A four-pack of toilet paper tucked into the basket at the back of the church where my parish collects non-perishable items for the food pantry. Usually the basket is full of peanut butter and jelly, soups and tuna fish, coffee and the occasional pack of diapers. But on Sunday, there were four rolls of toilet paper.

I'd been to the grocery store on Friday, seen the shelves stripped of toilet paper. Yet here was someone who was not hoarding what they did not need this moment, someone who trusted that there would be some for them if they were in need. Or perhaps someone unconcerned that they might find themselves short sometime in the future. This is what love looks like in the time of COVID-19. It was a challenging generosity in a time when we are being asked to literally (though hopefully not metaphorically) distance ourselves from others.

I thought, too, of the loaves and fishes. Four rolls? Against the needs of how many this week or next who will need help? Will the rolls multiply at need? Perhaps not, but their presence has made me think how can I be a multiplier of what is needed — without being an incubator multiplying the virus.

What am I hanging on to that I need to loose my grip on so that those in need might have it? What can I give up to keep people safe? My in-person classes, going to Mass?

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Not by Bread Alone

When I lived in Southern California, I was a regular at the LA Religious Education Congress. As a high school student I went to the "Youth Day," which meant a day off school and a chance to experience Catholicism outside the bounds of my parish, then as a grad student I went as a catechist enjoying dipping into the wonderful array of talks. I seriously missed that energetic gathering of catechists when I moved East some thirty-five years ago.

This year, part of me got to go to the Congress, or rather my book go to go! One of my Liturgical Press editors send the larger than life photo to me. I could not possibly have imagined this when I was a high school student.

And if you're still looking for some Lenten can order it from Liturgical Press, paper or electrons, English or Spanish.

Armed with the weapons of self-restraint

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
— Opening prayer for Ash Wednesday

"...armed with the weapons of self-restraint." I kept hearing that snippet from today's Collect throughout the day today, but I was practically chanting it at the grocery store at 6. It was packed as if there was an Eagles' play-off game or an incoming Nor'easter. And then there was the lady at the fish counter. Who ordered one thing. Then changed her mind. Then changed her mind again. Then wanted it steamed. Arm yourself with self-restraint, I reminded myself, before I got a bit steamed myself.

I'm hoping to be armed with self-restraint, as I've given up chocolate for Lent. Cliché, I know. But for me it's a bit like a hair shirt, a small ever-present irritant. I'm reminded when I pack my lunch, sans chocolate treat. When I eat lunch and there's no little treat tucked in. And when I see the basket of chocolate in my office, the bag of chocolate tucked in the cabinet at home. And after dinner, and, and, and...

It's like doing physical therapy, all these repetitions should strengthen my spiritual muscles.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

As the Hamster Wheel Turns

If I were to write a soap opera about my life, it would be called “As the Hamster Wheel Turns”. I would have an evil twin. She would go to meetings and be difficult, so neither of us would be asked to sit on another committee again. She would stand outside my door and glare at anyone who approaches, daring them to ignore the “Do Not Disturb” sign and knock. I would develop amnesia, forgetting what is on my never-ending to-do list, forgetting that I even have a never-ending to-do list.

What would your soap opera life be called?

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Twilight Zone

I’m flying from PHL to Greensboro, NC to give a chemistry talk. We have been flying for nearly an hour in a solid layer of clouds. My window is a grey rectangle. I keep thinking I’m in the Twilight Zone episode, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, where William Shatner looked out the window to see a gremlin on the wing. So far, no one on the wings. My flight is filled with business guys, a coterie in their slacks and button downs, all in shades of gray and blue, typing away on laptops.

Me, too, for that matter, on both counts.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Is this a good time?

Friday was a mess.  I woke before my alarm, dreaming of eating gummi bears, which then pulled out the temporary crown I have on a back molar. Surprise! The crown had fallen out in the night, no help from gummi bears (which I have given up for the duration of this dental adventure, which will end just in time for the start of Lent.) Thankfully I hadn't swallowed it. (Do not google "swallowed crown." Just don't.)

I was at my desk by 6:30 am, working to finish a National Science Foundation grant proposal that was due soon. (And yes, apparently unlike the chair of Harvard's chemistry department, I did disclose my (unpaid) connections with a foreign state's scientific institute.) I called the dentist when they opened, they could glue me back together just after 11. Perfect, I have class at noon.

I finish the grant, let the grant's officer know she can check it, fingers crossed we can submit before the end of the day. Do the last bits of prep (naked eggs and handouts) for the two hour class I'll teach at noon, grab my keys and the baggie with my crown in it and head out to the dentist and then the college.

The crown gets cemented back in while I contemplate adhesive chemistry (what would it take to make an adhesive that will stick well, but then be reversible??).  I dash to the college. I don't get in my door before crisis 1 presents itself.

Crisis 2 arrives just before class.
Crisis 3 arrives at the start of class (incredibly dysfunctional tech).
Crisis 4 sends an email while I'm in class. Can we talk? Yes.
Crisis 5 knocks on the door. Can you talk? Yes.

Grants officer finds a typo, fix it and it's ready. AAAGH.  Crisis 6: the file is scrambled. I pull back a previous version. And find another typo.

Crisis 7 calls. Can you talk? Sure. I'll be in your office in fifteen.

The phone rings and I — foolishly — answer it. It's someone who wants to talk about quantum mechanics and a paper I wrote. I say this isn't a good time. He persists. Really, this is a terrible time. Crisis 7 is now knocking on my door. I have to go now. He persists.

I hang up on him.

I apologized by email. It wasn't well received. Crisis 8 came and crisis 9 followed. And it was still Friday. But the grant narrative got fixed and submitted.

Also, it made me think about how I don't always think about what might be happening on the recipient's end when I send an email request or make a phone call.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Real heat and true joy

I'm spending the night at the local shelter for families. My usual spot is on an airbed by the door - as portress. A statue of Mary and a large green plant screen some of the light from the parking lot, an Oriental folding screen gives me a bit of privacy from anyone in the hallway. I set my water bottle and phone on the window ledge, and leave my shoes in easy reach. The hall isn't heated, but I bring my sleeping bag and warm socks.

But when I arrived tonight, no bed by the door. Instead I've got a room with a door, and as the director pointed out before she left, "You have real heat!" Not a space heater, it's on a central system, complete with thermostat. (The families' quarters, I hasten to point out, are nicely climate controlled!) It's a storage space, with bins along the walls with supplies for the religious education program, and boxes of books on tables. But it has a picture of laughing Jesus on the wall, and a spot to put my glasses and phone. The real heat is a delight, but the real joy is that picture on the wall.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Via media in the Catholic media

Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University just down the road, has a new article up at Commonweal. In "Dangerous Disconnects" he expresses concern about the ways that the formation of Catholic priests is disconnected from the broader intellectual world, as well as from the day to day lives of the laity. Likewise, he notes that academic theology is also
"..if seminary formation is too cut off from the real lives of Catholics, then I think (and I realize that I am generalizing here) the same can sometimes be said for academic theology. Yes, there are numerous examples of theologians who clearly have an ecclesial intentionality and do wonderful work for the people of God. It is not an issue of personal intentions, however, but of the systemic position of academic theology in an endangered Catholic intellectual ecosystem, one in which the magisterium and theologians in the academy also have to compete with the “teaching” found on Catholic blogs and websites and various other outlets."
I don't disagree with Faggioli's basic premise that seminary education and theology departments are too often disconnected from each other and from the lives of the faithful, but I take some issue with all Catholic blogs being rolled into one bundle and with their content described as "teaching" — which I'm certain is not meant as either a compliment nor as an assurance of orthodoxy. I write a (small) Catholic blog, I'm theologically trained at a Roman Catholic seminary and consider myself part of the Catholic intellectual ecosystem. I'm pretty sure I'm doing the work Faggioli is suggesting should be done.

Yes, I know, I have a limited audience compared to many blogs, but I'm not a single voice crying out in the wilderness and I write in other outlets as well. I've written books, contributed to larger blogs and written hundreds of columns for my archdiocesan paper. Currently active Catholic bloggers and writers with strong theological training are out there, including Mags Blackie, Fran Szpylczyn at There Will Be Bread, Mary Poust at Not Strictly Spiritual, Catholic Mom (which I found through Franciscan Mom), and Fr.Austin Fleming at A Concord Pastor Comments. Many more voices are active on Twitter and other social media platforms. The Catholic intellectual sphere is less of a monolith than Faggioli suggests and I wish Fagglioli's article had explored the Catholic intellectual and social media ecosystem a bit more deeply.

Still, I fear we are conceding the field to loud voices who indeed field dubious teaching and preach divisiveness rather than unity. Many of these sites are like train wrecks, it's hard to look away. I understand, I'm guilty of giving them clicks and browsing their Twitter feeds and wondering if we are in the same church (should priests be hawking ammunition on their web sites? Discuss!). Can Catholic Twitter stretch to be as catholic as the Church?