Sunday, August 09, 2020


St. Monica's tomb
A few years ago I was in Rome for a meeting, and wanted to stop in Sant'Agostino, to light a candle in front of St. Monica's tomb — and to escape the heat for a few minutes. Rome was in the middle of a brutal midsummer heat wave, it had been almost 90°F when I'd left my hotel midmorning and hotter yet by noon. My timing was off, the church had just closed for the mid-afternoon riposo. I wandered over to the shady side of the piazza to check the bulletin board for when it would reopen, and to regroup.

As I peered at the board, I realized there was a young man, shirtless, a sleeping bag wrapped around his middle, his bare legs crossed at the ankle. The reflected light made him almost glow. He looked like Christ, just taken down from the cross, laid on the rough stones. And just like that, he was transfigured.

Christ crucified lay at my feet. I stood there for a very long time, wondering what I could do and then I turned and walked away. 

Photo is of St. Monica's tomb, Sant'Agostino, Roma.

I went back to Sant'Agostino later in the afternoon, lit my candle and prayed with St. Monica, then left euros in the box for the care of the poor. And everytime I go back to that church, I wonder what became of him.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Reading Rahner

I was working on an essay about praying the everyday, and (misquoted) Karl Rahner, SJ. My editor caught it, but it drove me to pull Rahner's The Need and the Blessing of Prayer off the shelf to find the full context. The chapter entitled "Prayer in the Everyday" is beautiful. If I'd re-read it before writing my own piece, I'd have been tempted to write simply.

Go read Rahner's "Prayer in the Everyday". The End.

"What can be of more astonishing exaltedness than the voice of the Spirit which makes the eternities quake and fills the abysses of God" when it carries our small, timid prayers to the very throne of God. "So that the earth's weeping is heard in the innermost chambers" of that place God built for himself. There is much to weep about in the current moment, and much to appreciate about Rahner's exhortation to simply "pray in the everyday; pray the everyday." in these times where one day blurs into the next.

What else am I reading? I just finished The Making of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman who embedded himself in the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in the 1990s. The melding of theory and praxis made me think about chemistry training, where you need to be able to see the dance of the atoms in your head, but also have the knowledge in your hands. 

I'm reading Mexican Gothic, a novel set in the mountains of Mexico, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I spent a summer living with my grandfather and his wife in a small town in the mountains outside Oaxaca, and the novel reminds me of my sense of dislocation. It's dark and 50s-ish and it glows. There's also some chemistry sprinkled here and there:
“She was certain she’d heard about how these most civilized Victorians had been killing themselves in this way, the fungi chomping on the paste in the wall, causing unseen chemical reactions. She couldn’t remember the name of the fungus that had been the culprit—Latin names danced at the tip of her tongue, brevicaule—but she thought she had the facts right.”
Which has me reading William R. Cullen and Ronald Bentley's "The toxicity of trimethylarsine: an urban myth" (J. Environ. Monit., 2005, 7, 11-15).

But whatever you're reading, put it down for a minute and read John Lewis' last words to us
"Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way." 

Monday, July 27, 2020

Building blocks

I'm stuck. I'm working on a short piece on a big topic and I'm stuck. Anything I say seems simultaneously too specific and not specific enough. 

I keep thinking I should give it up for the day. Work on a piece that is in better shape, and so less frustrating. Take another crack at one of the two book proposals I'm working on. Keep cleaning my office. Unsubscribe from more lists. Fold the laundry. Write a letter to a friend. Go for a walk.

Scratch that last. It's 92°F out there, and humid. 

What does it mean to be productive?

Electronic kenosis

Before the college grants a faculty member a sabbatical leave, we must submit a plan detailing the work we hope to accomplish. These leaves are meant to be a chance to dig deeply into our scholarship, to create space to think. One project that's on my list, but was not in my official plan? To clean out my office. Not just tidy it, but to clear out papers and books. To craft space to think literally and metaphorically. I've been slowly working my way through it all, recycling and shredding and putting aside books for the chem lounge library. I'm letting go of so many things I've hung on to "just in case." Zip disks. CDs for old versions of software. Notes from teaching dating to the last century.

Last week, while sifting through my email, I decided to clear out the corresponding electronic accretion. I get more than a hundred emails a day (that's a literal hundred, not a metaphorical hundred) most of them advertising, some lists, not including what gets screened out by the junk and spam filters. Even though I have the settings such that I see "Important" emails in a separate stream, still, things I really want to see sometimes didn't get recognized, which left me paging through the detritus in search of pearls. Which sometimes I missed.

I started clicking "unsubscribe."  Five minutes here, ten minutes there. I kept a list. Whew. I think I can survive without seeing "Congratulations on your 1580th Mention!" (about my academic papers) or hearing from one company three times a day about what's on sale. Click here to unsubscribe. There are more than 75 companies and lists I'm no longer hearing from - or will no longer hear from once they update their lists (seriously, only ever few weeks?). 

It's been like opening the windows and doors to get a draft moving, there is space for the spirit to blow through.

Irritations. Unsubscribes that ask you to check which email you used. Unsubscribes that take you through multiple screens to be "sure" you want off. Notes saying it might take a few weeks to update your preferences. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Gardens and saints

Yesterday, on the feast of St. Mary of Magdala, I went for a walk in a nearby public garden with a friend. Because of course a garden is where two women should go to talk about the Gospel.

It was lushly humid. The grounds are full of little delights. I loved the cross hatch pattern in the fountain, and was so enamoured of its symmetry, I didn't notice that the "rocks" in the pool are actually carved heads. And why had I never before noticed there were spikes on day lilies?

This is a garden to listen to, as well as see. The outlet from the pond burbles, the cicadas wail, and the cypress whisper in the breeze. 

We talked about Ignatius and the Exercises and praying with all your senses. It was a walk that tasted of salt, so full of flavor, and of bread, rising in the heat of the day.

I kept wondering if we'd turn a corner and find Monet painting water lilies,  or Jesus in his gardening hat harvesting the squash in the vegetable garden.

The photograph of the orchids in my blog header is from another botanical garden, in Singapore. I took a taxi after a day's work to walk that garden in the late evening, so much of my experience of that garden was of sound and scent, of footsteps on the path muffled by the humidity.