Sunday, May 30, 2010

Seven Pages of Solitude

[Michelle is on retreat, but thanks to Blogger's scheduled post feature, is still inhabiting this virtual space.]

I want only seven days, seven
on which no one has ever written —
seven pages of solitude.

Rainer Maria Rilke

"I've no agenda in mind for this retreat," I confess to Patient Spiritual Director. Not that I feel I really need one. I want pages on which nothing has yet been written. A space to rest, renew and be renewed. I have no idea who my director will be — my director from the 30-day retreat has a new assignment — and no worries about it.

But I do wish there were something written on those pages about the weather. So I would know what to pack. Do I need sweaters and turtlenecks, or clothes for hot and humid days? The National Weather Service has been no help in the lead up to my departure, either. First it will be rainy. No, clear. In the 80s a few days. No, wait, it'll be California weather, dry and in the 70s. Oh, sorry, now the model says it will be chilly on the weekend.....

In the end I've thrown in a random assortment of clothing items. Layers. I can wear layers. And a raincoat, despite the current assertions that it will be a dry week.

But it has me wondering what the Spirit has on her agenda for the week? Whatever it may be, I get the message strong and clear. Check certainty at the door.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Discerning thoughts

[Michelle is on retreat, but thanks to Blogger's scheduled post feature, is still inhabiting this virtual space.]

Over the last year several people have suggested that I might start to think about putting together a collection of the columns I've written for the Catholic Standard and Times. I started taking it more seriously when someone who routinely (relentlessly?!) rags on me about having too much on my plate suggested it. Take on a new project?

When in the midst of a discernment, Patient Spiritual Director wisely advises, look to the wisdom of those who know you best. If you come here to read, you would be among those who know me best as a writer, so I seek your wisdom. What advice would you have for me on such a project? I put a poll up in the sidebar if you just want to give a quick thumbs up or thumbs down, but I would welcome comments as well.

Meanwhile, I'm (hopefully) doing some discerning of my own on the edge of the Immense.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Column: Like a Weaver

I'm on retreat - but the column is not!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 27 May 2010.

My dwelling, like a shepherd's tent, is struck down and borne away from me; You have folded up my life, like a weaver who severs the last thread.
Is 38:12a

Clutching his mortar board in one hand, Matt dug in his pocket with the other and pulled out a quartet of keys, “I don’t need these anymore.” “Are you sure you don’t want to hang on to them a bit longer, just in case?” I wondered. “Nope!” came the firm response.

After six years as a graduate student in my research group, Matt was getting his Ph.D. in two days time. He’d submitted the final version of his dissertation, cleaned out his desk and was more than ready to head into the wide world. The keys were his last official connection to the college as a student. Though I’ve known for months that Matt would be leaving in May, this ending seemed too sudden, too abrupt.

My life is marked out by beginnings and endings. New students arrive, old students take their leave. For this time, short or long, our lives are woven together. I am the warp, they the weft, wending their way through the threads I — and God — have strung onto the loom for them. It’s no wonder that I feel the snip when the last thread is cut and they fold up their student days to tuck into their traveling bags. Or return their keys.

Graduation is meant to bind off the fabric neatly, so that it won’t fray, leaving behind the warped threads ready for the next length of cloth to be woven, for the next class to start anew. But the weaving of lives in this way does more than just produce a new graduate, it subtly alters the pattern warped onto the loom — I am changed, and so, too, the students that follow.

Teachers and students, apostles and elders, came and went in the early Church as well. We read tantalizing bits of the richly woven web of connections in Paul’s letters. In the last chapter of Colossians alone Paul names eleven different individuals and two communities, drawing them together through their connection to him. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul notes that as he now teaches the community, they once taught him. Each crossing of the strands makes the fabric of the community stronger, and each interweaving of lives affects them both.

I play Scrabble on Facebook these days with a student I taught in more than twenty years ago. Kitty taught English for many years (I gracefully and unfailingly lose to her), then became a student once again. Last week she fulfilled her long held dream, and became a physician. Today she told me that I had helped her a great deal in those long past days. I was touched and humbled that I made a difference, even a small one in her life. I’ve lost count, though, of the number of times I’ve passed on to other students what Kitty taught me about perspective and perseverance and patience.

When a group of sisters from the Order of the Visitation left to found a new monastery in France, St. Francis de Sales reassured them “Those who go, stay. Those who stay, go.” Once woven together and bound off, the threads are difficult to separate, like a chain of hands, one over the next. My students go, while I remain bound to the loom. They may have struck their tents and folded up their lives, but the threads of their days have left their mark on mine.

May you stand sure on your ground
And know that every grace you need
Will unfold before you
Like all the mornings of your life. — John O’Donohue in To Bless the Space Between Us

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The things I carry -- or don't

About 5 years ago, at the end of an 8-day retreat (notable for the heat — it was in the high 90s, humid and the retreatants were dropping like flies) my director suggested thinking about how I entered and left retreat. He said that over the years he noticed that it seemed to take busy people three days to settle into the stillness of retreat, and by then it was time to think about moving out of the retreat! (I suspect this conversation was prompted by the fact that I appeared for our first meeting with my laptop under my arm, having sent off a piece of writing moments before, though he never once mentioned my electronic companion.)

Did a retreat begin the moment I blasted through the doors of the retreat house, dropping into the silence like a sky diver? Or did it start when I left the house, or perhaps, when I began to pack? Gradually I've come to see packing, whether for retreat or not, as a contemplative exercise. And despite my best intentions, I always take too much.

This time I'm carrying everything I need on my back and walking a significant chunk (time wise if not in distance). This should get me to pare down to the minimum. I started packing on the weekend, putting what I wanted to take along in a bin in my prayer space (an offering, as it were). I already had decided not to take my laptop along, though I do have my iPad and a wireless keyboard with me. The contents of the bin finally threatened to overflow and the discernment began in earnest. What do I need as opposed to what do I want? By 9 pm the question had become, what will fit?

Besides my laptop and its ready collection of music and software, I've left behind my travel pillow, my tea kettle, my Bible, my breviary, my knitting.... my lunch.

I finally realized that this was the first step in my retreat. Leaving behind comfort and control. I do have a Bible with me, on the iPad, it's just not my favorite translation, nor is it the well worn version that accompanied me on the Exercises. There are breviaries at Eastern Point that I can pull off the shelf, and I do have my small, British travel version along. There will be food along the way, and a way to boil water for my morning cup of tea. I'm watching my choices the wants are stripped away, then the needs.

And so I begin: Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Into the Silent Land

Tomorrow, at the very edge of dawn, I plan to grab my backpack and start walking -- at least as far as the train station. Then it's alternating trains and feet until I wash up on the Atlantic shore some 12 hours and 350 miles away from home. (Google suggests it would take 5 days -- walking 24 hours a day -- to walk the whole way). I'm off to spend 8-days in silence on retreat here.

I spent nearly 5 weeks here a year and a half ago, making the Spiritual Exercises (you can find some of my reflections on my experiences here). It was, and continues to be an enormous reservoir of grace in my life.

I've left some posts up to appear on the blog, including my columns - but have decided to leave my computer behind for the duration - so won't check in until I'm back.

Up and coming? A blog back and forth with Robin of Metanoia on Martin Laird's Into the Silent Land with a guest appearance from the author. Watch this space for the start of our guest blogging series!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A little of this and a little of that...

Barnacle Boy is at the 8th grade farewell dance, Crash and the Fluffster are watching a movie on the sofa and I've finished my column for next week (I think). Too tired to write any more, but needing to stay up to fetch the Boy back, I've been surfing through favorite sites to see what I've missed during the push to the finish line. Favorites...

Now and then: a fairy tale of a poem by a friend — these roses have thorns

Salvation isn't comfortable at DotMagis.

So, should I worry about my cat? Was the partially digested bunny head on the bedroom floor a gift? or warning?

The Joys of Grading and what not to say in a paper....

A lovely reflection on traveling by artandsoul.

The Boy calls -- time to put the taxi sign back on the Mini.

Column: A Moment in Time

The photo is not the one that Mike submitted - and in fact we can't find his (though you can now search the Moment in Time project by photographer) - but it is the one I like best of his shots. My shot is dull and boring by comparison.

And the song is an earwig...did I mention that? I've had a heck of time getting it out of my head since I wrote this!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 20 May 2008.

This I believe: I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. — Ps. 27:13

Two summers ago, on an early morning drive to camp, Chris made up a song. “Nothing but trees, feel the growth, waaa-ooooo….” That’s it. The whole song. Now imagine listening to it from the King of Prussia exit all the way to Downingtown.

Intent on simultaneously threading my Mini Cooper through the tractor-trailers on the Pennsylvania turnpike and the backseat peacekeeping duties that come with any long drive with kids, the drive rarely seemed as dull to me as it clearly did to Chris. All he could see of the world at 65 mph was a smudged blur of unrelieved green.

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times Lens blog invited photographers all around the world to capture a single moment in time — 11 a.m. EDT May 2 — wherever you might find yourself, or decide to be. My oldest son Mike and I are both avid photographers and were determined to be part of the project.

Mike biked back to our parish church at the appointed hour, capturing its steeple and rose window rising into a brilliant blue sky. (If you find his photo in the 14,000 tacked to the virtual globe — let us know!)

Me? I was breezing down I-80, returning from a weekend away with my husband. Nothing but trees — I felt Chris’ pain.

As the moment approached, I began hoping for a miracle to emerge from behind the screen of leaves: a sweeping pastoral view perhaps — a red barn nestled amid rolling green fields, with a sheep or two set like gems on the hillside — or a caravan of colorful trucks snaking down the road ahead. Instead we sped through a verdant tunnel.

As I watched, still hopeful, I began to realize that while the view wasn’t changing, my perceptions were. What had been hidden behind a façade of sameness was gradually growing more richly textured. I noticed the soft colors in the gravel scattered along the roadside and the bright colors adorning the white bags caught in the brush, like elfin laundry flapping in the breeze. Individual leaves flicked into focus, ultimately revealing a lush tangle of trees, small and large, in full leaf and bare branches tinged a faint green.

I had my miracle view; it just wasn’t the one I had been coveting. In her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather reminds me that miraculous landscapes are more often encountered in what is already in front of us: “The miracles of the church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”

Eleven came and went and I shot a series of photos through the open window, turning my lens to capture what the last few minutes had unveiled for me.

When I got home, Mike and I sorted through our pictures. Mike had image after sharp image of the solidly grounded church. And mine? Every one was a blur of trees or macadam. The only clear photo was of me — accidentally caught reflected in the side view mirror. The crispness of what I had seen was for the eyes of the living alone, unable to be captured by the camera’s unfeeling optics. The only clarity was in my eyes.

Like the psalmist, I believe that I shall see the good things of God here and now — not only in some heavenly landscape to come. And at least for one moment in time, I had the eyes to see what is undoubtedly right in front of me all the time. What miracles have been unveiled for you of late?

Most holy God, the earth is filled with your glory, and in your presence angels stand in awe. Enlarge our vision, that we may recognize your power at work in your Son and join the apostles and prophets as heralds of your saving word. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen. —Opening prayer for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Contemplation in Action

I saw this video on People for Others (full disclosure, I have not watched it with the sound on, so turn on the sound at your own peril!). I'm drawn by the vibrant colors against the white background and by the ways in which the people engage (and don't) the cupcakes coming their way. But most of all I love the elegant, slow motion trajectories of the cupcakes as they fly through the air. In some weird way, I find it a very contemplative thing to watch!? Or very Ignatian? or both?

I kept thinking about the principle and foundation - and the ways in which we field or (do not!) what comes flying our way, but to contemplate how it might deepen our relationship to God and to others. And the slow motion made it feel like the Examen to watching the day's graces and bobbles spin past. And it's messy - and I so often find grace to be a messy thing, overflowing its banks and moving in ways I do not expect, or could not predict.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Peacock of Doom

"It's the peacock of doom," intoned Barnacle Boy, looking over my shoulder at my dueling computers. The big screen on my desktop was cycling through a set of calm photos, with this one up as he came in. My laptop — onto which I was transferring some files — was working its way through my "calm" playlist.

I know that the Boy has a thing about pelicans, but didn't think it extended to other birds beginning with "p"...."Why doom?" "The music, Mom, the music..."

Ah....Arvo Pärt's De Profundis was playing. The text is Psalm 130 — the psalm for Night Prayer on Wednesdays in fact:

De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuæ intendentes
in vocem deprecationis meæ.
Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine, Domine, quis sustinebit?

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication:
If you, O Lord, mark iniquities,
Lord, who can stand?
The Boy is prophetic, as it turns out, that was the peacock of doom. It's been a pretty intense semester for me, skating the thin edge of exhaustion far too often, but for the most part managing to keep things everything going that I needed to. Until yesterday...

Thursday dawned, after a scant 6 hours of sleep. I got showered and out the door with 5 minutes to spare before Morning Prayer. Looking forward to a few moments in the dark and still church before the 8 am Mass finished, I pull open the side door to see the main church lit up and full of people. Puzzled, I walked around to the front. Had so many people showed up for 8 am that they needed to shift to the larger sanctuary? And what was Fr. Frank doing still preaching at 8:20 -- had he overslept again? When I saw the cantor up front, the light dawned at last. It was Acsension Thursday. I was the cantor for the 8 am Ascension Thursday Mass. Except I was 20 minutes late, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt that read "Chemistry Chick."

The rest of day turned out to be an exercise in humility. Presiding at Morning Prayer, my cell phone suddenly chimes to announce a text message, then rings incessantly. Recounting my travails of the morning to Math Man, when I got to the part about not being quite clear about what was transpiring in the Church, he popped out with the punch line, "It's Ascension Thursday, a holy day of obligation, right?" He remembers, he's not scheduled to cantor, he's not even Catholic.

By the time my day wound down into the Examen, I was ready to ask, "Who Lord, could stand?" Alas, I was late for that, too. That was the psalm for the night before....

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Column: What do you ask of God's church?

In Barnacle Boy's mind, do it twice and it's a tradition (once if it was really, really fun). By his standards, this is my now traditional non-traditional reflection on Mary, for the month that is traditionally associated with her. (Last year it was Rahner and small devotions, the year before Mary and rebellion...)

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 13 May 2010.

As the child’s father and mother stood there wondering at the things that were being said about him, Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “You see this child; he is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected — and a sword will pierce your own soul too — so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.” —Lk. 2:33-35

As the cantor at the Saturday evening Mass, I had a great view. Three young girls in white dresses and veils stood by the font in the back of the church, waiting to process up the aisle to their families in the front pews. As Father Dennis blessed the children and proceeded to sprinkle the gathered assembly with holy water, memories flowed from the waters of the font.

The memory of standing behind the font, waiting to walk down the aisle with Victor to celebrate our marriage. Memories of bringing both my sons to this font for baptism. Memories of leaving them there on the day they would first receive the Eucharist. The memories were warm and grace-filled, signs of faith and love and the support of this parish community.

I started the processional hymn and watched as my now nearly full-grown son held the cross high above the crowd to begin. Michael was halfway down the aisle of the packed church when it hit me. In a moment of bone-chilling clarity, I realized just what I had done when I brought him to be baptized. I had bound him to the cross.

“What do you ask of God’s Church for Michael?” Father Adrian had wanted to know as Victor and I stood at the doors like Mary and Joseph bringing our newborn son to be gathered into the community of faith. “Baptism,” we replied, Victor’s firm profundo echoing off the ceiling.

True as far as it went. But what I had really asked was that Mike be clothed in Christ, conformed to the mystery that is Christ’s life: passion, death and resurrection. I had surrendered his life, submerging it in the waters of baptism, that he might emerge a new creation — one that belonged not to me, not to himself, but to God.

Seven years later, on another brilliant Eastertide day, I brought Mike again to the back of the Church to receive Christ in the Eucharist for the first time. “Become what you receive,” counseled St. Augustine. Become Christ. Pour yourself out for God.

Now, as the entrance procession wound its way down the aisle, I had no eyes for the girls garbed in lace; my gaze was riveted to Mike, solemnly bearing the weight of that cross. I thought of Mary, watching her Son carrying the cross through the crowds in Jerusalem. What was in her heart then? Did she think of the joyous day she’d brought Him to be presented at the temple? Could she ever have imagined that this was to be the sword that would pierce her through the soul?

Seeing my son, so nearly a man, his life now bound inextricably into the mystery of God’s salvation, I taste of the cup that Mary drank. I grasp more deeply how daring Mary’s “yes” to Gabriel’s question was. It was not just “yes” to God’s will for her. It was a “yes” to offering what any mother knows matters more to you than your own life — the life of your child.

The realization, that I too have made these promises saying “yes” to God not merely with my own life but with the lives of my sons, takes my breath away. Mary, Mother of God, pray for me.

Holy Mother of God, pray for us. Mother of divine grace, pray for us. Mother of good counsel, pray for us. — from the Litany of Our Blessed Mother

Photo credit

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Column: Prayer on the Move

There wasn't enough space in this column to talk about labyrinths - but go check out artandsoul's latest project! The photo is from my walk at the Jesuit Center yesterday....

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 6 May 2010.

Make me know the way I should walk: to you I lift up my soul. — Ps. 143:8b

Over lunch last week my friend Lisa confided that she’s found driving to be a good time for meditating. “I need something just enough to keep my body busy.” And besides, with three daughters in two schools and voice, dance and music lessons, Lisa spends a lot of time behind the wheel.

Lisa is not the only person I know who finds God while on the move. When I posed a question about prayer posture to my friends on Facebook a few weeks ago, the answers came flying. The most popular way to pray? “Walking?” “Walk!” “What she said — walk!”

I think of stillness being the first step in prayer. To begin you kneel, or sit or stand. Yet I often find a walk to be sacred time, a practice that leads me to an interior stillness even as my feet take me up and down the hills of Haverford. There is a measured, rhythmic nature to this prayer for me and perhaps an antidote for a touch of restlessness as well. Like Lisa, I wonder if I move my body to keep my mind from fidgeting.

The psalmist suggests that lessons in walking are what we are to seek from God, and like riding a bike or pitching a baseball, the way to learn is to practice. So perhaps it’s not surprising that so many people — myself included — pray on their feet.

I know that I often walk in search of clarity. Solvitur ambulando, an aphorism often attributed to St. Jerome, is advice I put into practice regularly: to solve a problem, walk around. When I’m struggling with a piece to write, or suffering an overdose of teen-age angst, I grab my sneakers and circle the block once or twice. A change of exterior scene often changes my interior outlook.

The early desert fathers also saw a salutary role for walking in prayer, particularly when a monk felt troubled or unable to pray. “Force yourself to get to your feet and walk up and down in your cell,” advised Joseph the Visionary, an eighth century convert to Christianity and mystic. When we find ourselves unable to express in word or thought our desire to walk with God, the remedy seems to be to simply stand up and walk regardless, in the hope that God will join us.

Theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., reminds us that the first description of Christians in the Acts of the Apostles was “those who belong to the way.” To move, to walk, he notes in his essay “Everyday Things,” is to acknowledge that we have here on earth no fixed home. “We are really pilgrims, wanderers between two worlds.” Not only are we in search of God on our walks, but our God-made-flesh seeks us out, moving between those two worlds, and carrying us along.

Just as stillness in prayer makes manifest a readiness to hear God that I cannot express verbally, I suspect more than anything else my walks articulate a certain restlessness of spirit and a deep desire to reach that end for which I was created. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord,” said St. Augustine. Both my soul — and my soles — would agree.

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance —
and changes us, even if we do not reach it...
— From A Walk by Rainer Maria Rilke

Sunday, May 02, 2010

A Study in Clutter

Robin is blogging about a topic that's often on my mind -- the spiritual aspects of physical space. You may have noticed the list titled "Fifty Fewer" on my sidebar. Two years ago, I spent the weeks between the end of the school year and the start of my annual retreat clearing out spaces real and spiritual by trying to have fifty fewer things in my life at the end of each week. I kept the list partly for accountablity and partly so I could keep from bringing the same stuff back in over and over again.

It's been a busy semester, and I've been trying hard to triage (or discern, if you prefer the Ignatian term) well what needs attention and what must go by the wayside. I find it hard to work on a cluttered desk, or in a cluttered space for that matter, but finally reached a point where I didn't always have time to reshelve the books or file the papers before I had to dig into the next bit of writing or class prep. So the piles began to stack up. They're organized, after a fashion, but at least two piles are threatening my work space — one on each desk.

I'm hoping to spend a bit of time tomorrow afternoon making some order in my study, and hoping there will be some spillover to my life — spiritual and otherwise. If I organize things, serenity will return? I'm not holding my breath!