Thursday, January 28, 2010

Column: Lost and Found in the Spiritual Exercises

If this column sounds familiar, it's because it had its genesis in this post.

The column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 28 January 2010.

Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; everyone who searches finds; everyone who knocks will have the door opened.
— Lk. 11:9-10

Si quaeris miracula... “If thou seekest miracles...” So starts the responsary for St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things. Earlier last week, I was searching, not for a miracle per se, but for something I’d lost: the handwritten outline of the book I’m writing.

No, I didn’t re-file it. No, I didn’t accidentally clip it to any of my research notes. Yes, I really should have made a copy. I momentarily contemplated tearing my study apart in search of the missing sheets but mustered whatever self-discipline I possessed and gave it up. It would either resurface or not, but my time was better spent writing rather than rummaging.

As I headed out to an appointment late that afternoon, abandoning the debris of the day on my desk, I thought of my mother. She would have said, “pray to St. Anthony.” Part of me thought it silly to pray to find the outline, its loss surely an inconvenience, but not a tragedy. It hardly seemed to merit saintly intercession — or divine intervention.

A recent conversation with a Jesuit friend about praying for one’s own needs, as well as the needs of others, came to mind. Any grace that I might receive, he pointed out, was not depriving anyone else. God’s love was infinite. Perhaps I could practice what was preached.

So, before I headed out the door, I briefly turned my thoughts to St. Anthony and asked that he intercede with the Lord on my behalf in retrieving the outline from whatever alternate dimension it might have fallen into.

An hour later, I was back in my study, tidying up. As I picked up the folder with my notes for the current chapter, what did I find neatly placed underneath it? The outline. Surely it had been stuck to the bottom of the folder all along ... but I offered heartfelt thanks to God and Anthony for this tiny miracle nonetheless!

I was glad to have the outline back, but the experience made me wonder why I seem to reserve prayer for the huge things, turning to God only for the needs I think are truly desperate? I start each day at my desk with St. Ignatius’ Suscipe, praying, “Whatsoever I have or hold, You have given me, I give it all back to You” but suspect at one level I’ve been missing what Ignatius has in mind when he recommends this prayer to those seeking God. It’s not just the important things, not just the big gifts, that I’m offering with those words, it’s everything.

Praying for what might seem on the surface to be inconsequential serves a deeper purpose, reminding me that all I have comes from God, from every breath to book outlines.

Why is St. Anthony the patron of lost items? It would seem a disgruntled novice left Anthony’s monastery, taking with him the saint’s psalter. Not only was the book itself valuable, but its margins contained St. Anthony’s handwritten notes for his conferences and sermons (sound familiar?). After Anthony’s impassioned prayer for the psalter’s return, the contrite novice brought it back.

My prayer might not have been quite as fervent as Anthony’s was, but his intercession returned to me not only what I was seeking, but something more — a renewed sense of all that God has given me. “Treasures lost are found again, when young or old his help implore.” More treasures than I had imagined.

Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. Take my memory, my understanding and my entire will. Whatsoever I have or hold, You have given me. I give it all back to you to and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more. Amen.— St. Ignatius, from the Spiritual Exercises

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Silent sketches

Drawing a brief breath in the midst of the chaos of this week, I drove up yesterday to see Patient Spiritual Director at the Jesuit retreat house in Wernersville. It was quiet. Quiet enough to hear a squirrel gnawing on a nut from its winter store. Quiet enough to hear the geese call overhead as the Jesuit community gathered in the chapel commended the body of their brother Clarence to God.

God's gentle humor was evident here and there. My confessor, trying to find just the right psalm for a penance. Could we Google it? My attempts to take advantage of an earlier than planned arrival (no traffic!) and take a quick nap were foiled - first by Patient Spiritual Director briskly knocking on the door, hoping to leave a note on the desk before I arrived; then by the housekeeper double-checking that the room was ready. I gave it up as a lost cause, and was so exhausted by back to back spiritual direction and shriving, that I turned in early. And so got nine (!) hours of sleep -- a grace, in retrospect, I so clearly needed.

Threads of poetry seeped into my dreams:
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

--John O'Donohue, For One Who is Exhausted in To Bless the Place Between Us

The calmness has claimed me, and so I can face the gaping maw that is the rest of the week (thanks kb for the image!) with some equanimity, if not complete calm...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Physics Help Line

When it comes to the phone when I'm writing, I'm all about hitting the mute button. But I usually check the number, just to be sure Crash hasn't had another gaga injury, or The Boy hasn't thrown up. It was my sister's cell number. Worried that something was wrong (it was the middle of the school day for her), I picked up. Quickly reassured that everything was OK, she wondered if she could ask me a question. "Sure." "It's about physics." Physics would not be my sister's forte, and I couldn't imagine what she wanted to know. "Go ahead," my curiousity was piqued. "Ok, you have two cars driving toward each other head on, they collide and stick together, how fast is the wreckage moving?" Huh??? "I'm trying to help a student."

I explain that she needs to use conservation of momentum, grateful that the vectors in this case are anti-parallel and not at some funky angle, and I walk her through setting up the momentum of the cars before the crash. Yes, she knows the masses of both cars -- and their speeds. Great, we're on a roll here. Then we start with the other side. I note we multiply the mass of the wreck by its velocity. "But I don't know the mass of the wreck," she moaned. "Sure you do, sweetie," I said encouragingly, "what happens when they collide? and stick?" She's my sister after all, and even if she's not a math maven, she's smart -- and she got it. It was then that she told me I was on the speaker phone, and her whole class could hear me. Eeek!

If you want to do the problem: Car A has a mass of 1500 kg and is moving at 50 mph head on toward Car B, which has a mass of 1400 kg and is moving at 10 mph (which is not a Honda Fit and does not contain any stained glass). How fast is the wreckage moving? In a frictionless universe, of course!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Column: My eyes stream with tears

My sister was married in this church, my mother buried from the parish. It's taken years to repair the damage in town. The last stone in the rebuilt middle school was set just a few week back; the mission church opened for Christmas. There is still a steaming sulfurous hold in the parking lot next to the town library. You can smell it from the highway.

What it will take to repair Haiti, and how long, I suspect we truly don't comprehend.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 21 January 2010.

Let my eyes stream with tears day and night, without rest, over the great destruction which overwhelms the virgin daughter of my people, over her incurable wound. — Jer. 14:17

The strange thing about earthquakes is how swiftly the change comes. There is no warning. No darkening sky, no rising waters. Suddenly, the earth shifts, shakes and moans. It’s over almost before you can grasp what is happening. But there is no mistaking what it leaves behind. Death and destruction.

Seven years ago, just before Christmas, the phone rang. A quake a third as strong as the one that leveled Port-au-Prince, Haiti, had struck; its epicenter just 20 miles away from my parents’ house. A friend was killed along with a co-worker when the building where she worked collapsed. My parents’ parish church was so badly damaged that a year later my mother’s funeral Mass would be held in the Franciscan novices’ recreation room, people and flowers spilling into the courtyard. Death and destruction, but on a scale I could comprehend, even as I grieved the losses.

The death and destruction in Port-au-Prince are incomprehensible. The bits that I read this morning spoke of a city paralyzed, of darkness, of unalloyed suffering. I could hardly bear to contemplate this reality; my eyes literally streamed with tears. Yet, at the very end of one article, I saw a sudden flicker of light in the midst of the excruciating pain. As darkness fell, the reporter wrote he could hear a single line in Creole sung over and over in the courtyard of the hospital and outside in the streets. “Beni Swa Leternel.” Blessed be the name of the Lord.

This is a faith that is as incomprehensible as the destruction. I am reminded of Jesuit Dean Brackley’s amazement at the fearless faith of the women of El Salvador, even as war raged around them. “Miré!” one woman told him — “Look! When you’ve hunted for your children among piles of corpses, you are no longer afraid. They can’t do anything to you anymore.”

If I ever fail to see that faith is God’s gift and cannot be destroyed by anything of this earth, nor achieved on our own, these words and the hymns sung in the streets of Port-au-Prince are humbling reminders.

Alfred Delp, S.J., himself awaiting execution by the Nazis, wondered how anyone could freely love God when disaster descends: “When life itself transfixes a person, tying him hand and foot, shutting him up in a prison with no possible outlet, of what use then are all decisions to live abundantly?” He goes on to answer himself, “The love of God, and the patient loving hands of those whose lives have not been afflicted…will help us.”

The people of Haiti are imprisoned in the rubble of their city, stripped of everything, in deep need of the loving hands of those of us who have not been afflicted. But from their poverty and pain, they offer us a rich gift and a challenge. They make manifest the words of Paul to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life…neither the present nor the future, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus.” And they challenge us to desire that same unshakeable faith.

In return, we can offer our help, not just now, but during the long process of rebuilding; not just the practical, but our prayers, that the faith of those in Haiti may be sustained through these dark days and difficult years ahead. A group of us from around the world, having exhausted for the moment what little we can on the practical front, are stopping on the hour to pray for our brothers and sisters in Haiti. I invite you to join us. We have faith that it will help.

The photos is of the interior of the church at Mission San Miguel Arcangel. Taken in 1934 by Roger Sturtevant of the National Park Service.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Column: Get up and walk

For the record, Chris washed his hands before each evening consult. A big change from five years ago, when he was morally opposed to hand washing!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 14 January 2010.

Now which of these is easier: to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up and walk?”
— Mt. 9:5

It happened so fast that at first I wasn’t even sure I was hurt. Chris and I were in the kitchen talking while I sliced rolls for sandwiches and he organized the rest of dinner. Suddenly the knife slipped. As I grabbed for a towel to put pressure on the wound, Chris sprang into action. He gathered the first aid supplies, washed and dried my hand, and when he was sure the bleeding had stopped, gently bandaged it for me. But his solicitude didn’t stop there. For the next several nights, Chris insisted on seeing my hand. He checked on the progress of the healing, and carefully re-bandaged it. I was touched by my son’s care, not just in the moment of the injury, but for my ongoing healing.

A few weeks later, as I was settling into the chair in my confessor’s office, my mind was on more metaphysical injuries. Reaching for his stole on the side table he asked, “Are things going better?” His words instantly brought Chris’ ongoing care for my physical wounds to mind. In his question I heard the Church’s concern not just for this one moment of sacramental forgiveness and reconciliation, but her care for us going forward — that we might be able to “get up and walk.”

In reflecting on this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, St. Jerome notes our very human need for physical signs that reflect and support the interior changes that the simple, but sometimes hard to comprehend, phrase “your sins are forgiven” signifies. I hear the words, “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” and have faith that at that moment I am forgiven.

Still, like the Pharisees who doubted whether Jesus could forgive sins, I, too, sometimes need a tangible sign to remind me that I am free of the sins that bound me — and that I will not be left to my own inadequate resources after sacramental absolution. My assigned penance often serves much as the bandage on my finger did, a sign to remind me to be mindful of my injury and an aid to its continued healing.

Pope John Paul II reminds us of these dual medicinal roles for the satisfaction, or penance, that sacramental confession imposes. He points out that penances should go beyond the mere recitation of formulas. Instead purposeful actions of worship, atonement, love and charity keep us aware “even after absolution there remains … a dark area, due to the wound of sin, to the imperfection of love in repentance, to the weakening of the spiritual faculties” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 31).

In the satisfaction required of her penitents, the Church offers us not magic words, nor even merely spiritual first-aid, but tangible signs of the new life we now live, and support in living it.

My hand has healed without even a scar, but the experience left its mark in other ways. Now each time I go to confession, I see in absolution and in penance the tender hand of God, gently cleaning my wounds and wrapping my still fragile soul round with His merciful care. I leave aware that not only are my sins forgiven, but that I can get up and walk as well.

I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do; and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God. Amen. — Confiteor

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Writing from the other side of my brain

My brain has two sides...the science side and the not science side? As Crash and the Boy would say, "Awkward?" I'd rather think it's more like the optical illusion where you see two different people, depending on where your focus is. Look at me one way, I'm a scientist, squint and I'm another thing entirely (if only I knew what to call it!) Whoever I am, I write.

In 2006, Bora Zivkovic put together the first edition of Open Laboratory, a print collection of the best science blogging of the year. Now in its 4th year, the 2009 edition, guest edited by scicurious at Neurotopia is going to press soon. A record 760 posts were nominated, winnowed down to fifty by scicurious and her panel of judges. The exciting news? One post of mine (The Pressure to Preserve) from the blog my other persona writes will be included....and I got this lovely blog button to display!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Si quaeris miracula

Si quaeris miracula...

"If thou seekest miracles
..." So starts the responsary for St. Anthony of Padua, invoked by Catholics for 700 years as the saint who could see that lost things were found. I like the traditional prayer -- composed by a contemporary of the good friar -- far better than the bouncy rhyming versions that seem more popular in this century:
Tony, Tony,
look around.
Something's lost
and must be found!
This morning, when I sat down to work on the book, I went to pull out the current version of the outline for the book, which I've scribbled notes all over and which I did NOT have a copy of. (Yes, I know. There are two kinds of users, those who've lost data, and those who will. Back-up.) No, I didn't re-file it. No, I didn't accidently clip it to any of the research notes I'd been working on on Friday. (Can you hear me getting more frantic?) After I found myself searching the recycling bin, I got a grip and decided that it would either resurface or not, but that I could better spend this time writing rather than rummaging. If it didn't resurface, the jottings were all in my brain, I shouldn't worry. (Right.)

I settled down to write, and did have a productive day. But as I headed out to a doctor's appointment late this afternoon, abandoning the debris of the day on my desk, I thought of my mother, who would have said, "pray to St. Anthony." (She, too, did not favor the rhymes.) Part of me thought it silly to pray to find the outline, by no measure -- even in my own life -- is it a tragedy or rises to the level of necessitating divine intervention. Still, when last I met with Patient Spiritual Director, we had a conversation about praying for one's own needs, as well as the needs of others. Any grace that might come my way as a result, was not depriving anyone else. Perhaps I could practice what was preached. So I briefly turned my thoughts to St. Anthony and asked that he might intercede with the Lord God in retrieving the outline from whatever dimension it might have fallen into, and headed out the door to see my doctor.

An hour later, I'm back in my study, shifting gears from writing to course prep. As I pick up the folder with my notes for the current chapter, what do I find neatly placed underneath it? The outline. I swear I picked that folder up multiple times. All I can think is that it must have been stuck to the bottom of the folder...but I offered a brief thanks to Anthony nonetheless!

And today is Tuesday - which is the traditional day to petition St. Anthony in Padua (not that I knew that before I sat down to write this....).

Why is St. Anthony the patron of lost items? It would seem a disgruntled novice left the monastery, taking with him St. Anthony's psalter. Not only was the book itself valuable, but it contained St. Anthony's handwritten notes for his conferences and sermons (sound familiar). After fervent prayer for the psalter's return, the contrite novice brought it back.

And while I'm at it -- why Tuesday? It's the day they brought his body back to Padua, where he had wanted to be.

Responsary of St. Anthony

If, then, thou seekest miracles,
Death, error, all calamities,
The leprosy and demons flee,
The sick, by him made whole, arise.

Ant: The sea withdraws and fetters break,
And withered limbs he doth restore,
While treasures lost are found again,
When young or old his help implore.

All dangers vanish from our path,
Our direst needs do quickly flee:
Let those who know repeat the theme:
Let Paduans praise St. Anthony. (repeat antiphon)

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. (repeat antiphon)

V. Pray for us, O blessed Anthony,
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Liturgical Garb

Liturgically Correct Shoes kedsshoe
On the way to Mass this afternoon, Crash announced a first -- he tied his own tie. Woot! I asked which one he selected. "The blue and red stripe. I thought the pink might not be quite right for Christmas season. So, when do you wear pink liturgically?" "Infrequently!" (Twice a year to be precise.) I couldn't resist telling him about these liturgically correct sneakers -- designed by the Ironic Catholic. The laces are pink, of course!

Meanwhile, check out the new Pray Tell blog by St. John's. logoi contributes - her first post is takes up what principles you might apply to make liturgy engaging for the youngest members of the assembly or, what's not quite right with the Santa vigil!

Liturgically Correct Shoes by IronicCatholic

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Column: In Quiet and In Trust Lies Your Strength

I've been contemplating this single line from Isaiah since well before Christmas. It appears neither in the current Roman Catholic lectionary, nor in any dating back at least 500 years. Yet the early Fathers had much to say about this single verse - there are at least six extant pieces of exegesis from a range of commentators, including Jerome and John Chrysostom.

A tip of the hat to artandsoul who reminded me of these gorgeous lines about waiting in East Coker - one of Eliot's Four Quartets.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 7 January 2010.

By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies.— Is. 30:15

I only had to go a quarter mile down Lancaster Avenue, but at 10 o’clock on Christmas Eve morning even that short stretch was already a daunting tangle of cars, punctuated by pedestrians darting from Acme to bakery, while a lone Haverford police officer struggled to keep order amidst the swirling chaos. The pre-Christmas frenzy was at its peak. I fled for home.

Twelve hours later, the same bit of road was eerily empty of cars and people. Streetlights shone down on bare parking lots, and storefronts were shuttered and dark as I drove to pick up Mike from his night’s stint as sacristan.

Tendrils of incense and the soft burble of conversation greeted me as I crept in the back door of the church. My jeans and sweatshirt a sharp contrast to the choir’s holiday finery, I slipped past the exuberant singers to help Mike straighten the pews and pick up the remains of the luminaries.

The calm and quiet within the church grew gradually deeper as lingering parishioners departed for home, musicians gathered up instruments and music, and Father Frank strode down the aisle on his way to the rectory.

Mike and I are the last to leave the church, still robed in its holy day finery, but now dim, still and soaked in silence. Soft echoes of Isaiah — in quiet and in trust your strength lies — follow me out the door.

We fly up to Christmas in a flurry of prayer and preparation: cooking, wrapping, rehearsing and shopping. No matter how contemplative a stance we seek, we remain sharply aware — much as Mary must have been — of an impending deadline. Suddenly the weeks of preparation climax in a glittering storm of music with candles ablaze, trumpets blasting, choirs exulting “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” Our tables groan with food, our houses overflow with family and friends.

And when all is said, done and sung, what do we hear? Silence. The Word has become Flesh, but cannot speak. Salvation is ours, not yet shouted from the housetop, but to be found in waiting and in calm, in quiet and in trust. I find it apt that this passage from Isaiah is never read at Mass — or in the Liturgy of the Hours. Its liturgical silence simply and eloquently underscores its substance.

Though Advent’s expectant hush has passed, St. Augustine reminds us not to give over that sense of quiet and stillness just yet: “See what God became for your sake; learn the lesson of such great lowliness, learn it even from a teacher not yet able to speak. … for your sake your Creator lay speechless, unable even to call his mother by her name.”

As I look toward Ordinary Time and the start of the next semester, I am tempted to move on to Christ preaching and teaching, to my life packed with the purposeful and practical. Isaiah and Augustine remind me not to rush on but to remain engaged with the lessons of the infant. To contemplate the mysteries of being yet unformed, speechless, of necessity trusting that needs will be met. It is an invitation to grow slowly with God, to watch the child to see the signs of what He will become.

So this year, instead of eagerly tearing into Christmas, and then sensibly tidying away the wrappings and remnants, I’m taking the season at a more deliberate pace, letting the very way these winter days unfold lead me. The days are longer, but they lengthen almost imperceptibly; a scant 40 seconds more of light each day.

As the Christmas season gently ebbs, I am listening for words yet unspoken, to a silence that stretches the dawn, and watching the stillness, catching glimpses of the dance to come. I am content to unwrap this particular Christmas gift of salvation and strength slowly.

“But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
— T.S. Eliot, East Coker

Monday, January 04, 2010

Repeating the Exercises

A year ago tonight I was in Boston, breaking the drive up from Philadelphia to Gloucester on my way to Eastern Point to make the Spiritual Exercises. I checked into my hotel, found a place to get my hair cut (the shortest it has ever been -- by the time the Long Retreat was over it had just about grown back to "just cut" length), and gone out to dinner. Tonight? I've written a thousand words on the book, made dinner, done the laundry and gone to a parish council meeting. The quiet of retreat seems a dim memory - but the retreat itself? I've just done it all again...

One of Ignatius' basic principles in the Exercises is that of repetition. The idea is not to simply replay an exercise, but to gradually let the focus of a contemplation narrow, to move more deeply into the affective realms where as one early director of the Exericises said, "the fruit chiefly lies." I'm off tomorrow night to see my spiritual director, and as I sifted through the last month I realized that I've revisited all four weeks of the Exercises -- in order, no less. As befits a repetition, the contemplations have been more tightly focused, and for the most part sounded themes drawn from my Long Retreat. The exhaustion of illness has kept things from becoming too intellectual -- enhancing the sense of repetition. In some ways it feels like a jazz improv version of the Exercises....unplanned, but structured nonetheless.