Friday, December 31, 2010

Ringing out the old year

There are only a few hours left in 2010, and as I did last year, I'm taking a look back using a word cloud. What's here that wasn't last year? Time is more on my mind, but silence and prayer are still frequent touch points.

The numbers: 157 posts. Word counts: 65,299 words total; God 314 times; pray (and words stemming from it) 258 times; silence 96 times. Weirdest word? pre-rhotic (see here)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Clap on, clap off

Favorite Facebook Nephew was sprawled on the sofa this morning, his mother, No No Nannette, needed the table set. When there was no response to an audio prompt, she clapped her hands loudly, eliciting a groan and creaky movement from the body on the sofa. "Clap on, clap off" - a new device to activate your teen.

No No's comment: "If only it really worked."

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Podcast: Episode 7 Christmas, Through the Cross, Joy

We're enraptured by the gentle baby, not to mention the angels singing in the heavens and the wise men bearing gifts, but do we really grasp the enormity of this first sacrifice, where God pitches His tent among us? One Christmas, an elegant marble carving of Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms as they flee for their lives resting for a moment on the altar brought into sharp relief for me the connection between the Nativity and the Cross.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

The ornament was made by my mother, for her first Christmas tree, when she and my dad were grad students. She cut out bells and hearts and start from foil, then sewed them in threes, opening them into three dimensional shapes and twisting the thread to hold them onto the tree. She stored them in the pages of an old Good Housekeeping from 1957. Browsing the magazine each year became as much a tradition for me as did the ornaments.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Making do

I take pleasure in a universe that flows smoothly, without turbulence or chaos. One where I can reach into a drawer and find the measuring spoons — not have to hunt them up. Or where the pretzels and trays stashed on top of the refrigerator do not fall on my head when I open the door. Unfortunately I live in a "make-do" household, populated by pragmatists who live by the principle: "if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail." When we're camping or sailing, or snow bound, I love the derring-do of it all. But there are times at home when I'd rather just use the right tool for the right job.

Alas for me, the second law of thermodynamics (or original sin, if you prefer a Catholic theological lens) prevails. There will be chaos and disorder, it is the way of the universe. In the natural order of things, the wooden spoon should not be in the jar next to the stove — so why do I rail when it's not? Sometimes I can ride the flow, not fighting the entropic currents, threading the rapids with ease. Other days it's a struggle, as I forget that trying to paddle upstream is a poor strategy - not to say energetically very expensive.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Column: Our only hope of glory

The CD was from the Medieval Babes — who along with Anonymous 4 and Trio Medieaval are a great listen, if you like polyphonic music, that is. The painting is Joey's!

This reflection appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 23 December 2010.

It is Christ among you, your hope of glory. — Col. 1:27b

Joey has developmental challenges, I teach quantum physics. But we share a passion for medieval polyphonic music. In return for the gift of a CD by one of my favorite groups, I received an exquisite thank you card bearing Joey’s own art work: a flower in all the tones of Advent — blue, rose and white with a splash of triumphant green. Inside was inscribed a careful thank you and “I love the music!”

When I told Joey’s mother how much I loved the painting, she replied, “And this from the child for whom they had no hope!” No hope that he might talk, let alone share his opinions of music from centuries past.

What hopes would the people staying at that inn in Bethlehem have had for the child who arrived on their doorstep? Would any of them have placed any hope in this child, born in a stable, seemingly bereft of any family other than his weary, travel worn parents? Would any passer by have imagined that this child was He of whom the psalmist proclaimed, “Our hope is in the Lord, who made heaven and earth”?

Hope is an unreasonable thing. It expects more than is possible, more than we could imagine. As St. Paul reminds the Romans, “Hope would not be hope at all if its object were seen.”

I wonder if I come to Christmas these days brimming with hope, expecting more than I could imagine of this encounter with God among us, or whether it has become just part of the rhythm of my year. What do I expect from the celebration of the feast of the Nativity? Beyond a joyous liturgy or two? Beyond the relief I feel knowing that we’ve plumbed the depths of the winter darkness or that I’ve reached the midpoint of the academic year relatively unscathed?

In his encyclical, Spes Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI expresses a similar worry. Have we “ceased to notice that we possess the hope that ensues from a real encounter with this God?” For my part, I know the facts of the story so well — Christ is born, preaches, suffers, dies and rises from the dead — that it’s hard to keep the unexpected in mind. The Gospel is not a undemanding recounting of what has changed, but is itself a force for change here and now. A change I cannot predict, or imagine.

Nearing what would be the last Christmas of his life and awaiting trial by the Nazis, Jesuit Father Alfred Delp, reflected that a father of the Church had called Christmas “the mystery of the great howl” — an event that shook humankind to the point it could not express itself by anything other than a wail to the heavens. An event that “burned away our romantic concepts.” All we are left with is hope, all our own concerns vanish under the immensity of what is coming to pass, what we cannot yet fully see.

What then should I hope for on this Christmas? This year I seek to shake loose the bindings of the sentimental trappings that have become tangled around this feast, both the world’s and my own. To surrender my sense of surety about the scene in the stable, to take leave of the Virgin Mother and adoring shepherds, who alike have been visited by angels and thereby know at least part of the story. To hope, perhaps unreasonably, to place myself at the crib as a passerby, as yet unaware of what has happened — but still shaken at the sight.

As unreasonable as it was and is to hope: God is with us.

Godhead, I adore thee fast in hiding; thou
God in these bare shapes, poor shadows, darkling now:
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. in S. Thomae Aquinatis

Monday, December 20, 2010

Brewing Chemicals

Warning: explicit chemistry content ahead!

When last I visited Patient Spiritual Director we had a conversation about caffeine — since at times this semester I felt as caffeine was all that was getting me through the next hour. So for now, a lá Ignatius' advice to find the mean of things regarding eating and drinking, I'm trying to stick to just two cups of the caffeinated stuff a day, though I have to admit that caffeine adds a bitter edge to tea and I miss the taste even more than the buzz when it's not there. The small deprivation definitely heightens my appreciation for those two cups!

A young friend sent me the link to these mints, which promise both tranquility and alertness in a single package. The secret ingredient is L-theanine (structure shown below), a naturally occurring amino acid found in Camelia sinensis. (Some amino acids (roughly 20) are used by biological systems to build proteins (the working machinery of cells), but theanine is not one of them.) Coincidently, the dried, fermented leaves of Camelia sinensis are what I use to brew my preferred pharmacological concoction to decrease stress and increase alertness: tea.

So would the mints work as advertised? I don't really know, but there is some evidence that theanine works synergistically with caffeine to enhance cognitve performance, while moderating some of caffeine's less desirable effects. I think I'll stick with tea — two cups!

Need more chemistry? Read the version posted at my chemistry blog.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Podcast: Episode 6 O Antiphons

O Wisdom! O Lord of Light! O King of the Nations! Since at least the 12th century the magnificent “O antiphons” have traditionally preceded the chanting of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer on the seven days leading up to Christmas Eve. The antiphons in the Liturgy of the Hours are like keys to the psalms and canticles; each one opens a door into a slightly different place in its corresponding text. But the “O antiphons” are far more to me than a familiar litany of titles for the Messiah. As these antiphons slowly unfold in the last days before Christmas, I find in them both invitation and challenge.

The illustration is a mash-up of a photo of a stained glass window at my parish church with a sketch from an illuminated manuscript I was working on.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A picture of Advent on the blog


I'm short. Though I rather prefer the term concentrated, as in "I'm not short, I'm concentrated." *

I can also concentrate. Growing up in a large, boisterous family meant that early on I developed the ability to tune out the uproar and focus on what I was doing. I could relate to the story about Marie Curie, where her sisters and cousins built a tower of chairs around her while she obliviously read a book. Earlier this fall I sat on a bench, waiting for the train from Center City, not even 10 feet from the tracks. The R5 came and went, disgorging and loading passengers right in front of me and I never noticed. It was as if the rest of the world had temporarily vanished.

Wednesday night after dinner I retreated to my study to finish off the reflection I was writing for Christmas — initially drafted in the absolute silence and solitude of Wernersville's library. The contrast between my study and the library was acute. A steady stream of visitors appeared (to feed the sea monkeys, to grab something from the printer, to check on a book, to see if I would come fill her bowl with crunches, to…well, you get the idea). Determined to finish and get to bed before midnight, I barricaded the door (to keep out the cat) and burrowed deeper into the writing. Pop — the rest of the world disappeared off my radar.

Suddenly the door burst open, I squeaked in surprise and Barnacle Boy let out a sigh of relief. "I called you three time and you didn't answer, I was afraid you had fainted!" (I had given blood earlier in the day, but was fairly well rehydrated by now.) "No…just concentrating!"

It's a mad skill and one I'm glad I haven't entirely lost…

*With apologies to Lois Bujold's creation Miles Vorkosigan.

Photo is my stuff strewn around the floor in the back corner of the library. The circle kept growing until I was nearly as barricaded in as Marie Curie.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Column: If you would, you could become all flame

This snippet from Emily Dickinson, which I found after the piece was written, is not a bad summary of my sense of the light:
By a departing light
We see acuter, quite,
Than by a wick that stays.
There's something in the flight
That clarifies the sight
And decks the rays.
The light at this time of year always seems extraordinary to me, revealing much that is hidden.

The story of Abba Joseph in its full form is here. Or if you can get your hands on the latest issue of Dappled Things, read Sabrina Vourvoulias' Poem with a line from the Desert Fathers which takes its breath from the same story. Alas, it's not need to find/order a paper copy!

This reflection appeared as part of the Catholic Standard & Times' Advent series on 16 December 2010.

Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. — Isaiah 8:23a, 9:2

In the last six weeks I’ve been half way round the world and back again. The trip was amazing. I took walks in the jungle where lizards the size of cats slunk liquidly down the path ahead of me and macaques hid among the trees. The jet lag was brutal. I crossed 12 time zones. Twice. For several weeks my body and the sun disagreed seriously about what time it ought to be. My perceptions of day and night, light and darkness, were thoroughly muddled.

The internal and external clocks finally realigned, but something still seemed amiss. I finally realized it was the light. At the equator, the sun soared high in the sky. The ground lay unshadowed at noon, the dawn was a quick dash from darkness to full light. Here the morning light lingers, and even at noon, the sun hangs low in the sky, barely skimming the tops of the trees. In this winter half-light, I’m vaguely aware of the possibilities, aware there could be more.

This is an unrushed light, one that lingers in space as well as time — tracing its way through miles more atmosphere than it will on the sharp edge of summer. It is a paradoxical light; despite its dimness, it reveals rather than obscures. The few leaves that remain on the trees appear lit from within. The stained glass windows in the small chapel glow in the early morning light, making the very air luminous. This gentle light sets the world afire.

Writing on the psalms, St. Augustine reminds us of our destiny — to be alight: “[O]ur light does not come from ourselves, it is you, Lord who will light my lamp.” Like the glowing leaves, what sets us alight is not anything within ourselves, but the Light that is gradually dawning in these Advent days.

We are poised at the point in the year where the darkness will cease to extend its reach, the days will grow longer. What might we do with the light we are about to be granted? Evelyn Underhill, an early 20th century English spiritual writer, echoes Augustine along with some blunt advice: “Ye are the light of the world — but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the Light of the world. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful.”

This time of year where light and darkness ebb and flow in the stillness is beautiful, but there is an insistent edge to it. As tempting as it is to hunker down, to drowse in the half-light, we know there is more to come. In our memories of summer we’ve been given the measure of the brighter days to come.

We’re almost to Christmas, we might even be almost ready to celebrate the great feast. Gifts are wrapped and waiting to be opened, the cookies are baked. We’ve swept our houses and souls clean, literally and sacramentally. What do we do now?

I’m reminded of a similar question asked of Abba Joseph, a hermit living in the desert in the fourth century. Abba Lot, another hermit, came to seek his advice. “I fast,” he said, “I pray and meditate, I live in peace…what else can I do?” Abba Joseph stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven; suddenly light flickered from his fingers like ten lamps. “If you would, you could become all flame.”

Like Abba Lot, I’ve done what I can; now I have to ask myself if I’m willing to recognize that what will happen next is not up to me. It is only the Lord who can fan the embers in my heart into a fire that can be of use. Could I dare to become “all flame,” dare to let Christ be at work not only in me, but through me?

At Evening Prayer next Tuesday the entire Church will call out, as she has for centuries, “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness….” It’s a risky prayer. We are not asking merely for a light to see by, or even for a light that reveals our failings, but a light to guide us out to do God’s work: a Light to set us aflame.

Come, Lord, light my lamp. Let me become all flame.

Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came; Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not
A lightning of fire hard-hurled.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., from The Wreck of the Deutschland

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Seeking poetic inspiration

A friend has been set a task by her pastor: to find and read an appropriate poem at their Christmas Eve service. She describes her congregation thus: "What you need to know about my church is that it is a pretty conservative group, and tends towards literal Biblical interpretation (i.e. poems that would make a group of English PhDs excited by their mysterious metaphors would probably not be what I need)."

I had a couple of ideas for her, but we both wondered what readers of this blog might suggest. So should you be inspired to share some marvelously appropriate piece of poetry my friend could use, or even one that we'd all enjoy for its mysterious metaphors, leave a comment, do!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Podcast: Episode 5/God listens back

I checked! The audio is the audio I intend, not some random track. The advice from Karl Rahner, SJ — to have the courage to be alone in the silence, waiting on God — is taken from a reflection which appeared in Die Presse on 22 December 1962 (I was 4).

The rest of the reflection is well worth reading if you can find it - I dug it out of Everyday Faith, under the title The Answer of Silence.

The photo is from a walk earlier today, a walk prompted by this advice to stand alone, in silence and wait. There is no one within a half mile of me. It was cold beyond measure, it took courage to just go out there, but I stood and waited. I listened. And God listened back.

Listen here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Stella Maris: Still Plainchant

This piece seems to capture the silence and the stillness that I so covet by this point in Advent. The setting is medieval plainsong, a hymn to Mary in her title "Star of the Sea" (Stella Maris — thought by some to be an errant transcription of St. Jerome's translation of Miriam (Mary) as stilla maris — a "drop in the sea". Though that's another story - pieces of which can be found here.)

I love hearing the echoes of Isaiah

Solve vincla reis,
profer lumen cæcis....

Loosen the chains of the guilty,
Send forth light to the blind...

I first heard this piece on the frozen edge of the Atlantic while making the Spiritual Exercises. Now I can't hear it without breathing deeply of silence, winter and the ocean — and stillness.

Cross-posted from the RevGalBlogPals Sunday Afternoon Music Video.

Books: Form or Function?

Just as I'm getting used to the idea that December is here, the January issue of Family Circle showed up in my mailbox. (Yes, I know, it's hardly the New Yorker, but can you say "middle school magazine drive"? and the cookie recipes are great….) Between the January hiatus and now lie a myriad of projects: grading, new kitchen cabinets, one more column to write (Christmas). I should have tucked it away for a cold grey afternoon break with a cup of tea.

Alas, I'm a sucker for anything that promises to help me tame the chaos in my house. And right there on the cover, hovering over the cinnamon buns in a cast iron pan is the line: NO MORE CLUTTER.

"Shelves crammed end to end with books usually look cluttered." I'm excited, maybe they will have some advice for the aspiring-to-well-ordered academic household. We have bookshelves, plural, in the dining room. And every other room in the house (ok, except the bathrooms -- too steamy!). And they are all crammed end to end with books. Personally, I've never counted books on actual shelves (as opposed to on desks, floors and chairs) as clutter, but I'm willing to learn!

I eagerly turn the page to find this suggestion: "Group books by color or size so that they work well together visually." Somehow I suspect this person and I don't quite have the same idea about the function of books in a household. On second thought, reorganizing my shelves upstairs (Psalms has just outgrown it's original spot and had to get pushy to find a shelf to occupy) I discovered that it might not be such a bad idea. My desert fathers tomes are all appropriately desert toned, and my Rahner collection tends to shades of blue and white….maybe it could work.

What do I really need? Even more than a full time housekeeper and cook or house elf? A house librarian.

Photo is of the books I took with me - and artfully arranged, with flowers! - in the hotel on my last trip to Southern University to talk about contemplative practices.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Podcast: Episode 3/Flight into silence UPDATED

UPDATED: (Reason for the update? Read this post.) The end of the semester chaos threatens to send me crashing to the ground, but memories of a flight into silence last Advent remind me to again seek strength in the stillness, to wait upon the Lord.

Listen here:

Friday, December 10, 2010

Epic Fail: Podcast version

I started experimenting with podcasting last week - trying to feel out the difference between writing to be read and writing to be heard. My hope was to post something long (3 to 4 minutes) each weekend, with a shorter (1 to 2 minute) piece midweek. I put two longer pieces up last weekend, submitted the feed to iTunes, saw it was accepted, and so last night went on to post a 2 minute piece.

Using a post from a year ago, a series of sketches from a night at Wernersville, I wrote a short reflection, recorded it, and posted it. At least I thought I posted it. If you listened to it, what you heard was just over a minute of what sounds like heavy breathing (well, hopefully you didn't listen much longer than the 10 awful seconds it took me to figure this out.) Argh.

I've fixed it on the feed, pinged iTunes so they will up the change sooner rather than later. I have more than 200 subscribers to this podcast. I'm hoping at least some of them come back after the epic fail. (Perhaps it's a good thing I've made an appointment for shriving on Monday!)

Lesson learned? Do not post podcasts after midnight. Ever.

The new version - in case you still want to listen....

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Column: Provisional Realities

The photo is of my nephew, no longer quite as much a mystery to us all as he was then.

This reflection appeared as part of the Catholic Standard & Times' Advent series on 9 December 2010.

Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name. — Isaiah 49:15-16a

I was pregnant with Chris over a winter, still teaching as my sweaters stretched ever more tightly over my swelling stomach. One afternoon, deep into a lecture on quantum mechanics, one of my students tentatively raised her hand. Hoping I could clarify what was confusing her before she — and perhaps the rest of my class — was hopelessly lost, I called on her.

She pointed at my stomach and squeaked, “Is that the baby?” I looked down to see a clearly visible bump moving under my sweater as Chris executed his signature in-utero flip. “Indeed, that would be the baby.” Physics took a sudden backseat to biology.

“Is that a foot?” she wondered. Me, too. All those months I carried Mike and Chris within me I wondered about what was hidden from me. Was that a foot, or a hand I saw? A full flip or just a leisurely stretch in those tight quarters? What did this mean — should I expect a calm baby or a fidgety child? Boy or girl? I devoured the “what to expect” books, but almost everything about my children remained a mystery during those days when they were tucked inside my womb. Who would they be? Just what was stirring within me?

These Advent days I read Isaiah with similarly wondering eyes. God is stirring within me, stirring within the world; what should I expect? Much remains a mystery: “You are a hidden God,” says Isaiah (Is 45:15). Theologian Father Karl Rahner, S.J., reminds us we are always in Advent, our lives encompassing “faith, expectation, patience and a longing for what is not yet visible.” We are all pregnant with possibilities and with hope.

In due time, my sons were born. Still, in many ways they remain as much a mystery to me now as they were when they were in my womb. Father Rahner reminds us that Advent people are those who nurture an ability to love the provisional, to be patient with a reality that is hidden in the figurative, and in small, unimpressive signs. Parenting teens in particular is an excellent way to hone your skills in patiently reading the elusive, in bearing with the obscure, of living in hope of what might burst forth.

Most of all, I’ve grown to realize I can never know the fullness of who my children are or will be. To consider them “finished” or to hold one image of them in stasis is to have failed. Similarly St. Augustine points out, “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed.” You can read the books about what to expect, but I suspect with God, as with teens, the more you think you know, the less you are willing to discover.

In a Lenten meditation on Isaiah, Dominican Father Edward Schillebeeckx tells of an abbot who challenges a young monk, “How will you love the Creator if you have never been capable of loving a creature?” Being a parent has taught me much about how to love — and be loved by — a God who is hidden.

Bearing my children was a profound lesson in how completely I could love someone whose face I had never seen, whose being was nearly entirely hidden from me, who expressed himself in small stirrings and tantalizing clues. Isaiah turns the image around to underscore the immense depth of God’s love for us. Though God knows us entirely, we can only express our longings in uncertain words and awkward deeds, in small stirrings.

What can I expect to come of these provisional realities? St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests what it might take to find out — letting go of my expectations: “There are very few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into his hands, and let themselves be formed by his grace.”

God has written my name on His hand, holds me within Himself, like a child within her mother’s womb. As this Advent deepens, I am contemplating the unsettling mystery that not only is God stirring within me, but I am stirring within God.

You have made us to desire only you,
you, our beginning and our end,
you, our food and our rest,
you, our joy and our peace.

Turn us from our desires that obsess us.
Unburden us that we may know
our true desire and end in communion with you.

— Walter Brueggeman, from All Desires Are Known in Prayers for a Privileged People

Monday, December 06, 2010

Seeing the universe with different eyes

I just finished teaching a semester long course in quantum mechanics today. Quantum mechanics gives you an odd view of the universe sometimes (which may explain much about me and/or my writing!). Humans can only detect a small portion of the light that suffuses the universe. This lovely site shows what it might look like if we could see with different eyes -- eyes that detected a wider range of light, and/or at different frequencies.

My favorite set of "eyes" are those shown in the picture, ones that see in the Hydrogen-α range of the spectrum (the light that is released when electrons in hydrogen atoms fall from one level to another - n=3 to n=2 in the Balmer series for those in the know). Suddenly our galaxy is aflame.

Give it at try - tell me which view you like the best!

"By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. In eo vivimus. As Jacob said, awakening from his dream, the world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it. Venite, adoremus!" Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Seven Pages of Solitude: Podcasting Advent

It's the start of the new liturgical year on the Roman Catholic Calendar. It's Cycle A, so we are doubly back to the beginning. Having tried my hand at giving a retreat talk, and realizing how different writing to speak can be from writing to read, I decided to get a bit more practice in the former by giving podcasting a whirl. So far it's bare bones, I haven't let Crash and his magic have at it....

Scroll down the sidebar to find the player, or listen to the first episodes here...

Friday, December 03, 2010

Circling Time: Ignatian Repetition

One of my Augustinian friends calls them three-finger days, when you need three fingers to keep track of your page in the Psalter, the Proper for the day and a Common while praying the Hours. I'm in next of extra fingers these days. The Advent volume of my breviary is double-marked - one set of ribbons marking where we are now, the first week of Advent and a bookmark set where we will be in a few weeks -- on the cusp of Christmas.

The Advent reflections I've been writing for the Standard & Times need to be sent off to the editor a week or 10 days before they appear. We're not quite at the 2nd Sunday of Advent and I'm in the throes of writing the last reflection - which will be in the paper just before the 4th Sunday of Advent.

More so than in most seasons, this Advent my prayer tastes of Ignatian repetition. I am embarking on my personal Advent contemplations having already spent the better part of 4 weeks soaking in the Advent readings in the Lectionary and the Hours. And I am finding them to be sharper versions of the contemplations that resulted in the published reflections — very much repetitions of the contemplations in the Ignatian sense. When Ignatius instructed those making the Exercises to repeat a contemplation, the idea was not a step by step review, but a sharpening of the lens, a revisiting of the places that seemed to bear the most fruit. The point was not to dig out something new, but to deepen what had been there from the start.

I'm looking forward to being wholly in Advent for a bit. Soon and very soon...

The photo was taken during my 30-day retreat, the view is from my room, of a pine tree behind Eastern Point retreat house, just after a blizzard.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Column: Waiting with an aching intensity

How much do I want God? Am I waiting for Christ with the "aching intensity" of the prophets? Do I come to God gasping, as if my next breath depended on Him? I haven't been able to get this question out of my head (or my prayer) in nearly a year.

Photo is of Chris coming up for air under a waterfall.

This reflection appeared as part of the Catholic Standard & Times' Advent series on 2 December 2010.

O Lord, we look to you; your name and your title are the desire of our souls. My soul yearns for you in the night, yes, my spirit within me keeps vigil for you. — Isaiah 26:8b-9a.

I’ve been suffering from an ear worm all afternoon, five measures of music that I can’t shake out of my head. The more firmly I try to squelch the annoying snippet, the wilder the cognitive conga dance becomes, snaking through my thoughts as I listen to a talk about organic chemistry and chasing me as I chop onions for dinner.

Experience tells me if I just ignore the cerebral itch, it will have vanished when I wake up in the morning. The same cannot be said for the recurring fragment that has been haunting my prayer for almost a year.

The metaphorical itch began last Advent, when Jesuit Father Paul Campbell posted a wisdom tale on his blog, People for Others. The story begins with a hermit meditating by a river when he is approached by a young man who wants to know how to find God. In response, the hermit pushes the young man into the river and holds him under water. When the young man comes up gasping for breath, the hermit asks him what he most desired. “Air!” He responds. “Go home,” says the hermit, “and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air.”

I can’t shake the question out of my head: do I want God as much as I want air? Can I say unhesitatingly, as does Isaiah, that God is the desire of my soul, who my soul yearns for in the night? In one form or another the question has threaded its way through my prayer from Advent to Easter and into the long stretch of Ordinary Time. I have no answers; I can only say that I am unwilling to banish the question.

As Advent rolls around again, the question continues to insinuate itself into my meditations, but it’s taken on a new urgency. This is, after all, a season replete with anticipation, a season that looks to the time when God will come. What am I waiting for? Exactly how eager am I for its arrival?

Anticipation comes from the Latin capere, to seize. To anticipate means more than to expect, more than looking forward to what will come. To anticipate is to grasp the future possibilities now, not when they finally arrive. The prophets anticipated the reality of Christ’s coming, waiting for God to fulfill His promises with such an “aching intensity” that they became part of what was yet to unfold. St. Jerome called Isaiah more evangelist than prophet, and counted him among the apostles. Some ancient commentators have gone so far as to suggest that if all four gospels were lost to us, the whole of the Good News could be found in Isaiah; it’s a “fifth gospel!”

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer worried that in our almost routine expectation of the glad tidings of Christmas, we no longer felt “the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us.” We forget that in His coming God lays claim to us. I wonder if my unwillingness to let go of the question of whether I long for God as for air is a step toward a deeper awareness of what Christmas brings to earth. And if my inability to wholeheartedly answer “yes” reflects a touch of fear, an awareness that such an answer is an offer to let God be at work within me.

In the readings this second week of Advent, Isaiah’s words glow with promise, the eyes of the blind will be opened, but are also tinged with God’s claim on us, if you hearken to my commandments, your prosperity would be like a river. These are words meant to arouse our longings — and our consciences.

I still have no answer to the question that hovers over my prayer, but I can imagine that the divine asker is anticipating my reply. The Holy Spirit is not waiting on my “yes” or “no” but offering me the prophet’s way of anticipation. A way that cannot help but live and breathe what it awaits. Reflecting on the tale of the hermit and the young man, Father Campbell has no answers either, “This much I know, I want to want God as much as air. That’ll have to do for the present.”

I, too, am willing to want to want God with all my being. Isaiah reminds us that God anticipates our desires: I am the Lord, your God, who grasps your right hand; It is I who say to you, “Fear not, I will help you.” That’ll have to do.