Friday, December 31, 2010

Ringing out the old year

There are only a few hours left in 2010, and as I did last year, I'm taking a look back using a word cloud. What's here that wasn't last year? Time is more on my mind, but silence and prayer are still frequent touch points.

The numbers: 157 posts. Word counts: 65,299 words total; God 314 times; pray (and words stemming from it) 258 times; silence 96 times. Weirdest word? pre-rhotic (see here)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Clap on, clap off

Favorite Facebook Nephew was sprawled on the sofa this morning, his mother, No No Nannette, needed the table set. When there was no response to an audio prompt, she clapped her hands loudly, eliciting a groan and creaky movement from the body on the sofa. "Clap on, clap off" - a new device to activate your teen.

No No's comment: "If only it really worked."

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Podcast: Episode 7 Christmas, Through the Cross, Joy

We're enraptured by the gentle baby, not to mention the angels singing in the heavens and the wise men bearing gifts, but do we really grasp the enormity of this first sacrifice, where God pitches His tent among us? One Christmas, an elegant marble carving of Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms as they flee for their lives resting for a moment on the altar brought into sharp relief for me the connection between the Nativity and the Cross.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

The ornament was made by my mother, for her first Christmas tree, when she and my dad were grad students. She cut out bells and hearts and start from foil, then sewed them in threes, opening them into three dimensional shapes and twisting the thread to hold them onto the tree. She stored them in the pages of an old Good Housekeeping from 1957. Browsing the magazine each year became as much a tradition for me as did the ornaments.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Making do

I take pleasure in a universe that flows smoothly, without turbulence or chaos. One where I can reach into a drawer and find the measuring spoons — not have to hunt them up. Or where the pretzels and trays stashed on top of the refrigerator do not fall on my head when I open the door. Unfortunately I live in a "make-do" household, populated by pragmatists who live by the principle: "if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail." When we're camping or sailing, or snow bound, I love the derring-do of it all. But there are times at home when I'd rather just use the right tool for the right job.

Alas for me, the second law of thermodynamics (or original sin, if you prefer a Catholic theological lens) prevails. There will be chaos and disorder, it is the way of the universe. In the natural order of things, the wooden spoon should not be in the jar next to the stove — so why do I rail when it's not? Sometimes I can ride the flow, not fighting the entropic currents, threading the rapids with ease. Other days it's a struggle, as I forget that trying to paddle upstream is a poor strategy - not to say energetically very expensive.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Column: Our only hope of glory

The CD was from the Medieval Babes — who along with Anonymous 4 and Trio Medieaval are a great listen, if you like polyphonic music, that is. The painting is Joey's!

This reflection appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 23 December 2010.

It is Christ among you, your hope of glory. — Col. 1:27b

Joey has developmental challenges, I teach quantum physics. But we share a passion for medieval polyphonic music. In return for the gift of a CD by one of my favorite groups, I received an exquisite thank you card bearing Joey’s own art work: a flower in all the tones of Advent — blue, rose and white with a splash of triumphant green. Inside was inscribed a careful thank you and “I love the music!”

When I told Joey’s mother how much I loved the painting, she replied, “And this from the child for whom they had no hope!” No hope that he might talk, let alone share his opinions of music from centuries past.

What hopes would the people staying at that inn in Bethlehem have had for the child who arrived on their doorstep? Would any of them have placed any hope in this child, born in a stable, seemingly bereft of any family other than his weary, travel worn parents? Would any passer by have imagined that this child was He of whom the psalmist proclaimed, “Our hope is in the Lord, who made heaven and earth”?

Hope is an unreasonable thing. It expects more than is possible, more than we could imagine. As St. Paul reminds the Romans, “Hope would not be hope at all if its object were seen.”

I wonder if I come to Christmas these days brimming with hope, expecting more than I could imagine of this encounter with God among us, or whether it has become just part of the rhythm of my year. What do I expect from the celebration of the feast of the Nativity? Beyond a joyous liturgy or two? Beyond the relief I feel knowing that we’ve plumbed the depths of the winter darkness or that I’ve reached the midpoint of the academic year relatively unscathed?

In his encyclical, Spes Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI expresses a similar worry. Have we “ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God?” For my part, I know the facts of the story so well — Christ is born, preaches, suffers, dies and rises from the dead — that it’s hard to keep the unexpected in mind. The Gospel is not a undemanding recounting of what has changed, but is itself a force for change here and now. A change I cannot predict, or imagine.

Nearing what would be the last Christmas of his life and awaiting trial by the Nazis, Jesuit Father Alfred Delp, reflected that a father of the Church had called Christmas “the mystery of the great howl” — an event that shook humankind to the point it could not express itself by anything other than a wail to the heavens. An event that “burned away our romantic concepts.” All we are left with is hope, all our own concerns vanish under the immensity of what is coming to pass, what we cannot yet fully see.

What then should I hope for on this Christmas? This year I seek to shake loose the bindings of the sentimental trappings that have become tangled around this feast, both the world’s and my own. To surrender my sense of surety about the scene in the stable, to take leave of the Virgin Mother and adoring shepherds, who alike have been visited by angels and thereby know at least part of the story. To hope, perhaps unreasonably, to place myself at the crib as a passerby, as yet unaware of what has happened — but still shaken at the sight.

As unreasonable as it was and is to hope: God is with us.

Godhead, I adore thee fast in hiding; thou
God in these bare shapes, poor shadows, darkling now:
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. in S. Thomae Aquinatis

Monday, December 20, 2010

Brewing Chemicals

Warning: explicit chemistry content ahead!

When last I visited Patient Spiritual Director we had a conversation about caffeine — since at times this semester I felt as caffeine was all that was getting me through the next hour. So for now, a lá Ignatius' advice to find the mean of things regarding eating and drinking, I'm trying to stick to just two cups of the caffeinated stuff a day, though I have to admit that caffeine adds a bitter edge to tea and I miss the taste even more than the buzz when it's not there. The small deprivation definitely heightens my appreciation for those two cups!

A young friend sent me the link to these mints, which promise both tranquility and alertness in a single package. The secret ingredient is L-theanine (structure shown below), a naturally occurring amino acid found in Camelia sinensis. (Some amino acids (roughly 20) are used by biological systems to build proteins (the working machinery of cells), but theanine is not one of them.) Coincidently, the dried, fermented leaves of Camelia sinensis are what I use to brew my preferred pharmacological concoction to decrease stress and increase alertness: tea.

So would the mints work as advertised? I don't really know, but there is some evidence that theanine works synergistically with caffeine to enhance cognitve performance, while moderating some of caffeine's less desirable effects. I think I'll stick with tea — two cups!

Need more chemistry? Read the version posted at my chemistry blog.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Podcast: Episode 6 O Antiphons

O Wisdom! O Lord of Light! O King of the Nations! Since at least the 12th century the magnificent “O antiphons” have traditionally preceded 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. 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.

The illustration is a mash-up of a photo of a stained glass window at my parish church with a sketch from an illuminated manuscript I was working on.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A picture of Advent on the blog


I'm short. Though I rather prefer the term concentrated, as in "I'm not short, I'm concentrated." *

I can also concentrate. Growing up in a large, boisterous family meant that early on I developed the ability to tune out the uproar and focus on what I was doing. I could relate to the story about Marie Curie, where her sisters and cousins built a tower of chairs around her while she obliviously read a book. Earlier this fall I sat on a bench, waiting for the train from Center City, not even 10 feet from the tracks. The R5 came and went, disgorging and loading passengers right in front of me and I never noticed. It was as if the rest of the world had temporarily vanished.

Wednesday night after dinner I retreated to my study to finish off the reflection I was writing for Christmas — initially drafted in the absolute silence and solitude of Wernersville's library. The contrast between my study and the library was acute. A steady stream of visitors appeared (to feed the sea monkeys, to grab something from the printer, to check on a book, to see if I would come fill her bowl with crunches, to…well, you get the idea). Determined to finish and get to bed before midnight, I barricaded the door (to keep out the cat) and burrowed deeper into the writing. Pop — the rest of the world disappeared off my radar.

Suddenly the door burst open, I squeaked in surprise and Barnacle Boy let out a sigh of relief. "I called you three time and you didn't answer, I was afraid you had fainted!" (I had given blood earlier in the day, but was fairly well rehydrated by now.) "No…just concentrating!"

It's a mad skill and one I'm glad I haven't entirely lost…

*With apologies to Lois Bujold's creation Miles Vorkosigan.

Photo is my stuff strewn around the floor in the back corner of the library. The circle kept growing until I was nearly as barricaded in as Marie Curie.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Column: If you would, you could become all flame

This snippet from Emily Dickinson, which I found after the piece was written, is not a bad summary of my sense of the light:
By a departing light
We see acuter, quite,
Than by a wick that stays.
There's something in the flight
That clarifies the sight
And decks the rays.
The light at this time of year always seems extraordinary to me, revealing much that is hidden.

The story of Abba Joseph in its full form is here. Or if you can get your hands on the latest issue of Dappled Things, read Sabrina Vourvoulias' Poem with a line from the Desert Fathers which takes its breath from the same story. Alas, it's not need to find/order a paper copy!

This reflection appeared as part of the Catholic Standard & Times' Advent series on 16 December 2010.

Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. — Isaiah 8:23a, 9:2

In the last six weeks I’ve been half way round the world and back again. The trip was amazing. I took walks in the jungle where lizards the size of cats slunk liquidly down the path ahead of me and macaques hid among the trees. The jet lag was brutal. I crossed 12 time zones. Twice. For several weeks my body and the sun disagreed seriously about what time it ought to be. My perceptions of day and night, light and darkness, were thoroughly muddled.

The internal and external clocks finally realigned, but something still seemed amiss. I finally realized it was the light. At the equator, the sun soared high in the sky. The ground lay unshadowed at noon, the dawn was a quick dash from darkness to full light. Here the morning light lingers, and even at noon, the sun hangs low in the sky, barely skimming the tops of the trees. In this winter half-light, I’m vaguely aware of the possibilities, aware there could be more.

This is an unrushed light, one that lingers in space as well as time — tracing its way through miles more atmosphere than it will on the sharp edge of summer. It is a paradoxical light; despite its dimness, it reveals rather than obscures. The few leaves that remain on the trees appear lit from within. The stained glass windows in the small chapel glow in the early morning light, making the very air luminous. This gentle light sets the world afire.

Writing on the psalms, St. Augustine reminds us of our destiny — to be alight: “[O]ur light does not come from ourselves, it is you, Lord who will light my lamp.” Like the glowing leaves, what sets us alight is not anything within ourselves, but the Light that is gradually dawning in these Advent days.

We are poised at the point in the year where the darkness will cease to extend its reach, the days will grow longer. What might we do with the light we are about to be granted? Evelyn Underhill, an early 20th century English spiritual writer, echoes Augustine along with some blunt advice: “Ye are the light of the world — but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the Light of the world. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful.”

This time of year where light and darkness ebb and flow in the stillness is beautiful, but there is an insistent edge to it. As tempting as it is to hunker down, to drowse in the half-light, we know there is more to come. In our memories of summer we’ve been given the measure of the brighter days to come.

We’re almost to Christmas, we might even be almost ready to celebrate the great feast. Gifts are wrapped and waiting to be opened, the cookies are baked. We’ve swept our houses and souls clean, literally and sacramentally. What do we do now?

I’m reminded of a similar question asked of Abba Joseph, a hermit living in the desert in the fourth century. Abba Lot, another hermit, came to seek his advice. “I fast,” he said, “I pray and meditate, I live in peace…what else can I do?” Abba Joseph stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven; suddenly light flickered from his fingers like ten lamps. “If you would, you could become all flame.”

Like Abba Lot, I’ve done what I can; now I have to ask myself if I’m willing to recognize that what will happen next is not up to me. It is only the Lord who can fan the embers in my heart into a fire that can be of use. Could I dare to become “all flame,” dare to let Christ be at work not only in me, but through me?

At Evening Prayer next Tuesday the entire Church will call out, as she has for centuries, “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness….” It’s a risky prayer. We are not asking merely for a light to see by, or even for a light that reveals our failings, but a light to guide us out to do God’s work: a Light to set us aflame.

Come, Lord, light my lamp. Let me become all flame.

Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came; Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not
A lightning of fire hard-hurled.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., from The Wreck of the Deutschland

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Seeking poetic inspiration

A friend has been set a task by her pastor: to find and read an appropriate poem at their Christmas Eve service. She describes her congregation thus: "What you need to know about my church is that it is a pretty conservative group, and tends towards literal Biblical interpretation (i.e. poems that would make a group of English PhDs excited by their mysterious metaphors would probably not be what I need)."

I had a couple of ideas for her, but we both wondered what readers of this blog might suggest. So should you be inspired to share some marvelously appropriate piece of poetry my friend could use, or even one that we'd all enjoy for its mysterious metaphors, leave a comment, do!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Podcast: Episode 5/God listens back

I checked! The audio is the audio I intend, not some random track. The advice from Karl Rahner, SJ — to have the courage to be alone in the silence, waiting on God — is taken from a reflection which appeared in Die Presse on 22 December 1962 (I was 4).

The rest of the reflection is well worth reading if you can find it - I dug it out of Everyday Faith, under the title The Answer of Silence.

The photo is from a walk earlier today, a walk prompted by this advice to stand alone, in silence and wait. There is no one within a half mile of me. It was cold beyond measure, it took courage to just go out there, but I stood and waited. I listened. And God listened back.

Listen here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Stella Maris: Still Plainchant

This piece seems to capture the silence and the stillness that I so covet by this point in Advent. The setting is medieval plainsong, a hymn to Mary in her title "Star of the Sea" (Stella Maris — thought by some to be an errant transcription of St. Jerome's translation of Miriam (Mary) as stilla maris — a "drop in the sea". Though that's another story - pieces of which can be found here.)

I love hearing the echoes of Isaiah

Solve vincla reis,
profer lumen cæcis....

Loosen the chains of the guilty,
Send forth light to the blind...

I first heard this piece on the frozen edge of the Atlantic while making the Spiritual Exercises. Now I can't hear it without breathing deeply of silence, winter and the ocean — and stillness.

Cross-posted from the RevGalBlogPals Sunday Afternoon Music Video.

Books: Form or Function?

Just as I'm getting used to the idea that December is here, the January issue of Family Circle showed up in my mailbox. (Yes, I know, it's hardly the New Yorker, but can you say "middle school magazine drive"? and the cookie recipes are great….) Between the January hiatus and now lie a myriad of projects: grading, new kitchen cabinets, one more column to write (Christmas). I should have tucked it away for a cold grey afternoon break with a cup of tea.

Alas, I'm a sucker for anything that promises to help me tame the chaos in my house. And right there on the cover, hovering over the cinnamon buns in a cast iron pan is the line: NO MORE CLUTTER.

"Shelves crammed end to end with books usually look cluttered." I'm excited, maybe they will have some advice for the aspiring-to-well-ordered academic household. We have bookshelves, plural, in the dining room. And every other room in the house (ok, except the bathrooms -- too steamy!). And they are all crammed end to end with books. Personally, I've never counted books on actual shelves (as opposed to on desks, floors and chairs) as clutter, but I'm willing to learn!

I eagerly turn the page to find this suggestion: "Group books by color or size so that they work well together visually." Somehow I suspect this person and I don't quite have the same idea about the function of books in a household. On second thought, reorganizing my shelves upstairs (Psalms has just outgrown it's original spot and had to get pushy to find a shelf to occupy) I discovered that it might not be such a bad idea. My desert fathers tomes are all appropriately desert toned, and my Rahner collection tends to shades of blue and white….maybe it could work.

What do I really need? Even more than a full time housekeeper and cook or house elf? A house librarian.

Photo is of the books I took with me - and artfully arranged, with flowers! - in the hotel on my last trip to Southern University to talk about contemplative practices.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Podcast: Episode 3/Flight into silence UPDATED

UPDATED: (Reason for the update? Read this post.) The end of the semester chaos threatens to send me crashing to the ground, but memories of a flight into silence last Advent remind me to again seek strength in the stillness, to wait upon the Lord.

Listen here:

Friday, December 10, 2010

Epic Fail: Podcast version

I started experimenting with podcasting last week - trying to feel out the difference between writing to be read and writing to be heard. My hope was to post something long (3 to 4 minutes) each weekend, with a shorter (1 to 2 minute) piece midweek. I put two longer pieces up last weekend, submitted the feed to iTunes, saw it was accepted, and so last night went on to post a 2 minute piece.

Using a post from a year ago, a series of sketches from a night at Wernersville, I wrote a short reflection, recorded it, and posted it. At least I thought I posted it. If you listened to it, what you heard was just over a minute of what sounds like heavy breathing (well, hopefully you didn't listen much longer than the 10 awful seconds it took me to figure this out.) Argh.

I've fixed it on the feed, pinged iTunes so they will up the change sooner rather than later. I have more than 200 subscribers to this podcast. I'm hoping at least some of them come back after the epic fail. (Perhaps it's a good thing I've made an appointment for shriving on Monday!)

Lesson learned? Do not post podcasts after midnight. Ever.

The new version - in case you still want to listen....

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Column: Provisional Realities

The photo is of my nephew, no longer quite as much a mystery to us all as he was then.

This reflection appeared as part of the Catholic Standard & Times' Advent series on 9 December 2010.

Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name. — Isaiah 49:15-16a

I was pregnant with Chris over a winter, still teaching as my sweaters stretched ever more tightly over my swelling stomach. One afternoon, deep into a lecture on quantum mechanics, one of my students tentatively raised her hand. Hoping I could clarify what was confusing her before she — and perhaps the rest of my class — was hopelessly lost, I called on her.

She pointed at my stomach and squeaked, “Is that the baby?” I looked down to see a clearly visible bump moving under my sweater as Chris executed his signature in-utero flip. “Indeed, that would be the baby.” Physics took a sudden backseat to biology.

“Is that a foot?” she wondered. Me, too. All those months I carried Mike and Chris within me I wondered about what was hidden from me. Was that a foot, or a hand I saw? A full flip or just a leisurely stretch in those tight quarters? What did this mean — should I expect a calm baby or a fidgety child? Boy or girl? I devoured the “what to expect” books, but almost everything about my children remained a mystery during those days when they were tucked inside my womb. Who would they be? Just what was stirring within me?

These Advent days I read Isaiah with similarly wondering eyes. God is stirring within me, stirring within the world; what should I expect? Much remains a mystery: “You are a hidden God,” says Isaiah (Is 45:15). Theologian Father Karl Rahner, S.J., reminds us we are always in Advent, our lives encompassing “faith, expectation, patience and a longing for what is not yet visible.” We are all pregnant with possibilities and with hope.

In due time, my sons were born. Still, in many ways they remain as much a mystery to me now as they were when they were in my womb. Father Rahner reminds us that Advent people are those who nurture an ability to love the provisional, to be patient with a reality that is hidden in the figurative, and in small, unimpressive signs. Parenting teens in particular is an excellent way to hone your skills in patiently reading the elusive, in bearing with the obscure, of living in hope of what might burst forth.

Most of all, I’ve grown to realize I can never know the fullness of who my children are or will be. To consider them “finished” or to hold one image of them in stasis is to have failed. Similarly St. Augustine points out, “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed.” You can read the books about what to expect, but I suspect with God, as with teens, the more you think you know, the less you are willing to discover.

In a Lenten meditation on Isaiah, Dominican Father Edward Schillebeeckx tells of an abbot who challenges a young monk, “How will you love the Creator if you have never been capable of loving a creature?” Being a parent has taught me much about how to love — and be loved by — a God who is hidden.

Bearing my children was a profound lesson in how completely I could love someone whose face I had never seen, whose being was nearly entirely hidden from me, who expressed himself in small stirrings and tantalizing clues. Isaiah turns the image around to underscore the immense depth of God’s love for us. Though God knows us entirely, we can only express our longings in uncertain words and awkward deeds, in small stirrings.

What can I expect to come of these provisional realities? St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests what it might take to find out — letting go of my expectations: “There are very few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into his hands, and let themselves be formed by his grace.”

God has written my name on His hand, holds me within Himself, like a child within her mother’s womb. As this Advent deepens, I am contemplating the unsettling mystery that not only is God stirring within me, but I am stirring within God.

You have made us to desire only you,
you, our beginning and our end,
you, our food and our rest,
you, our joy and our peace.

Turn us from our desires that obsess us.
Unburden us that we may know
our true desire and end in communion with you.

— Walter Brueggeman, from All Desires Are Known in Prayers for a Privileged People

Monday, December 06, 2010

Seeing the universe with different eyes

I just finished teaching a semester long course in quantum mechanics today. Quantum mechanics gives you an odd view of the universe sometimes (which may explain much about me and/or my writing!). Humans can only detect a small portion of the light that suffuses the universe. This lovely site shows what it might look like if we could see with different eyes -- eyes that detected a wider range of light, and/or at different frequencies.

My favorite set of "eyes" are those shown in the picture, ones that see in the Hydrogen-α range of the spectrum (the light that is released when electrons in hydrogen atoms fall from one level to another - n=3 to n=2 in the Balmer series for those in the know). Suddenly our galaxy is aflame.

Give it at try - tell me which view you like the best!

"By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. In eo vivimus. As Jacob said, awakening from his dream, the world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it. Venite, adoremus!" Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Seven Pages of Solitude: Podcasting Advent

It's the start of the new liturgical year on the Roman Catholic Calendar. It's Cycle A, so we are doubly back to the beginning. Having tried my hand at giving a retreat talk, and realizing how different writing to speak can be from writing to read, I decided to get a bit more practice in the former by giving podcasting a whirl. So far it's bare bones, I haven't let Crash and his magic have at it....

Scroll down the sidebar to find the player, or listen to the first episodes here...

Friday, December 03, 2010

Circling Time: Ignatian Repetition

One of my Augustinian friends calls them three-finger days, when you need three fingers to keep track of your page in the Psalter, the Proper for the day and a Common while praying the Hours. I'm in next of extra fingers these days. The Advent volume of my breviary is double-marked - one set of ribbons marking where we are now, the first week of Advent and a bookmark set where we will be in a few weeks -- on the cusp of Christmas.

The Advent reflections I've been writing for the Standard & Times need to be sent off to the editor a week or 10 days before they appear. We're not quite at the 2nd Sunday of Advent and I'm in the throes of writing the last reflection - which will be in the paper just before the 4th Sunday of Advent.

More so than in most seasons, this Advent my prayer tastes of Ignatian repetition. I am embarking on my personal Advent contemplations having already spent the better part of 4 weeks soaking in the Advent readings in the Lectionary and the Hours. And I am finding them to be sharper versions of the contemplations that resulted in the published reflections — very much repetitions of the contemplations in the Ignatian sense. When Ignatius instructed those making the Exercises to repeat a contemplation, the idea was not a step by step review, but a sharpening of the lens, a revisiting of the places that seemed to bear the most fruit. The point was not to dig out something new, but to deepen what had been there from the start.

I'm looking forward to being wholly in Advent for a bit. Soon and very soon...

The photo was taken during my 30-day retreat, the view is from my room, of a pine tree behind Eastern Point retreat house, just after a blizzard.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Column: Waiting with an aching intensity

How much do I want God? Am I waiting for Christ with the "aching intensity" of the prophets? Do I come to God gasping, as if my next breath depended on Him? I haven't been able to get this question out of my head (or my prayer) in nearly a year.

Photo is of Chris coming up for air under a waterfall.

This reflection appeared as part of the Catholic Standard & Times' Advent series on 2 December 2010.

O Lord, we look to you; your name and your title are the desire of our souls. My soul yearns for you in the night, yes, my spirit within me keeps vigil for you. — Isaiah 26:8b-9a.

I’ve been suffering from an ear worm all afternoon, five measures of music that I can’t shake out of my head. The more firmly I try to squelch the annoying snippet, the wilder the cognitive conga dance becomes, snaking through my thoughts as I listen to a talk about organic chemistry and chasing me as I chop onions for dinner.

Experience tells me if I just ignore the cerebral itch, it will have vanished when I wake up in the morning. The same cannot be said for the recurring fragment that has been haunting my prayer for almost a year.

The metaphorical itch began last Advent, when Jesuit Father Paul Campbell posted a wisdom tale on his blog, People for Others. The story begins with a hermit meditating by a river when he is approached by a young man who wants to know how to find God. In response, the hermit pushes the young man into the river and holds him under water. When the young man comes up gasping for breath, the hermit asks him what he most desired. “Air!” He responds. “Go home,” says the hermit, “and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air.”

I can’t shake the question out of my head: do I want God as much as I want air? Can I say unhesitatingly, as does Isaiah, that God is the desire of my soul, who my soul yearns for in the night? In one form or another the question has threaded its way through my prayer from Advent to Easter and into the long stretch of Ordinary Time. I have no answers; I can only say that I am unwilling to banish the question.

As Advent rolls around again, the question continues to insinuate itself into my meditations, but it’s taken on a new urgency. This is, after all, a season replete with anticipation, a season that looks to the time when God will come. What am I waiting for? Exactly how eager am I for its arrival?

Anticipation comes from the Latin capere, to seize. To anticipate means more than to expect, more than looking forward to what will come. To anticipate is to grasp the future possibilities now, not when they finally arrive. The prophets anticipated the reality of Christ’s coming, waiting for God to fulfill His promises with such an “aching intensity” that they became part of what was yet to unfold. St. Jerome called Isaiah more evangelist than prophet, and counted him among the apostles. Some ancient commentators have gone so far as to suggest that if all four gospels were lost to us, the whole of the Good News could be found in Isaiah; it’s a “fifth gospel!”

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer worried that in our almost routine expectation of the glad tidings of Christmas, we no longer felt “the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us.” We forget that in His coming God lays claim to us. I wonder if my unwillingness to let go of the question of whether I long for God as for air is a step toward a deeper awareness of what Christmas brings to earth. And if my inability to wholeheartedly answer “yes” reflects a touch of fear, an awareness that such an answer is an offer to let God be at work within me.

In the readings this second week of Advent, Isaiah’s words glow with promise, the eyes of the blind will be opened, but are also tinged with God’s claim on us, if you hearken to my commandments, your prosperity would be like a river. These are words meant to arouse our longings — and our consciences.

I still have no answer to the question that hovers over my prayer, but I can imagine that the divine asker is anticipating my reply. The Holy Spirit is not waiting on my “yes” or “no” but offering me the prophet’s way of anticipation. A way that cannot help but live and breathe what it awaits. Reflecting on the tale of the hermit and the young man, Father Campbell has no answers either, “This much I know, I want to want God as much as air. That’ll have to do for the present.”

I, too, am willing to want to want God with all my being. Isaiah reminds us that God anticipates our desires: I am the Lord, your God, who grasps your right hand; It is I who say to you, “Fear not, I will help you.” That’ll have to do.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Silent Night - Not!

The Ironic Catholic opines that being forced to listen to Christmas music in the grocery store in November makes her feel (and I quote) like a "sleazy liturgical strumpet." I get it, I do.

One of the joys of winter in my life are night time walks through the neighborhood. The sharp cold, the clear skies and bright stars tend to provoke the same clarity in my nightly examen. I don't even mind the Christmas lights, for the most part. They seem to be just stars brought down to earth.

Except. My neighbors have created a display that blinks and flashes. In time to music. Music that I can hear. And no Rudolf, it's not Advent music.

Photo is copyright 2008, wallyg. From flickr.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


My brother, Geek Guru, and family came for Thanksgiving. When they arrived Wednesday night (bearing the yet to be cooked turkey), I was tucking various already prepared dishes into the 'fridge. Favorite Facebook Nephew watched me consider which small container to put where, moving one or two others to accommodate an odd shape. The light went on in his head, "You're playing Tetris!"

I can see it now, the opening screen is a closed refrigerator door, you open it to find a 3-D game zone, with various condiments, packages and leftovers hovering in the upper right hand corner. Level 1 does not include the door or small toddlers around your ankles. The goal is to pack it as efficiently as possible without dropping items to the floor, or leaving the turkey out on the counter all night.

tetris, v. intr. to pack a fixed volume with items of irregular shape under time constaints

Photo is from xkcd.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Column: Advent is a time for rousing

The photo is from a walk on the 30-day retreat, following a suggestion from my director to enjoy the contrariness of a warm blizzard. In much the same way, this piece (the first of a four part series reflecting on the ways the prophetic call speaks to us in Advent) considers the contrariness of Advent's stillness and hecticness.

This piece appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 11 November 2010.

Lift up your eyes and look. For who made the stars but He who drills them like an army calling each one by name. So mighty is His power, so great His strength, that not one fails to answer. — Isaiah 40:26

“Why does this time of year have to be so crazy?” lamented my friend. He longed for time to sit, like Mary, with the unfolding mystery of the Incarnation but instead faced a veritable firestorm of commitments. Papers to grade, faculty meetings to attend and exams to write were balanced precariously on top of a frantic round of social activities and holiday commitments, while the routine demands of life struggled to make their presence known.

I pointed out to my childless friend that my experience as an expectant mother suggested that the last few weeks leading up to the birth of Jesus were probably not all that contemplative for Mary either.

A first-time mother, unsure of precisely when this baby will be born, or even how to be sure that the time is near, in a community that is rife with rumors about this child and perhaps less than supportive, preparing for and then undertaking an arduous journey with her new husband? All this in the days before you could buy packages of onesies and disposable diapers at the big box store or get FedEx to deliver a last minute item? I imagine that, at times, Mary felt as frazzled and stretched as we do in these last weeks before Christmas.

I admit that I, too, covet the stillness and peace that Advent so richly advertises in its hymns and psalms. May peace be within your walls, we sing in the psalm this first Sunday of Advent. I’ve tried in the past for a stance of extravagant “unbusyness” in this frantic season. A small dose of agere contra, a “pushing against” the external social cues, I have elected to watch and wait more than dash and dance through these Advent days.

It’s a radical notion, but one that I’ve recently begun to wonder might also be more than a bit rash. Have I romanticized Advent? In turning away from the hecticness could I be missing something God is trying to show me?

Jesuit Father Alfred Delp, whose moving reflections on Advent were written while he was imprisoned and awaiting execution by the Nazis and smuggled out with the laundry, pulls out a similar thread to contemplate. Delp begins with the stark statement, “Advent is the time for rousing.” He goes on to point out, “The kind of awakening that literally shocks a person’s whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea.”

Throughout Advent, we hear in the readings at Mass from the prophets: Malachi, Jeremiah, Zephaniah and above all from Isaiah. Certainly the prophets speak of peace, but less as a present reality and more as a hope and a challenge. The prophets came to rouse people.

Rabbi Abraham Herschel, in his book The Prophets points out, “Reading the words of the prophets is a strain on the emotions, wrenching one’s conscience from the state of suspended animation.” Shudder, you complacent ones, says Isaiah (Is. 49:2).

The Church feeds with the prophets in this season, not to bring us on tip toe to a softly lit manger, but to strain us, shake us, to upend things completely. We are walking toward an encounter with God incarnate, who calls the stars — and us — with such strength, who could fail to answer? This is the moment that, as Delp says, “Humanity will be shaken to its very depth.” God will dwell among us. The might and power that creates and moves the stars will become man.

We are not shaken without purpose. We hear the prophets of old to learn how to live as prophets now. We are sealed at our baptism with the oil of chrism, and in the doing, brought into Christ’s prophetic mission. The very name of the sacrament comes from the Greek word for “plunge” — surely a shock to the system. Prophets listen, call out, pour forth. They do not fail to answer.

As Advent begins, I’m seeking not a hushed stillness but the grace of a steady gaze that does not turn away from the tumultuous and the unsettling. Can I let the voices of Isaiah and Jeremiah in the liturgy wrench me out of my usual paths and turn my ear toward the world, to the place where God chose to dwell in time? Can I awaken to the Voice that drills the stars like armies? Advent is a time for rousing.

God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share His wisdom and become one with Him when he comes in glory, for he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer for the First Sunday in Advent

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Telegraph, Telephone, Tele-mom

As my immediate family spread out across the country in the 80's and 90's, we depended on my mom to keep us all in touch. Too many time zone, and our jobs or studies (or both) often had us on odd schedules. The joke went there were three ways to get a message out: telegraph, telegraph and tele-mom. (Email is included in the "tele-mom" process - my mom was on email from the early days...)

In search of directions to connect to the wireless, I opened the customary information binder in one of the hotels I stayed at during my peripatetic period. Included in the book were instructions on how to send a telegram. I'm over 50 and have never sent a telegram, and in fact do not even remember a telegram being delivered to my house! Does anyone still send them? Why was this considered important information (in a quite modern hotel, no less).

Western Union stopped sending telegrams in 2006, (in person delivery had ceased years before). What's old is new again, though. Like Twitter and SMS, brevity encouraged odd constructions STOP. (This booklet about how to write a proper telegram is a fascinating read.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Column: Elected Stability

Can you tell I'm ready to be home?

The photo is from a relief hanging in the western cloister at Wernersville.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 17 November 2010.

One thing I ask of the Lord; this I seek: To dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. — Ps. 27:4a

“There are four kinds of monks,” begins the Rule of St. Benedict: those that stay put and have a rule of life, those who go unbound by a common obedience and those who have neither rule nor stable community — the wanderers, the gyrovagues.

Benedict, not surprisingly, looked most favorably on those monks who lived in community, under a rule and an abbot, and even musters a word or two of praise for hermits and anchorites. But the gyratory monks who “all their lives wander in different countries staying in various monasteries for three or four days at a time,” St. Benedict can find nothing to praise in their “wretched life style.”

I need no encouragement from the good saint. After six weeks of wandering in different countries, spending three or four or 10 days sleeping in various hostels and the occasional airplane seat, I’m more than ready to give up my gyratory ways.

Though grateful for the technology that lets me see their faces as well as hear their voices wherever I go, I miss my family deeply when I travel. Drinking my morning cup of tea at a desk, while they eat their dessert half a day and half a world away, is not the same as sharing the same meal at the same table. Clearly I have, as 11th century Benedictine monk St. Anselm advised, “set down roots of love” in the community in which I have professed my vows. My family.

What surprised me, though, was how much I missed the community I pray with. The first morning back at Lauds, as the other side took up its strophe of the psalm, I felt suddenly relieved of a burden I did not know I was carrying. I was not making this time of prayer alone, but was gathered into the rhythm of the community’s voice, as we handed the work of God carefully back and forth over the altar.

St. Benedict called the community a workshop for stability, a spot to learn the virtue of being present to God in the place where you are. Here and now. In the place we have set down our roots of love. For Benedict’s monks, that place was built of real stones and mortar. Most of us must instead seek an interior stability, rooted less in an enclosed place and more in an encompassing love.

The community I celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours with been a good workshop to help me build an interior stability, a monastery of the heart. The work demands presence. It teaches me to keep my mind here and now, and simultaneously to be ready to grasp what is being handed to me.

In his Genesse Diary, Father Henri Nouwen, exhausted by his own travels, reflected on this inner stability, that whether he was “at home or … in a train, plane or airport, I would not feel irritated ... and desirous of being somewhere else ... I would know that here and now is what counts … because it is God Himself who wants me at this time in this place.”

To elect St. Benedict’s virtue of stability, is to move beyond being resigned to where I am, beyond patiently enduring the vicissitudes of travel — or of life at home — but to desire with all my heart to see what God wants me to see. Here and now. In this place and at this time.

God our Father, great builder of the heavenly Jerusalem, You know the number of the stars and call each of them by name. Heal hearts that are broken, gather together those who have been scattered, and enrich us all from the plentitude of Your eternal wisdom. Amen. — Psalm prayer from Morning Prayer, Thursday, Week IV

Monday, November 15, 2010

Advent is the time for rousing

I'm in the throes of writing four reflections on Advent for the paper. I took a long contemplative walk at the old Jesuit novitiate last week with various possiblities and by the end had settled on exploring some themes from Isaiah. What are the prophets of rousing us to here and now, how do we respond to our own baptismal call to be a prophet?

I love the stillness that Advent traditionally promotes, and have argued in the past for a stance of "extravagant unbusyness." But this year I've been reading Rabbi Abraham Herschel's book The Prophets. His initial reflection, "What manner of man is the prophet?" offers, "Reading the words of the prophets is a strain on the emotions, wrenching one's conscience from the state of suspended animation." Shudder, you complacent ones, says Isaiah [Is 49:2].

Jesuit Alfred Delp, reflecting on Advent in his last days in prison pulls out a similar thread. (He would be executed less than two months later by the Nazis for being part of a plot to kill Hitler, a bit of history in which Math Man's family plays a role, which may be at least a small part of why I find Delp's writings so deeply moving) Delp starkly states, "Advent is the time for rousing. Humanity is shaken to the very depths...The kind of awakening that literally shocks a person's whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea."

My favorite reading of all of Advent is this one from Isaiah (and in this particular translation as well), which this year is absent from the cycle (the feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th takes precedence in the calendar).

Photo is from the walk at the Jesuit center.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


gyrovague, n. an itinerant monk. From the Greek gyrus- (circle, circuit) and the Latin vagus (wandering).

It's not a compliment - at least in St. Benedict's mouth. "The fourth kind of monks are those called gyrovagues, who spend their whole lives seeking hospitality in province after province, monastery after monastery, staying three or four days at a time; always wandering and never stable...Of the most wretched life of all these it is better to remain silent than to speak. Leaving these behind us, therefore, let us proceed, with the help of God, to make provision for the cenobites–the strong kind of monks." [ed. note: I've left out the worst of Benedict's characterization of the wandering monastic - which I feel safe saying does not apply to me.]

The last of Ellis Peters' wonderful mystery novels about Benedictine Brother Cadfael, Brother Cadfael's Penance, takes up this theme. Cadfael leaves his monastery, to which he's vowed stability, to go to France. His abbot worries that Cadfael will become a gyrovague. Cadfael ultimately returns, though it was a struggle and he ends doing penance prostrate on the floor of the abbey church (a place I've actually been, though Cadfael is quite thoroughly fictional).

I'm packing up to leave one more time, for a short residency in Virginia. I'm having a hard time putting my clothes into the suitcase, I've no desire to leave again quite this soon. I've ended up packing far more than I usually would, carrying along some comforts of home (hot chocolate, a vase for flowers with the notion I'll stop at the supermarket near the campus) and tons of books. And so this time I'll drive instead of taking the train. Returning via I-95 may be penance enough, no need to prostrate myself!

Photo is of Shrewsbury Abbey church. From Wikimedia commons.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Five hours and fifty-four minutes

No, this is not a allusion to John Cage's 4' 33'' (though 5 hours and 54 minutes of silence has a certain appeal for me). It's the upper limit to the amount of sleep I got last night. My alarm is a zen bell sound, and one of the 'features' is a countdown timer. So when I hit the "start" button, I get instant feedback on the number of hours of sleep I might (under the best of circumstances) manage.

In the car this morning, taking Barnacle Boy to his radio gig, I mentioned that 5 hours and 54 minutes of sleep was just not enough. "How did you know to the minute?" he wondered. I explained. "That's creepy!" I wasn't going to argue with him.

In some ways it is a bit creepy to know to the minute the upper limit on the sleep that I can get. And depressing to be reproached by my own alarm about my sleep habits. It's sort of like opening the menu at a restaurant you've traveled a long way to eat at and seeing the calorie counts for everything, including dessert.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Column: Rending the oak tree and stripping the forest bare

Not only the church, but my whole body literally shook with the power of these bells. And they went on and on...

More on the historic churches of Singapore here.

The photo is of the bell at Mission San Antonio in California.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard and Times on 11 November 2010.

The Lord’s voice shaking the wilderness, the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh; the Lord’s voice rending the oak tree and stripping the forest bare. — Ps. 29:8-9

From the street it looked just like any other city parking lot, with its glass enclosed attendant and ticket machine. A small sign on the gate, “SS. Peter and Paul. Lot closes at 9 p.m.,” was the only indication I was in the right spot. I crossed the parking lot to the old stone church set back from the street, its steeple dwarfed by the high-rises that surrounded it.

I walked up the steps and into the church, where I was promptly stunned by what the small stone facade had concealed. The white-washed plaster walls, the arcing dome overhead and the floor to ceiling side windows, open to let in even the smallest breeze in Singapore’s tropical heat, created an illusion of infinite space. The entire place seemed to breathe life into the words of the creed: “God from God, Light from Light.” The triptych of stained glass windows high above the altar were like glowing jewels in the late afternoon sun.

I slid into a pew and knelt. The sultry air encouraged stillness, and I surrendered to the quiet in front of the tabernacle, listening for the small, still voice of God in this place.

Suddenly the silence was battered by a great clamor of bells. The very church shook. They rang and rang and rang, calling the faithful to worship with full voice for more than five minutes. When the pealing at last ceased, the air still seemed to shimmer with the sound.

As I knelt under that torrent of sound, I thought of the images the psalmist uses in Psalm 29: The voice of the lord shaking the earth, and stripping the forest bare — the voice of the Lord, full of power.

For more than 1,500 years, bells have been the voice of the Church, in weal and woe, warning of danger and announcing celebration. I generally think of bells as a summons, as an invitation to a gathering whose reason is yet a mystery. Just as St. Francis Xavier’s hand bell intrigued passers-by enough to come hear what he had to say about the Gospel, I still look around for the church when I hear bells ring, wondering what news they are announcing.

Yet this deluge of sound did more than summon — even amidst the noise of the city — it reverberated with power and might. This is the voice, reflected St. Augustine, “that stirred to faith the peoples who were once without hope and without God in the world, where no prophet, no preacher of the word of God was to be found…” This was a voice that could shatter despair and shake life into stones in the desert.

The bells are more than the voice of God calling us to prayer, to come and hear. This is a call to be changed by a Voice that has an effect here and now. A Voice that makes manifest His strength, shaking me out of my complacency, stripping me of my own words, and putting His own Word to work within me.

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. Amen. — From the Opening Prayer for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Merry, Mary and Marry

Mary-marry-merry merger (from Wikipedia)
One of the best-known pre-rhotic mergers is known as the Mary-marry-merry merger,[4] which consists of the mergers before intervocalic /r/ of /æ/ and /ɛ/ with historical /eɪ/.[5] This merger is quite widespread in North America.[sample 1] A merger of Mary and merry, while keeping marry distinct, is found in the South and as far north as Baltimore, Maryland, and Wilmington, Delaware; it is also found among Anglophones in Montreal.[6] In the Philadelphia accent the three-way contrast is preserved, but merry tends to be merged with Murray; likewise ferry can be a homophone of furry. (See furry-ferry merger below.) The three are kept distinct outside of North America, as well as in the accents of Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, and Providence, Rhode Island.[7][sample 2] There is plenty of variance in the distribution of the merger, with expatriate communities of these speakers being formed all over the country.

I grew up in the Midwest, where the pre-rhotic merger is firmly entrenched. Memories of my New York mother (trying to form her own expatriate community, I presume) drilling us in the bathtub so we would preserve the "three-way contrast" came flooding back today. She was successful in that (if I concentrate) I can give each of the three a unique pronounciation. Unfortunately, occasional drills could not overcome the peer effect and at pace, it's all sounds the same coming from my mouth. Sorry, Mom!

The memories were triggered when, in the midst of a reflection I was giving for a day of renewal for mothers, I encountered this phrase in my text: "immanent and imminent". They look different on paper, sound different in my head. Alas, they don't sound different when I say them. Stuffed between two nasal consonants, my /ə/and my /ɪ/ (respectively) are indistinguishable.

The difference between writing for the column and writing to speak is significant.

Photo is of a painting that hung in the stairwell at Eastern Point Retreat House when I made the Exercises, and that I spent a fair amount of time contemplating. I used it to make prayer cards to give to the retreatants today. I think the day of renewal went well - a taste of Ignatian spirituality for mothers.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Column: Traveling Mercies

This column had its genesis in this blog post, and the various wishes for mercies on my travels. The travels were indeed full of graces, big and small. The friend of a friend who took me to Mass (murmuring the occasional explanation for the differences between the celebrations usual in Singapore and those in the US) and then out to dinner the first night I was there. The students who explained how to get to the other side of campus in a rainstorm (the campus bus!). The immigration officer who filled in my landing card (which I had screwed up royally) only teasing me I should be kind to my students on their next exam....

The photo is of a flower in the botanical gardens in Singapore.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 4 Nov 2010.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for it is by doing so that some have entertained angels without knowing it. — Hebrews 13:2

I am an itinerant scholar these days, teaching and writing far from my usual haunts. The last few weeks have seen me traveling up and down the Northeast corridor from Princeton, N.J., to Washington, D.C., and as I write this, I am on a plane headed to London, en route to Singapore.

I’ve learned to travel lightly, trusting that I will find what I need along the way — or just do without. Still, my bag coming back from Virginia last week was anything but light. I had brought almost 20 pounds of books with me to work on a writing project in between workshops and guest lectures. And I bought more while I was there — heedless of the four train connections that stood between me and home. (Small wonder I resonate with the 12th century Carthusian Abbot who as his monastery burned exhorted the monks to save not themselves, but, “The books, my brothers, the books!”)

Changing trains on my way to Union Station, I discovered to my dismay that not only were the escalators out of service, so were the elevators. So much for luggage on wheels. I resolutely picked up my bag and hauled it up the first three steps, and took a breather. Another four steps. I hoisted the bag up again, trying not to mentally count the number of steps remaining.

Suddenly my bag seemed to float, I looked back to see a young woman holding the other end high and almost dancing up the steps. In seconds we were at the top. As I turned to thank my rescuer, she grinned, murmured, “God bless you,” and dashed off; my words of gratitude and blessing bobbing along in her wake.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds the community to care for the stranger, just in case they are angels in disguise. I momentarily wondered if I’d been entertained by an angel in Metro Center, rather than the other way ‘round. Regardless, it was a profound traveling mercy.

Before I embarked on this month of travels, a friend promised me prayers for “traveling mercies” along the way. In Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith Anne Lamott writes of the older women of her church community who send travelers off with this same prayer. They mean, she says, “Love the journey. God is with you. Come home safe and sound.”

I sometimes think of traveling mercies as just-in-time grace — like the young woman who came to my aid on the stairs. But it is also grace that sharpens my eyes for God. Traveling takes me out of the places I know well, pushes me out of my comfort zone. All this reminds me that I’m equally on journey when I’m back home and so to be attentive to the mercies to be found there.

My suitcase clearly advertised my status as a traveler to my energetic helper (and my graying hair, perhaps, my need of a traveling mercy). But we are all travelers and our need of mercy is just as great at home as on the road. Now I’m looking out not only for the mercies shown me — on the road or at home — but those I might offer to my fellow travelers.

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May he look upon you with kindness, and give you peace. Amen. From the solemn blessing for Ordinary Time I.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Big Silence

Read about the BBC's "The Big Silence" - which followed five people to a Benedictine monastery and on an 8-day Ignatian retreat. The site, Growing Into Silence, is a project of the British province of the Jesuits.

I'd love to see the show...

Monday, November 01, 2010

Burn these clothes

After wearing the same clothes for 36 straight hours of brutal travel, I wanted nothing more than to burn them, or toss them down a oubliette, or throw them into the replicators to have their molecules re-arranged into something (anything) different.

I settled for a good wash. And a very long shower.

Last traveling mercy? A "ten minute beat up" by a lovely young woman staffing the express spa (isn't this an oxymoron?) at Heathrow. The massage left me in such a puddle I wondered if I'd be able to get on the plane.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Silk strands

On the last day of the only eight day retreat I've made with Patient Spiritual Director, he suggested an exercise to "gather up the crumbs" and see what baskets they might fill. As I hunch here in my window seat, 39,000 feet above the Atlantic, the seat in front of me less than 8 inches away (on occasion perilously closer as the hulking young man in the seat in front of me throws his weight around), it seems like a good time to gather the last few strands from this trip.

Singapore is a city of flats, mostly high-rise flats. I loved the flag poles that bristled from the buildings, festooned with drying laundry. Some flats sported as many as five. I wondered what would happen if (when?) the laundry blew off.

Taxis. They and the MRT train line were my magic carpets to Singapore Island. They could be summoned with a click of the computer at the front desk, or an SMS. I loved the little slips that the desk would give me, with the time to arrival and the taxi number on them. A ticket to my next adventure. The biggest adventure was often coming back, trying to direct the taxi driver to the hotel on the large campus I was staying at, usually in the dark, and at speed (and on the "wrong" side of the road).

Despite the heat and humidity, Singapore is not locked up tight in air conditioned bunkers like Houston. Windows are open in the high-rises, shops open into the air, corridors in buildings on campus likewise often open into the out of doors. My hotel alas did not have windows that opened (a concession to overseas guests less adjusted to the heat?), and the A/C in my room had no off switch, just cold and colder. I finally resorted to sleeping in my hoody.

Bargaining in the shops in Little India. I've not lost my touch since the Oaxaca markets.

Immigration and border control at Changi. A whole bowlful of hard candies on the counter. "Lolly?" offered the official. I decorously took one, only to be encouraged to take a handful. (A traveling mercy later when I had a tickle in my throat and nothing to drink!)

The pastel colored shophouses in Little India. The Deepavali market on Seragoon Road, so packed you could hardly move, and the attempts the young woman at one stall and I made to try to fish down a lantern in the jostling crowd.

The fabric stores on Arab Street. I could have stayed all day, just going from shop to shop. When I got on the MRT to go back to the hotel, I noticed my bright purple bag had strands of silk along the side, undoubtedly caught as I wove my way between the bolts that littered the sidewalk, advertising the wares within. The little perfume shop, tucked into a corner of one of the old shophouses in Kampong Glam.

The shopkeeper who showed me how to wear a sari, and the cheerful Indian woman, a fellow shopper urging me to "do check it out in the mirror, dear, you look very nice!". I bought the sari, yards and yards of midnight blue silk chiffon, edged in gold. What will I do with it???

The beautiful Tamil script. Maybe we could borrow some for quantum mechanical symbols?

The public service announcements on the MRT, "Love your ride!" sung by Singapore's equivalent of the Dixie Chicks. Give up your seat to the old and infirm (someone gave me a seat!), don't block the exits while waiting to board at the station.

Singapore Eats

You'll never go hungry in Singapore, I was told. There is food on virtually every corner, and many places are open 24 hours And in this cross-roads city, it's not just the sheer number of restaurants, but the incredible variety of cuisines that are available. I ate Malay food, several different types of Chinese cuisine, Indian food, Indonesian food, Japanese food, Middle Eastern food, and one night, Italian. For the most part I tried not to eat anything I ate at home, or that I thought I could easily find at home, and generally let my hosts do the ordering.

What did I like? Fried bananas with red bean paste. Delicate pancakes folded over slivers of duck with crispy skin. (The rest of the duck returned later that meal cut into tiny bits and stir fried with green onions and puffs of rice noodle.).

Balls of spicy chicken thread onto a skewer and grilled. They are piled onto trays and when you order they are rapidly picked off the top of the stack, dunked in sauce and slid into a bag.

Tiny, the size of my fingernail, deep fried prawns, heads, tails, shells and all. Salty and crunchy, they were as addictive as pretzels. Once I got over eating the eyes.

Singapore's signature disk, chili crab. Think Maryland crabs, but spicier and larger. They are typically sold by weight, and served with small buns that have a fluffy white interior, perfect for sopping up (and moderating) the spicy sauce. I had them at a lovely, elegant restaurant not far from the university where I was staying. You eat these with your hands, it's definitely a messy affair, so when they brought out the crab, they also tied bibs around us. Unlike the traditional lobster bibs, no weird graphics!

A cup of thick plain yogurt with mango sauce, bought at a hawker's market. (Hawker's markets are collections of food stands, like Philly's food trucks, but all gathered in one spot. Incredibly cheap, wonderful ways to sample lots of different things.)

Prata, a fried flat bread. Think tortilla or naan. (See the photos, it's a marvel to watch being made - like pizza dough, but at high speed!)

Steamboat buffet. You order two types of broth which are brought to the boil on a hot plate on the table. Pick what you would like from a list of about thirty different things to cook in the broth. Thin slices of beef, whole prawns, spinach, lettuce, tofu. We had a spicy broth and an oxtail broth. All this came with a steady stream of soup dumplings, steamed dumplings with a bit of meat inside and a tablespoon of broth. I hiked about 3 miles in the morning, and another 3 in the afternoon, ate fruit and yogurt for lunch and still couldn't do justice to this marvelous meal - or have room for dessert (though I did try a bite of a "jelly" of unknown flavor, definitely herbal).

Pizza. Crisp, perfect anchovy pizza.

Acquired tastes that I didn't acquire. Sesame ice cream. I like green tea ice cream, I like sesame as a flavor, but this combination did not do anything for me. Korean street sausage. Think a corn dog, rolled in potato cubes and deep fried. Another hawker's market sampling, at a stand that was supposed to be the best place in Singapore to get this treat.

Barley water. Soy milk, unsweetened or with simple syrup stirred in. My usual drink of choice (Diet Coke) was hit or miss. I could always find it at the hawker's markets, but some restaurants only served non-diet sodas. Lime juice turned out to be a fine option. No alcohol, on top of the jet lag that would have been a sure way to sleep through a meal!

Things I was too chicken to try! Durian. Apparently you either love or hate this stinky fruit. (I asked the students doing a writing workshop with me to do an exercise about durian - it was instructive for us all!) The smell is so strong and off-putting that you cannot bring it on public transportation in Singapore, and it's banned from many hotels. After one of my hosts told me that he tried durian to see what his wife so loved about it, I asked him what it was like. "I threw up!" This was not an encouraging sign. I did see fallen durian on my walk in the jungle, but never managed to find a good time to sample it. Dinner with my university hosts just did not seem like quite the right spot!

Pig offal soup. It's the name, totally the name. I have it on good authority that it's actually quite tasty!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Still and Silent

Inward/Outward posted this quote from Henri J. M. Nouwen today. After a very active week, where the temptation to just skip my meditation time in favor of falling exhausted into bed at the end of the day (or scraping a few minutes extra at the start), I'm very aware of the temptations that can arise around a regular practice. And of the momentum that builds when I don't forgo that time, that draws me again and again to that still point.
We need quiet time in the presence of God. Although we want to make all our time time for God, we will never succeed if we do not reserve a minute, an hour, a morning, a day, a week, a month, or whatever period of time, for God and God alone.

This asks for much discipline and risk taking because we always seem to have something more urgent to do and "just sitting there" and "doing nothing" often disturbs us more than it helps. But there is no way around this. Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer.

In the beginning we often hear our own unruly inner noises more loudly than God's voice. This is at times very hard to tolerate. But slowly, very slowly, we discover that the silent time makes us quiet and deepens our awareness of ourselves and God.

Then, very soon, we start missing these moments when we are deprived of them, and before we are fully aware of it an inner momentum has developed that draws us more and more into silence and closer to that still point where God speaks to us.

The photo is of orchids at Singapore's Botanical Gardens