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...