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