Sunday, December 30, 2012

Data Driven: 2012

As a scientist, data is sacrosanct.  You don't add to it, subtract from it.   Data calls for a contemplative stance, one that is willing to listen to what the data is saying, rather than what one wants to hear.

In a recent conversation with a friend, I wished that the Catholic Church (and by this I mean not just the hierarchy, but the people in the pews and on the blogs as well!)  were more attentive to what it could learn from data.  The religious life may seem like a solely subjective endeavor, but if it encompasses the whole of who we are, it must perforce treat of the objective and even the numerical.

In that spirit, for the last few years (2011, 2010, 2009) I've dumped the previous twelve months' worth of posts into a word cloud generator to get an objective view of what I'm writing about.  My output is consistently between sixty and seventy thousand words (62,756 this year), a post appearing on average every couple of days.  And what do I write about in this space?  Time. My guys:  Crash and The Boy. Silence and prayer.  God.

I enjoy the accidental collisions of words in these word pictures:  take/hear/God or life/silence/time or in the year where we did so much house rennovation — look/house/good!

Not the goods of the world, but God.
Not riches, but God.
Not honors, but God.
Not distinction, but God.
Not dignities, but God.
Not advancement, but God.
God always and in everything.  — St. Vincent Pallotti

Friday, December 28, 2012

Column: A different kind of Christmas meditation - Coffee with Jesus

You can read all of Coffee with Jesus here, or follow them on Facebook.  For all that I love the smell of a Christmas tree, and adore walking around to see the holiday lights in my neighborhood, my view of the Incarnation sheers off from the romantic rather quickly.

This column was posted at on 28 December 2012. 

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. — Isaiah 9:5

My regular spiritual reading list is almost impossibly eclectic. At the top of my stack at the moment are fourth century Father of the Church John Chrysostom’s reflections on Christmas, 20th century Christian apologist C.S. Lewis’ essay The Weight of Glory, theologian Karl Rahner S.J.’s Advent homilies — and Radio Free Babylon’s edgy (and occasionally over the edge) cartoon strip, Coffee with Jesus.

In the strip, Jesus wears a suit and tie, and cradles a steaming mug of coffee as he talks to a cast of characters that could come straight from my local Starbucks: a mother in a hurry, a local pastor, a salesman between calls. And when it appears in my Facebook feed, it always jars me out of my complacency.

The cartoon strip and St. John Chrysostom have more in common than you might think. They share an unflinching perspective on the lived Christian life. “And what about His hunger, cold, chains, nakedness and sickness? What about His homelessness? Are these sufferings not sufficient to overcome your alienation?” comes the voice of the golden-tongued preacher across the centuries. Can I be attentive to the suffering of the mentally ill woman across from me in the ER waiting room? Or do I look away, pretend I don’t hear her?

Radio Free Babylon’s Jesus, responding to a character’s decision to donate to a canned food drive, minces no words either: “And by ‘some stuff,’ you mean some rusty cans of turnip greens and other things you were never going to eat?” Ouch. How generous is my heart, I wonder?

As I put out the manger scene at home this week, I thought about how many times I have contemplated Jesus, like the shepherds, silent in his crib, and been consoled by the thought of God made man, present with us. I wonder if I find this moment in the Gospel so consoling because Jesus is an infant and can’t yet talk. Would I find it as reassuring to sit down with Jesus and have a cup of coffee?

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests trying just that. Talk to Jesus, Ignatius urges, as one friend might to another; use your imagination to set the stage for this kind of prayerful reflection with God; don’t let historical detail overly constrain you.

This Christmas season, when I take my cup of tea to sit by the nativity scene on the windowsill to contemplate the Incarnation, instead adoring the infant Savior, I’m imagining that the adult Jesus has stopped by for coffee on His birthday. Could I manage not to fuss about with getting out the good china and warming the teapot, and instead grab two mugs and pour us both a cup of what I have already made? What would He ask me? How would I respond? Could I hear what He had to say to me? The challenging as well as the consoling?

Would I have the courage to listen, rather than speak? To imagine not falling on my knees in adoration when the angels sing, but instead to turn down the Christmas music, pick up my cup, sit down and listen to He who we call Wonder-Counselor and Prince of Peace. Jesus. The Word made flesh.

May God, the Lord, bless us and make us perfect and holy in his sight. May the riches of his glory abound in us. May he instruct us with the word of truth, inform us with the gospel of salvation, and enrich us with his love; through Christ our Lord. Amen. — From the Gelasian Sacramentary

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Silent night, holy night

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...
— from the Roman Martyrology

Here we are after the Mass at Midnight (celebrated at 9 pm in my parish).  By what I would consider a true miracle,1 I had breath and voice enough to chant the Christmas Proclamation (as the contralto I really am, not the soprano my choir director knows me as). That was, however, pretty much it for my voice.  Back to vocal rest!

For the moment I'm happily in my chair with my foot up (with a feline to keep it warm), a fire in the fireplace and trying to decide whether I want to read the new book Crash got me (Mysticism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- by his Problem of God professor) or play with the new (chemistry) crayons the Boy gave me.

May your holiday be full of grace!

1.  Aided no doubt by 3 days of vocal care — and full rest — and some good medicinal chemistry to subdue the asthma exacerbation the virus that stole my voice.

Monday, December 24, 2012

All is calm, right?

On Friday I had an appointment to see the ankle guy.  When I made the appointment, the scheduler asked if she could send me the various new patient forms to complete by email.  "Sure."  Within ten minutes a link to a web portal and four (!) online forms appeared.  The questions were familiar.  Demographics.  Insurance.  HIPAA.  Medical history.

Ensconced in a comfortable chair, foot nicely elevated, a cup of tea at hand, I methodically ticked off boxes and pulled down dates from menus.  One set of forms, specifically for new patients complaining of ankle and foot problems, were clearly a one-size fits all solution.  Questions about chronic problems were mixed willy-nilly with questions about recent injuries.

So how much trouble had I had in the last four weeks with stairs?  Well, none, until I slipped on a flight of them.  It was all very quantized.  One moment stairs were no trouble at all, the next, they were a (literally) unsurmountable (or descendable) obstacle.  Should I report this as "some trouble with stairs" or "cannot traverse a single step"?  And ladders?  What should I say about my current relationship with ladders?  Just the thought of dragging my booted foot up a ladder makes me quiver.  That would be "no" to ladders.

The funniest question was on the social history:  "Choose the best answer to complete the following sentence:  In the last four weeks, I have felt calm and peaceful...."
All the time
Most of the time
Some of the time
None of the time.
I note that there was no box for "These are the last two weeks of the semester, which are not characterized by 'calm' in my life."  And I couldn't skip the question.  I did have to admit that while my office has looked more like a hurricane hit it, and many of my visitors could hardly be described as calm, I have at least managed to be calmly centered, if not precisely placid.

Even on those suddenly unsurmountable steps....

The news from the ankle guy is, however, good.  I don't need surgery (cue the angelic chorus); recovery expected to be 100% as long as I work hard at physical therapy (enter cherubim), abraded ankles are healing cleanly.  I will spend some weeks in the boot, then graduate to a brace and PT.  All told, I was lucky.  (Roll the credits, Holy Spirit, for protecting my wrists so that I can continue to write for you;  Guardian angel, who sent the delightful graduate students to my rescue)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

No more words

I come home from the 
soaring in which I lost myself.
I was song, and the refrain which is God 
is still roaring in my ears.

Now I am still 
and plain:
No more words.

— Rainer Marie Rilke (translated by Joanne Macy and Anita Barrows)

I've emerged from the roaring of the semester, stepped out of the torrents of song.  It might not be as mystical an experience as Rilke is evoking here, but like Karl Rahner, S.J. who writes (in Encounters with Silence)"if there is any path at all on which I can approach You, it must lead through the middle of my very ordinary daily life" the daily is all that I have — a pragmatic mysticism.

I am still and plain at the moment.  Hobbled by my injured ankle, I am stilled.  No mad last minute Christmas shopping dashes for me.  I am plain, dressed in what accommodates the orthopedic boot which cradles my left ankle.  And I have no words.  On Thursday night, my voice inexplicably and inexorably began to vanish.

It is making me think of those last stages of labor, when you can't speak through the contractions any longer. I think of Mary laboring to give birth, her verbal "fiat" now silenced, she has now surrendered utterly and wordlessly to the workings of God within her.

So I am silent for now.  To see what worlds are forming in my heart.

All creatures are doing their best
to help God in His birth
of Himself.

Enough talk for the night.
He is laboring in me;

I need to be silent
for a while,

worlds are forming
in my heart.

— Meister Eckhart in Expands his being (trans. by Daniel Landinsky in Love Poems from God)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Column: People Look Up! (With apologies to Eleanor Farjeon)

This column appeared at on 17 December 2012.

O Lord, we look to you; your name and your title are the desire of our souls. (Is. 26:8b)

I love the music of Advent. At a time when most people seem to be dreaming of white Christmases and Silent Nights, I’m tuned into Isaiah, at least as Handel imagined him. A firm voice calling out, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.”

I listen to these songs and carols, these hymns and chants, because I long to know what it is I — and all creation — awaits. I listen because I want to know want; I want to grasp what it means to thirst for the living God.

“People look east, the time is near, of the dawning of the year…” pipes my car’s radio. This fall, I’ve been practicing looking, not east, but up. My return to teaching after a nine-month sabbatical leave proved to be intensely busy. All too often I’ve been mired in a swamp of details, my concentration tattered and fluttering in the breeze. I abandon an unfinished email and my tea on my desk to answer a student’s question, only to return two hours later to find both my train of thought and tea long gone cold.

Late one October afternoon, on a dash to the grocery store, wearily running through what I still had to tick off the day’s list, I happened to look up. The warm sun was washing over the front of the old parish school across the street, and my eye followed the lofty thunderheads piled into soft peaks up and up, untold miles into the atmosphere. My breath caught. The heavens declare the glory of God….

It was as if my tangled, confined heart could reach up and stretch into this gloriously infinite space, into God’s very being. I breathed, no less weary, no less harried, but somehow at rest.

Now each time I walk outside, I’ve been reminding myself to look up. To practice stretching into eternity, to extend hands and heart and soul toward the Creator of this firmament that surrounds me, yet does not confine. And each night I’ve been bundling up and going outside. To stand in the backyard, or on the driveway, and look up.

The cold brings a sharp serenity to the world outside. I find it seems easier to listen for the still, clear voice of God, to sense the breath of the Spirit stirring in the darkness, to hear the echoes of the prophets in these night hours.

To stand in the night to pray has a long history in the Church. As early as the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom spoke of monks who were roused in the depths of the night “to sing the prophetic hymns” and pray.

The word “desire” is thought to derive from the Latin siderus, star. Desires come to us from above, descend on us from the stars. Each night, when I venture out, I look up at the stars, a vast spatter of sparkling suns, of which Isaiah tells us that God knows every one of their names, and marches them around the sky like an army.

Like the monks of old, I sharpen my ears with the prophetic hymns of Advent. And in the depths of these dark Advent days, I practice looking up. In the Acme parking lot, at the stoplight on the corner of College and Haverford road, in my back yard, on the driveway. That I might see will descend, know what I desire, hear the voice of the One who calls me as He does the stars. The eternal, living God. Emmanuel. God with us. People, look up!

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.
 – Eleanor Farjeon from “People, Look East”

Photo is of dawn at Eastern Point Retreat House.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

On reading Rahner in the emergency room

Several years ago, on an 8-day retreat, my director asked me if I had seen something in the news. (The papers were laid out every day in the library, so it was perfectly possible to have done so.) "No," I told her, "I never look at the news while I'm on retreat.  It's a distraction for me."

"Ah," she replied, "but sometimes you read things differently on retreat."

I didn't read the paper while on that retreat, and haven't since, but her question has stuck with me. It surfaced again this week when I found myself treated to an ambulance ride to the Georgetown Medical Center emergency room.

I've given Advent its due.  Last week I gave an Advent evening of reflection, the week before I went to an Advent retreat.  I've written Advent reflections (here, here and here). It's been fruitful, reflective.  Still, I would like to suggest that if you are really looking for a potent extended meditation on Advent, you try hanging out in the emergency room for a while.

I've been re-reading Karl Rahner SJ's Advent homilies, in which he suggests that we are always in Advent, always living provisionally, waiting for what we see only dimly now, but know will one day arrive with a breath-taking clarity.  I read Rahner — and thereby Advent — differently in that liminal space, waiting on a gurney literally in the doorway between the damp winter day outside and the warmth of the ER, waiting for what I could see only dimly.

The ER is by its nature a provisional space.  Admittance is provisional.  I waited on the triage nurse's decision as to whether I merited a bed.  Diagnoses are provisional.  I waited on the X-ray results.  Treatments are provisional.  Would I be able to walk once my foot was immobilized?  To be comfortable in that space, I had to be willing to be, as Rahner would say, comfortable with the provisional.  To be willing to surrender autonomy as well as certainty.

Can I be comfortable with the provisional, not as a some-times thing, as it was in the ER, but as a way of life?  I looked at the exhausted woman who has returned for the third time today, still not knowing what is wrong. The provisional has stretched her reserves beyond her capacity. The young father with his wilted toddler son, draped over his shoulder, pacing and waiting to be seen.  On a pilgrimage that takes him round and round the waiting room.  This is not an easy choice.

Can I read Advent as less of a waiting space filled with comfortable chairs and soft music, and more as a provisional place that pulls and pushes us at paces we may not prefer?  Too fast. Too slow.

Provisionally, yes.

I'm still in the provisional - off to see the ankle/foot specialist tomorrow to get a better sense of the damage. The photo is of my foot, but that's not the ER!  I'm in the lobby of the Georgetown University hotel, waiting for Crash Kid to come pick me up.  And if you must know, I slipped on the stairs between Old North and the Dahlgren chapel and landed badly.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Phaith: Las Posadas - can I make room?

Will I make room for Christ when he knocks at the door? And for his companions?  My December column up at Phaith!
When I was in high school, I spent a memorable Christmas at my grandfather’s house outside of Oaxaca, a mile high in the mountains of Mexico. It was a long trip, more than a week’s travel time in all, perhaps as long as might have taken Joseph and Mary to traverse the 70 miles between Nazareth and Bethlehem.  
My mother was not pregnant, but she was encumbered with six children, the youngest of whom was only 4. No donkeys either. We took the train to Mexico City — the lot of us crammed into three compartments for two nights, the conductor proudly announcing he had found seating for “¡ocho!” in the dining car at each meal — then drove a wheezy rented van through the mountains to Oaxaca. I don’t imagine it was an easy journey for my parents, despite the joys to be had when we finally arrived. 
Read the rest at Philly archdiocese's online magazine: Phaith.

Photo is from Wikimedia and used under a Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

O Adonai

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who him the holy law on Sinai mountain:  come, stretch our your mighty hand to set us free. — from Evening Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, December 18

The full sun in the backyard today was a welcome sight, stretching out its rays to bathe the floor in light.  A bridge to the holy.

Monday, December 17, 2012

O Sapienta

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

Wisdom, O holy Word of God,
you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care.
Come and show your people the way to salvation.
— from Evening Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, December 17

In my mind, these last days of Advent, when the office moves from the usual daily round, where the propers are defined by where the days falls, and not by our proximity to the great feast, are inextricably wound up with final exams and endings.  The last classes, last papers, final exams, final good-byes to students with whom I have spent long hours.   And grades.  Final grades.

My job is wisdom.  Not just delivering content, but helping students develop in their ability to wield what they know well and wisely.  In the end, though, I must somehow decide, using a single axis, how wise in the ways of chemistry I think each of my students is.  So like many of my students, who are undoubtedly praying for wisdom as they approach finals, I, too, seek wisdom at this time of year.  Wisdom that is both tender and strong, that can with justice and fairness tell my young chemists how wise they have become.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Giving voice to an anguish not our own

Four years ago, after my friend Robin lost her son, I wrote this piece about praying the psalms for the Catholic Standard & Times.  We say we can't imagine what it might be like to...lose a child, lose a spouse, lose a home.  I wonder if it is less we can't imagine, but that we won't.  Or perhaps we don't know how, how to prayerfully imagine such grief, how to give voice to anguishes we would rather not know about.

I cannot mourn the children who died today as their parents are and will, but I can chose to be present to their pain in my prayer.  To take up the dark psalms of lament, the brutally honest canticles of the prophets, to let them stretch my heart.  To imagine, in the tradition of Ignatius, the conditions that would wring such words from soul and mind.  I cry out until the dawn. Like a lion he breaks all my bones. Day and night you give me over to torment.  

The night after Tom died, I woke up wailing in the night. My mother heard me, and came in to the room where I had finally collapsed into sleep, and held me, repeating over and over again that though there was nothing she could do to repair this grievous wound, she would be with me.

The psalms don't necessarily bring comfort or ease in grief, but like my mother, they are prayers that offer the chance to stand with those who mourn, whose one companion is darkness — as tonight's psalm for Compline will cry [Ps 88]. They let us do as Christ did, and weep.  Can we take up these psalms of lament, and widen our hearts to share in those in inconsolable agony of spirit?

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 25 September 2008.

At the sight of her tears, and those of the Jews who followed her, Jesus said in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart, “Where have you put him?” They said, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. — Jn. 11:33-35

A friend lost her son last week, dragged from a long awaited retreat in silence into a maelstrom of pain. Over and over people told her that they could not imagine her grief. Perhaps what we really meant was that we did not want to experience her grief ourselves.

Returning to Bethany to find his friends Martha and Mary mourning their brother Lazarus, Jesus did not fail to imagine their grief, to experience this pain, though He could, and would, wipe it away in an instant. Jesus wept.

My friend sought the psalms in her grief. Not the green pastures and clear streams of Psalm 23, but the penetrating, inescapable love of Psalm 139. “If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there,” she prays.

Joseph Gelineau, S.J., whose now familiar psalm tones regrounded us in our own ancient chant traditions, said in his introduction to the Grail Psalter, “[the psalms] force us to widen our hearts to the full dimensions of redemption."

The psalms give us a way to voice the anguishes we have not experienced, the joys that might have never been ours, the fears that besiege and beset those around us. They force us to widen our hearts, and like Christ with Martha and Mary, be willing to go beyond acknowledging another’s pain, and imagine it. The psalms let us weep with each other.

In this way the psalms become for us more than the sacred songs of a generation long past, they are our own voices ringing in the wilderness of everyday life. As Andre Chouraqi, a distinguished Jewish theologian and linguist, noted, “We were born with this book in our very bones … 150 poems … 150 mirrors of our agonies and our resurrections.”

Literally, of course, the psalms are the skeleton upon which the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s daily work of prayer, hangs. On a deeper level, I find this image of the psalms as bones reminds me that these “150 mirrors” are not a superstructure shielding us from the difficulties of each other’s lives, nor are they an exoskeleton that bounds our growth.

Instead, they hold up for us what we need to see in our own lives, in the lives of those around us. They support us while we grow, through these shared experiences of joys and sorrows, virtues and transgressions.

As I prayed Psalm 139 this week, for my friend and for her son, it brought me back to the dark hours of a Holy Thursday more than 20 years ago. I sat in a hospital waiting room, facing the news that my husband would not live to see the morning. My breviary had disappeared in the chaos of the night before, but the psalms turned out to be in my bones and therefore my memory. When I could not hope, Psalm 30 could hope for me: “At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn.”

The psalms still give voice to my griefs, my joys, my angers, my failings, my triumphs — they hold me up. They are my very bones. Through them we hold each other up. They are our very bones.

My palate turned dry as a shard

Like water I spilled out,
   all my limbs fell apart.
My heart was like wax,
   melting within my chest.
My palate turned dry as a shard
   and my tongue was annealed to my jaw,
        and to death's dust did You thrust me.

Psalm 22:14-15
Robert Alter's translation

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Made Radiant by the Light of the World: For the feast of St. Lucy

Last night I gave a reflection for an Advent prayer service at a local retreat is the start

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

I saw a great light tonight.  As I drove down College Avenue, I looked up to find the sky aflame.  It literally took my breath away.  On this last day of classes, the fiery rose and gold sunset seemed to say, here, here is Advent.  A season of lights set out in a world yet dimmed with tragedy, grief and sin. Stop.  Look. Listen.

Four years ago, in the depths of winter, I spent thirty days in silence in a retreat house on the edge of the Atlantic ocean making the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  It was an extraordinary experience of prayer, awash in fire and water, tinged with the light of dawn and sharpened on the edge of frigid winter nights.  These exercises are made in silence, save for Mass and a daily conversation with the Jesuit directing my retreat, but once a day I would take my iPod and sit in the sun in the small alcove under the stairs, and set one of my assigned periods of meditations adrift in a sea of music. 

The second week of St. Ignatius’ Exercises begins with meditating on the Incarnation and so it will perhaps come as no surprise that my playlist included an exquisite Ave Maria, but the piece that can still pull me back into those depths of prayer is Stella Maris….

Solve vincla reis, profer lumen caecis…the clear soprano voices called.  

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

These threads of the prophet Isaiah, warp to the Gospel’s weft, holding it within its place in salvation history, bind me to the whole company of Israel as I pray.

Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. 

The word caecis in Latin means more than physically sightless, it can mean aimless or confused. Isaiah promises not just that our blindness (metaphorical or otherwise) will be healed but that the anguish of our confusions will be eased, our wanderings given direction.....

There is much tangled in my life these days, and I long for some easing of the confusion, for some clear direction in these muddled times.  Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

As one of my Jesuit friends reminds me:  first, we preach to ourselves.

O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Dawn, splendor of eternal light, and sun of justice, come, and shine on those seated in darkness, and in the shadow of death. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sharp Melting Points

The Boy learned to make caramel at Thanksgiving (which seems so long ago).  Last night he asked me why the sugar melts so suddenly, not gradually, but collapsing into a puddle all at once. "Because it is a pure solid.  One test of the purity of a material is how sharp the melting point is."  I have a vivid recollection of a sample of something I synthesized tamped into a narrow glass straw, its crystals suddenly losing their structure and collapsing into a liquid.

I'm not pure by any means, but I think I may have reached the melting point tonight, and it was quite sharp.  I've been plugging away all week at a list of "things that must be accomplished" before weeks' end. Minutes ago I put the last touches on the exam that has to be ready tomorrow morning and just about collapsed into a professorial puddle.

One more task for the night and I really can collapse into bed.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

A wrecked season

We sang this piece at Mass tonight, the first time its been in our Advent playlist in a long time. I found this version by the Ignatian Schola while hunting up a video for the RevGalBlogPals Sunday Afternoon Video feature (where I ended up posting a version of Conditor Alme Siderum — Creator of the Stars of Night).

I didn't post this video, precisely because it left me unsettled and therefore felt not quite the thing for a feature that has as one of its aims to be a calm and meditative space for those who have ministered through the weekend. But yet..the contrast between the images here and warm and stilling Advent hymn seemed to fit a liturgical season that for me at least has felt 'wrecked.'

I don't mean wrecked in the sense of ruined (or even wrecked in the sense of the car accident I was in this weekend), but wrecked in its (admittedly obscure) sense of intentionally dismantled.

Yesterday I was part of a choreography workshop with Susan Rethorst in Philadelphia (in my scientist persona). Rethorst uses a technique she calls "wrecking" to make dances. She hands over a piece in progress to another choreographer and invites them to make it their own, completely and utterly. This 'wrecking' is not simply destruction, but repurposes what remains to new ends, takes what might seem awkward or unsuitable and resets it, renews it, reuses it — re-creates it. It is a dismantling, in its oldest sense: a breaking down of my defenses, a "reversing of the cloak" that I wear.  It requires utter surrender.

This video made me think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's suspicion about our expectations of the Advent and Christmas seasons, that we "are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable part of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lay claim to us." This video 'wrecks' the song, turning the consoling words and peaceful melody into a challenge. What would it take for me to don the cloak of comforter and walk into the cold, rather than huddle within the warmth of the season?  Utter surrender.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Alert: Zoonotic hazards

Slate magazine has an article up about dangerous animals.  Bats top their list, but I would like to point out a little known danger associated with domestic cats.  These animals are potent soporifics.  Just one cat, left at the end of a bed, can stupefy two adults for hours.  Even in an open area, such as on a couch or easy chair, Felis domesticus poses a significant napping risk.

Fluffy was curled up, purring, at the bottom of my bed this morning.  The alarm went off, but my feet were warm and the cat was purring and the next thing I knew it was 8:30.  Be warned.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Reflection: Choosing the better part

I'm certain it was my friend Fran who coined the word crazymadbusyness to describe this time of year -- and it's such a good one, I used it twice in this reflection, given just before Thanksgiving at a local retreat house run by the IHM sisters.  In it I think about practical ways to pry (pray?) my fingers off my to-do list and try 'to-be' instead.

I'm giving another reflection there next week: Made Radiant by the Light of the World.  If you are in the area and want to come, it is from 7 to 8 pm at the IHM conference center in Bryn Mawr.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Ex communio

Depending on how the morning (and the morning traffic) goes, I sometimes end up at the church too late for daily Mass (but at least early for Morning Prayer).  I typically take a spot in a pew in the back of the dim church and take some time to meditate and pray.

Daily Mass at my parish is celebrated in a small octagonal chapel set behind and slightly to the side of the main sanctuary.  The tabernacle is visible from both the chapel and the main sanctuary, a glass panel separates the two spaces; double doors left open let sound move freely.  As a result, I can see and hear much of what is going on in the chapel, albeit at a bit of a remove.

I am finding these liminal moments a potent contemplation of what it might mean to be ex communio, outside the walls.  Of what it might feel like to to watch and to wait.  To see the light well up from within the darkness.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Advent demands

Advent is my favorite liturgical season.  It glows in memory, glimmers expectantly in the here and now.  Yet this year, more than most, I'm aware of the demands that Advent makes on me.

I wonder how often we romanticize Advent.  Dim lights, soft colors.  Hymns in a minor key.  The liturgy is muted, but not stripped bare.  There are no set fasts, no elected penances. The story line twirls around visits from angels, swaddled infants, pastoral scenes of shepherds and foreign visitors bearing a whiff of mystery.  The sort of season you can settle into a comfortable chair with and let soak in.

It is a time of getting — for a child will be born unto us, a son will be given to us...and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace — not a time of surrender.  Giving up is for Lent — into your hands I commend my spirit.

This week, someone asked me for my "widow's mite" -- all that I had left to in a particular area of my life.  I gave it away, but it hurt all the while.  Now I'm contemplating generosity and poverty.  Is it generous when it costs me nothing, or makes me feel good?  Is it generous if it still hurts a day later?  If I complain about the loss?  The likely answers are yes, yes, yes and yes.

Pregnancy and birth (and child-rearing) are all calls to surrender.  They are messy, at times painful, ways to grow.  Advent's story is not a sweet tale of young mothers, but a call to hand over everything, in pain and in joy.  Time to take off the rose-colored glasses and pray for clarity and wisdom and hope as I wade into Advent.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Rushing through miracles

John O'Donohue's Blessing for One who is Exhausted is particularly apt for me at this point.  I slumped in the chair of my spiritual director's office last week and admitted I was bone weary.  Work has sprouted one too many unanticipated projects this semester, and I feel like I rush through my days, head down, focussed on what is in front of me and nothing more, then fall into bed and do it again.  O'Donohue nudges me into the Examen I wonder if I'm too tired to make: “Take refuge in your senses, open up/To all the small miracles you rushed through.”

I sometimes wonder if I close off the possibility of tiny miracles, unable or unwilling to pick up on the clues that surround me daily (except perhaps when they are on the sidewalk in front of me).

I'm reflecting about rushing through miracles and what it might take to still myself long enough to recognize them at This Ignatian Life, and so today trying to practice being aware sometime before my midnight Examen.  Every time I looked up from my desk I peeked out the window and admired the snow, surprised and delighted again and again by the gorgeous flakes.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving: There will be bread

There will be bread is the name of my friend Fran's blog — where I am often fed in soul, if not in body.  It is also a pretty good description of a Miller-Francl-Donnay holiday.  I baked three types of bread yesterday.  Jesuit Brother's Bread (aptly enough, this was intended to surrender its all to the hungry hordes while the rest of the prep work went on), Red/White and Blueberry Bread (a rich, sweet loaf with dried fruits and honey to toast for breakfast) and my father's Malverne Rolls.

But the real bread broken and shared here is that of family.  What rises and burbles and surprises, what gathers and scatters, what is pulled and stretched into one body, only to be broken once again feeds us all.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Reflecting in the Light

Last Wednesday night I climbed off the hamster wheel I'd been on for the last few weeks (watch these hamsters to get a sense of what it's been like!), the result of a calendar clogged with evening and weekend meetings.  I went from class to office hours to class to a faculty meeting a reflection on the extravagance of being "unbusy" at a local retreat house.  Yes, I get the irony there.

One of my Jesuit friends says, "first we preach to ourselves" and as I wrote it, I heard in Martha's encounter with Jesus in Luke's gospel, not her whining, or Jesus' remonstrance, but her bone-deep longing for time with God, her almost overwhelming desire to be able to let go her grasp on all the stuff that bustles bossily through our days.  So I tried to preach to myself, and let God take care of the rest.

I felt as if I let go my grasp as I walked through door, from the brisk night air into the warmth and gentle light of the retreat house.  The sisters were warmly welcoming (tea!).  There was no bustling about, just enough direction to get us gathered and centering.

When I laid my notes atop the Gospel and spoke, I was suddenly and deeply aware of God undergirding my work.  God behind me, God before me, God underneath me. The stillness in the chapel was incredible, we sat there, women young and old, and listened to God, enfolded in the warmth and the light and the Word.  The service was short, less than an hour from start to finish, but just right for a midweek night.

I'm talking again on December 12th, but am looking forward to going to the one the week before where I'm not talking, but can just listen.
Upcoming programs at the IHM Conference Center are listed here.  Recording of my talk, coming soon!  If you are in the area, stop in, it's an oasis of stillness on the Main Line...

Photo is of my back step, a place of prayer, set with a cup of tea and my breviary.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Phaith: Exercising gratitude

In these darkling days, even when there isn't a hurricane, I'm grateful for light.  The photo show my desk mid-hurricane.  No electricity, but a great LED lantern designed by Chris illuminated my grading. (You take two stacking plastic cups, half fill the bottom one with water, put the second one on top and insert a brace of LEDs inside.  The water diffuses the LEDs light nicely.)

The November issue of Phaith magazine is up and online. My post-hurricane column is on gratitude. Not only for the lights and heat of the present moment, but for gifts given throughout the years. In return? I'm committing random acts of gratitude. In the moment deprivation is a potent tool for discerning the difference between needs and wants.
...As I dressed in the dark and cold each morning, I was grateful to have clean and warm clothes to wear, even if I went to had to teach class in an outfit that was a bit more casual than my wont. (Next time my hurricane preparations will include not only finding the hand pump for the basement, but ironing a couple of pairs of pants for work!)
But memory fades quickly, even when the circumstances have been far more difficult than our brief return to the pre-electric age. Stranded on drifting ice for months after his expedition’s boat had been crushed, Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton wrote in his journal that, if he were rescued, he would never again complain of being too hot. After a harrowing trip through a hurricane in an open boat, Shackleton found himself overheated — and complaining about it — as he hiked over an island mountain pass in search of help.
I thought of Shackleton this afternoon when I reached into the (newly cleaned out) fridge and was momentarily annoyed that we had no milk. Until it hit me that I now had light by which to see that!
St. Ignatius of Loyola felt that ingratitude was at the root of sin...
Read the rest here....

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Feast of All Saints of the Order

The order in question would be the Order of St. Augustine, and today, the birthday of Augustine of Hippo, the Augustinians celebrate all the saints and blesseds of the Augustinian family.   In recent years, this day has also been one to pray for vocations to the Augustinian orders.

At Morning Prayer, we pray daily for vocations:
All glory and praise are yours
God of truth, light of our hearts,
for you guide your people
in the ways of holiness.
Help those who follow
in the footsteps of Augustine
to seek you through mutual love and worship
and to be servants of your Church
as examples that others may follow.
Enlighten men and women
to see the beauty of common life
in the spirit of Saint Augustine,
and strengthen them in your service
so that the work you have begun in them
may be brought to fulfillment.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.
I'm not an Augustinian, but after praying the Office with them for more than a quarter century, I'm Augustinian.  I am grateful to all the friars over the years who have shown me, in the beauty of their common life, and in their worship, the ways of holiness.  I have been supported and strengthened in my own work by their steadfast prayer.

For my take on what it means to be follow in the footsteps of Augustine, you could read what I wrote about Augustinians when Robin and I began our discussion of Marty Laird OSA's beautiful book, Into the Silent Land.

Photo is of Augustine giving the rule, the stained glass window on the north wall of the main sanctuary of my parish church.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Widow's flour

(A revised version of this post is up at RevGalBlogPals for the Sunday Afternoon Music Video).  As I turned bread out from a bowl to knead yesterday, dipping my hand into a full bin of fine white flour to dust the table top, flour flying with abandon, I thought of the widow in Sunday's reading. I imagine her scraping her flour bin, with its bits of grindstone that had settled to the bottom, reserving virtually nothing to keep the dough from sticking.

 There is an expression of persistent hope there that I suspect you don't grasp until you've struggled with dough that sticks to everything in sight, including your hands.  You have to keep going, sure in the knowledge that the dough will come together, that somehow this messy, sticky, mass will find its integrity.  Not in gentle handling, but in the pulling and stretching, in the persistent rhythm of turning and folding.  The widow's flour is hope....

I'm contemplating what stretches me, what provides a rhythm...

Friday, November 09, 2012

We also walk dogs

I read Robert Heinlein's short story "—We Also Walk Dogs" when I was in high school.   While the idea of General Services, where they could do arrange to do anything from walk the dog to convince a reclusive misanthropic physicist to develop an antigravity chamber, was fascinating, what really captivated me at that point were the characters. The high maintenance socialite, Mrs. Peter Van Hogbein Johnson, and Grace — the smoothly competent operator (I remain in awe of her ability to delegate), economically, yet richly sketched out.  I haven't read the piece in years, but I can still remember some of their lines ("I wasn't the blond he was weak for.."  "I was thinking of making you my social secretary...") and imagine Mrs. Hogbein's alternating whiny and haughty tones.

So when I got an email offering a trial for a company very like General Services, my curiosity was piqued.  I wondered if I could delegate a few of the tasks on my to-do list.  They won't walk the dogs themselves, but they can arrange it — and more to the point, they will schedule appointments to get my hair cut (and put them on my calendar) or other short well-defined tasks that can be done by someone with a phone and Internet connects — and time.  I signed up.  It seems more reasonable than to hope for a timeturner in my Christmas stocking.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

How to spoil a snow storm

The snow began while I was teaching this morning, a delicate lace sheet rippling over the back parking lot.  After I finished the lecture, as I was packing up my tech gear, a student from warmer climes excitedly told me on the way out the door that this was the first time she had seen snow.  Voices of a couple more bubbled in from the hallway, wondering if there would be enough to play in.

"Think about the phase diagram of water," I called out encouragingly.  I turned back to see two of my East coast students looking at me in dismay.  "How to spoil a perfectly good snow storm..."   

Saturday, November 03, 2012

From Phaith: Pearls of Great Price

Philadelphia's Archdiocesan magazine, Phaith, is now being published in an online version. This column appeared in the October issue.

Victor was a bit dubious about this column, worried that he didn't come off very well, sitting in that conference room.  He did his fair share on this project, even relinquishing his favorite part (the tiling) to me.  I love the phrasing, partners in the whole of life. Marriage in my book isn't about going halvies, but about going all in.  Whether it's patios built amid the heat, or children or illness or no lights in a storm...

“Dad says this is your anniversary present,” said Chris as he tipped a wheelbarrow of sand into the form for the new patio. He sounded dubious. Covered in sweat and dust on a sultry afternoon in August, I was piling up 20 pound slabs of stone, while my husband of 20 years sat in a cool conference room at the college, sliding papers around a table. This do-it-yourself project did not look much like the anniversary gifts touted on TV. No pearls?

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.  I’d been contemplating this line from Genesis since I’d heard it read at Mass the week before while Victor and I stood on either side of our oldest son, Mike, at the opening Mass for his freshman year at college — almost 19 years to the day since we discovered we were to become parents. Bound by our vows, we found ourselves bound up anew in this child. A gift on our first anniversary from God to us.

Through the years we joked with each other that we each did 75 percent of the work of being parents, as Victor paced the floors with a disconsolate Chris at 2 a.m. or I tutored Mike in algebra after dinner. Laundry, dirty dishes, play dates and college visits. Fall hikes, family dinners, water fights and choral concerts. A full measure of challenges and joys nurtured equally by each.

 St. Augustine once said that miracles “have a tongue of their own … let us not only be delighted with (their) surface, but let us also seek to know (their) depth.” So, too, do these sacraments that hallow our lives have “tongues of their own” that speak to us not only when we first celebrate them, but again and again, drawing us into the depths of the mystery that is our relationship with God.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its discussion of the sacrament of marriage by reminding us that it is a “matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life.” After 20 years of marriage — after 20 years as partners in the whole of life — my labors on the patio truly felt as much a gift from Victor to me, as it was my own gift to him. Caught up in this sacramental marriage, we are mysteriously one body. 

Chris’ comment made me think not only about the bond that Victor and I share, but nudged me to seek something of its depths. God dwells in me, and I in God. I have nothing to offer, but what I myself have been given. What work I do is not my work, but God’s gifts, at work in me. God offers to do not just 75 percent, but 100 percent, and calls forth the same in me, in each of us.

Where are the pearls? I have been given them. A string of days, dark and light, each built over time of many layers, knotted together. To have and to hold – and to share –from this day forward.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Column: Feasts of Quiet Remembering

This column appeared at on 29 October 2012.

Lift your eyes and look. Who made these stars if not he who drills them like an army, calling each one by name? So mighty is his power, so great his strength, that no one fails to answer. Isaiah 40:26

 “…and we remember James Collins, who died on this day in 1893.” Every day at Morning Prayer, we remember members of the local Augustinian province who died on that date. Here we are gathered, briefly holding in prayer a young Augustinian priest, who died a more than a century ago, just a year after his ordination by Archbishop Patrick Ryan of Philadelphia. There is no one left alive who knew him. But we pray, regardless.

Every time I hear those prayers, I am struck by our community’s fidelity to prayer for the dead. For those we knew and those we did not. Not only this tiny community that prays the Liturgy of the Hours, or even the parish, but the entire Church who each time she gathers to celebrate the Eucharist remembers all those who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith, even when no one living remembers them — or their names.

 Still, our names are important to us. Our names are the words that can cut through almost any din and grab our attention. When I hear someone call, “Michelle,” even if it is a voice I do not recognize, I turn to look. “Who here knows me?” I wonder. It is hard not to respond, not to search for the friend I imagine and hope is present. Our names are wound into who we are in Christ. They are bestowed on us when we are baptized, elected when we are confirmed, taken up when we profess vows. They are who our community says we are, who we say we are, and above all who God calls us to be.

The fourth century bishop of Cyr, Theodoret, reflecting on this passage from Isaiah, uses this image of God’s calling the stars by name, to remind us that God see us with extraordinary clarity, he knows our strengths and weaknesses, our loves, our hopes, our desires. We cannot help but respond to the call of someone who knows us — all the generations upon generations of His children — so well that He recalls each of our names.

But God calls us in ways that go deeper than even our names. In a homily for All Saints, Karl Rahner, S.J. calls the twin celebrations of All Saints and All Souls feasts of “quiet remembering.” God dwells in the silence and stillness of our hearts, and in that silence dwells, too, those who loved us whose life is now entirely enfolded in our living God. Rahner suggests that here, God calls out to us, not with shouted orders, like a drill master, but “through his silence, and [our dead], by their silence, summon us into God’s life.” We listen hard for the voices of those we love, and in that emptied silence deep in our hearts, they call our names, to invite us into the union they share with God, here and now.

In these days going forward from the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls, I pray for all those have gone before me, known and unknown, who dwell in my heart, inviting me to live and move and have my being in God. I walk through the Jesuit cemetery at Wernersville, looking for the grave of the young novice who died in his first year, where I stop and pray for him and for his mother. I pray for my great-grandmother whose wedding ring I wear, for the ten children she lost in a diphtheria epidemic, great uncles and great aunts who I never met and whose names I never knew. And I listen in the stillness for the voices of those I know and love, drawing me into the length and depth and breadth of God’s love.

May the Creator’s power protect you, The Savior’s care enfold you The Spirit’s life renew you. May you walk in the fragrant clasp of the Three of limitless love now and forever. — From a Celtic blessing for the dying (in Celtic Blessings by Ray Simpson)

Photo is of the Jesuit cemetery at Wernersville, showing the grave of the young novice.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Midnight prayers strangely incline God's favor. I admit to an affinity for prayer in the middle of the night, in the hours that are still and quiet. A monastic enclosure of time, rather than space, bounded by the light and the darkness.

 We are without power after Hurricane Sandy swept through last night, and expect to be for a couple of days more. We are lucky; there is no damage to the house, and we have food, a way to cook and the enormous blessing of hot water. I am writing this by the light of a flashlight, diffused through a glass of water, in a house bereft of the hum of the refrigerator, or the whirring of the furnace fan. The winds have ceased and even the rain is so quiet I cannot hear it on the roof. It's the gift of a temporary hermitage.

 Still and silent as these night times of prayer may be, it does not necessarily follow that they are always serene. Jacob isn't the only one who wrestles with angels in the night. Last week I spent a night of prayer that was anything but serene. What does it mean to pray on the sharp edge of "now" -- not of what has been, not of what might be, but present to this very moment? The Boy was missing (or at least I thought he was, turns out he was in his bed), and I prayed, in that painful space of uncertainty.

 I was hugely relieved when Chris called at 6:40 am to let me know he was fine, but relief notwithstanding, the experience — along with Robin's sermons on Job — has permeated my prayer since. You can read some of what I'm thinking in this piece posted at This Ignatian Life, or better yet, you can do as I did in prayer last night, contemplate Marilyn Nelson's poem Matins (2:30 am) which explores these same landscapes of anxiety and poverty of spirit.

I  love the ambiguity of her penultimate lines:
 or how to spell relief.
Jesus. I must be the smallest
grain of the salt of the earth.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Grateful to be seated

A week or so ago, Paul Campbell SJ at People for Others posted a list of 10 things he was grateful for, and encouraged readers to do the same.  I loved the things big and small that people were thankful for in their lives — from their cameras to their children to the feel of the cool, damp air of morning on their faces that one morning.

I did the exercise that was suggested, then set to preparing for a talk that was I giving to celebrate my appointment to a named chair. I made the usual acknowledgements slide — a formal list of collaborators and funding sources for the projects I'd spoken about.  But as I looked at it, it seemed like not quite enough for this occasion.  And so I started typing.  A list of everyone I could think of who had encouraged and supported my work as a scholar of chemistry and as a writer.  Family and friends and teachers and editors and readers and collaborators.  A litany of gratitude....

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Perfect Storm

This week felt much like running into a brick wall1, where the bricks were meetings pushed up against meetings, packed next to classes and mortared together with conference calls and email blitzes.  In the dust bunnies of time which remained I needed to do all of the essentials of my life:  lecture writing, meeting material reading, quiz creating, emailing, memo drafting.  Sleeping.  Eating.  Prioritized in roughly that order.

Friday morning, between meeting one and meeting two, one of my colleagues (who is teaching the other section of the intro chemistry course) casually inquires, "So what are you going to do about the hurricane and your class on Monday?"

"The WHAT?"

Somehow I had completely missed the news that Hurricane Sandy is headed our way.  The current track is expected to put the eye of the storm directly over us sometime Monday night.

Time to practice looking up again?

1.  The wall here is metaphorical.  Unlike last week where the wall was literally the floor.  My knee has turned amazing colors, my face did not (for which I am quite grateful!). The knee may need a consultation with my orthopedist, but as long as I'm judicious about it, it works.  And as of yesterday, I have my glasses back, repaired and beautiful.  The guys at the little optical shop are amazing.  No charge.

The type is too small to read in this form, but you can read this XKCD here which recounts (via acutal quotes from the NWS forecast discussions) the life cycles of two late season hurricanes. Best line:  "There are no clear reasons...and I'm not going to make one explain the recent strengthening of Epsilon and I am just giving the facts...However, I still have to give an intensity forecast...and the best best is that Epsilon will become a remnant low.  I've heard that before about Epsilon, haven't you?"

I'm enough of a weather junky (if you haven't discovered the forecast discussions, where the weather wizards let down their hair, might I recommend them?)  to remember reading these updates on Epsilon and Zeta.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fall break

I had a fall.  My glasses broke  (but I think nothing else).  It's fall break.  And I had other plans.

I was headed out to run an errand, and wanted to pop my head into Math Man's study to tell him that I'd be back in 30 minutes or so and then we could go for a walk on this gloriously crisp fall day.  I was thinking of a walk years before, one of our first dates, on a day much like this one.

Distracted, I somehow caught my foot on the step up from the sunroom and lost my balance.  Suddenly I was falling and falling hard.  In the brief moment before I hit I thought about two friends, one who'd fallen hard on her wrist and another who'd just had her hip replaced.  And pulled my hands in and tried to roll.  My knee slammed into the step, then my face hit the floor.

Math Man is now crouched on the floor next to me.  My veteran-of-five-surgeries knee is shrieking in panic. I have no desire to get up.  None.  I don't even want to entertain the notion of looking at the damages.  I think I'll just wait until the pain subsides.  Except it doesn't.  I finally figure we should look at the damages.  Math Man hands my glasses to me, and I put them on, and the world tilts.  Why can't I see out of my left eye?  Panic rises until my slightly rattled brain figures out that the frame had broken and the lens had fallen out.

So I spent the remains of the afternoon with my leg propped up and ice on my face and foot and knee.  The Boy drove me to our wonderful optical shop where they allowed they could probably fix my spectacles given a couple of days.  I dug out a back up pair and I can see clearly again.  The rest of the damages might take a bit longer to mend.

Oh...and Monday?  I'm giving a lecture at the college to celebrate an award I got in May.  Various friends are coming from off campus.  The black eye that looks to be blossoming will be just the accessory I was looking for...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The texture of a silence

A couple of weeks ago, PrayTell had a thought-provoking post on cognitive engagement and liturgy, based on a comparison between an experience of a Dominican rite liturgy in Latin and the current ordinary Roman Rite.  Fritz Bauerschmidt's final questions offer, at least in my opinion, an implicit definition of excellent liturgy:  "Can we craft liturgy that is clearly both something we do and something that sweeps us up in a movement quite independent of our efforts? Can our liturgy be intelligible without being mentally taxing? Can it be mysterious without being mystifying? Or is the quest for such a liturgy just tilting at windmills. I, for one, certainly hope not."

There was some suggestions in the comments that the old Latin masses (what these days is called the extraordinary form) were inherently more reverent and perhaps more silent.  I responded to one such with by noting what I see as a tendency to conflate “contemplative/mystical” with the extraordinary form and “noisy/didactic” with the ordinary Roman rite. 
Fr. Allen McDonald replied that "The silence of the EF Mass is different than the silences that should be observed in the OF such as before the penitential act, after the readings, the homily and Holy Communion."  These are "silences just for the sake of silence"1 rather than silences which emerge from a properly prepared congregation contemplating "official prayers of the Church being prayed in a silent way."  

I'm going to admit that I'm a bit put off by his characterization of the Eucharist as a contemplation (by the properly disposed) of someone else praying and gesturing in prayer.  I say this even in the face of a memorable retreat where my own prayer was certainly sustained by meditating on the stalwart prayer of the sisters around me in the chapel.  

That said, I'm grateful as his comments have made me attentive to the nature of the silence during Mass in my parish over the last two weeks.  Silence is not what my community does because we should, it is our default stance in the celebration of the Eucharist, you can hear it (or rather not hear it) even between the words of the prayers.  It's a silence that feels, in fact, not of our doing at all, but part and parcel of our being.  Be still — let go your grasp — and know that I am God. (Ps 46:10)  Here, at the Eucharistic table, we find ourselves in such intimate communion with God we cannot help but know that, and respond in kind.   I think this might be what Fritz Bauerschmidt is getting at with his description of being swept into a mystery, where our own responses swell into the stillness and fade, where the presider's prayers cascade down the altar steps and wash over us, the chant swirls up and out, but all of it, ever and always pouring into a silence whose depth and breadth and height knows no bounds.  Be still — be silent — and know that I am God. 

1.  Sacred silence in the Roman Missal, according to the GIRM, is not just for the sake of silence, but has a variety of purposes: "For in the Penitential Act and again after the invitation to pray, individuals recollect themselves; whereas after a reading or after the Homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise God in their hearts and pray to him."

Photo is of the door to the chapel at the old Jesuit novitiate.  A place that has held within its share of silent prayer and more...

Monday, October 08, 2012

St. Ignatius' beans

I was digging through a 1903 organic chemistry text (looking for examples of eponyms), when a familiar name caught my eye. What was St. Ignatius doing in a chemistry textbook, an organic one at that?  Jesuits, I could understand (quinine is extracted from Jesuits' bark), but Ignatius himself?

"Strychnine, C21H22O2N2, is found in St. Ignatius' bean..."  What is a violent poison doing in a bean named for Ignatius?  Despite the fact that I've got an impending writing deadline and  a couple of dozen exams to grade, I had to know.

Faba Sancti Ignatii were first described by an Austrian Jesuit missioned to the Phillippines in the 17th century, George Kamel, S.J. (his description was published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1699).  Later authors speculated the plant was named for Ignatius because of its many medicinal virtues (which they do not list, and about which I'm curious -- I'm having breakfast with a scholar of herbals from this period on Wednesday which may help).  These days it forms the basis for a homeopathic nostrum prescribed for grief and melancholia, particularly when associated with an abundance of tears.  I wonder if the homeopaths knew of Ignatius' gift of tears?

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Practice of Looking Up

The past week I've had some intense and difficult meetings, and a schedule that has been somewhat more packed than I would prefer.  Ok, way more packed that I would prefer.  I'm mired in a swamp of details, my concentration is tattered and fluttering in the breeze.  Notes for this essay, permissions for that crisscross on my desk.  I abandon an unfinished email and my tea on my desk to answer a student's question, only to return two hours later to find both my train of thought and tea long gone cold.

On a dash to the grocery store, wearily running through what I still had to tick off the day's list, I happened to look up to see the warm sun wash over the front of the old parish school across the street, lofty thunderheads piled into soft peaks stretching up untold miles into the atmosphere. For a moment I stopped, and breathed. The heavens declare the glory of God...

My tangled, confined heart reached up and stretched into this gloriously infinite space.  I breathed, no less weary, no less on the run, but somehow at rest.

Now each time I walk outside, I've been reminding myself to look up.  To practice stretching into eternity, to extend hands and heart and soul towards the Creator of this firmament that surrounds me, yet does not confine.