Saturday, April 27, 2013

Postcards from silence: new vistas at Wernersville

I wrung 18 hours of silence out of last week's chaos.  Time enough for a conversation with Patient Spiritual Director and a long walk.  In the decade or so I have been visiting the old Jesuit Novitiate at Wernersville, I had never walked the path to the northeast corner, which overlooks Reading.  My ankle is healed enough to go "off-road" at last, so I walked down the hedgerows and looped back up the hill and to the overlook to take in this new-to-me view.  A reminder that even in the silence, the world is still there.

The next morning a large group was visiting for breakfast, a talk and tour.  In the face of this crowd I was taking my cues from Arsenius: fuge, tace, quiesce.  Wend my way through the babbling conversation in the dining room to the kitchen, make a cup of tea, and flee for the stillness and quiet of the eastern cloister.  On my way in, I saw what I had never seen before at Wernersville, a man in a navy blue jacket and tie striding down the first floor corridor, coat tails flying and talking a mile a minute on his cell phone, "The place is so (f*ng) uh, you know, enormous."  The expletive was (barely) edited out as he turned his head and caught sight of the open doors of the chapel.

Despite my desperate need for the silence, the morning's noise felt joyful.  This was just another new vista.  The world is still here, not held at arm's length from the stillness, but burrowed right into its center.
For a visual walk through a day at Wernersville, see this post by Robin (we managed to overlap for 40 delightfully liminal minutes).  Her photos beautifully capture the vast stillness and warmth of the place.

Margaret Almon writes here of her husband's visits to Wernersville, along with some photos of the art to be found within.

The scent of dandelions

I had forgotten the scent of dandelions.  At least until Tuesday, when in the early evening, I walked down a sun drenched hedgerow at the old Jesuit novitiate and was sent tumbling back into my childhood where the scent of dandelions wafted into my backyard from the vast expanse of lawn between the convent and St. Luke's parish church.

The smell heralded release.  The end of the school day, the end of the school year must be near when the scent of dandelions and new grass wafted through my backyard.

These days spring smells of licorice root mulch and with a whiff ozone from the copier ceaselessly churning out final exams.  I miss the scent of dandelions drifting through my window.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A hermeneutic of exhaustion

The last few weeks have been draining — for the most part unbloggably so.  I have a half-dozen blog posts sitting in "draft" mode, all languishing not such much because of what I say but because of what I don't say.  There is something about trying to write around the various elephants that have taken up residence on my desk, are calling me on the phone, and stomping around my family that I find siphons energy and life away from my words.  That, and my clear sense that despite all the mess my pachyderms are making, my life hasn't in anyway been upended in the ways that many others' have been this week — or even that my life has been in past Aprils.

The ability to see consolation in times of chaos is one grace I find in the Examen.  It's not the grace of a pair of rose colored glasses, it is a set of spectacles that bring both joys and difficulties into clear focus.  There is something about being able to delineate both the joys and difficulties of a day one by one, laying each before God with gratitude or with the request for healing and solace, that keeps the two in proper tension.  Chaos does not swamp out the joys, but neither does joy tuck the chaos under the rug.

One thing I see clearly at the moment:  I'm tired.  Time to take off my rose spectacles and go to bed.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Alleluia sans trumpets

 Several years ago, during the Easter season, the daughter of a friend received communion for the first time. Profoundly handicapped, she cannot see, walk or speak, but she adores music, and I love watching her face when I cantor the psalm. But when the alleluia burst forth, it so startled her that she lost her usual grin. I felt awful, though her father assured me afterwards that it was just that she couldn't see it coming. Literally!

Eric Whitacre's still and gentle Alleluia wouldn't startle anyone I suspect. I find in the frenzy of the end of the semester, following upon the intensity of the early part of this liturgical season, I don't always want my allelluias with trumpet blasts. The depth and stillness of this version sings to me of the enduring and healing grace of the resurrection in ways that the trumpets do not.  It's a balm...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Can I call you Katie? More tales from the conference

I was struck at a workshop for science students when one of the presenters asked for a volunteer from the audience. He asked her name, and when she replied, "Katherine," he asked if he could call her Katie.  I wondered if a male student had said, "James," he would have asked if he could call him Jimmy.  Given that two slides later he had a photograph of a student titled "James," perhaps not.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Snoring scholars and other scenes from the chemistry conclave

The Boy and I are presently on a plane back from New Orleans, the city of my birth.  I left Philly early Sunday morning (4:30 am early) to catch a plane packed with chemists.  It used to be you could spot the pilgrims by their copies of Chemical & Engineering News, browsing the program.

The signs that point to a traveling chemist are a bit more subtle these days. The young ones have long tubes slung over their shoulders, their work laid out on a poster, rolled up, ready to hang and defend to all comers.  The older ones wear khakis, sport jackets and blue button down shirts with no ties (if they are male, and the majority of them still are) and carry battered laptop bags, their smart phones tucked into their jacket pockets.  

There are a lot of tired people in the meeting pipeline.  The person next to me on the flight from Philly sat down, fastened her seat belt and promptly fell asleep a good quarter hour before we pushed back from the gate. I was impressed with her efficient exhaustion.  Alas, she snored from PHL to Atlanta.  As did the poor student sitting in the back of the room where I waiting to give my talk on Sunday afternoon. She was propped against the wall, dead to the world and....snoring. 

I walked an average of 9 miles a day (yes, I measured it using a pedometer).  I ate several amazing meals at unfancy places, snagged beignets at Cafe du Monde twice a day every day.  (Note to self: Do not attempt this in black pants that you plan on wearing the rest of the day.)  I bought a sun hat made by a local artist.  And I very much enjoyed watching my research students (including The Boy) present their research, they were awesome!

Thursday, April 04, 2013

The professor, the blind men and the elephant

One of the introductory writing courses has an assignment to interview faculty in fields they might major in about their scholarly writing process.  I did three of these interviews in the last week; as I did the third I realized that it was rather like the Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant.  Each touched a part and extrapolated to the whole.

My interviewers each left having explored one or two facets of who I was as a writer and how I worked, but none have quite the whole of it as the starting point was my scholarly writing on my research in quantum mechanics (a particularly arcane example thereof is here).

One student did ask me if I ever wrote about anything besides chemistry.  Yes, I assured her, I did.  But she didn't ask me anything else about it.

"Blind monks examining an elephant" by Itcho Hanabusa, photograph of woodcut from the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

On the Ignatian Adventure: Joy is the surest sign

At some level, the Spiritual Exercises never end, they simply flow out into everyday life - what some people call the Fifth Week.  Still, I am missing the discipline of this particular way of being intimate with God....

I love this bit of water, caught at just this moment of joy.  Blink and you might have missed it.  This last movement of the Exercises lets me be more attuned to what Easter joy looks like when it suddenly even the most unexpected places.

You can read my last reflection for the Ignatian Prayer Adventure on joy and God's joy in our presence at DotMagis.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Teen Jeopardy: The answer is

Played in my study:

"I know the answer will be no, but I'm going to ask you anyway.."

And the question?

(a)  Can I have (the newly repaired) car?
(b)  Do you have $5 I could have for lunch?
(c)  Do you have a copy of the Bryn Mawr Commentary on Lysias?'s (c).  Crash had 20 lines of Greek to translate.  But one car is back from the shop, all shiny and undented.  Woot!