Sunday, December 27, 2009

High Tech Examen

Last year at this time I was packing up to leave for the Spiritual Exercises. This year I'm lazing on the sofa recovering from a nasty bug. Unable to muster much energy to review the year at this point, I tossed all my posts for 2009 and for 2008 into a tagcloud app, wondering if an objective view from 10,000 feet might be revealing. Are the words I use any different post the Exercises? The topics I'm writing about?

Life, Christ and prayer loom larger; silence has diminished (was I less desperate for it when I was on sabbatical and luxuriating in long stretches of quiet?); morning has become night?; and I'm contemplative rather than waiting. And the exercises clearly have made a mark...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Unthinkable Rules

My first husband's sister, who at age 50 adopted three sisters from Kazahkstan, has a great sense of "what plays well." This year they sent us a strategy game for Christmas. The idea is that you place tiles to gain territory: fortified cities, fields, roads, monasteries. The boys scoped it out yesterday, and at the moment there is a 5-player cuthroat game being played out in the sun room.

With two newbies in the game, there has been much advice flying. Much advice. Some of it isn't even self-serving.

As I figured the rules out, I decided I wanted to think things through in relative peace. I picked a tile from the pile, and peeked and started to consider my options. An immediate hue and cry arose. "You have to show us the tile." "No, I don't!" "Yes, you do." "Right (imagine sarcasm dripping), there's a rule that says I have to show you the tile and then you can harass me about where to put it."

Barnacle Boy hands me the rule sheet. Under "Placing Land Tiles"? He [sic] looks at it, show it to his fellow players (so they can advise him on the "best" placement of the tile).

Save me now.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Column: Joy is the surest sign

I saw the video on the People for Others blog, and kept wondering how often we miss seeing and hearing the joy that is continually announcing itself. There are a host of reasons I miss it. I am embarrassed by it's wildness; worried about how I might look if I joined in; I am single-mindedly chewing on something else; I am desolate.

This Christmas is turning out to be one of quiet joys for me. The enforced stillness is letting me listen a little more closely for the sounds of joy - near and far. May the coming days bring joy to you!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 24 December 2009.

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. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host.
— Lk. 2:10-13a

Luke reports that the shepherds with their flocks outside of Bethlehem were terrified by their angelic visitor that first Christmas night. I’m left wondering what everyone else within range thought. I can’t imagine that the heavenly host singing glorious praises to God that night were particularly quiet. Sound carries a long way in the country at night, and someone besides the shepherds must have been awake — a mother with a hungry baby of her own, perhaps. What did they think was going on?

It’s certainly possible that this was just another of the miracles of that night, that only the shepherds could hear the triumphant chorus, but I’m not so sure.

A few weeks ago, I saw a video of an improvisational theater group staging a performance in the produce aisle of a Brooklyn grocery store. It was the middle of the afternoon and, unlike Bethlehem in the depths of the night, it was crowded when a young man suddenly began serenading a pineapple. The rest of the troupe steps out from the shoppers, and they sing and dance their way through the fruits and vegetables. It’s certainly not a throng, and more Broadway than angelic in tone, but it’s definitely a visitation. And not everyone is quite sure what to make of it.

I found myself watching not the performers, but their accidental audience. The young boy who looks like he might indeed be seeing angels. The middle aged guy in a grey sweatshirt who doesn’t quite know what to make of this, he watches, but never smiles, and in the end fills his bag with apples and goes. The woman who is swaying to the music and smiling ear to ear, trying to hold onto the experience by filming it with her cell phone. The older man who pushes his cart right between the performers, never looking to one side or the other. And I wonder if I am seeing the reactions of the inhabitants of Bethlehem on that night so long ago.

All that overflowing joy, in such an odd spot, how could you walk through the midst and never seem to see it? How could you be awake in Bethlehem and not hear strains of “Glory to God in the highest?” I wonder how often I am uncomfortable when I run into joy in unexpected places; how often I try not to look or listen and just hurry on, lest I be drawn into something I can’t control. Thinking about the angels in Bethlehem’s sky and the man plowing ahead with his shopping, I have an inkling about what I might be missing.

The 19th century French Catholic novelist Léon Bloy called joy “the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” If I pass on those odd encounters with joy, perhaps what I’m turning away from is the chance to catch a glimpse of God in our midst. It might be safe to contemplate God made flesh in a manger 2,000 years in the past, but daring an encounter with God here and now? Such an encounter is unlikely to leave me undisturbed, able to carry on with my grocery shopping — or my life — quite as planned.

This Christmas I resolve to listen more closely for joyful choruses breaking out in offbeat places. I’ll try not to scurry past, eyes averted, but instead to stop and stand in awe and wonder — ready for joy, ready to greet the God that is present among us.

Lord our God, with the birth of your Son, your glory breaks on the world. Through the night hours of the darkened earth, we your people watch for the coming of your promised Son. As we wait, give us a foretaste of the joy that you will grant us when the fullness of his glory has filled the earth, who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening Prayer for Mass at Midnight, Christmas

Monday, December 21, 2009

Where your strength lies

By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies. Is 30:15

Somehow this line from Isaiah ended up printed out and stuck in the interstices of my wall-mounted cache of folders early this fall. I can't recall why I printed it out then, but now I'm finding it a single, sharp point of contemplation for these last days of Advent. I'm still fighting off pneumonia, still wired on the various medications that ease my breathing, still unable to sing. So I wait, calmly (not calmly is not good for breathing, perforce), quietly (no voice - ack), and trusting that it will be fine. And it will.

This is a different kind of Advent stillness, not a full stop, not even a slowed pace. Not entered into as an elected discipline, it instead feels like a quietly directed contemplation of the vast landscape between uncertainty and trust. I feel like Mary, enormous with child, contemplating the roads ahead: the ones visible, the ones unseen, the ones unimaginable. If I were to do the Exercises again, I suspect I would see the road in that second contemplation of the Second Week -- the one that asks you to "to see with the sight of the imagination the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem; considering the length and the breadth, and whether such road is level or through valleys or over hills" -- with different eyes.

While I'm musing about hidden strengths here, my eldest is thinking here about his hidden strengths (which I would argue are very much what the world might need - if not so valued by the high school social scene).

Friday, December 18, 2009

What Season is this?

Pearls Before Swine

H/T to the Ironic Catholic.

I'm still, alas, voiceless and wheezy, and taking anti-inflammatory meds just a tad stronger than Advil tucked into boxes rather like an Advent calendar, so this is too funny!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Column: Walled Round with Prayer

This is the last column in a set of four written for the Advent series on the Liturgy of the Hours that the Catholic Standard & Times is running. I had planned to close with a reflection on Night Prayer, but had planned to avoid using this psalm, not wanting to trigger an endless loop of "On Eagle's Wings" in my readers (or my) heads. But a post by Brian Campbell SJ on Loyola Press' People for Others blog about the song and the psalm prompted me to look up Robert Alter's recent translation to see what it had to say about eagles. Nothing as it turns out, but it did have something to say about pinions - those flight feathers on the very edge. I had a vision of hiding under the feathers, but still being able to see out. Then I remembered this overnight by horseback into the hills by my father's. This was a definite wilderness experience, where wilderness is defined as somewhere where you are not the top of the food chain...and I wrapped this psalm tightly around us as we lay on the ground.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 17 December 2009.

With His pinion He shelters you, and beneath His wings you take refuge, a shield and a buckler, His truth. You shall not fear from the terror of night. Psalm 91:4-5a

We waited until it was almost dark to leave, for the first tendrils of the cool night air to flow down the ravines. Swinging the kids up into their saddles, we rode up the canyon in the growing dusk of a summer's evening. The coyotes were already stirring, their howls providing an edgy counterpoint to the rhythmic clip-clop of our horse's hooves on the hard ground.

Finding a flat spot far down the canyon, we stopped for the night. After dinner cooked over a fire, we rolled ourselves in the blankets we'd brought alone, and settled to sleep on the ground. I lay on the hard ground, contemplating the sweep of stars brushed across the velvet expanse of the night sky, the dark mounds of the foothills spread in every direction beneath us. There was no one within miles of us. No road. No cell phone service. Nothing but what God had made.

I felt incredibly small.

I woke in the depths of the night to the sound of the horses stomping restlessly, and the rustling of coyotes moving in the brush nearby. I was suddenly aware how vulnerable we were on the ground, without even the semblance of safety a tent might provide. Memories of lambs gone missing in the night from my father's flock danced in my head. I pulled the boys in between Victor and myself, shielding them under my wings. And I prayed - psalm 91, "you shall not fear from the terror of the night."

This is the iconic psalm of Night Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. It properly belongs to Sunday night, but the instructions offer it as an option for any night. Some communities pray the whole of that Hour, from memory, in the dark.

People have been praying Psalm 91 in the face of the night for millennia. Scripture scholar Yair Hoffman suggests that the ancient Israelites used Psalm 91 as an "amulet psalm," a ritual way of reminding themselves of God's sure protection. And long before Saint Christopher was invoked by travelers for their safety, early Christians wore the first lines of this psalm on medals around their necks.

The tradition of completing the day with prayer, Compline or Night Prayer, goes back to the very earliest days of the Church and continues unbroken to this day. St. John Chrysostom enjoined Christians to pray each night, asking them "With what hope will you come to the season of night; with what dreams do you expect to converse, if you have not walled yourself round with prayers, but goes to sleep unprotected?" A few years ago there was an exhibition of medieval books of Hours at the college where I teach. These books, some gloriously illuminated with gold, and painstakingly lettered by hand are now considered works of art, but they were first books of prayer. As I wandered the exhibit one afternoon, I was awed to find one copy of the Hours where its owner had used it to pray Compline so often the ink had been worn off on the corners of those pages. We, none of us, it seems wish to sleep unprotected.

That night in the California hills sharpened my understanding of Psalm 91 in ways that no commentary ever could. I know with what hopes I come to the unknown, and what dreams I desire. I grasp more deeply that even the physical walls that surround me at night are an illusion of protection, I look instead for shelter within God's Word - the rampart that Night Prayer erects for us each night.

More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God's hands. -- A reflection by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ after he suffered a severe stroke.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Touch of Sound

These 'monks' are too funny! But there is a bit of irony here, too. I'm on vocal rest - not speaking. It's interesting how much you can get done in the public sphere without speaking. The pharmacist quickly figured out what was up, and put my stuff aside so when I came back I didn't have to ask for it; the checker at the grocery store was miffed that I wouldn't give her my card number aloud -- but for the most part, you can do what you need to and say nothing in response (just smile and nod or not) and no one seems to notice.

I'm still going to morning prayer, since I feel fine. The pastor noted yesterday that they were "giving me voice" (another colleague teased that perhaps we should have a "silent Office in deference to" me...hello, if I wanted a silent office I could stay home and pray it with Fluffy!). Sound is tactile, air physically hits your ear. So to hear the words prayed, even if I can't pray them aloud, lets me engage a bit differently. To listen, is to let yourself be touched. Maybe that's what happens when our words are stripped away...

Monday, December 14, 2009

Foundational Lessons

About this time last year I was starting to get things organized to leave to make the Spiritual Exercises. During the Long Retreat by 3:30 am, I would usually be just finishing my last contemplation of the "day." Tonight I'm up at 3:30 am contemplating - drawing once again from the Exercises, this time the Foundation and Principle and indifference.
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.
I spent a chunk of today in the ER, working hard - and not terribly effectively -- to move air in and out of my lungs. These lines kept bouncing through my head "we should not fix our desires on health or sickness." Could I really say that in all honesty about this experience? I desire to breathe deeply, I want my voice back. When all the drugs kicked in, the sense of relief and gratitude was exquisite. But I certainly was not indifferent, I know which end of this experience I desired.

A week or so ago, Paul Campell, SJ posted a wisdom story on the People for Others blog. A young man seeks wisdom from a hermit, who pushes him face down into the river. When he comes up gasping, the hermit asks what he wanted most at that moment. "Air!" (I can relate.) “Very well,” said the master. “Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air."

I'm still not indifferent, but maybe I have an inkling of what it means to want God like air.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Column: Open wide the doors

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 10 December 2009.

“For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” — Isaiah 9:5

I admit it, from Black Friday to Dec. 22 I’m a Christmas curmudgeon. There is no “Holly-Jolly Christmas” jingling away on my car radio; no herald angels can yet be heard crying “Hark!” on the speakers in my kitchen. It may just be me, but I find it hard to cultivate a sense of expectancy when “Away in a Manger” is playing in the background. I’m distracted by hearing cattle lowing as the Baby I’m still waiting for is lauded for his contented sleep.

So, when Advent is on the horizon, I channel my inner geek and create a playlist for my iPod. It’s my own Advent soundtrack that I can tote from kitchen to car to office: Arvo Part’s “Magnificat,” “People Look East,” Bach’s Advent cantatas — and three versions of that iconic Advent piece “O, Come, O Come Emmanuel” help me turn down the volume on the raucous secular celebration and tune in to the softer sounds of my favorite liturgical season.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has been Advent’s theme song since at least the 12th century, its seven verses drawn from the magnificent “O antiphons” that traditionally precede the chanting of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer on the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve.

The antiphons in the Liturgy of the Hours are like keys to the psalms and canticles; each one opens a door into a slightly different place in its corresponding text. As the antiphons change with the day or season, we are encouraged to take up residence in another of the many rooms that each of these sacred songs has to offer. The traditional antiphons of these last few evenings of Advent feel like coming home to me, walking into a house filled with memories of years past, greeted with traditional sights and sounds.

But the “O antiphons” are far more to me than a familiar litany of titles for the Messiah. As these antiphons slowly unfold in the last days before Christmas, I find in them both invitation and challenge.

I hear an invitation to seek Christ here and now — and reminders of where to look. In the glories of a winter’s dawn seen on my way to drop the boys at school, in the people tucked into the shadowy places around the city who I walk past, He is there to be seen: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

The antiphons of these last Advent evenings are a counterpoint to the stillness that characterizes the season. They bring with them a note of challenge, a ring of strength. If, as St. Augustine says, we must “become what we receive” then these are not descriptions of a Savior distant from us in time and space, but of one who dwells within us now and forever. We are baptized priest, prophet and king — I hear in these antiphons once again what that baptismal call might entail. Can I speak of mercy and of wisdom? Could I free those held bound? Perhaps. With God’s grace.

These Advent antiphons let us contemplate the God we seek, the Messiah we yearn for, the Word made flesh we long to become. Here we can name Him: Wisdom, Key of David, Root of Jesse, Lord of Light. God among us.

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.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Advent sketches

Kathryn is watching her way through Advent, noticing the signs of the times and signs of the Kingdom, and though I will nowise claim to be as watchful or as organized - herewith are a few "noticings" from the stillness of last week's flight into silence (to call it a retreat at this time of year sound far too restrained).

Sitting outside in the eastern cloister watching the moon rise - and the clouds swirl around it. It seemed to fill the sky - and herald the yet more radiant dawn to come.

Hearing the radiators clanking in the chapel, I imagined the skeleton of the building coming to life and dancing within the walls.

In the morning, with my cup of tea in the cloister again (when it's 31 degrees out, you can be fairly sure you will not be interrupted at prayer there), listening to the birds in the garden behind me and realizing it was quiet enough that I could hear their wings flap. Just at that moment, a hawk came stooping down from the roof three floors above me. I could hear her wings creak as she beat hard to avoid the ground, then the strong whoofs as she wheeled 'round.

Speaking to no one. Seeing no one. Hearing only God.

Breaking my fast before I went home with a chocolate chip cookie from Patient Spiritual Director's stash.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Column: We ask some share in the fellowship

The picture is Ruben's St. Cecilia...the saints in the list? my choice!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 3 December 2009.

For ourselves, too, we ask some share in the fellowship of your apostles and martyrs, with John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Ignatius, Augustine, Monica, Felicity, Perpetua and all the saints. — From the Roman Canon

“Whoa, what is this?” wonders one of the teen-aged invaders in my study. Invited into my sanctum sanctorum to hunt through my yarn collection for a Christmas project, they were enjoying checking out what other treasures I kept hidden from them up here. Family photos are strung across one wall, outlines of essays are scratched on the blackboard and, sharing a shelf with the Mathematical Tables for the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, is the 100-year-old, worn leather bound volume that had caught Lindsay’s eye: Breviarum Romanum. The Latin version of the Divine Office — the Liturgy of the Hours.

I opened it to the page for the day: 22 Nov. — Sanctae Caecilae was written in red across the top. For the feast of St. Cecilia I explained to my (non-Catholic) visitor, “There are prayers for every day of the year, for different hours of the day, for the saints and for their feasts.” Her first impression? “That’s intense.” I certainly find it intense, but not quite in the same way.

The modern version of the Hours offers us “some share in the fellowship of [the] apostles and martyrs” as we ask in Eucharistic Prayer I. The Office of Readings, which opens with a triad of psalms, sets out a feast of readings drawn both from Sacred Scripture and from the depths of the Church’s archives. Letters from saints, accounts of their lives, homilies by priests and popes, excerpts from the documents of Church councils, a rich chorus of voices from the first century through to the last can be heard.

The saints have ceased in my mind to be stone statues tucked into alcoves or images — albeit colorful ones — caught in the glass of church windows. Instead, Thomas More springs off the page as he writes to his daughter from prison of his struggles to keep on the path God has set him upon, “I will not mistrust him, Meg…”

I feel a sudden kinship with St. Jerome when I hear him bring a bit of physics into his reflections on the interpretation of Scripture, “it was not the air vibrating with the human voice that reached their ears, but rather it was God…” Like the family stories that breathe life into the ragged black and white photos of relatives you never met, the Liturgy of the Hours keeps these saints alive.

On days when I can’t find a second to spare in my day for the Office of Readings, the structure of the Hours still let me peek through a window into the lives of the saints. Ernest Hemingway once wrote, perhaps in jest, that his best story was written in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

The prayers proper to each saint, that close morning and evening prayer, have a brevity of narrative that Hemingway would appreciate. “God our Father, you called St. Bruno to serve you in a life of solitude…” begins the prayer for the founder of the reclusive Carthusian order. St. Jane Frances de Chantal, I learn, is “renowned for her outstanding merits in two different walks of life” — she was both wife and nun. Like Hemingway’s tantalizing piece of prose, these prayers give me something small enough to hold onto during a busy day, but intriguing enough to feed my contemplations.

When my family gathers, we tell our stories — the long one of my parents’ courtship, the ones that with a mere six words can make us laugh until we cry: “Remember John and the turkey leg?” And when I gather with the Church family, I cherish those stories even more — most of all the one-liners.

God, the rock of our salvation, whose gifts can never fail, deepen the faith you have already bestowed and let its power be seen in your servants. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Jesuits and Klingons

Ok, there is nothing directly about Klingons in this post except they are (fictional) aliens, but a real Jesuit, Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno, SJ, was on the Colbert Report last night (about 10 minutes into the episode) talking about why the Vatican isn't worried that there might be aliens out there. He did a great job (after listening to myself "um" my way through this talk on contemplative science I'm really impressed with anyone who can talk lucidly on camera or radio), and they showed off his glorious new book, The Heavens Proclaim. I'd be partial to the book anyway, given that it's written by a friend and its title comes from the psalms (my favorite book of all time) but the photos are beautiful. A great book for geeks - even if you're not Catholic.

Psalm 19:2 "The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder's craft.

Photo is of star forming region in the nebula NCG 604, in the nearby sprial galaxy M33 (from Mt. Palomar observatory).

Monday, November 30, 2009

Polycopies and book stops

I'm in the midst of writing a series of four columns reflecting on the Liturgy of the Hours - the third is on my desktop right now. This one is about the O Antiphons, the melodic lines that thread through the last days of Advent: O Wisdom, O Lord of Light, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Rising Sun, O King of the Nations, O Emmanuel. Like the season itself, their origins are wrapped in darkness.

I was re-reading some of the commentaries on the "newly revised" Office tonight (only wincing occasionally at commentators who -- despite the instructions laid out in the Liturgy of the Hours -- spare not a moment's thought for lay people who might pray the Office either in community or individually. Finally, near the end, one gentleman recommend using "polycopies" to enable lay people to join with a religious community in prayer! I loved his coined word for photocopies (or perhaps he meant mimeographs in those days) - it evoked images of a work room of monastic copyists.

At the last I was digging around trying to find the source of the legend that the first letters of the Latin titles were arranged so that - in reverse no less - they form an acrostic: ero cras. ( I will come.) This feels like a stretch to me! I like better the theory that they are ordered to recall the history of salvation - but doubt there is any better support for that. Barnacle Boy burst into my study to ask if I had any book stops" Crash could use. "Book stops?" I inquired (thinking he meant book marks). "Yes, the things that keep books from falling over on the shelf." Book ends!

I checked the OED (the full version online) to find that it recognizes neither polycopy nor book stops. (But I did learn that book ends are more properly called "book props." ) Ever ancient, ever new.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Column: Creating Thin Space

There is much to delight in my usual spot for morning prayer with the Augustinian community: the mix of voices, the shape of the chapel, the lingering scents of incense during Advent. But even when I'm not there, I am in sacred space. During the Long Retreat, I prayed Morning Prayer sitting in my seat by the window overlooking the Atlantic at the same time my regular community gathered - 8:30 am.

This is the first of four columns written for the Standard's Advent series on the Liturgy of the Hours: We Wait in Prayer.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 26 November 2009.]

It is you whom I invoke, O Lord. In the morning you hear me; in the morning I offer you my prayer, watching and waiting.

— Ps. 5:3

It was a scene right out of some 1950s movie: four women from two countries in their pajamas sitting cross-legged on the floor of a dorm, having one of those midnight philosophical conversations you’re supposed to have in college. Except these women were not students, but professors — of chemistry, English, and of course, philosophy.

I had given a talk that morning at a retreat for faculty on contemplative practices. I told the 80-odd professors that I had prepared for that first talk of the day by taking my breviary and cup of tea to an overgrown garden behind the dorm. I prayed morning prayer.

In my talk, I had quoted one of the two psalms set out for that hour: Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced. “What is the rest of it?” wondered the English professor in that late night conversation. So I fetched my breviary, opened it and invited three contemplatives from very different traditions to explore the treasures of my tradition, to enter my monastery without walls, the holy space I had lived in for more than 25 years.

I discovered the Liturgy of the Hours when my first husband entered the Church. A friend had suggested he read convert and monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it, Merton writes of his discovery of the Hours, which eventually led him to enter the Trappists, to let his life be enveloped entirely in the cycle of psalms that anchors the Office. The Trappists were certainly not my calling, but I was drawn to this practice that could, in this small way, consecrate my days, and bind me more firmly to the Church. I found a breviary and began.

Like Merton, the breviary was tough for me to navigate at first, and in the bustle of a move 3,000 miles to the East, I set it aside. A few months later, settled in our new parish, Tom and I signed up for an hour a week of Perpetual Adoration. I brought the breviary along and in the quiet night hours, sitting with Christ before me, unworried about doing it exactly right, I slowly unraveled its mysteries.

My patience this time was richly rewarded. It was like opening a door into another place, or as the psalmist sings later in Psalm 5: “I through the greatness of your love have access to your house.” The psalms slowly traced their pattern onto my days, gracing the dawn with joyful praise, offering a breath midday. Soon, Morning Prayer was as indispensable a part of my day as my first cup of tea. One woke me physically, the other woke me to the presence of God.

I discovered that I did not need sacred space to pray the Hours; this round of prayer creates sacred space. The Celtic tradition speaks of “thin places,” places where God seems particularly near. The Liturgy of the Hours is a bit like fine sandpaper in this respect. It gently rubs away at what separates us from God, making even the most mundane of spaces thin — and so, sacred.

Each time the new liturgical year begins, I open my breviary to see Pope Paul VI’s warm invitation to join in this eternal cycle of prayer, to make whatever place and time I find myself in sacred. As we begin this year, I invite you join me in applying some prayerful sandpaper and making a thin place for yourself — and God.

Father, creator of unfailing light, give that same light to those who call to you. May our lips praise You; our lives proclaim Your goodness; our work give You honor, and our voice celebrate You for ever. Amen. — Prayer after the psalm, Morning Prayer, Sunday of Week I.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sex and Science

I am in the midst of writing an essay for Nature Chemistry - about why people are so curious about stereotypes of scientists, but seem less so about other fields. There is the DAST (draw a scientist test), but not as far as I can discover similar instruments to assess the images of other professions. Where are the DATTs (draw a teacher test) and DACTs (draw a chef test)? On the other end of the cultural spectrum there is the Big Bang Theory.

The earliest anthropological study I can find dates to the late 1950s and is by Margaret Mead (yes, that Margaret Mead) and Rhoda Metraux under the auspices of the AAAS. They analyzed thousands of essays, drawn from a set of 35,000 written by US high school students. The 1 page essays were written in response to one of three prompts. Prompt I read "When I think about a scientist, I think of..."

What took my breath away was Prompt II (italics are not mine, but as quoted in Mead's paper):
If you are a boy, complete the following statement in your own words.
If I were going to be a scientist, I should like to be the kind of scientist who...

If you are a girl, you may complete either the sentence above or this one:
If I were going to marry a scientist, I should like to marry the kind of scientist who..."
Math Man points out that I did both.

Images are from K.D. Finson, J.B. Beaver, B.L. Cramond, "Development and Field Test of a Checklist for the Draw-A-Scientist Test" School Science and Mathematics 95, p. 195 (1995).

Friday, November 20, 2009

Column: Rough Prayer

I liked Rahner's idea that even when prayer feels awkward, it has a strength to it. And suspect many (me included) need to listen to Evagrius Ponticus' advice - it applies to my teaching as much to my prayer life. Don't slew around the course, pick a style and dig into that.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 19 November 2008.

Now once he was in a certain place praying, and when he had finished one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” — Lk. 11:1

My youngest son Chris has a T-shirt that reads: “Warning: The person wearing this shirt is a roller coaster fanatic. May be prone to random screaming. Contents of head are under extreme pressure.”

For the record, I am not a roller coaster fanatic. One ride is fun. Thirteen in an afternoon might be a bit over the top. Lately my prayer life has felt a lot like the part of the roller coaster rides I enjoy least — the start.

You wait in line, trying not to be discouraged by the sign posts: “Wait time from this point two hours.” At long last you get on board, only to find yourself jerkily dragged upward, the cars clanking and banging, the whole structure seems to groan. You wonder if the ride will be worth the wait and this interminable noisy crawl to the top. And then you look down … where has the ground gone?

As the pace and pressure of the fall semester threaten to make my head explode, I struggle to find stable ground under a prayer life that seems to creak and clank and heave itself up, rather than glide tranquilly along. I find myself returning again and again to this line in Luke: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

In his treatise “On Prayer,” Church father Origen asks if we really think that a follower of Jesus would not know how to pray, at the very least be well versed in the Jewish prayers. What was this disciple seeking? What did the disciple see and hear in Christ’s prayer that begged the question — “How do I pray, O Lord?” Origen wonders if it was an awareness of “human weakness falling short of prayer in the right way.”

I, too, long to know how to pray aright — even when it feels awkward and a bit clumsy, when I cannot find the right words, or place, or time, or rhythm. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner suggests this rough sort of prayer, that is “well-intended … a little monotonous and naive,” has its own strengths. It is, he says, a prayer that doesn’t look to the experience of the one praying, but to the glory of God. No matter that I cannot muster exalted thoughts, the contrast makes God’s light shine all the brighter.

Still, I am tempted to try to change things up, to see if I can find something new and different that will smooth out the roughness in this patch of my prayer, pull me over the top so I can race delightedly down the track. Digging through a collection of counsels from the desert fathers, looking for a reference for a unrelated project, I happened on some apt advice from Evagrius Ponticus, the fourth century monastic whose writings ground much of St. John Cassian’s advice to his monks.

Evagrius had much to say about prayer — in one treatise devoting a full 153 chapters to it. It was in the 101st that I found what I was looking for. Start where you are, stretch yourself gently, do not attempt to race far ahead of what you can do. And as for my temptation to novelty, forget it. “Do not be perplexed by the many paths walked by our fathers of old, each different from the others. Do not … try to imitate them all — this would only upset your way of life.” Choose a path for prayer and stick to it, success lies in intention and persistence, not in great spiritual insights.

Both Rahner and Evagrius, though separated by nearly two millennia, reach past the practice of prayer, to lay bare the experience of praying. I do not need much, I need nothing I do not already have. In response to the disciple’s desire to grow as close to the Father as Jesus seemed to be, Jesus offered not 153 chapters, but scarcely 50 words. I’ll stick to the track laid out. My prayer is in God’s hands, not my own.

Father, may Your name be held holy,
Your kingdom come;
give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us.
And do not put us to the test. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mothers have needs, too

Crash is home sick. Flu? Who knows! He was in the kitchen getting himself a cold drink, so I asked him to refill the ice tray and an extra while he was at it. For my pains, I got a laconic, "You are very needy, Mom." You bet.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Column: Small Gifts

My mother also gave me half of her set of heart shaped pans, which I wrote about here.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 12 November 2009.

I tell you solemnly, this poor widow has put in more than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they had over, but she from the little she had has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.— Mk. 12:43b-44

I pulled the shiny aluminum cupcake tin from the lower shelf. Nearly an anachronism in these super-sized days, it makes only six at a time, and I can no longer find paper liners to fit its modest wells — but I use it every time I make chocolate cupcakes. Even if the cupcakes it makes will be odd-sized.

Thirty years ago, when I left home to go to graduate school, my mother gave me one of her two cupcake tins. Not an extra one, her best one, the one she’d gotten when she was married. There was no reason she couldn’t have bought me a new one, or given me the larger one that was prone to rust. She gave, not of her excess, but of her treasure.

My mother’s gift certainly did not utterly impoverish her, as the widow’s did, but it did leave her wanting in small ways. With three teenaged sons still living at home, “extra cooking pans”’ was as much an oxymoron as “leftover food.” Like the widow, the signifi-cance of the gift was not in its worth to the world, but in its worth to her. But as with the widow’s gift of her last two pieces of silver, which gained her treasure in heaven, my mother’s relinquishing of this prized piece of her culinary armamentarium was not meant to meet the needs of that one moment but would be a continuing treasure in my life.

Her gift teaches me again and again that efficiency is not the prime directive, either in gift giving or in feeding your family. Yes, it takes twice as long to bake a batch of cup-cakes when you have a half-sized pan, but it gives you time to tell the story again to your children and nieces and nephews — and yourself. And each time I put an extra fold into the not-quite-right cupcake papers, I am reminded that there is much to be said for those gifts that do not fit so perfectly into our lives that we forget we were ever given them in the first place.

These gifts turn me gently toward contemplating Christ’s ultimate gift. When we come to receive Him in the Eucharist, the goal is not efficient distribution — we could do the whole thing in 10 minutes if it were — but about taking the time to hear again the stories that brought us the gift. And on occasion, when things don’t go quite the way I wanted, but they still go, I manage to notice the gift of my own redemption.

For 30 years I’ve thought of this pan as my mother’s and not as mine. Like the life I’ve been given by Christ, I cannot think of it as my own — it remains firmly rooted in the Giver. When the moment comes, I hope that I, like my mother and Christ, can graciously hand over what is mine, be it a pan — or my life.

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

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sixty ways to say "no" to:

My plate is threatening to overflow again. When I announced at the dinner table the other night that I was going to pitch activities which were solely a source of stress and where my only contribution seemed to be my existence, Crash had some ways to say "no" - pulled from the posters on the walls of his health classroom. So when next I'm asked to....serve on a committee...write a proposal for....evaluate a new....I could say:

"I'd rather just be friends."
"Let's just go see a movie instead!"

My favorites are the non-sequitur: "No thanks, I have asthma." and the cheeky "I'm not that kind of girl." suggested by my brother, The Wookie. Hopefully no one can read my thought bubbles!

If it works for sex, drug and cigarettes -- will it work for my to do list?? I'll keep you posted!

There is a list here.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Column: Make Haste to Help Me

I'm still contemplating St. John Cassian's reflection on these two lines of Psalm 70, which he says contain: "an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of an devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a conciousness of one's own frailty, the assurance of being heard and confidence in a protection that is always present." (You can read the rest of the conference here, though it's not quite as elegant a translation; scroll down to Chapter X.) And Math Man did chuckle when he got to the end...

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 5 November 2009.

O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me. — Ps. 70:2

“The tuna is on sale, so I thought I’d get two.” I was in line at the grocery store in Boston, waiting while the elderly woman in front of me dug for change in the bottom of her purse. The lilt in her voice said she was an immigrant. She looked up at the cashier; the distress showed on her face, “I know I had 20 more cents when I left this morning.”

The line was growing, and growing restive. I could hear the shifting of feet and the not quite stifled sighs as her bent and gnarled fingers felt for the required coins one more time.

“Could I get this for you?” I offered. I wanted to be sure she didn’t go hungry, if that’s what this can of tuna fish meant, but most of all I wanted to spare her the unkind comments that were gathering behind me and threatening to spill over my shoulder. So I paid for the tuna fish, gathered my own things and left, happy I was able to help.

A few weeks later I was out for my walk. Near the end of my two-mile loop I discovered a few dollars wadded up in my pocket. I decided to take a short detour past the convenience store and bring the boys home a treat. Thirsty, I grabbed a cold soda for me. When the young clerk totaled it all up, I was short — 25 cents. I asked him to return the soda, but instead he took a quarter from his pocket and told me not to worry. I felt awkward, accepting help I felt I did not need, but thanked him for his kindness and headed home.

In “Why I Make Sam Go to Church” Anne Lamott describes a similar reaction when the elderly women of her parish — themselves on tight budgets — pressed bags of hoarded change on her when they heard she was expecting a baby, “I was usually filled with a sense of something like shame until I’d remember that wonderful line of Blake’s — that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love.” It’s not easy to endure such a beam, I would agree.

Psalm 70 is a short but powerful prayer. It begins with the plea, “God come to my assistance.” Early monastic John Cassian reminded his monks of the advice of the desert fathers, that if you are going to use anything from the whole of sacred Scripture to pray — this verse is the one to pick.

Cassian passionately expounds on what flows from this devotion: the assurance of being heard, hope in time of despair, an awareness of the traps set for us by the devil, an antidote to pride in any spiritual consolation. Most of all, Cassian says, it keeps us ever aware that without God, we are too frail to endure. The psalm itself ends not only with another appeal for aid, but with the psalmist’s recognition, “I am lowly and needy … You are my rescuer, my help.”

I need this simple practice of prayer as much as Cassian’s monks. It can be hard for me to admit I need help in anything from anyone (my husband will chuckle knowingly when he reads this), but the truth that my moment in the Wawa drove home was this: even when we don’t think we need help — we do. O Lord, make haste to help me.

Lord God, strength of those who hope in You, support us in our prayer: because we are weak and can do nothing without You, give us always the help of Your grace so that, in fulfilling your commandments, we may please You in all we desire and do. 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. — Opening prayer, 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

You know you're cranky when... open your sons' door to say good-night and one says, "Speak of the devil!" and the other pops out with "Look, I can summon demon creatures!"

Was it the lecture on why I have to finish what I started (before someone takes the sorted clothes and puts them willy-nilly into the basket again)? or the comment about the boxer shorts in the middle of the living room floor?

I'm going up this week to see my spiritual director. I made an appointment to see my confessor, too. I think I'm in need of a time out!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Cat and Mouse Games

I got home late last night from a poetry reading and dinner. No one was stirring, not even a mouse. I sat down to check my email and Fluffy roused just long enough to crawl into my lap. She put her chin onto the laptop and laid a paw on the trackpad. Suddenly my cursor went berserk. My cat was mousing.

When my hand was bothering me a couple of weeks back I set the trackpad up to require no clicking, just taps (thanks, Apple!) and drags. Now Fluffy can mouse, too.

Time to be sure that one-click is disabled on Amazon, before large bags of catnip start arriving on my doorstep!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Column: Cowardice or Utter Grace?

The photo is of the oldest part of the Jesuit cemetery at Wernersville, just after an ice storm a couple of years ago. Every time I go, I walk the cemetery, and pray for the men who are buried there. One is on the path to canonization - Walter Ciszek SJ - I'm certain there are many more saints there.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 28 October 2009.

In Your hand I commend my spirit; You redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth. — Ps. 31:6

“May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death. Amen.” Some might think it peculiar, that with these closing words of Night Prayer, the last thing I ask of God before I turn out the light each night is a peaceful death. It hardly seems conducive to pleasant dreams or a good night’s sleep.

To tell the truth, I am deeply comforted by that final petition, for I have seen death come shrieking in like a banshee, strewing grief and pain in every direction, leaving desolation in its wake. It is no small grace I seek.

My first husband’s death was not peaceful. It came after a frantic ambulance ride to the ER and a long night in surgery. Tom departed this life without warning, with no time to prepare.

At the twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls, I am particularly mindful to pray for Tom’s soul. But I am also prompted to meditate on my own death. What will it be like when I die, when the Weaver severs that last thread?

The practice of meditating on your own death has a long and respected history in Catholic tradition. In the fourth century, desert Father Evagrius advised monks to “Remember the day of your death…so as to be able to live always in the peace you have in view.”

Sir Thomas More argued passionately to his 17-year-old daughter Margaret that nothing was more efficacious in strengthening a person to live life well than contemplating these last things: death, judgment, pain and joy. Though it sounds macabre, meditating on your own death is not so much about preparing to die, but about preparing to live, now as ever after.

Theologian Karl Rahner’s description of death as a “fall into incomprehensibility” rings true for me. I find it difficult, almost impossible, to conceive of my death, yet in surrendering to that impossibility, I taste of death’s ultimate surrender. I fall into God’s hands, knowing that before Him I cannot stand, for now I see myself, not dimly as in St. Paul’s mirror, but as God sees me. Perhaps that is what make it such an arduous contemplation.

Before this mystery I cannot mask my flaws, though perhaps knowing them, I can yet mend them in life. In “Learning to Fall,” written after he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, singer and songwriter Eric Lowen pithily sums up what I desire in this exercise: “I know where I stand; learning to fall.”

As All Souls day approaches this year, I find that the final days of Jesuit priest Albert Delp shade my meditations. Sentenced to death in mid-January 1945, he expected to be immediately executed. Instead he was returned to prison, where he spent 22 days excruciatingly suspended between life and death. Almost incredibly, Delp remained hopeful through much of his ordeal, wondering, “Is it madness to hope — or conceit, or cowardice, or grace?”

Delp's final writings, smuggled out of prison on bits of torn newspaper, speak poignantly of how difficult he found living in this liminal time, literally on the threshold between life and death. I'm coming to realize that this is where we all live, though it may be a reality I readily choose to ignore. Recognizing that I stand in this doorway is a powerful confession of hope.

I meditate on my own end, learning how to fall so that I might choose to stand. Realizing ever more deeply that at this very moment I am no less in God's hands than I will be at the hour of my death. This is not madness, or conceit, or cowardice, but utter grace.

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel. — Nunc Dimittis, Gospel canticle for Night Prayer

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tea Hacking

I use Cuppa to time my tea. Last night I hacked it so that instead of the nice spoon clinking sound it makes when it's done I hear this instead.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Column: Counting Stitches

When I realized how many stitches I'd put in, and how many there were to go, I very nearly did despair. The yarn softens my hands as well -- the lanolin in the raw wool rubs off! I love finding the bits of the monastery right there in my yarn -- dried bits of grass still caught in the spun fibers.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 22 October 2009.

Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.
— Ps. 90:12

I was flipping through one of the dozen catalogs that arrived this week when I saw it — a gorgeous grey wool sweater with an intricately patterned yoke. It would only take a few clicks on the Internet, a credit card and it could be on my front step by week’s end. I have to admit it was tempting.

Actually, I’m already waiting on a sweater — but I don’t have a tracking number because I’m knitting it by hand. The rough spun wool came from a Benedictine monastery in New York, ordered not with a quick click or two, but by scheduling a phone call with Brother Bruno. I worked in earnest on the sweater last January amidst the silence of the Spiritual Exercises. Ten months and 22,000 carefully counted stitches later, I’m only half done.

“Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a wise heart.” I’m counting the days as well as the stitches until I can wear my sweater, but I wonder if I am any wiser for spending my time in this way. What lesson in wisdom are the psalmist and I seeking here?

The sweater’s slow progress certainly fosters patience and as St. Augustine counseled: “Patience is the companion of wisdom.” Even more, it is an invitation to delayed gratification. The waiting is a discipline, one that has much the same flavor for me as fasting. There is a certain freedom that grows from knowing that I can wait, even for what I need, not just merely want. Fasting teaches me to know the difference, so does knitting.

I am learning more than patience. Each stitch in the sweater grows from the previous one; the strength of the whole depends on the integrity of these individual twists of yarn. Perhaps when I learn to see my days from this same perspective, recognizing the spots where the strands I am weaving are weak and in need of repair, and how the ultimate worth of my life depends on the shape of each day, I will have a wiser heart.

Most of all, the sweater fosters persistence. There is nothing to distinguish one row from the next, but despite the lack of signposts, I need to keep working. It can be hard to persist when you see no progress toward an end, particularly when the landscape is dull and clear road signs are lacking. It’s hard to count the days when they are like this. Still, I watch a friend who lost her son a year ago persist in prayer, though she sees no sign that God is near, and the landscape is unbearably barren. Endless rounds of knitting or prayer may not be wise in the eyes of the world, but I suspect she and I both hope a time will come when we can see the shape of what has been wrought by our hearts and hands.

St. John Cassian, whose writings inspired St. Benedict to write his rule for monastic life, points out that we have many tools at our disposal as we grow in our spiritual lives — fasting, vigils, deprivation. No matter what we choose, their purpose is not to merely possess the tools, but “to produce the crafted objective for which these are the efficient means.” The more progress I make on this sweater, the more I realize it’s not about efficiently making a sweater, but about how the sweater efficiently re-makes me.

God of eternal wisdom, you alone impart the gift of right judgment. Grant us an understanding heart, that we may value wisely the treasure of your kingdom and gladly forgo all lesser gifts to possess that kingdom’s incomparable joy. We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.— Opening Prayer for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Seen and unseen

On Thursday afternoon, I'm giving a talk online. (The details are here.) It's a reprise of a talk I gave this summer on what a contemplative approach to teaching in the sciences might look like if it draws from the richness of the Western monastic tradition. How do poverty and obedience play out in the classroom? Can you do lectio divina with a graph of a wavefunction?

The experience itself is developing a monastic tone, too. I will have an audience, but we will not be able to see each other. The modern equivalent of the monastic grille?

A grille separates the nuns' chapel from the public area of the church at the Convent of St. Clare, Talpiot, Jerusalem. Photo by Rahel Jaskow.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Column: Crucifixion in the Kitchen

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 15 October 2009.

Then he said to him a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was upset that he asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” and said, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”
— Jn. 21:17a

I had planned on a walk. Instead, as I bent down to put away the groceries I made a dismaying discovery — something sticky was oozing out of the freezer. The freezer door had jammed open, and things were melting apace.

Five minutes later, freezer emptied, I was on my knees with a bucket of hot water and a rag. “I went to college for how many years? So I could do this?” I groaned as I scrubbed at the unappetizing amalgam of vanilla ice cream and melted chicken broth that had accumulated at the bottom of the freezer.

No sooner were the words out of my mouth than a vision of Christ on the cross flashed through my mind. The Word that was spoken and the universe came into being, not only humbled himself to dwell in our messy midst, but proceeded to clean up the shambles we had made of things with His own hands, with His own life.

I spent many hours on my knees, contemplating the crucifixion last January while on the Long Retreat. Now here I was, on my knees, once again contemplating the mystery of the all-powerful God, powerless on the cross. Contemplating humility.

In this passage from the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter to repeat himself three times. Christ’s demand of a triple affirmation is often read as a one-for-one counterbalancing of Peter’s three-fold denial of Christ in the Passion. I will admit that I have a hard time imagining God, who promises us a full measure, shaken down and flowing over, so carefully balancing the books with Peter.

Rather, I see Jesus asking Peter to slow down, not answer in haste from his head but to engage his heart. It is a powerful antidote to Peter’s rash, albeit rationally self-preserving, rejections.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius recommends repeatedly returning to the same meditation. The point is not to figure out the mystery in front of you — these are mysteries, after all — or to seek some new insight each time.

It is to slow things down, to return to the points you and God thought most important. To let go of the intellectual and respond interiorly, “wherein the fruit chiefly lies” as an old Jesuit manual for spiritual directors advises.

Ignatian repetition allows the mysteries of Christ’s life to be winnowed down to what is most essential for each of us and to ultimately trace themselves more deeply on our hearts. Ignatius reminds us, “It is not the abundance of knowledge that satisfies the soul, but feeling and savoring things interiorly.”

Kneeling in a puddle on my kitchen floor, surrounded by the contents of my freezer, physically I could not have been further from the spare elegant chapel that was the scene of my winter meditations. Interiorly? I could not have been closer. He humbled Himself, even to death on a cross.

I have made a free oblation of myself to your Divine Majesty, both of life and of death and I hope that you will give me grace and force to perform. This is all I desire. Amen. — St. Edmund Campion, S.J.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Psalm School

Psalms are on my mind as well as on my lips. In a comment here, Gannet Girl asked if I had any resouces I might recommend for those wanting to start or deepen a practice of praying the psalms -- or is it the doing that does? I'm not sure I can disentangle my practice of praying the psalms on a daily basis from the resources that support it, but here goes!

Praying the Psalms by Thomas Merton. You have to get past his use of "men of prayer" language, but this little book gives a tour of he psalms and Merton's basic advice about learning to appreciate the Pslams likely answers Gannet Girl's question: "acquire the habit of reciting them slowly and well"

The Book of Psalms - Robert Alter's new translation from the Hebrew. Merton says, don't turn to the commentaries, who needs them? You might need this one. The translations feel fresh, the footnotes aren't stuffy, but they are informative - but above all, the language is marvelous.

The Grail Psalter
has a marvelous essay on the psalms by Joseph Gelineau, SJ.

Any other thoughts? Please share....

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Column: No Monastery Needed

The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye. More desirable than gold, than a hoard of purest gold, Sweeter also than honey or drippings from the comb. — Ps. 19:9, 11

From my earliest days, silence and darkness went together. Growing up in a house with six kids and a dog, the only time everything was quiet was when we were asleep. After years in the classroom and a few more as the mother of sons, I still view midday silence as a rare and wonderful gift from God.

Last Saturday, such a gift of sacred stillness appeared as if from nowhere. First Mike, then Chris, rode off on their bikes to see friends and Victor left to grocery shop — with a stop for 18 holes of golf “since it’s on the way.” Even the cat was asleep.

I grabbed the chance to turn the collection of apples occupying the bottom shelf of my refrigerator into applesauce without losing half my work to grazing guys before it ever reached the stove.

I pulled up the kitchen stool and began to peel and chop. Thin strips of peel dappled green and red twirled onto the wooden table; translucent slices of apple gradually filled the bowl at my side. In the silent, sunlit space I had time to wonder at how uniquely beautiful each apple was — and how ephemeral. In a short while, the whole would be cooked down into a fragrant sauce.

Wringing honey from a comb to sweeten the apples, I realized I was singing a line from Psalm 19 under my breath, “sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.”

Centuries ago, St. Athanasius drew such a connection between psalm prayers and contemplation of the ways the tangible world is entwined into the sacred. He succinctly enjoined the faithful, “As you wonder at the order of creation, the grace of providence and the sacred prescriptions of the Law, sing Psalm 19.” At that moment, it seemed the obvious thing to do.

A few years ago two filmmakers spent a year living in a Carthusian monastery documenting the lives of its monks. “Into Great Silence” has no soundtrack, no voice over, just the ambient sounds of a silent monastic life — and the chanting of the psalms.

The scenes that struck me most deeply were not those of the monks processing into the church to sing the Office, but those of the monks doing ordinary tasks, much like those that occupy my day: a brother wearing an apron chopping celery in a sun-warmed kitchen, a monk chopping wood in the garden to heat his cell. I could almost hear the psalms in their heads as they worked.

Contemplative prayer tends to evoke images of monasteries hidden behind high stone walls and of monks chanting the psalms — not blue-jean clad, second-soprano mothers slicing apples in a suburban kitchen. But contemplation isn’t the sole province of the cloistered monk or nun. As St. Gregory the Great pointed out, “We ascend to the heights of contemplation by the steps of the active life.”

My contemplative afternoon may have been divine providence, but it reminded me to make more silent spaces in my life — to create a temporary monastic enclosure. I can turn off the radio, ignore my email and silence the phone, so that even while my hands are occupied, my heart might have room to contemplate the precepts of the Lord.

The only difference? Here the Great Silence ends not with a bell announcing lauds, but with Chris whooping, “fresh bread!” as he crashes through the front door.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.” —Ps. 19:15
. A traditional closing prayer for a time of silent meditation.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Hidden Truths

As of the end of September, I've submitted about a third of a first draft of the book to my editor and have another third that is written - though in need of much work. The chapter I am currently working on takes off from a favorite quote from George Bernard Shaw: "When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth." Of csuroe, tihs menas you frsit hvae to nitoce stimnhoeg is fnnuy – and taht may be the hredsat prat. This pirtlacuar tset shows how well our minds can overlook something odd.

Five years before Röntgen figured out that the radiation emitted from his Crookes tube could produce an image on a photographic plate, a photographer and a physicist produced the first X-ray image. Mystified by the odd disks that appeared on a plate developed in 1890, they nevertheless filed it away. When Röntgen's work was made public in 1896, the two pulled out their old plate and figured out they had taken X-rays of two coins.

We look, but how often do we really see? And seeing, do we know what to make of the information?

Do check out the link to the Crookes tube - the short clip of a Crookes flower tube, where copper blooms covered in what seems to be a white coating turns technicolor under the rays produced by the tube. It's the same principle as the glowing minerals in the YouTube video embedded above, but more aesthetically appealing. Imagine having one of these in your Victorian drawing room!

For his work, Röntgen won the first Nobel prize in physics in 1901. The Nobel prize in physics today went for work on detecting light as well - for the CCD.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Ignatian Spin

I sometimes feel as if I have chosen to practice "write and release" - writing without the desire or need to hear the rest of the conversations (if any) that what I had to say might have started. That said, I appreciate the tendrils of comments and questions that do wrap back all the more. Or at least most of the time. Of late, I've been getting distressing emails related to my column in the Archdiocesan paper -- with links to material I wished I had never known existed, urging me to take stances that I would never take. Though never easy to read, these are easy to ignore.

What I could not ignore was a concerned, but not off the wall, comment to the editor about my column the previous week. I responded with the reasons I thought that my choice of closing quote had not been inappropriate -- particularly in the context of a recent homily by the Pope. I closed my response with "I have nothing but the deepest respect for our Holy Father as a theologian and teacher, and feel that in quoting from this particular letter of Fr.Teilhard de Chardin that I have not strayed from his teaching."

My respondent took issue with this last, "P.S. While I did NOT say that you "strayed from his teaching,"[he didn't - he said I was careless] you have used an oddly restrained phrase with regard to the Vicar of Christ…" At which point, I became less charitable, "I do not, however, appreciate your post script …and sincerely hope that in doing so you are not calling my faithfulness to the magisterium into question."

The copy of St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises I used on the Long Retreat place this on its own page (No. 22): " …it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another's statement than to condemn it as false. If an orthodox construction cannot be put on a proposition, the one who made it should be asked how he understands it." I remember reading this and thinking it had no bearing on my retreat -- I could not imagine a situation in which my director and I might differ over some point of doctrine! Yawn.

Now I get Ignatius' point. The letter writer and I disagree about what it is prudent to write about in a Catholic paper - but I was not ready to put "a good interpretation" on his statement. Nor on his statement about my oddly restrained statement concerning the Pope. And so things quickly degenerate into snipping at each other…and this helps things how?

Far better to laugh - hence, the Mel Brooks! (Yes, it's imprudent...and probably impudent as well.)

Let me have too deep a sense of humor ever to be proud. Let me know my absurdity before I act absurdly. - From a Prayer for Humility by Daniel Lord, SF, in Prayers to Accompany the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises (in Hearts on Fire, Praying with the Jesuits).

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Reversing Direction

I had my last meeting with Urban Spiritual Director today. My regular director is back from his sabbatical and I've made an appointment to go up and see him in a couple of weeks. It was a bittersweet visit in some ways. I will miss the regular visits to parts of the city that I don't usually visit, the chance to light a candle (yes - this parish church has the real thing burning in the sanctuary, with candles spilling out of the rack onto the shelf next to the altar), the visits to the chocolate shop.

As I walked up the alley to the entrance of the church, I spotted the man who regularly interrogates me on my visits coming in the opposite direction. "Oh, good," I thought, "I get to see him one last time, too." We reached the church door at the same time, and I held it open for him, expecting the usual conversation to begin. His face was slack, his eyes held no sign of recognition. I said hello, but got no response. He came in behind me, wandered around the Church - then left without a word. I found myself ineffably saddened by this.

I left Urban Spiritual Director with a piece of glass from Stratoz.

Column: Augustine and teens

I don't know why it hadn't occurred to me earlier to look to Augustine - given his early life, I imagine he knew quite a bit about what teen-aged boys might be up to! Then again, I'm hoping my sons don't go down that road. The comment that the proper fruit is sincere love - even of an enemy - took on a bit more of an edge earlier this week when a theological disagreement landed in my inbox.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 1 October 2009.

Of course there will never cease to be poor in the land; I command you therefore: Always be openhanded with your brother, and with anyone in your country who is in need and poor. — Dt. 15:11

Why is that the really hard questions come when I am in the midst of making dinner? I can count on it not being algebra — I can factor a polynomial and chop the carrots at the same time — it’s the metaphysical questions that trip me up.

I was juggling steaming pots, fresh bread and pasta sauce when Chris wandered in and leaned against the counter. “I’ve watched it twice,” he sighed, “and I’m still sad,” he said. What on earth has he been watching, I wondered. My irrepressible son’s tastes generally run to comedy, not weepy dramas.

“I have a refrigerator and a bed to sleep in,” he began. He’d been watching a video that put a real face on poverty for him. Kids without beds. Kids who went to sleep hungry. And it made him sad.

I was at a loss for what to say to him, how to comfort him, or even whether I should comfort him. Platitudes rose and fell in my mind. I wanted him to know that it matters that he cares, even if, on the global scale, what he could do might seem not to matter. That such poverty is something that may not be fixed here and now, in this world.

I have to admit that St. Augustine is not the first place I turn when I’m looking for advice for raising teenaged boys, but perhaps I should consult him in this regard more often.

In his “Exhortation on the Psalms,” I found a lifeline. Augustine suggests how we might respond to what we hear in God’s word and see around us: “The proper fruit is good works, the proper fruit is sincere love, not only of a brother but even of an enemy. Spurn no suppliant: if you can give, give; if you cannot, show yourself affable. God crowns the interior act of will where it finds no means of outward action.”

So I told Chris that even when it seems that there is little he can do, he should do all that he is able, “if you can give, give” — but that it was most important that he not give up either his feelings of distress for others or his desire to help. He grunted — he’s 13 after all — and offered to set the table.

I was left wondering if I said enough, or even too much. Most of all I was astonished at the reach of my son’s heart, and the realization that he was setting an example for me. An example of a love that could not be confined to my kitchen.

Pope Benedict XVI began his recent encyclical, Caritas in veritate, by pointing out “Love — caritas — is an extraordinary force which leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.”

In Chris’ troubled heart I could see such forces at play. It was a powerful sermon, preached all unknowing over the sink by a teenaged boy to his mother.

In the end, dinner got on the table and Chris seemed content with my answer, but a part of me still wished his worries had been about algebra. Not for his comfort or mine, but because I, too, wish there were not children in the world to be worried about.

O God, what will you do to conquer the fearful hardness of our hearts?…
You must give us your own Heart, Jesus. Come, lovable Heart of Jesus. Place your Heart deep in the center of our hearts and enkindle in each heart a flame of love as strong, as great, as the sum of all the reasons that I have for loving you, my God. Amen. — St. Claude La Colombiere, S.J. (from Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Column: Leaps of Faith

I leapt into the waters, too. What struck me most was that there was time to think on the way down! My profound reflection? "Gee, it's a lot farther to the water than I thought."

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 24 September 2009.

So then, my brothers and dear friends, do not give way but remain faithful in the Lord.
— Philippians 4:1a

It was one of the oddest conversations I’ve had as a mother, and as any parent knows, strange conversations are standard parenting fare. Held on a rock ledge jutting out over Crater Lake late on a scorching hot July afternoon, I was trying to help my 13-year-old son, Chris, decide whether or not to jump into the incredibly blue — and deep —waters.

Part of him wanted to cling to the safety of the cliff, another part was willing to take that last step and join his brother frolicking in the cool depths.

“Don’t let anyone push you into going. I love you no matter what,” I assured him. It was a big step, physically and mentally, and he was clearly searching heart and soul to see if he was ready to make it. It would take courage either way — to pass up the chance for adventure and face the inevitable taunts of brother and cousins, or to take that leap of faith. In the end he decided to go, still nervous, but stepping deliberately off into space. Bemusedly, I turned to my husband and said, “Did I just talk my son into jumping off a cliff?”

This last Sunday at my friend Kathy’s celebration of her 50 years as a Sister of St. Joseph, I thought of my conversation on the cliffside and Chris’ great leap.

Maybe that conversation was less about facing a particular jump than practicing for all of the jumps Chris and Mike will face in their lives. What do you choose to hold on to? What will you throw yourself into space for, tumbling, unable to control your path? When? Now?

Fidelity requires the strength both to cling and to let go, to know when to take a huge step and when to wait.

In the lives of Kathy, and in her sisters in Christ, I see clearly that virtue of fidelity. Clearly rooted in God, she has surrendered to His work, which took her in directions she never imagined. She has cared for the poorest of the poor in the slums of the Philippines and taught quantum physics to doctoral students on the Main Line with equal joy and humility.

Between them, the women gathered in celebration had centuries of dyings and risings in Christ. I was, and am, in awe. Like Chris, they leapt into the unknown, having no idea where they might go or what they might become — clinging only to the knowledge that they are beloved of God.

My sons are on the cusp of their lives. I have no idea where they might go, what they might become, what cliffs they might face. I pray only that they might have such fidelity to the Gospel, such certainty in God’s love, that a half-century from now, they’ll know they were right to leap.

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming in you will be. Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.