Thursday, February 24, 2011

Column: Yes and No

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 24 February 2011.

Let your “yes” mean “yes,” and your “no” mean “no.” Anything more is from the evil one.
— Mt. 5:37a

The meeting was called for Sunday — to begin at 8:45 at night. I’d agreed to serve on this group in the fall, knowing that it would entail some meetings out of regular hours, but now I was grumbling about the outrageous scheduling of this last meeting to anyone who might listen (and probably a few who wished they hadn’t asked).

Then I went to Mass. The last line of the Gospel was like a splash of cold water in my face: Let your “yes” mean “yes.”

Ouch. All afternoon, as I read the materials for the meeting, took a walk then made dinner, that one line of the Gospel danced in front of me, insistently asking the question: did my “yes” really mean “yes”? It wasn’t just about this particular meeting, but about all of the yeses in my life.

Two years ago this week, I had just come home from a 30-day silent retreat, during which I made St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. I learned much over the course of the retreat about discerning how to say yes to God in my life. The Exercises end with a contemplation about how to say “yes,” wholeheartedly and without reservation, to God.

A friend, herself experienced in directing Ignatius’ Exercises, had suggested I mark the anniversary in some way, but I let the day come and go quietly. Three days later I found myself plunged back into that final contemplation — hearing God asking if my “yes” meant “yes.” While I’m not sure if that’s quite what my friend had in mind, it seemed to fit.

There is a story told by one of the desert fathers about a widow who comes to beg for grain. The almoner invites her to help herself to the barley, but when he weighs it to see how much she has taken, he tells her she has taken too much. After she leaves in embarrassment, one of the hermits wonders if the grain was a loan or a gift? “A gift, of course,” replies the almoner. “Then why were you so exacting in your measure?”

The gift St. Ignatius encourages us to make at the end of the Exercises is of ourselves. If I intend to make God a gift of myself, and not just a loan of my time for which I expect a careful accounting and repayment in full, why am I so exacting in my measure at times?

I wonder if my yeses aren’t as unconditional as they could be because my noes aren’t either. God is not calling me to be a drudge for the kingdom, being all things to all people at all times or taking on more and more until I collapse into a heap.

The Exercises asked me to consider how God has made me in particular, the purposes He intends for the gifts given to me and to let that inform the yeses and, perhaps as importantly, the noes of my life.

Perhaps I should have said “no” and meant it to a committee meeting that left me almost too tired to teach the next day. Sometimes it takes saying no in one place to be able to say yes in another without needing to grudgingly mete out my gift. The other thing the Exercises taught me? Ask for the grace you need.

You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.
— St. Ignatius of Loyola from the Spiritual Exercises, 234.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

When Love doesn't look like rescue

A friend lost her adult son this week, suddenly, wrenchingly. When I spoke to her, I had no platitudes, she said she had no words. What remains is presence — the promise that whatever road we have to walk, or be sent careening down, out of control, whatever we end up carrying, whatever wounds are ours to bear, we will not be alone. Robin's post at Metanoia today points to two reflections that speak to this eloquently: read what Ryan Duns SJ and Karen Gerstenberger have to say about God, faith and suffering.

"What can we do to help?" wondered so many people today. There are things to be done, to be sure. But from my experience, there is nothing we can do to help. But we can be. Be with her. That is Love.

What I didn't say to her? I can't imagine what you are going through.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Column: The allure of the desert

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 17 February 2011.

So I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. — Hosea 2:16

I grew up on the Illinois prairie. Fields and dairy farms spread out as far as I could see, unbroken by the sorts of tall trees I dreamed of climbing. To my dismay, neither the birch tree growing outside my window nor the crab apple tree my father planted in the backyard were anywhere near large enough to climb.

Now I live surrounded by towering trees. The branches of the oak in the front yard reach out to my study window, allowing the chirping birds to safely tease the cat who guards my computer. Even in my sixth decade I will clamber up a favorite beech tree to while away a summer afternoon nestled among the leaves with a book and a thermos of iced tea. If you asked, I would say I have no desire to return to a place with a view of unrelieved fields.

But that’s not quite true. Last week, I drove through one of California’s immense inland valleys. Flat and dry, the land stretched away from me for miles in each direction, rising abruptly to rolling foothills. It was a paradoxical landscape, one that left me feeling simultaneously like a mote on the surface of the earth — nothing compared to the vastness of God — and safely cupped in God’s hands. God transcendent and God immanent in a single breath. It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps this paradoxical view was one reason people went to pray in the desert.

I generally think of deserts as risky places. To go is to place myself in peril, stripped of resources. To go there and pray is to acknowledge my fundamental dependence on God.

Deserts are uncomfortable places, hot and cold by turns, sand and dust are constant irritants. To go there and pray is to do penance.

Yet St. Cyril of Alexandria suggests that the desert Israel is lured to in Hosea is a place of safety, not of peril or penance. From the outside it seems desolate and forbidding, but inside it God’s words of hope and new life echo. I think of the Israelites, wandering the vast Sinai in safety, God ever before them, in fire and cloud, night and day.

In his introduction to Verba Seniorium, a collection of wisdom sayings from the desert fathers, Trappist Thomas Merton points out that the desert offered these hermits a clear unobstructed view of what they sought, freedom and quies, rest. In this open space, they could see themselves simultaneously anchored in Christ, and lost in God.

As the shadows grew long in the valley I sat on a picnic table at a rest stop to pray, firmly grounded and simultaneously lost in awe. And wished I could be like the desert fathers, foreswearing dreams of trees that could obscure the horizons, and stay and contemplate that vast wilderness forever. To be at once both lost and found in God.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change: Práise him.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., in Pied Beauty

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Is it OK to plagiarize a homily? Discuss.

Deacon Greg Kandra has an interesting post up at the Deacon's Bench. It seems that someone went to Mass last weekend and heard the Deacon's homily - only it wasn't the Deacon who was preaching. A pastor reportedly took Kandra's sermon, made one edit (Kandra's wife became the priest's mother) and delivered a terrific homily on World Marriage Sunday. It just wasn't his homily.

The deacon isn't particularly perturbed, "As far as I’m concerned, the Holy Spirit owns the copyright to my work, not me, and I’m glad others can make use of the material that I post." though he stops far short of endorsing the practice. Most of his commenters concur - it's not a big deal. Personally, I'm appalled. And where I teach, that sort of behavior could get you expelled.

Could I submit as my weekly column one of Karl Rahner SJ’s columns for Die Presse, and not attribute it to the late Fr. Rahner? It’s been a busy week here, I have a sick kid, lots of grading to do and a grant deadline. The message is the same, we both write with the Holy Spirit’s inspiration (at least in my case, I hope and pray I do). What's the big deal, after all?

To quote one of the commenters on the Deacon's Bench: "A big cheer for your attitude. The Holy Spirit likewise holds my copyrights. If someone wants to use them and not attribute, that is fine with me. If some from a distant parish gets something out of it, even better." It's been a long time since Rahner's columns appeared, and they're in another language, and if my readers get something out of it, even better. AMDG (ad majorem Dei gloriam - to the greater glory of God) as the commenter closed. Another commenter intimates that we (I?) shouldn't be so fussy - Matthew and Luke plagiarized Mark after all.

Would you say something to the editor or to the bishop in charge of the archdiocesan paper? I imagine so, and you would be right to do so. To pass off Rahner's words as my own, no matter how good my intentions are, is plagiarism, pure and simple. (I think I still remember my moral theology!)

As Pope John Paul II put it the homily "commits the person who pronounces it to a dual responsibility: towards the Word and towards the assembly.” This behavior seems to me to be irresponsible to both the Word and the assembly. The responsible way for the pastor to begin is to say, “I found this wonderful homily by Deacon Kandra – and was so moved by his words and thought them so valuable for this community that I wish to read them for you today.” or “This week was unexpectedly full, and I did not have time to prepare a homily – and so I share Deacon Kandra’s words with you today.”

Homilies are not academic papers, and I don’t expect footnotes or MLA style references. I do expect that the person who has been ordained to preach in the person of Christ – He who is the Way, the Light and the Truth – be truthful. If it is not your homily and you preach it, say so.

On many Saturdays the most common search term that lands people at my blog is “homily” (Google doesn't understand that my columns aren't homilies). I'm all for being a resource, I find wonderful gems in the works of other (I just don't use them without acknowledging them!) and am happy to give back in any small way I can. What do you think I should do the day I hear my own words preached back at me without attribution?

The image is from Wikimedia commons and is used under a Creative Commons License.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Word count

The grant I've been working on pretty steadily for the last week is done and a big project at work has wound down (only the final report to write tomorrow), so I've words and energy to spare for the blog tonight.

Since 2011 began it seems I've been writing and writing and writing — 6500 words have already been submitted and either appeared in print or will over the next few months, another few thousand have been spun for that grant that's due tomorrow. The blogging? That's just for fun and to sop up the extra bits and pieces that don't make it into one published article or another.

A colleague asked me today how many words I write (and keep) in a year — I guessed somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000. Last year, about 35,000 of those words appeared in print. Depending on how you look at it (and depending where I am in the pleasure-pain cycle), this is either a lot (enough to make a 100 page book) or not very much (less than 100 words a day).

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Column: Education by ordeal

Patient Spiritual Director's take on the "Stand back." advice was to treat distractions like a train rumbling through a station. Things may be noisy, but the train moves in and out without disturbing things. Photo is of the basement at Eastern Point - a very settled place of prayer during the Spiritual Exercises.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 10 February 2011.

Search me, God, and know my heart, probe me and know my mind. And see if a vexing way be in me, and lead me on the eternal way. — Ps. 139:23-24

One evening long ago, in the days before I had even one teen in the house, I was sitting on the sofa, trying to draft a coherent e-mail to a colleague, while simultaneously answering the phone and fielding random questions about homework. When I couldn’t muster the answer to Mike’s seventh grade math question, I confessed that my brain was overloaded.

Mike gently patted my hand, picked up a marker lying on the table and placed it in the center of my forehead. “What are you doing?” “I’m sucking out the dead brain cells so your brain won’t implode.” Of course.

Of late my prayer seems to be suffering from a similar overload. I sit down to pray to find that my to-do list is playing in my head like a top-100 countdown and I can’t seem to find the mute button. I long for the spiritual equivalent of Mike’s impromptu brain clearing device.

Distractions in prayer are nothing new, for me or anyone else, I suspect. Nor are they a purely modern affliction. The early Christian men and women who sought God in the solitude of the desert were thoroughly familiar with the struggle to keep their minds on their prayers and not on their next meal.

If I lived in the fourth century, I might have made the trip to Scete, to consult a hermit wise in the ways of prayer. Instead I consulted my copy of The Praktikos — 100 sharply practical pieces of advice on the Christian life from Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth century hermit.

This wise-in-the ways-of-prayer desert father had two pieces of advice for me. First, stay concrete. Readings, rosaries, simple prayers breathed aloud, these are “the things that lend stability to the wandering mind.” A focus on the physical aspects of prayer leaves fewer chinks for distracting thoughts to crawl in.

Second, stand back. “Pay no heed to the concerns and thoughts that arise.” Don’t encourage the distractions, even by trying to banish them. Twelve centuries later, in her book The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila would echo Evagrius’ advice: “The very effort which the soul makes in order to cease from thought will … cause it to think a great deal.” My mother would have been more blunt than either of these saintly souls: don’t pick at them.

In the end, Evagrius reminds me that wisdom is not won without a battle and that distractions are simply part of the road that we all must face. Father Martin Laird, O.S.A., suggests in Into the Silent Land that we should not bemoan distractions in prayer when they come our way, but recognize that they are an “education by ordeal.”

My prayer still feels tattered at times; my consultation with Evagrius provided strategies and solace, but no cure. But I’m gradually recognizing that like Mike, God is as ready to respond in love to my muddled prayers as He is to my more articulate attempts. I may be vexed, but God is not.

Jesus, I feel within me a great desire to please you but, at the same time, I feel totally incapable of doing this without your special light and help, which I can expect only from you. Accomplish your will within me — even in spite of me. Amen. — St. Claude La Columbière, S.J.

Venturing Into the Silent Land: Gold is tested in fire

My last post in the silent conversation that Robin and I have been having on Into The Silent Land by Martin Laird OSA is up at Robin's blog. She has a wonderful illustration of Amma Syncletica on the post. Syncletica was a desert mother of the same period as Evagrius (image at left, who I've been reading and blogging about off and on for the last month or so). Syncletica is one of my favorites desert eremites, mostly for her advice for troublesome things: pray the Psalms!

Distractions: For gold is tested in fire

...Laird (and the rest of the advisors in my library) are clear: It's not a matter of whether there will distractions in prayer -- there will be; it's how you meet them. Will you let them put you off prayer, or will you and the clamoring hordes instead deal with each other?...

Read the whole thing at Metanoia

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Coming home from Shangri-La

My visit to Shangri-La is over, I'm on plane (with WiFi - is this a traveling mercy or not?) and the update in the corner tells me were 1 hr and 56 minutes from Philadelphia and it's 29 degrees. Math Man tells me the wind is wicked and raw. The football player across the way from me has not gotten the message that you need to wear earphone on the plane, so I'm perforce listening to his music AND the basketball game videos he's watching. Writing is a good blanket to wrap around my mind, so I've finally finished off the post I've promised to Robin and

My host at a lovely (and very rural) northern California university took me for a long desultory walk along the creek that gives the town its name the morning of my talk. The trees are budding, the first blossoms are popping up on the trees - and the enormous camelias in a sheltered cove by the creek are so heavily covered with blooms they look like they've been decorated with red and pink tissue paper rosettes for Valentine's day. The noises of the creek and the birds and even the traffic on the nearby highway made for a soothing soundscape. It felt almost other worldly to be walking without a jacket or mittens and to be wishing for a sun hat, not earmuffs!

I'm coming home to a looming grant deadline - so posting is likely to be light until I've securely fastened 1500 intriguing and coherent words to a proposal text.

In the meantime, you can browse the project that I'll be doing some occasional writing for here: Give Us This Day.

And yes, I got to eat at In'N'Out. What pilgrimage to Shangri-La would be complete without a burger and fries?

Michelle - from 33,000 feet, somewhere over the US

Monday, February 07, 2011

The hills are alive

The hills are alive

The hills of San Francisco are alive, not with music, but with wireless signals. I'm on the 12th floor of a hotel in San Francisco - with the windows open to the cool night air. The fog isn't the only thing whose tendrils are drifting in through my window. The air is bouncing with signals - I get 18 wireless signals, so many I'm not even sure which belongs to the hotel! Hence, I am (or at least my laptop is) actually wired to the wall.

I feel a bit like I'm in Shangri-La this morning. The view out the plane window was one of unrelieved white as I flew across the country yesterday. Nary a rock was visible in the Rockies! When we reached the California-Nevada border, I looked out the window to see emerald green rolling hills beneath. It was 78F when I landed in Oakland. It's sunny, warm and almost 80 in San Francisco this morning. Daffodils are in bloom, so are the almond trees. It feels like late spring.

So I bought violet shoes.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Column: Snow day prayers

Letters to Malcolm is my favorite C.S. Lewis book. Malcolm is fictional, something I only recently discovered.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 3 February 2011.

There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving. — Phil. 4:6

If prayers left a smoke trail, my house these past couple of weeks would look like we have a fire blazing 24/7. As soon as the weather forecast starts calling for snow, the prayers — like incense — begin to rise. Grant us a two-hour delay, O God, for I need the sleep. My homework is done, Lord, so could we have a snow day so I can enjoy a day with my friends? Please, God, don’t let us have a snow day, I don’t want to delay my Latin exam! (Can you shock God?)

I find my sons’ prayers poignant and funny by turns, but as the latest storm came barreling in and I heard myself start, “Dear Lord,…” tendrils of doubt begin to drift, like the snow against the door. What am I doing?

In his final book, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis wryly notes that while we believe God to be omniscient, “a great deal of prayer seems to consist of giving Him information.” God knows what is on my calendar tomorrow, and the challenges snow will present — so why do I feel the need to remind Him?

And seriously, I don’t expect God to blow the storm out to sea for my convenience, or even see to it that my street gets plowed early enough to get to morning prayers. Yet, St. Paul urged the Philippians, and now us, to slake our worries with prayer. To ask, seriously, for whatever we need. A snow day. No snow day.

St. Ignatius of Loyola was convinced that we should pay attention to what we desire, to learn to see where our desires and God’s desires for us align. It takes prayer and practice (and not a small quotient of grace), but if we look to God in the small things, it sharpens our awareness of God in all things. So perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that I join in the general chorus of snow day prayers that swirl upwards at my house, practicing along with my sons how to pray in and of the ordinary. To find God in all things.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer viewed these seemingly trivial prayers as teaching moments, “We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?”

God encourages these tiny prayers to arise, not because they make Him aware of my needs, but because they deepen my awareness of my need for God. They make me ready for whatever God has in mind.

Much as I am a ready and willing student of prayer, in the end I find I am most consoled by St. John Chrysostom’s perspective on this passage: “It is comforting to know that the Lord is at hand.” I can reach for God in the small things as much as in the large and be comforted with the knowledge that God is always at hand, now, as always and ever. Whether there is a snow day or not.

May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed…then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. — Bl. John Henry Newman