Tuesday, July 31, 2012

AMDG: Feast of Ignatius of Loyola

I have a mug much like the one Ignatius is sporting in this picture, and it's the one I often take when I go up to the Jesuit Center at Wernersville.

Today my mug full of tea says on it "AMDG" — for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam to the greater glory of God — a gift from Crash after I made the Spiritual Exercises.

When I made the Exercises I kept an off-beat schedule, often awake until nearly dawn. I'd sleep for a few hours, then get up around 7:30. I'd make myself a cup of tea in my room, then sit by the window to pray Morning Prayer and make the first contemplation of the day. My view was of the tabernacle in the chapel, its flame bravely flickering in the pale winter morning, and of the heaving, achingly cold Atlantic. The warm cup in my hand, steam circling above the surface, rising gently like my prayers was an anchor. Like monastic bells, the caffeine brought me sharply back to wakefulness.

The first bracing sip of tea in the morning remains a grace as far as I'm concerned, and one that often nudges me to do a bit of Ignatian repetition. Like Alice tumbling into Wonderland, I sometimes find myself tumbling into my teacup and back into the Exercises. I am drawn momentarily deeper “wherein the fruit chiefly lies”, as an old manual for Jesuit spiritual directors puts it.

I like my tea strong, black and sweet. There is something in the balance between the sweet and the bitter, the soothing warmth and the bracing caffeine that speaks to me of God, of a love poured forth in bitter anguish, that yet fills me up, sustains me in joy and gives me strength.

"Give me only your love and your grace and I'm rich enough and ask for nothing more."

Happy feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola!

And my evening activity is sending the last of the notes with St. Ignatius bookmarks. If you'd like one, drop me an email at mfdcst@gmail.com.

The illustration was made here, courtesy of Ignatian Spirituality.

Monday, July 30, 2012

On a swing and a prayer

I just finished reading Holy Listening by Margaret Guenther, which has a delightful section on the relationship between praying and playing. She quotes the Cloud of Unknowing and its anonymous author's counsel about avoiding extremes, "Sometimes their eyes look like the eyes of wounded sheep near death..far better a modest countenance, a calm composed bearing and a merry candor." She suggests a touch of playfulness in prayer helps stretch our boundaries about what is possible in prayer and life and may even help us tap the well of energy we once had in our youth.

I wonder, too, if it doesn't help us avoid spiritual agenda setting. To play is to give over goals and achievement, and instead taking up a "willing spirit" that Psalm 51 (Ps 51:14) asks for. To see what might happen, in the same way that when I was small, I poked at things with sticks, and peeked around corners. It was a willingness to enter into the moment, to play with and in creation, and by extension with and in the Creator. Not as a duty, but just to see what might happen. It fosters a holy curiosity. There is a joyful persistence in play as well, that we could do well to take up in prayer. A child at play can be hard to move, ask any parent of a three year old, not because they know longer is "better," but because they are caught up in the joy of the work at hand, be it messy or even risky.

It reminded me of the comment in Walter Brueggemann's book on the psalms, where he says we all too often
lapse into a "cool, detached serenity" in prayer. The Psalms, he suggests, awkwardly push us toward the concrete, the embodied. It's a call we should heed.

When I was young, I remember my dad helping to build the playground at the new parish school that would open just in time for me to start first grade there. I loved to swing on the swings. I can still remember the delight when I figured out how to pump, and could go higher and higher without my dad pushing me. It felt like flying, and offered an unparalleled view of the flat Illinois farmland that surrounded us. And there was the heady risk of an "underduck". Would I be jounced out of the swing? Would I go higher than ever? Could I stop without ruining the tops of my shoes? If I were pushing, would I get kicked in the head or dump the swinger off?

I hadn't been on the swings since my kids grew old enough to cross the street without me, and I wondered why I had surrendered that wild joy? Yes, it's not dignified. Yes, yes, I might fall off and break something. So last week, on my walk, I stopped at the empty playground, and did more than remember. I pumped until I flew high in the sky. I swung. And I prayed.

Photo is from Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

And I can still hear my mother's exasperated voice about my shoes....

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Column: God pitches his tent within us

The root of tabernacle is the Latin for tent, tabernaculum , which derives from taberna, hut. The photo is of a stamp for making hosts found in Jerusalem, dating to the time of the Crusade (the hands are mine, reflected in the glass.)

This column appeared on CatholicPhilly.com, the Philadelphia Archdiocese's news portal on 24 July 2012. CatholicPhilly has launched a weekly electronic newsletter, to get it, sign-up here (link is at the end of the text).

Then He took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me. — Luke 22:19

“Is there anything I can bring you?” I asked my friend Maryann, who had been hospitalized without a chance to pack a thing and was now facing major surgery. “A scrunchy to keep the hair off my face?” “No problem.” She turned momentarily serious. “And the Eucharist?” Absolutely.

So this morning after Mass, with the blessing of the pastor, I retrieved a pyx from the sacristy, and in it placed a tiny fragment of the host consecrated just a few minutes before. Two of us went from the church to Bryn Mawr Hospital to bring Maryann word of our community’s earnest prayers for her, and Christ, cradled in our hands.

The custom of bringing the Eucharist to the sick and homebound is an ancient one. In the 2nd century, St. Justin Martyr, in his First Apology, tells of the deacons who made arrangements to carry “the consecrated bread, wine and water” from the Eucharistic table to the absent.

It’s the original reason for having a tabernacle in churches, so that the Real Presence of Christ could be ready on a moment’s notice to be brought to those in need, day or night. And later, so that those in need could find Christ, and sit in His Presence, outside of the Mass.

The Mass is a sacrifice, inextricably wound into the Sacrifice made for us on Calvary. The Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for sacrifice,
korban, comes from roots that mean “to draw near.”

I know that when I hear the words of consecration at Mass, what comes first to mind is the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, but the sacrifice Jesus made for us extends far beyond those moments, pivotal as they were in salvation history.

At the beginning of John’s Gospel, we hear that the Word became flesh and “pitched his tent among us” (Jn. 1:14). It’s a reminder that the entire Incarnation is one long sacrifice. The way in which God chose to “draw near” to His people is not restricted to Calvary or an upper room in first century Jerusalem, or in the present time, to the celebration of the Mass.

This Sacrament makes ever present to us God-in-the-flesh. So we pitch sacred tents in our churches, in tabernacles, so that Christ can dwell in our midst and we might draw near to Him.

God pitches his own tents as well. When I held up the host and said, “The Body of Christ,” I heard in Maryann’s firm “Amen!” an echo of St. Augustine’s exhortation: “to that which you are, answer, ‘Amen!’ … Become what you receive.”

Here, in my hands, is Christ. Here, in your hands, is Christ. Here, in this hospital bed, lies Christ. What was sacrificed on the altar this morning, continues to draw us near, His tent pitched within each of us, present at the table and not.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. — From St. Patrick’s Breastplate

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Everyone wins

To all who shared their encounters with St. Ignatius in the comments on this post, thank you! I enjoyed reading them all...and now am seeing St. Ignatius (and his battered satchel) around every corner.

My random number generator picked a winner for the copy of Call Me López that I had to give away, but if you didn't win you can still enter at Robin's Metanoia blog! Loyola Press is also giving away free copies of the electronic version and offering a discount on hardcopies. The details are at People for Others...and while you are there, but sure to read the conversation between Call Me López's author Margaret Silf and the publisher of Loyola Press (and blogger) Paul Campbell, SJ. They ask each other some tough, but fascinating, questions.

Ignatius talks about his penchant for writing letters in Call Me López, and real letters were part of the backdrop of my own experience of the Exercises, and remain an important part of my life. So I'm celebrating Ignatius' feast day by offering a note from me, and a bookmark with my favorite image of Ignatius and his Suscipe on it to any reader who wishes one, no matter where you live. Send me an email with your address at mfdcst@gmail.com...and get real mail in return!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Drawing (upon) St. Ignatius: More from Call Me Lopez

I have a bee in my bonnet about chair heights these days (a remnant of last summer's Marie Curie project1), just ask The Boy, who can replay my lecture/rant/francl pitch perfect. I'm short, and when I get on this topic, I probably sound short and ungratefully so. Which makes me wonder what sort of composite picture you might draw of me given only what I write?3,4 Grey hair, or a dignified auburn? Tweedy skirts or linen tunics and pants? Do I squint up at you nearsightedly, or bend down to listen? Do I stroll or you can hear the staccato beat of my pumps on the floor below?

There is more to even our physical image than meets the eye, than can be captured in a photograph, or even in a video, and it can change moment to moment. We draw our shape not only from within, but from without, from where we are, from who we are close to, from what we share with each other. Crash is noted at the parish for his ability to move silently and serenely, even in a space that is acoustically lively. At home? I can feel the vibrations in my attic study when he pounds down to the basement.

There are no known contemporary portraits of St. Ignatius of Loyola and certainly no videos, what we know of his face comes from a death mask, and a few portraits painted soon after his death. But what of the rest of the details? I have to say that when I discovered, not so long ago, that St. Ignatius was shorter then I am (4' 11" to my 5' 1" on a stretchy day), I was surprised, and even with that datum in mind, have trouble seeing him as anything under 6 feet.

In Call Me López Margaret Silf offers us not one, but many portraits of Ignatius, pulling from primary sources. We meet the wry Ignatius, leaving his armor at the door of Rachel's apartment, or tying his horse up outside. There is Ignatius in agony of body and spirit, collapsed in tears on Rachel's sofa. Ignatius, bringing dinner and a bottle of wine and watching YouTube. I felt like each time I started a chapter, Ignatius pulled himself off the pages of his journals and letters, drawing flesh from his conversation with Rachel, only to fold himself neatly back into the book when I had to stop.

I would love to see the book done as a play...

Reminder - on Tuesday I'll draw a winner for a copy of Margaret Silf's Call Me López. If you want to be included in the drawing, leave me a comment here! Double your chances of winning and enter at Metanoia as well.

1. The short2 version of the rant is that the average chair height in the US is about 16 1/2" from from the ground. This is the appropriate height for 73% of men and 10% of women.
2. I didn't intend the pun, but I didn't edit it out either.
3. Hazel Motes from Flannery O'Connors Wise Blood
4. The Gender Genie purports to determine the sex of the author by analyzing text. Use with caution, it's says I'm male.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Marie Curie and the World's Fracture: A guest post from Margaret Almon

Today I'm sharing my blog space with Margaret Almon. I met Margaret through Stratoz, a friendship that began when I posted a comment on a blog post about taking your own mug on retreat (something I still think is almost as essential as taking my pillow) and grew to include some traveling glass. A mosaic by Margaret anchors my prayer space, but she can piece together more than glass. Last year at this time I was scrambling around trying to get photos to assemble a mosaic of Marie Curie, a project that caught Margaret's eye not because of the technique, but the subject, about which she had a series of poems published. Read on to find out how Margaret places words as beautifully as she does tiles.

Portrait of Marie Curie 1929 From Eve Curie's Biography

At ten she was "Manya," and her mother died,
defying the ardor of her prayers.
A child asks her mother about the body whorled
around her soul, rooted inside like hair,
dead, but painful when wrenched. The catechism
does not extinguish the question of why God
made us, why we die, prayer a painful spasm.
Manya is afraid of what is in her blood

that makes her live, afraid that God created us to love
only him. Her mother taught herself to cobble shoes,
held Manya's foot to the leather and clove
the shape of walking, as if she could choose
where she was going. Her mother's last gesture
was the sign of the cross, beginning the world's fracture.

(Excerpt from
Her Crucible: A Poem Series About Marie Curie, by Margaret Almon)

My Marie Curie years involved reading everything I could find about her, and letting the words simmer, as if they were in Marie's big cast iron pot, where she boiled slag down to Radium. Marie was born in Poland to Bronislawa and Vladislav Sklodowski, a Roman Catholic and an atheist. I was drawn to Eve Curie's account of Marie's intense prayers for her mother's recovery from tuberculosis, and her despair when her mother died, and how our theology is shaped by our entire being, our families, country, gifts and losses.

Marie took her intense focus from prayer in a formal sense, to prayer in action in her laboratory, which was really a shed, a humble place. She had a calling, a real sense of vocation, which in spite of her appearance on many websites as a "Famous Atheist," strikes me as a spiritual quest. I picked up the biography again, and noticed that while Marie's mother's last gesture was the sign of the cross, her last words to her family were "I love you." I was surprised, and did not remember reading this sentence when I wrote the poem.

We cannot take in everything at once. Some words stick like burrs to our clothing, and others fall aside. I hope the "I love you" stayed with Marie, even in the fracture of her world.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Talking at the intersection of science and religion

A week ago, I was printing out a paper copy of my talk and getting ready to head down to the Franklin Institute to be part of a very public conversation about science and religion. Rev. Jay Gardner, a Baptist minister and biologist, and I each spoke about the ways in which science and religion are entangled, how they talk to each other (and don't). If you want to see some of the notes from my talk (with some of the slides that were projected above my head), you can read them here.

Dr. Steve Snyder, our marvelous moderator, as well as a physicist and the VP for exhibits and programs at the Franklin Institute, took up the mike when Jay and I were done to asking us the hard questions— he joked he was playing the devil's advocate, but did a terrific job pushing us to talk more about about the tensions, the differences between a Judeo-Christian approach and say a Buddhist approach. Finally we threw the floor open to the sold-out crowd for questions.

I was nervous before I went. Here I was, planning on standing up in front of an auditorium full of people, who I neither knew, nor knew what they believed, and saying (in Latin, no less): Credo in unum Deum. I believe in one God.

On one level, why should saying what I believe be so anxiety inducing? I write about God, not only on the blog, but in other places, too, and I know that thousands of people read what I've got to say. I give retreats, and stand up in front of groups large and small and talk frankly about prayer and where I find God. I say it in Church every week. But in all these cases, I'm preaching to the choir. It's quite another thing to profess your faith so explicitly in the public square. What will people think? Is this just one small step on the road to becoming a street corner prophet?

As we were peering up at the people filing in to the steeply pitched auditorium, Jay bent over and whispered, "You know, when I preach, I'm usually looking down on the congregation..." I was glad to know I wasn't the only one out of her usual element.

The questions asked by Steve Snyder and by the audience were terrific. I had talked about my experiences of making the Spiritual Exercises, as a methodical way of seeking God at work, and Steve asked whether what I saw as evidence might be read differently by someone who was Buddhist. My favorite question from Steve was what we saw as the looming challenges to faith from science. From the floor: "How do you figure out whether what you're doing is right or not?" "Have you ever not done something in research because of your faith?" "What happens when you die?" "Do you believe the Pope is infallible on matters of science?"

Like all good mysteries, the answers are not simple.

And at the end, we got to go see the telescopes on the roof...totally cool!

You can read an article about the talk at CatholicPhilly.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tech sassy

I've spent most of my life bending computers to my will1, and for the most part, they do as I wish. But every once in a while, the tech gets as sassy as my teens.

When I had the little issue tracking down the *beep* the other night, I posted about it on Facebook, admitedly an open invitation to my brothers to give me grief. My brother The Wookiee responded by posting... <beep>

When I posted about the hunt for the blasted beeping device, I tried to use The Wookiee's style for the <beep>, but the Blogger editor read it as a tag, and since it didn't recognize it, just ignored it. Completely. As if it never existed. I previewed the post to find that all my <beep>s had been beeped out.

Fine, I thought. I can force you to use the angle brackets, I'll just use the codes (lt and gt if you must know) < and >. No go. Really? At which point I gave up and used *beep* instead.3

I went to post, checked the HTML code one more time to find that Blogger, while refusing to do anything with my <beep>, still thought it should be closed up, so for every <beep> in my text, Blogger had added a </beep> at the end of the post:


I think I liked it better when my tech was less sassy.

1. I wrote my first computer program in 1970, for the Sigma 7 computer housed at UC Irvine2, and uploaded it via paper tape.

2. That particular computer is famous for being the computer upon which the first Star Trek game was written.
3. You may be wondering just how I got Blogger to cooperate and do as I said. The key was handcoding the post in HTML and using the ASCII codes, #60 and #62 instead of the mnemonics lt and gt.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Images of Ignatius of Loyola: Call Me Lopez

When I began making St. Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, at Eastern Point in Gloucester, Massachusetts in the winter of 2009, my director began by sharing one of his encounters with Ignatius — an accidental encounter in an elective class during his seminary years that rapidly unfolded into a Jesuit vocation — and a bit of Ignatius' life. It was, he thought, important to have a sense of the man who had crafted these Exercises I was about to make.

He handed me a postcard with an image of Ignatius writing at his desk, noting he had picked it because it was the least intimidating of the images of Ignatius he could find.

Frankly, I had never thought of Ignatius as intimidating, having first met him casually over coffee with a friend in Bryn Mawr, we have a relationship that has grown gradually deeper and richer over the years and decades. Enigmatic, yes. Challenging? Absolutely. But I always found the saint's persona to be inviting and invigorating, rather than intimidating. The postcard sat on my desk for the duration of the Exercises, one link among many across the centuries to this extraordinary man, and now hangs over my desk even as I write this.

The image of Ignatius that is most firmly stuck in my mind is not the one on the postcard but the one that hung on the stairs up to my director's office at Eastern Point and therefore greeted me each morning of the Exercises (top left). It's the mix of the smile and wise eyes that still delights me in this picture. Each morning as I mounted the steps, I felt as if Ignatius knew the road I was walking in these 4 weeks, its difficulties and its joys, and was shooing me upstairs to talk about it, and have my feet gently set on the next step of the path he had sketched out 500 years ago. (When I showed the picture to my regular spiritual director, more than 50 years a Jesuit, he said, "Can it really be Ignatius, he's smiling?" I pointed out that the name on the shield seemed to unequivocallly identify the bearer.)

Loyoal Press has just published Margaret Silf's Call Me López, an imaginative spiritual biography of Ignatius of Loyola, framed as a conversation between Ignatius Oñaz López de Loyola — "call me López" — and Rachel, a fictional 21st century spiritual writer and giver of retreats. [Full disclosure: Loyola Press sent me an advanced copy of the book, and a copy to give away to readers of my blog, with no strings attached. Really full disclosure, I'd already pre-ordered the book!] Having my own strong images of Ignatius, I worried if reading Call Me López would be like seeing the movie after reading a book you adored, where the beloved main character's voice and appearance are at utter odds with the images in your mind.

Short answer. No. I was swept away from the first pages, so much so in fact, that reading it while I waited for someone to come fetch me, it took an effort of will to recall myself to where I was and what I was doing when she arrived.

I loved the image of Ignatius inside the front cover, so like the one on my wall, but warmer and lighter. There is a terrific timeline of Ignatius' life in the back cover. I wish this book had existed when I made the Exercises. I would have left it for my husband and sons to read, to let Ignatius companion them as he companioned me.

Reading this book gently drew me back into some of the movements of the Exercises, not so much in their details, but in their depths — a welcome touch of Ignatian repetition in a year where my week's retreat was more Carthusian in tone than Ignatian.

I have more to say about the book itself, but will save that for another post. If you've wondered about Ignatian spirituality, or the Exercises, Margaret Silf's book is a wonderful way to discover what lies at their heart.

If you'd like to win a copy of Margaret Silf's Just Call Me López to read, courtesy of Loyola Press, enter by leaving me a comment on this post. I'll fire up my random number generator and pick a winner next Tuesday (July 24th) If you like, tell me how you met Ignatius, and what your first impressions were.

If you can't wait to see if you win, the lovely people at Loyola Press are offering a 30% discount on the book through July 31 (the feast of St. Ignatius). Use the code LOPEZ before 8/31/12 at Loyola Press' site.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Things that go beep in the night

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And other things that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us!
Scottish Prayer

...or Celtic prayer or Cornish prayer....or, who knows! I first knew this as the prayer my mother would say when I woke up in the night with a bad dream. It was light enough to give me a bit of perspective (a tiger in the closet, perhaps not in February in the Midwest?), but solid enough to depend on: Good Lord, deliver me!

As the sky grew more threatening this afternoon, Crash and I were crashed in the sunroom watching a movie and doing a bit of email, respectively. The movie dialog was so bad that I'd plugged into a soothing soundscape on my computer (rain, given the weather it seemed appropriate). I thought I was hearing a beeping noise, but convinced myself it was leaking in from movie. I took the earbuds out to consult with Crash about dinner and discovered he was as mystified by the *beep* as I was.

We have new smoke detectors. The *beep* sounded like a smoke detector. It went off every 45 seconds or so. Ah, we must need new batteries. Uh-oh. No 9V in the house. These detectors are wired in, so you can't shut off the noise. Crash and I head out to (a) pick up dinner and (b) pick up batteries.

Crash the Tall replaces the batteries. Things are still *beep*ing. I check the manual. It suggests a fault in the wiring. Call an electrician. How long can I stand the beeping? And after a house fire 25 years ago, I'm hard-wired, shall we say, to flinch when I hear the sound. There is no way to turn the things off short of turning off all the electricity to the house and removing the batteries. Which is arguably not a good idea.

Math Man comes home; we eat, to the tune of the s. Crash bails to go to dinner with friends (yes, he's eaten, but he can't take the ing any longer). Putting my dishes away, I'm in the kitchen when a *beep* goes off. And it's not coming from the smoke detector. It's coming from the shelf with my cookbooks and bins of useful stuff (flashlights, band-aids, cat-hair removal aids for those who wear black).

Math Man and I start hunting through the bins. What could we have that would beep? On the top shelf in the corner is a white unmarked box, still sealed in cellophane. *beep*

It's an old carbon monoxide detector, given to us years back by Math Man's brother (a public health grad student with an interest in the effects of low level CO). I already had detectors, so we put it on the shelf as an extra. *beep* There is a button that lets you stop the *beep* for 12 hours at a time. We press it and wait. No *beep*...but what are the next steps?

It is a sealed unit, no user serviceable parts inside. When the batteries fail you are supposed to return it to the manufacturer. The company has gone out of business (I think I know why).

And what was the company thinking? Can you imagine mailing something to Texas that was beeping every 45 seconds? The FBI would be at your door in short order. After they evacuated the post office, and got a bomb squad in to dispose of the package.

Do we keep hitting the button every 12 hours until the battery that powers the battery-dead alarm finally dies? And how long will that be? We can't throw it away. Can you imagine if our garbage started beeping?

A bit of research to be sure I knew more or less what was inside of this thing, and I took matters into my own hands. A large screw driver and a bit of leverage and I had severed the @#$% *beep* from its power source. The AA batteries were both glued AND soldered in.


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Column: The cost of patience

CatholicPhilly.com is slowly rising from the ashes of the Catholic Standard and Times. This is my first column for CatholicPhilly...

The quote from Eliot's Four Quartets at the end was tucked into a letter sent to me by a friend while I was on retreat earlier this year. Chris has never been the soul of patience (though he's prompted me to write about it more than once), and I will admit that I was as anxious to know the results of his exam as he was (both as his mother and his teacher.)

The other thing I remember waiting for in summer was the ice cream truck, a once-a-week treat which taught me discernment and indifference both. Which treat? And what if my favorite ice cream truck didn't come?

Like the dear that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God.
My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God?

Ps. 42:2-3

What is the price of patience? Thirty-eight cents a day, by my son Chris’ calculation. That was the price he was willing to pay to not have to wait three weeks to find out his score on his AP Chemistry exam.

There’s not much need for patience in the modern world, as long as you’re willing to pay the price. Ordering a book from Amazon? “Choose local delivery and you can have it today!” appears in an encouraging green. Want it even faster? A click and it appears in on my e-reader. Waiting is a waste of time.

Or do we pay more than just money to avoid a wait?

Summer when was I was young was all about waiting. Waiting for the change in pitch of the motor on the turquoise churn that meant a batch of my mother’s homemade vanilla ice cream was ready. Waiting for the raspberries to ripen. Waiting for it to be dark enough for the fireworks.

Summer’s waiting was about recognizing the moment when something was truly ready — not ‘nearly ready,’ not ‘ready enough,’ but fully ripe and sweet.

This sort of waiting always feels to me like a small dose of agere contra, the pushing back that St. Ignatius of Loyola recommended when we are overanxious and tempted to take shortcuts. Feel like cutting your prayer time short? Stay an extra five minutes instead, advises Ignatius. In a hurry to get to work and stuck in the Route 202/I-76 confluence? Let that car merge in front of you. Don’t pick the raspberry until it is ripe.

I remember sitting on the porch steps waiting for the ice cream to finish (in truth hoping that my mother would let me lick the paddle, an infrequent treat in a large family). I didn’t wander off to watch television, or read a book. I watched and waited, my longing ripened by my contemplations.

All these years later, I can still smell the sharp scent of salt and ice, taste the vanilla and cream, feel the roughness of the blue-flecked fiberglass bucket and see my mother’s hands as she carefully lifted the canister from the chilly brine.

In his reflection on this psalm of longing, St. Augustine remembers his own attention to what is around him, looking for God in his everyday experiences. He pondered what was around him, and longed until he had poured out his soul, until all he had left was his desire to see the face of God.

Those summer waits taught me how to long, how to let waiting be more than something to be endured. To learn to push back against the allure the immediate has, even if it is a bit bitter. To learn to thirst until I want nothing more — or less — than God. This is what patience pays.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
— T. S. Eliot from East Coker

Photo is from ByTheLivingRoominKenmore at Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Help me prepare to talk at the intersection of science and religion

Tomorrow night, I'm giving a public lecture at the Franklin Institute here in Philadelphia (yes, that Franklin...Benjamin, though he is not the founder), exploring the tensions and harmonies between science and religion. (If you are local and want to go, details are here.) It's one thing to profess my faith each Sunday with my parish community, quite another to stand up in front of a crowd that I do not know and do so. But I will. The start of my talk:

"Credo in unum Deum. I believe in God. I also believe in evolution, quantum mechanics, particle physics, anthropogenic climate change and the Big Bang Theory. I don't see these stances as incompatible, perhaps because I'm a quantum mechanic, which requires me to keep multiple realities in mind. Photons behave as particles and as waves. So do electrons, and even things as large as helium nuclei. God created human beings. Human beings are primates, and evolved from older primate species....

Faith cannot overrule science, and the popular view of Galileo notwithstanding, the Roman Catholic Church has not taught otherwise. "The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false." (St. Thomas Aquinas) Just because Genesis says that God told Noah to bring pairs of each animal, male and female, does not mean that each species necessarily has two sexes (worms...creatures that crawl on the ground...do not)..."

Part of the program is Q&A with the audience — if you were in the audience, what would you ask me about the intersections between science and religion?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Inadvertent chemists

I just finished another Thesis column for Nature Chemistry (about chemistry sets). While writing I wondered how many accidents there are in home labs (not counting home meth labs). It turns out that in the US, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) keeps track of hazardous substance events. The data, nicely collected in a spreadsheet, suggests there are around 1000 chemical incidents in private homes each year, and the vast majority involve carbon monoxide (nearly all the fatalities are caused by CO, if you don't have a detector, get one!) or people who inadvertently do chemistry by mixing what they likely think are two innocuous common household solutions. Bleach and ammonia. Bleach and pool acid. Bleach and pesticides. There's a pattern here. Do not mix bleach with anything. It will not make it stronger, and it may kill you, or cause your apartment building to be evacuated. Really.

There are no narratives included with the spreadsheet, but as a chemist I enjoyed reading between the lines. The accident where the primary chemical was table sugar? Someone with dreams of space? or darker desires? a dedicated Star Trek fan1? You can make rocket fuel or smoke bombs from sugar and saltpeter2. The video posted here shows a gummi bear being rapidly oxidized by a chemical relative of saltpeter, potassium chlorate. Watch closely and you can see the charcoaled bear being popped out of the tube!

1. In an episode of the original Star Trek (Arena), Kirk grabs various rocks to make an explosive mixture and an improvised bazooka. Watch it here.
2. sal petrae, "salt of rock, " otherwise known to chemists as potassium nitrate, KNO3

A version of this post appeared on The Culture of Chemistry

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Difficult mercies

Last week I discovered that someone had attempted to plagiarize work that I had done almost 20 years ago. The attempt was caught before it was published, and the editorial staff of the publication where the work was submitted are dealing with the sequeulae, but the experience has me thinking about mercy. That and Math Man and I have been watching
Game of Thrones (or I've been watching some of it, and covering my eyes and ears for other parts - 'tis not for the faint of heart), with its battling knights, who cry "Mercy!" as a last resort, and slink from the tourney field as if they have taken the coward's way out.

I posted this video for the RevGalBlogPals' Sunday Afternoon Music feature, reflecting briefly there about the difficult mercies today's readings speak of. I wonder, in particular, how much of a mercy Paul found that angel that kept him grounded in the gritty realities of daily life, and how much courage it took to admit to a need to keep his pride in check. And the courage it took to see the grace and mercy caught up in what must have been an exquisitely troubling experience. He asked for one mercy — relief from the thorns, metaphorical or otherwise — and another was offered, grace sufficient to endure whatever came. It was not a mercy for the cowardly.

I kept hearing this stanza from Rory Cooney's Canticle of the Turning:

Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me,
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame, and to those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight, for the world is about to turn.

The simmering power of this arrangement, the bass and cello lines that made my desk reverberate, reminded me that while I might welcome the small mercies of relief, the difficult mercies are what at work in my depths. It takes more than a small measure of courage to open oneself to such such mercy, a grace in itself.

Update: Fran pointed me to Michael Iafrate's version of this piece which sounds like drops on a still lake.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Crash Redux

While I realize that particle physics is all the rage this week, I started my morning with a problem in classical physics. If two cars are traveling along nearly parallel vectors, one (illegally) in the center divider at 35 mph and one (half the mass of the first) traveling at 15 mph merging into the left turn pocket at the correct spot, predict the outcome. Use vector addition.

My Mini collided with a minivan this morning on the way to church, folding the side mirror over and leaving a scratch down the side of my car and a section of the wraparound bumper hanging off. Once the minimal extent of the damage to cars and people was established, I still managed to make it to morning prayer (though not to Mass). I thought myself relatively unruffled. I went to my place, marked my book, marked another for the Augustinian who usually sits next to me at Lauds as he was presiding and I knew he would be slipping in mid-hymn. The prior began, we sang, and I recited the antiphons. Then we stood up for the Benedictus. I said the antiphon, took a deep breath, intoned the first line and....my knees turned to rubber. Adrenaline only lasts so long, it turns out.

Crash was away on a day long excursion with friends, so it was his turn to text me and make sure I was OK. And yes, first he was worried about me...then "his" car!

Photo is of my Mini on a MUCH cooler day than today. It's still well over 80oF!

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Column: Out of the depths

The venerable
Catholic Standard & Times' last issue was published at the beginning of June, and with it, perforce, my last column. (You can read about the challenges the paper faced here.) The CatholicPhilly web site continues the paper's mission to inform Philly area Catholics about what is going on in the Church local and global. My next column, intended for the Standard's July issue is posted there, and God willing, I will continue to write regular reflections for them.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
— Psalm 130:1

I huddled in my sweatshirt in the garden of my tiny hermitage, as the dawn cautiously crept over the Santa Lucia Mountains behind me. Steam swirled over the cup of tea cradled in my hands, a tiny mirror of the roiling mass of gray fog that lay before me, cupped in the basin formed by cliffs that dropped a precipitous 1,400 feet down to the Pacific.

Echoes of the opening words of the final psalm from last night’s prayer rose up from the mist, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord ….” Suddenly I had a sense of just how deep are the depths that stretch out before me, down to the water, and beneath — almost 7,000 feet.

That God could hear my voice from such a distance, could find me in the darkness that holds sway so deep in the abyss, hidden even from the rising sun, took my breath away.

In his commentary on this psalm, St. Augustine reassures us that God’s ear is truly in the hearts of those who pray. God is never far from us in these interior depths, even in the darkest of spaces and times. Still, he says, “we ought to understand from what deep we cry unto the Lord.”

From my aerie, I can barely hear the crash of the waves on the rocks a quarter mile below me. Yet Augustine says that our prayers can penetrate anything, burst through any barrier, pierce depths of sin or despair greater than any I can imagine. Somehow God, in His mercy, lends His strength to my voice.

Part of what gives a laser beam its ability to penetrate unlikely targets is the way in which the waves of light are pulled into step with each other. The psalmist sings of God’s mercy and redemption, which similarly pulls us into step with Him, giving a sharp strength to our pleas. Much like the photons in the laser, we don’t fall into step by what we do, but by how we are created and by the community in which we dwell.

The psalmist counts on this strength, longs for it, as for the dawn: “My soul is longing for the Lord more than those who watch for daybreak.” In these days where I can have light with the flick of a finger, I admit that I sometimes greet dawn with a groan, rather than waiting gratefully upon a light that is not wrung from hard-hewn wood or precious pressed oil, as my great-grandmother did.

So in these days of retreat, I am surprised to find myself aligned with the psalmist, a dawn-watcher. I am drawn from my bed before sunrise, awakened not by the monastery bells, but by a longing to join my voice to the psalms arising from the depths of our tradition, to offer my very self to God’s Being. As Robert Alter’s powerfully spare translation of this line cries, “My being for the Master — more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn.”

In the chapel, a monk in his white habit stands at the ambo for the first reading, a glimmer of light against the profound darkness of the sanctuary. Our voices, still creaky from the night’s silence, slowly find their way into step with each other, as we pour psalm after psalm into the abyss before us.

The second reading follows and I look up to find that the dawn has come, the walls of the sanctuary glow with its warmth, the cross hidden from sight moments before is now clearly visible before us. From the depths I can see what my being longs for more than the dawn — my God.

Lord, hearken to me, and have mercy on me, O Lord my God, at once light of the blind and light of those who see, so too, strength of the weak and strength of those who are strong. Give ear to my soul. Hear me as I cry out of the depths. Amen. — St. Augustine in
The Confessions

The photos are from the back of my hermitage, just after dawn. For a photo of the chapel rotunda in the brilliant light of day - see this photo at Flickr.

Sunday, July 01, 2012


"You can't use hash tags on Facebook1," says The Boy reading my status over my shoulder, with an air of exasperation. It's not like he hasn't told me that before. It's not like I will pay any heed now.

I point out that the hashtag in question (#proudparent) isn't meant as a searchable marker for some tweet I'm making, but is a rhetorical device. Really, can you imagine anyone electively hunting up boastful parents on Twitter? (OK, I did - results are here.) It's a whispered aside, a letting slip of something slightly outrageous, an "oh, all right, if you must know..."

Susan Orlean had a delightful go at the semiotics of hashtags a couple of years ago. I love her description of the hashtag as a permeable barrier between what we can say and what we shouldn't, really, have let slip: "..the hashtag is like a bit of chicken wire between what you are consciously and deliberately saying, and what just happened to slip out, especially useful when you are making a comment and pretending that you absolutely, positively will not name names, and then, whoops, it just came tumbling out."

She later reports on their escape from Twitter and into written language. Two years later, I'm hardly cutting edge (something I'm sure my teens know).

1. The Boy got a 5 on his AP chem exam. He's a sophomore in high school. He didn't take the course, but did all the work outside of school, and largely without help from anyone else. David McCullough might not think this is special, but I thought it worth a shout out.