Thursday, August 28, 2008

Lasting treasures

The Boy and Crash are hanging out with their cousins this week at the sea side. Today they all went to the arcade. They collected tons of tickets to exchange for "stuff". She of the Book opted for one small ornament to put on her dresser at home to remember the vacation by. Crash, The Boy and Perpetually Tired Teen? Gentlemen of instant gratification. Things that go "pop" and candy topped their list. The most lasting thing they acquired? The Boy's scary mechanical hand...

Saturday, August 23, 2008


As we were driving to the beach today, Math Man asks Crash if he's watched any of the "Jaws" films showing on one of the local channels this week. This quickly devolves into a conversation about whether just the iconic fin and occasional snout is scarier than seeing the whole thing. "When the teeth bend," hazards Crash, "you can tell they're rubber, so it's not sooo scary!" I wonder aloud if this is really the conversation we want to be having right before we get into the ocean. Both guys look at me like I'm from Mars and go right back to wondering about simulating shark attacks.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Grace in the dust

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 21 August 2008]

Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, when a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of the most expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he was at table. When they saw this, the disciples were indignant. “Why this waste?” they said. Mt. 26:6-9

Water is more precious than oil where my dad lives. Central California is parched and dry at this time of year, the golden brown broken only by the green stripes of the vineyards twining through the hills. Water is dragged up from 400 feet below the earth, and poured out only where it is truly needed.

Early one evening I walked the dirt roads near my dad’s farm, through olive groves and vineyards. As I reached the top of the ridge halfway between the farm and my aunt’s house, I could see a cloud of dust further down the valley. A line of heavy construction trucks wound their way slowly down the roads.

I groaned. Perched on this hillside path, I would be eating — and breathing — their dust long before I got to my aunt’s.

As the trucks lumbered up the hill, I picked my way through the thistles lining the embankment to wait them out. At least the lead driver spotted me and slowed down. The procession crept by.

As the last truck rolled past, I gasped. Gallons of water streamed from its back. Just as I began to frantically wave at the driver, the torrent stopped. What a waste, I thought, and turned to make my dusty way to my aunt’s.

But there was no roiling cloud of dust to trudge through. Instead, a damp ribbon began at the curve where the driver of the first truck had spotted me. All those gallons of water had been poured out for me, for my comfort, for an unknown women standing by the edge of an isolated road. The realization nearly brought me to my knees in the thistles.

It was a gift all out of proportion to my needs; dust does wash off after all. I had the same question as the disciples at Bethany. “Why this waste?” Wouldn’t this water have been better used on the vines?

There is something ultimately incomprehensible about using precious things with such abandon. Yet this is precisely the mystery we encounter in the sacraments.

The water that was so scarce a resource in many early Christian communities, the scant tablespoons of oil that a pound of olives would yield, bread from grain harvested and ground by hand, all spent freely, not to meet any practical physical need, but for the ease of our souls.
The abundant, overflowing grace of God is made visible.

We don’t expect to have sacramental encounters on dusty country roads, or on the Schuylkill Expressway for that matter, but in fact the world is inescapably sacramental.

As Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote in The Divine Milieu, “By means of all created things … the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.”

God’s grace isn’t metered out to us in tiny portions at fixed times or hoarded behind closed doors, we dwell in it.

Not only is His grace devastatingly lavish, but it actively seeks us out, even if we try to step off the road.

God our Father, may we love You in all things and above all things and reach the joy You have prepared for us beyond all our imagining. We ask 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.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

All things counter, original, spare, strange

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times August 14, 2008]

For though the fig tree blossom not nor fruit be on the vines, though the yield of the olive fail and the terraces produce no nourishment, though the flocks disappear from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet will I rejoice in the Lord and exult in my saving God. God, my Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet swift as those of hinds and enables me to go upon the heights.
Hab. 3:17-19

“There’s an amazing view when you get around the corner,” the woman ahead of me on the trail offers by way of encouragement. “Thanks,” I squeak out, “but I think I’ll wait ‘til I get to the top and be surprised.”

This is not a gentle trail through the woods; I’m clinging to an iron rung bolted to the cliff with a 250-foot drop to the ocean below, watching my son Chris hug the rock face and inch carefully around the corner on a ledge a few inches wide.

Chris is not afraid. He moves confidently forward to the hike leader waiting on the other side. He knows someone fell here a few years ago and died, but his step remains firm, his eyes trustingly on the leader.

As I follow him across, the words of the prophet Habakkuk rise unbidden to my lips. He makes my feet swift as a hind’s and sets me safe on the heights.

We safely reached the summit, where the views of Mt. Desert Island’s granite crags and the Atlantic surf were as magnificent as promised. God’s creation spread out before our eyes, sparkling in the sun.

On the bus ride back to camp, Chris is still marveling at the experience. “Were you scared?” asked a younger camper. “No, I knew if I fell the leader would catch me,” he declared authoritatively.

I am struck by his assurance. What makes it so easy for him and hard for me? I know I’m not alone in my struggles; the prophets and psalmists alike struggled with trust and doubt.

My imagination runs rampant. Like Habakkuk, I am full of “what ifs?” What if the fig tree failed to blossom or the flocks vanished from the fold? What if my foot were to slip? What if I couldn’t catch Christopher?

Just like I inched along the cliff face hoping to delight in the incredible view at the end, amidst all the uncertainties of life, Habakkuk moves forward in trust, rejoicing in his saving God.

Clinging to the mountainside, I was acutely aware of my physical frailties. My strength alone might not be enough to hold me up.

Opening my breviary the next morning, the memory of the cliff and the words of Psalm 51 provoked a deeper awareness of my spiritual imperfections: “My offenses truly I know them, and my sin is always before me.” Here, too, the psalmist seeks the remedy of “rejoicing and gladness.”

I suspect Chris' secret is the same as the psalmists and prophets — joy. He is attentive to God’s wondrous creation, to God in all things and experiences.

Like priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Chris delights in all he discovers along the way — dusty trails, breathtaking views, fruit on the vines or not. He trusts it will all be marvelous.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.

From Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

Monday, August 11, 2008

What's behind that door?

I'm in the Denver airport at the midpoint of a trip home. There is a ground stop, which means all the planes are sitting on ground waiting for thunderstorms to pass and that all the waiting kids are on the move. I'm sitting on a balcony, where I can see the planes frozen like a tableau and the kids circling at 60 rpm.

There is a door to my left, labeled Fire Valve and Tornado Shelter. A passing munchkin read the door and wondered aloud if that was where the tornados lived. He's circled by 4 times since, and has (so far) resisted opening the door to check his theory.

If only someone could entice the twisters back into their closet so we could all get moving. Where is Monsters, Inc when you need them?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Oogling Google

I spent the last couple of days at SciFoo - a weekend long conference party for very geeky people. Not the least of the attractions was the location - Google's headquarters, the famed GooglePlex. I have met a papal astronomer (his office is above the pope's bedroom in Castle Gandolfo), the designer of a car that flies (actually, a road worthy airplane) and eaten lots of the famed Google food.

I am now the proud owner of an official "Blogger" sweatshirt and a nifty little device that stores solar power and can recharge almost any small electronic gadget. I'm sitting by the hotel pool, exchanging photons for electrons in the California sun.

After almost a month on the road, what do I want most? To go home!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Street Corner Prophets

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times August 8, 2008]

The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy? Amos 3:8

He was still on the corner of Canal and Chartres in New Orleans where I’d seen him on my visit five years before — ensconced on a folding chair, wearing a multicolored umbrella hat, and wielding a bullhorn. “Repent! Return to the Lord and he will save you,” he boomed in the cool April air.

The streets were empty in the early morning and I could hear him for blocks as I walked briskly off to satisfy my craving for a beignet slathered in powdered sugar. “Repent.” Later in the day, the street din would drown out his words, and parents would cross the street with their children to avoid the crazy preacher. Oblivious to his audience, or lack thereof, he continued to stay on message and decry the sinful ways of the world. “Turn to the Lord.”

I resisted crossing the street, but still felt slightly uncomfortable each time I passed by, my conscience itching at the edges. His words sounded harsh against the riotous jazz playing in New Orleans’ French Quarter, a prickly counterpoint to my twice daily indulgence in Cafe du Monde’s sweet fried dough.

As the haunting words of the prophet Amos poured forth at daily Mass a few weeks ago, the face of the New Orleans street preacher, incongruous hat and all, surfaced before my eyes. And I felt that same faint unease return.

Would I have dismissed Amos as a well meaning, but slightly demented soul on a street corner? Should I have been paying attention on that street corner in New Orleans?

Prophets, even those confronting people and events long past, can be hard to listen to. Isaiah promises destruction to an Israel that has strayed from God’s ways: Rebels and sinners alike shall be crushed; those who desert the Lord shall be consumed.

I tried to banish the unease that Amos’ words evoked by taking refuge in their historicity, crossing not just to the other side of the street, but to the other side of the chasm of time. I am not in Israel in the 8th century before Christ, nor are the warriors of Assyria assembled against me. Even so, the historical distance doesn’t quite dispel my interior qualms.

What do you mean by crushing my people, and grinding down the poor when they look to you? — the Lord asks Israel through Isaiah. It is a question that is as apt for me, perhaps, as it was for ancient Israel.

Amos and Isaiah’s original audiences are long gone. Yet courtesy of the Scriptures, they, like my street corner prophet, remain at their task, their message proclaimed heedless of their listeners’ presence or discomfort.

Where are the prophets among us now? Surely we still have need of their reminders to face God. Next time I hear a prophet preaching repentance, whether his words are drifting down the street or down the centuries, I will turn to the Lord — and listen.

Almighty Father, let your light so penetrate our minds, that walking by your commandments we may always follow you, our leader and guide. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

There will be no visits to the emergency room

My mother prefaced many a family gathering or trip with the flat statement (drawn from her vast experience): "There will be no visits to the emergency room." Maybe it was the time that my middle brother, the Artiste, hit the oldest of my brothers, Geek Guru, with a croquet mallet (Geek Guru was not a 'good winner' which irritated his much younger sib) necessitating a stop for stitches on our way out to a family dinner that drove her to it. Or the Thanksgiving feast that ended with my sister, the Pretty One, in the ER with a broken arm...

No one said it before the family rafting trip last weekend (down the Middle Fork of the American River in California), but no one got hurt - though everyone got wet. Someone should have said it before dinner. Before dinner was over there would be 2 broken bones, and a laceration on the books.

Baby Barnacle Boy (the Reverend Brother's youngest) melted down and threw his head back. Alas, he hit his mother in the nose and broke it. Newspaper Niece tried to take the pit out of an avocado, missed and used the knife on her thumb instead. Oops. And I took my kids swimming across the rapidly running river and slipped on the rocks, fracturing my toe.

To complete the set, Barnacle Boy fell on his way to pan gold and tore up his knee - but that was a whole new day...

Friday, August 01, 2008

Oil and water

Water is perhaps more precious than oil where my dad lives. The water table is hundreds of feet down, rainfall non-existent in this season. Dry wells are no joke.

We arrived here last week, with a duffel full of dirty clothes from our sojourn in Maine (just like a college student - I come home to do laundry). We had barely made our way out back to find my dad when my sister-in-law (the Reverend Brother's wife) appears at the gate. She has bad news. There is no water in the big tank, and the pumps have shut off. (They share a well with my dad.) No flushing. Will they need to drill deeper?

As it turned out it was an interlock that had gone back at the level of their first well and by dinner time, there was enough water to do the dishes and flush. By bedtime, I had a load of laundry in.