Thursday, July 30, 2009

Chemist Recognition

Twice in the last couple of days this ad has shown up on my Facebook page.  As it turns out, I will be recognized for "my accomplishments as a chemist" in a couple of weeks - no need to send away!  I'm one of the first 162 American Chemical Society Fellows.  It's heady company I'm part of - but what did Barnacle Boy want to know?  "Do you have to go to any meetings?"  Nope.  Just a reception.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Column: Waiting on Grace

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 23 July 2009.]

To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy upon us. — Psalm 123:1-2

“Hold on,” I cautioned the lanky teen sprawled on the foredeck of my tiny sailboat, “I can see some wind ahead of us!” Nick sat up just as the sail caught the wind; the boat heeled over on its side and we started to fly across the lake. As he — and the boat — regained their equilibrium he wondered, “Mrs. Donnay, how can you see the wind?”

I can’t see the wind, of course, but I can see the ripples on the surface of the lake and watch the sails of nearby boats as a growing breeze fills them. I also know this lake, where the winds are likely to blow down through the valley, where there will be shadows from the hills, when the winds will rise and fall during the day.

A couple of weeks later I was out alone and found myself on the far side of the lake when the wind dropped to a whisper. Hoping I would not need to engage the “auxiliary engine” and paddle the half-mile back to shore, I paid attention to every ripple. My eyes were like the eyes of a handmaiden on the hands of her mistress, watching for any sign that wind was on its way. In the end, all I could do was set my sails to wait for the wind and my soul to wait on God’s grace and mercy.

I had a lot of time to contemplate grace, mercy — and patience — as I ghosted across the water. I thought of a Carmelite friend who had shared with me St. John of the Cross’ concept of unrushable grace, perfectly suited to the present moment.

Imprisoned for his support of St. Teresa of Avila’s reforms, John spent nine months in a dark and airless cell. He had no window, but just enough light came through a small grate at the top to allow him to pray his Office each day. God granted him no more or less than he needed for that moment.

Reflecting on St. John of the Cross in a series of letters collected in “Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence,” the 18th century Jesuit spiritual director Jean Pierre de Caussade wrote, all the “duties of the present moment are marked along its course, one by one they will fulfill them unconfused, unhurried … waiting always to obey the stirrings of grace as soon as they make themselves known....”

De Caussade’s gentle description aside, this can be a difficult way to live. I recall that Job set his course firmly; he was not confused, his eyes on God even in the midst of unrelenting travail. Job knew God like I know the local waters. He knew what signs to look for, where to expect to find God. Yet even Job could not detect the slightest sign that God’s grace was present in his suffering, or even that such grace, like a puff of wind moving across the water, was on the way. All he could do was continue to watch, and call for God’s mercy.

Barbara Brown Taylor wonders if “[T]his is how faith looks sometimes: a blunt refusal to stop speaking into the divine silence.” Waiting on grace is a matter not only of patience, but also of faith.

A brisk wind never did appear that afternoon, despite my expectations. With barely enough breeze to fill my sail, I moved imperceptibly across the water. There was just enough wind — and grace — to get me back home before nightfall. In place of the wind, God’s breath on the waters taught me a bit of what it meant to wait on grace, as on the wind.

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. Amen. — Concluding Prayer for Morning Prayer, Sunday Week 11.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Going down

I've been fascinated with volcanoes since I read a story about a small girl and her lei in my reading book in second (or maybe third) grade. I would love to see lava flow, or find obsidian lying around on the ground. Living in the midwest made this all unlikely. So I was not going to miss the chance to see Newberry Volcanic Park just south of the Columbia Gorge! No flowing lava or obsidian, but cinder cones and pumice fields enough to satisfy. The highlight was my two mile walk today - taken 100 feet underground. We walked more than a mile into an old lava tube, that down until it was about 100 feet below the surface. The oddest moment was to walk under the major highway - 80 feet over our heads - no light, no sound gave it away.

The cave is "unimproved", which means no lights other than what you bring with you, the occasional interpretive sign and a set of metal steps to help you make the initial descent. Man Man carried a rented propane lantern, the boys and I flashlights. It was a wild experience. There were times when we could not hear or see anyone else. I thought of Tom Sawyer and Becky in the cave, I imagine a walk through a post-apocalyptic subway system - the shadowy rocks looked like train wreckage.

Every once in a while I would realize that I was nearly a mile away from any light or the surface. When the boys decided to go through the section where you had to crawl on your hands and knees, I was undone until they returned.

The boys are undecided which adventure was most magical - this hike to the nether world or yesterday's adventure in the falls.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

If you didn't know the entrance was there you would drive right past it. Along a stretch of old Highway 30 sandwiched between the Columbia River and the sheer cliffs of the Columbia Gorge, just past one of the iconic waterfalls that have drawn visitors here by car for more than a hundred years, a set of battered steps descends to a paltry pool of water and a pile of logs and debris. So why are there so many car parked here? We passed a trailhead - but saw no one going up or down.

All along the roadside people are changing from hiking boots to sandals, and heading down the stairway to wade in the water and clamber around the log jam (despite the US Forest Service Warnings that the jam could shift suddenly). But the number of people and number of cars are mysteriously disparate. Unless you had been tipped off, as we had been by the guy at the bike store in Portland, that clambering over the logs and negotiating the rocky creek bed will lead you to another world.

The two story high log jam was not trivial to get over; some logs were loose, others pretty slippery. At one point I looked down as I stepped over a gap to see a clear shaft to the creek bed 15 feet below. I didn't want to fall! Once over the top, we found ourselves in a narrow gorge, so narrow no sunlight made it down, though the sun was only 30 minutes past its zenith, so narrow that toppled trees at the top of the 100 foot cliffs formed bridges from one side to the other. There was no path to follow, the creek filled the bottom from side to side. At points the water was waist deep (or deeper on those of us who were short!). I kept my camera tucked into a dry bag -- since I was loathe to take this trek without it.

You turn one final corner to find a waterfall that looks like it came out of an Indian Jones movie: mossy cliffs, with a deep pool at the bottom, a shelf behind the falls, places to jump off into the swirling waters. It was one of the most amazing places I've been. Barnacle Boy and Crash were enchanted. In the end we dragged them blue-lipped and shivering from the waters, to return to the real world.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Civil Dawn

We headed out the door at 4:29 am to catch our flight to the West Coast. After less than 3 hours sleep I crawled out of bed at 3:45 am. As we headed to the airport, Barnacle Boy and Crash Kid were bantering excitedly, as well complaining good naturedly about having to arise before dawn. Math Man wondered, if out of compassion for the parents, they might be a bit more civil. I said I thought civil dawn was later than this.

All this led to a conversation about the different ways to define dawn. My phone reports the time of astronomical dawn, nautical dawn and civil dawn. (Today that would be 3:49 am, 4:34 am and 5:14 am, respectively!). Crash wanted to know how the dawns were determined - and other than astronomical dawn, I only had some vague idea the decision hinged on whether or not you could read text outside.

Should you care - astronomical dawn is when the sun is 18o below the horizon and the sky begins to lighten enough to obscure astronomical features. Nautical dawn is when the sun is 12o below the horizon, but objects can be distinguished. Civil dawn is when the sun is 6o below the horizon and the ground is visible enough to begin outdoor activities. And of course, none of these times should be confused with sunrise!

I propose we redefine civil dawn as the hour in the day when you can be civil to (a) strangers and (b) siblings. Experience tells me that (a) would be significantly earlier than (b).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Role of Mature Females

Overheard on a Shark Week episode playing in my sun room: "She is a mature female, a perfect candidate to carry the transmitter."

The researchers did not expound on why a mature female shark was preferable to a male (mature or not) in this context, but I have some theories. I'm the only one in my family who carries a purse, for a long time it was a large hobo bag. I could be depended on to have tissues, snacks, amusements, a pen and enough space to stash the extra stuff my male outriders did not want to cart around in their pockets - keys, wallets, phones. Ditto on bike expeditions - I have saddle bags, so "could you carry the extra water? jackets? snacks?" If you need something carried on a trip - long or short - you asked the "mature female" in this primate troop.

Post the Exercises I have deliberately downsized my bag, chosing not to have something to cover every contingency along every time I leave the house, as a reminder of how much control I do (or do not) have of my life. It's been a helfpul ongoing meditation - but the men in my life are still trying to readjust to having carry their own stuff.

See this shark's purse anywhere??

Sunday Afternoon Music Video: Elijah Rock

(Cross-posted from RevGalBlogPals.)

In my community today, we read from the minor prophet Amos. Then we heard from the pulpit a challenge to let ourselves not only listen to what prophets old and new have to say to us, but to be prophets ourselves, in word and action. We are called, we are chosen. Here and now.

Moses Hogan's arrangement of the spiritual Elijah Rock sounds prophetic to me. The word is sometimes loud, sometimes whispered; it can be piercing or deeply sustaining; it is on the move, first in one section, then in another; but the voice of God is heard regardless.

Just the vocals:

Elijah Rock - Moses Hogan Chorale

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Column: Before all else, give thanks

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Chris had had an asthma attack (nothing will get you wide awake like a kid standing at your bedside saying "I'm having trouble breathing..."), and I'd been up all night, then got on a train to go to New York to give a talk and then out to Fordham for a conference. It was a long day, but not something I was worried about when I was up with my truly miserable son. Coming on top of an ongoing conversation about gratitude at People for Others, and Barbara Szyszkiewicz's reflection, I felt nudged from all sides to think a bit more routinely about gratitude.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 9 July 2009.

You are my God, I give You thanks; my God, I offer You praise. Give thanks to the Lord, who is good, whose love endures forever. — Ps. 118:28-29

My youngest son sent me one of those funny photos by e-mail “to cheer u up.” It showed a mother tiger with a litter of yawning cubs and was tagged, “Motherhood: when sleep is a thing of the past.” I was glad of the cheer; it had been a long night, followed by a longer day. Chris had been sick and I had been up much of the night with him.

As I tried to find ways to make him feel more comfortable in the wee hours, he kept saying, “thank you” — and I kept telling him, “I’m your mom, of course I would stay up with you. I love you.” His mother or not, Chris clearly was not taking my night’s vigil for granted.

A few days later I was reading a short reflection on gratitude by Barbara Szyszkiewicz, a mother and secular Franciscan. Her son Luke was so delighted with his morning bowl of oatmeal — something that took her little effort to make — that he took her by surprise with a hug. She muses, “Just because it’s routine or expected doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve gratitude.”

Both Luke and Chris were grateful for what their mothers had to offer, though it was all part of our day’s work and no less than what they should expect.

In his book “Imitation of Christ,” 15th century monk and mystic Thomas à Kempis urges us to a similar gratitude for the gifts God has for us, small and large: “Be grateful, therefore, for the least gift and you will be worthy to receive a greater. Consider the least gift as the greatest, the most contemptible as something special. And, if you but look to the dignity of the Giver, no gift will appear too small or worthless.”

God’s gifts may be routine, or expected — after all He loves us — but that should not stop us from giving Him our thanks.

The words are routine, I hear them at every Mass: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” And echoing the psalmist, I diligently respond, “It is right to give Him thanks and praise.” The words of the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer that follow are always potent reminders of all I am and should be grateful for.

Yet how often do I leave that stance of praise and thanksgiving at the altar as I go about the routine and expected parts of my day — oblivious to bowls of oatmeal offered and vigils kept? Do I stop even once and offer “my thanks and praise?”

St. Ignatius of Loyola offers us a way to help us take off our blinders and see God at work around us, in the expected and unexpected. His Examen begins by asking you to express your gratitude to God for the gifts you — specifically — have been given. He recommends doing this twice a day — at noon and at the end of the day. This midday reminder to be grateful and notice what I should be grateful for — before the day has entirely spent itself — is a gift.

Wisdom is nudging me from many sides. I hear it from Ignatius and Thomas à Kempis, from Chris and Luke: it is expected, before all else, to be grateful.

Father, all-powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks. You have no desire of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself Your gift. Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to Your greatness, but makes us grow in Your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.— From the Preface for Weekdays IV.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Light to read by

It was so quiet I could hear the rustling a pair of deer made as they bounded through the wheat field, fleeing my approach. The field was lit by thousands of fireflies, twenty acres that sparkled as if tiny stars had been sprinkled across the wheat, puddles of cool green light appearing and vanishing in a breath. The wind rustled the trees and fanned the wheat. I spent an hour out there with this one small piece of the world, just looking, just listening, just feeling the breeze on my shoulders, the earth solidly under my feet, going gradually deeper, letting the stillness run through my hands. This is lectio divina - as St. Hugh understood it. There are three books of God to read, says Hugh: nature, experience, and scripture.

On the 30-days, my director urged me one day to spend some time reading what he called "God's other book" by taking a walk in a 'warm' snowstorm. The photo is of the wheat field at the old Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville. The fireflies are magnificent - I took Barnacle Boy, Math Man and Crash back on the 4th to watch them -- and we were treated to fireworks on the horizon as well!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Abundance flows in your steps

All of these look to you
to give them their food in due season.
You give it, they gather it up:
you open their hands, they have their fill.
Ps 104:27-28

Four years ago I planted three (3, yes 3) small thornless raspberry canes in my backyard along the edge of a raised bed. This year, they've taken over both beds and the aisle between them and Math Man suggests we won't be able to get out the back door soon. But we have raspberries, an abundance of raspberries. Starting last weekend I could walk out (barely) the back door and fill my bowl for breakfast. They were ripening almost faster than we could eat them. Then yesterday I took my bowl out -- to find none. Not one red, ripe berry to be found. "A break," I thought, "tomorrow, there will be even more." Except there weren't. The birds have found the feast. And they have their fill - as the psalm says.

I don't mind sharing, but I'm having a hard time watching all of the berries go to feeding the multitudes. I can hear my Carmelite friend's voice: "Having issues with detachment, my dear?" Or is my berry desire a "disordered attachment" to use Ignatius' language?

I think it might be time for some netting, that's what I think! Then I, too, might have my fill.

Abundance flows in your steps... (Ps 65:12)

No column this week, the Catholic Standard and Times is on their summer schedule.