Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ghosts of losses past

For a pair of though-provoking and prayerful reflections by a parent the transition to college, read Letting Go 1 and 2 at People for Others.

We were threading our way through the hordes of parents and students in WJU's1 campus center, on a mission to get Crash his academic robe (to be donned at convocation the next day) when we ran into the delightful Protestant chaplain Math Man and I had met on our tour of sacred spaces earlier in the day.2 He stopped to say hello and ask if we'd found the tour useful (short answer, absolutely).

I turned to introduce him to Crash, "And this is my son, Thomas...uh, sorry, my son [insert Crash's real name here - which is not Thomas]" Where on earth did that come from?

Thomas is my first husband's name, and while our 31st wedding anniversary would have been last week, in all the hubbub of Crash's move to college, Tom's death is not at the top of my mind. Clearly it isn't buried all that deeply, either. I first met Tom when he was just a couple of years old than Crash is now, something hard to imagine even as I roll my mental film back all those years to see him as he was in college.

The shift in family structure set in motion by Crash's transition is nowise as cataclysmic as the one that opened a chasm in my life 25 years ago, but it seems that are are new cracks that I'll need to learn to step around, build bridges over, or sit at the edge of and contemplate. But I liked Patient Spiritual Director's reading of my parapraxis as a gentle sign of the communion of saints. Tom is there, watching over Crash.

1. Wonderful Jesuit University
2. Where we learned that the altar used in the chapel given over to the use of the Protestant community has a movable altar, which once held a relic of St. William. When the altar was moved to use in a large Mass elsewhere on campus, the reliquary fell out, and in all the ado, was somehow misplaced. I'm not sure what it says about me that the first thought to pop into my mind was, "How long before there is Twitter meme about St. William, a la the Brookyn Zoo's cobra's feed of last year?"

Monday, August 27, 2012

Contemplative parenting: watching my inner control freak

The Washington Post posted an op-ed Friday by Barry Glassner and Morton Schapiro on ways to rein in helicopter parents on college campuses. Rather than tell the parents to step back and give their children some space, they suggest channeling parental energies into efforts more consonant with the college's mission and coaching parents on how to tell their children, "Good luck with that!" when the child seems to leans too heavily on parental resources for problem solving.

The message is don't be (as Crash would say) "that parent" or as Glassner and Schapiro even more bluntly put it: a "counterproductive, infantilizing, control freak." Crash (and The Boy) have had little need of parental hovercrafts for a long time now. They learned to do their own laundry while I was on my 30-day retreat, and have managed their own academic schedules (and study habits) for years. Math Man and I can and should take some credit for setting up the conditions that led to their growth, but in part we have been blessed with kids who have had few problems that they couldn't manage to untangle on their own — and for this I'm grateful.

Crash managed to apply for college, select one, and organize himself to go pretty much on his own (well, we wrote a lot of checks and read drafts of some, though not all, of the various essays he wrote along the way, but "we" did not apply to college). So why on earth did I find myself within 5 minutes of arriving at Wonderful Jesuit University (henceforth WJU) biting my tongue to keep from offering advice on which side of the street to walk on from parking garage to dorm?

The notion that contemplation is something that happens quietly sitting on a cushion in a zendo (or in my case, a seiza bench in my orationis angulus) is a fine one, but for me, at least, contemplation doesn't end when I stand up. It is in part the challenge of being able to stand in the moment, noticing the feelings, but not letting them take over. It's emotional weather watching.

I spent much of the weekend at WJU contemplatively practicing. There was a lot of weather to practice with.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Noli me tangere: college edition

I took a course some years back on images of Mary Magdalene. We looked at many examples of "Noli me tangere" figures -- this Caravaggio among them. Though the Latin translation reads "Don't touch me!" the original Greek (Μή μου ἅπτου) is better translated as "don't keep on clinging to me."

I thought of this Gospel today when we left Crash at Wonderful Jesuit University. I wanted to cling to him, to freeze this frame here and now. Instead I hugged him hard, kissed him and blessed him as I have done almost every night of his life, making the sign of the cross on his forehead and saying, "May God and all his angels watch over you." Then watched as he ducked through a doorway and into the next phase of his life.

We went to Mass together this morning, and listening to his voice, firmly reciting the Creed next to me, left me in tears. My tears were not for the imminent parting, but in awed and sudden recognition of what had happened. Crash, now professing what I promised for him at his baptism, is an adult.

Image is from Wikimedia.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Consult not your fears

Crash started blogging the first week of his freshman year in high school, and kept at all the way through, posting on average once a week. He's written nearly 200 posts, a mix of poetry and prose, fact and fiction, humor and introspection. I've enjoyed listening to his voice grow more sure, his use of language more deft. I write about Crash and his brother frequently (I do ask their permission before posting their exploits), but it's a bit odd to find the shoe on the other foot and hear what he has to say about me!

He's been writing a series of posts about getting ready to start college, about roommate selection, negotiating the enormous catalog of courses — and now (in at least partial revenge for this post, I suspect), about dealing with your parents. I'm grateful he doesn't detail the "friction" we've had as we negotiated (and re-negotiated) boundaries!

Pope John XXIII has good advice, not only for Crash, but for me:

"Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do. " — Pope John XXIII (quoted by Crash here)

Monday, August 20, 2012

More blessings

This morning I asked an Augustinian friend if he would bless Crash after Mass today (it was Crash's last outing as an altar server before he leaves for Wonderful Jesuit University). "Sure, we'll meet afterward."

The readings were certainly apt for sending off students, Wisdom setting an inviting table for those who would learn, Paul advising the Ephesians to be discerning. Wisps of memories kept drifting through. Standing with Crash at the doors to the Church, asking of the Church that he be baptized. The time he bent over after the second reading (from St. Paul to the Romans) and at age 5 whispered wonderingly in my ear, "Rome, I've been to Rome." Watching him grow taller and his shoulders broader over the decade he has been an altar server, now effortlessly balancing the Missal for the presider. I cried unabashedly as he came up the aisle today, holding up the cross to which I had bound him so many years ago.

Communion ended and the presider came down to the front of the altar, rather than stand at the presider's chair, to offer the Communion prayer and final blessing, and winked at Math Man and me as he did so. He gestured to Crash to bring the Missal to him, and said the prayer after Communion. He turned around to set the Missal back on the altar and as Crash went to move back to his place, he said, "Stay for a moment."

The presider asked if there were any other people headed off to college, and then went on to say that while his parents had asked for a blessing for Crash after Mass, it seemed to him that the whole community should be part and parcel of the blessing for all the young people we were sending on, so he'd decided to do it now. He noted that Crash was a "child of the parish" — baptized here, at a Mass 18 years ago, where the parish promised, aloud, to support us in our work. He then quoted from the second reading, "And do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit..." and said that may be the blessing college students need most, which made us all laugh.

He then grew serious as we asked God to grant that Crash and his compatriots be happy, successful, and filled with peace. That they might have wisdom. Grace flowed from the mystery we had just celebrated, in rivers. And then Crash picked up the cross again, and holding it high above our heads, led the way out.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Column: God Bless You

The "bless you!" is almost as reflexive as the sneeze, I find. A few years ago, when two friends who happened to be priests were guests at dinner, I sneezed. They instantly responded (in chorus): "Bless you!" leading Math Man to wonder aloud if it meant more when they said it than when he did. The blessings set out in the Book of Blessings are not reflexive, nor are they intended for frivolous occasions (read Paul Ford's overview of the instructions here), but the habit of blessing what we see, hear and touch serves to blur the boundaries between the stuff of daily life and the sacred spaces and times. It's all holy ground.

(Photo is of Chris learning to drive my dad's 1930 Model A. How fast can you go? Only as fast as you can stop, no power breaks or steering on this!)

This column appeared on CatholicPhilly on August 16th.

I will pour out water upon the thirsty ground,
streams upon the dry land;
I will pour out my spirit upon your offspring,
my blessing upon your descendants.

– Is. 44:3

“God bless, God bless,” said the woman as she stood next to my car. While I appreciated the blessing, frankly, I think my car needs a more thorough benediction.

First there was the midnight text message from my oldest son, whose nickname is — rather ironically — Crash: “I got into a little fender bender leaving prom tonight.” Now I am in the middle of a left turn lane on Lancaster Avenue, my front bumper and side mirror bent and dented after being sideswiped by a minvan.

I’m beyond grateful that no one was hurt in either collision, and that my now slightly wrinkled Mini can still get me from place to place, but I’m ready to ask my pastor to get out the holy water and the official Book of Blessings and bless away. “All powerful God … [g]rant, we pray, that those who use this vehicle may travel safely, with care for the safety of others.”

We open and close sacred time with blessings. We bless ourselves at the beginning of Mass, the presider blesses us at the end of Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours — even when prayed alone — ends with “May the Lord bless us, protect us from evil and bring us to everlasting life.”

But blessings should not and are not reserved for sacred times or places, or even for sacred objects. We say grace, blessing what is on our plates, whether it’s pasta with jarred sauce or a festive meal.

British author G.K. Chesterton, as famous for his Father Brown mysteries as he is for his sharp, tightly reasoned defenses of Christianity, pushes us further: “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

I’m reminded of all the Olympic athletes I watched this last week, making the sign of the cross before their heats, or holding up icons of the Blessed Mother as they rejoiced in their victories.

The Church teaches us that blessings are not protective coatings, making our lives and possessions less prone to getting dented as we are bounced around or assuring us victories on the athletic field. Nor are they offhand good wishes.

The introduction to the Book of Blessings makes clear that sacramental blessings must be driven by our faith in God. Blessings are a way in which God meets His people, not just in the times and places we have set aside as sacred, but everywhere.

Making sacred our everyday objects — cars, candles, or computers — draws us more deeply into the preeminent sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood. “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” notes “that almost every event in (our) lives is made holy by divine grace that flows from the paschal mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, the fount from which all the … sacramentals draw their power.”

Blessing my car may or may not result in fewer dents, but it is certain to remind me of the care I owe other travelers along the way and of God who has blessed me with a way to travel these great distances, without getting my feet wet. And yes, I prayed for grace “before I dipped the pen in the ink,” or rather, set my hands on the keyboard, to write this column.

Lord Jesus, you became a companion to your disciples on the road to Emmaus; bless us on our journeys and warm our hearts by your words. Amen. — From the intercessions for the Rite of Blessing of Various Means of Transportation

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Chippies and Paste: Letter to Crash's college roommate

While looking for something on my computer the other day, I found an old set of instructions for babysitters, written when Crash and The Boy were 3 and 1, respectively. The instructions covered food, entertainment, comfort and bedtime routines. There was a brief lexicon included, which noted (among other things) that a request for "chippies and paste" was not the cue to start an art project (mosaic?) but Crash's way of asking for tortilla chips and salsa (the salsa came in the same shape jar as the paste at pre-school).

Reading it with the boys, I joked that I should write a similar note to Crash's roommate to-be at college.

Food: Crash does not drink coffee or tea, but prefers his caffeine cold, carbonated and carb-free (e.g. Diet Pepsi). He like hot chocolate, chips and salsa [Ed: some things never change], chicken, rice and chocolate. If he seems to be lagging, feed him solid milk chocolate and he will perk up in 30 minutes or so. We will be sure he has an adequate supply when we drop him off.

Comfort: See hot chocolate, above.

Entertainment: Building large stage sets, taking apart large stage sets. He has been sent with a variety pack of band-aids, please let us know if he starts using duct tape to patch the wounds and we will send more.

Bedtime routine: See description of mad skill with Nerf darts and light switches here.


UPDATE: My sources insist that the use of the term "mad skill" is no longer appropriate. See change above.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

By the light of grace

I just submitted a column for CatholicPhilly on blessings, and so was browsing the General Introduction to The Bookof Blessings. On the matter of sacramentals (of which blessings are one sort), the introduction quotes Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (If you read Latin, the title — This sacred council — may make little sense vis-à-vis the subject matter, but it is customary to refer to these documents by the first two words in Latin): ...the effect of the liturgy and the sacramentals is that almost every event in their lives is made holy by divine graces that flows from the paschal mystery of Christ's passion, death and resurrection..."

On the Feast of the Transfiguration last week I was in downtown San Luis Obispo, where one of the California missions is located. My kids were wandering around on their own while the Irreverent Reverend's wife took my niece and nephew to the dentist. I wandered into the small mission church (surprised to find it much smaller than the mission church which is my parent's parish, SLO is now the big town and San Miguel a sleep hamlet), and around the corner to discover a small chapel, aglow with
real candles. I understand the reasons that many churches have gone to electric votive candles (or you can light one on the web), but for many reasons, I find that I cannot accept a substitute for a real flame, for something risky, messy and that I can see change in the burning.

Crash joined me in lighting candles - for the intentions of friends; for my mother; for my Uncle Norb on this, the anniversary of his death; and for Tom — who I married 31 years ago this week, more than half a life time ago. Big things, little things, all brought to this altar, all washed in the light from the candles, all held in the mystery of passion, death and resurrection. All made holy in the graces that flow, Light from Light.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Cat Came Back

...the very next day. "

Or so went the song by Raffi that we listened to for hours on end while driving cross-country with Crash and the Boy in their (and our) younger days. And so it went with Fluffy. The cat came back, the day after we came home.

We got home around 8 Thursday night to find an anxious note from our cat care person, still no sign of the Fluff, her food and water had gone untouched for 3 days. We called for her, opened doors and began peering under beds. No sign, until The Boy called from my office, "I think I know what happened." She had pried open one of the side panels to the air conditioner I had finally put in my office under the eaves and made her escape onto the roof.

Still, where was she that she didn't hear me call for her outside? No cat that night. Or the next morning. Finally, Friday afternoon I called again for her. The Boy heard her meow, as Math Man called, "She's at the [upstairs] bathroom window!" The Boy hugged her, then turned to me, "I'll always text you so you know where I am!" He's had a small taste of parental worry these last few days and he didn't care for it.

Four days on the lam, I can only imagine the adventures she had. Where does she go? Does she have another family? Where does she sleep? Though maybe the researchers at the University of Georgia have the answers: this piece on the secret life of cats ran on NPR yesterday! You can see the world through a cat's eye here.

The photo is of the screen, as Fluffy used the track pad and arrow keys to pull down the menu, open a tab and tried to tell her own story!

Tuesday, August 07, 2012


"This is why most people don't stick with a contemplative discipline for very long; we have all heard all sorts of talk about contemplation bringing inner peace but when we turn within to seek this peace, we meet inner chaos instead of peace. But at this point it is precisely the meeting of chaos that is salutary, not snorting of lines of euphoric peace." Martin Laird OSA in Into the Silent Land

I'm on holiday at my dad's. Family time. Some lovely silent time, in my hermitage and standing out under the stars at night to pray. Floating in the pool. It sounds relaxing, and for the most part it is. But anxiety is pulling at the threads, puckering up my mind. The Boy ended up with an infected cyst (we've named it Bob). I spent time worrying about whether I should worry. At home, I would have called the pediatrician. Here, do I need to take him into town and find a clinic, or will hot compresses do the trick? ( needed antibiotics.)

Now our cat care person has phoned to say she is worried about the cat, who has apparently vanished in the house. There isn't anything I can do from this distance (other than ask a neighbor who knows the Fluff to check in later today...which I've done). I'm trying to be present to what is here, anxieties and all.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

What to wear to church

PrayTell's discussion question of the week has to do with getting ready to go to Mass, or at least with getting dressed to go to Mass.

There is a lot of advice about getting dressed to go to Mass on the web (about 20 million hits depending on what search terms you use), and remarkably little about anything else you should do before you go.

Skimming the first few pages of hits on appropriate attire for Mass, I am disturbingly transfixed by the advice, and how much time people clearly spend thinking about what other people are wearing. The debates rage: about whether or not women should wear pants, are flip-flops1 suitable, must your shirt have sleeves, or a collar — and the million dollar question: does God care what you wear to His house? (Arguably it's all God's house, inside a church's walls as well as without, but attire within sacred space is what is under discussion.)

My take in the comments was that dressing with care for the Sunday liturgy seemed a link, for me at least, to the new garments I wore at baptism and baptism's cleansing waters, and so gently underscore the Sunday liturgy's Pascal character. And besides, I was concerned about the consequences if the fashion police were to join forces with the liturgical police.

The comments section, and a conversation with a fellow cantor who'd been to the NPM last week where a cantors' workshop had talked up the idea of using lectio divina with the psalm as preparation, got me wondering about how we get ready to go to Mass — by which I do not mean selecting suitable attire — but how do we suitably prepare interiorly to move into and out of these sacred rites.

Crash was reading this over my shoulder (we are on an airplane somewhere between Philadelphia and Phoenix en route to California) and suggested that if I wanted advice about what to wear, he could show me 40 or 50 parish bulletins among those he read over the last few weeks that contained advice about what to wear to Mass. I asked him how many he recalled that offered any other advice about preparing to go to Mass. A few, he conceded after a moment. And the advice? Reminders about fasting before receiving the Eucharist and requests to respect the silence so that other people could pray before Mass.

I wonder if we should stop arguing about whether or not it's OK to wear sandals (or go barefoot) because Jesus did, and scolding people (who have arguably made an effort to show up in a culture that doesn't prioritize Sunday worship) in the vestibule or bulletin or homily, and start a conversation instead about how we might help each other prepare well for the Eucharist which is the font and the summit of our life.

Herewith is my advice for some ways to prepare the ground for Sunday worship, so that what is sown there can take root and bear fruit. What would you add? I'd love to know what traditions outside the Roman Catholic communion do, so even if you aren't Catholic, please share your ideas and practices with us all.

  • Early in the week, read the readings, reflect on them, talk them over with God.
  • Read and reflect on the proper prayers for the day: the opening prayer, or the preface, or the prayer after communion.
  • Pray one of the Eucharistic prayers, slowly and reverently, aloud or silently.
  • Fast, sharpen your hunger for what you are about to receive. (For an interesting reflection and exercise, read Jim McDermott SJ's posts
here and here.

  • Wash your hearts, not your garments (with apologies to the prophet Joel). Reception of the Eucharist itself heals the dings in our souls, spend 15 minutes with God seeing where you missed the mark this week. What is it that cries out for God's healing touch during the penitential rite? What weight will be lifted when you say, "Amen" to that which you would become?

  • If we spent more time helping people celebrate the Eucharist fruitfully, perhaps we wouldn't have to worry about what they wear.

    Up next? What to do when you leave...beyond take a bulletin.

    1. One should note that our culture's flip-flops are Japan's traditional dress shoes.

    A good resource for preparing is at the St. Louis University Sunday liturgy site. And if you read Give Us This Day, may I recommend Mary Stommes stark and thought-provoking reflection on pulling up weeds among the wheat that appeared on July 31? (Full disclosure, I'm an occasional contributor to Give Us This Day.)