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)