Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tummy monsters

When my brother The Artist was married twenty years ago, I drove with my brother The Wookie and his wife to be from LA to my parents. To give my sister a break, we took my niece, now a journalist, then a toddler on the five hour drive. Her father had told me a few days earlier that when she was hungry, she said she had "monsters in her tummy" (even at that age, she had a way with words).

We stopped for fries and burgers at the start of the trip. About 20 minutes from the end of the drive, my niece woke up and said she had monsters in her tummy. I fed her some of the cold french fries. Big mistake. Turns out these monsters were not interested in food - she was car sick. Oh dear. We arrived at my dad's, and he watched as we drove up and all leapt out of the car dragging child, car seat and all out and calling for the hose. He said it looked like a fire drill.

Niece met me at the airport late, late Friday night to catch a ride with me down the coast. We'd both missed dinner so I said I'd risk it again and feed the monsters in her tummy. We stopped for fries and burgers and laughed about hungry monsters - and those that you feed at your own risk.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ashes to Ashes

Landing at San Diego airport, night or day, is a memorable experience. You fly right through the building of downtown. As I landed here tonight, all the memories of flying here with Tom's ashes washed over me. Watching the downtown, familiar building flashing by, that landing almost a quarter century ago was the first time I ever came alone to Tom's home town.

My mom had stayed with me for a few weeks after the funeral. She and I flew together back to the west coast, then she went on home and I went to see Tom's parents. Bringing the ashes of their only son. The short flight from LA to San Diego was the first time I'd been physically alone since the whole nightmare began -- but in reality I was alone all the time.

I'm alone on this trip, too, hopscotching across the US to be with the rest of my family for my Aunt Mar's funeral tomorrow. Between the blizzards and the general chaos of my life these days, it seemed uncertain if I would make or not. But I am here -- still carrying ashes.

Friday, February 26, 2010

From web to print

Open Laboratory 2009 - a juried anthology of the best of the science blogosphere from last year has appeared. Edited by scicurious, it's available here. I have a piece in it - a smoother version of this post on the use of helium to preserve documents. I'm fascinated with the interplay between web and print that ultimately produces this volume.

Want a copy? Order one -- or if you're feeling lucky, leave a comment before March 5th and I'll draw a winner at random. The rest of the pieces look great - on everything from the flu to charismatic megafauna (whales and chimps) to the statistics of human milk production.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Column: Reading is the First Ground

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 25 February 2010.

In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. — Jn. 1:1

“Has anyone seen Three Cups of Tea?” Mike asks as his eyes roam the shelves. His spring semester starts in a few days, and with it the English course that assigned this book to read over the summer. “Did you read it yet?” I wonder, trying to gauge what the crisis level is if we can’t find the book. “Of course,” came the response, complete with eye roll. “I just want to refresh it.”

Living in a house where bookshelves occupy nearly every bit of free wall space, finding a particular tome in the collection can be a challenge. The books are set in motion by their serial readers and the silent conversation they’ve had with the author. And since each conversation is a bit different from the previous one, so is a book’s landing place. At times I’ll find Marilyn Nelson’s poetry sharing shelf space with the Desert Fathers, until it takes up residence with Annie Dillard’s essays; while bits of the science fiction collection are in orbit from living room to Victor’s office and Chris’ school bag and back.

The early Christians, too, let books speak to them — and move them. In the Apostolic Tradition, a third century collection of Christian practices attributed to Hippolytus, Christians are encouraged to undertake sacred reading: If there is a day when there is no instruction, let each one at home take a holy book [from Scripture] and read enough of it to gain some profit from it.

Over the centuries, the Church’s monastic tradition encouraged the sacred reading that second century theologian Origen called lectio divina. Guigo II, a Carthusian abbot of the 12th century, writing to his friend and fellow monk Gervase, described the practice: “Reading is the first ground that that precedes and leads one into meditation; meditation seeks busily, and also with deep thought digs and delves deeply to find that treasure; and because [that treasure] cannot be attained by itself alone, then He sends us into prayer that is mighty and strong.”

Guigo used the image of a ladder to provide a more formal guide to lectio divina. The four rungs to climb were lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio. In more modern terms: read, consider, and pray.

Begin by picking a passage from Scripture and read it, slowly, contemplatively. Read it aloud if you can. Pause when a word or phrase speaks to your spirit. Let that phrase ring in your mind, soak in, spin around to be seen from a different perspective.

Turn to God, let Him speak to you. Speak to Him in your heart. Pray to rest in Him — to be granted the grace of contemplation. End by speaking to God of your gratitude for this time.

This practice of sacred reading should be unhurried. St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us not to be anxious to move on. It is a practice of simplicity and humility; it should be approached without a desire to get through a text, or without any expectation of great spiritual insights, or of mystical experience. It is a way of waiting in joyful hope.

Like the migrating books of my household, sacred reading sets the Word in motion. It moves us to prayer but also to action. Guigo tells us what is expected of those who climb the ladder: “after such knowing that we set ourselves to work that we may attain those virtues that were in them.”

The Church continues to enjoin us to risk conversation and conversion through sacred reading. Pope Benedict has encouraged us to renew our commitment to the practice, certain that it will breathe new life into the Church: “Assiduous reading of sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer makes that intimate dialogue possible in which, through reading, one hears God speaking, and through prayer, one responds with a confident opening of the heart.”

This Lent, I recommit to seeking God in the sacred books, desiring to move beyond the words, to follow the text back to the beginning when the Word was with God, in hope that the Word will become flesh in me.

God our Father, You are the author of true consecration and peace. Please grant that we may fittingly worship Your divine majesty by this gift and, by our participation in this sacred mystery, may truly be made one in mind and heart. Amen. — From the prayer over the gifts, seventh day of the Christmas octave

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thou shall not tempt the Lord, thy God

Last year, while on the Long Retreat, I came down with a nasty stomach bug. So, while contemplating Christ's long fast in the desert, I too, was fasting (albeit for different reasons). The wind howled in a fierce storm outside. Even if I had felt up to walking, a walk would not have been in the cards. Even my hardy English neighbor gave it a pass. The setting was great for meditating on Christ's temptation -- though I wasn't tempted by food, there were other things that drew me away.

This week facing a medical test for which I needed to be sedated, I joked that -- in the midst of what has been a chaotic few weeks -- I would get a nap, and be out of the office for the rest of the day.

Thou shall not tempt the Lord. I just heard that Gospel read on Sunday, and you would think I would have listened more closely. Instead of a calm dreamy day at home, I ended up sicker than sick. My NYT rule precludes my giving any details, but suffice it to say even my 13-year old, who deeply enjoys things gross, decided he didn't want to hear about it either.

I remember wondering during the Long Retreat that -- since food was not in the least attractive at that moment, would I still be able to grasp what the tugs and pulls were in this scene? In the end, I suspect I had a deeper understanding. My own inadvertent fast stripped away the superficials and let me see that what tempts me most are not the momentary physical indulgences and comforts -- but the desire for certainty and predictability, a need for such spiritual comforts. What could and would I do, if I were willing to embrace uncertainty wholeheartedly in that realm?

This recent experience pushed me right back into the Exercises - confronting me once again that question, what would I dare if I were willing to step outside my comfort zone?

And I loved the bantering of the two protagonists -- all carried on in the language of the psalms.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Column: Measuring Contemplation by the Inch

The scarf in progress in the photo is a contemplative one - knit on the Spiritual Exercises for one of my fellow retreatants (one of the two other women making them with me). My Lenten intention is to take my version of Hemingway's advice and apply the seat of my pant to my zafu in my prayer space and sit still. As Patient Spiritual Director advised at my last visit, after reading a draft of this: physician heal thyself.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 18 February 2010.

Be still and know that I am God, supreme among the nations, supreme on the earth.
— Ps. 46:10

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong outfit,” says my Swedish neighbor as our paths cross walking in weather that has driven more sensitive, or perhaps more sensible, souls inside. I’ve got the right outfit for this bitter weather — my bright red coat and a hand-knit scarf that wraps several times round.

The scarf was a gift from a student who knit as she listened to recordings of my quantum mechanics lectures. Every time I take it out to wear, its length reminds me of how long Julia was willing to sit still and listen to what I had to say.

My own knitting project is similarly a measure of my time spent sitting and listening — my contemplative time. When I took the sweater out to work on in the midst of the storm-enforced stillness of last weekend I was struck by how little progress I’d made of late. Only an inch since Advent ended? I suddenly have a vision of some angelic bookkeeper measuring my contemplations by the inch and wince.

I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s advice to writers: “First, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of a chair” and suspect it is easily adapted to contemplatives as well: First, sit still.

It’s advice the early desert mystics heard and heeded. Fourth century Roman senator — and later anchorite — Arsenius prayed, “Lord, lead me to salvation.” God’s response? Fuge, tace, quies. Fly, be silent, rest in prayer. Arsenius abandoned his post tutoring the emperor’s sons and fled to Alexandria, where he immersed himself in silence and peace and prayer.

I hear God reminding me it’s time to move as well, not from Rome, or even from the bedlam that is part and parcel of parenting teen-aged boys, but from Ordinary time into Lent. The sweater, lying unheeded all these weeks in my knitting bag, is issuing a call to silence and stillness — tace, quies.

I tend to associate stillness with Advent, not Lent. While Advent’s stillness carries with it a sense of expectation and encourages a silence that lets the quiet voice of a newborn be heard, Lent often seems to bustle noisily, generating its own spiritual to-do list. We give up, take on, confess, convert. But do we sit still?

In reflecting on this verse in Psalm 46, St. Augustine offers a different perspective on our need for stillness, one that ground me more firmly in Lent’s call to conversion. He draws our attention to what we can notice when we sit still in God: “You are not God, but I am. I created you, and I recreate you; I formed you and I formed you anew.” Augustine’s reading echoes my favorite translation of this psalm, which renders this verse as “Let go and know that I am God, I loom over the nations, I loom upon earth.”

God is not far distant, but hovering close by us — calling us to let go, acknowledge our powerlessness before the God of the universe, and fall into His hands that He may recreate us. Salvation is immanent and imminent, if only I can sit still for it.

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorled ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
— from The Habit of Perfection by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Last chance Gloria

Lent starts on Wednesday, and my community will strip down the music to a bare minimum. Some traditions fast from music entirely during Lent, a practice that sounds particularly penitential to my musician's soul. Different, yes. Sparser, fine. None? (Cue anguished wail...)

This year I'm actually looking forward to the sparser singing. I lost my voice before Christmas and still cannot sing, so I've been on a musical diet of sorts for weeks. Less music to hear, less temptation to exceed my imposed vocal restrictions. Still, I find myself craving certain songs, like a kid with her face pressed up against the glass of the chocolate store, dreaming of which piece she would choose, imagining the taste.

As we (or at least as everyone else) sang the Gloria today, I realized I won't hear it again until the Triduum, long weeks away. If I were to have only more taste of a Gloria, this might be the one I would choose!

Cross-posted (and slightly edited) from RevGalBlogPals's Sunday Afternoon Music Videos.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Column: Seeking a measured tempo

This column began as a post from a couple of years back. Patient Spiritual Director had told me that the desert fathers and early monastics considered "overwork" to fall under the heading of the deadly sin of sloth, which seemed to him surprising. But given sloth's roots in acedia, the draining away of prayer through inaction, I can see the connection. Prayer can vanish into the whirlwind of action, too. It's all about tempo...

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 11 February 2010.

In vain you get up earlier, and put off going to bed, sweating to make a living, since He provides for His beloved as they sleep.

— Ps. 127:2

Acedia, what the desert fathers called the noontime demon, baked the life of out of a monk’s prayers, leaving the day to stretch emptily before him, the hours passing with syrupy slowness. In my life, sloth’s succubus stamps in the door in February, and is nowise as gentle.

It’s cold, dark and damp in the world. The semester seems to stretch endlessly ahead of me, and the crisp breezes of energy and hope that swept through my office in September have become a howling blizzard of commitments and complications. I despair of finding my desk again.

My perfectionist alter ego huddles in the corner, muttering dark comments about my work, trying to goad me into polishing this task or that, to the detriment of those in the ever-growing queue. It’s not the heat that shrivels my prayers; it’s the demands of the day that suck the life from my soul. I long for a desert hermitage — preferably one occupied by someone else’s demons.

Unable to escape to warmer climes or a hermit’s cell, on a bitter cold Friday, I found myself making soup. Soup demands my full attention, perfection is forced to take a back seat to completion — driving off the demons of demand.

Heaps of roughly cut vegetables grew on the cutting board, then were cast into the pot. One layer followed the next, the flavors intensifying in the confines of the pot. The individual chunks finally surrendered to the blender, and what had 30 minutes previously been unscrubbed carrots and onions buried in the vegetable crisper was gloriously whole and sustaining. I filled my bowl, to find I was no longer hungry. The mere act of making the soup had left me fed.

A few days later, I went to Morning Prayer. The psalms began, each side’s words piling up until they slid into the silence and the other side took up its work, layering on top of the previous strophe. The intensity gradually built, our voices created a complex harmony. We followed the antiphonarian into the depths of the Benedictus, suddenly whole.

There we all were, like my soup; the ingredients ordinary, perfection a hope not an expectation, gradually cooking down into a fragrant and complex whole. Here again, I was fed not by the results, but by the work itself.

In neither case was the end product of prayer or stove my only recompense. As C.S. Lewis points out in “The Weight of Glory,” “The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”

The psalms are not effective only as pleas for God’s eventual grace but, like the steam of the soup that eased the winter dryness of my kitchen, are breathed in to gently renew the soul in that very moment. The mere undertaking of these prayers, as the making of soup, is healing.

I wasn’t surprised to find fifth century desert monastic Amma Syncletica’s prescription for dispelling the soul-draining demons of perfectionism: “This spirit must be cast out, mainly by prayer and psalmody.” Both soup and psalmody keep me to a rhythm, beating out a pace that is neither too slow nor too fast.

When the pace of my life tries to distort time, excruciatingly stretching it out or compressing it until I gasp for breath, the psalms bring me back to a more measured tempo.

Soup-making and psalm-singing remind me not to confuse frantic busyness with productivity. Some things only yield their full flavor when cooked slowly.

To God whose power now at work in us can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine — to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, world without end. Amen. — St. Paul to the Ephesians

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Tantum Quantum: Enough is Enough

A year ago today, almost to the hour, I pulled into my driveway for the first time in 5 weeks, returning from the Long Retreat. Birthed in silence, lived in the noisy chaos that is my life, the Exercises are still busy reshaping my life. The last few months I've grappled again with Ignatius' concept of indifference, what Patient Spiritual Director often calls "poised freedom." It's not so much a lack of personal preference, but a willingness to set those preferences aside to better serve God's purposes. Preferences are fine, in "so far as" (tantum quantum in Ignatius' hard won Latin!) they further the greater glory of God. My geeky brain often sees it as a critical point on a surface, not a minimum, but a transition point -- where you are poised to go uphill or downhill with a differential change in position!

Today we are effectively snowed in. My Mini is nearly drifted over, the driveway a mound of snow. We skipped the "whites for white" shopping trip (buying white stuff: milk, bread, salt -- in anticipation of the arrival of white stuff: snow) and decided we could live with and off what we had in the house. (No bread, so I baked two loaves this morning.) But as Math Man and I divvied up the dozen and a half eggs for various culinary purposes, and I checked on how much butter we had I began to feel the same vague anxieties that I had when I packed for the Exercises. Do I really have enough: socks, pens, butter, eggs?

I wonder sometimes if this is where a stance of poised freedom begins to seize up, when I worry that what I have -- either tangibly or intangibly -- is not enough, and then hold onto it. When is enough, enough? Annie Dillard gets it, I think:
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give , give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you – you open your safe and find ashes.
So maybe I'll stop writing my name on the eggs in the carton?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Column: "God, if I may say it, is very unscrupulous.”

When my mother saw the box move, she turned to my father and inquired, "Gene, there's not a puppy in there, is there?" There wasn't.

I wrote the first draft of this piece while staying the night at the Jesuit Center and while looking in the card catalog (yes, the real thing, with the lovely drawers that slide out!) to see if they had a copy of Surprised by Joy that I could consult (they didn't - something I should remedy), I discovered something I didn't know: C. S. stands for "Clive Staples"!

Photo is of Clive Staples Lewis. This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 4 February 2010.

Jesus said, ‘Mary!’ She knew him then and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbuni!’ — which means Master.
— Jn. 20:16

Many years ago, when my brother was in the military, his unit’s leaves were canceled and with them his plans to come home to California for Christmas. My mother was deeply disappointed. At the very last minute, Pat’s commander gave him leave, and he managed to get a flight out. I picked him up at the local airport and extended a last minute invitation to my parents for dinner.

When my parents arrived at my apartment, an enormous gift-wrapped package was sitting in the middle of the living room. Though my mother was reluctant at first to open the gift before Christmas, we pleaded that the gift was perishable. When the top came off the box and my six-foot tall brother unfolded to stand before my mom she literally leapt for joy. We still have the photograph.

I hear that same joyous delight and shock in John’s account of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus in the garden after His resurrection. Her cry of “Rabbuni!” when she realizes that He is not the gardener captures her surprise at seeing someone she did not expect — not in this place, not at this time, not in that guise.

Yesterday morning, at the height of the pre-dawn school rush, I set a cup of tea on the counter to steep. Distracted by a phone call, I forgot all about it. When I finally did remember the over-steeped brew it was far too late to make a replacement. Resigned to tossing it and doing without, I dashed for the door to take Chris to chorus. On the counter, near my keys, I found a perfect cup of tea in its travel mug. My youngest son had rescued my little bit of morning grace — unasked and unannounced. Everything came to a momentary halt while I said thank you.

I wonder how often I miss seeing Christ in this guise, where He appears in my life as the unexpected helper, rather than the one to be helped. It seems easier to accept that I have help to offer than it does to admit I am sometimes the helpless one, to acknowledge my need for the Word of God to be alive and active in tangible ways in my life.

Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, in his poem, “For the one who is exhausted,” reminds us to acknowledge our need of help and in doing so to “open up to all the small miracles you rushed through.” Mary Magdalene stopped in her rush long enough to talk to the gardener and in doing so encountered the living God. Can I stop long enough to feel God’s touch in the small miracles — like cups of tea on the counter — or do I brush past them in haste?

In his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy,” C. S. Lewis, whose conversion to Christianity was prompted in part by the books he read, remarked that “a young man who wishes to remain an atheist cannot be too careful of his reading… God, if I may say it, is very unscrupulous.”

Perhaps I’m over careful, not in my reading, but in my living. I’m so carefully attending to the pressing details of my daily life that I rush past the chance to encounter God in the places, times and people I least expect. How many chances to experience that leaping joy have I passed up?

But like a mother who sneaks pureed broccoli into the spaghetti sauce, God is nothing if not determined and persistent. I expect He, in many different guises, will keep leaving cups of tea on the counter, until I slow down enough to drink in His Presence.

Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ and make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our daily lives, make us attentive to your voice and alert to your presence, that we may treasure your world above all else. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit. God for ever and ever. Amen. — Opening prayer for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


I begin to understand why a "chapter of faults" might be a good thing -- or for those of us who are not monastics, a form that I could post on my door, or hand out.

There are some faults that require more than the internal forums of the examen or the confessional, but need to be more publically confessed. I said something in class on Monday that I regret -- would that there were a chapter of faults that could help me figure out what might be the best remedy....