Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year in Review: Thirteen things

Robbert van der Steeg @CC

The year had far more than thirteen graces to gather up, but here is a start.

  1. I wrote two articles for Slate magazine on chemophobia and doing science outside the lab.  Best parts?  Listening to The Boy do a dramatic reading of the comments on the chemophobia one, and staying up till all hours to write them with Crash for virtual company.
  2. Revisiting the Spiritual Exercises in Lent, for this project at DotMagis.
  3. We had two car crashes in twenty minutes.
  4. I have a new red MINI Cooper.  (4. is not unrelated to 3.)
  5. Getting to experience James Turrell's Perceptual Cell at LACMA.
  6. Retreat.  Silence.
  7. Retreats.  Preaching them.
  8. The US Open came to town.  I rode my bike and went for a day with Math Man.
  9. Traveling with my students — both through space, from Wernersville to Japan and back — and through time, from the desert fathers and mothers to Merton and Annie Dillard.
  10. Writing for Homilists for the Homeless.
  11. Watching The Boy sing The Modern Major General.
  12. Picking up Crash at Wonderful Jesuit University after his first year.
  13. Going to the ACS meeting in New Orleans with The Boy.

Women at the Ambo: Finding family outside our comfort zone

Sunday was the Feast of the Holy Family, which somehow found me at Mass minus any of my family, unceremoniously stuffed into a too-small alb as I walked into the church and serving as an acolyte. A duty that left me sitting in splendid isolation on the side of the altar, apart even from my Church family. Humming the Gloria under my breath as I stood holding the sacramentary for the presider,  I was out of my comfort zone in so many ways.

The presider's homily was a letter he'd written to the parish (which I'd already read).  It was a fine homily on the keeping of bits of Christmas around throughout the season, rather than dragging it all to the curb on the 26th, but that's not an issue for my household.  So I was delighted to come home to find that my friend Fran was out of her comfort zone in writing a homily for the Feast Holy Family in Naked and You Clothed Me.

What kind of family are we being invited into by God?  Would we flee the comforts of our usual orbits if God called us?  You can hear/read the rest of what Fran had to say at There Will Be Bread, it's worth reading even when it's not the Feast of the Holy Family!  Christ is all in all.

I will add that all the proceeds from the book of homilies that Fran (and I and twenty-four others) contributed to go to the poor.  You can buy the book and it's companion for Cycle C at the publisher's web site.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Of you my heart has spoken

What gift did Jesus get this morning?
Of you my heart has spoken: 
“Seek his face.” 
Psalm 27

I'm in the midst of reading To the Field of Stars, Kevin Codd's memoir of walking to Compostela.  It reminds me a bit of Paul Mariani's Thirty Days: On Retreat with St. Ignatius, a well-fermented mix of the mundane — what's for dinner, how to fix a blister — and the spiritual.   To be a pilgrim is to be reminded that the sacred does not subsist only inside the box, whether its inside the Churches or inside of particular times, but we walk on sacred ground all of the time.

I cantored Christmas Eve mass, singing the psalm in two-part harmony with The Boy.  The liturgy was gorgeous, the music flowed forth from hearts and souls, from choir and congregation.  The homily was inviting, but challenging, warm without being saccharine or overdone - can we let God come to love us? Communion came. "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof..." I prayed, then launched into the incipit for the communion hymn.  I was ready for Christ to come in the midst of this sacred and well wrought liturgy, anxious to receive.

The communion hymn ended just as the last communicant received, perfectly timed.  I looked down, turned the page in the cantor's book to the closing hymn, and when I looked up, it was to see the Eucharistic ministers sweep past on their way to the tabernacle.  All but one.  A cup bearer with an empty cup stood waiting.  We looked at each other and both headed to the tabernacle.  In my attempts to maintain decorum and to avoid tripping over the sopranos, I reached the altar steps just as they turned the key and left.  There would be no Eucharist for me, it seemed.

I felt like one of the shepherds, too young, too short, too old, too out of breath to keep up with the rest, who arrives at the stable only to see the last sparkle as the angels rise like incense up to heaven, and the midwife swings the door to the stable firmly shut on the finally sleeping babe and his parents, shooing sheep, shepherds, and cats before her.

At the ambo, after receiving Communion!
Mass ended with a resounding Joy to the World, people swirled around wishing each other Merry Christmas, the church slowly emptied and the musicians began rearranging for the morning's liturgies.  Suddenly the woman who had waited appeared.  Would I like to receive?  Yes, please.  (Yes, I know it's not technically permitted.)

We walked to the tabernacle and as she turned to open it, another of the Eucharistic ministers appeared, fussy and apologetic for having forgotten the cantor. The door to the tabernacle was stuck, both sacristans appeared, suddenly it seemed there was a multitude there with us on the altar.  This was not how I wanted to be disposed as I received, in the middle of a huddle, with three or four people talking to me at once!

The USCCB reminds us that the communion procession is a reminder of our status as pilgrims.  Pilgrims walk in sacred time, along hallowed paths - complete with blisters, noisy trucks, overtalkative companions and well laid plans that quickly fall by the side.  I walked that night to encounter God incarnate, to meet Him in the midst of a noisy crowd, held out to me by someone who saw my hunger, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ under my feet.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Light from light

It's Christmas Eve and I'm sitting in our back room, awash with light from the low winter sun. The creche sits on the window ledge, the Magi still in the midst of their long journey, ways deep and weather sharp.Mary is brought to her knees in labor, Joseph is holding aloft his lantern — looking, I think, for the midwife the innkeeper promised to send.  The shepherd's attention is still on his sheep, one slung over his shoulder while he looks at a newborn nuzzling his mother for milk.  The angels lay sprawled in the greens, resting up for their big night.  Light from Light.

The children are just stirring behind me, the floor creaks as they ease from bed into the shower, old enough now to drive a car.  Unimaginable that these are the same sons who I once held in my arms, held within my very self.   Unimaginable that this child Mary is struggling to bring to birth — that we still struggle to bring into the world — is God from God. 

My own sons' cells still course through my veins. Mary, I want to say, this child will never leave you, not even until the end of time. "To that which you are," Augustine says, "you answer: 'Amen'"  Consubstantial, one in Being.

To which I say, "Amen."

*From Eliot's Journey of the Magi; listen to it here.

Looking for more light?  Read Robin's light-infused, tender Christmas Eve sermon, which redeems even physics for the equation averse.

Or ponder Chris Satullo of WHYY reflection on the meaning of Christmas here.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas lists: Feeding the hungry

Br. Mickey McGrath's beautiful
cover for "Hungry, and you fed me."
I am a listy sort of person (yes, yes, INTJ) , right now there is one on the board in the kitchen listing the things to bake and a few nagging chores that I would like to attend to before the Feast of the Nativity dawns.

Math Man wondered the other morning what I might want for Christmas.  The Boy has been trying to figure something out, too.  I was ready for Math Man -- no jewels, a plumber's snake to unclog the drain in the upstairs shower would be a gift I would cherish.  A working bathroom particularly after the months of renovation would be a delight, a gift to remember each and every morning.  To The Boy, I confessed I have everything I want.

They tried again at dinner, at which point I came out with it: what I really want is clear surfaces (a virtual impossibility in this house full of academics), and a modicum of order in the house.  That, the Boy pointed out, is not the life I have chosen.  Nor, he assures me, would I want my life that tidy.

But their queries, and a post by two friends on the ten things that you don't think of that food banks might need most,  have me thinking about wish lists -- and people who are hungry.

Here is my wish list, of things to add to the list that I regularly pick up when I shop to put in the box my parish keeps at the back of the church:
  • Diapers and wipes (a real need for poor working mothers)
  • Protein:  tuna, peanut butter
  • Toiletries:  shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes
  • Feminine supplies:  tampons and pads (yep, are you going to put that in the church bulletin?)

Philabundance's high priority list at the moment is:
  • Canned/ Shelf-stable tuna 
  • Macaroni and Cheese 
  • Canned Pasta, Beef Stew, and Chili 
  • Creamy Peanut Butter Jelly 
  • Canned Green Beans and Corn 
  • Canned Fruit 
  • Breakfast Cereal and Hot Cereal
Finally, many food banks can use money - to fill in where donations do not match needs, and which they can stretch further than I can stretch my dollars.

Any Church community, if it thinks it can comfortably go its own way without creative concern and effective cooperation in helping the poor to live with dignity and reaching out to everyone, will also risk breaking down, however much it may talk about social issues or criticize governments. It will easily drift into a spiritual worldliness camouflaged by religious practices, unproductive meetings and empty talk. — Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 207

Worship is not one thing and living another.  The synagogue is not a retreat, and that which is decisive is not the performance of rituals at distinguished occasions but how they affect the climate of the entire life. — Abraham Heschel

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Advent at CatholicPhilly: An Inconvenient Walk

Borrowed pilgrim staff from my trip to Japan.
We were on sabbatical one year in California, when the boys 2 and 4; we would drive back from my parent's house near San Miguel back up to Pleasanton.  We would leave after dinner on Sunday night, the boys would fall almost instantly asleep and Victor and I would have unrushed time to talk together.

We'd stop at the midway point in the 3 hours drive, at the In-N-Out Burger in Salinas, get a chocolate shake which we'd share.  My warm memories of those drives prompted me to wonder what Mary and Joseph might have talked about as they walked from Nazareth to Bethlehem...

I wrote this in one go while stealing a night away at the old Jesuit novitiate.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 20 December 2013.

It’s 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. One foot placed in front of another, from morning until night began to close in. A week’s travel if you could keep up the pace, perhaps 10 days if you could not.

I wonder what Mary and Joseph talked about as they walked, in these last few days before their child was born. Did they turn over the events that had set them on this path together? Visits from angels, dreams. Did they wonder if they were prepared for this baby to finally arrive, ready to parent a child who will be called Son of the Most High? Did they talk about their hopes for this son promised to them, who would be God-with-us?

Hark, hear the bells, we carol as these last few days of Advent evaporate almost before our eyes. The day-to-day world is blaring a Christmas countdown; “only seven shopping days left,” prattled the radio when I got in the car this morning — to make in 90 minutes a trip just a shade shorter than Mary’s arduous trek two millennia ago.

The readings at daily Mass in this last week of Advent bound across the months, leaping from Gabriel’s unsettling visit to Zechariah in the sanctuary one day to the Annunciation the next, and we rush to hear the news of the birth of John the Baptist. Haste, haste, we hurtle toward Christmas.

Yet I keep coming back to Mary and Joseph’s long walk. It was not a headlong rush through the final days of her pregnancy, but a deliberate placing of one foot in front of the other. A tacit acknowledgement that whatever was to come, they were here, now, in this place. Waiting. Wandering. Wondering.

St. Cyril of Alexander, writing in the fifth century, says of the journey: “the occasion of the census conveniently caused the virgin to go to Bethlehem, so that we might see another prophecy fulfilled.”

Convenient isn’t quite the word I would use for an 80-mile trip whether on foot or aback a donkey while nine months pregnant. I confess, too, that I have a difficult time seeing this journey to Bethlehem as one leg of a Divine scavenger hunt.

I wonder rather if Luke was inspired to set down this one bare line about Joseph’s response to the census called by Emperor Augustus, “he went to be registered with Mary … who was expecting a child” (Lk 2:5), to remind us not to rush through these final days of Advent, visions of mangers and choruses of angels already dancing in our heads.

Instead let us hear God’s invitation to walk these paths slowly with Mary and Joseph. To wonder again at the events set in motion so many centuries ago. To ask ourselves if we are prepared to welcome Christ not as a babe, but in those who are hungry, those who thirst. To dare to hope that God might yet come to dwell in us.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Walking to Bethlehem

I'm up at the Jesuit Center for the night, sitting in the reception area and checking up on my students taking their finals -- for I have eaten of the tree of knowledge, and now know there is wi-fi here.  My editor at CatholicPhilly wondered if I might write something about how the fourth week of Advent, so rarely even a true week, gets subsumed under Christmas' proximity.  Which got me thinking...and writing.  The photos is from my walk....

St. Cyril of Alexander dismisses Mary and Joseph’s journey as a plot device: “the occasion of the census conveniently caused the virgin to go to Bethlehem, so that we might see another prophecy fulfilled.” Convenient isn’t quite the word I would use for an 80-mile trip whether on foot or aback a donkey while 9 months pregnant, and I’m pretty sure Mary wouldn’t describe it that way either. I have a tough time seeing that 80-mile journey to Bethlehem as nothing more than one leg of a Divine scavenger hunt.

 I’m wondering what Mary and Joseph talked about as they walked, for a week or ten days. What did they say to each other around the fire each night? Was God’s hope we would see this journey not so much as checking off another prophecy, but a way to model for us contemplative prayer?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Women at the ambo: The ways deep and the weather sharp

In quiet and trust from Michelle Francl on Vimeo.

“A cold coming we had of it
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow. — T. S. Eliot from Journey of the Magi

On Monday I spoke at St. Simon Stock parish in Berlin, New Jersey.  I was to return last night, but the National Weather Service predicted freezing rain and "sharp weather" (to quote T.S. Eliot, which I do to start the reflection).  So instead, I spent last night tucked up in my study, learning to use iMovie.  The results are posted above.  Having done it once, I now know how to do a better job, and I'll try to put up part I on the weekend.

From the reflection:

Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel):  “God’s word is unpredictable in its power. The Gospel speaks of a seed which, once sown, grows by itself, even as the farmer sleeps (Mk 4:26-29). The Church has to accept this unruly freedom of the word, which accomplishes what it wills in ways that surpass our calculations and ways of thinking.”

Are we ready to become all flame?  Pope Francis is beautifully blunt.  Ready or not, he says, we ought to step forward:
Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.  An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others..."

Could I ask for the grace to assent to that unruly, ungraspable Light, that which I cannot cup in my hands, that which I cannot stop from pouring forth? Can I ask, however intemperately, to be set alight?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent at CatholicPhilly: The hidden calendar

Annunication, illustrating
Matins in the Castle Hours 2
Today (the 11th) is the feast of St. Damasus - a deacon elected Pope in 366 who commissioned St. Jerome's translation of the Bible into Latin. He also pushed more of the vernacular into the celebration of the Mass - yes, the Latin Mass was originally Mass in the vernacular, Greek was the sacred language of the early Church!  Vatican II's incorporation of the vernacular was nothing new.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 10 December 2013.

“What’s this list at the front with all the lines in red?” wondered one of my students, her gloved hands hovering over the text. We were on a class trip to Bryn Mawr College’s rare book collection, to see some of the 14th century Books of Hours it houses. These books held collections of prayers, psalms and scriptures — and lists of Church feasts, highlighted in red or blue or gold according to their importance.

My well-worn breviary was out on the table, too, with the modern General Roman Calendar in the front, a tattered violet ribbon still marking the prayers and readings for the feast celebrated earlier that week, for the apostles Simon and Jude. No gold anymore for the solemnest of feasts, but red print still calls out the intricate details of the Church’s liturgical calendar.

The broad strokes of the Church year are hard to miss. Lent’s unrelenting violet, the white of Eastertide that leads to the steady stretch of Ordinary Time green that shepherds us from summer’s warmth and autumn, are on display every Sunday and on the occasional holy day of obligation. But there is a hidden calendar woven through the major seasons, minor feasts of saints and blesseds unconnected to the seasons, and solemnities, which unlike All Saints or the Assumption, we are not obliged to celebrate with attendance at Mass.

I have to admit I treasure the quiet small feasts tucked into the calendar. I look forward each year to St. Mary Magdalene feast on July 22, the antiphons for the psalms and canticles reminding me of the poignant scene in the garden on Easter morning: “My heart burns within me; I long to see my Lord.” Each feast and memorial reminds me of the myriad of ways in which this longing for God has been expressed over the millennia in the lives of ordinary people.

In Advent we might watch not only for Christ’s coming to us at his birth and in his return at the end of time, but also for his presence to us in the lives of the saints. Already we have celebrated the feast of St. Ambrose — dear to me for his connection to St. Augustine, whom he baptized at the Easter Vigil in 387. Fourth century martyr St. Lucy’s feast of light brightens Friday the 13th this year.

Peter Cansius SJ
Jesuit priest St. Peter Cansius, whose feast on the 21st lies in the shadow of Christmas, had a profound mystical experience when he was blessed by the Pope Paul III, seeing Christ clothing him with peace, love and perseverance and sending him to preach the Gospel, a call we have heard echoed again and again this Advent by Pope Francis.

I listen to the call of St. John of the Cross — whose feast is Dec. 14 — not just in Advent, but year round, to “dig deeply in Christ. He is like a rich mine with many pockets containing treasures: however deep we dig we will never find their end or limit.” As we begin the new liturgical year, we might resolve to dig more deeply into the richness of the Church’s calendar and to explore the many pockets of grace that the saints hold open for us.

The modern equivalent of books of hours often come as a subscription, for example Magnificat or Liturgical Press' Give Us This Day (full disclosure, I write reflections a few times a year for Give Us This Day).

The official calendar of the Church can be found on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website. Like the calendars in the medieval books of hours, the days are colored violet, green, white and red (for feasts of martyrs).

You can explore Bryn Mawr College’s collection of Books of Hours and read more about the Church calendars here.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

A Time of Waiting

Advent is for waiting.  The Boy, never a waiting kind of guy, is nevertheless getting a full measure of the season.  MIT has announced that early action decisions will be up at 12:14 on 12/14. That's next Saturday in case you don't have a calendar handy.

What once had seemed so far off, a distant, fuzzy sort of thought, has suddenly become a very real pit in his stomach.  Waiting, he has discovered, is not a linear (nor a rational) thing.

He's managing his anxiety in various ways, including crocheting (and house chores - woot!).  We poked around Ravelry on Friday night and found a pattern for a crocheted bow tie (since The Boy can now tie a bow tie, as well as a regular tie three different ways), along with a ball of neon lime green wool from his stash.  I kept him company and learned a new knitting stitch.

NEWS FLASH:  The tie is done, The Boy just bounced into my office to show it off, now he's off to block it.  If you want a crocheted bow tie in a neon color, now might be a good time to ask The Boy.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Advent at CatholicPhilly: Impatient with joy

The Visitation
I've been reading Evangelii Gaudium slowly and reflectively, no skimming to see what lies ahead (though I did find the closing prayer while looking for endnotes!)  If you can read the Spanish in which Pope Francis composed it, do; I'm finding it both more beautiful and powerful than the English translation.  He stretches the language in ways that remind me of Rahner.

Brother Mickey McGrath's work is ever full of joy.  You can find the painting of the visitation I refer to here.

This reflection appeared on CatholicPhilly.com 4 December 2013.

It is Advent, a season of waiting, a celebration of expectation. There is a lot of waiting going on at my house these days, though nothing quite yet to celebrate. Chris sent off his applications to college in mid-September and he expects to hear back some time in the next two weeks.

The waiting has left him off-balance, uncertain. He sorts the mail with an anxious edge, is this the envelope? An email from admissions at one of his chosen schools starts his heart pounding, until he realizes the subject line is “December newsletter.” It’s hard to celebrate this kind of waiting, uncertain of the answer and precisely where and when it will arrive. And there is not much he can do, other than sit and wait.

At one level, there is no uncertainty to Advent’s waiting. We know the decision: God sent us His Son. We know the outcome: our salvation. We know the time and the place and the cast of characters of this arrival, the way in which the Word took flesh in an infant, born in a stable. And while we do not know when Christ will return for us again, we are certain of the outcome. He will come in glory, bringing salvation for His faithful.

Unlike high school seniors waiting for their college acceptances, we cannot and should not wait passively for this second Advent. The words of the opening prayer for the first Sunday of Advent encourage us to “run forth to meet your Christ.” The psalm, too, urges us to move, “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord!”

I am reminded of Brother Mickey McGrath’s lively painting of Elizabeth greeting Mary, painted for the sisters of the Monastery of the Visitation in Minnesota. Elizabeth smiles warmly, her skirt flying behind her as she runs forth to greet Mary, and the Divine child she bears. She is certain of the news Mary is bringing her, so certain she reaches out to embrace Mary and the God made flesh hidden within her.

Pope Francis’ in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, speaks to us of the joyous good news that impels us to move out of our old orbits. God calls to us to co-labor with him, led by the Spirit. In a thousand ways, God inspires, provokes, guides and walks with us. And we are to go, Pope Francis tells us, rejoicing.

It is not a single moment we await, but we await the Word made flesh again and again in us. In a reflection on Psalm 46, St. Augustine reminded us “I created you, and I recreate you; I formed you and I formed you anew.” We celebrate this newness God grants us in our lives, even as we wait for Christ’s second Advent.

I hope this Advent to give over patiently waiting for God to come to me, but instead, impatient with joy, run forth to meet Christ.

Mary, Virgin and Mother,

you who, moved by the Holy Spirit,
welcomed the word of life

in the depths of your humble faith:  

as you gave yourself completely to the Eternal One,
help us to say our own “yes”

to the urgent call, as pressing as ever,

to proclaim the good news of Jesus.

– from the prayer that closes Evangelii Gaudium (“The Gospel of Joy”) by Pope Francis

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Can I pass the Turing test?

Turing Test (XKCD)
Overheard in my kitchen in the midst of the controlled chaos that preceded the serving of Thanksgiving dinner:  "Could you pass a Turing test?"

Translated from the geek this means, "Could you be any more literal minded?"

In challenge similar to several proposed by Alan Turing in the middle of the 20th century, one human interrogates a subject that is either a computer or a human.  If the examiner can't tell whether the subject is an artifical intelligence (AI) or a human, and it turns out to be a computer, the computer is said to have passed the Turing test.  (You can try being the examiner in a Turing test here.  I tried it and could not reliably distinguish between the human and AI responses.  I'm not sure if that just means I don't understand humans.)

Meanwhile one of my students (AK) created an AI version of me.  She interviewed me about my contemplative practice and science, then took the interview apart and put into a story tree algorithm. Now you can click through various responses from the interview, not in the order I said them, but by following threads of your own choosing.

The interview was part of a class project for a psychology course on mindfulness, and I sat in on her presentation today.  Rather than click through it for us, she encouraged us all to explore "Dr. Francl" for a bit, then opened the floor for a discussion.  What I enjoyed most about the process was the deep silence as people wended their way through the interview.  That sounds like me!

Want to talk to me about contemplation, science, cooking and God in all things?  Try interrogating my AI self here:  Interviewing Dr. Francl

I'm curious if you know me IRL what you think of AK's simulcrum.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Come, let us climb the mountain of the Lord!

Random staff drawn from the collection
at a yamabushi's small mountain temple in Japan. 
This semester has felt like a long climb up a mountain.  There have been amazing views, tough stretches — steep and narrow paths — wonderful companions and the occasional blister.  I've been privileged to teach on mindfulness and contemplation in the 360 program at the college, and enjoyed teaching my favorite class ever (Intro to Quantum Mechanics) for what I think is the 25th time.  I've done a lot of writing for several projects that will come out in the next year or so (a book chapter, several encyclopedia entries, reflections for feasts in 2014, retreat talks), and consequently less writing here.

My book club met last night, we're reading Joyce Rupp's Walking in a Relaxed Manner this month, about her experiences on the Camino.  More broadly we were talking about what it means to go on a pilgrimage.  How is it different from a trip to any other destination — Disneyworld is the one that came to mind — but also from the walking or hiking trips many of us have taken? The title suggests it is a slow process, and that is certainly true in these days of buses and trains and cars, but wasn't true in the medieval period, so it can't all be about the speed.

In some ways this has been a pilgrimage time, walking intentionally into a period of time that I expect to change me, that I know will have its discomforts as well as high moments, one that I explicitly named as a sacred time. But then how is that different from any other period of my life?  Are we always pilgrims?

From the reading at Morning Prayer today: Come, let us climb the mountain of the Lord! (Is 2:3)

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Inducing mystical experiences: potatoes, not mushrooms

It helps,
putting my hands on a pot, on a broom,
in a wash pail.

I tried painting,
but it was easier to fly slicing

— رابعة العدوية القيسية

This snippet of poetry comes from Daniel Ladinsky's playfully luminous Love Poems From God. Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī was an 8th century Muslim Sufi poet and saint.  She left behind no writings, but like the Christian desert ascetics of the 4th and 5th centuries, her sayings and stories were kept alive.

My class has been arguing about the validity of mystical experiences.  Not so much does anyone have them, the conversation centered more around whether mystical experiences that are deliberately sought out are "real"?  Is it a mystical experience if you took psilocybin (with the intent of triggering a mystical experience) or mescaline or LSD or...?  What about fasting?  or meditation?  or the sleep deprivation of long vigils?

Or working in the kitchen?  Doing the dishes as Teresa of Avila or slicing the potatoes?

Is it acceptable to put yourself in the way of God?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Mystical tests

My class on contemplation is discussing mysticism these days.  We've read John of the Cross and Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī; Margery Kempe and anonymous Carthusians -- not to mention William James.  Along with the classic literature, we've been reading modern psychology papers that try to quantify and characterize mysticism. Can you identify mystics using various scales?  How can a mystical experience be assessed?  

We used the Hood mysticism scale to assess various of the mystics we read (citing evidence from their writings).  But can you circumscribe, qualitatively or quantitatively, what is by definition an indescribable experience?  Can you eff the ineffable?  Along the way we ran across a paper (which we were surprised and delighted to find was co-authored by Patient Spiritual Director) which used the Hood scale, along with scales about narcissism and ego-grasping, to discriminate between psychosis and mystical experiences.  

We had a terrific conversation on Wednesday with psychologist Sidney Callahan, a Bryn Mawr alum and the author of Women Who Hear Voices:  The Challenge of Religious Experience (and 11 other books) about the interplay between mysticism and psychopathology.  Can you have a mystical experience that is apart from a religious tradition?  What role does priming and expectancy bias play? And perhaps for me the most interesting question she raised was, are we hard wired to be contemplatives? Thomas Merton rather thought so, or at least he thought it was part of the standard toolbox of the prayerful.  

Today I found this quiz for figuring out your "spiritual type" — I, and it seems everyone I know, is a mystic.  Maybe Merton is right, we are all mystics.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Boundary conditions

A few weeks ago my class on contemplation in the west looked at the floor plans of a series of monasteries dating from the 5th century through the 16th, and read several rules for monastics (beyond the iconic Rule of St. Benedict).  We talked about the ways in which the structures, physical and canonical, created boundaries.  Boundaries between work and prayer and recreation.  Boundaries between sacred and secular.  Boundaries between the silence and the noise of the world.

It's been making me think about the boundaries I set up in my own life, and the ways in which I sometimes let them be breached.  After far too many working evenings and weekends, I'm feeling like St. Anthony's bow:

A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him,
"Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it."
So he did. The old man then said,
"Shoot another,"
and he did so. Then the old man said,
"Shoot yet again,"
and the hunter replied,
"If I bend my bow so much I will break it."
Then the old man said to him,
"It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs."
When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened.

Could I find a way to stop pulling on the modern day equivalent of the bow - my work email - and meet some of my needs (like laundry!)?  So I set up a virtual cloister for my college email on my computers, a physical separation between the incoming arrows and the generally life-giving correspondence from the other corners of my life.  I suspended the app that checks my work mail on my iPad.  Will I, like the brethren, be strengthened? Let us pray...

Thursday, October 31, 2013

What counts as silence?

I'm sitting by the open front door, listening to the wind stir the dry leaves still clinging to the enormous oak tree that anchors my front yard.  Crickets are sleepily chirping, the temperature must be hovering around 60oF (based on the formula I use in physical chemistry).  The voices of nervous parents and excited children periodically splash through the door.  The leaves crunch and out of the darkness materializes a sparkling dinosaur or a vending machine or a coterie of rag dolls."Trick or treat?!" They dash off again, advertising their victory ("Dots!") at full volume.

I remember the years when this was a noisy night of chaos, juggling dinner and office hours and our own trick-or-treaters' rounds and baths and bedtimes.  Tonight the silence pours over and around the house, despite the noise from the street.

Why should the wind through the pines, the sand storms, and the squall upon the sea, all count as silence, and not the pounding of the factory machines, the rumbling of the trains at the station, and the clamor of the engines at the intersection? - Madeleine Delbrêl

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sancta sanctis: a reflection for All Saints

Fra Angelico (Wikimedia)
This reflection appeared at CatholicPhilly.com.  The reflection of the anonymous Carthusian is from The Spirit of Place.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the phrase sancta sancti in its discussion of the communion of saints.

Sancta sanctis. “God’s holy gifts, for God’s holy people.” So intones the celebrant at an Eastern Rite Mass as he elevates the Body and Blood of Christ before the reception of Communion. At this moment, in the presence God, who was given up for us, given to us, we are named sancti, the holy ones of God. Saints.

In one dusty corner of my mind, the Solemnity of All Saints reminds me of the times I dug up odd props for my kids to carry — carpenter’s squares and swords, pilgrim’s staffs and fish — as they dressed up as various saints for plays and pageants. At other moments, I am reminded of my mother’s face as her six children and husband of nearly 50 years gathered around her bed, calling upon all the saints as she went to join them. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis. St. Joseph, pray for us.

Where my imagination fails is seeing myself as a saint, able to grasp what St. John says in the second reading for All Saints, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.”

I sympathize with the anonymous Carthusian monk, who in his homily for All Saints says, “The trouble is that we are called to be saints, not just good people … we are called to be holy as God is holy.” As difficult as it can be to be virtuous, to be wise, to avoid hurting others, the call to sainthood seems to demand yet more of us.

Would I recognize a saint if I met one in the street? Or saw one in the mirror? What makes a saint? Virtues, certainly. Hope, faith, and love. Good works, of course. Mercy and justice. Or are these just the fruits of holiness, wonders my nameless Carthusian, what happens to a saint along the way?

Perhaps sainthood begins not with the determination to be virtuous, but with a spark of grace struck in a soul. Do we begin to be saints when we notice something of God’s Spirit burning within us and choose to return it freely and wholly to the Lord? When we elect to open our hearts so that the light within streams forth, more and more freely?

What makes a saint? It’s the response to the psalm for All Saints that tells us, I think. “Lord, this is the people who longs to see your face.” Who can stand in God’s holy place? The psalmist enumerates some of the virtues expected of a saint, but in the end says such virtues are characteristic of those who seek the face of the God of Jacob.

Origen, a third century theologian and Father of the Church, in reflecting on the 24th psalm implies that our yearning to experience the fullness of God is what changes us, what impels us to virtue and to mercy, what makes us saints. To walk in the way of perfection, is to walk toward God.

On this solemnity of saints recognized and unrecognized, hear St. Augustine’s challenge to become what you receive. Sancta sanctis. See what is holy. Become holy. Long to be a saint.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Women at the Ambo: Preaching from a distance

I'm still pondering Jean Molesky-Poz's "At the Ambo" at America Magazine about women (and the laity in general) preaching,  prompted partlyby having spent several hours preaching from behind an ambo in a chapel last week, albeit outside of the context of a Eucharistic celebration and partly by this woman who is wondering if it OK to blog daily reflections on the scriptures.

Last week (the 15th, on the feast of St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church) was also the 37th anniversary of Inter Insigniores in which the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith summed up the theological case for ordaining only men (and thereby restricting preaching from the ambo during Mass to men).  I wondered precisely what that document had to say about women preaching, so I went back and read it.

The CDF makes it clear that they do not see St. Paul's prohibition of women teaching as  culturally inflected, but as "bound up with the divine creation." 
However, the Apostle's forbidding of women to speak in the assemblies (1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Ti, 2:12) is of a different nature, and exegetes define its meaning in this way: Paul in no way opposes the right, which he elsewhere recognises as possessed by women, to prophesy in the assembly (1 Cor 11:15); the prohibition solely concerns the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly. For Saint Paul this prescription is bound up with the divine plan of creation (1 Cor 11:7; Gen 2:18-24): it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact.  Inter Insigniores (10/15/76)
 In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul says,
A man, on the other hand, should not cover his head, because he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 1 Cor 11:17
The newly revised NAB notes, with respect to this verse that
"Paul is alluding basically to the text of Gn 1:27, in which mankind as a whole, the male-female couple, is created in God’s image and given the command to multiply and together dominate the lower creation. But Gn 1:24 is interpreted here in the light of the second creation narrative in Gn 2, in which each of the sexes is created separately (first the man and then the woman from man and for him, to be his helpmate, Gn 2:20–23), and under the influence of the story of the fall, as a result of which the husband rules over the woman (Gn 3:16). This interpretation splits the single image of God into two, at different degrees of closeness." 
Ah, so women are created in the image of God, but an image that isn't as close to God as that of men. I will admit that I hadn't quite appreciated that this was the root of the issue.  Men can teach and preach because they directly reflect God's image for us, women reflect God at one remove.  Women thus necessarily preach from a distance, and this (in Paul's view) makes them inherently unable to teach authoritatively.

How does this notion of "different degrees of closeness" in being image and likeness of God play with the notion that this likeness in image rests chiefly in the soul?  Are women's souls different from men's souls?  Less "like" to God? Equal in dignity, but lesser in image?

Image is Georges de la Tour's Magdalen with the Smoking Flame.  Mary Magdalen was called by Augustine, an apostle to the apostles.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Women at the Ambo: Homilists for the Homeless

In the latest issue of America Magazine (on women in the life of the Roman Catholic Church) Jean Molesky-Poz ("At the Ambo") wonders what we might gain if we could hear homilies from a broader range of voices, if we permitted women — and lay men — to preach occasionally at the Eucharist.

The latest volume from Deacon Jim Knipper's project Homilists for the Homeless, Naked and You Clothed Me, offers a chance to imagine what it might sound like if lay women and men were permitted to preach on the Sunday readings. Of the 21 contributors to this volume, eight are women and three are Roman Catholic lay men.  Full disclosure, I contributed two reflections to this book:  for the 2nd Sunday of Lent and the 7th Sunday of Easter.

All of the proceeds from the book, while contains homilies for each of the Sundays for next year (Cycle A) are going to the poor, including Newborns in Need, which provides infant clothes and other supplies to needy families with new babies.  I'm privileged to be alongside contributors you might hear preaching from the ambo at a Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist:  Dan Horan, OFM (who blogs at Dating God and is a columnist at America), the prolific James Martin, SJ; Rick Malloy SJ (my neighbor's son, who blogs at a Jesuit's Jottings and writes on occasion for the Huffington Post) and those you would not:  Rev. Jan Richardson (a fellow sometime contributor at RevGalBlogPals); Michael Leach (whose sometimes haunting, sometimes funny, always beautiful essays grace NCR these days) and the inestimable Fran Szpylczyn of There Will be Bread.

"This is the garment of glory we weave for ourselves — the cloak we wrap around the shivering man in the street, the tablecloth we spread on the table at the soup kitchen, the blanket we tuck around our dying spouse." — from Naked and You Clothed Me, 7th Sunday of Easter, Cycle A.

The book can be pre-ordered at Clear Faith Publishing, shipping November 1.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Sounds of Japan: The Jesuit Bell at Shunko-in

Two years ago when my students and I traveled to Japan we visited Shunkō-in, a monastic cloister within the Myōshin-ji temple complex at the edge of Kyoto.  Shunkō-in hosts Zen meditation instruction in English, our reason for visiting, but also houses the bell rescued from the Jesuit church when it was destroyed in 1587.

We stayed two nights at the temple this year, once again getting instruction in Zen meditation from the vice-abbot whose voice you hear in the video clip.  We also enjoyed his tour of the cloister, including a chance to hear the bell, to see where it had been buried by his grandfather to keep it from being melted down during the second World War, and to learn a bit more about the ways to view Zen gardens (sit down inside, rather than stand on the porch, a perspective which I noted did enhance the sense of borrowed landscape, the way in which things outside of the garden seem to become an integral part of its composition).

A post about the bell written for the feast of Paul Miki and his companions last year.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Tale of Gaijin

Murasaki Shikibu (Hiroshige II)
The Tale of Genji is considered by many scholars to be one of the earliest known examples of a novel.  Written by Murasaki Shikibu, the psuedonym of a woman at the Japanese imperial court in the 10th century, Genji's adventures sprawl across time and space, occupying 6 volumes in English translation and covering several generations.  Think Game of Thrones, but warmer.

Our adventures in Japan were more limited in scope, though we did see several spots mentioned in the Tale.

I blogged the trip for the college, so if you want to read the story of the travels, here is a list and links:

Dawn Departures (Bryn Mawr to Kyoto in 26 hours)
Mizu, Yuzu and Mitsu (shrines filled with water, hot sun, honey and citrus)
Borrowed Landscapes (dry gardens, the stick of compassion)
Sitting Zazen (talking with a Zen monk about the desert fathers, temples and gardens)
Bamboo and Bento (the bamboo forest and bentos on a bus)

Rough travel (climbing a mountain - sans a path - and esoteric Buddhism)

Koya-san (10th century Buddhist monastic city)
On the Women's Trail (women weren't allowed until the end of the 19th century, but circled the mountain on this trail)
Spaces in translation (Would you believe 5 different trains, a bus, a fleet of taxis and a ferry?  We moved from Koya to Kamikatsu)

In the news (in Japan!)
Fish Sticks (Nakamura-san and the charcoal maker)
Bound in (visiting Nakamura's hermitage, binding books)
Cave meditations (the zero waste village, meditating in a cave, Japanese hot springs)

And yes, all the towns and cities we stayed in began with "k"....except for Osaka and that installment isn't quite up yet.

I look at the list and suddenly am not suprised to be as tired as I am.

Gaijin are foreigners...

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Breathing space

Today I'm with my students in Koya-san, a Buddhist monastic enclave in Wakayama prefecture, where we've been for three days.  Founded 1200 years ago, this place has a long history of contemplative practice.  And after the first four days in Kyoto, where we sometimes had to move quickly from one spot to another, standing up from sitting zazen to run to a bus one morning, dashing up the hill to make an appointment another afternoon, there is more breathing time here.  Right now I'm sitting outside in the garden at the temple where we are staying, catching my breath, catching up on some writing. 

The evening meditation at the temple where we are staying is among the most utterly still and silent experiences I have had.  The monks chant, sitting as typical Western choir monks would sit, then the priest leading the service settles himself on his cushion in the front, facing the same direction as the assembly, rings a bell and we settle in for 40 minutes of silent meditation.  The walls of this hall are thick, the setting dim (candle lit) and the ceiling low and I wonder if that adds to the sense of enveloping silence and stillness. It is an extraordinary experience.

Tomorrow we have another long day of travel taking us to our final stop, Kamikatsu, where we will stay for 4 nights. 

Meanwhile, the cover of Liguorian this month is apt.  You can see it and a teaser for my article here.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Stripping the forests bare

Yesterday we went to Tenryu-ji and met with Thomas Kirchener, an American who has been a Zen monk for many years.  He talked about the life of a the monastery, the ways in which it balances intense periods of meditation with time away and time on physical tasks.  I enjoyed the connections he made to the writings and practices of the Desert Fathers.

Here he is showing the students where a monk would store his futon, to roll out onto the tatami to sleep each night. There is one drawer below for other belongings.  Stripping to the bare necessities.

You can read the latest adventures of the crew sitting zazen and in the bamboo forest.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Honey from the rock

It's hot in Kyoto, at a time when I thought I was done with summer, yesterday found us meditating in heat heavy with water.  Monday was characterized by water - with visits to Kiyumizudera, a temple built around a spring, and Honen-in, a quieter space with water features and a tiny exquisite moss garden.

Tuesday it was dry rock gardens, shimmering with heat, the cool night meditations that were done there left to our imaginations.

Read the adventures of the crew on Monday here.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Refreshing waters: a writing retreat with Vinita Hampton Wright

I took this photo after a long hot walk this afternoon, at a temple called Honen-in in the hills outside Kyoto.  The cool scent of moss, the sound of the water hitting the pool below, the perfect arc that never wavered as it fell — and the flower.  It was refreshing on such a sensual level; though I never touched the water, I still felt a couple of degrees cooler.

I'm off in Japan, working long (and fascinating) days, and glad of the bits of refreshment I find.

Vinita Wright is directing a writing retreat at Deepening Days of Friendship.  Her first post is about the senses, if you want to refresh your writer's soul, pay Vinita's blog a visit and take a deep breath of the wisdom and encouragement that is there.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Eddies in time

The last few weeks have been hectic,getting everything done that needed to be tended to while I was in Japan, while still keeping the everyday pace of teaching and life going.  At times it's felt like I was in some odd eddy in the time stream (clearly, I watch too much Star Trek) trying to live two different weeks at the same time.

The streams finally poured through a gate and I'm back to juggling just one moment at a time.  I'm in Kyoto, where I got up at 5:00 am, walked up to Choin-in up the hill from where we are staying for morning services.  It was a rich sound scape, the thunk as we kept the beat for the procession on gourds, the chant, the bells, the sharp clack-clack of the wood blocks, the chirping of the nightingale floor as we moved from one space to another, the ravens cawing in the pre-dawn stillness — and the roar of the motorcycle patrolling the grounds.

If you dress in the dark, you risk putting your shirt on inside out.  Something I didn't notice until it was too late to correct!    These bells are for praying for peace for children all over the world, which we did this morning.  The top is on inside out, but I don't think you can tell!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A simmering of cicadas


Shizukesa ya
Iwa ni shimiiru
Semi no koe

This pervasive silence
Enhanced yet by cicadas simmering
Into the Temple Rocks dissipating            
—Matsuo Bashô

I sat outside on the stone patio the night before last to make my examen.  There was no wind, a pervasive stillness, and — I realized with a start — a simmering of cicadas.  I felt as if I were in the midst of a gently bubbling pot, the stillness seeping into my rock hard heart, infusing it with silence, with God.

An alternate translation (mine) which preserves the breath of the original.

A piercing stillness
The rocks open their hearts to
The cicadas voice

Just breathing the word shizukesa and the exhaling sound ya is stilling. 

Bashô spent 5 years working on this poem, the first draft was written in 1689, a final version inscribed in his diary in 1694.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Teaching silence

I teach back to back on Mondays and Wednesdays, setting up my stuff for pchem in the science center, then trekking up the hill with my rolling basket of stuff for the course I'm teaching on contemplation in the West.  The latter is a seminar class, so conversation is the stuff of which it is constructed. We do a lot of talking about silence.  But silence is so fundamental to the practice of contemplation, it's hard to imagine not having some significant experience of silence to help put what we are reading into context.

Last week we spent three days at the old Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville.  There was a 7-day silent retreat ongoing when we arrived, emptying out of the cars into the western cloister, trying to slide through the silence with barely a ripple.  The weather was hot and humid and my briefing in the lobby included tips for keeping your room cooler and reminders to drink plenty of water.

It was odd being on duty in the space where I am usually as off as I can be.  My phone came with me in case the college needed to get in touch with us, I checked my email a couple of times a day, I kept our schedule flowing. 

Patient Spiritual Director gave a terrific talk on spiritual direction in the modern era, complimenting our conversations about the tradition at the time of the desert ascetics.

This week we are reading a variety of narratives of silence (an eclectic collection including  Patrick Fermor, Sara Maitland, and a utterly riveting recording of Thomas Merton instructing the novices on sacred silence), but we have a better ear for what they have to say.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Prophetic music: Guide our feet into the way of peace

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest:
for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
to give knowledge of salvation unto his people for the remission of their sins,

through the tender mercy of our God;
whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. Lk 1:76-79 (King James translation)

For almost thirty years I have prayed the Benedictus each morning, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel.." Yesterday morning, I sat outside on a glorious fall day to pray. On such a still and perfect morning, war seems unimaginable. Yet I knew the paper that still lay on the driveway would make it all to easy to imagine the tempest that is gathering on distant shores.

I love the antiphonal nature of Vaughn Williams' setting.  It brings me to face  the prophetic call of this text, not just for the baby whose name was to be John, but our own baptismal call. A single voice of remarkable clarity calls forth a response from the many, with grace, the melody blossoms into four-part harmony.  Despite the traditional liturgical setting of this text  within morning prayer, Vaughn William's music evokes for me a sense of vigil, and a gathering darkness outse.

May our prayers so gather, layer upon layer, until we can be heard to the farthest ends of the earth.  We pray that we might be prophets, that we might prepare the way. We pray for light in the darkness. We pray for mercy. We stand in world torn by violence and we cry: Lord, guide our feet into the way of peace.

A version of this post appeared at  RevGalBlogPals.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Fast and pray

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Blow the trumpet in Zion, proclaim a fast, call an assembly...

Pope Francis has called the Church to fast and to pray for peace in Syria, and in all the world.  The Philadelphia archdiocese will gather at the cathedral for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.

I feel strongly about heeding this call to gather ourselves spiritually, to put our bodies on the line in a very different way.  From my column this week at CatholicPhilly:

"This is not the ritual fast before we receive the Eucharist, to sharpen our hunger, to hone our senses to experience more deeply the reception of Christ’s Body and Blood. This is not the traditional fast of Lent, to do penance for our sins, to toughen our feet for the journey. This fast is a call to throw ourselves on the mercy of God, keening for the brokenness of the Body of Christ that has brought us — again — to the brink of war.

...In his encyclical Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII made it clear that we are each responsible for doing what we can to forge anew the relationships between countries and peoples in the light of justice and love. Fasting, even for a day, binds me more deeply to those whose lives are in tumult as a result of war and injustice. It’s an ever-present reminder that we all bear the responsibility for peace."

Read the whole thing at CatholicPhilly.

Will you join the fast?  the prayers?

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Praying for patience

This morning's round of tests were stressful, and after an hour, my patience was stretched thinner than one of Stratoz's sheets of strudel.  So when the doctor's office was clearly running behinder and behinder, but still holding out the fiction that nothing was amiss I started praying for patience.

Patient Spiritual Director once wryly pointed out that if you pray for patience you are often presented with opportunities to practice.  Today suggested he's right.  My prayers were answered in that there were many, many opportunities to practice patience.  I did not make the best of each of them, I'm afraid to admit.

By 4:30, I was apologizing to the student staffing the help desk for my grumpiness about things far beyond her control (or I suppose mine).  At 4:38 I was once again...apologizing to the same student for my lack of patience.  (*face palm*)

I'm obviously still working on the patience front, but am having no trouble with the gratitude.  Test results were excellent.  It was a good day.

After I wrote this, I read Linde Ricke's most excellent guest post at People for Others:  Avoiding the Near Occasion of Sin.  I needed this line today: "I need to focus especially on the simple phrase 'with the help of Thy grace.' Only through the Holy Spirit can I possibly make any headway in avoiding the certain near occasion of sin."

Sunday, September 01, 2013

How do you tell when the pears are ripe?

Yes, that is the one and only apple.
When the squirrels eat them.

We have a huge mature plum tree in the front, along with a small apple tree that just began to bear this year, two pear trees in the back that are in their third year of bearing.  Tonight I made apple-pear sauce from our harvest.

One apple.  One pear.

There are many fat squirrels in the neighborhood.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Augustine in weal and woe

Augustine giving the rule.  Detail, stained glass window.
Today is the Feast of St. Augustine, and for various reasons I couldn't be at Mass or morning prayer to celebrate with the Augustinian community.  I sat on the back steps and prayed the office, mostly sheltered from the rain that had just begun to fall.  I spent a bit of time reflecting on Augustine and his influence on my life, marveling a bit at how such connections seemingly breach the constraints of time.

Augustine has challenged me and comforted me.  He's been a source of consolation when faced with difficult questions.

Photo is of stained glass window on the south wall of my parish church.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Back to school

St. Luke's church and school under construction, we lived just to the left.
I unpacked the apples I had bought at the grocery store, and realized they smelled like plaid.  Their scent took me back to my days at St. Luke's — a tiny, tiny Catholic elementary school (13 kids in my combined 7th and 8th grade class).  Back to school meant new white blouses to wear under my plaid uniform jumper and stiff saddle shoes.  Cigar boxes (real ones courtesy of my Uncle Gene - do kids still use these?), fresh sheaves of loose leaf.  No lunch box, I walked home for lunch every day.  I had such lunch box envy when I was young.

Now back to school means pulling books from shelves to take into my office for this semester's courses, and yellow pads with notes of what needs to be done before the term begins on them.  There is less of a newness about it all in some ways, but the wave of students that wash over the college always brings something new with them, something unexpected.

No lunch box, still, unless you count the bento box and furoshiki?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Writing as prayer

I'm reviewing Love and Salt by Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith at RevGalBlogPals today. It's a collection of letters, written over five years they say, "...to preserve and make sense of our daily lives; we wrote to confess and console, to rant and grieve. But more than anything else, we wrote because it was the only way we know how to pray...In our letters, we wrote ourselves back to belief." [p. xi]

I certainly resonate with this notion of writing, not so much about prayer, but as prayer.  In 1958 (when I was about 5 months old) Thomas Merton wrote in his journal "To write is to think and to live — even to pray."

 Questions on the table for discussion:

  • What inspires you to put pen to paper and add a stamp? 
  • Have you ever carried on a sustained correspondence, either through email or on paper? or dreamed of doing it? 
  • Thomas Merton noted in a journal, "To write is to think and to live — even to pray." Do you find writing to be a way to pray?
Come join the conversation at RevGalBlogPals, or start one in the comments here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Drinking light: induced mystical experiences

I signed the release, put my things in a drawer next to the sliding bed and lay back. The attendant put the emergency button in my hand, handed me a pair of headphones and with a final word of advice, "You might want to try it with and without your glasses." she slid me into a sphere of deep blue light.  Then I had an experience, of an texture some people might call mystical. [Spoiler alert:  I'm not going to discuss any previous mystical experiences of my own or lack thereof.]

It's hard to know where viewing Turrell's installation Light Reignfall begins and ends [to see a photo of the bare installation at LACMA go here, or a similar installation in action here].  Does it start when you first see the installation?  when you speak to the attendant (whose uniform is part of the installation)? when you are slid into the interior compartment?  What about watching someone else be slid in or out?  Or being interrogated by some one after you have emerged?

The last time I taught my class on the contemplative tradition in the West we had several spirited conversations about whether an experience that appeared to be mystical, but was induced (through the use of drugs) was a true mystical experience.  Can you induce a mystical experience?  Much of the tradition in the west would say an unequivocal "no" (see this paper on fMRI and mystical experiences in Carmelite nuns where a subject tells the neuroscientists "God cannot be summoned at will.")  We read a Johns Hopkins study on the experiences of hallucinogen-naive contemplative practitioners who took the hallucinogen psilocybin.  Is there a neurological difference between undertaking a contemplative practice that might make you more prone to mystical experiences and setting up the same state using a chemical?  Or light?

We certainly didn't resolve anything over the course of the week we spent on the material, but the discussions were among the best I've had in all my years of teaching.  I'm working on the syllabus for the course again this fall, and this time have added some reading about Turrell's work with light and perception, particularly in these cells, along with some readings from Zig Zag Zen [edited by Allan Hunt Badiner].

So back to that sphere of light.  I had a choice of the "hard" versus the "soft" experience and elected the latter (partly because I had read that of course, everyone chose "hard").  I agree with this reviewer that the light within the cell feels almost viscous at times (I suspect that a generous admixture of UV light with a color produces this effect).  The first time the lights blacked out entirely, I momentarily wondered if I had lost my sight.  The auditory portion of the experience, fed in through headphones, added to the sense of detachment.  You could neither see nor hear the outside world, it was as if it had simply melted away and I was suspended in a bath of pure light.

My experience of the cell was entirely fortuitous —tickets to the cell are sold out for the remainder of the exhibition, but there happened to be a cancellation on the afternoon I was visiting and I was able to secure a ticket (thanks to the helpful staff woman at the will call).  I'm grateful, too, to the art professor from San Francisco, who pounced me just after I emerged.  I sat there putting on my shoes while she tried to get me to articulate what I had experienced.  I doubt I would have retained as much detail if she had not.

Photo is of spiral galaxy NGC 406, NASA.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Zombies revisited

Crash and Math Man were due to rendezvous in a Chicago airport tonight, then fly home to Philly.  Crash's plane had mechanical difficulties and had to return to Seattle.  He's still waiting for a flight to Chicago, so won't get to Philly until tomorrow.  Meanwhile, Math Man's plane is delayed.    The Boy and I are beat, a combination of late nights, early mornings and jet lag. Zombie-like would be a good description.

Meanwhile, Crash is passing the time writing about zombies other than his family.  Better yet, he writing about the odd culture he has encountered on his travels:

"3:58 PM PDT - I approach the altar. The red-clad priestess assures me that we will take care of you. I do not who this we is, but she hands me numerous slips of paper. One, she insists, is worth much money and the others will grant me passage home. It looks like no money I have yet seen in this strange land, but I accept it and await further instructions."  And the revolt....