Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Column: Through the Cross you Brought Joy to the World

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 1 January 2009]

An angel of the Lord stood over them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Lk. 2:9-10

“So that’s where the trapdoor leads!” exclaims Mike as we troop through the small sacristy at the back of the church. He and Chris peer down into the mysterious and hitherto unsuspected depths of the basement, a bright yellow gate the only thing keeping them from tumbling down the steps in their curiosity. One mystery leads to another.

Like St. Nicholas in “The Night Before Christmas,” the guys are not distracted by the unexpected in their path, but get straight to their work — their annual duty of setting out the parish’s collection of Nativity scenes in the daily chapel. They carefully unwrap each piece — a roundly joyous Holy Family from Peru, Roman centurions to guard Bethlehem’s gate, an elegant marble carving of a remarkably serene Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms as they flee for their lives.

As the sets emerge from their bubble wrap cocoons, Mike and Chris chatter animatedly about how they are going to arrange things this year, recalling what they’d done in years past, and through it all re-telling for themselves the story of Christ’s coming to earth. For me, it’s not only a window on what they know about their faith, but sets a rich table for my own contemplation of the Nativity.

This year, they have used Christ’s perilous flight as a backdrop to joyous scenes of the shepherds and the kings. I’m reminded that the cross was not the first time the Son had obediently subjected himself to the perils of earth at the Father’s will.

Christopher, my aptly named “Christ-bearer,” carefully removes each figure of the infant Jesus, readying them to hide, awaiting the first Mass of Christmas when he will tuck them into their places. For a moment, he places the marble statue of Mary and Jesus fleeing into Egypt on the altar. Just as he cannot separate the infant from His mother, in that fleeting moment I see the sacrifice of the Incarnation as inseparable from the sacrifice on Calvary. “This is my body, which I have given up for you.”

We’re enraptured by the gentle baby, not to mention the angels singing in the heavens and the wise men bearing gifts, but do we really grasp the enormity of this first sacrifice? Christ chose freely to become human — coming not as a man speaking with authority, but as a helpless infant unable to hold up His own head or meet His own most basic needs. Through Him all things were made, yet He submitted to our human limitations, not for three days, but for years.

His willingness to yield to the Father’s will a second time in His passion and death is all the more powerful to me seen in the light of that first surrender at Bethlehem. It takes courage to undertake such a sacrifice again knowing what it might entail; He’d already placed himself, helpless, in our hands once before.

St. Augustine, preaching to a packed church on Christmas day, recognized that Christ’s human birth provided a grounding for his crucifixion: “Your faith, which has gathered you all here in this large crowd, is well aware that a Savior was born for us today. He was born of the Father always, of his mother once...And the reason he was prepared to come through this latter birth was so that he might become obedient to the death and by dying might conquer death.”

Each morning, at the close of Morning Prayer, the Augustinians pray, “Through the cross you brought joy to the world.” This Christmas, as I hear of angels proclaiming “joy to the world,” I am brought to see the cross. One mystery leads to another.

God sent his angels to shepherds to herald the great joy of our Savior’s birth. May he fill you with joy and make you heralds of his gospel. Amen. — From the solemn blessing for Christmas Mass at Midnight

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Exercising in tight quarters

It's less than a week until I head north to make the Spiritual Exercises. There are loose ends to tie up for work and for the family (Barnacle Boy tonight created the dinner menus for the entire five weeks I'll be away - he's taking no chances!). My current refrain: What am I forgetting?

I'm mindful of the tight quarters I'll occupy for these next five weeks, as well as the generously empty self I wish to bring to God. So the packing itself is turning out to be a spiritual exercise of sorts. Do I need to bring (fill in the blank)? Do I need an extra (another blank)? At the moment, my stance is that if I'm asking the question, the answer is probably "no". No to an extra pillow, to an extra tin of tea, to books....

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Schrodinger's Cat

With help from Fluffy, seen here trying to help me derive the skin depth (the distance a quantum mechanical particle will sink into a wall) while I was simultaneously making dinner, I finished my grading ! I may be as relieved as my students. It's a great way to start the holidays (usually my grading is hanging over my head like some kind of evil Christmas ornament).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dot to Dot

When I was a kid, I might not have been a "waiting kind" of girl either. My brothers and sister and I often passed "waiting" time playing "dots", and I long ago taught my kids the skill. While waiting with Crash at the pediatrician's on Friday, I was all set to pull out a pen and start a game on the paper covering the examining table. Meanwhile, Barnacle Boy had pulled out my iPod touch, checked for a wireless signal AND downloaded an electronic version for us to play - in roughly the time it took for me to dig out a pen from the black hole that is my purse.

Ever changing, ever the same.Link

Friday, December 19, 2008

Crash crashes

This afternoon I was part of a conference call, on the phone in an office tucked into a corner of an old building. So I wasn't home, or in my own office, or answering my cell phone.

What was Crash doing? Playing ga-ga ball (I and the pediatrician had to be briefed on what that was - she wanted to know the size and mass of the ball, not the rules - which are usefully on Wikipedia!). He's also crashing - with the result that his wrist got bent in an odd direction. When the school nurse couldn't raise either parent, she phoned our back-up contact and sent him home on the bus (given the traffic between the college and the high school and home, I think that was faster than my fetching him in fact!).

The good news is no fracture, just a bad sprain. He's clearly got strong bones (as previous experience suggested).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Column: Poor Gifts

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 18 December 2008]

Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus: who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of humans.— Phil. 2:6-8

I came early to the vigil Mass on the first Sunday of Advent this year. Kneeling to pray, I was distracted by stirrings at the front of the church: the jangling of a chain and murmuring voices. I looked up to see a tall young man preparing the censer, his low voice barely rippling the stillness, sweeping me into the memory of an Advent 15 years past.

That first Sunday of Advent found me early to the vigil Mass as well. It had been a chaotic week as I juggled teaching and preparing a paper for a conference overseas, all overlaid with the exhaustion of pregnancy. Within the church, the candles were lit, the light soft and gentle. I could just stop, like a breath suspended in time.

In that incredible stillness, I was suddenly distracted. The stirrings were gentle, but unmistakable. What I had rationally known for almost five months, but never quite believed, was suddenly made manifest — I carried a child within me, the same child whose movements drew my eye this year, at this Mass. I remembered the joy of cradling him in my arms for the first time, tinged with the loss of that hidden, mysterious time we shared when my entire being enfolded him.

I wonder how Mary felt after Jesus’ birth. She held God within her, knew His movements intimately, only to surrender Him to a cold, uncertain and unwelcoming world. Her willingness to be filled with the Holy Spirit was equally a willingness to be emptied of God’s Son — a foreshadowing of Christ’s own emptying so eloquently described by Paul in his letter to the Philippians.

Pondering the Magnificat, I sense that Mary was aware of this paradox, of the necessary tension between emptiness and fullness, between richness and poverty of spirit, and of the challenges embracing such a way poses. She proclaims: He has routed the arrogant of heart … He has filled the starving with good things, sent the rich away empty. Mary held the riches of the universe within her, and labored hard to surrender them to us.

In his treatise Poverty of Spirit Johannes Baptist Metz, a Bavarian priest and theologian, argues that since Christ — who emptied himself — shows us what it means to be fully human, it follows that the essence of being human is this complete poverty of spirit: “A human being with grace is a human being who has been emptied, who stands impoverished before God.”

Mary, full of grace, is emptied, and stands poor in a humble stable before the God she has given birth to. Mary’s poverty of spirit enabled heaven and earth to meet in the saving mystery of the Incarnation. The fullness of God’s work requires emptiness: Mary’s, Christ’s and so ours as well.

Poverty of spirit is not something we can give ourselves. If we hold it as a possession, we’ve lost it. We can’t grasp for it, we must instead assent to it. It is a gift to us that demands we give our very selves away.

The gift that Mary holds for us, that we await so eagerly this Advent season, is not one of riches, but the gift of utter poverty.

Here in our midst, O God of mystery, You disclose the secret hidden for countless ages. For You we wait, for You we listen. Upon hearing Your voice may we, like Mary, embrace Your will and become a dwelling fit for Your Word. Grant this through Him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.
Opening prayer for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year B.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wants and Needs

I want chocolate caramels. I have chocolate caramels. Do I need chocolate caramels? Probably not. Can I have chocolate caramels? Not after today's emergency dental visit. I'm glued back together, but a bit sore, so I'm having a bowl of tangy, plain, thick yogurt. All told, it's been a good day (despite the need to see the dentist). Much was accomplished, and the day ended with a delight. I went to my office after the dentist, to see my grad student. In my box was a large padded envelope. I opened it up to find a gorgeous red and silver shawl. I'd admired a similar one on a colleague at a meeting last week, and she'd offered to send me one the next time she went to the market where she got hers. There was joy to balance the day of affliction!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Saturday Soup

Math Man is under the weather, and the weather we're all under here is pretty cold. So it seemed like a good night for soup and bread. I made carrot soup and oatmeal bread. Add a dollup of thick Greek yogurt to the soup and some cheese to the warm bread and this is a meal for heart and soul.

For the soup:

olive oil
3 medium onions, sliced
2 stalks of celery, 1" dice
5 large carrots, peeled and 1" dice
3 medium potatoes, russet or Yukon gold work well
2 cups of chicken broth or water
thick plain yogurt or cheese for garnish

In soup pot, saute onions in olive oil. Add celery, carrots, and potatoes as they are prepped. Pour broth over the top, bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until carrots and potatoes are tender to a fork, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Using an immersion blender or blender, puree soup until smooth.

Serve with dollop of yogurt, or sprinkle with grated cheese. Reheats well.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Column: Bound up in waiting

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 11 December 2008]

Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary. -- Is. 40:31

I was standing at the sink one afternoon when Chris was about 5. I can’t recall what he wanted, but whatever it was, he couldn’t have it. I counseled patience. “But Mom, I’m not a waiting kind of guy!” he retorted — a response that has lived on in family lore.

Even at 12, Chris is still not a “waiting kind of guy.” This weekend, at that very same sink, he mused that if he could, he would skip the next four years — he can’t wait to be to able to drive the car. (Needless to say, I can wait.)

We have just moved from the long stretch of Ordinary Time, the counted weeks of the Church year, into Advent, into uncounted time. Wreaths and calendars let us mark off the weeks of Advent and the days until Christmas. Still the season nudges us to think about the unknowable, unmeasurable, uncountable time until Christ comes again. It demands that we be a “waiting kind” of people.

Chris sees no point in waiting, and so no reason to cultivate patience. Isaiah does. Those who wait for the Lord, he proclaims, will gain strength; they will walk and not become weary. Waiting is not a passive marking of time; it is more than simply getting through the days. Isaiah expects waiting to change us.

In the Hebrew text of Isaiah, the word we translate as “wait,” or sometimes “hope,” in this verse is transliterated “qavah.” The word comes from a root that means to bind together, to twist up like a strand of rope. I find this image of a gathering of strands teaches me a great deal about how to become part of a waiting people.

I wait for the Lord, but not passively and not alone. I’m bound together in the waiting with God, who chose in Jesus to inextricably entwine His life into our humanity. The Eternal became entangled in our ordinary reckoned time. If we are gathered into His life even as we wait, I could see how we might draw on His strength, and not become weary. In the process of waiting, we are both caught up into God’s saving work and strengthened for it.

In a homily for the third Sunday of Advent, Pope John Paul II also draws on this sense of waiting as one that gathers, rather than sits apart until the expected moment arrives: “This vigilant patience, as the Apostle James stresses … favors the strengthening of human ties in the Christian community.” Waiting not only allows our relationship with God to unfold and grow, but our relationships with each other as well. If we are all caught up with God, we are bound to each other.

Perhaps the “waiting kind” of people we are called to be aren’t ones who are anxious to have the time pass by, or even ones who will patiently endure its passage. We are called to be people willing to bind our lives into the Eternal and in doing so surrender our individual strands to the whole of God’s work. Waiting people are willing to be changed in the waiting.

We can learn, as Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin advised, to “trust in the slow work of God.” We can wait for the Lord, counting off the days until Christmas, or we can choose to wait with the Lord, allowing our lives to become ever more bound into His.

O God who is to come, grant me the grace to live now, in the hour of your Advent, in such a way that I may merit to live in You forever, in the blissful hour of Your Eternity. Amen.

Prayer ending essay, “God Who is to Come” in Encounters in Silence by Karl Rahner, S.J.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Shifting Gears

We're shopping for a new car. Math Man's minivan is limping along - going only on drives so local we could walk home if pressed. Last time we shopped for a car for the family we had one kid and two cats; we worried about whether our infant and toddler seats would fit in the car. This time we have two kids and one cat and we're worried about whether the driver's seat feels comfortable to Crash Kid and Barnacle Boy.

Eek doesn't cover the dissonance I feel at this moment...

Meanwhile, poor Crash is not feeling well. It's 1:15 am and I'm still up with him, though he's drifted to sleep on the sofa at last. I finally banished the cat to the basement, since she seemed to find his toes irresistible, which was hardly conducive to sleeping.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Minimal Surfaces and Maximum Storage

Math Man has been know to refer to my purse as a black hole - particularly after one memorable night. There was a raging ice storm, I had to be at a board of trustees meeting. Math Man parked his car for me at the far end of campus, and took my tiny Mini home before things got truly dire out. At the end of the meeting, I couldn't find my car keys. I dug through my bag, certain I'd put them in there. "They must be in my office," I thought. A quarter-mile trudge across campus through sleet and ice, to my office. A colleague lets me in, but no keys.

No keys? I search under papers, and in the few odd spots I might have tucked them. Not there. As a last ditch effort to avoid calling Math Man and confessing I had lost my keys, I emptied my bag on my desk. Bingo. The keys. Where were they when I was looking for them, I wondered.

My current theory, hatched as I dug through things to tuck into my briefcase before a trip yesterday, is that my purse is roughly speaking a sphere (at least when I have it pretty full). A sphere is a minimal surface, the smallest amount of material that can enclose a given volume. In other words, it has the most "inside" stuff in the least "outside" stuff. No wonder I can't find anything! It's all in the middle...

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Extravagant Unbusyness

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 4 December 2008]

Martha, who was distracted with all the serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered, “Martha, Martha,” he said, “you worry and fret about so many things and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part and it is not to be taken from her.”
Lk. 10: 40-42

In chess, the end game often means that play has been reduced to very few pieces. In my life, the end game is when the pieces multiply, often out of control. The end of the semester is coming, the end of the calendar year is coming, the end of the liturgical year is upon us, and I have loose ends everywhere.

This is also an extravagant time of year. My students are investing extravagantly in study time, as am I in grading and having office hours. Extravagance creeps into family life, too. There are decorations to be put up, marvelous holiday meals to be prepared, gifts to be found and family visits to be made. The richness of the coming liturgical season cries out for extravagant attention — to music, to texts, to preaching. As a result of all this extravagance, we are extravagantly tired and perhaps, like Martha in Luke’s Gospel, extravagantly stressed.

At this time of year, in particular, I am torn between Martha’s bustling practicality and Mary’s extravagantly impractical choice to sit down with Jesus. I am stretched between the swirling chaos of the season and the still simplicity of Advent that draws me deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation.

John Cassian, one of the Desert Fathers writing in the 4th century, has difficult words for Martha, “To cling always to God and to the things of God — this must be our major effort, this must be the road that the heart follows unswervingly. Any diversion, however impressive, must be regarded as secondary … and certainly dangerous.”

With all due respect to John Cassian, to ignore my Martha role seems to be the dangerous road, not the reverse. Choir rehearsal? Final grades? Christmas dinner! If I didn’t fret about these, it could be disastrous. And yet … sharing a meal with my family, sitting with my husband in front of the fire, taking a few moments before Mass to wait in silence in the presence of Christ — if I was too busy to stop for these things, what might happen? It could be dangerous.

This Gospel invites us to be with God, rather than do for God, as much as that flies in the face of the pressing, and even necessary, needs of the present moment. The needs are ephemeral; God is eternal. To know how to prepare, we must listen so that we can grasp what we are preparing for. To lose sight of that is indeed a perilous path.

Perhaps it’s time to consider the extravagance of being unbusy, to cease preparing long enough to know Who it is we are preparing for? Though we usually think of Lent or New Year’s as the times to give up bad habits or take up healthy ones, Advent, which was once known as St. Martin’s Lent and is the start of the Church’s new liturgical year, could also be a time to make new choices in our lives. We could follow Mary’s lavishly impractical example and firmly set aside a few minutes each day to be still and know God.

This Advent I am resolving to choose the better part.

Father, let the gift of Your life continue to grow in us, drawing us from death to faith, hope and love. Keep us alive in Christ Jesus. Keep us watchful in prayer and true to His teaching till your glory is revealed in us. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Opening prayer from the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Times and Seasons

I can tell the season by the searches. The day before Thanksgiving, the top keywords searches which led to my chemistry blogs included:

  • the chemistry of jello
  • how to pronounce tryptophan
  • does cranberry sauce cause a reaction with silver?

For this blog, the top search for two weeks now has been:
  • my soul in stillness waits
I'm striving for some stillness - and found this question to be a good one to think on: Is patience still waiting?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Arm photon torpedos, Mr. Sulu

Barnacle Boy - who has an apron that reads "If God wanted me to be thin, He'd have made chocolate a vegetable" - is not a fan of either fruits or vegetables. When grapes made an appearance at the dinner table the other night, he greeted them with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Who are you and what have you done with my son?

When dinner was over, he carefully pulled two grapes from the cluster, cut them almost in half and ducked into the kitchen. "Come and watch, Mom!" OMG, as they say. The grapes are arcing, and then one bursts into flame.

He has made a plasma in the microwave - you know, the stuff of which suns are made. I'm still stunned by the stunt.

Tonight, Crash wanted to know if we had "vaporized milk". Now I'm checking to be sure we don't have any photon torpedo tubes on the roof...

Crash was looking for evaporated milk - a key ingredient in beignets - a treat he'd like me to make this weekend. I bet we could make some with The Boy's plasma?!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Write or else

I've got a lot of writing to do in the next few weeks and while I'm generally pretty good at staying on task (I'm writing this in our sunroom next to my brother playing bridge online, my sister-in-law, my husband shopping for a new car, and three of the teens staying here playing a very loud board game) there are times when I could use help.

Enter Dr. Wicked's site. If you require pounds of external pressure to produce prose, this might do it. You can set a time and number of words, and if you stop typing for too long...well, try it and see.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

God's grandeur in the city?

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 27 November 2008]

Wisdom calls aloud in the streets, She raises her voice in the public squares; She calls out at the street corners, She delivers her message at the city gates.
Prv. 1:20-21

"Glory be to God for dappled things" priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., exclaims at the start of Pied Beauty. Last summer I very nearly stepped on one of God's dappled things. In the early hours of a warm, hazy morning, ambling down a familiar path, my mind was miles away. A commotion in the bushes brought me up short.

Not two feet away, curled up in the middle of a hedgerow that came right out of Hopkins' "landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow and plough" was a newborn fawn, her dappled skin nearly invisible against the sun speckled grass, her nervous mother poised to run me off. At that moment, it was not so hard to see how, in Hopkins' words, "the world is charged with the grandeur of God."

This fall, most of my walking has been through Philadelphia's streets, on days far less gentle than the misty morning I encountered the fawn.

One afternoon, an icy rain was falling as I trudged from Old City to the train station; even wrapped in my raincoat I was damp and cold. At 13th and Market, I watched a toothless man walk bent into the beating rain with no coat, no umbrella, no shoes - just flip-flops and soaking socks. I walked past a woman with all her worldly goods in bags, pressed up against a building in the narrow dry strip of pavement. Where was God's grandeur now?

In his homily on Christ the King, Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx points out that while we might seek God among the great and powerful (or perhaps in glorious country walks), "Jesus lets us find God among the little ones and those of no account." Though we may not realize it, we are standing before God now, even as we will at the last judgment - at 13th and Market.

Like the doe crashing through the brush, Wisdom's challenge in Proverbs brought my attention sharply back to the prospect of uncovering God's grandeur in the city streets and public squares.

Could I bow down before the man with no shoes, throw myself at the feet of the woman against the wall, as I imagine I would before Christ the King? I could not help but think of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, who believed that in touching the broken bodies of the poor, she was touching the body of Christ himself. I also could not fail to see how far short of this vision of the kingdom I fall.

As I rehearsed the majestic music chosen for Sunday's Feast of Christ the King, the royal fanfares and flourishes resounding in the church, my mind kept returning to the faces of Christ the King on the street corners. What other gifts was I preparing, fit for that King, to bring before His altar?

In his commentary on St. Matthew, Church Father Origen speaks to us of weaving "a garment for the cold and shivering Christ." What cloak am I weaving in both word and deed to wrap around Christ, our King, who is cold and shivering on the streets?

Can I bring myself to look at that cloak, to face my ultimate end, my judgment before God, every day? Not easily. So I listen for God's wisdom at the city gates, poised now to notice God's dappled things tucked nearly invisible against the buildings, continually praying for God's grace not to let my own nerves run me off.

Lord Jesus Christ, we worship you living among us in the sacrament of your body and blood. May we offer to our Father in heaven a solemn pledge of undivided love. May we offer to our brothers and sisters a life poured out in loving service of that kingdom where you live with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Opening prayer from the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ

Photo is on
Avenue du Général Leclerc in the Paris city center, taken by vlastula. Used under Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How can I help? what Barnacle Boy asked me in the car today. I hadn't even asked for his help getting ready for the big holiday feast, but there he was, all ready to be deployed in the cause.

If only he could grade quantum chemistry problem sets!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Column: Antiphons for Anti-Noise

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 20 November 2008]

Sing the words and tunes of the psalms and hymns when you are together and go on singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts, so that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God who is our Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Eph 5:19-20

Greek letters and mathematical symbols littering their pages, a dozen quantum mechanics exams are piled on the desk behind me, waiting to be graded. I left my students an exam to take while I was away at a conference last week. It wasn’t the same as having class, they told me: “We’d rather have you here.”

I empathize. Some things are better if you’re all in the same place. I’d much rather hear about Victor’s day as we take an evening walk together, than talk to him on the phone while I’m taking a walk in another time zone.

At the conference, though I had an elegant meditation space to use, I was reminded that praying the psalms was really not the same all alone, either. I missed the community of Augustinians and lay people who gather for Morning Prayer each day at my parish.

As a Church, we have long taken St. Paul’s advice to the Ephesians to heart. Lay people, monks, priests and bishops have been gathering regularly to chant the psalms at daybreak and at eventide since the earliest days. St. Hilary wrote in 360 AD, “The increasing delight of the Church in the morning and evening psalmody is a notable sign of the mercy of God.”

The celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours today is often a far cry from the earliest gatherings. A fourth century Spanish tourist recounted her experience of Morning Prayer in Jerusalem: a multitude had gathered outside before the cock-crow, waiting for the bishop to throw open the doors to a basilica sparkling with innumerable lights.

There’s no crowd pushing at the doors to Our Mother of Good Counsel at dawn, and only the Presence light dances in the dimness. Yet traces of the liturgies that took places in those packed fourth century churches can be found in our celebration of the Liturgy of Hours to this day.

Many communities, mine included, still pray the psalms antiphonally — splitting the assembly into two sides, chanting the strophes in turn, a legacy of the ancient liturgies.

Originally a single reader chanted the psalms. Over the rustles and murmuring of a packed congregation, a lone voice was hard to hear. As one early bishop lamented, “What hard labor it is to produce silence while the readings are proclaimed!” So the custom of two choirs alternating strophes arose, better able to punch through the noise.

The cacophony at the Liturgy of the Hours these days is less likely to come from restive congregants and more likely to arise from our internal voices. The upcoming day’s demands and responsibilities often rustle distractingly in my head as I mark the pages for morning prayer; I know I’m on the clock the moment I’m out the church door.

Antiphonal psalmody is as effective at overpowering these quieter, though no less distracting companions, as it was at drowning out the noise in a crowded basilica. You can’t drift through the verses, prompted by a break to repeat a refrain on autopilot. You have to be present to the Word made flesh in your counterparts across the chapel, ready to take up the next verse. You can’t rush through at your own pace; the voices on your side hold you to a measured and untroubled rhythm.

St. Basil, an early champion of antiphonal psalmody, thought it a blessing to sing in turn like the choirs of angels on heaven and earth. I’m not sure how much we sound like an angelic chorus in the morning, but Basil also reminded us that this practice would season our day’s tasks like salt.

I go forth well seasoned each morning, distractions set aside, enabled to enjoy the flavors of the psalms in the work at hand. It’s a taste worth cultivating.

Lord, be the beginning and end of all that we do and say. Prompt our actions with your grace, and complete them with your all-powerful help. We make our prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Concluding prayer from Morning Prayer, Monday Week I.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Survival Guide

I feel like a contestant on one of those survival shows. You made it through a faculty meeting, where you were on the spot for an hour and a bit. Now you've got 45 minutes to prep for class, and eat. No time to go home, or run out, can you survive on what's in your office? Go!

I pulled open my desk drawer.

1 can tuna
1/2 bar dark chocolate
dried apricots
melba toast

Does this equal dinner? Does the 1/2 empty Diet Pepsi on my desk count? Will I get extra points if I melt the chocolate in the microwave and dip the apricots in it -- or just qualify for the Martha Stewart sub-prize?

And while you eat, prepare a lecture on perturbation theory!

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Work has been intense - and I came home Thursday and Friday nights with every muscle in my back tied into knots. Barnacle Boy (the king of self-care) was kind. "Maybe you should lie on the sofa with your hot water bottle on your back?"

So today I tried for some self-care, being that all my guys were out for the day. The plan:

a yoga class
a haircut
a walk

The result?

yoga class was cancelled
haircut was cancelled due to mix up in appointment time
it's pouring, deluging, I mean sheets of rain

I did run some long standing errands and grocery shopped, and turned out to be available for a friend's desperate phone call (a house full of tween and teen birthday guests awaiting transportation to the latest Bond flick and she's stuck in traffic in the city). So I had a chance to practice a bit of unselfish care at least.

On Thursday I'll try again - I've got a room for the night at the old Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville!

Friday, November 14, 2008

If God is in all things... he in the puns? Gannet Girl, Stratoz and I have been debating in comments what the Ignatian stance on puns might be. I quoted Ignatius' Principle and Foundation: everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God. Everything would include puns, no?

Gannet Girl thinks she has an idea of what my 30-days might bring - and she's likely right! Once accepted for the 30-day retreat at Eastern Point in Gloucester, I was asked to describe what qualities I might want in a spiritual director for the retreat. So what am I hoping for? "[F]or someone who can help me recognize when I'm pushing too far into the theological realms and nudge me back into prayer and reflection, and finally for a someone with a sense of humor." Or as a director on a retreat a few years back said - as he offered me some reading - "You can read it only if you can keep your theologian hat off!"

Red Ink is Salvific

Red ink is bad news for a business, but it was good news for me. I prefer to write with a fountain pen (or a keyboard!), but they tend to clog. Various methods for unclogging them have never produced fantastic results, so I tend to buy inexpensive versions, then toss them into a drawer when they get hopelessly clogged.

I've tried soaking nibs in cold water, warm water, hot water, water with ammonia....but as a chemist I should have known the best solution. The chemist's basic adage when it comes to dissolving stuff is "like dissolves like". Ink, use ink. Red ink as it turns out. Sheaffer red ink is an awesome ink solvent. I dipped a clogged nib in it, put the cap on and two hours later my pen was as good as new! I'm off to resurrect more pens...

Photo is from Wikipedia by Ben FrantzDale.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Column: Ancient Ways

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times 13 November 2008]

Put yourselves on the ways of long ago. Inquire about the ancient path:
Which was the good way? Take it then, And you shall find rest.
Jer. 6:16a

My purse weighs five pounds - and that's if I'm not carrying anything other than my basic gear. Moms don't travel lightly in general, and I'm no exception. Need a Kleenex, a band-aid or a snack? I've got it, just in case. Add a water bottle, my laptop, the stack of exams I'm grading, tuck in my pound and a half breviary and I'm over my weight limit.

In an attempt to lighten my load, I bought an electronic version of the Liturgy of the Hours. The entire Office in four elegantly slim ounces that can be read anywhere, even in an unlit tent at midnight. Truly a marvel. And I can't abide it.

Why should the form in which the Church's prayer comes matter so much to me? "I know only enough of God to want to worship Him, by any means ready to hand," begins Annie Dillard's essay Holy the Firm. This electronic means is certainly easier to keep at hand - it slips neatly into my pocket, if not so easily into my soul.

St. Ignatius might agree with Annie Dillard. In the Principle and Foundation which grounds his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius reminds us that we are created to "praise, reverence and serve God" and so to save our souls. The created world, and all that it contains, is meant to be the "means ready at hand" to that end, and that end alone. If my tiny device brings me closer to God, I shouldn't be so quick to dismiss it.

All that said, Ignatius might be surprised at what the created world contains these days and how we are putting it to use. The recent Synod of Bishops closed its meeting by calling on the Church to continue to use current technologies, be they newspapers and radio shows, podcasts or blogs, to bring God's word to the world.

Generally my geeky self revels in the modern marvels ready to help me find God in all things - the British Jesuits' superb daily podcast meditations on the Scriptures, or the Catholic Standard & Times' online version that I can call up the moment it's published from 7,000 miles away. God is alive and well on the information highway.

Still, the prophet Jeremiah asks us to think about the highways we're on - to try not only the new and the modern, but to remember to explore the ancient paths as well. He invites us to consider whether a path draws us toward the good - or leads us away. Seek the restful places.

My low-tech breviary is a restful place - it needs no special tending. There are no cables to keep track of, no battery to be charged, and software updates are rare (the last one was in 1975). It has a solidity that makes it difficult to displace.

Having trod paths new and old in search of a restful prayer book, I may be ready to undertake a longer journey. Two months from today, I enter a way that is half a millennia old, spending 30 days in silence making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

The Exercises will take me along the ancient Gospel paths, walking with Christ, asking God to show me my own "good way," so that I may take it.

On Jan. 5, I'll step off the information highway - no voice mail, no e-mail, no iPod. No batteries required.

We should not fix our desires
on health or sickness,
wealth or poverty,
success or failure,
a long life or a short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
a deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better leads to God's deepening his life in me.

From the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, translated by David Fleming, S.J.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On setting a good example

...or not? Barnacle Boy cooked dinner tonight. Homemade mac and cheese. He made the cheese sauce from scratch, with only a momentary panic when he thought his white sauce was too lumpy. A quick whisk to the rescue and all was well...

Meanwhile I was battling the demons that had taken up residence in my computer. My desktop is "having issues" - if only I could be more specific, perhaps I could fix them. The printer is linked through the desktop. And tonight I had to teach, using the materials I prepped, but could neither print nor pull off the desktop. Argh...I finally managed to get them onto my laptop, so I could print them at the college. But dinner?

One of my seniors arrived for class, lamenting that dinner had been chocolate and a banana. I told her she had a healthier dinner than I had. When she looked at my quizzically, I admitted to having had two (large) handfuls of jelly beans. (Barnacle Boy ate the last of the "healthy" gummi no redeeming antioxidants in these!)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Grown up packaging

I admit it, my tastes are not entirely adult. Yes, I like thick, Greek yogurt - plain. And goat cheese, and dark chocolate passion fruit truffles...

But I also adore Hershey kisses, Tootsie Rolls and gummi bears. Today I stopped on the way home to get bread for dinner (a treat for my carb craving Crash). At the counter they had little packages of Gummi Pandas - pomegranate and white tea or blueberry antioxidant flavors. The packaging was seriously understated and discrete.

Clearly someone thinks that bashful, health-conscious adults who secretly adore gummi bears are a market niche. (I'm not bashful about it, as my Middle East travel companions discovered. When we stopped at an Oasis - the WaWa of the Middle East - I openly picked up a bag of gummi somethings as a late night snack!)

So what do gummi pandas look like? Exactly like gummi bears, you could mix them right in and you'd never know. I'm might have detected in a blind tasting the "refreshingly light flavor accented by the subtle sweetness of pomegranate" that the white tea is said to impart, but probably not!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Welcome to McRodent

May I take your order?

Yes, that will be two chipmunks and one mouse. No cheese in the mouse please.

Anything to drink?

A cream.

Will that be for here or to chase?

Fluffy has been sitting patiently by the dishwasher, hoping that it will dispense another mouse for her pleasure!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obedience's Gifts

After I wrote this I realized that in Latin Benedict means "good word" or "blessed," and Benedictus ("blessing") is the first word uttered by Zechariah after he insisted his son be named John. I wonder if that unconciously drove this piece down the road it went? Patient Spiritual Director's help with my Greek last spring played a role, too...

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 6 November 2008.]

Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”

“I am Gabriel and I have been sent to you and bring you this good news. Listen! Since you have not believed my words, which will come true at their appointed time, you will be silenced and have no power of speech until this has happened.”
Lk. 1:18-20

“Mom, Mom…Mommmmm! Tell him to leave me alone!” came the increasingly strident demands from the back room. I was moving as fast as I could, but without a voice, the squabbling siblings had to wait for me to arrive on scene to call a halt to the proceedings. Alas, all that came out was a squeak, unlikely to elicit silence when pitted against the booming voices of my teen-aged sons.

I resorted to sign language, learned when the boys were toddlers. Stop squabbling, my hands read, leave your brother alone! The two combatants had no eyes for my hands; the verbal battle raged on over my head, while I was relegated to the sidelines.

Oh, for the return of my voice! Zechariah endured nine months without his voice, forced to rely on his hands, and the patience of those around him to be understood. I imagine it tried his patience, too. As much as I regularly choose to spend time in silence, I find this imposed silence to be vexing. Both Zechariah and I have something to learn. To hear, to listen, to obey.

Luke’s Gospel uses the Greek word “siope” to describe Zechariah’s silence. The Greek translation carries the connotation of an imposed, involuntary silence, of a silence that goes beyond mere voicelessness, to the stilling of one’s will. Without a voice, it’s certainly hard to impose my will (particularly on noisy teen-aged boys).

My inability to express myself strikes more deeply than the temporary suspension of my role as peacemaker. Suddenly I’m put in a position where I have to listen, where I have to accept without argument the choices, pleasing and displeasing, that others make for me — to obey.

A listening ear is the key to obedience. Literally. Obedience derives from the Latin “obaudire” which means to listen deeply. St. Benedict’s rule for monastics begins with his call to monks to live in obedience and humility. The very first word of the rule? Listen.

St. Benedict calls obedience a gift, owed not just to the superiors of the community, but to each other. In order to obey, one first must listen. Not so much to the squabbling children or the demanding student, but to the voice of Christ, hidden in the voices of others. It requires listening not superficially, but deeply. It is a discipline that both requires and produces obedience. It is a listening that should not fail to respond to God’s call.

My voice has yet to completely return (though the kids have ceased squabbling for the moment), but I am balking a bit less at this “stilling of my will.” I’m learning to enjoy being surprised at the choices others make for me along this road, to delight in these gifts of obedience. And I’m practicing listening for Christ in the voices of those around me, even amidst the squabbles, the demands and the banal.

I hope in the end to be able to do as St. Benedict advises, “Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart.”

Lord Jesus Christ, You were made obedient unto death, and Your name was exalted about all others. Teach us always to do the Father’s will, so that, made holy by obedience which unites us to the sacrifice of Your body, we can expect Your great love in times of sorrow and sing a new song to our God. Amen. From Daytime Prayer, Monday, Week II.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I Ate Eight

...tootsie rolls. And I'm not sorry!

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Acme School of Meditation

The meeting I'm at is sponsored by the Association for the Contemplative Mind in Higher Education. If you're feeling acronymish: ACMHE pronounced "Acme"

We've spent time this weekend thinking about integrating contemplative practices into college classrooms. Why? How? When? Who?

One question that arises is "decontextualization" of practices that emerge from a particular tradition or stance, long standing or otherwise. When practices are taught outside of their specific context - what is lost? How integral is context to the practice and the practice to the context?

My own contemplative life grows from the Roman Catholic traditions - its monastic and mystical traditions. When I teach pieces of my own practice to students in a secular setting, how much do I share of the broader context is an ethical issue for me. My current stance is that I need to tell them that I do practice, that it is in a religious context, that many religious and secular traditions share practices and theories about practices, but that I don't intend to teach anything about the traditions.

If I stick to things like breathing or centering exercises that can be used in many contexts, I don't think there's an ethical issue or an issue with the integrity of the practice. Last year, in an extra-curricular project I taught a secular version of the examen to a group of students from many faith backgrounds. This becomes a choice between teaching a particular tradition and the integrity of the exercise itself. Is there any value in teaching a "vanilla version" of any religious practice? The Acme Co. version of a worship service?

Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls. Jer 6:16

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Talking Zen

I've had a glass of wine, and listened to a contemplative improvise jazz on the flugelhorn as I sat in front of a blazing fire. It was exquisite.
I'm at a conference on contemplative practices in Kalamazoo, MI. This morning I gave a talk - without the scientist's usual crutch of slides (we used slides even before PowerPoint!). I had meant to get up for yoga at 7, then have breakfast before the session began at 9. Instead, I slept through the alarm, woke up at 8:37 to a cloudy, dark morning. I actually checked both my watch and my cell phone, I couldn't quite believe the alarm clock in my room. I had time for a quick shower...and grabbed my paper and went.

Thankfully the session began with 30 minutes of silent meditation. By the time I had to speak, I was sufficiently settled to speak slowly and coherently. The talk went very well...

Fasting and meditation are not my usual preparation for giving a paper, but maybe they should be.

Friday, October 31, 2008

City Directions

There is the Ignatian concept of "finding God in all things" or "contemplation in action" - that one's spiritual life and life are congruent. For me it's certainly an aspiration, and sometimes a reality.

Walking, either in my neighborhood or at Wernersville, I often enjoy the many and varied realizations of God at play in the universe: leaves rustle, squirrels duck and cover, the color of the sky. Walking the streets of Philadelphia makes this a bit more of a challenge.

Besides the proximity to a terrific chocolate store, one unexpected benefit of seeing my spiritual director in the city has been the chance to try to find God in the city scape.

Last week when I went, it was cold, rainy, sleeting. I walked the mile there and back from the train station - and was therefore glad of the chance to get warm in the church before my appointment. I wasn't the only one seeking a dry warm space, a man challenged me at the door (concerned, I suspect, that I was going to turn him out), "Are you going to tell me where to go?" On my return trip, as the rain intensified, I walked past a woman with all her worldly goods in bags, pressed up against a building in the narrow dry strip of pavement. At 13th and Market, I watched a toothless man walk bent into the beating rain with no coat, no umbrella, no shoes, just flip-flops and soaking socks.

Can I see God here?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Like a dry and weary desert land

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 30 October 2008.]

O God, You are my God, for You I long;
For You my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for You
Like a dry, weary land without water.
Ps. 63:1

Just how far I was from home last week became evident when the road signs warned of camels crossing — not deer. Red-gold sand rippled down impossibly high dunes. No trees, no water; there was not even a sign that water had ever flowed here. I was skirting the edge of the Empty Quarter, a vast desert on the Sinai Peninsula.

In his essay, “Praying the Psalms,” Trappist monk Thomas Merton encourages the faithful to take up residence in the psalms: “Move them into the house of our own souls so that we think of our ordinary experiences in their light and with their words.” Spending a day “residing” in the desert, the psalms and the prophets moved into my soul in new ways. I saw the desert in their light and heard their words on its wind.

As the wind spun clouds of sand and dust, obscuring the cliffs in the distance, the words of the Canticle of Moses from Deuteronomy rose to my lips: He found them in a wilderness, a wasteland of howling desert.

Suddenly I could see how you could be lost here for 40 years. I could see how you might have despaired of ever finding your way out.

The dry and weary land of Psalm 63 spread before my eyes. The sand is so dry that it simply falls through your hands. There is nothing to hold one grain to the next. The dunes shift, there are no permanent landmarks. This is a land that thirsts in a way I had never experienced — and my family lives in California’s high desert.

To thirst for God as for water in this landscape is to long for that which will give shape to our lives, will provide firm signposts for our wandering souls.

In a shallow valley tucked tight up against the mountains, swaths of green curled like ribbons through the rock and sand. Unlike the date palms that lined the highway leading here, grown with water brought miles from the sea, this blooming valley was watered by warm springs.

The waters were a delight to my aching feet; such a place must have been a nearly unimaginable miracle to a people wandering the desert. The lame will leap like a deer, God promised through Isaiah, when the parched land becomes like a marsh and the thirsty land springs of water.

The massif rose up out of the desert without warning. Forbiddingly rugged, yet promising the only shelter in sight. Psalm 31 cries, be a rock of refuge for me, a mighty stronghold to save me. God’s firm promise of safety and shelter in a world that promises little of either was clearly manifest in these immense rocks.

As I drove back through the now darkening desert, the words of Psalm 63, written it is said by David when he was in the desert, echoed still. “On you I muse through the night for you have been my help.”

Sunday found me back home in Philadelphia, far from biblical deserts and feeling almost as weary as the Israelites from all my wanderings. I picked up my breviary to pray, the first psalm was 63, and I was transported back to the shimmering desert heat. My soul thirsts for God, the God of my life. As never before.

God our Father, gifts without measure flow from Your goodness to bring us Your peace. Our life is Your gift. Guide our life’s journey, for only Your love makes us whole. Keep us strong in Your love. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Opening Prayer for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Guns, Germs and Steel

Barnacle Boy has a project going for school. He's designed and built a labyrinth for a Minotaur. We bought bass wood (related to balsa) and a stiff poster board. He measured the pieces (I did the cutting with an Exacto knife), painted everything in black acrylic paint, and tonight was the big assembly night. We got out the hot glue gun and went to work. With only two pieces to go, I was gluing a seam, or rather I thought it was a seam. My finger. Ouch. One large blister.

Back to work. Last piece. I pick up the gun and manage to squirt hot glue all over my hand. My hand is a mess to say the least. The Boy tried to help me bandage up the worst of the raw spots, but his sterile technique isn't so hot (and sterile wouldn't describe his hands, I'm sure). I'm now an 8-fingered typist...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Is there something you're not telling me?

Math Man and I intersected in the kitchen tonight. He's working and watching "The Game"; I'm working and not. We both have the munchies. When I said I couldn't quite figure out what I was craving, he popped out with, "Is there something you're not telling me dear?" Meanwhile, I watch as he dishes up some vanilla ice cream, then reaches into the 'fridge for the rest of his snack. Black olives. (I know what you're thinking, and no, he doesn't put them onto the ice cream, but he does eat them together.)

When I was expecting Mike, every week I would buy ever larger containers of black olives at the farmer's market. I was quite visibly pregnant, finally provoking the woman who owned the stand to say, "I'm not sure that all these salty olives are good for you." When I told her my husband was the one with the strange cravings, she had a good laugh.

"So," I asked Math Man, "is there something you're not telling me?"

Meanwhile, I'm reflecting on Luke 1:8-20, where Zechariah snorts at the angel announcing his wife's miraculous pregnancy, "I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years." for my column for a couple weeks hence. Is there a connection here?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Days Away

The letter came in the mail yesterday. I've been accepted to make the Long Retreat - the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. 30 days in silence, 35 days away altogether.

I leave in 70 days.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Open Your Hands

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 23 Oct 1008]

The crowds were almost stifling Jesus as he went. There was a woman suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years, whom no one had been able to cure. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak; and the hemorrhage stopped at that instant. Jesus said, "Who touched me?"

Lk. 8:42-45

I descended from the heavenly peace of my study to find a gaggle of giggling teens in my kitchen. "Open your hands, Mom!" invited Chris. "Why?" I am (with good reason) suspicious. "I promise you'll like it." At least he hasn't asked me to close my eyes, or I would have been really worried.

I hesitantly held out my hands, ready to snatch them back if the surprise was not to my taste. A spoonful of chocolate chip cookie dough plopped onto my palms. Chris was right, I liked it. My kitchen turned out to be as full of grace as it was of teenagers.

Chris' invitation and my tentative response to it echoed an experience of a few days earlier. Facing surgery, I had asked to receive the anointing of the sick. When the priest invited me to open my hands, for an instant, I had much the same reaction as I had in the kitchen. I wanted to pull back my hands and call the whole thing off. I was unsure of what would happen; perhaps I should not have bothered God with this?

I took courage from the woman in this scene from Luke's Gospel. She, too, had come seeking healing in the midst of chaos. I wonder if she thought it too small a matter actually to stop Jesus. She was not blind, nor paralyzed, not possessed of demons; she was tired and ill and frustrated. So as not to be a bother, she merely reached out to touch His robe. Christ responded to her, sought her out, in fact. He need not have bothered, she was already well. He was not satisfied to know that healing had happened, but wanted to meet the person healed.

Eyes open, I gathered my courage to face God and acknowledge my need. I opened my hands to be anointed with oil, to have them filled with grace, for strength, endurance and patience - and I hoped - healing.

Grace is found in odd corners, and it's not always easy to accept. In his essay "The Experience of Grace" Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner acknowledges that grace can indeed bless everyday moments, such as teenagers and fresh chocolate chip cookies. But he goes on to point out that when we surrender control over our very lives, then we can begin to experience grace not as moments, but as life within the grace of God. Experiences of grace are not the "seasoning and decorations of life," but the cup of life itself.

In the end, the grace of the sacrament for me was to learn to find, as Rahner advises, the fullness in the emptiness, ascent in the fall, wholeness in my brokenness. If I had not "bothered" God, not sought the graces offered, my physical recovery might not have been any more difficult, but the journey would have had little meaning. Like the woman in Luke's Gospel, I learned that it is not about being healed, but about the encounter with Christ, and the conformity to His passion, death and resurrection that that brings.

Rahner closes by conceding that letting God work in us in this way is not easy. My desire to close my hands and flee is not surprising. "We will always be tempted again to take fright and flee back into what is familiar and near to us: in fact we will often have to and will often be allowed to do this. But we should gradually try to get ourselves used to the taste of the pure wine of the Spirit... We should do this at least to the extent of not refusing the chalice when His directing providence offers it to us." Open your hands.

Guard your family, Lord, with constant loving care, for in your divine grace we place our only hope. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Concluding prayer from Morning Prayer of the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Friday, October 17, 2008


[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 16 October 2008]

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen. Heb. 11:1

I have a problem teen on my hands. She stays out late at night without asking, she brings home entirely unsuitable friends, she is fighting with her peers in the neighborhood and she hosts the occasional noisy late night party.The final straw came when she ran out of the house in a temper, and didn’t return for almost three days.

Thankfully my adolescent headache is not one of my children — but the family cat, who has taken to bringing home live chipmunks and getting into dust-ups with the local top cat. Fluffy recently went missing for several days, leaving my youngest son distraught.

“What if she doesn’t come back?” Chris wondered the first night. “She always comes back,” I reassured him. “Tomorrow we’ll find her meowing at the kitchen door.”

The next morning, there was no sign of Fluffy. Chris and I searched the neighborhood for her. No luck. “What if she doesn’t come back?” Chris asked despairingly as I tucked him in that night. “I hope she comes back. We can say a prayer.” He rolled his eyes at me. “I already did that, Mom,” I was informed. We said another one anyway.

Privately, I’d given up hope. I prayed that night not so much for Fluffy’s safe return, as for the grace to hope that she might, or at least the grace not to squash Christopher’s hopes.

Monday dawned. No cat. Hope was turning out to be a difficult virtue.

Chris headed out to catch the bus, I gathered my keys and dashed out the door to morning prayer — when I nearly tripped over the cat sitting patiently on the doormat.

Amidst the great rejoicing that ensued at the prodigal’s return, I was left wondering at Chris’ firm hope that all would be well and his awareness of its root in God’s care for him. Had I become so jaded that I could not hope along with him?

Perhaps. In his recent encyclical, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI observed that those of us who have been accustomed to living in Christ have “almost ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God.”

The Pope began his letter by reminding us that Christian hope is not about what we know, but about how we live in that knowledge of the Gospel of our redemption. “The one who has hope lives differently.” Prayer, he says, is our first school for hope. Or as St. Augustine has it, prayer is that true encounter with God that stretches our heart enough that there is space for hope.

We know so much sometimes, that we fail to remember what it is like to not know, to rely on the “assurances of things hoped for, the proofs of things unseen,” to turn first to God and not our own wisdom.

I know that cats sometimes don’t come back; meanwhile Christopher takes a different tack and asks God for his heart’s desires. Chris prays, and learns hope.

In her poem “Six Recognitions of the Lord,” Mary Oliver offers those who are inordinately learned some advice on prayer: “I know a lot of fancy words. I tear them from my heart and my tongue. Then I pray.”

I know the fancy words: faith, hope and love are the three great theological virtues, infused by God into our souls so we might, in the end, merit heaven. Can I tear them from my tongue, and pray? I hope so.

Lord, be merciful to Your people. Fill us with Your gifts and make us always eager to serve You in faith, hope and love. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Opening prayer from the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dromedarian Days

There were camels and sand dunes, forts and sheikhs, date palms and acacia, geometric patterns everywhere. And I did ride a dromedary (not to be confused with a hebdomindarian), though not into the desert. Maybe on a next trip?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Grand grace and grace in the dust

The Grand Mosque is that and more. As we drove out, though, you could hear the call to prayer ringing from the tiny mosque set amidst the trailers in the adjacent work area. Grace in the dust, again. تصبح على الخير (Good night...)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Global translation invariance

Perhaps the world is translation invariant as well? Or perhaps not!

I'm not in Kansas anymore

I am not in Kansas anymore - that is for certain. The scale reads in kilos, if I press 0 on the phone, a butler will come and iron my clothes, and Google comes up right justified, and in Arabic.

...but my survival Arabic podcast enabled me to understand one word of every onboard announcement: thank you. I can say good morning, too. Much to the amusement of the very young official at Customs.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

City Escapades

I went into Philly today to see my spiritual director. It was a lovely day for a walk, sunny and crisp. As I crossed 12th street, I watched a very plump pidgeon waddle along the curb like a balance beam, then slide down the "ramp" the curb made when it reached the cut at the corner. It look all the world like a penguin sliding down an ice chute!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Infinite Capacity

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 2 October 2008]

"These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat."

"My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?"
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last. Mt 20:12-16

St. Augustine once counseled Christians to "beware of mathematicians...The danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit."

Though I'm sure that there are times that my husband Victor's calculus students agree, in truth, Augustine's mathematici were not mathematicians in the modern sense, but astrologers and soothsayers, and Augustine himself used mathematics to illumine the mysteries of God's grace.

Reflecting on John's account of the miracle of the groaning nets in his Tractates on the Gospel of John, Augustine suggested that 153 fish appeared in the net because it was the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 17 and as all the individual numbers share in the total, so do we all share in God's grace. Augustine weaves the elegant mathematics of constructing 153 from various base numbers into a convincing illustration of the many ways God is at work in the world.

I listened this week to another accounting of God's abundant grace and to two impassioned homilies that gave me hope that even those of us who have not toiled as we should might yet receive the fullness of mercy.

When one homilist emphasized the symmetry of the first becoming last, and the last first, I envisioned the equations for a circle, where indeed the first point and the last point are not only interchangeable, but one and the same. God's ways are not our ways, but the equations led me to muse that perhaps God had left us a clue to His ways in the mathematics of this Gospel text. Like Augustine and the fish, mathematics opened another door into the Scripture.

Given that both parents and all four of their grandparents are scientists, it probably would''t surprise you that my kids enjoy odd math puzzles. One favorite is what number can you double and it will remain the same? One answer - infinity. Twice infinity is infinity. Divide it in half, still infinite. Add one to infinity and it remains unchanged; it's infinite. No arithmetic operation can change its unbounded nature.

Each group of workers that came forward put in more hours than the group that preceded them, yet the wage calculated for them was the same. If you apply my kids' mathematical logic, the base salary must therefore be infinite. Work twice as much, and your pay will still be infinite.

The 'usual wage' we are being offered is God's infinite love. I am struck not only by God's mercy to those who come up short, but his starting stance of limitless grace.

I read this gospel as a proof of God's infinite, unbounded, and unalterable love for us - for those of us who work through the heat of the day, for those of us who seek God in the cool of the evening, for those of us who are hoping God will find us before the end of the day. Nothing we can do can add to it, or thank God, lessen it.

Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in Your unbounded mercy You have revealed the beauty of Your power through Your constant forgiveness of our sins. May the power of this love be in our hearts to bring Your pardon and Your kingdom to all we meet. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(From the opening prayer for Mass on the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Humboldt Fog

Barnacle Boy is getting adventuresome when it comes to food. When we were in California this summer, I bought some Humboldt Fog cheese at the local cheese store in town. The Boy spotted it in the 'fridge at my dad's, but thought it was cheesecake (another recent discovery). He asked me for a taste, and I delivered what I thought was the bad news: not cheesecake, but cheese. Ah, but he was still willing to try it.

I had thought this would be a once a year treat, but it turns out our local Italian market carries it from time to time -- and there was some to be had today.

The resemblance to a layer cake is not accidental, but deliberate on the part of the cheese maker. It's a goat/blue cheese/brie experience all rolled into one. And there's nothing left after the Boy, Math Man and I got through with it tonight...

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Aliens among us

I was walking down the hedgerow path at the old Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville a couple of weeks ago, when I spotted in the distance what looked like an ostrich egg. As I got closer, I realized there were a dozen or so scattered along the path.

As I got closer, I could see they weren't ostrich eggs, but what were they? Alien pods? Fungi, I believe...

The watch on this partially munched specimen gives you some sense of scale...

Monday, September 29, 2008

Monastic Habits

I spent much of today tucked away in my office working on "the book" - reworking the chapter I finished the weekend before last. I'm so delighted to have my mind clearly back in my brain. It was pretty chilly that weekend, and despite Barnacle Boy's pleas, I declined to turn on the heat. He teased me about being "Nanook of the North" as I donned my official (!) brown Blogger sweatshirt, pulled up the hood and went to work. The look was vaguely monastic...maybe I've picked up more from the Augustinians than I think?

I was cold again today, so donned my "habit" and that coupled with my enforced silence and "enclosure" (to keep Fluffy off of my keyboard) - made for a monastic day. For the record, silence is easier when everyone else around you is keeping it.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Without a sound

No utterance at all, no speech,
no sound that anyone can hear;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their message to the ends of the world.

Ps. 19

My voice is not dependable right now. A sentence here and there, gently voiced, is fine, but a long way from the voice that reached every corner when I cantored at Wernersville last weekend.

It's instructive to be silent in the midst of all the noise at my house. More or less back on duty as "mom", people call for me, but to answer them, I need to be right in front of their faces. The requests tend to become increasingly strident as I make my way to a speakable distance, I find myself increasingly impatient with their impatience. How often do we think we're being ignored, when really, it's just silent transit time - waiting for someone to get into the right space, physically or metaphorically?

On the other hand, you can learn fascinating things when the teens in the room forget you are there...I'm now au courant on who is "going with" who in the neighborhood!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Troubled Teens

I think I have a troubled teen on my hands. My resident problem child stays out all night, brings home completely unsuitable friends, seems to be experiencing mood swings, is on occasion defiant, and has once run away from home for several days. Thank heavens it's the cat, and not one of my sons. Since Fluffy's recent experience being AWOL, she seems to have entered a wild stage.

She's been out all night and returned with a nick in her ear, but otherwise unscathed.

On Monday I learned a new thing about cat behavior, they can meow (loudly) with their mouths full. After I absently-mindedly opened the door to her plaint, I discovered belatedly she had a friend with her (I know, I learn slowly!). A live friend. I suggest firmly that she and her friend go back outside. No. I chase her and her wriggling captive into the living room. The chipmunk valiantly grabs onto the area rug and earns its freedom. God is good, no? Certainly from the chipmunk's point of view. Me? I'm having visions of a family of chipmunks living in the kids' closet. Fluffy and I both make haste to capture the critter. Grabbing a trashcan as I go, I win. Now I have a very anxious chipmunk trapped against the wall, Fluffy batting at my ankles and no lid within easy reach. The trio moves down the hallway, I put my foot against the trashcan and reach into the hall supply closet. Voila! A manila envelope to top off my trap. I slide it in, tip the contraption upright and we're well on our way to a chipmunk free house.

Right now, Fluffy is sweetly sleeping next to me, on silk pillow, looking for all the world like a pampered pet. Just don't cross her...

Friday, September 26, 2008

POST post

So I have POST (post-operative sore throat - does that really need an acronym??) as a result of being intubated on Wednesday - or I have the viral sore throat that Barnacle Boy and Crash had last week, or both. No matter, at this point I'm pretty much voiceless. I was so silent sitting in the sunroom that the gaggle of teens in there getting geared up to watch the presidential debate by watching political videos on YouTube forgot I was there.

I did learn that an azulene derivative (sodium azulene sulfonate) is thought to be effective in topically treating sore-throat from either cause, and that it's extracted from chamomile. So I've been drinking chamomile and rose hips tea sweetened with honey, which does make my throat feel better, even if it's purely hydration and placebo effect.

I also learned that sick-leave for a mother is limited. Barnacle Boy roused me out of bed at 6:30 this morning to help him find his sweatshirt (hanging on the coat rack where it belongs), a colleague called to clarify some work stuff, and Math Man phoned home and asked what was for dinner. I punted that last. If you're conscious as a mother, you're fair game. Coherent isn't necessary.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Woman on the edge

"She's a woman on the edge," I hear my surgeon say, as in scooting onto the operating table, I missed the mark and nearly went spilling onto the floor. She, the anesthesiologist and I had been talking about quantum mechanics on the way to the OR. I'm dressed in a Bair Paws gown (a very funky outfit that allows them to plug you into a warming hose and stay warm before surgery - it reminded me of when I was small, living outside of Chicago, and would stand in my nightgown on the hot air vents in the living room floor to get warm on winter mornings) and am wearing a silver hat also designed to help me retain heat (the nurse called it a Jiffy Pop hat and it's an apt description). The 6-ft plus anesthesiologist is holding my IV high in the air, towering over both me and the surgeon. We must have made quite a procession.

I was trying so hard not to be nervous, but when they hooked me up to the monitors, my secret was out. My usual pulse rate is between 60 and 65 - in the OR? 102. The last things I remember as I went under, were my surgeon holding my hand, and of praying the litany of the saints. Next thing I know, I'm in the recovery room - with a big sticker on my gown that said "Star Patient". I still don't know what I did to deserve that, since I proceeded to feel very "high maintenance" in the recovery unit. Suffice it to say I was glad of modern chemistry and medicine, and of a good friend willing to sit there through it all.

The team at home was sweet in their own ways. I woke to find a tray placed on the bed next to me, with a bowl of mashed potatoes and a cold drink (no napkin - we're talking men in the kitchen). Math Man had to go to back-to-school night for the mandatory choral meeting, so the boys reminded me how to use the cordless phones as an intercom system, in case I needed anything.

Since I'd sworn to the discharge nurse I would not get up without a spotter, when I needed to use the bathroom, I called up Barnacle Boy - who very gently took my arm. Then he pops out with "I don't have to say in there with you, do I??" "No sweetheart..." all the while thinking of those years not so long ago when he'd come popping right in the bathroom door without knocking, or decide to chat me up while I was in the shower. I think he's growing up!

Later, Barnacle Boy decided that the cat sleeping on top of me was photo material, grabbed my camera and clicked away. This morning I looked - the cat is indeed cute, I on the other hand look like something the cat dragged in.

The Psalms are in our bones

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 25 September 2008]

This piece had its formal genesis in the reflection I wrote a couple of Sundays ago for the RevGalBlogPals. I couldn't let go of the images of Gannet Girl grieving, and simply decided that I should not. The night after Tom died, I woke up crying in the night. My mother held me, repeating over and over again that she knew there was nothing she could to take away the pain, but that she would be with me. The psalms don't necessarily bring comfort or ease in grief, but like my mother, everyone who prays them, is with me, and with each other. Can we be with others in their inconsolable grief?

At the sight of her tears, and those of the Jews who followed her, Jesus said in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart, “Where have you put him?” They said, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. — Jn. 11:33-35

A friend lost her son last week, dragged from a long awaited retreat in silence into a maelstrom of pain. Over and over people told her that they could not imagine her grief. Perhaps what we really meant was that we did not want to experience her grief ourselves.

Returning to Bethany to find his friends Martha and Mary mourning their brother Lazarus, Jesus did not fail to imagine their grief, to experience this pain, though He could, and would, wipe it away in an instant. Jesus wept.

My friend sought the psalms in her grief. Not the green pastures and clear streams of Psalm 23, but the penetrating, inescapable love of Psalm 139. “If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there,” she prays.

Father Joseph Gelineau, S.J., whose now familiar psalm tones regrounded us in our own ancient chant traditions, said in his introduction to the Grail Psalter, “[the psalms] force us to widen our hearts to the full dimensions of redemption."

The psalms give us a way to voice the anguishes we have not experienced, the joys that might have never been ours, the fears that besiege and beset those around us. They force us to widen our hearts, and like Christ with Martha and Mary, be willing to go beyond acknowledging another’s pain, and imagine it. The psalms let us weep with each other.

In this way the psalms become for us more than the sacred songs of a generation long past, they are our own voices ringing in the wilderness of everyday life. As Andre Chouraqi, a distinguished Jewish theologian and linguist, noted, “We were born with this book in our very bones … 150 poems … 150 mirrors of our agonies and our resurrections.”

Literally, of course, the psalms are the skeleton upon which the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s daily work of prayer, hangs. On a deeper level, I find this image of the psalms as bones reminds me that these “150 mirrors” are not a superstructure shielding us from the difficulties of each other’s lives, nor are they an exoskeleton that bounds our growth.

Instead, they hold up for us what we need to see in our own lives, in the lives of those around us. They support us while we grow, through these shared experiences of joys and sorrows, virtues and transgressions.

As I prayed Psalm 139 this week, for my friend and for her son, it brought me back to the dark hours of a Holy Thursday more than 20 years ago. I sat in a hospital waiting room, facing the news that my husband would not live to see the morning. My breviary had disappeared in the chaos of the night before, but the psalms turned out to be in my bones and therefore my memory. When I could not hope, Psalm 30 could hope for me: “At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn.”

The psalms still give voice to my griefs, my joys, my angers, my failings, my triumphs — they hold me up. They are my very bones. Through them we hold each other up. They are our very bones.

Lord God, deepen our faith, strengthen our hope, enkindle our love: and so that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.
— from Evening Prayer I, 30th Sunday in Ordinary time, Liturgy of the Hours