Thursday, April 30, 2009

Column: Seriously, does God have a sense of humor?

Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” They stopped, looking downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” And he replied to them, “What sort of things?” Lk. 24:1b, 5-19a

When Michael was 7, he and Victor enjoyed browsing David Macaulay’s book Castles. Michael was so taken with the book that, much to my despair, he experimented with various medieval customs; eating with his knife and substituting the edge of the tablecloth for his napkin. Michael’s early medieval period passed quickly; recently however, he and his brother have renewed interest in at least one custom of the time — the disputatio.

There are days when I’d rather be taking on “Whether a multiplicity of angels can co-exist in the same place?” against St. Thomas Aquinas, than tackling the questions being disputed at my dinner table. “Does God have a sense of humor?” queries the younger. “He created you, didn’t he?” responds his older brother, mindful of the rules of the game, which require supporting evidence. “Mom…” Chris’ pleas drag me into the fray.

Prayers to St. Thomas arising, I pointed to this passage in Luke’s Gospel. Surely Jesus’ sense of humor was at play here? He let Cleopas and his companion go on at length about the happenings in Jerusalem before revealing the punch line — He is the person everyone has been talking about — and vanishing before their eyes.

The Word made flesh in Scripture isn’t averse to humor either in the form of puns and double meanings. The Old Testament is replete with plays on words, all but lost to us in the layers of translation.

Robert Alter’s new translation of the psalms, written with a scholar’s eye and poet’s ear, bring out more of the original flavor of the psalms, including their humor.

In his commentary on Psalm 149, Alter gives the literal translation of a double-edged sword — a sword of mouths. When this psalm appears in the Psalter, I now hear traces of the pun in verse six layered on top of the English: praise on their lips and “swords of mouths” in their hands.

About a century ago, in his guide to English usage, Henry Fowler distinguished humor from its less appealing companion, sarcasm, by its intent to throw light on human nature. True humor isn’t divisive, or dismissive, but is a surprise and delight to all who encounter it. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the puns in the psalms, a gentle application of humor can pop us out of our ruts so we can see and hear things from a different point of view.

In her poem, Abba Jacob and the Theologian, Marilyn Nelson follows another pair of disciples to the table, one so worried about the details she has similarly missed God’s presence there:

…the theologian interrupts her first
spoonful of lentils
to lean forward again
and cut off the flow of God.

Reverend Father, she asks,
what is the highest spiritual virtue?
Abba Jacob looks to heaven
and groans.
“Humor,” he says.
“Not seriously, of course.”

Theologian Karl Barth tells us that Christians should be neither wretched nor dour. Those, he says, who have heard the Easter message can no longer keep a tragic face and lead the humorless existence of those without hope. “Only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the victor.” Both Barth and Nelson’s wise hermit remind us that humor is but one face of the virtues of hope and humility.

In the end, we settled the dispute — both Mike and his brother are evidence of the Divine’s sense of humor. If Chris and all the rest of us were made with a sense of humor to delight and teach us, and given we are created as image and likeness of God, then God too must have a sense of humor. Seriously.

Let me have too deep a sense of humor ever to be proud. Let me know my absurdity before I act absurdly. Let me realize that when I am humble I am most human, most truthful, and most worthy of your consideration. Amen. -- Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., in Hearts on Fire, Praying with the Jesuits

Friday, April 24, 2009

Table Manners

My first piece for Nature Chemistry's Thesis column appeared in the online version. The big question?

"Is there a way to distinguish between periodic tables that are masterpieces of cognitive art and those that are the equivalent of Elvis Presleys on velvet? "

Should you - or your library - have a subscription to Nature Chemistry, you can read the rest here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Column: Slow Down

A friend from the Long Retreat told me the story of the bishop and the eggtimers at the train station, and then sent me the little book: Do Nothing to Change Your Life. That, the signs on the lawns and this post by the prior of Holy Cross Monaster, Br. Bede Thomas Mudge prompted me to write this column, which appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 23 April 2009. If you want to try a three minute breath of prayer, give this a fly:

Loyola Press 3-Minute Retreat

Be still and know that I am God.
Ps. 46:10a

The yellow signs are planted on lawns all over Haverford Township: “Slow Down!” I’m seeing them as I drive to pick up the kids after theater rehearsal, on my walk to the grocery store, as I ride my bike back from Morning Prayer. Slow down. The signs are meant to slow traffic, I’m certain. Still, each time I encounter one, I find myself looking not at the speedometer of my car but at the pace of my life.

I’m midway through a nine-month sabbatical leave from teaching. Recently, I encountered a colleague at the grocery store who asked what I’d been doing with this gift of time, prefacing her question with “I know you must be very busy.” Well, yes and no.

I have a fellowship in contemplative practices this year and am busy talking and writing about what the Catholic monastic tradition can bring to the teaching and practice of science. On occasion, I am also busy doing nothing, or rather practicing what the Fathers of the Church called otium sanctum — holy leisure.

In his City of God, St. Augustine distinguishes between holy leisure and idle inactivity by the end to which the time is put, “thus it is the love of truth which seeks a holy leisure.”

Leisure in the monastic sense is not time to do nothing, or to do what you like, but a time to slow down, to be still, to make room in your life to look toward God.

“Be still and know that I am God.” A translation of this verse from Psalm 46 that hews more closely to the original Hebrew is “Let go, and know that I am God.” The sense is that of unclenching your fist, even of releasing an enemy from your grasp. In my life, time often seems like the enemy, or at least my lack of it squeezes the life out of me. I hold tight to watch and calendar, hoarding time.

While contemplation might seem the business of the cloistered monastic, it is an indispensable part of the Christian life, perhaps even more so these days when we are tightly bound into a noisy network of communication, reachable by someone across the world even while we are out for a walk in the woods. “Reflection, meditation, contemplation are as necessary as breathing,” suggested Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi recently. “Time for silence [is] … a premise and an indispensable condition for it.”

If we were Carthusian monks, silence would be in the very air, and contemplation might be as easy as breathing. There would be no ringing phones, kitchen timers or teenagers chasing the cat, herself in hot pursuit of a mouse, through my study. Finding the necessary breathing room for my soul is a bit more of a challenge under these conditions.

What might it take? A few years ago, Stephen Cottrell, the Anglican bishop of Reading, startled commuters by handing out egg timers at the local train station, along with the suggestion to begin a contemplative practice just by being still for three minutes.

In his book, “Do Nothing to Change Your Life,” Cottrell offers some advice for finding silent time amidst the noise of daily life: “Observe the little rituals that reward you with two or three minutes of having to wait.” Make a pot of tea, but warm the pot first. Don’t empty the dishwasher while you wait; instead be still, and wait upon the Lord.

In a fourth century treatise on the contemplative life, desert Father Evagrius Ponticus tells us, “The practice of stillness is full of joy and beauty.” Monastic or mother, we are all called to let go of the clock on occasion and sit still outside of time, that we might know God is with us. It just takes practice and the merest breath of time.

To those who love you, Lord, you promise to come with your Son and make your home within them. Come then with your purifying grace and make our hearts a place where you can dwell. Amen.Concluding prayer from Morning Prayer, Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Silence and Words

Between Crash's concert (amazing, amazing - that is: Crash looks amazing in a tux; and the music was amazing) and Barnacle Boy's play (he's stage managing and running the curtains) I ducked out for 18 hours of silence at the old Jesuit novitiate. Until I walked into the chapel there a bit before 11 at night, I hadn't realized how much I missed the deep silence that pools in places like this.

I returned to all the craziness of the Boy's production (130 cast members - parents, friends, relatives, all packed into a vintage 1930s auditorium); then hit the road again this morning. I have a meeting beginning early tomorrow in Washington, DC, so came down today to avoid an early morning train trip.

I spent the afternoon at the National Gallery -- enjoying a special exhibit on medieval illumination and wandering the Calder and Matisse exhibits. I had a long walk on either end, 6 miles all together and then a peaceful dinner. Not silent, but still a day of few words.

Despite the scarcity of spoken words over the last few days, I learned three new ones! Snarge (the mess left when a bird collides with a plane, I read about how the birds are indentified by said remains); imbricate (some research on humor produced this one -- to overlap like tiles or fish scales) and euglossine (a type of bee that pollinates orchids).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Column: He is Risen

This is the last of four columns written for the Standard and Times taking up the principal graces of the four weeks of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

I wrote this column about two weeks ago, quoting John Updike's poem Seven Stanzas on Easter. Since then, it's popped up hither and yon. Meanwhile, two other contributors submitted articles on things Ignatian for this week's paper. The imps and cherubs are on the loose!

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 16 April 2009]

Having risen in the morning on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary of Magdala. She then went to those who had been his companions, and who were mourning and in tears, and told them. But they did not believe her when they heard her say that he was alive. — Mk. 16:9a, 10-11a

The pastel “Happy Easter!” signs are in peak bloom during Holy Week, adorned with the usual reminders of the holiday to come: bunnies, green grass, eggs — and chocolate. By Tuesday morning the signs vanished, and the marshmallow chicks and jelly beans were piled on half-off tables. Even without the cross and tomb, Easter quickly falls off the secular world’s radar, though the season has barely begun liturgically.

Many years ago, a Russian Orthodox colleague of mine taught me the traditional Orthodox Easter greeting, “Christ is risen!” and its proper response, “Indeed He is risen!” Each year when I see him after Easter, we greet each other in these words. As an unbelieving world bustles by, I affirm what Mary Magdalene saw that first Easter morning: He is alive.

The fourth grace sought in St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises is to enter into Christ’s joy in the resurrection, to reach beyond our own relief and joy at God’s wondrous gift of salvation, to welcome Christ’s selfless, overflowing joy into our lives. This is not a joy that looks inward, but outward, and manifests itself to all, believing and unbelieving, as Mary Magdalene did. This is a joy that believes that Christ is alive — now as then. We rejoice not in what has happened once but what continues to happen: Christ lives — in us.

As the formal contemplations of the Exercises draw to a close, Ignatius suggests we consider this very reality, how God dwells in us, gives us being, animates our lives. Then he asks the question, “If I were to make only a reasonable response, what could I do?” What indeed? Ignatius suggests we look into our hearts to see if we are able to answer in love: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty … Everything is yours; do with it what you will.”

In his poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter, John Updike lays out the challenge this reality and such a response embodies: “Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping transcendence; making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages; let us walk through the door.”

Easter is not merely a moment in our salvation history to be celebrated but an invitation to take the next steps, to walk through a door into a life that, as St. Paul says, is no longer our own but Christ living in us.

Early in February, as I packed my bag to return to family and responsibilities, I was conscious that from across the centuries St. Ignatius was sending me back from his school of contemplative prayer with homework. To return everything I had been given to the Lord, to do His will, was the work not of 30 days but of a lifetime.

This Eastertide, taking my cue from Ignatius, I’m giving over the pallid “Happy Easter!” greetings that sidestep and diminish the deeper reality for the joyous “Christ is risen!” that leads through the door to life. Indeed He is risen!

Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. Take my memory, my understanding and my entire will. Whatsoever I have or hold, I give it back to you and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will. Give me only your love and your grace, and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more. Amen. — St. Ignatius of Loyola’s ‘Suscipe’

Monday, April 13, 2009

Preaching with hands and voice

Lay people, women or men, are not allowed to give the homily in the Roman Catholic church -- though canon law (and the complementary norms approved by the US bishops) allow them to preach on the scriptures outside of the Eucharistic celebration under some circumstances.

On Holy Thursday I stood up at morning prayer and preached -- not a homily, since I'm not ordained -- but a ... reflection? sermon? I'm not sure there's a good word for it. I regularly reflect on the scriptures in print so in some sense the ground I trod on Maundy Thursday was not unfamiliar, but it turns out that it is a one experience to write for a community I do not see and for the most part do not know, and quite another to stand before a community I know, who knows me and preach. I think it went well -- and it was nice to have the series of short homilies for morning prayer during the Triduum. There's generally no preaching at morning prayer the rest of the year.

For the record -- here's what I had to say:

The text (from morning prayer, Holy Thursday):

We see Jesus crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, that through God’s gracious will he might taste death for the sake of all. Indeed it was fitting that when bringing many children to glory God, for whom and through who all things exist, should make their leader in the work of salvation perfect through suffering. Hebrews 2:9-10

The homily:

My youngest, Chris, is 7 weeks short of being a teenager, and in anticipation he is getting wiser by the minute. At dinner the other night he pushed a pile of green vegetables to one side of his plate, declaring firmly, “I don’t like these!” “Did you taste them?” Uh- no. In his wisdom he knows that tasting something is not a half-hearted exercise, it’s an all or nothing proposition. One bite or the whole thing, the taste is the same; its memory will linger on his tongue regardless.

In this reading from Hebrews, we are reminded that Christ tasted death for us - as an all or nothing proposition, it all its fullness and — and as we will hear tonight — offering to keep the taste of his death and our salvation alive for us in the Eucharistic we offer.

St. Cyril, a father of the Church and a fifth century patriarch of Alexandria suggests that Hebrew’s author was “stupefied” by this mystery of God in all his divinity electing our impoverished humanity with all its messiness and pain. Cyril reflects that Christ was willing to do this, even “…at times allowing his flesh to feel what is proper to it, in order to fill us with courage.” The psalms set out for this morning fittingly sing of strength and courage, and in the canticle from Isaiah we hear what Cyril will echo back to us centuries later, “My strength and my courage is the Lord, and he has been my savior.”

In his poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter, John Updike challenges us to face this reality of God who would willingly taste of our lives and suffer unto death:
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages;
let us walk through the door.
We must taste what Christ tasted for ourselves, not push it to the side or dilute it and thus be satisfied with mere pale memory. As we begin our celebration of the Triduum, let us walk through that door, and taste what has been prepared for us — our salvation. All of it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Psalm 150


Thursday, April 09, 2009

Column: Passion

This is the third of four columns taking up the principal graces of the four weeks of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Avro Pärt is a contemporary Estonian composer. He calls his approach to composition tintinnabulation – and it sounds very much like bells ringing. Though clearly modern, Pärt’s deep and longstanding engagement with medieval polyphony and plainchant infuses his music. If you have not heard Pärt before – listen to a snatch (see the link below), or even the whole thing. The third and fourth movements are marvelous.

Passio by Arvo Part

The voices on this setting are so clear, you can take out a copy of St. John's Passion, in Latin and follow along. If you lack a copy at home - here's the text! (It helps to know that Christ is the bass; Peter and Pilate the tenors.)

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 9 April 2009]

I have entered the watery depths, and the current has swept me away.
I am exhausted with my calling out.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes fail from hoping for my God.
— Ps. 69:3b-4

Tunc ergo tradidit eis illum, ut crucifigeretur. In the silent chapel, the spare, plaintive recitative from the fourth movement of Arvo Pärt’s Passio threads through my prayer: So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified. Like water tumbling down a rocky creek bed, Pärt’s contemplative chorale carries St. John’s Passion narrative inexorably from Judas’ betrayal to Christ’s ultimate surrender of His spirit; now swirling in chaos, now gathering in deep pools of silence and grief.

My prayer — and the ways in which I have betrayed Christ — have brought me equally, inexorably to this moment. I kneel, praying for the grace I desire in this third week: sorrow with Christ in sorrow; a broken spirit with Christ so broken; a deep grief for all that Christ endured for me.

I had set on this road to Calvary with Christ five days before, offering my imagination to God that He might use it to bring me into the reality of Christ’s Passion and death. It was difficult to avoid being transfixed by the horror, mentally scripting a Passion to compete with Mel Gibson’s cinematic version. St. Ignatius’ exercises demand more than an acknowledgement of the grievous sufferings; you must enter the depths and let the current sweep you away.

This journey was drawn out. I heard with new ears St. Augustine’s admonition, “You suppose that having said ‘I cried out to you,’ you are somehow done with crying out. But even though you have cried out, you must not expect relief to come quickly. The agony of the Church and of the Body of Christ will last until the end of time.” The Spiritual Exercises brought me again and again to each station of the cross, until like the psalmist, I was exhausted with calling out, and I wondered if my strength might fail from seeking my God.

The challenge was to let the Passion pierce me through, to let God forge more tightly in my heart the connection between the external experience of Christ’s suffering and abandonment on the cross and the fundamental truth of the unbounded love of the Father for the Son. It was to hold in my mind and let grow in my soul simultaneous realities: Christ, true God and true Man; Christ, suffering Servant and Master of our rescue; life gained only in the total surrender of death. It was a matter, as St. Ignatius advises, of understanding a few realities profoundly and in savoring them interiorly.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of the third week was to give up seeing it as a challenge, an experience to be lived through, and instead let it etch its own design into my heart and soul. I now have a pattern to hold up, that I might more readily recognize Christ’s Passion in my own life. I seek with eyes open to bear humiliation and rejection for the sake of the Gospel.

Pattern in hand, I might also more readily see the Passion in the lives of those around me. I can look there for the strength to take their crosses upon my back; wipe their faces; stand by them in their most desperate and agonizing moments; hold them until they breathe their last.

I have walked this road year after year in the Church’s celebration of the Triduum, but all too often I have confronted the crucifixion while watching the resurrection out of the corner of my eye — singing “O Sacred Head Surrounded” one moment, rehearsing Easter alleluias the next.

From this experience of a world empty of Jesus’ presence, forsaken by the Christ I had followed so closely over the preceding weeks of the exercises came a precious, albeit harrowing, gift of wisdom: I know that Christ has died.

O God, whose Son, our Messiah and Lord, did not turn aside from the path of suffering nor spare His disciples the prospect of rejection, pour out Your Spirit upon this assembly, that we may abandon the security of the easy way and following Christ’s footsteps toward the cross and true life. Grant this 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 from the 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Invisible gardens

Stratoz is wondering about gardening blind. This week was the 4th anniversary of my mother's death. Her gardens were always marvels, no less the lush walled garden she created in a postage stamped sized yard in Southern California than the acres she made bloom in the dry central hills further north. She continued to garden once she lost her sight. Though she had a marvelous sense of color -- she could match colors by memory -- she drifted toward more heavily scented garden choices as her sight dimmed. I remember driving her on an expedition to find new plants for a garden outside her bedroom, holding up various specimens for her to smell.

The morning of her funeral I went out into her garden and cut armfuls of richly scented roses and fragrant rosemary and laid them over her in her casket. To this day, both scents instantly bring her to life in my mind.

Years later, I ripped the remains of that garden out for my father and hauled a ton of rocks (literally - I carried 2000 pounds of rocks in wheelbarrows and placed them by hand) down the hill to cover it over. All the while I thought of the scent of those plants on my hands as my mother and I knelt to place each one. The memories can't be buried, even though the plants and my mother are both covered over.

Auto de fe

MS Word's auto correct features rides me about my use of the passive voice with as much insistence as my 12th grade English teacher (and with good reason). But not everything is as active a player as Word might imagine. In a draft of my column for Easter week I wrote this: By Tuesday morning the signs will have vanished; and the marshmallow chicks and jelly beans will be piled on half-off tables.

MS wondered if this might be better: Tuesday morning the signs will have vanished; and the marshmallow chicks and jelly will pile beans on half-off tables.

The image of all those yellow peeps and jelly jars industriously piling cans of beans on the sale table was too, too funny!

Which one do you like better?

Friday, April 03, 2009

Column: Peripatetic People

This is the second of four columns taking up the principal graces of the four weeks of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

For me at least, one of the graces of this retreat was to follow Christ as the disciples did - without knowing where they were going each day. I had not read the Exercises before embarking (and avoided reading about them). Of course, now that I'm home, my academic side has fully kicked in and I've been reading at length! (One of the novice directors gave me some starting points and I've found a couple of others that have been interesting.)

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 2 April 2009]

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus in good works, which God hath prepared that we should walk in them. — Eph. 2:10

Early on a Vermont morning, I followed Victor off the ski lift into a snowy fog. Barely visible in the mist ahead of me, my husband led me onto a trail I’d never skied before. Victor has skied the Italian Alps; I can find the Poconos a challenge, but I wasn’t nervous. I trusted him not to take me on a trail that was too steep or icy for me to ski and stayed so focused on the pieces of the trail just ahead that I could not worry about what might be coming.

Half an hour later we were at the bottom of the trail, and I was confident in my ability to do it again. That is, until the next day dawned bright and sunny and I could see just how steep that trail was. If I hadn’t done it already, I would never have thought it possible I could ski it.

In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius draws us into a similar experience of immediacy and trust. The grace sought of God in the second week is to know Jesus more intimately, to be able to love Him more intensely and so to follow Him more closely. Using the Gospel narratives, we are invited to let God show us His Son through our imagination. What was it like to be at Jesus’ birth? To be present as He healed the Gerasene demoniac?

Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians that God has created us to walk in Christ. The Greek word he uses is “peripatesomen” which means to walk about, to explore, to make progress. Ignatius asks us to “walk about” with Christ, to explore the landscape of Christ’s mission on earth, that we might progress to a deeper understanding of what God is calling us to do here and now.

What is on offer is not a superficial summary of Christ’s life, but a way to experience it as the first disciples did — one day at a time, without knowing where you were going next or what might happen. Ignatius cautions, “do not read any mystery which is not to be used…at that hour, so that the contemplation of one mystery does not interfere with another.”

Immersing myself in the assigned moment for an hour, five times over was like skiing in the mist — only one little piece of the path was revealed to me, a piece I might with God’s grace be able to traverse. In taking these small steps across ground I had explored so thoroughly, I gained confidence in my ability to walk in Christ’s path, as the first disciples did, looking at what was right in front of them, without knowing what was coming, but trusting that Christ would not lead them on paths they could not walk.

These exercises deepened my awareness of Christ’s presence to us in word as well as in sacrament. The Gospels are not merely holy stories to be listened to but God’s very word alive and at work in me. They ought not to leave us unchanged.

In these last days of Lent, on the doorstep of the celebration of the mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, I am taking Ignatius’ advice once again to heart. As I hear the Gospel proclaimed at Mass, I ask God for the grace to be entirely present to the mystery of Christ He chose to reveal in that particular moment.

I consider how God wants me to walk in these good works of Christ, without being distracted by what might come. As the psalmist sings, “Let me know Your love, for I put my trust in You. Make me know the way I should walk.”

O God of justice, hear our cry and save us. Make us heed Your word to the prophets; rouse us to the demand of the Gospel and impel us to carry it out. We ask this 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. — The Opening Prayer for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.