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.