Thursday, May 31, 2012

Application of the Senses

One hallmark of an Ignatian approach to prayer is the way in which engages all the senses, both in its composition of place and as a way of deepening and sharpening the focus of a contemplation. Smell the dust, says Ignatius. Hear the raucous crowd. Stop analyzing and feel. This isn't about God, or even about talking with God, this is an encounter with God.

Though my recent retreat was not formally Ignatian — no spiritual director, and four hours a day spent in the liturgy — it retained a distinctly Ignatian flavor in the ways in which my senses were drawn into times of prayer, pulling particular strands from the external into the interior space of my meditations.

The turquoise of the small bay far below against the yellow hills and dark rocks boasting their lacy ruffs of surf is stunning, but the smells were as intriguing as the view is breathtaking. Something smelled of licorice [note: it turned out to be licorice, which grows wild in the area] which reminded me of Menotti's opera about the Magi. The smell of the fox's den announced itself brightly as the drive began to descend in earnest, marking off the beginning and ends of walks more sharply than the cross embedded in the rock face. And at the very end of a hot afternoon's walk, I looked down to see a single tiny wild strawberry, then realized I could smell the scent of warm strawberry sifting up from a small patch in the sun. The cold damp on my skin as I walked early one morning through the bits of mist that still clung to the canyon walls like lint left from the bank of fog that lingers off shore.

After I posted this, I read this post by Jim Manney on how the physical gets all too easily neglected in our prayer....

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Blogging Latin: nomen diarium cyberneticum

People for Others is celebrating its 1000th blog post, a milestone I'm anticipating sometime next year (the blog did get its 100,0000th visitor while I was away on retreat). My friend Fran wished PFO "ad multos annos!" (Latin, "to many years!") and then wondered if she could also wish "ad multos postos" -- to many more posts?

Latin isn't quite dead as a language, thanks to the Vatican's use of it for official documents and its consequent need for new words for ideas and objects ancient Rome never imagined. The Vatican maintains a list of recent Latin coinages. My favorites? Minigolf: pilamálleus minūtus and, I am not joking, hot pants: brevíssimae bracae femíneae.

Computer is on the Vatican list (
instrumentum computatórium), but neither blog nor post appears. A list of Latin computer terms (of unknown provenance, so take it with a grain of sal) offer a Latin version of www (ttt for tela totius terrae), but nothing for blog or post either.

I propose filling the gap with nomen diarium cyberneticum (an entry in a daily diary on the webs). Feel free to correct my grammar and to offer your own suggestions!

Photo is from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Boundary conditions

There is a tendency to think of boundaries as problematic. Either they are problems in themselves — something to be gotten around or through — or they are responses to problems, proxies for a sense of self-discipline — like putting the chocolate on a shelf I can't reach.

But in quantum mechanics, boundary conditions are more likely to be part of the solution than the problem. The solution to the Schrödinger equation for a particle trapped in a square well emerges from recognizing that at the boundaries, the wave function must be zero. Boundary conditions clarify, they sharpen.

I've been thinking about boundaries in my own life. There is the new door to my study, which no longer requires that I shove a pile of heavy chemistry texts against the door to keep the cat out. It allows easier access (and egress -- I no longer have to interrupt what I was doing in order to blockade the door again) to my guys, but makes it impossible for the cat and much of the household noise to get in.

Good boundaries are to some extent permeable. The monastic enclosure at New Camaldoli keeps out clueless tourists and wandering retreatants, but lets God and a view of the Pacific in. My challenges at the moment are less boundaries in space than boundaries in time. How I can plant a sign for a monastic enclosure in time, rather than in space?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Mother's day (transferred)

I woke to a sky imperceptibly lighter than it had been on my midnight excursion to the chapel, and to bells calling the community to Vigils. In the darkness, I dressed and made my ablutions — remembering both Jane Hirshfield's poem which opens with that morning exercise in a Zen monastery, and a friend's recollection of his monastic stretch where the Buddhist abbot remarked to him, "You could at least wash your face!" before the early morning service. I wended my way to the chapel, collecting Psalter and Ordo as I went, the holy water in the marble basin at the door providing a second, bracing Asperges.

I sat in the dimness, marking my psalter. The Camaldolese Office of Vigils is longer than the Office of Reading in the Roman breviary where I make my home, and finding my way for this first Hour of the day was proving challenging (mostly because it arrived at 5:15 am, I suspect). I thought I had the basics down, but couldn't figure out why the Ordo kept directing me to antiphons for a regular day in Eastertide. It was Thursday, Ascension Thursday, or so I thought.

Actually, not. Right around dawn it dawned on me that the celebration of the Ascension in this very rural diocese has been transferred to Sunday.

Yesterday night, after a glorious day of sailing (in my opinion, there is no better way to spend a Pentecost afternoon than thrown onto the mercy of wind and water and light), after my spouse had headed to bed to read, and while both sons were out with friends, I filled the claw foot tub and soaked the bruises and sore muscles away.

Long before I expected him home, the front door creaked open and I heard The Boy's footsteps. "Mom?" "I'm just getting out of the tub!" I wrap up in my robe and pad into the hallway. There is The Boy, "I brought you a s'more." Oh, my. I had teased him that if I were providing marshmallows for the teen-age late night fire fest at the end of the block, the least they could do is bring me a toasted marshmallow. I laughed and told him that I thought we were doing Mother's Day in reverse. Instead of breakfast in bed to start the day, I was getting a s'more in my PJs at the end of the day.

All in all, a lovely way to celebrate Mother's Day, even if transferred two Sundays forward!

An account of last year's celebration with my merry men. Photos are of the dawn (taken just after Vigils, outside the chapel here) and a s'more (from the Wikimedia collection)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Strands of Silent Psalmody

Before I left for retreat, The Reverend's Wife wondered what I would do when I wasn't praying. Read? Knit? Walk?

Read and walk for sure, but I told her I'd left my current knitting project behind because it would have taken up too much room. "But maybe on my way, I'll stop at the knitting store and just get something for a scarf..." "We have lots of wool in the barn, from your mom, and I know I saw knitting needles up there, too."

So the night before I left, The Rev's Wife and I tramped through the pitch-black orchard and up into the attic of the barn. The barn attic is crammed with 6 decades of memories. Here are bins with random photos — of me with waist-length hair in high school and as two year-old gathered into my grandmother's arms. There are the boxes with the decorations from the Halloween party the Reverend and Wife threw the year we were on sabbatical leave in California. (The one where I dressed as a quark, and dyed my hair temporarily purple and blue and orange with glitter. Only it turned out the orange wasn't so temporary and I had an orange streak for months.) The Rev's Wife reached into a box near the back and pulled out skeins of yarn, a cache from when we lived in a little town in Illinois, tiny chimes heralding an equally rich stash of vintage aluminum knitting needles.

I ended up with a skein of baby blue Sears 100% Italian mohair and deep blue aluminum needles, size 8, downloaded a pattern for a wispy scarf and tucked it all into my bag. The pattern is essentially an AB pattern worked over 6 rows and 9 rows. I improvised a stitch counter with 9 rocks from the walled garden in my hermitage.

As I knit I remembered my mother's hands on the needles and the shush-shush sound they made as they slid past each other, confidently placing the yarn into its place in the pattern, until it grew into a sweater for a new brother, a mysteriously joyful process. Now my hands move with the same quiet confidence, turning a few lines of text and a single strand of yarn into something warm and useful. A silent version of the Camaldolese psalmody, with its ABAC patterns knitting together text and a single strand of melody. The morning's Benedictus reimagined into something I could wrap around my neck.

Memories of my mother are knitting themselves into this scarf, her touch present to me in the wool and needles she once handled. The psalms come to life like this, too. God's touch on the words made present again as the text lifts off the page and is knit into a whole, sliding from one side of the monastic choir to the next, each row building on the next until we bind off in silence.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Use caution when opening the overhead bins... contents may have shifted during flight.

I spent less than 2 hours on the ground at SFO yesterday night, all but 25 minutes on one taxiway or another. Despite my short sojourn there, I had many adventures (of the Chesterton1 sort.) I managed to retrieve my carry-on2 a moment before it vanished into the maw of SFO's baggage handling; I got lost looking for my ever changing departure gate3; and I got my head bashed by a small marble statue (I think that may have been the culprit) which fell, you guessed it, from the overhead bin.

After a mad dash across SFO and to the international terminal, I was almost the last person on the plane. I was grateful to find enough open bin space to stash my book-crammed carry-on, dropped into my seat, bent over to tuck my daypack under the seat in front of me and suddenly stars bloomed. When they vanished, the young man from the row ahead of me had in hand a small marble statue (roughly the size of a 16 oz can of peaches -- why I thought of peaches when this happened, I cannot hope to tell you) caught before it hit the floor. Not alas, before it had hit my head. Clearly one should exercise caution around open bins period, regardless of whether we've been aloft yet or not.

The flight originated in New Zealand. There are many tired and cranky people on board who would like nothing better to get to Philadelphia. By the time the flight attendants are fully apprised of all this, we have pushed back from the gate. Am I OK? Do we need to go back to the gate (please God, no, I can almost hear the chorus of thought bubbles around me wailing)? A large ice bag, and checks from the flight attendant while we waited in the long, long line for take off, and many prayers (on my part certainly and I'm willing to bet on many of my fellow passengers' parts) and the decision is made to go.

I can't tell you how glad I was to see Victor this morning. And my own MD.4

1. "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered." G.K. Chesteron's definition of an adventure (from a column he wrote on the spectacular flooding in his London neighborhood)
2. The tiny plane I took from near my dad's can't accomodate carry-ons larger than a small briefcase. You leave your carry-on as you get on the plane and retrieve them when you get off. I got off, everyone else's bag was there, but no sign of mine. I flagged down a guy on the ground crew, who queried the baggage handlers, who dug through the checked bags loaded for transfer, wherein they found my bag. I now have 5 minutes less to make my (very tight) connection, but I have my bag and I am thankful! Traveling mercy number one.
3. Who knew that the flight to Philadelphia would be leaving from the international terminal? It had 3 gate changes between the time I boarded in San Luis Obispo and finally located the gate in the other terminal.
4. Who reminded me about Liam Neeson's wife (who died of a head injury that at first had seemed minor) and assured me that nothing like that would ensue; I told her that until she said that, I hadn't remembered the story. Another traveling mercy to be grateful for.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The narrow road

A week ago, I set out in my borrowed car to drive over the pass in the Santa Lucia mountain range and then head north up the coastal road. The drive is a spectacular one, and I had to admit spectacularly fun in this little car with the top down. The road winds through marsh and sea meadow and then begins to hug the cliffs in earnest. The signs warn that the road narrows, and I'm glad of the small car when I pass a bus on a tight curve going in the opposite direction. Then another sign - road narrows. How can this steep and serpentine path narrow any more and still carry two lanes of traffic? Fifty miles after I turn north I spot the sign I am looking for: New Camaldoli Hermitage, 2 miles. I turn right and head up and up. I pray that I won't meet another car going down, and take two deep breaths when I see a brown UPS van headed my way. Where can I go? I squeeze by,clinging to the cliff, thinking I could just about reach out the passenger window and touch the granite protruding from the cliff. The van, a 500 foot drop off to his left, seems unperturbed. I park, peel my fingers off the wheel and head off to find the guestmaster.

By 6 pm I have brought in my one bag and my furoshiki packed with books, and managed to figure out where the psalms and chant tones for Vespers are in the Camaldolese Office book (but not the opening verse, or Regina Caeli). The Liturgy of the Hours, usually such a stable spot in my day, now feels much like the road I've driven to get here. Chant tones I don't know, a different arrangement of the psalter; I'm clinging to the edge, watching for signs, hoping not to run into anyone. I tentatively set my voice into the chant, thankful for the strong and clear tones of the precentor. I'm almost as white-knuckled at the end of the Office, as I was at the end of my drive up. The 30 minutes of silent meditation in the chapel that followed the final hymn was more on the order of a collapse into God's arms than any attempt at organized prayer. I wonder if I'll ever have the courage to drive down the road again, or for that matter, the strength to stay up here and face God, alone except for the psalms?

Friday, May 18, 2012

An Examination of Conscience for the Weary

[Michelle is on retreat. She has not yet mastered the art of bilocation, so this post appears courtesy of Blogger's scheduled postings feature.]

Patient Spiritual Director has noted more than once that the desert fathers considered overwork to be a form of sloth. I love the story about St. Anthony who worried that if his monks didn't take some down time, like bows that had been tightly strung for too long they would break.

The working title of this article in May/June's Liguorian was An Examination of Conscience for the Weary - the nine questions I ask myself when I suspect I might be a bit too tightly strung (or scheduled). Like those boxes of questions you can use to stimulate dinner conversations, I grab one or another to start a conversation with God in my Examen.

First question: Am I openhearted and hospitable? Or do I greet visitors, expected or unexpected, with a chorus of how much I have to do and how stressed I am about it? In his rule for monks, Saint Benedict wrote that the doorkeeper should greet each guest with the words Deo gratias—thanks be to God—because guests should be received as though they are Christ. If I’m so overscheduled that I cannot be grateful and attentive to the person at my door, perhaps I’m doing too much.

Read the full article here....

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

This Ignatian Life: Punctuated Time

I'm off on retreat, but have left a few things behind to appear while I'm gone. On the plane flight out here, I wrote a reflection for This Ignatian Life about what I'm seeking on this retreat, musing about punctuation and the desert fathers.

"The discernment in front of me is a subtle one. I’m certainly not discerning a vocation to the Carthusians or Trappists. I’m married, a teacher, a mother of two teen-agers (though the last might be reason enough to seek solitude and silence on occasion). It’s more on the order of deciding to use one or two spaces after a period in a sentence, than it is about whether to write at all."

What might shift in my life if I decided to leave more space in it? Read the whole thing here.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Babu Yetu

Long ago, when I was in college, working on a linguistics degree, I had to take two years of a non-Indo-European language. I chose Kiswahili, in part because I had friend who spoke it and I could practice with him, and partly because the structure of the language fascinated me. Plural nouns are fomed by prefixes, instead of English's "s" suffixes. Nouns that refer to objects that are alive are treated differently from nouns for objects that are and have ever been inanimate.

The Boy and Crash's choral group sang this piece for this final concert and I enjoy seeing if I could follow the Our Father in a language I haven't tried to speak in almost three decades. (For the record - no.)

Baba yetu uliye mbinguni,
Jina lako litukuzwe,
Ufalme wako uje,
Mapenzi yako yatimizwe,
hapa duniani kama huko mbinguni.
Utupe leo riziki yetu.
Utusamehe deni zetu,kama sisi nasi tuwasamehevyo wadeni wetu.
Na usitutie majaribuni,lakini utuokoe na yule mwovu.
Kwa kuwa ufalme ni wako, na nguvu, na utukufu, hata milele.Amina.
(Our Father in Kiswahili)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Feed my sheep

Philadelphia, like many urban areas, struggles with the visibly hungry. With people standing at street corners with handwritten signs, with men sprawled on the sidewalk pleading with passers-by, with lines outside soup kitchens. I've struggled with my own personal response to requests for food, for money, for an acknowledgement of the dignity of the person before me.

The distribution of food on the Parkway, an area famous for its museums (and Rocky's steps) and thereby replete with tourists, is now a hot button issue. The city says it is not worried about its image (it asserts this is unrelated to the opening of the new museum housing the Barnes collection on the Parkway) but about the safety of the food being distributed outdoors and so will require health inspections for kitchens where it is prepared, and they wish to ban outright distribution on the Parkway. Advocates worry that this is too much of a burden and will effectively stop the distribution of food to people in deep need. Other advocates point out that drawing hungry people indoors, to eat at tables, is not only more dignified, but also provides a chance to support them with other social services they may want and need.

On the one hand, is food safety only for those who can afford it? On the other, if the supply of food is restricted, what might the collateral consequences be? In Washington DC a few weeks ago, I watched from the warm confines of a taxi as a well dressed man in a suit tossed a half-eaten pretzel into a trash can on the corner, fished out a few seconds later by a man bundled in a tattered cotton jacket wearing a watch cap. How hungry do you have to be to pull breakfast from an outdoor urban garbage can?

I can see both sides, and don't feel competent to weigh in on the question (though an organization I volunteer with is suggesting that indoor facilities are a better solution). What bothers me most about the debates is the terminology used: "feeding sites."

After my father finished his breakfast, he would turn to the dog and say, "Let's go feed the sheep." He and his beloved Labrador retriever would head to the barn and pull hay and alfalfa from a pile and fill the mangers, feeding the animals. So for me, the use of the word "feeding" saps dignity from the people fed, feeding sites are for animals. Why is it we talk of dining al fresco on Rittenhouse Square, but feedings on the Parkway?

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Of whirlwinds, teenagers and going on retreat: Phaith in May

I drove up to the silence yesterday, for an appointment with Patient Spiritual Director.  The weather cooperated to the extent of giving me one long solitary walk when I arrived in the morning, but it rained determinedly the rest of the day.  The one retreat in house was small, and not keeping silence, and so I opted for a less silent time than usual and talked at both lunch and dinner.  I'm not feeling deprived; I leave for California, for a completely silent retreat here, on Saturday — and so will enjoy a generous portion of stillness and silence then.

My column in Phaith this month takes up how to start planning to go on retreat, and was written in an incredibly noisy spot — the high school auditorium as the stage sets for the musical were under construction!

"I’m writing this sitting on the floor of the high school auditorium. Behind me at the board Nick is running sound checks, 'test, test, testestest…' The rough crunching emanating from the stage is not what it sounds like — a velociraptor having a snack — but turns out to be Meredith cutting trim to fit around the two story tall emerald throne. The whine of a power screwdriver rises over the edgy jazz music burbling from the wings.

I love the energy that whirls around the theater, a cyclone that sucks in paint and plywood and teenagers until it finally touches down on stage leaving behind a functional snippet of another world. Still, I find my mind drifting to far quieter worlds, to this morning’s email confirming a week long stay in a hermitage at a Camaldolese monastery in the California mountains. 'Sit in your cell like it is paradise.' begins the Rule of St. Romauld, the founder of the Camoldolese Benedictines."

Read the rest here...

Crash, reading over my shoulder as I sat on the floor of the auditorium (my computer plugged into the sound board's power strip), enjoyed this sentence:  I love the energy that whirls around the theater, a cyclone that sucks in paint and plywood and teenagers until it finally touches down on stage leaving behind a functional snippet of another world. Their show was The Wiz, hence the tornado imagery.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Column: A dayspring to our dimness

I wrote a bit about this video here, the photo is from an early summer walk at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville.

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

Let your every creature serve you; for you spoke, and they were made. You sent forth your spirit, and they were created; no one can resist your word. — Judith 16:14

 “Happy 17th day of Eastertide!” began the e-mail from my friend, Father Bill Sneck, S.J. He enclosed the link to a short video with the note, “You’ll want to replay it.” Father Sneck, a spiritual director at the Jesuit Center in nearby Wernersville, often has good advice for me about contemplation, and this was no exception. I watched it a half dozen times.

Set to the music of briskly bowing violins, the time-lapse video shows a virtual bouquet of flowers blooming. Pansies wriggle their way up, opening their faces, finishing with a graceful bow. A flock of vibrantly orange marigolds push free from their buds and a bright yellow hibiscus shakes out into its full shimmering glory.

Each time I watch it I am struck anew by the strength that these fragile blossoms exude. I can almost feel God’s hands on the plants, His face close, insistently breathing them into bloom. They respond with vigorous delight.

Watching the clip, I couldn’t help but think of this snippet from the Canticle of Judith recited just once in the four-week cycle of the Liturgy of the Hours: no one can resist your word. Judith sings forcefully of what God has wrought in Israel’s entirely unexpected victory over Assyrian general Holofernes, of the salvation that could not fail.

Each time I pray that canticle, I think of the unimaginable, irresistible strength that God’s voice carries. It insists on working within me, hoping that I will respond with vigor and delight.

At the very end of his epic poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, poet Gerard Manley Hopkins hopes that we might let Christ “easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us…” Hopkins’ use of easter as a verb evokes for me the same images of insistent strength as Judith’s song, as the swift and sure kindling of the flowers. Easter becomes not a historical moment, or a liturgical season, but what is growing strongly here and now in our souls. We cannot resist this Life, this Word that was, is and will forever be.

The trees here are now clothed in green; tulips and daffodils have spent themselves and we await the rich glories of summer’s roses. The first flush of Easter is past as well. Where after Lent’s parched days we drank deeply of alleluias in churches resplendent with white and gold, we no longer thirst quite so desperately. The joyful music still sounds, but it no longer startles us, we are well settled again into the celebration of the Resurrection, reborn from the ashes of Lent. The eastering in us may be almost imperceptible; a slowly unfolding reality, but it is an irresistible reality nonetheless.

God breathes His Word in me, as well as all of creation. If I could but see myself on God’s time scale, would I rise up swiftly from the dust, push free from what binds me, shake into fullness and bend my face low in homage?

Fragile as I might be, I can no more resist the Word than the flowers. His command breathes strength into my soul, a dayspring to my dimness, an insistent call to bloom and bear Easter’s fruit.

O God, you graft us on to Christ, the true vine, and, with tireless care, you nurture our growth in knowledge and reverence. Tend the vineyard of your Church, that in Christ each branch may bring forth to the glory of your name abundant fruits of faith and love. Amen.
— From a collect for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Friday, May 04, 2012

Of ems, ellipses and interrobangs

I know I tend to use many (too many?) exclamation points in my emails, though of late I've tried to resist temptation...  (The Concord Pastor confesses here to similar trials.)

Back in the day, when flecks of ink and the depth to which the nib sank into the paper could signal a writer's emotional state to an attentive reader, perhaps the exclamation point was used more discriminatingly.  Now that typescript has replaced handscript as the standard mode of written communication, emotional subtext requires either punctuation or a willingness on the part of writer — and reader — to engage with a vocabulary that's more nuanced.  It seems easier to agree that ;) means a wink than to wonder precisely how I'm wielding a word.  Are the overtones in that one word email "Brilliant!" enthusiastic, sarcastic, ironic, delighted? and what if it reads "BRILLIANT!"

Teh interwebs have brought us emoticons as a solution to the problem of a paucity of punctuation with which to close sentences:  . ! and ? cover a wide range, but with no subtlety.  My rummaging in the archives of 19th century chemical literature suggests, however, we don't so much invent, as rediscover (my apologies to Rodin).  Over the years quite a few non-standard punctuation marks that have served the same function as emoticons have come and gone. Perhaps some of these might be resurrected for more formal electronic communications?

Want to indicate a touch of irony or sarcasm?  Try the precontation point: "Brilliant⸮" (dates to the 16th century, therefore roughly the same age as the exclamation point) or the interrobang:  "Brilliant‽" (from the early 20th century, sometimes rendered:  "Brilliant?!")

I'd like to propose a way to deal more elegantly — or at least more compactly — with the proliferation of exclamation points:  n!  Thus we would have "Brilliant4!" instead of "Brilliant!!!!"   I think the former expresses a more stately sort of enthusiasm, something a 50-something mother could use without looking like a middle schooler.

What do you think?  How sparingly do you punctuate electronic communication?

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Written emotional disclosure

"That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had his hand in this,
as well as friends."   From Heavy by Mary Oliver

The fall after Tom died, I sublet an apartment close to the college and drove home on weekends, and the occasional weeknight.  As the nights grew longer, I would pull into the driveway to find the house draped in darkness, grief pooled around the foundation.  I was afraid of the grief, of what might happen if I gave it free reign.  If I got too close, would it pull me into its maw, leave me spinning in an endless orbit as if inside a black hole?

I remained skittish for years, going as close as I dared, occasionally stepping in over my head, when the tides and waves of life shifted the unseen sands beneath my feet.  And one day, I went closer.  God and friends both had a hand in things, enabling me to get closer than I would have ever dared otherwise.

I wrote.  Armed with pen, my quiver of words at the ready, bulwarked by prayer (my own and those of others) I could and did get closer.  And I still write.

This brief bit on expressive writing and trauma in the Philly Inquirer the other day suggests I'm not alone!

Patient Spiritual Director and I both read this piece in Wired about ways in which to blunt or erase the memories of trauma.  Had this been an option, would I have taken it?

Hearing voices on the feast of St. Athanasius

It's the feast of St. Athanasius, a 4th century bishop of Alexandria.  You can read about his travails here. He was a young deacon at the First Council of Nicea, spent his career fighting Arianism, was run out of Alexandria more than once, and you may not be surprised to learn that an inscription on his tomb reads Athanasius contra mundam — Athanasius against the world.

Last July, I spent a fair amount time with the readings for Athanasius' feast, getting ready to write a reflection for this month's Give Us This Day about the melodies I hear in my head when I pray the Psalms.  (A short excerpt from the piece is below.)  I'm getting ready to go on retreat in a couple of weeks, looking forward to spending some time soaking in sung psalmody at a Camoldolese monastery.  Other than the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist, this retreat time will be totally silent, not even a daily consultation with a spiritual director.  No Wi-Fi, no cell phone signal.  I'm going to the desert and the psalms will be the only voices I hear.

Whenever I encounter Psalm 67, I hear voices.  Not the mystical murmurings of angels, but the strains of Margaret Rizza’s serenely majestic setting of this psalm.  A lone male voice calls on God, and the call is taken up by a vibrant chorus whose notes seem to stretch to infinity.  In the layers of voices both human and instrumental I can almost see all the nations of the earth streaming forth, shimmering in the light from God’s face.  The psalm rings forth as a single voice, but no one voice can make music of such intricate depth.

All too often we encounter the psalms in their plainest dress, prayed silently or spoken by a single voice in the daily liturgy.  Yet simmering underneath is a chorus of possibilities: the enduring strength of monastic plainchant, the soaring soprano glory of Allegri, the full-voiced joy of an assembly singing a favorite psalm to an otherwise unremarkable melody.  So may God’s ways be known upon the earth. — From Give Us This Day, May 2012

You can hear Margaret Rizza's setting of Psalm 67 here.  It's track 09.