Sunday, October 31, 2010

Silk strands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singapore Eats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pizza. Crisp, perfect anchovy pizza.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Still and Silent

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

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

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

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

The photo is of orchids at Singapore's Botanical Gardens

Friday, October 29, 2010

More Singapore Sketches

Today is a "free and easy" day according to my schedule. I got up early to go "trekking" up Bukit Timah - the highest natural point in Singapore (but not the highest point - several buildings in downtown are higher than this 164 m hill). This reserve is the last remaining bit of primary jungle in Singapore and home to a wider variety of flora than is found in all of North America. And to reticulated pythons, macaques, monitor lizards and flying lemurs. To my disappointment, despite all of the "don't feed the monkeys" signs, I encountered no macaques. I saw one lemur high in the trees, but couldn't get a photo.

I did get up close and personal with several monitor lizards, including this guy. Walking on the dirt trails in the back half of the preserve, this one came right out in front of me. I turned another corner to find one sauntering down the trail ahead of me. These lizards are low-slung and stocky, but they don't waddle, they have a walk so liquid it's almost a slither. And they have incredibly long tongues.

There are a lot of be a good citizen campaigns in Singapore. In the student canteen not far from where I'm staying, the sign at the drinks and fruit station pointedly asks "Taking two straws? You don't have two mouths, do you?" I took one straw.

I'm not in Kansas anymore. The ambient soundscape is different. I can close my eyes and be certain I'm not in Pennsylvania any more. It was particularly evident at the nature reserve, where the cicadas were decidedly higher in pitch than Pennsylvanian cicadas. But it can be more subtle as well. At the top of a ridge, alone on the trail (hard to do in crowded Singapore), I could hear the wind rustling the top of the trees. The rustle was not quite the same rustle I hear through the oaks outside my window, or when walking the hedgerows at Wernersville.

Everyone always carries an umbrella. In the vans that drove me around campus and out to Jurong Island, there was always a rack of matching umbrellas behind the driver. Just in case. Even on the trail this morning, hikers had not a poncho tucked into a pack, but bumbershoots. I can see why. You really don't want an extra layer in this weather (note the latitude on the marker at the summit — one degree off the equator). I was completely drenched after the hike today!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Column: Word by word

Robin is the friend whose voice I hadn't heard, but who I could recognize right away. The photo is from an early October meet-up with Stratoz at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville.

WHHS is the oldest high school FM station in the country.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 28 Oct 2010.

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

Dawn was just starting to light the sky as I headed down Darby Road, listening to music on the radio. The song faded out to the sound of Tim’s voice announcing, “Good morning, Haverford! You’re listening to 99.9 FM WHHS, Radio Rediscovered.”

Three mornings a week, Chris and his friend Tim host a morning drive-time show broadcast from the high school’s radio station. As I pulled into the driveway, listening to my youngest son’s voice on the air, I had the uncanny sensation he was actually there — sitting in the passenger seat. For a moment, his voice made him present to me.

We hear at the start of John’s Gospel how strongly God’s voice evokes His presence, the Word is God. The Word spoken that will call all of creation into being.

The Church teaches that Christ is present in the liturgy in four ways: in the person of the priest, in the assembled faithful, in the Eucharistic species and in the Scriptures — “The Word of the Lord.” In Sacrosanctum Concilium — Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy — we are reminded “He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church.”

I was taken aback in the car at the very real sense of Chris’ presence his voice evoked. It made me wonder about my response to the Scriptures that I proclaim and hear proclaimed at Mass and in the Liturgy of the Hours. Is it words I hear, not much different from the thousands of other words I hear and read each day? Or can I hear the living Word speaking to me now in the psalms, and the prophets, in the Gospels and Paul’s letters?

St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in the fifth century, in reflecting on this passage, expresses similar worries. “Words, by their everyday usage, sounds and proceeding out of us, have become common to us, seeming to be nothing more than words.”

Augustine goes on to wonder if our minimalist vocabulary — “Is this all that God is, four letters and two syllables [in Latin God is Deus]?” — in fact heightens our sense of God’s enormity. The sound quickly fades away, but what it brings to life within us is “everywhere present, everywhere whole, nowhere shut in.”

A couple of weeks ago I met a friend who I knew only through her writing — both in letters we had exchanged for several years and her work published online. Though I had never heard her “real” voice, when we met I was fascinated to realize that it didn’t feel like the first time we’d ever spoken. Her words, like Chris,’ captured a real sense of her being.

Reflecting on both these experience reminds me that even though I might never have heard Christ’s human voice, I have grown to know Him deeply through all the words of Scripture I have read and heard over the years. We’ve met amidst this garden of letters and words. And conversely, it’s made me wonder if I am as awe-struck praying the psalms, proclaiming the Scriptures, listening to the readings, as I would be if I turned the corner in first century Jerusalem to hear Jesus’ voice telling a parable. I know God, but do I know He’s here?

May the all-knowing God and Lord show us his ways; may Christ, the Wisdom of the Father, teach us the words of truth; may the Holy Spirit, most blessed Light divine, ever enlighten our mind, so that we may learn and put into practices all that is right and good. Amen. — From the Rite of Blessing for a New Library

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Singapore Sketches

I'm still in Singapore, talking about writing, talking about science, talking about writing and science. The university I'm visiting here has been wonderfully welcoming and the place is beautiful. The trouble, of course, with talking about writing is that I've not a lot of time to do it….so what follows are just a few sketches before I lose all the details.

Drive left! Look right to cross. I look the wrong way when I cross streets - thankfully Singapore drivers are even better than Californians about stopping for pedestrians. And you don't jaywalk here. (See below!)

The churches - the Cathedral and SS Peter and Paul -- were fascinating. The Cathedral is held together by baling wire -- or at least cables and boards. Apparently when they excavated for the MRT system (the subway/trains) the lack of a solid foundation under the Cathedral proved disastrous, and the subsequent damage has yet to be repaired due to lack of funds. The peeling plaster walls also suggest budgetary woes. SS Peter and Paul has incredibly gorgeous bones - you walk in to what appears to be a small church and turns out to be an enormous open and light space with a triptych of stained glass windows that simply glow. The sense of openess is enhanced by the low windows along the sides - all open to the outside. But you don't have to look carefully to see the same signs of dwindling urban congregations. The plaster is falling off the walls, fans are bolted to the walls. Oh - and no A/C in either place. Fans, open windows. Heat. It encourages stillness (and as I did an hour's meditation in SS Peter and Paul - elicited strong memories of Wernersville in a heat wave).

Jaywalking. I watched a bit of Chinese language TV in the student canteen over lunch. In the middle of the soap opera on comes an ad showing a grandmother indulging her granddaughter (I'm guessing about the relationship - my Mandarin is limited to thank you. Period.) The grandmother goes out to buy the granddaughter a treat. She jaywalks coming home, is hit by a car and the final scene shows her body lying in the street and the crushed box of treats. I got the message, without being to able read the Chinese characters that flashed on the black screen. Don't jaywalk.

Time for my next talk! More later…. (photo is of Good Shepherd Cathedral in Singapore)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wrinkled Time

I feel quite wrinkled at the moment, after a mere twenty-four hours of travel (two more hours to go). The little screen in the back of my seat shows us to be over the Bay of Bengal. What am I doing on the other side of the earth? It seems odd to get here by just sitting, as difficult as that can seem in quarters so tight that I can't put my laptop screen all the way up when the seat in front of me is reclined. With virtually no effort on my part (if you don't count the sudden swirl of errands that renewing my passport required), I'm about to arrive in a place that five hundred years ago was essentially inaccessible from where I live now. How long, I wonder, did it take for St. Francis Xavier to get to this end of the earth from Rome in 1541? [Months, I looked it up when I landed.] And do I have more stuff or less than he brought along?

Time feels a bit wrinkled, too. I prayed Compline on the plane from Philly to London in the middle of the night. But by the time I was settled into the next plane, now on Singapore time, it was time and past for Evening Prayer. Time had bunched up, and folded over.

But I can once again keep time, having managed to replace my watch during the London layover!

Traveling Mercies

I feel like an itinerant scholar these days, teaching and writing far from my usual haunts. The last few weeks have seen me traveling up and down the Northeast corridor from Princeton to Washington DC, and as I write this, I am on a layover in London, en route to Singapore.

Several friends wished me "traveling mercies" before I left, an expression I first encountered in Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. I sometimes think of traveling mercies as just in time grace, and so often grace with a wry sense of humor peeking through.

There have been traveling mercies in my wanderings. A partial list of the ones I've noticed:
  • the young woman who helped haul my suitcase packed with books up the stairs on the Washington Metro (the escalators were out) and then blessed me
  • realizing that my passport had expired BEFORE I got to the airport (two weeks before, in fact - time enough to go into Philly, get it renewed and have lunch with a friend)
  • Math Man's willingness to trek across Philly to pick up the passport when it was ready (since I was off on another trip and stressed that picking it up 24 hours before I was due to travel was cutting it a bit close)
  • the kitchen staff who produced plain chicken and mashed potatoes when I was recovering from a stomach bug on the last trip
  • the young man who signed me into the college network so I could answer student email
  • an extra seat next to me on the plane to London
  • the bracingly hot and sweet cup of tea - real tea - the flight attendant produced in when I declined coffee
  • a moonbow - with a nearly full moon, seen from a bus as it followed its serpentine route between Heathrow terminals
Now having recharged my batteries (literally and figuratively) I'm off to see if I can find the gate for my next flight which boards in about 3 hours and a new watch - mine having come into two pieces midflight (!).

Photo is of the front door of Eastern Point Retreat House. I had a couple of hours or so to wait until my taxi came to take me to the train station, but grace descended in the form of another retreatant's sister, who lives in Gloucester and wouldn't hear of my sitting there. I got a ride to the train station and brief tour of Gloucester along the way. Traveling mercies.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Column: How big are our hearts?

My memories of this day are of joy and light. It was a gorgeous, brilliant day, the church full of light. But it was the joy on so many faces, the joy on the faces of the men making vows, that beautifully lit the entire space.

As each of them knelt, I could remember praying with them throughout the Exercises. Standing around the altar in the marbled entry space, in the chapel at midnight - hoods pulled up on our sweatshirts for warmth.

The photo is of the group that made the Long Retreat at Eastern Point in January 2009.

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

How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me? I will raise the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
— Ps. 116:12-14

“Almighty and eternal God, I, understand how unworthy I am in your divine sight. Yet I am strengthened by your infinite compassion and mercy, and I am moved by the desire to serve you. I vow to your divine Majesty, before the most holy Virgin Mary and the entire heavenly court, perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience in the Society of Jesus.”

With these words, eight young men — some of my companions of the Spiritual Exercises a year and a half before — professed perpetual vows in the Society of Jesus.

I watched in Holy Cross Church as Ricardo, Kevin, Keith, Pat, Tim, Vinnie, Rick and Brian knelt in turn before Christ, held before them in the Eucharist by their provincial. I offered up fierce prayers for these men, that God might grant them grace, strength and passion to live this life, but above all that there may be abundant joy. I thought too about the vows I had professed, the promises I had made before God.

On that very same weekend almost 30 years ago Tom and I had been married in a not-quite-finished church near the university we both attended. And this weekend 18 years before, found me, then a widow of six years, with Victor in St. Hilaire in Quebec, asking for the Church’s blessing on our engagement.

In his homily at the Mass of profession, Joe Lingan, S.J. the novice master, quoted St. Gregory the Great’s description of St. Ignatius of Loyola (the founder of the Jesuit order): “Ignatius had a heart big enough to hold the universe.” Father Lingan challenged all of us present, the assembly as well as those making vows, to consider our own lives. “A vow ceremony is a good occasion to assess the size of one’s heart — it’s openness, flexibility, passion and desire — and to see how and in what way I allow God and God’s grace to assist in the maintenance of my heart.”

I heard in his words echoes of French Catholic laywoman Madeleine Delbrêl who, with several companions, began a lay community dedicated to living a contemplative life in the midst of a busy world.

Speaking of her own conversion to Catholicism Delbrêl wrote, “You had fashioned my heart to Your size….” Delbrêl found her vocation not in religious life or marriage, but in finding solitude and silence in the cacophony of 20th century urban Paris. Obedience in Delbrêl’s life was not owed to a religious superior, but instead to the small circumstances of everyday life.

“Each docile act makes us receive God totally and give God totally, in a great freedom of spirit….It makes no difference what we do, whether we take in hand a broom or a pen.” Or as St. Ignatius would have it, in his “Principle and foundation,” “everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.”

What ultimately brings us all to the place of our own vows? What calls forth this deep response in the men of the Society of Jesus, in Madeleine Delbrêl and her companions, in Victor and me? Love. We are all drawn by love, and lavished with God’s grace. We are all called to open our hearts wide enough to receive God freely and completely and give God, freely and completely. With brooms or pens, as priests or sisters or married couples.

How big is my heart? I suspect Madeleine Delbrêl is right, God has fashioned it large enough to hold the universe. If only I would, as St. Ignatius advises, “abandon myself into His hands and let me be formed by His grace.” Totus tuus ego sum.

“I humbly ask that you judge this total commitment of myself acceptable; and as you have freely given me the desire to make this offering, so also may you give me the abundant grace
to fulfill it.”
— From the Vows in the Society of Jesus

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


"Why should the wind through the pines, the sand storms, and the squall upon the sea, all count as silence, and not the pounding of the factory machines, the rumbling of the trains at the station, and the clamor of the engines at the intersection?" — Madeleine Delbrêl

I was a guest lecturer in a class today, talking about contemplative practices and creativity. We were talking about ways to set aside space — sacred and otherwise — for contemplation. I noted they have a meditation space in one of the enormous bay windows (the octagonal bays are the size of a small classroom) that juts out of the library. The library stacks open onto an internal courtyard, with shops and a food court on the bottom floor. The whole building hums with noise, no library hush here!

I asked students about whether any of them used the space or had seen it. Several had and so we talked about the ways in which the space was set apart by its users — though it lacked a door: a screen, the taking off of shoes, the leaving of backpacks and coats at the edge. When I mentioned that it wasn't very silent, one of the students corrected me,"It's very quiet. I usually study by that room because of that." I agreed, that relative to the rest of the library, it is quiet. But on my scale not so much. Eastern Point in the dead of night comes to mind.

But I've been reading a bit of Madeleine Delbrêl's take on silence and solitude where she poses just this question. Why do I count the wind in the trees as silence, but the murmur of voices or the grunt of a printer as it chugs out another paper as noise?

I don't have much of an answer at this point — except to say that the trains which howl in the night at Wernersville do say "silence" to me....

"Silence does not mean running away, but rather recollecting ourselves in the open space of God." — Madeleine Delbrêl

Photo is of the chapel at Eastern Point, taken at 3:27 am. The only light is from the Presence Lamp, the exposure was a long one, I set a tripod on a stone wall outside. I prayed I would not get locked out by some other night time wanderer - despite the sticky note I'd left on the door saying I was outside!

Sunday, October 17, 2010


It comes from the Greek - περιπατητικός (peripatêtikos) and generally has the sense of walking about. I'm spending a part of October wandering about and teaching (mostly). My peripatetic month began by going to Wernersville to see Patient Spiritual Director and meet-up with Robin and Stratoz, then a day later heading off to Princeton - not the University, but the mothership of testing, ETS. Yes, I spent fours days at the home of the PSAT (which Crash and Barnacle Boy took Saturday) and the GRE (my raison d'travel - the GRE subject test in Chemistry)*. Now I'm in Virginia, as a "scholar in residence" doing workshops on contemplative practices and teaching. What does a contemplative stance look like in the classroom? For the teacher? For the student?

I did a workshop on Saturday with a colleague here (a psychologist) on writing memoir. Since we took turns leading, it meant that I enjoyed a bit of contemplative writing space as well. The feedback on the workshop was positive, I'd not done anything quite like this before; it was a lovely group, still and lively by turns!

There are more travels to come, I'm not back home longer than it takes to unpack and repack until the calendar flips to November.

*Urban spiritual director (who filled in for Patient SD while he was on sabbatical and I suppose now really needs a new blog name) noted that he'd never thought about it, but someone must write the questions for these things. Photo is of a statue of St. Ignatius, the Pilgrim (source? unknown...)

Commons: Comments and Community

Robin of Metanoia wondered in this post about the development of communities around the comments in blogs. Who visits? Who comments? Why? Has the rise of aggregation software like Google Reader, which makes it easy to rifle through and read the most recent posts on your favorite blogs, reduced the likelihood that someone will comment — and thus diminishes whatever sense of community might exist in that virtual spot? I know that each extra click reduces the chances that I will comment. Is what I had to say worth moving from Reader to the blog? opening the comment box? typing in the code that confirms I'm human? typing it in a second time when I've failed the test? or forgotten if this particular anti-Turing test is case sensitive? Oh -- never mind!

I'm curious about what leads to a building of community around one blog but not another -- for example, the People for Others blog at Loyola Press has a regular body of commenters, with some interesting perspectives on the posts and some give and take, while the comment traffic on DotMagis, also out of Loyola, is much lower. I like them both, the content is always first rate. Why does one engage readers in further conversation and the other not?

And then there are the blogs who have groups of commenters who, while not quite trolls, are certainly not out to build a community but there are boatloads of comments. I suspect that a blog needs a certain amount of traffic to sustain a conversation in the comments. Certainly one way to do that is to be deliberately inflammatory, but I'm wondering about other ways to invite conversation.

Fr. Christian Mathis at Blessed is the Kingdom invites visitors to introduce themselves at a subpage on his site. I've toyed with the idea off and on and once my peripatetic month is over (that's another blog post!), I may do the same.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Column: Kenosis (Caution, theological term incoming)

This column began with a conversation in Patient Spiritual Director's office. On a walk later in the day, Flannery O'Connor's line showed up (though I couldn't recall at first who had written it, or where it appeared, though I did remember it was voiced by an unnamed girl - let's hear it for Google...) - and I realized that was my problem. Kenosis in principle is admirable, it's the practical implications that trip me up.

I managed to write the entire piece without using the technical theological term for "self-emptying: kenosis. It landed on the metaphorical cutting room floor at least a half-dozen times! I love the Hopkins' poem about St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, who lost wife and family and wished to join the Jesuits. They turned him away more than once, but in the end he became the porter at a Jesuit college in Majorca. He was (and is) known for his humility.

The photo is of our dinner table, set by the guys for Thanksgiving. With napkins. And matching glasses.

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

Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus: who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.
— Phil. 2:5-7a

“I’ve given up on matching glasses or napkins on the table,” I sighed as I bemoaned the cheerfully haphazard approach my guys take to setting the table to a priest friend. “However much I empty myself, it seems there’s always more to give up.”

It seems almost irreverent to allude to St. Paul’s beautiful hymn to Christ’s humility and subsequent glory in the same breath as my frustrations about setting the dinner table. Yet the more I contemplate the challenge that Paul sets before us in this passage — that our call to be of Christ’s mind is a call to an utter poverty of self — the more I suspect it is as much about such everyday things as it is about a willingness to be a martyr.

Theologian Johannes Metz, in his exquisite book Poverty of Spirit, talks of the ways in which our everyday experiences lead us to a deeper experience of the surrender that God summons us to, as signposts in the desert. Poverty of spirit, this self-emptying that Christ undertakes, begins not with grand spiritual gestures, but with the commonplace.

“There is,” Metz says, “nothing heroic about it; it is the poverty of the common lot, devoid of ecstasy.” By its nature, this is not a poverty we can choose, but one where the choices are made for us. Like the choice of the glasses on the table.

In principle, I stand ready to offer my life for God. I imagine that with God’s grace I could face death for my faith with the equanimity of SS. Perpetua and Felicity, with the courage of St. Margaret Clitherow. In practice, I find my attachment to these everyday anxieties about glasses and napkins infinitely harder to surrender. Perhaps because these are not abstract things, like a martyrdom I am unlikely to face in 21st century Philadelphia, but all too concrete, all too present.

Or maybe my trouble with letting myself be stripped of even my own expectations is that I would prefer it to be done Flannery O’Connor style: quick. Like the girl in O’Connor’s short story, A Temple of the Holy Ghost who mused “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick. She could stand to be shot, but not to be burned in oil.” I want my surrender to be over and done with, and in a manner of my own choosing.

This, of course, is precisely the point. To be of the same mind as Christ is to stand ready to empty ourselves in ways we do not expect, welcome or perhaps even recognize. In small things as in the momentous. Not once, but again and again. Perhaps even every night at the dinner table.

On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., from In Honour of St. Alphonsous Rodriguez

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The taste of Calvinism - theologically informed chocolates

As part of the celebration of the quincentential of John Calvin's birth, chocolatier Blaise Poyet created a chocolate that captured Calvin's life and work. It was a challenge. "It's not easy to represent theological ideas by using the taste buds," he notes.

The confections are 4 layers: a variation on a praline (it's "reformed"), a 68% intensely Brazilian cocoa paste (to represent Calvin's view of the glory and perfection of God), a soft caramel (to signify his discreet care of neighbors) and a dash of lemon verbena (the herb is a perennial, and represents the growth of Calvin's theological ideas).

Personally, I think there should be five flavor notes, but perhaps I'm too literal in my theological translations?

All this has me contemplating what a chocolate embodying Karl Rahner, SJ's theology might taste like? or St. John Chrysostom's preaching? Rahner would have to be built on a base of some intense single source chocolate - 85% cacao at least! And St. John Chrysostom? Smooth, honey based caramel, perhaps?

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Column: Tango Lessons from the Holy Spirit

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

Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm; for stern as death is love, relentless as the nether world is devotion; its flames are a blazing fire. Deep waters cannot quench love, nor floods sweep it away. — Song of Songs 8:6-7a

We ran across the sign — literally — on the sidewalk in Ardmore one Friday evening on our way to celebrate our anniversary. “Tango lesson, next Friday 7-8 p.m.” Victor and I looked at each other, and without a word, followed the arrow and climbed the narrow stairs to check out the studio. We signed up.

The next week, as we filled out the information form before class, we scanned the list of reasons to take the class. “An upcoming wedding?” Nope. Eighteen years married, our wedding waltz is amazingly clear in my mind, but been there, done that. “Want to develop a stronger lead?” I nudge Victor, who laughs. Let’s just say, that unlike Ginger Rogers, I’m not always good at following my partner’s lead.

We had a great time and decided to come back for another lesson. What I had yet to realize was that the class would provide instruction in more than the Argentine tango. It turned out that learning to dance with my husband had much to teach me about learning to dance with God.

It shouldn’t have caught me by surprise. I know that the Catholic Church teaches that a married couple’s mutual love is “an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves” His people. So what have I learned so far, besides how to do an ocho?

Our instructor keeps reminding us that the tango is not a jumble of fancy steps, but just a walk. A measured walk, on the beat, with the potential for flourishes, but fundamentally, it’s a walk. Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer similarly advises us to keep our focus off the fancy footwork and on the ordinary: “We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good … How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?”

In tango, the follower is not a puppet, her partner does not push her from place to place, but subtly signals the next move, which she then takes up and makes manifest. We are created to live in the freedom of God — and called to make Him manifest here and now, each in our own way.

Don’t worry about which way to go, says the teacher, just keep facing your partner and you’ll land where you need to be, no matter how fancy — or simple — the steps. The path only becomes confusing when I forget where to face, when I forget what the psalmist so firmly holds in the 121st Psalm, “My eyes are lifted heavenward, from which comes my help.”

We move awkwardly through our ochos and our turns around the floor, but the instructors remind us that it does get easier. “It’s all about the embrace. Stay within the embrace. The closer you hold each other, the more effortless it becomes.” Can I stay within the embrace? How closely am I willing to hold God?

I don’t hold a rose in my teeth as Victor and I dance to the simmering warmth of the tango tunes, but I can sense the Holy Spirit held between us — on fire with a love that nothing can quench, nothing can sweep away. And willing to let us be the image of such a love for the world. It’s hard to imagine a finer anniversary gift than this reminder of what being married means — to us and to the people of God.

Father, to reveal the plan of Your love, you made the union of husband and wife an image of the covenant between You and Your people. In the fulfillment of this sacrament, the marriage of Christian man and woman is a sign of the marriage between Christ and the Church. — From the Nuptial Blessing

Photo is from
Calliope Georgousi.