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).