Monday, January 28, 2013

Wading into Lent: An Ignatian Adventure

I'm easing into Lent this year.  Instead of gorging on chocolate or getting some Scrabble games lined up, I'm slowly clearing out some space, physical and spiritual, around the season.  I cleared out my prayer space, now that I can kneel again (woot!), and this weekend I began to walk the path of the Exercises again, in the company of Kevin O'Brien, SJ's The Ignatian Adventure (the book is here and an adapted version is here at Loyola Press' Ignatian Spirituality site, I'm using material from both.)

This time the adventure I'm headed into is not the immersive version of the Exercises envisioned by Ignatius in the 20th annotation, nor is it the embedded version he lays out in the 19th, but this extended retreat in daily life is informed more by the spirit of the 18th annotation in which Ignatius suggests that those who cannot (for many reasons) benefit from or undertake the full Exercises, might still be given that which may help them.

So, with a little encouragement and prayerful support from Patient Spiritual Director, I am diving into and out of the material that make up the Exercises, committing to spending 30 minutes in prayer with it each day from now through the octave of Easter.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

There was a plane in the Hudson river?

Four years ago I missed the inauguration.  Entirely.  I didn't hear the president's address, see the photos, or know who sang the national anthem (the Navy Chorus - I just looked it up on Wikipedia where it turns out everything I might want to know, and somewhat more, is collected).  I was away making the Spiritual Exercises and so wasn't watching TV, trolling the webs or even seeing the newspaper.  At the time I remember thinking it was strange that so many people were watching this event, and I was not.Shortly after I got home, I read the inaugural address, but I didn't do much else to catch up on the news that I had missed.

Fast forward to a year later, when I sat down with my tea and turned to page two of the newspaper to find a photo of a plane in a river. What??!  And what was it doing on page two, and why hadn't I heard anything about it on the radio?2 Because it was the anniversary of the event and the entire news cycle had come and gone while I was holed up at Eastern point on retreat.  Which was somewhat of a relief, I will admit.

This year I listened to the inaugural address on the radio, and saw it through the eyes of Crash who walked from WJU to the Mall to see it.   But as I sit here, on the edge of Lent, it has me wondering what I'm looking for in the news (and despite my abstinence from television, make no mistake about it, I am a news junky), why do I read it?  It's clear that the universe will continue to turn whether or not I know about it.

1.  I also missed the SuperBowl, but didn't think about that until just this minute.
2.  Full disclosure, I don't watch TV3 even when I'm not on a 30-day silent retreat.  It not a political or any other kind of statement, I just slowly fell out of the habit about fifteen years ago.
3.  Well, I do watch the occasional series on the interwebs.  Downton Abbey.  Mad Men.  Scandal (!)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Homilies: What does Joe Six Pew hear?

Several friends have been reflecting about the homilies they heard this weekend.  Some of them heard homilies that challenged them (though one certainly not in a way that was helpful) and others homilies that failed to.

The conversations reminded me of an article in the Irish Times a few years back, sparked by the publication of some guidelines for effective preaching by Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, where reporters evaluated homilies at ten parishes: Did the homilies deliver a relevant message, did they connect with congregations, and did they follow recent Vatican guidelines on sermons?

A sample:

"The message : The celebrant spoke in very abstract terms on the topic of forgiveness. To believe in sin, he argued, one must believe in God. A non-believer has a conscience. But while a believer can ask and receive the Lord's forgiveness, a non-believer must live with his guilt for the rest of his life. This, he speculated, must be a great source of pain and unhappiness to the non-believer. 

The timing : At three minutes and thirty seconds, it was actually well within the eight minute time limited suggested by Archbishop Etervoic. 

The delivery : The celebrant spoke without notes and maintained eye contact with the congregation throughout. His delivery was faltering, however. Seated in the middle of the church, I could not decipher all of what was said. 

Did it feel like a weeks work? Frankly, no. The gospel was the parable of the Prodigal Son. If the celebrant had wished to reference contemporary social issues, there was much to work with. Instead, he confined himself to generic observations on a perennial theme. His sermon referenced no contemporary social issue or even that days gospel. "

A couple of years ago, I wrote a short piece which appeared on the PrayTell blog about what I thought constituted a good homily in which I suggested that it might be useful for homilists to ask their congregations what they heard — and what they didn't — in a homily.

I have never been in a parish where that is a regular practice, and yes, yes, I can imagine all the horrible things that might happen (since my teaching has been regularly evaluated in narrative form — not little check boxes — by my students for the last 25 years).  People might (will!) say all manner of things, from the innocuous (and singularly unhelpful) "good homily" to the "should never be permitted in the pulpit again."  But this is more than an exercise in humility or delight, for along the way, if one has "ears to hear," there is much to be learned not only about your teaching/preaching, but about the community you serve.  What are the words they need to hear?

Since I think it unlikely that many parishes offer the opportunity to give feedback, I'll make the invitation here: what did you hear preached this weekend? What did you wish you heard?  Perhaps if I ask this question every week we can start a groundswell, not of complaint, but of prayerfully reflecting back the Word as it did, or did not, take flesh each week in the homily.

One ground rule:  please don't identify the where or the who; you can comment anonymously on this blog to avoid inadvertently doing so!

Who is Joe Six Pew?  The "man in the pew" at ePriest's homily builder (which will let you click off on a menu and print out a homily — though I would be hard pressed to call it "your homily" as the site does).  Joe has helpful feedback for the homilist constructing a homily such as:  "If you give me too many practical applications, I may end up trying to bite off more than I can chew. Are you sure you want to take the risk?"

Don't need a customized homily?  You can buy full texts "poignantly written to help make a meaningful connection with your congregation" here. $8.95 gets you 618 words for the funeral of a child.

The Irish Times article is alas behind a pay wall.  If you want a copy, send me an email!

Read some of Fr. Jim McDermott SJ's reflections on what it is like to be on the other side of the pulpit:

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Always, we begin again.  Conversion, in the Rule of St. Benedict, carries the sense of circular motion.  Conversio, a coming back again to the work at hand, to the life of the monastic community.  I may return to the new day with my relationship with God yet deeper, I may return to try again where I have missed the mark.  Each day, I begin again.

It's rather like my computer, when all else fails, I re-boot it, stopping what is in motion, clearing out the memory cache.  Begin again.

To begin again implies stopping, perhaps even resting.  I started physical therapy for my ankle this week (which has also has me thinking about the inflicting of sensible pain, but that is an entirely different post!).  As ligaments and bones begin to knit and range of motion has increased -- and as swelling has gone down, yesterday I did what I haven't done in a month.  Put on a left shoe. And walk without the orthopedic boot.  2500 steps.

At the end of the day my physical therapist looked at my swollen and once again black and blue ankle and re-booted me.  Stop,  rest.  Wear the boot.  And today, I begin again.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Downtown Abbey and Star Trek: A comparison of methods for obtaining aqueous extracts of Camellia sinensis

It was a gray day in Philadelphia, the fog never quite lifted, making the view from my study window look like a black and white photograph. Layer upon layer of trees stripped bare by winter fading into the mists. I was writing, working on an essay due later this week, and when the middle of the afternoon rolled around, I wanted a cup of tea.

As I made up a tray in the kitchen, warming the pot, and filling the sugar bowl, I imagined what it might be like to live at Downton Abbey. I would ring the bell and tell Carson that I'd like tea. It would arrive steaming hot on a silver tray, irregular lumps of sugar piled in a bowl, lemon slices fanned out on a tray. Carson would slide the tray onto the table next to the desk and quietly pour me a cup before easing out the door.

Or perhaps I have a post on the USS Enterprise. I could say to the air, "Tea. Assam. Hot, with sugar and lemon." A sleek white mug would shiver into being in the replicator slot in the wall next to my desk, steam curling above its surface. A discrete chime reminds me to grab it before it gets cold.

Instead, I put the tea pot on the tray and carefully carry it up to my study, where I pour a cup and sip strength from its steamy caffeinated contents. I'm Daisy, Carson and the Dowager Countess, all rolled into one.  But the tray is silver (for which I paid $1 at the thrift shop, #lifeonthemainline)...

I once stayed in a house that had "staff" while traveling with my parents.  (My father was on business and I was being a companion to my mother.  The company he was visiting put us up there.) After a rather formal dinner, I was asked if I wanted coffee or tea on my morning tray.  "Tea, please."  The next morning, while I was in the shower, a tray appeared with a pot of tea.  Hot.  This, is my view, was the height of luxury.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Wade Into the Water

I love the gentle and insistent tone of this version of the late 19th century spiritual Wade Into the Water.

We can be unwelcoming, if not downright judgmental, toward those who work in God's name outside of our own institution and with those who are on the margins. I've read a number of examples recently which support a teaching of the Church by saying that it is justified because the people who have violated it are old, have bad voices and poor taste in liturgy (see this one). I'm tired of a Catholic debate that lowers itself to mocking and jeering.  "Is it not a great cruelty for us Christians, members of the body of the Holy Church, to attack one another?" suggested St. Catherine of Siena.  Enough.  Enough. Enough.

But the prophets among us wade into the troubled waters regardless, and for the most part, they are uninterested in wasting breath on debates and somewhat more focussed on breathing life into the places God walks in "distressing disguise" (to quote one such, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.)

As we wade back into ordinary time, where are the troubled waters, where are the distressed, and am I willing to wade in to fish them out?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

I return it all....

Crash went back to Wonderful Jesuit University this week.  Math Man was at the national math meeting (which to balance out the MLA on the East Coast was held on the West Coast).  Driving distances for me is tough as I'm still booted (my foot, not the car), so I sent him back by train and UPS.  (To be clear, Crash went by train, a large box of his stuff, including the two pillows he grabbed to prop up my foot on the way home, went via UPS.)

As I put him on the train, a line from Ignatius' Suscipe ran through my head, id tibi totum restituo — to You I return it all.  I stood there watching him go up the steps of the train, the conductor looked at me and said, "He'll be fine."  True, but I pray these words somewhat differently these days.  It's one thing to offer to return my (intangible) gifts, I don't have to watch them vanish down the tracks.  It's quite another to offer to return what I nourished inside of me and kept safe under my pinions.

I miss his company in the kitchen, he's a companionable and serious cook, but he's still finding time to bake.  Read his tale of baking Jesuit bread (Wernersville's Brother's bread from the Secrets of Jesuit Bread Baking) at his Jesuit school....

Gold is red and squirrels are purple? Yes and no.

I love color, particularly the subtle way in which it reveals the workings of the universe, and hints at the deeper mysteries hidden inside each molecule.  In midsummer, wearing my science writer hat I guested at Margaret Almon's blog, writing about turning gold into red glass.

Now thanks to Stratoz, I'm musing about purple squirrels (though not in this sense) and imperial violet (Tyrian purple), the structure of which is shown at the left, on my other blog.

A beautiful photo of Tyrian purple in the wild (explore the rest of this Tumblr, do).

If you are curious about the many ways in which color manifests, browse this beautiful web exhibit:  Causes of Color.  Safe for the science tentative!

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

This Ignatian Life: The Art of Packing a Camel

I have ridden a camel at an oasis in the desert, but I freely admit I've never had to pack one.  I realize that there is no evidence in the biblical accounts that the magi came by camel, but as Ignatian composition of place doesn't demand a slavish attention to historical detail...I'm free to imagine a camel breathing down my neck.

I learned on the Exercises that there is an art to packing a camel. I learned to ask the questions that the magi must have faced with a long journey ahead, where the weight of what you carry could — quite literally — drain the life from your camels. Where you might have to sit on what you had packed, so that with each passing mile the lumps and edges of your luggage gives you, as well as your camels, galls. Where balance is not a metaphor, but a hard reality.

Read the rest at This Ignatian Life.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory....

"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 The Journey of the Magi

Four years ago last night —  in the dead of winter, on the vigil of Epiphany — I walked (resolutely so my notes say) out of the dining room at Eastern Point retreat house and into the Spiritual Exercises.  Thirty days in silence.

Like Eliot's magus, I had had a long journey there, at a time of year not known for smooth travel in the Northeast, though it required not so much that I follow a star, but that the stars in my life align.  A sabbatical leave, children of an age that I could leave for a few weeks, openings in the winter retreat....somehow it all fell into place and just before Epiphany of 2009 I found myself putting a large duffel and two pillows in the back of my Mini and heading north.

A hard time we had of it. 
At the end we preferred to travel all night, 
Sleeping in snatches...

Eliot's poem evokes such strong memories of my retreat: I, too, had a hard time the first week.  And in the end, I preferred to pray all night, and slept in snatches.  There was a Birth.  And a Death. And most certainly the journey "was (you may say) satisfactory."

At the moment, though, I resonate most with those sore-footed camels.  Before I whine, let me say that my left ankle and foot are healing, albeit slowly.  I'm still in "the boot," but can tolerate some weight-bearing and have significantly more range of motion than even a few days ago.  My galls (the abrasions on my ankles) are nearly completely healed.  I start physical therapy on Friday and hope to graduate to a brace shortly.  Now for the whine:  I feel about as graceful as a camel, in or out of the boot.

Photo is of what I wore for cantoring at the Epiphany vigil.  Bought in Singapore, it seemed just the right thing to wear to remember the kings who came from the East, and besides all those sequins distract you from the boot!

Listen to T.S. Eliot read The Journey of the Magi here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Fiat Lux: Solemnity of Mary

Even on the clearest of winter nights, Philadelphia's stars lack the sharp edges of their rural counterparts.  Light blurs the sky here year round, leaving me perennially surprised by the army of bright burning flames set into the expanse of heaven that arcs over my dad's farm.  The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

Time and space are crumpled and Hopkins' glints shake free from the foil of the universe, light streaming from their edges.  Light from Light.

I walked tonight, the sound of the wind shimmering in the trees, hungering for the clarity of those skies.  Listening.  Listening.  Listening.  For the Word that set all this into play.  Fiat lux....

A view of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Used under a Creative Commons license. Source is here.