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.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Holey, wholly, holy family

All of us, at a somewhat younger age.
I grew up in a house with six kids and a dog (and a seemingly immortal goldfish), watched over by two parents who imbued us all with an insatiable curiosity, a generous measure of grit and the notion that if you researched it, followed the directions, and practiced it, you could do pretty much anything.

From my dad, I learned to bake bread and rolls and to patch and paint walls like a pro. Our relationship survived learning to ride a bike and to drive a stick shift, and (barely) the time I left fumes in the tank of the car with the inoperable gas gauge. (I think of him every time I put the clutch in on my car or my gas gauge shows empty.) I can rig and sail a small boat and paddle a canoe. I'm not afraid of a screw driver or a power drill (but have a quite reasonable respect for table saws). We fought about politics, sometimes bitterly. He was willing to ask hard questions about God and the life to come. He sent my sons a book on backyard ballistics — don't ask.

There were times when there were holes in the family, times when we were wholly family, and occasions when we were well and truly holy family.

My dad died this morning, perhaps aptly on the this feast of the Holy Family. At home, as he wished, with my sister at his side reminding him of all those waiting for him. I was on a plane, on my way to California to see him.  Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. May perpetual light shine upon him. 

About that goldfish.  The goldfish was the sole survivor of a coterie won at a school fair. One morning my father found it on the floor, having somehow tried to leap out of the aquarium. It was still pretty lively, so he tossed it back into the tank. Where, other than some odd scales on its side where it had laid on the rug, it flourished for years to come.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Christmas!

Now burn, new born to the world,
Doubled-naturèd name,
The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
Mid-numbered he in three of the thunder-throne!
Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;
Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fíre hard-hurled.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ in Wreck of the Deutschland

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2018


A couple of Sundays ago I was sitting next to a family with two young boys at Mass, one an infant, the other about two. They reminded me of those days when Mass was a full body workout, as we juggled babies in arms and toddlers at our feet.  (If you think distractions in prayer are a problem, try praying with a toddler and a three-year old, then we can talk distractions.)

Last week as we prayed the universal prayers for the needs of the world, to which the assembly responded, "Lord, hear our prayer," the two-year old suddenly burst out, "Prayers!"  I turned to his mother who moved quickly to shush him and whispered, "Lest we think they aren't listening!"

I'd written those prayers, and I always worry that I'm missing the little ones, that these prayers go straight over their heads. But apparently not entirely. "Prayers!"

It reminded me of my summer visit to the Specola, where Mass was celebrated with the three or four of us who were around.  There was no haste in these celebrations of the Eucharist, and when it came time for the universal prayers, they came in fits and starts, in English and Italian from all present. For those from the community traveling, for those in ill health, for local difficulties, for our families, for the world, the Church.  Prayers, we cried again and again. As we proceeded with the liturgy, I imagined those prayers piled on the altar, spilling over, offered up with the gifts, the whole to be sanctified, to be made whole in what was broken.

So many people in my life right now have asked for prayers, friends and family both. I pile the prayers at the foot of the altar - for my dad, who is struggling with serious health challenges, for my sister-in-law who is hospitalized with meningitis, for a young friend undergoing surgery. For the nation, for the Church, both in difficulties...for peace on earth. The needs are great and small alike. "Prayers!" indeed, I think.

What will my community pray for tonight?
For the People of God, to whom God has chosen to come close… 
For those who long for light, for those whose lives are overshadowed by war, economic unrest, or violence in their neighborhoods and homes…
For the safety of those who must travel, for pilgrims, immigrants and refugees… 
For the homeless, for children and families who will not have a roof over their heads tonight… 
For the sick, for children who are ill and for their parents... 
For our dead, those in need of our prayers and those now singing joyfully before the Lord…

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Elements of revenge

I seriously can’t write fiction. I suspect it's not lack of imagination, but some odd form of writer’s block. Or perhaps it is too many years devoted to sifting defensible reality from experimental and computational data. Or is it that I’m unwilling to ask a reader to be confused about the real, the possibly real and the entirely imagined? Or maybe it is because the one and only piece of published fiction I wrote, came (almost) true within the year?  Would any other fiction I wrote become real? That’s clearly a flight of fancy, but even with one data point, do I want to take the risk?

I was invited to write a commentary on the elements that scientists thought they'd discovered (but hadn't) for Nature Chemistry's issue celebrating the International Year of the Periodic Table.  The IUPAC guideline for element names says that you can't re-use names already in circulation in the literature, even if they were ultimately discarded. Which got me thinking if that could be a way for an unscrupulous scientist to crush the dreams of a competitor of having an element named for them. Despite my demonstrated inability to write good fiction, I drafted an introduction to the essay that played out this idea.

In the end, I wrote a non-fictional introduction to the essay (which you can read here if you are of the mind to do so). But if I were to write a piece of fiction about the elements, it might begin like this:

Prof. Exuvgen leaned back in her desk chair and wondered for the thousandth time why she’d ever signed that retirement agreement. Time was slipping through her fingers.  In a month, she’d have to hand over the key codes and walk out the door.  No access to her data and worse yet, no access to the tools she would need to analyze it, that idiot of a director had made it clear her account would be wiped — wiped — at midnight on the 30th, and anything left in her office trucked out to the dumpster.  Tang Woh Kow, they maintained, was right. There were 243 elements in the universe and no more. When Tam Besper saw the traces of zuzenium in 2069, right in this building, that was the end of the era of the element hunters. The last chance to have your name remembered in every chemistry book in the solar system, if not the galaxy. Though if the Vulcans had their way, everyone would be using the systematic names.

Running her hands through her short grey hair, she turned again to the data on the screen.  She’d spent thirty years working toward puncturing Kow's ceiling on the elements, the last ten racing Sabaxoar’s extravagantly funded group on the moon. What was it Maxine had said at that last meeting? Oh, right. Time. That she wasn't in a hurry, she had years to work on this, given lunar life expectancies. And with that Maxine shook her blonde curls and floated off.  Would the director take her more seriously if she looked less weary, grey and face it, old?

Time. It's running out, was there enough to say, now, without a doubt, that they’d turned up an atom or two of 244 Sym in that last run? Maybe, though maybe that oxide of muscovium was rearing its ugly head, this wouldn't be the first umbral element sunk by 115. Certainly there was strong evidence of a new isotope of 243.  Time, there just wasn't enough time.

She tapped the bud in her ear, and started composing the manuscript of one last paper.  “We present here evidence for the creation of the 616 isotope of 243 Zz, half-life 82 msecs, along with traces of element 244, Uuq.” She glanced up at the list of proposed names for 244 her group had kept on the whiteboard, derived from the names of birthplaces and long dead mentors and far-flung galaxies and grinned wickedly. “…for which we propose the name sabaxorium, symbol Sx, in honor of our respected and long time competitor in this hunt, Maxine Sabaxoar.”

Four months later, Maxine wakes up to a tweetstorm of congratulations for having the first trans-zuzenium element named for her. She pulls up the paper and seeing the unmistakable traces of MvO in the accompanying supplementary data dump, shrieks, "I've been robbed.”
In the 1970s, Tang Wah Kow of New Method College in Hong Kong suggested (based on an odd theory about triads and octaves) that the upper level for an element was Z=243. Further, he proposed that when that element was ultimately discovered, it should be called zuzenium (Zz). The suggested name he said was, "...deduced from a Chinese idiom 'The name stands behind Zun Zen, who (Zun Zen) came last on the list of successful candidates in a royal examination." [In "An Octagonal Prismatic Periodic Table" J. Chem. Ed. 49, 59 (1972)]

Cross-posted from Culture of Chemistry