Monday, March 29, 2010

Yellow Submarines

It's raining. It's not yet April. It's dark. I happened across this looking for references on the fluoride content of tea. I think I need a cup of tea, even if my tea infuser isn't quite this cool....

(designed by OTOTO...available here, but will they ship to me?)

Saturday, March 27, 2010


I cantored for the evening Mass today - the first (successful) outing since I lost my voice last Advent. (One of my Augustinian confreres joked that I gave up singing for Lent, for Christmas, for Ordinary time...) We began outside with the Blessing of the Palms, on the plaza in front of the church, across from the busy grocery store parking lot. People slowed to watch Fr. Tony, brilliant in his red chasuble, proclaim the first Gospel, telling of the triumphal entrance into Jerusalem.

On cue, the organist inside broke into All Glory Laud and Honor and from the corner of the church I began. breath control is not what it's been. Can I walk, and hit a high C with enough punch to be heard in a carpeted church (it has surprisingly good acoustics for all that)? The answer is no.

The sung response for the Passion was a marvel of sung community prayer, sustained, plaintive. My community, always pretty comfortable with silence, committed anew this liturgical year to being attentive to the silences. Today, when we all knelt at the moment of Jesus' death, in the stillness you could hear the kneelers hit the floor, rumbling like thunder through the church. Then, of course, there was the moment that the phone in the back sacristy started ringing, clearly audible through the open doors. I stood there, trying to remember how much time I had before the next sung response and could I make it there and back before I had to lead the next response....

I wonder what the medieval equivalent of the ringing phone liturgical interruption was? From the homilies I've read from the the early days I suspect that disruptions from the assembly are not a modern phenomenon!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Column: Sacred Daring

The icon is of St. Thomas receiving the girdle from Mary - an apt pairing for today - the Feast of the Annunciation. Many of the depictions of Thomas portray the moment when Jesus appears to him after the Resurrection, but I find Thomas a compelling character all along the road.

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

Then Thomas — known as the twin — said to the other disciples, “Let us go too, and die with him.”
— Jn. 11:16

I was waiting for a meeting to start when the quote on one of those inspirational paperweights in a colleague’s office caught my eye: “What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?” I have to admit that in spite of myself, I was inspired, though perhaps not quite along the lines that the corporate purveyors of motivation might have wished.

In this scene from John’s Gospel, Jesus is leaving for Bethany, where He will raise Lazarus from the dead. For a long time, the sheer power of that miracle, the joy that I imagined Lazarus’ friends and family experienced, obscured for me the darker threads woven through that story. The disciples are worried. Bethany is not far from Jerusalem — and the last time they were there, Jesus was threatened with stoning. Should He go? Should they go?

The quote on the paperweight brought Thomas’ bold statement to mind. I wondered not what I would try if I were certain of success, but what I would attempt knowing that in all probability I would fail. Would I go with Jesus to Jerusalem — and die? Here I see a Thomas who, while he has no doubt that catastrophe will ensue if they do go to Jerusalem, likewise has no doubt of his call to follow Christ there.

Though some of the early Church fathers thought this comment a foreshadowing of Thomas’ lack of faith in Jesus’ eventual victory, and so branded him a coward, Origen suggested instead that Thomas grasped the inherent contradictions that St. Paul would later preach explicitly: if you wish to live in Christ, you must die with Christ.

The Paschal mystery shrouds us in such tensions — suffering and redemption, death and new life. The ways we are called to walk ask us to consider failure as success — something that I dare say seems as scandalous to our modern eyes as the cross was to the Greeks and Jews of Jesus’ time.

Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th century cardinal and mathematician, reminds us that if we are looking for God, look for the contradictions: “I have learnt that the place wherein Thou art found unveiled is girt round with contradictories.” Would we dare to fail?

Edith Stein, a philosopher, Catholic convert, Carmelite nun and eventually martyr and saint, puts this sacred daring at the center of our faith. Writing as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, her name in religion, she echoes the disciples’ dilemma in her reflection on the words of the Our Father. Sooner or later, she says, we realize that thy will be done is what we are called to do, and all we are called to do. St. Teresa asks, “Will you remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider carefully! …If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life…What will you answer him?” She chose to walk that road with Christ, standing publicly against the Nazi regime and its atrocities and in 1942 died at Auschwitz.

As Palm Sunday approaches, with its triumphal entrance into Jerusalem and its harrowing Gospel of the Passion, I find myself lingering with Thomas and the other disciples on the road to Bethany. Should I go? Thy will be done, I must pray.

You believe that by his dying Christ destroyed death for ever. May he give you everlasting life. He humbled himself for your sakes. May you follow his example and share in his resurrection. Amen. —
From the solemn blessing for Passion Sunday.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


I found these photos through science comedian Brian Malow's blog, Zero Gravity. I met Brian at SciFoo 09 - and enjoyed his wonderfully skewed way of looking at the world. These are similarly just a slight different look at the world's detritus!

Sunday, March 21, 2010


The subject line read "exomologesis" -- I'd emailed the college chaplain to make an appointment to go to confession. In confirming the time, I noted that I hoped he did not mean me to take the subject line literally. The Church fathers used this term to refer to sacramental penance (I won't subject you to the history and theological development, it's convoluted -- then as now) and it eventually gathered the sense of "public confession of your sins".

On Wednesday, I'm cantoring the parish penance service (other than a failed try in January the first time I've sung since the middle of Advent!). I realized that there is just a wisp of the old practice here. By standing up and walking up to a priest, one makes a very public statement of what we likely prefer to have kept private: I have sinned. Thankfully we have not embraced social media in this context - can you imagine a stream of sins on a screen above the altar? Hopefully you can't!

But there is something about hearing the murmurs of confessions and absolutions that wash through the church during these services that brings home for me the all encompassing sense of God's mercy and forgiveness. Loyola Press has just launched a site called Other6, which left me with a similar feeling. Subscribers can post (anonymously) where they've found God in their lives today, and where they want to find God. On the side is a tag cloud -- like the murmurs in the church, the tags point to what we all need, where we all find God.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Column: St. Joseph

Tomorrow is the feast of St. Joseph. For years I've sat on the side of the daily chapel for the Hours which faces a statue of St. Joseph. He holds the iconic lily and carpenter's square, but what draws me in is the look on his face and tenderness with which he holds a young -- but not infant -- Jesus in his arms. When I was contemplating the Hidden Years in the Exercises, this was the face I saw.

The traditions in East and West diverge early on St. Joseph. Augustine and Jerome postulating perpetual virginity for Joseph, the East sticking to the apocrypha and considering him a widower. So far no one has succeeded in making either position dogma, so I'm free to disagree.

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

When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. — Mt. 1:18-19

“Do not speculate beyond the text. Do not require of it more than it simply says,” advised St. John Chrysostom, preaching in the fourth century on this fragment from Matthew’s Gospel. It was advice that had long been unheeded, at least when it came to St. Joseph. Though nearly all that we know of Joseph, the husband of Mary, is here — he was a righteous man — speculation about Joseph’s life had been rampant for at least 200 years by the time St. John offered his counsel.

Was Joseph a widower? Did he have other children? Was he old or young? When did he die?

It’s hard not to be curious about the man who would have known Jesus so well, his foster-father. A few lines later, in fact, John Chrysostom himself would ignore his own advice, asking his congregation to imagine Joseph’s virtues, “Do you not see here a man of great self-restraint? ...”

From the canonical Gospels we know only that he was a “righteous man” and a carpenter. My father is a carpenter, and as long as I can remember I’ve been in awe of what he can fashion from wood. Under his hands awkwardly shaped and seemingly unyielding pieces of wood become beautifully turned spindles for my nephew’s crib and carefully crafted shelves for my books.

The smell of sawdust is the smell of wonder and creation. So I’m not surprised that God, Creator of all, would choose to dwell in the house of a carpenter, to live surrounded by these small mysteries of creation.

Sources such as the apocryphal Protevangelium of James, which dates to the second century or earlier, and the fifth century “History of Joseph the Carpenter” suggest St. Joseph was a widower and the father of four sons and two daughters. Contemporaries of John Chrysostom, Saints Augustine and Jerome, had different ideas about Joseph’s earlier life, thinking it was fitting that he was not a widower, but like Mary, ever virgin.

I hesitate to disagree with the great doctors Augustine and Jerome, but having been widowed and remarried myself, I wonder if it is not more reasonable that Joseph had been married once before his betrothal to Mary.

To marry again you are risking being widowed again, now knowing full well the pain that brings. It takes a different kind of courage to submit yourself again to the possibility of such a loss.

Christ, having once emptied Himself to become man, will surrender His life once again on the cross. How much might a widowed Joseph’s willingness to love and cherish Mary, in the face of potential pain and loss, have strengthened Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane as he surrendered to suffering, for love of us?

I require nothing more of the text than to know that Joseph was an upright man, who heard the voice of God, who cherished wife and Son, but I do yearn to go beyond it, not so much to know St. Joseph, but through him, to better learn what it is like to live with the Son of God in your home and in your heart.

He is that just man, that wise and loyal servant, whom you placed at the head of your family. With a husband’s love he cherished Mary, the virgin Mother of God. With fatherly care he watched over Jesus Christ your Son, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. — From the Preface for Joseph, Husband of Mary

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Frantic Camels

A couple of years ago on retreat, I happened on this snippet from Jeremiah: a frantic she-camel running in all directions bolts for the desert... (Jer 2:24) It was quite by accident, my director had sent me to Isaiah for that afternoon's contemplation -- but this verset kept edging its way back in, and I kept dutifully stuffing it down and returning to my assigned Isaiah. My director's advice the next day? You need to pay attention to the camels...

These last weeks, I have been frantically running about (and I keep a date book - so there should be no excuse!), wishing I could bolt for the desert. The next few weeks promise pulls in many directions, and not much desert time to be had. I suspect it's time for some camel herding again.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Column: Fast Forward

Gannet Girl's post about metanoia stirred into this. The photo is of an old orchard near my parents' farm in California. A few years ago someone bought the property, then cut down every tree, leaving a graveyard-like landscape of stumps. I wept the first time I saw the ravaged space. But some of the trees have returned, still bearing the obvious marks of the destruction, but blooming again.

This post appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 11 March 2010.

Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.
— Joel 2:12-13a

Squished into a window seat in the back row of a packed plane was penance enough for a Lenten Friday, I thought. Then the gentleman next to me pulled out his lunch, a Texas barbeque beef sandwich now sat scant inches from my tray table. My apple and cheese suddenly seemed far less inviting.

I mentally sighed. Fasting is easier when there are no temptations, and I briefly wondered if this Lenten discipline was worth my persistence.

An empty stomach and prayer are bound together for me. For the early Christians, fasting was so inseparable from prayer that copyists of the scriptures appeared to have automatically inserted it into texts where Scripture scholars believe it did not originally appear, notes Benedictine hermit Father Gabriel Bunge in his guide to prayer, Earthen Vessels.

On a merely practical level, fasting sharpens my attention to prayer. As Evagrius, a fourth century desert monk wryly observed, “A famished stomach enables one to wait in prayer, whereas a full stomach brings about plentiful sleep.” Well fed and warm, I confess I can drift off, not contemplate.

Fasting affords me spiritual clarity as well; stripping away not the pounds I’ve gained over the winter but the layers that cloud my ability to discern needs from wants. When so much of what I have to eat requires little effort to obtain or prepare there is no external incentive to find that proper balance between too little and too much that St. Ignatius encourages us to find in his Spiritual Exercises.

Pope Paul VI, reflecting in the Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, reminds us that though there are many reasons Christians fast, above all fasting is a practice directed toward surrender and love. It reinvigorates our baptismal gift of metanoia. Though often translated as “repentance” the Greek roots of metanoia are to be of a new mind, to think in new ways. Fasting helps to bring us once again to the new mind we were given in baptism, to teach us again how to think with Christ.

My neighbor on the plane had no idea I was fasting or just how envious I was of his lunch, and I certainly wasn’t about to tell him. My hunger was invisible, no rent garments or ashes hinted at what I was about.

As I contemplated my apple and his sandwich, I had a moment of metanoia — of seeing with new eyes. I began to wonder how often I had left the grocery store with an overflowing cart, unaware of those around me who hungered for what I had? Or walked down the street with an ice cream cone, oblivious to those who lacked a regular meal. Fasting made the hungry visible.

Fasting turns me around. It places me with those who hunger and thirst, not just for the bread of this world but for God, who is Bread for the world.

Lord, please grant that, trained by our observance of Lent and nourished by Your word, we may be wholeheartedly dedicated to You in prayer. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen. — Opening prayer for Wednesday of the Third week of Lent

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Ghost Stories

Law and Gospel is reflecting on a silent retreat at the old Jesuit novitiate -- now the Jesuit Center -- in Wernersville that I haunt with some regularity. Her black and white photos of places I know well shrouded in show are beautiful and haunting.

When I was up in December for a night of silence, and an appointment the following day with Patient Spiritual Director, I wandered down to this alcove on the third floor to stand in the bay windows and watch the moon rise. Usually I go sit in the eastern cloisters and do this, even in very cold weather, but they were buried under too much snow! The house was nearly empty - just a few odd retreatants like myself rattling around. I heard someone walk down the hall behind me, but assumed it was someone headed off for a late evening meeting with a director, and enjoyed the deep stillness.

I finished my tea, enjoying the moon on the snow, then turned to go back to my room. As I stepped out from the darkened alcove, a young man coming down the hall clutching a pillow started and let out a yelp. "I thought you were a ghost," he gulped. "No ghosts," I said. And for the moment, that was true.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Column: Fully armed

Mike's audition went well - and he's reflecting on his experience here. I love the line that resonates for him: this day shall gentle his condition

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

I will bless the Lord at all times; praise shall be always in my mouth. — Ps. 19:2

“But if it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive.” Upstairs grading papers, I can hear bits and pieces of King Henry’s rousing words rumbling below me. Mike is learning Shakespeare’s St. Crispen’s day speech by heart for an audition.

Bits and pieces roll off his tongue at odd moments — as he helps with dinner or spars with his brother. It seems to be always floating at the edge of his consciousness. I listen, a bit bemused, a bit amazed, as it becomes less and less merely words he recites, and more like Henry V on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt has come to life in my kitchen.

In the days before books and Google searches, words were not stored on paper nor held captive in bits of plastic — but kept alive in peoples’ minds and hearts. Every word of Sacred Scripture was held in the hearts and mouths of psalmists and prophets and evangelists long before they were ever committed to paper.

When I hear the Word proclaimed directly from mind and heart, not just lifted from the page moments before, I am more deeply aware that the Word dwells in each of us.

A few years ago I was at daily Mass in a small chapel on the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean. When the time came for the Gospel, the priest laid his hand on the book, and without opening it, proclaimed the Gospel of the day from memory. It made me wonder what it must have been like in the early Church to hear the stories of Jesus directly from the minds, hearts and mouths of those who had experienced them and then to pass those memories on to others. Unlike the pages of a book, which are unscathed by the experience of reading them, to pass the word on from memory to memory cannot help but change the bearers.

Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, suggests at the very outset of his book, First Steps in Prayer, that the first thing one ought to do is memorize not the usual prayers, but the psalms. He admits it seems daunting, even outrageous in these days when the psalter can be so easily obtained, but encourages his readers to start with the shortest of the psalms, 117, and slowly stretch the memory to longer psalms.

Long ago, the desert fathers recognized the connection between mind and soul that memorizing the psalms required — even in the selection of the psalms to memorize, God is speaking to you. More recently, the 19th century Russian Orthodox bishop and monk Theophan the Recluse suggested starting with the psalms that strike your heart, “After you have considered and felt the prayers, work at memorizing them. Then you will not have to fumble about for your prayer book and light when it is time to pray… you will always be fully armed with prayer.”

Personally, the prospect of always having the psalms within reach is attractive, but keeping them in memory offers me more than just an alternative to Google, or the psalter stuffed into my purse. Reflecting on the practice of prisoners keeping hidden fragments of Psalm 90, you shall not fear the terror of the night, Father Henri Nouwen thinks, “I’d better learn it by heart so that I don’t need to sew it into my clothes and so it can become ingrained in my inmost being.” Committing Sacred Scripture to memory can reshape our very souls.

As Lent continues, with its call to reform our lives and to give up our hearts of stone, I’m taking an inventory of the Scripture that become rooted in my mind and discerning what God wishes to plant there next to slowly mold my heart. What might come to life?

May God, the Lord, bless us and make us perfect and holy in his sight. May the riches of his glory abound in us. May he instruct us with the word of truth, inform us with the gospel of salvation and enrich us with his love; through Christ our Lord. Amen. — From the Gelasian Sacramentary

Monday, March 01, 2010

Fast Blogging

This is a fast post: I'm moving fast at 39,001 feet in an airplane over Peoria (it has WiFi!), and I will write fast, and I'm thinking about fasting (the subject of the column I'm drafting for next week).

I'm still contemplating Luke's account of the temptation in the desert. I love this wonderfully blunt piece about Lenten practices and that Gospel by Barbara Brown Taylor. (H/T Exilicchaplain)

The question du jour: Why do I fast? Why do any of us? I'd love to know your thoughts!