Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Phaith: Tending to a prayer life

My next Spiritual Fitness column is up at Phaith. Origen's discourse on spherical angels (for whom the current debates on kneeling/standing posture are moot, as they have no knees) can be found here.

“No more clutter. Guaranteed!” “Streamline your routine: 30 minutes a day to a tidier home” Waiting in line at the grocery store, I sometimes imagine the magazines are jumping up and down like overexcited students, sure they know the answers. Call on me and I can tell you how to get dinner on the table in 30 minutes, with elegant napkins and candles. No, no, read me and you’ll never misplace the choral schedule again!

Facing going home to the semi-permanent mound of sneakers by the garage door and another taco dinner, I too often succumb to those bright promises and add a magazine or two to my cart — with predictable results. The sneakers still lurk just outside the kitchen, and while I can get dinner on the table in under an hour, the table decor is decidedly not a candidate for a magazine spread, except as a “before” picture.

Last weekend I was browsing my shelves at home, looking for some resources for the students in my course on contemplation. As I pulled books on prayer and meditation for various of their final projects, I found myself paging through a couple and wondering if I might find some helpful hints for my own current prayer dilemma in them. Or, like a sure solution for the clutter that comes with living with three guys who wear size 11 sneakers, am I looking for something that doesn’t exist?

You can read the rest here.

The illustration is of St. Augustine...reading. Did he succumb to the clamoring magazines?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Weather prediction

I'm playing with text analysis for my sabbatical project, and my blog provides a ready source of data. One of the top search queries that lands at my blog is "snow day prayer" which lands at this column I wrote for the Catholic Standard & Times last winter (when it was much snowier).

Several years ago, Google noted that they could use search queries to track influenza cases. (For all the gory details, read the paper in Nature.) If I look at where the queries originate, I can do the same thing with respect to the snow prediction.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

God walks among the pots and pans

I've started blogging occasionally at This Ignatian Life. The blog explores the lived traditions of Ignatian spirituality, and current bloggers range from Jesuit scholastic Paul Lickteig to David Bayne who worked with street children in Argentina and Lisa Kelly, a mother and missionary. My first post is up:

"....what I did get was a place to pray. As I spackled and sanded yesterday afternoon, my mind wandered back to the First Week of the Exercises, meditating on the ways in which my life is dinged and damaged, and the world likewise. Much like the laundry room of my First Week, this 5 foot square space encouraged meditations on failure and redemption.

My impromptu orationis angulus has vanished. The walls are done, the drop cloth folded up, the paint brushes are drying by the basement sink. What remains, though, is a potent composition of place, a modern riff on Isaiah’s image of clay and potter: Yet, LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you our potter: we are all the work of your hand. I can smell the paint, hear the scritch of the sandpaper, see the flecks of paint on the window, feel the smoothness of the sanded patch. I imagine God at work, perched precariously on a ladder, working cheerfully even in this cramped and awkward space."

Read the whole thing here.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Writing prompts

Beatrix Potter
children's literature
Mary Poppins

I am prompted to recall that my umbrella is still at English House, where I had been writing.

Photo is of my umbrella in Kyoto. And properly prompted, I once again I am in possession of it.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A well-wintered life

(WARNING: substantial chemistry content. Theologians and others take a deep breath, I promise there will not be a quiz and that there's a point beyond the chemistry.)

The other day the Boy (who I'm coaching in thermochemistry for Science Olympiad) wondered why the freezing point of water on the Fahrenheit scale was 32o, and the boiling point 212o? (The Celsius scale is pinned to the freezing and boiling points of water - a sensible scheme.) I admit I had never given it much thought. Turns out that zero on the Fahrenheit scale is defined as the temperature of a "frigorific" mixture of water, ice and ammonium chloride in a 1:1:1 ratio. (There are many such mixtures, which produce baths of a particular temperature, useful in the days before refrigerators when you needed to produce artificial cold.)

I had never encountered the work before despite years of teaching thermodynamics (frankly, it sounds a bit too pseudo-sciency for my taste - and I do have opinions about what sounds good in a science term) and headed for the OED (the online version, not the one that Math Man brought as his dowry), to find that it is attributed to Robert Boyle in the 17th century.

As it turns out, I was more intrigued by a turn of phrase in one of the quotes given under the figurative meaning: "a well-wintered life..." I tracked down the 19th century reference in Google books to find that well-wintered meant reflective. Winter was a time to be indoors, a time of darkness, a time of year that encouraged — nigh on insisted upon — introspection and stillness: no central heating, no electric lights in those days. You stayed indoors if you could and wrapped up.

How well-wintered is my life? I'm on sabbatical leave, wrapped up in my writing and in my research, but also trying to spend some time in reflection about life. And I'm starting to warm to the idea of wintering over, of letting some things sit out this time. What will happen if I let the ground in which these seeds are planted heave up with the frost, be blanketed with snow, and softened by the melt? God knows.

[Aside: The author rather appallingly posits the opposite as well, those living in the tropics, where light and warmth abound no matter what the season are doomed to shallow living.]

Photo is from a well-wintered walk at Wernersville.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Column: Expansive blessings

I really was terrified of choking on a fish bone when I was little. I ate fish reluctantly in those days and only once it had been smothered in bright orange Kraft French dressing.

The spelling of Blaise here is not the spelling that is used in either Butler's lives on the saints (I have all 5 volumes on my iPad, is that at all eccentric?) or in the Roman breviary - both of which use "Blase"...

This column appeared in the February 2012 issue of the Catholic Standard & Times.

With the crossed candles touched to the throat of each person, the celebrant says immediately: Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness. — From the Book of Blessings

Difficult to come by in my tiny landlocked Midwest town, and not within the grocery budget when it was, fresh fish was not often on the menu when I was a young girl. Instead Friday dinners alternated between tuna casseroles and macaroni and cheese. My mother, raised on the East Coast, missed fresh fish, and she couldn't figure out why I didn't share her enthusiasm when it made a rare appearance on our table. For this, I blame St. Blaise.

My childhood memories of the feast of St. Blaise are ones of damp wool and beeswax, of a warmly lit church and cold dark winds that sullenly shook the windows, hoping to find a way in. But it was the story of the fishbone that really stuck.

Little is known of St. Blaise's life, he was perhaps the bishop of Sebaste in the 4th century, who died a martyr for the faith. The story of St. Blaise that captured my imagination was of a mother brought her son to the bishop with a fish bone stuck in his throat. St. Blaise prayed and the young boy was healed.

When I was five, the enduring message of the story of St. Blaise (alas) seemed to be, "watch out for bones when you eat fish." Almost five decades later, it reminds me that the stories we tell of the saints and blesseds have an enduring power to them, a way of engaging our imaginations. St. Augustine wrote that we remember the particular deeds of the saints and martyrs "to excite us to imitate them and to obtain a share in their merits, and the assistance of their prayers."

St. Augustine's commentary challenges me to think beyond the assistance that St. Blaise may offer me or what merits he might be inclined to share with me, and to wonder in what way a suburban mother of teen-agers might be moved to imitate a 4th century bishop. What is there in St. Blaise's life that could excite me to similar feats of virtue?

In the many miracle tales told of St. Blaise, from the healing of the young boy to the return of a widow's stolen pig, he looks for help from God not only for the situation in front of him, but for the broader world. His prayers were always simultaneously for the here and now and the people of God in difficulties in every place and time. I'm quick to pray for the safety of my children each night, but do I remember to pray for other mothers' children? In asking for healing for my father, do I think to pray for the elderly who suffer with chronic pain?

I still get my throat blessed each February 3rd. No longer terrified of choking on a fish bone -- hoping that St. Blaise would notice the prayers of one small girl in a town far away in time and space — I find now in the crossed candles and Triune blessing more than an assurance that God is concerned with our worries (even if they are as irrational as mine over stray fish bones). God's grace spills over, reaching beyond the needs of one to all His people until the end of time.

Hear, O Lord, the supplications your people make,
under the patronage of the martyr Saint Blaise,
and grant that they may rejoice in peace in this present life,
and find help for life eternal. Amen. – From the closing prayer for the feast of St. Blaise.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Bound by prayer

Bound by prayer

"Do you pray the Jesus prayer?" came the question from the gentleman I'd been introduced to a few minute before. "Are you Orthodox?" "No." (Well, yes, in the sense of orthodox, but I knew what he meant.) The rest of the table gave us a puzzled look, but the subject vanishes as people want to know how the start of my sabbatical is going.

I had made an appointment for sacramental shriving this week while I was up to see Patient Spiritual Director and to take a couple of days to reflect on where I might be going with this sabbatical. It was the feast of St. Anthony of Egypt and my confessor had used one of the apophthegmata of Anthony during his homily at the midday Mass (where he also noted that this St. Anthony is not the same as this St. Anthony).

After we celebrated the sacrament, I asked Lanky Jesuit for another favor - would he bless the prayer rope I wear around my wrist? The what? I handed it over and mentioned that it was apropos to bless it today as the method for tying the knots is attributed to St. Anthony of Egypt. He tied knots in a cord to keep track of his prayers, and the devil kept untying them. An angel then taught Anthony these seven-fold knots, crosses layered over crosses that the devil couldn't touch.

Prayer ropes are traditionally worn by Orthodox religious wrapped around their left wrist as a reminder to pray, but can be worn by anyone who wishes to keep to the discipline. Prayers on the knots can substitute in a pinch (and with appropriate direction from a spiritual father or superior) for one's Office. The Jesus prayer is one traditional prayer said on the rope, but others can be as well. It can be used to keep track of prostrations in prayer, if that's part of your practice. Though it's not a rosary, prayers to the Theotokos can be said on it as well. It differs from a rosary in that it's strictly for private prayer.

I've worn a chotki around my wrist for the last several years, as a reminder to "pray at all times." It's not the traditional 100 knots version with a tassel (to soak up your tears), but 33 knots tied in black wool, in groups of 11, with a simple cross of knots at the end. It's gone unnoticed, or at least unmentioned, all this time. Now twice in one day, I'm answering questions about it. I'm attributing this to St. Anthony....

Aside: The reason I asked to have my chotki blessed is because I lost the one I'd been wearing, somewhere in the potted plants at church (I was helping move stuff...) Perhaps I should have prayed to the other St. Anthony for it's return.

Second aside: Crash, who was reading this over my shoulder — we are traveling by train to Boston — tells me it's not gone unnoticed, just unmentioned.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Billy Collins on lanyards and helminthology

I'm reading Billy Collins' The Trouble with Poetry. I love the rich imagery and dashing snark that characterize Collins' poetry -" The Introduction": "And you're all familiar with helminthology? It's the science of worms." It's good commuting reading, there's time to make friends with a poem or two on each leg of my journey. Beside the seriously refusing to take itself seriously "The Introduction" the collection includes "The Lanyard":

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past —
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

That stanza gave me a Proustian push into the past as well. I can see the picnic bench set out at the summer rec program, the spools of plastic strips, smell the warm blacktop and feel the whisper of my seersucker sundress in the early morning breeze that still held a touch of the cool of the night. I can't remember how many of these I made, and as far as I know none survived, but I can remember my delight when I mastered a spiral form, rather than the simple square. I wondered if kids still made these, or if like the translucent plastic flowers we made by dipping wires into a solution that smelled like my dad's lab, they were creations of memory only.

Yes, they are still made. The stuff from which they are made is called by some gimp, the craft itself is called boondoggle or scoubi. Apparently it's recently been a rage in the UK to make zipper pulls from it. It sounds more useful than my lanyards.

Photo is from Shutterstock. Used with permission.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Spirit 2-2-0

Dominus vobiscum.
Et cum spiritu tuo.

Back in the not quite ancient days of phone systems, before 10-digit dialing and texts, phone numbers came as two letters and five numbers. In kindergarten I learned my phone number as MOntrose 5-0947. My entire village was on the Montrose exchange.

When I was small, my parents had only one car and so once a week, in order to have the car to shop and run errands, my mother would get us up early, dress us and pack however many kids there were at the time into the car and drive my dad to the next stop on his carpool. The process was reversed in the evening. Each trip seemed like an hour long to me (though I just checked Google maps and it looks to be 30 minutes each way!). In those pre-electronic days (no handheld games, no DVD players in the car or iPod or even much choice on the radio) it took ingenuity to keep munchkins from rioting in the back seat. My mother kept us entertained with word games of all sorts.

We memorized the Greek alphabet (in retrospect I wonder if this reflects just how desperate my mother was to keep a half dozen bright children amused, for who teaches pre-schoolers the Greek alphabet? Except for Greek mothers, presumably. Though it's been an amazingly useful bit of knowledge, I will admit.) We also learned our prayers, and the responses for Mass. My age shows, as I can clearly remember my mother intoning "Dominus vobiscum." and the voices from the back responding "Et cum spirit two-two-oh." Or at least that's how I parsed it, just like the phone numbers I'd been learning!

As I work to get the new responses off the page, onto my tongue and into my heart, I miss my mother's gentle drill, and long to hear her voice one more time: Peace be with you. Et cum spiritu tuo, Mom....

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Crossed genres

This molecule is called snoutane. In trying to track down the source of the name, I did a Google search. The Google was not much help, wondering as it did if I wanted to do a related search "what is a cassock?" for surely I had mistyped "soutane."

It's rare that my two lives intersect quite this sharply.

UPDATE: There is so little out there on snoutane that this blog post showed up 1 minute (!) later on the second page of the Google search.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Crash course: buttons and books

Crash added two skills to his growing repertoire this weekend. He can now sew a button back on, which meant learning how to thread a needle and how to tie off the thread at start and finish. He even took the advanced course, learning to sew on a coat button (you need to wrap the thread under the button to create enough space between the button and coat to fit the other flap).

He also learned how to bind a simple folio - a skill that any historian should have, no? He was fascinated to see how a book went together (he and a group of friends created a medieval bestiary as part of a project for their humanities class), from sewing the folio (more practice in threading needles), to creating the covers, the flyleaves and the spine. He wondered about how you make a large book, so we looked at the techniques for sewing together multiple folios.

I wonder what other practical skills I need to teach him before he heads off to college?
He can cook a respectable number of things from scratch, though he laments being in a family of cooks, where the ability to make a cake from scratch is considered "basic" not "advanced."

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Not quite ordinary

In a few hours we will be back to Ordinary Time, Christmastide having run its all too quick course. A friend laments the abrupt shifts from great feasts to ordinary time, at Pentecost as well as at the end of the Christmas season. We will sing of the three kings (in all likelihood we will sing "We Three Kings") with their exotic gifts and accoutrements who will then depart, taking with them all the verve of the season, leaving the Holy Family fleeing for Egypt and us in the January doldrums. As antidote to "We Three Kings" I offered this Bach cantata up on for the RevGals Sunday afternoon music. It was first performed for Dreikönigsfest — the feast of the Epiphany — in 1724.

But the music that truly helps move me from out of this season and back to Ordinary time is Arvo Pärt's gorgeous and haunting Anthem of John the Baptist. I couldn't find an online version, but it is on iTunes and well worth the listen. It gives me an entirely different way to imagine the scene of the two cousins meeting. Less outward drama, but inwardly a seismic shift.

Friday, January 06, 2012

A second epiphany, or perhaps a third

The trees outside my study window are gilded in the late afternoon sun, the stained glass gift that arrived outside my room one day when I was making the Exercises is glowing against the stark borrowed landscape beyond. I'm writing away in a not so silent house at this point. It's warm enough to lure the elementary school children out to ride bikes and the carpenter's radio plays softly just outside my study.

We celebrated the feast of St. Andre Bessette (a cousin of his made the Exercises with me!) at Lauds this morning, but I brought small gifts for Epiphany — and prayed for those beginning the Exercises at Eastern Point this week. In that spirit, I've reposted this podcast from last year.

This year, instead of contemplating the traditional three treasures (according to Gregory the Great: the gold of wisdom, the incense of prayer and the myrrh of self-denial) in light of my packed bags for the Long Retreat, I'm unpacking (and de-cluttering) as I move back into my newly restored kitchen (well, except for the hole in the ceiling).

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Silent Spaces

To deliver oneself up, to hand oneself over, entrust oneself completely to the silence of a wide landscape of woods and hills, or sea, or desert; to sit still while the sun comes up over the land and fills its silences with light. To pray and work in the morning and to labor in meditation in the evening when night falls upon that land and when the silence fills itself with darkness and with stars. This is a true and special vocation. There are few who are willing to belong completely to such silence, to let it soak into their bones, to breathe nothing but silence, to feed on silence, and to turn the very substance of their life into a living and vigilant silence. — Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude

This is the passage with which I began my course on silent spaces last fall. We took a historical approach, working our way from the desert fathers and mothers up to present day contemplatives. I wrote early on that teaching this course felt like autologous dissection, a sense that persisted for the entire semester.

In some sense I don't belong completely to the silence that Merton is talking about here. I don't live in an enclosed silent monastic community, I am not a hermit. Yet a quick look at my calendar reveals that last year I spent 30 days in silence, albeit spread out over the year and not in one go as when I made the Exercises.

The class was framed around a few key questions. Is silence an exterior condition or an interior stance, or some complex interplay between the two? Is there a difference between being an occasional visitor to silence, and dwelling in it? Is silence necessarily the same thing as an absence of sound?

I may not yet belong completely to the silence, but I do let it soak into my bones, breathe it, and feed on it.

"Silence does not mean running away, but rather recollecting ourselves in the open space of God." — Madeleine Delbrêl

Photo is of the desert at the edge of an oasis near Al Alain in Abu Dhabi. I wonder if that is where I dwell these days: in the oasis, but a step away from the desert.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

God always and in everything

“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

Three years ago today I drove up to Eastern Point to begin the Spiritual Exercises. As I walked this afternoon in the chilling wind, wrapped up in the same wool shawl (bought in the Middle East ina place where it never snows!) and ancient, disreputable red down jacket that kept me warm during my walks on the Long Retreat, my mind drifted back the vigils I kept in the deep chill of the night.

Tonight I might once again get up in the middle of the night to stand vigil. The Boy is determined to get up and see if the Quadrantid meteor show is as good as they say it will be. I told him to wake me if there were meteors to be seen. One night, while sitting in the chapel around 3 am, through the bay window behind the tabernacle, I saw one single meteor streak across the sky. I wonder if I'll see another tonight?

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Column: A fierce and wondrous light

The photo was taken last winter at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA. There is an article in this weekend's NY Times on making an Ignatian retreat at Wernersville. If you've wondered about what it might be like to go on such a retreat, this is a graceful, albeit slightly quirky (sphinxiness?), description of a first time retreat. And I added a new word to my vocabulary, adytum.

I can relate to her description of showing up a bit late and not knowing where to go. The very first time I went on retreat at Wernersville (many years back) I arranged to arrive a day late. My bag and I wandered the halls (without noticing the posted list) until I ran into a random retreatant and asked for help. He kindly pointed out the list and suggested I go to my room. Where a delightful note from my director for the week awaited me.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times, January 2012

He has spoken to us through the Son,
whom he made heir of all things
and through whom he created the universe,
who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word.
Hebrews 1:2b-3a

A virtual jungle of tropical plants lines the south wall of my family room. Earlier this week, as I made room for the family crèche on the windowsill, I realized that every plant had turned its leaves until they were plastered to the window, their faces toward the sun, hungry for whatever light they can find in these short and dim days.

Yesterday, listening to the words of the second reading at Christmas Mass I was struck by the this line in Hebrews, Christ is the refulgence — the shining radiance — of God’s glory. The Latin, refulgere, implies more than just a light that shines forth brightly; this is a light that shines fiercely and intently. And like my plants, this is a light we hunger for; this is the Light that sustains us.

Standing to the side at the cantor’s stand, I could see that hunger in the faces of those who came to receive Christ in the Eucharist. The grandparents holding hopeful grandchildren in their arms, the convert received into the Church last Easter still beaming with joy, the exhausted mothers bent over holding the hands of toddlers determined to walk the aisle on their own two feet, the new widow veiled in grief, all reaching out for that fierce Light that sustains us in all things.

John’s Gospel begins with the Word resounding through the chaos, creating the heavens and the earth. But in a homily on the letter to the Hebrews, St. John Chrysostom reminds us that the Word did not cease to speak, “He holds together what would fall to pieces, for to hold the world together is no less than to make it, but even greater.” Even the discordant pieces we cannot imagine being part of the whole are held in that Light and fastened together. Proof, says John Chrysostom, of God’s “exceeding power,” of Christ’s refulgence.

I’m always tempted in the days after Christmas to give over waiting, to be done with watching. But this ancient homily reminds me that just as the Word continues to sustain what He brought into being, the end of Advent does not bring an end to being attentive to where the Light is, to where I should turn my face, for what I should be reaching.

For the next few weeks the manger scene sits among the plants on the window ledge. Each morning as I drink my tea, I contemplate the infant in the crib, brushed by the light that day by day grows in intensity. I wonder what happened to the shepherds who saw the glory of God around them and went to seek the child in the manger. Such an outpouring of Light, such a Word spoken could not have left them unchanged.

And I wonder what will God’s exceeding power make of me in the coming year? What fragmented parts will be fastened together? I hear the familiar words of St. Augustine, “become what you receive” and I know where to look for that fiercely wondrous and sustaining Light.

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