Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflecting 2011

As I've done the last two years, I've dumped the text of the blog into a word frequency analyzer (Wordle) and made a word cloud. I'm struck by the consistency of my writing. Total words on the blog this year? 64840 Last year? 65299! 172 posts. God appears 297 times, prayer and its variants at 257. Last year's numbers are eerily similar, 311 and 258, respectively. I'm on message.

As one that longs to see God in all things, I'm amused that see is embedded in God. And I'm enjoying the accidental co-location of God's and Crash, which I can read several ways. Crash surely is God's (as I've written here, a column I was thinking about today when Crash again bore the cross into Church on a Marian feast). But in this season, where God crashed into time, I prefer to read it as a metaphor for the Incarnation.

And on what other blog might you find the words synchrotron and refulgence both in play?

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Phaith: Ora et labora

More on kitchen painting from my latest column in Phaith:

"But as one playlist ran down, inconveniently catching me up the ladder removing old wallpaper, soapy water running down my arms, a momentary silence descended. The quiet seemed to be doing as much to dissolve my tension as the hot water was doing for the remnants of the wallpaper paste. I left the music off.

I began to listen to the sounds of the task at hand, not obliterate them in a barrage of noise. The swish of the rag in the water, the scritch of the sandpaper on the spackle, the bass thunk as I tapped the lid of the paint can back into place at the end of the day. It reminded me to listen for the sound of God’s Hands at work in creation, in my life. To be attentive to the ways in which God would like to remake me."

Read the rest here....

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holy, holy, holy

My almost 60 year-old house is undergoing the equivalent of a heart transplant this winter. Structual issues in the kitchen had to be addressed before the cabinets fell down, a leak in the upstairs bathroom had become crtical and as we got bids on the work, the downstairs bath sprung its own leak. So one by one the kitchen and both bathrooms are being gutted and redone.

The kitchen was finished about month ago, and I spent a weekend painting walls and ceiling, five years of culinary sins wiped away. Like confession, the most trying part is the preparation; I spent hours scrubbing away old wallpaper paste, patching nail pops, and masking trim. The only tough part of the painting itself was the celing. Even with my extension roller and step ladder it was hard going.

This weekend, with the walls out upstairs, Math Man seized the moment to insulate our woefully underinsulated roof. He and Crash cut batts, placed baffles and blew insulation into various corners that otherwise were unreachable. This involved, not suprisingly, crawling into tight space and balancing on the rafters.

While all this is going on, I'm in my study working on a column for the Standard & Times, deep into St. John Chrysostom's sermon on Hebrews (Christ is the refulgence of God's glory). Suddenly I'm wrenched from my contemplations of fiercely shining light and angelic choirs by the sounds of large bodies falling. "Oh (insert favorite swear word here), oh (insert second favorite swear word here)!!" I stand up, "Is everything OK?" Yes. And no. Math Man is undamaged, my beautifully painted ceiling has an 18" diameter hole in it. Oh my.

Measure of a good marriage, my relief that Math Man is unhurt far outweighs my sadness about the ceiling. Ceilings can be mended.

And speaking of ceilings, at the very end of the day, Crash slipped and took out part of the ceiling on the top of the stairs. Holy, holy, holy....that was the day!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Praying in/with pain

My prayer has been painfully inarticulate of late, particularly public prayer. The new translation of the Mass means that I muff the responses about one time in four at both Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours (where the Ordinary still says "And also with you." but the prior of the community I pray with has sensibly decided we should use the new response, "And with your spirit.") Add in that the prior has been in the hospital, so we've had a shifting set of presiders at Morning Prayer (including me), with varying styles and ability to stick to the rubrics.

And this last week prayer has become literally painful, as health issues have made it painful to bow, to kneel, even to sit. As the postures of my prayer have become more limited, my prayer, too, feels constricted. I've been reading "The Body's Poetic of Illness" in Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul. Moore notes that science demands a single reading of a phenomenon — we're pretty sure we know what's causing my myalgia, and it's self-limiting, so all will eventually be well — but that poetry acknowledges multiple layers of meaning. Why not seek multiple readings of the body's poetics when we are ill? Such an approach doesn't deny the physical causes and effects of a particular malady, but does give reality to its effects on the other aspects of our being.

The coincidence of my prayer feeling shoved into an uncomfortable position and the discomfort of the physical positions I prefer to assume in prayer are nudging me into reading these experiences on multiple levels — or as Moore says, to have a "willingness to let imagination keep moving into ever new and deeper insights." It feels very Ignatian.

"Science prefers interpretations that are univocal. One reading is all that is desired. Poetry, on the other, never wants to stop interpreting. It doesn't seek an end to meaning. A poetic response to disease may seem inadequate in the context of medical science, because science and art differ radically from the point of interpretation. Therefore, a poetic reading of the body as it expresses itself in illness calls for a new appreciation for the laws of imagination, in particular a willingness to let imagination keep moving into ever new and deeper insights." — from "The Body's Poetics of Illness" in Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore

Photo is of my feet, praying on the rocks at Eastern Point.

Watching still

By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet and in trust your strength lies. Is 30:15

"Though Advent’s expectant hush has passed, St. Augustine reminds us not to give over that sense of quiet and stillness just yet: “See what God became for your sake; learn the lesson of such great lowliness, learn it even from a teacher not yet able to speak. …for your sake your Creator lay speechless, unable even to call his mother by her name.” As I look toward Ordinary Time and the start of the next semester, I am tempted to move on to Christ preaching and teaching and healing, to my life packed with the practical and engrossing. Isaiah and Augustine remind me not to rush on, to remain engaged with the lessons of the infant. To experience again being unformed, speechless, of necessity trusting that what I need will be given. To grow slowly, to watch the child to see the signs of what He will become." — from my Christmas reflection of 2009

Today starts nine months of sabbatical leave, of time for writing and reflection, a time for rest and growth. I'm tempted to dive into the projects that hang (some of them literally) enticingly on the walls of my office and mind, but am reminded by this passage to start slowly, to learn the lessons of the child in the crib. As yet wordless...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

When ages beyond number had run their course

Never mind Facebook, this is the ultimate in timelines. The Christmas Proclamation sets the birth of Christ into time. To chant it feels like a cascade, one marker to the next, until hanging on the reciting tone for more than seven times seven syllables we wait and wait until the Word bursts into time at "was born of the Virgin Mary.."

You can hear it chanted here. By the time you read this I will have stood at the ambo, taken a deep breath and proclaimed again "The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh."

Merry Christmas!
The Twenty-fifth Day of December
When ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world,
when God in the beginning created heaven and earth,
and formed man in his own likeness;
when century upon century had passed since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood, as a sign of covenant and peace;
in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith, came out of the Ur of the Chaldees;
in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses in the Exodus from Egypt;
around the thousandth year since David was anointed King;
in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel;
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the City of Rome;
in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace,
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence,
was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and when nine months had passed since his conception....

was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man:

The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The empty manger

In 1996, when The Boy was a mere 5 months old and Crash firmly and wonderfully two, we spent Advent in Vienna. Math Man had an appointment at the Schrödinger Institute (blackboards everywhere, including the women's room!) and I was on maternity leave, so the whole family decamped to a small apartment off Leopoldsgasse.

It was an Advent of darkness and light. We had not a single day of sun during our time there, but buildings everywhere were swathed in white lights. The boys and I took daily excursions to see the sights, zipped into their double stroller. One afternoon we went to the Christkindlmarkt by the Rathaus. My mother-in-law had told me stories of this Christmas market (which had been there for about 200 years) and I was not disappointed. The trees were gorgeously lit, the street food wonderful (Crash managed to get covered in chocolate despite his snowsuit) and the little stands packed with treasures.

My father made the stable that went under my family tree, with a traditional ceramic set of figurues. I loved to contemplate the camels and the three Kings and wonder at the distance they had traveled, the strange lands they had come from. (Who knew that someday I would ride a camel in the Middle East?). I had a stable found on sale at an outlet when I was a graduate student, with a set of figures much like the ones I grew up with. As I wandered the market I happened upon a stall filled with creche figures, intricately carved and colored. They were gorgeous, and expensive. The budget stretched (barely) to Mary, Joseph, the babe and one other figure. Though I coveted the kings and their camels, it was not to be. I bought a shepherd and a ewe nursing her lamb (as a reminder of all those cold Vienna nights when I got up to get The Boy from his crib to nurse).

This year I found the shop's online shadow and ordered the kings and their camels. Who might be here by Epiphany....

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Conditor Alme Siderum

I love the clarity of the winter sky. Walking home from church on Sunday evening, the cloudless sky was a feast of colors, Venus was glittering above the tree line and the sharp, cold air swept out the last of the semester's cobwebs.

We chanted this piece (in English) on Saturday evening at the vigil Mass. Our Advent music has featured a lot of chant: I chanted the penitential rite, the presider chanted the preface, we chanted the Our Father. Like the cold air, chant seems to bring a clarity to our prayer. The thread held by the reciting tone keeps us focused, and the fluidity keeps us firmly moving forward, refusing to let us be ensnared in the language we've not all mastered.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sticky writing fail

I sat down to work on a piece for Phaith this weekend, opened my favorite drafting software to find a blank document titled "Phaith February" containing only this text:

Centering prayer…somewhere on a sticky you have an outline for this!

Really? Because I have no idea on earth where it might be stuck….

At least one advantage of typewriters (besides their inability to entangle you in the Interwebs when you are struggling to write) is that you can't archive snark in them.

Come, Holy Spirit, Divine Creator, true source of light and fountain of wisdom! Pour forth your brilliance on my dense intellect...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Utility of Vigils (Advent 2)

Indeed, while following the way of Your judgments, O LORD,
We have waited for You eagerly;
Your name, even Your memory, is the desire of our souls.
At night my soul longs for You,
Indeed, my spirit within me seeks You diligently
Is 26:8-9

My class on contemplation had been discussing Quaker traditions, in particular the Quaker dedication to waiting on the breath of the Spirit before speaking at Meeting. Waiting is hard, we noted, waiting quietly on God’s work, harder yet.

As we gathered our things at the end of class, I mentioned that one practice I use to learn how to wait is to let the person behind me in line at the supermarket go ahead of me. Particularly when it's really crowded. One of my students mused that just the thought made her anxious. I had to confess, “Honestly? Me, too. That's why I keep practicing.”

As the semester spins to a close and the holidays race toward me, the chances to practice waiting seem to proliferate. When only two cars managed to get through each cycle of the light on Haverford Road — as I’m trying to tuck a run into my office between dinner and fetching the boys from the high school; when I call the AAA for to come jump my mysteriously dead battery only to hear that “due to high call volume, please wait on the line,” I’m doing a lot of waiting at a time of year when I feel have little time to spare ‘just waiting.’

A friend commented on a blog post about my practice of waiting that it’s hardest to wait for something that you don’t know when, or even if, it will unfold. He turns to composer John Cage, famous for composing a piece that does nothing but wait — silently for 4’ 55”: "If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all." Waiting itself can change us, even before what we are anticipating arrives, even if it never arrives. Perhaps there really isn’t such a thing as ‘just waiting.’

Today after work I had a mad list of errands to run. No time to wait, I thought, relieved that the lines at the grocery looked short. I pulled into a line, then realized I’d forgotten the milk. Abandoning the cart, I dashed for the dairy section, returning to find a grandmother merrily amusing her preschool grandson now in the queue behind me, and the checker just finishing the customer ahead of me. I am so efficient.

C. S. Lewis once remarked that God could be quite unscrupulous when He wants our attention, subtly bringing our focus to what we might otherwise fail to see. As I went to toss the milk onto the belt, I stopped. “Would you like to go ahead?” I asked the grandmother? She would. She did. I waited. It was hard.

On to Ardmore, where cars were circling the parking lot like sharks. I threaded my faithful Mini around a delivery truck, intent on beating the red SUV in the next row to the spot I saw opening up. But I thought of John Cage, and of a fourth century bishop who wrote to a friend “of the utility of vigils” — the practice of waiting — “It’s easier to begin a work if we keep before our eyes how useful it is,” and I waited. It was still hard.

Madeline Delbrel, who gathered a small community of contemplatives in Paris in the early 20th century, similarly used the tiny ever-present irritations of life as a contemplative practice. Bad weather. Late buses. Like John Cage, she too discovered that persistence in the practice slowly changed her view of the irritations, expanding her sense of time, until it seemed to her as an “epic film in slow motion.”

I’m slowly learning to see the utility of vigils, the shifts in perspective that come when I wait even as waiting doesn’t come easily, when the signs I am watching for are obscured by the night. As so I continue to practice, though I see little sign of progress, to diligently seek He whose day is near, whose coming is certain, He who is the desire of my soul.

My soul is waiting for the Lord,
I count on his word.
My soul in longing for the Lord
more than watchman for daybreak. — From the De Profundis

Friday, December 16, 2011

Praying with strangers

A friend of a friend was reviewing a book of daily prayer (Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals) meant for groups drawn from multiple traditions to pray together, either on occasion, or regularly. An interdenominational psalter of sorts. It's hard to know how a prayer book works without actually praying from it (which prompts me to think what kind of review I might write for my various breviaries, now and when I first began using them, but surely that is another set of posts!). Quaker FOF thought that for this kind of prayer resources, praying it with others from various traditions would be even more helpful in assessing the strengths and frailties of the text.

And so I found myself on a wringingly wet Wednesday praying the Anima Christi in a packed campus center with a stranger. "Blood of Christ, inebriate me..." we proclaimed. I wondered at the end of it all what those around us thought, or if what we had done in this oh so public space was just part of the general hubbub, hidden in the noise as my scientist self might say.

Quaker FOF wondered whether it felt awkward to be praying with a stranger. My first response was no, it didn't feel awkward. (Which is in part a commentary on FOF's delightful welcoming and warm soul!) When I pray the Liturgy of the Hours, most days I pray with people I know well, some of whom I have known for decades. But part of what I treasure about the Hours is the notion that I am praying with so many people I don't know. That this specific prayer is arising in all corners of the world, all the day and all the night, from people I will never meet this side of heaven, but who have chosen as I have to join in the work of praying with and for strangers.

I suspect that there is no such thing as praying with strangers. A willingness to join together to call on the Transcendent is a willingness to acknowledge an intimate truth, the sort of thing one does not share on first meetings with strangers or casual acquaintances: I believe in God. I pray.

FOF and I were both intrigued that The Prayer of St. Francis, and the Anima Christi are the prayers specified for Midday Prayer every day.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The wind in the pines

In Japan the class visited the local tea teacher in Kamikatsu where we got a taste of the formal tea ceremony. She talked about setting up the kettle on the coals so that when the water came to the boil it made a gentle rustling noise - which she said was meant to sound like the wind in the pines.

I love the sound of the wind in the dried leaves at this time of year, rustling about above me as I walk in the evening. Even in the cold, dark and dry days of winter, there is a sense of purpose and energy in that sound. Life stirs even in the depths of winter.

It's the time of year when I too often run on short sleep rations (despite my best intentions). As a result, a cup of strong, sweet tea can be an enormous grace. Yesterday visitors came and went in my office. Quantum mechanics. Mysticism. (Yes, at the moment these are not the same topic in my office - which is not to say that I don't have some mystified quantum students.) Collegial errands. As I tried to gather the final bits for a talk I gave this afternoon in Washington, DC, I put the kettle on to boil.

I turned to my computer to pull another thread into the talk. Something kept tugging at the edge of my awareness. What is that gentle tinkling noise, too melodic to be a rattle? Window is secure. No one is knocking on the door (for the moment)....

The vibrations from the kettle are just enough to make the glass sugar jar jiggle the tea pot, with the resulting delighful sound. Grace's whispers.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Phaith in December: A contradictory Advent

“If God’s incomprehensibility does not…draw us into his superluminous darkness, if it does not call us out of the little house of our homely, close-hugged truths…we have misunderstood the words of Christianity.” — Karl Rahner, S.J.

I find in Advent not so much a refuge from the noisy world, as a series of mysterious contradictions that leave me slightly off balance, coaxing me past the superficial trappings of the season, into an encounter with God made flesh.

Read the rest of my column (in which I admit that I am a geek) at Phaith....

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Column: (Advent 1) What is my strength that I should wait?

After I wrote the introduction to this column, Crash got some relief from waiting. He heard from one of his early action schools, letting him know that he would be offered admission. You can listen to a reading of "My Little Sister Ate One Hare" here. Warning, there are definitely violations of the Seven Motifs Ban in this poem. In retrospect, I shouldn't be surprised that such topic arise at the table on occasion. Clearly, it's my fault.

The photo is of rough ice on the beach at Eastern Point, taken the winter I made the Exercises there.

This column appeared in the print version of the Catholic Standard & Times on 1 December 2011. It is the first of four Advent reflections on waiting, the next three will be on the new Catholic Philly website.

What is my strength that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient? Job 6:11

Advent aside, it is the season of waiting in my house. A month ago, Mike clicked “submit” on the last of his early college applications — his hopes for the next four years of his life gathered into a swirl of electrons and sent forth. Now, he waits.

Waiting is a way of life. We wait on line, we wait for news — good and bad, we wait for a change in the weather, we wait for the weekend and a chance to sleep. Like most us, I suspect, I find waiting is easier if I can find something else to think about besides how long I’m waiting. I can still remember most of the words to “My Little Sister Ate One Hare,” a particularly long and silly counting poem I would haul out while waiting in long lines with the boys when they were small. It was a great distraction.

Advent brings me face to face with the practice of waiting - undistracted. The waiting we are called to in Advent is one that focuses on our destiny, our hope, not one that tries to turn away from what is coming. And as Job laments, it is not an easy practice to undertake. It requires strength and patience.

Now that Mike’s college applications are sent off, the inevitable questions come from family and friends: “So where are you going to college?” All Mike can say is, “I won’t know for a while yet.” “When?” “I don’t quite know.”

Mike’s uncertainty about his future — and Job’s — makes me wonder if Advent’s steady countdown to Christmas has obscured the most difficult aspect of waiting. Waiting is different when we don’t know what precisely the future will bring, and when and how it might unfold.
Father Henri Nouwen writes in his essay “The Spirituality of Waiting,” that a practice of undistracted waiting is not only attentive to what will come, but is alert to the present moment. Mary carried Jesus, hidden from the world who waited for Him to come, yet Elizabeth sees her, attentive to the stirrings within her and knows that Jesus is already here. Perhaps Advent can teach me, too, to be attentive to what is stirring within me, to the encounters with God who is hidden from my sight, and like Elizabeth, be moved beyond passive acknowledgement, to prayer and to action.

An ancient commentary on this passage in Job suggests a similar practice of attentiveness in the face of open-ended waiting. To wait is “to be in love with the roughness of this world in hopes of the eternal.” To wait is not to be relieved of anxiety or difficulty, but to be alert to signs of hope rustling, to the breath of the Spirit upon chaos.

The last line of Psalm 27, sung at Mass on the first Friday of Advent, acknowledges the difficulty of waiting attentively. “Wait for the Lord with courage,” we are advised. “Let your heart be bold,” offers another translation of the same verset.

And to what end do I wait? What do I boldly ask for? What I am looking for amidst the roughness of this world? This I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.

Almighty God, please grant that your people may watch most carefully for the coming of your only Son. As he himself…has taught us, may we be vigilant, with our lamps burning; and may we hasten to meet him when he comes. Amen. — Martin O’Keefe, S.J. in Oremus

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The practice of waiting

My contemplative class (whose traveling adventures were previously chronicled here) is reading and talking about Quakerism. We began class today by waiting until someone was moved to speak (we've spend enough time together in silence to be able to do this). We noted that it can be awkward to wait in this way. Will anyone talk? I found I had to remind myself to not talk merely to "coach" them along. Wait. Until. Someone is moved.

We spent some time talking about waiting, and its role in the contemplative life. Our last meeting had focussed on what constitutes obedience in the lay contemplative life — reading Madeleine Delbrel where she recommends using the vagaries of life to form oneself in obedience. At the end of class today I noted that one practice I use to foster patience is to let the person behind me in line at the supermarket go ahead of me. Particularly when it's really crowded. One of my students noted that just the thought made her anxious. "Me, too. That's why I keep practicing."

I'm writing about waiting for do you practice waiting? or do you?

Jim McDermott, S.J. has some interesting thoughts about waiting on God, the Spiritual Exercises and Advent here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lex agendi

A while back, the wondrously webbed-in Fran of There Will Be Bread posted this photo on her Facebook page; all unaware, their souls seem on display. I've been wondering off and on since what you could tell about me by watching. Could you tell, for example, that I was a mother? a teacher? once a dancer? a Christian? a Roman Catholic?

It's those last two that have me thinking, to paraphrase the words of Peter Scholte's 60's hymn, "Will they know we are Christians?"

If you happened to notice the Orthodox prayer rope I wear on my wrist — fifty knots of black wool tied in the tradition of St. Anthony, ending in a simple cross — you might guess that I'm a Christian of some sort. If you were in the parking lot last week when I dropped my purse (upside down - ack!) you might hazard from the holy cards I was scooping up and tucking back into a prayer book (my beloved breviary, now a bit the worse for wear) that I'm of the Roman persuasion.

But this is not the real question that photograph is asking me, the big question is could you tell I am a Christian should I be stripped of the externals? By what I say and do, not when I'm writing, not when I'm praying in Church, not when I know anyone is watching, but when I'm walking down the street, as unaware of being observed as these two people are.

Today Mike Hayes at Googling God is wondering if we Catholics are spending too much time caught up in our own internal concerns (liturgical or otherwise), and not heeding Christ's clarion call to help those in need. There is a robust exchange going on at The Deacon's Bench about Hayes' post. My contribution to it, echoing C.S. Lewis' comment in Weight of Glory, "Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses." is here. (Warning, I don't acquit myself as well as I might.)

It's not that I think that our concern with liturgy is entirely misguided, or in any way deny the reality of Christ's presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. But I will not delude myself, these things are not the principle things that I think Christ will be weighing in the balance when the time comes. He will ask when I fed the hungry, drew water for the thirsty, was mindful of those who were poor, or suffering. Nor will I delude myself into thinking that I measure up all that well in this regard.

The liturgy and the Eucharist are source and summit of our lives. Where we go to drink of the living water so that we can go forth and see and serve Christ in each other, where we go in gratitude to celebrate the presence of Christ among us. We become as a result dwelling places for God, Christ in our very being.
"Faith finds its strength and dynamism in the Sacrament of the Real Presence, because truly the lex orandi remains linked to the lex credendi which, in turn, is translated into the lex agendi of the Church’s life and mission. The Eucharist, then, has also a personal dynamism: it is the gift to celebrate, bringing a deeper knowledge of the mystery of salvation, accomplishing communion, leading to adoration, and finally affecting the Church’s life through mission and pastoral ministry, all the while fostering charity inside and outside the Church." (The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and the Mission of the Church, full text here.)
It's not difficult for me to sit an hour in front of the Eucharist; I willingly and joyfully participate in the Eucharistic liturgy. It's far harder to put on Christ and wear Him as I walk out the church doors, and I fear I've not the courage to live that radical of a life.

“And what about His hunger, cold, chains, nakedness and sickness? What about His homelessness? Are these sufferings not sufficient to overcome your alienation?” — St. John Chrysostom

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Lent in the mail

From the back cover:
What does the Church teach us about the penance we are assigned during the sacrament of reconciliation? In Living Your Penance, Michelle Francl-Donnay leads us to a deeper understanding of reconciliation, highlighting the importance of our penance to our spiritual growth. She encourages us to live our penances out each and every day and challenges us to pay attention to what it teaches us about ourselves and God's love for us.
I'm not sure I manage all that in this little book about penances, the small acts of satisfaction penitents are asked to make in as part of sacramental reconciliation in the Catholic tradition! But I do hope it is a warmly encouraging reflection on the ongoing graces of this sacrament.

And....I have a dozen copies to give away. If you'd like one to stash away for Lent, let me know in the comments.

Out of order

I'm reading Connie Willis' Blackout about time traveling graduate students working out of Oxford in 2060. (It's a terrific read, and the sequel just came out, so you don't have suffer through the wait to resolve the coming cliffhanger.) Her historians suffer from time-lag, the symptoms not so different from the jet-lag I've suffered with this semester, their bodies refusing to aquiesce to the "when" all the evidence points to that they are in.

All signs point to the start of Advent today. I pulled Volume 1 of the breviary off my shelf, I rehearsed an Advent psalm, and Advent invocations for the penitential rite. I have the new text of the Mass marked up. I have written an Advent reflection (or two). It was pitch dark not long after 5 pm. But interiorly, I still feel utterly rooted in Ordinary Time. I want to reach for the green volume of the Office, and have no desire to crank up the Advent playlist. Advent is my favorite liturgical season — I look forward every year to looking forward — so I wonder why this uncharacteristic foot-dragging.

Is anyone else feeling unready to let go of autumn and/or Ordinary Time, or is it just me?

And now a package from Lent has appeared in a box in the further add to my sense of chronological dislocation!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

To be grateful

“Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” Rabbi Abraham Heschel

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Advice from the fathers

‎"To be in love with the roughness of this world in hopes of the eternal..." from an ancient commentary on Job.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Litanies of Complaints

In the last month I've only posted 10 times, and nothing in more than a week. Work has been pretty intense this semester, and time for writing for pleasure impossible to eke out before I slither exhausted (and crabby) into bed. My writing catch basin is overflowing with scrawled notes of things about which I might have written (and might still write): "the antiphonal radiators in the morning," "the sound of the sugar jar tinkling against the teapot as the kettle comes to the boil on the table in my office," AMDG Exterior Contracting"...and just what is a STAMPP point?

A few days ago, when a meeting was cancelled (and no one told me), I started a blog post about being overstretched and underslept, then realized with a start that I'd written some version or another of that post before. And recently. Of my last ten posts, almost half are basically extended whines about my overly busy life and how exhausting I am finding it. Enough, already!

I found this video posted by Paul Campbell S.J. at People for Others to be a delightful mirror to my own grousing. It's nine minutes long and I listened to the entire thing (the shots of the baby in the orange hat at 1:00, blissfully asleep while the chorus moans and grumbles around her, is a meditation in itself, I'm sure). I love the litany of complaints, "my boss prints his spam and hands it to me." It makes me wonder what my internal dialog sounds like to God!

If I were to add one complaint to the list in the song? "My students forget to put their names on their files." When I had four open notebooks on my computer the other night, none with names, all looking for some help untangling their quantum mechanics, trying to figure out who to send what back to in which email was a challenge! (And rest assured, I did gently share my difficulties with them and pleaded for their help in the matter.)

STAMPP is Systematic Technique to Analyze and Manage Pennsylvania Pavement. I'm still unsure why there would be a sign saying "STAMPP point" with a triangle on it on the highway, but at least part of the mystery is solved.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Faster than light

The faster you travel, the slower the clock ticks. Perhaps that's why I'm having a hard time believing it's not only November, but deeply November. Surely it's just the beginning of October?

I've been running at the edge of the speed of light since before this semester began, packing into three and a half months what would have taken me three and a half years to travel in centuries past. I feel a bit like a particle in a synchrotron, rushed around in circles until I reach a critical velocity and come shooting out a beam port.

I may finally have been spit out of the subatomic particle's equivalent of a hamster wheel. There is at least an even chance that tomorrow I will get my laundry entirely folded and put away for the first time in six weeks. Or I could sleep....

Photo is from the DOE.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Column: Cold and Chill, Bless the Lord

Dean Brackley, S.J. died recently, my director shared with me a short excerpt from "Call to Discernment in Troubled Times" when I made the Exercises. It struck such a chord that when I returned home, it was one of the first books I read. I heard Jane Hirshfield read "A Cedary Fragrance" a couple of weeks ago at a conference where we were both speaking.

As warm as the light looks in the photo, you could see your breath!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 27 October 2011.

Cold and chill, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever. Daniel 3:67

As the gong in the courtyard rang to summon stragglers to morning services, the thermometer in the first floor corridor read 10 C, which made it feel chillier than the 50 F it was. I wrapped my shawl more securely around my shoulders and hoped the dining room tucked deep inside the walls would be a shade warmer.

A dozen of my students and I were staying in a Buddhist monastery tucked into a half-mile high mountain valley south of Osaka. Shojoshin-in was founded almost 1200 years ago, so the lack of central heating is hardly surprising, but after Kyoto’s heat, my students shivered despite their layers, and the monks kindly conjured space heaters to take the chill off the long dormer in which they slept.

Trying not to be envious of the monk’s robes, I dug my faithful “Chemistry Chick” sweatshirt — which has kept me warm through many chilly nights of prayer — out of my bag and elected to go without heat. Cold and chill, could I bless the Lord?

Poet Jane Hirshfield spent many years in a similar unheated monastery, washing her face each morning in the stingingly cold water that was all the taps provided. In her poem, “A Cedary Fragrance”, she writes that she keeps to the practice still: “Not for discipline…but to practice choosing to make the unwanted wanted.”

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola pushes us to think about our desires for comfort and wealth. Do our preferences for warmth, for security, come between us and God? Can we greet with equanimity what comes, wanted or not, comfortable or not? Would we “want and choose poverty with Christ poor rather than riches”?

Most of the time, I have the luxury to not think about heat. Programmable thermostats and automatic hot water heaters keep me from shivering in the mornings. In Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, Dean Brackley, S.J. notes that this sort of insulated life, while it can free us to pursue great goods, has its risks. When we don’t have to struggle with hunger, disease, violence — or the cold — it can “induce in us a chronic low-grade confusion about what is really important in life.” Life and love.

Church father, Origen suggested in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew that our small daily practices of asceticism and denial accumulate, that with them we weave a cloak for a cold and shivering Christ. They teach us where to look for Christ. In those who hunger, who thirst, who are cold, who are poor. They sharpen our awareness of need around us, opening us in Christ to a generosity of heart.

I struggled off and on with the cold during our stay, aware that while this small frisson of discomfort was a choice for me, for most of the world, it is not. Last Sunday, as Morning Prayer’s lines of praise tumbled off the page — Cold and chill, bless the Lord — I wondered again if I could bless the Lord if cold and chill were imposed, not elected. I’m still practicing making the unwanted, wanted.

Touch my heart with this grace, O Lord. When I reach out in joy or in sorrow for the things of this world, grant that through them I may know and love You, their Maker and final home. — Karl Rahner, S.J. In “God of My Daily Routine”

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

What happened to sugar cube replicas of the Forum?

UPDATE: Today this page has gotten hundreds of hits...and I can't figure out why! Would any of the visitors like to let me know? The Boy and I are terribly curious!

The Boy has been working on a project for Latin class for the last couple of weeks. It's due tomorrow, and he just finished putting the finishing touches on it. Remember making those sugar cube models of pyramids and other classical buildings when you were in school? The Boy was having none of that. Instead he found The Classical Cookbook on my shelves and picked out the most complicated (non-lead based) recipe he could find. [Warning: violation of the seven motifs of disgust ban forthcoming.] This involved finding such things as fish sauce and animal intestines (cleaned and preserved in salt, these are otherwise known as natural sausage casings).

He managed all of this on his own, including the calling around to find the sausage casings. Tonight he needed to grind the meat and put it all together. Did I mention that our kitchen was demolished about 2 weeks ago? I suspect the Romans had better plumbing than I currently have in my kitchen (not hard, as I have none at the moment). And all the useful equipment is packed away, requiring serious improvisation (just what did the Romans use to fill their sausage casings I wonder?).

The Boy requested my help. Why, I wondered aloud. He never needs my help on school stuff. "Because you're adventurous." "So are you!" I shot back. The "I've never made sausage" plea did not play with me, I've never made it either. Why could he not need me to help him artfully arrange photos on a poster or glue little trees to a sugar cube creation? Why, oh why, was I dealing with raw pork and a tangle of scraggly casings — without benefit of running water, counters or a pastry bag?

I have to admit he was right, there was no way to do this solo with the equipment we had on hand. It needed two sets of hands.

We did it. We are adventuresome. We are able to improvise. We laughed a lot. They look great. I hope his Latin class enjoys the fruits of our labors.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Perpetual Motion

My at home to-do list is usually scrawled on the blackboard in my study. This morning, preparing to dash madly about before I left to celebrate Robin's sacring I grabbed the chalk to make a list of the essential chores I needed to accomplish.

I had to do one last read of Crash's college essay, sift through a few more choices with Math Man for the major house renovation that is underway here (both bathrooms leak, and the kitchen cabinets have reached critical -- the work seems on par with a triple bypass, if not a heart transplant, but that's fodder for another post), and pack.

The last few items from last week's scramble were still there. At the top of the list: pack.

What does it say about your life when "pack" is perpetually on the to-do list? I've packed for three different trips in the last eight days. Where am I? Where am I going? What am I doing?

Perhaps this: "Wherever I am, at home in a hotel, in a train, plane or airport, I would not feel irritated, restless, and desirous of being somewhere else or doing something else. I would know that here and now is what counts and is important because it is God himself who wants me at this time and this place." Henri Nouwen in the Genesse Diary

There is a storm in the Northeast. I read, sifted, packed and left. I arrived at the gate one minute flight was cancelled. As were the rest of the flights for the day. I booked a seat for tomorrow, and dashed for the train back home. Oops, downed lines on the tracks, no train from the city out to the 'burbs. Trolley to the rescue! So far, my flight for tomorrow is still on.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Signs from God: End Blasting Zone

It's been a crazy week. At times it's felt like I'm living in the midst of an improv show (drama, not comedy) or as if one of those flash mob companies is staging something in my office (though no one has yet broken into song). As I drove up the turnpike last night to see Patient Spiritual Director, I passed a sign that said, "End Blasting Zone." Is this a sign from the Holy Spirit, I wondered? Is it possible that the fireworks will end?

One can only hope. And I can say that there were no outbursts of craziness in the silence. Unless you count the werewolf mask my confessor lent me....

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Take a note, Siri

It may be some measure of the chaos in my life at the moment that I viewed the three hour drive down to Virginia yesterday as a contemplative moment. Time shifts are still plaguing my days and nights. Not just the physical desynchronosis of jet lag, but all the things that were put aside when I went to Japan (meetings, papers to grade, essays to finish drafting, Crash's college essays to read, The Boy's chemistry questions to answer, did I mention the meetings?) have popped back into this time line. It seems as if I still need to live the last two weeks of my life here, despited having lived those two weeks already in Japan.

My talk for the conference had been put together before I left, but I was still mentally rehearsing and polishing it on the way down. I wanted to talk out a couple of the transitions and remind myself to add a few bits here and there. In days past I would hit the speed dial on my phone and record 30 second tidbits to be transcribed by the mysterious souls inside Jott. Transcripts would appear in my email, jogging memory, jumpstarting writing.

Now I have Siri (yes, I caved and have a new iPhone — my old one being old enough that AT&T doesn't even give it away for free anymore). I held the button on the phone and asked Siri to "Take a note." We had a brief argument about what I wanted to do, but finally she conceded, "I can do that for you." I dictated away in spurts, trusting that her chipper, "Got that." meant my ideas were safely drifting in the cloud, waiting to descend on me when I had a keyboard handy. I ended and had Siri email the notes off to me. And this is what I said?

"What else to think about the purpose of writing or reading about Jesus is on right track oneself integrating the table I want to bring with the idea that template basis.they've the burning layers on the BlackBerry."

Oh dear. I couldn't decode most of the notes, I tried reading them aloud, to no avail. (The last reference to burning layers is to a quote from Teilhard de Chardin.) Siri is a beta release. I can tell.

More about the talk (Melville, Moby Dick, Gloucester and flame) when I catch up to myself!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Parsing the universe

I've two more trips coming up (to a conference in Virginia where I'm giving a keynote address about writing, the contemplative mind and the whole person, and to celebrate with Robin). After the intensity of the last few weeks, I'm looking forward to curling up with a book of an evening. But what to read next?

Crash found this guide to NPR's list of 100 best SF and fantasy books. I've read most of the books on the list, but what I really enjoyed was the flow chart! Snarky but on point..."Like a little time travel with your love story?" "NO" "Tough" (points to Time Traveler's Wife and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series).

So what should I read next? Thoughts? I'm tending toward fiction and zombies, please (I still feel too much like one after the jet lag for comfort!)>

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Counterpoint: Chemistry and Calvin

It's a frequent trope in musical theater, two solos sung in counter point — often underscoring two characters vying for affection, or perhaps attention. Cut to last night, in the living room:

The Boy (chemistry book open on lap): So, I'm not really getting this ratio thing. If you have a higher atomic number, you want to lose neutrons...
Crash (simultaneously, European history notes in his lap): Do you know anything about Calvin?

Mom (attempting to diffract): Yes/Yes.

The Boy: Why do you get beta decay?
Crash (at the same time): What is Calvinism now?

Math Man (entering stage right): What did they say about the kitchen?

Two simultaneous conversations I can almost handle, the third sent me over the edge. I diverted Crash by asking him if he knew Calvin's five points, suggested to The Boy that he might have done enough nuclear physics for the night and then fled for my study!

Read about Calvinist chocolates here.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Jet lag. I crossed too many meridians. My clock and the wall clock have become desynchronized, and I'm waiting for one to catch up to the other.

I keep visualizing two circadian rhythms chasing each other, until they finally fall into phase which each other, which reminded me of the biorhythm craze in my high school days. I computed my biorhythms for today, which certainly well describe my physical sense (toast, totally toast). I suppose I could be at an intellectual peak, if I only I could rouse myself from the sofa to do something with all that cognitive potential! Instead, I think I'll do laundry...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Column: Lost and Found in Translation

The new translation of the Roman Missal launches with the First Sunday in Advent this year — less than two months from now. There will be things I will not miss in the old translation (some of the institutionally prosaic opening prayers, for one) and others I suspect I will miss deeply ("one in being"). Fr. Jeremy St. Martin (in the video) works with the deaf apostolate in the Archdiocese of Boston. I learned some ASL when I was on leave at Livermore National Labs (a colleague was deaf), and kept it up (useful for communicating with children in public places). As a result, most of the neighborhood kids learned "stop" and "bother" (as in "stop bothering your brother!")

For another, more poetic (and yes, there is poetry in ASL), interpretation of a setting of the Lord's Prayer, see the video at the end! Play it with the sound turned off...

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 29 September 2011.

We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God. Acts 2:9-11

I hadn’t seen Israel for a couple of years when I ran into him while visiting my dad in California, but I was still greeted with a cheery “¿Como estas?” when he saw me on the path. We talked about the work we were doing and as I struggled to find the words to explain — in Spanish — the little book I was finishing, he good-humoredly noted, “Your Spanish has gotten a lot worse!” “Es verdad,” I sighed. It’s the truth, and I mourn the gradual decline of my second tongue. It hinders not only my conversation with Israel, but my conversation with God.

“To sing is to pray twice,” St. Augustine purportedly said. I feel similarly about having multiple languages to pray in — they lend a depth and a life to my prayer, much as a cathedral choir’s rich harmonies shimmer and dance above the assembly’s firm unison.

With more or less prompting, I can still manage to get from “Our Father…” to “Amen” in five languages. Each time I pray the Our Father, no matter what the language, the other four weave their harmonies over and under the melody line. Pater noster. Father, first and foremost. The assurance that sounds in the strong beat of santificada sea tu nombre. The unadorned ordinariness of unser Brot - our bread. The hand that moves from forehead heavenward in the sign language version, an embodied reminder of where I look for help.

I relish the murmurs of multiple English translations, too. Three years ago, when I went on retreat for 30 days, the instructions said to bring only two books along: a copy of the Bible and a copy of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. In my first meeting with the Jesuit would direct me in the Exercises, I sheepishly admitted that while I’d obediently left novels and science journals home, I’d brought not one, not two but three different translations of the Psalms along with me. The rich chorus of voices rang clearly amidst the silence of those weeks.

In mathematics, to translate something is to pick it up and move it to another place. In a few weeks time, we will move to use a new translation of the Mass. We will be reminded of our status as pilgrims — not curators of a static tradition, but followers of the living Word.

A part of me is braced for this journey into the wilderness, to a place where the words have yet to wear a smooth path through mind and soul. I will miss hearing aloud the words of the Eucharistic prayer that consoles me so deeply in my struggle to negotiate the demands of being wife, mother and teacher with the desire to “stone-still at God’s feet, listening to Him alone”: He stretched out his arms between heaven and earth. My tongue is sure to trip on the threshold of “consubstantial” — still hunting for “one in being.”

Yet I’m also looking forward to hearing new notes sounded in my prayer, to another layer woven into the glorious tapestry that is the Church’s public voice. No matter what language or what translation we use, how simple the melody or intricate the harmonies the words are set to, we are called to sound as a single voice. For we are a single Word, made flesh. The Body of Christ.

If you are the body and members of Christ, then it is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your sacrament that you receive. To that which you are you respond "Amen” and by responding to it you assent to it. For you hear the words, "the Body of Christ" and respond "Amen." Be then a member of the Body of Christ that your Amen may be true. — St. Augustine

Another setting of the Our Father. Play with the sound off to better "get" the poetry of the ASL.

Monday, October 10, 2011


I feel like I've lived through Monday twice (which I have, or at least through a Monday that lasted 36 hours). We left the hotel near Kansai Airport about 10:30 on Monday (Kansai time) and arrived at JFK at 1 pm on Monday (EDT). It took us another 2 hours to get all the students cleared through immigration (it's slow for non-citizens), collect bags, and rent two vans. And then there was still a 2 hour drive home (with a van full of sleeping students, very quiet!).

It was lovely to land and find text messages from The Boy and Math Man greeting me. I've missed them, and Crash and Fluffy. The Boy made his amazing pasta for dinner tonight, a perfect welcome home meal.

What else I missed (yes, I've noticed it's all food):
  • The Boy's pasta
  • Chocolate (I haven't eaten ANY since September 25th)
  • Pizza
  • Meat (most of my meals were meatless)
  • Apples (lots of citrus and Asian pears)
There's food for thought here....

Photo is of baskets at Nakamura's house in the mountains above Kamikatsu.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Tea kettles

I have a tea kettle in my office — but not in my floor. And not one that makes such a delightful noise when it comes to the boil. This hearth is set into the floor, there is a tiny charcoal fire underneath the cast iron tea pot and is hisses and burbles and sounds much like the wind through the pines. What I could use in my office is a mizusashi, a stoneware jar to keep extra water!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Prayer, posture and tea

This is a photo of where I sat for morning prayer today, taken after I walked up the road, across the bridge and a few turns up the mountain road. Later in the day, I waded out to one of the rocks mid-river and sat, watching the water. It flowed like thick glass over the rocks; I was sure if I touched it, it would be solid. In other places it burbled like a spring, throwing up drops of water like popcorn, that danced and dazzled in the sunshine.

In the afternoon we visited the local tea teacher, who patiently and kindly led us through the tea ceremony. My knee will only let me briefly kneel in seiza position (back on your heels, with your big toes crossed and about 3" between your knees), and as a result I definitely felt out of kilter. It was awkward to bow, and harder to stay upright. I ended up sitting with my leg crossed, which isn't great for the knee either, but I couldn't figure out any other posture that would be remotely polite. Among other things I wondered about what we think of people in liturgical settings (and there are direct and deliberate parallels between the tea ceremony and Catholic liturgy) who are not in the "correct" posture. I can't genuflect for example, and so substitute a profound bow. How do (or even should) we read each other's posture in liturgy, and even in private prayer?

You can read the adventures of the whole crew here, it's hard to believe that tomorrow we will pack up the bus and make our way back to Kansai, with a short stop in Tokushima to have lunch and do any last shopping (we need another bag!).


I loved the patterns on the water, photographed from the bridge just upriver from where we are staying. The movement of each wave out from a clear center, their crisscrossing leading to constructive and destructive interference. Whose paths do I cross, how does what I do ripple out and interfere, positively or negatively?

Friday, October 07, 2011

Six Reasons Not to Lose Dr. Francl

Part of traveling with a group is counting -- have we lost anyone? The current running joke is that we can't lose me for various reasons. The current list of reasons not to misplace Dr. Francl:

1. She has the device to upload photos to your iPad.
2. She does IT support.
3. She has the snacks in her bag.
4. She has the wi-fi hot spot.
5. She has the money for ice cream.
6. She has the Benadyl and the Dramamine.

Grains of wisdom

Today we spent the morning working in a citrus orchard, picking fruit. What role does physical labor play in the contemplative life? In Koya-san the abbot Hideo told us the story of an older monk, who kept the strict rules of his sect, which do not permit any physical labor. One day when all his servants had the day off, he wandered around, hoping someone would refill his coffee cup.

The rice that I saw newly planted in the late spring is being harvested now, tied up to dry in the paddies.

The adventures of the crew are here.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A different kind of luxury

How much stuff do you need? I had a wonderful lunch today, cooked over a mud hearth. Instead of quantum mechanics, I taught two students how to thread a needle.

We brought a gift from Pennsylvania to Kamikatsu - a piece of stained glass made by Wayne Stratz, riffing off the photos I had taken at my last visit to Nakamura. I bound photos of Wayne at work to show to Nakamura - and he very much enjoyed showing the students the hearth and tea pot that Wayne had captured in glass. The photo at the top is of the onions that got folded into the soup for lunch.

The adventures of the crew are here.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Walking the women's path

Yesterday I walked part of the women's path that encircles Mount Koya. Until the late 19th century, women were not permitted to enter the mountain enclave, but would still make arduous hike up to the gates, then walk from shelter to shelter around the entire perimeter. It was not a simple stroll, this path clings to the edges of the mountain and certainly drives home the notion that women belonged on the margins.

This morning we met one last time with Hideo, the young abbot who has been giving us intsruction in meditation. His hands are always on his prayer beads, a constant reminder of the call to prayer. I gave him a copy of Meditations: On the Monk Who Dwells in Daily Life by Thomas Moore (there is an excerpt featured in last Friday's wisdom story at People for Others) as the concept of contemplation in daily life was one of the threads of the conversations we had had.

The adventures of the crew are here.

Photo is of Hideo's hands.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Structures of silence

Enclosures aren't always physical. How do we enclose silence with a set schedule? Is silence easier in the morning? At night? While eating?

The adventures of the crew are here

Photo is of a Jizo image, nearly enfolded by a cypress tree trunk in the graveyard at Koyasan.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Pilgrims east and west

As we made our pilgrim's way from Osaka to Koya yesterday (three trains, two taxis and a bus), we were rushing through one station to get onto a bus (track work - it made it seem just like home and SEPTA) when Hank called back, "It's St. Ignatius!" Sure enough, there is the Jesuit seal and a Jesuit gazing up at a cross. Given the rest of the stuff on the poster, we actually think it's St. Francis Xavier, who came to Japan in the 16th century.

We are staying in a very old monastery here. No central heating, though there are space heaters. It was 10 C (50 F) in my room last night, 14 C now (57 F). The hot bath last night felt amazing, I shared it with 4 older Japanense women, who spoke no English and enjoyed my "wakarimasen" (I don't understand) to their overtures. They worried the bath might be too hot and very hospitabilty offered to add cold water. Thankfully, I like the water hot.

Read about the adventures of the crew traveling here.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Hot springs and cool breezes

The heat has finally broken here, just as we head up into the mountains where it will be cooler than Kyoto. The abbot at the temple where we have been staying looked at us as we left and said, "You're going to freeze on Koya." We assured him we have more layers. On the way from Kyoto to Osaka (where we are staying the night before heading off to Koya-san in the morning) we stopped at a hot springs/bath. I have soaked out ever single kink I might have, in waters that bubbled with minerals, slid down slate sheets, and poured into traditional Japanese tubs. And my students let fish nibble their feet....

You can read the adventures of the crew here.

Photo is from the Moss temple.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Seeing green: Moss temple and kiwi ice cream

We went to the Moss temple today, an amazing place with an ancient tea house. It's still hot and humid (though the weather promises to be cooler tomorrow). The adventures of the crew are here. I'm hoping to get a chance to post some photos here and there and perhaps write a bit for this blog on the bus trip to Osaka tomorrow.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Jesuit bells and Zen abbots

My class is in Japan, exploring Zen Buddhism and contemplation, but not forgetting the work we are doing on Western contemplation and on psychology and neuroscience. I'm way too tired to blog twice (we were up at 5 am today for services up the hill), but you can read the adventures of my crew here. Find out what Jesuits, bells and a Zen temple have in common.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Into great silence

It might be the modern day equivalent of a medieval monastic enclosure. Everyone sleeps in a common dormer; we sit in our assigned places, as if in choir; once the doors are closed, you can't leave; you eat what is served, when it is served; we have made temporary promises of obedience; bells rings and we tighten our belts. There are no cell phones, no landlines, no wi-fi. It is a remarkably silent place, and I imagine not a few of us are praying.

No, I'm not on retreat, I'm on a China Air 747 somewhere between New York and Osaka, traveling with my students and two colleagues to Japan. We're off to see and experience Buddhist practices of mindfullness and meditation in particular, but we are also keeping our eyes open to the ways in which silent spaces are constructed. What constitutes a sacred architecture of silence? of solitude? of stillness? How many of these constructs, physical and metaphorical, cross traditions?

I watched Into Great Silence during the night, preparing to watch it with my students when we are back. This time, I was struck by the sheer physicality of the monks' lives, not only in the quotidian chopping of wood and hauling of water, but in prayer. The young monk lifted off his feet by the bell, the monk prostrate on the floor in his cell, the elderly monk with his canes hurrying to the church.

And I wondered if the monastery I long for is right under my nose.

Extravagance in the desert

I am reading Stones laid before the Lord, a history of monastic architecture written by a French Trappist monk in the 1960s (which thanks to Cistercian studies is translated into English). He opens with a brief history of the growth of monasticism from its desert roots in which he mentions the competitions between ascetics to see who could fast or go without sleep the longest. This notion of competitive or heroic acestism has been showing up occasionally in the readings/discussions from the other two courses. How much of the current (or even the past) interest in meditation and contemplation is fueled by curiousity about the physiological external effects, and less about the internal landscape? How long can you go without sleep? Who can dry their wet cloak fastest? more completely? Your pulse during meditation is what?! Can learning to meditate make your psoraisis better? (We read a paper by Jon Kabat-Zinn and co-workers on MBSR as a co-adjuvant to phototherapy for psoraisis.)

The author of is wary of these heroics and sees them as extragavances which were rightly curbed by monastic rules of life. Only a Cistercian of the Strict Observance would call the desert fathers "extravagant."

I'm less intrigued by the physiological side effects than I am by the sheer extravagance of it all. There is an extravagance, a sort of luxury, to the desert ascetics who threw themselves, for the most part without the protection a community affords, into the torrents of prayer, into the fire of God. It's like setting sail for England from Gloucester, MA in a rowboat — alone.

I have a memory of a small fishing dory in the musueum at Gloucester that I visited on one of the days of repose during the Exercises that made the trip, but can recall none of the details!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Schrodinger's cat

Fluffy double checks my marking of the quantum mechanics assignment. But no, she's not substituting for mPublish Poste while I'm away. I've got a real quantum chemist doing that for me. (Thanks, Dr. Lisa!)

I'm off to Japan on Monday with my contemplative students. The Boy is having separation anxiety, Crash wonders how many essay drafts I can read on the road, I'm in denial about packing, Math Man is watching football. A regular Saturday evening....

Friday, September 23, 2011

What all the cool kids are doing...

...on a Friday night.

Overheard in my sunroom: "So, do you need a domain restriction?" The Boy and Math Man are discussing Riemann sums. How long before The Boy re-invents the calculus? Place your bets below.

The Rules: Seven Motifs of Disgust

[Warning: This post offers no deep spiritual insights. Contains references to adolescent humor.]

The house rules have been posted on our refrigerator since 2005:

1. If you open it, close it.
2. If you use it up, throw it away.
3. Put it in the hamper.
4. Flush.
5. No Greek choruses.

Last year, when I was writing this piece on urban legends of chemistry we added an unwritten rule to the list. Conversation invoking one of the seven motifs of disgust were banned at the dinner table.

Tonight The Boy asked me if I could list the seven motifs for him. "Uh, not off hand, why?" "In Latin class today my teacher told us three topics that should never be raised in polite conversation and I told her that at my house the seven motifs of disgust were banned. When she asked what they were, I told her the only one I remembered was bestiality."

Oh, no. Now I wonder just what this teacher thinks we talk about at the dinner table.

The legendary seven 'motifs' of disgust were described in a paper by a colleague ("Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: a scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors" Haidt, McCauley and Rozin, Person. Indiv. Diff. 16, 701-713 (1994)). I promised The Boy I would look them up, so here goes (with examples mostly drawn from conversations vetoed under the policy at our dinner table similar to the items on the "official" scale - these are not for the faint of heart, and after reading them you may understand why I ban the topics).

Food: Eating olives and vanilla ice cream at the same time.
Animals: You are walking barefoot and step on something that Fluffy left on the mat.
Body Products: I have teen-aged I need to say anything else?
Sex: (This is the bestiality one...and no, we don't talk about that at the table, it's just what they invoke when I bring up the Seven Motif ban.)
Envelope violations: Remember when The Boy cut his foot and....
Death: Picking up one of Fluffy's offerings...
Hygiene: Learning that someone else was using your toothbrush in the (mistaken) belief it was his.
Sympathetic Magic: Thinking that tongs that have been used to pick up a dead mouse can be used for food if well washed (a proposal actually made by a male person in my house and which I firmly squashed)

And who said that psychology research is merely an academic exercise?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Invisible gorillas and me

The commentary I wrote on women in science led to an invitation to be on Future Proof - an Irish weekly radio show on science (it's a great show - subscribe on iTunes, do....). The interview was recorded on the first day of classes, sandwiched between my history of contemplation in the West class in the morning and quantum mechanics in the afternoon. I was so nervous that afterwards when Math Man asked me what I'd been asked, I had to tell him I had not the slightest clue. Complete anterograde amnesia.

It made listening to the broadcast with my guys all the more fun, it was like an all new experience. Really, they asked that??

And the gorillas? They interviewed the author of the Invisible Gorilla. Watch the video and tell me how attentive you are!

My interview starts at about 31:00