Monday, May 27, 2013

Postcards from the silence: On retreat

I'm off on retreat tomorrow, back in a week and a day.  While waiting for the last load of laundry to finish up, I checked the weather.  Hot, in the 90's.  Which made me think of a conversation a couple of years back about coping with the heat on retreat, which led to rediscover this post from last year about what might be hatching in my life on retreat....

What does the Holy Spirit think I ought to be incubating this year in the heat and the silence?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Ignatian Life: On the utility of doorstops

What might an inflatable moose head, first vows in the Society of Jesus and doorstops have in common?

Crash's post on his college packing list — which included a recommendation about doorstops — prompted me to write a bit here last week about open and closed doors.  Then I wrote a bit more at This Ignatian Life.  (Repetition is a feature, not a bug, in Ignatian spirituality.)
I’ve periodically returned to those questions (usually when I run into the prayer card from that occasion [First Vows] that is tucked into my breviary). How flexible is my heart, can it expand? What am I passionate about? Where do I desire to be able to love, and to love, not in the abstract, but in my practical day to day existence?
Mike’s doorstop, drawn straight from one of the passions of his life, makes me think about the doorstops of my heart. What do I use to keep my heart open so that I can love — God and neighbor — passionately, abundantly, joyfully?
Read the rest at This Ignatian Life.

I note I still have more questions than answers about what holds my heart open, which may not be such a bad thing on the cusp of retreat.  I'm off on Tuesday for 8 days of silence...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mixed marriages

I'm in a mixed marriage, but it's probably not quite what you think.

My introductory chemistry class this year was about evenly divided between those who had a feel for the temperature in Fahrenheit1, and those who did in Celsius.  I'd ask whether some temperature we'd calculated was reasonable or not (typically in Celsius and often prefaced with "what is that roughly in Fahrenheit?") Half my classroom was then doing quick calculations in their heads (or digging out calculators), the other half rolling their eyes.

Last Friday Math Man and I were headed to see the new Star Trek movie the other night and he wondered how cold it was.  I looked at my dash, 16.5°.  My first thought was how can it be that cold? Oh. Right.

"The Boy set my car to metric," I explained to Math Man.  He spent enough time in Canada to be with the rolling eyes set in my class.

"Well, at least he didn't set it to Kelvin2," Math Man consoled.

"I would have been happier.  I have a better gut feeling for Kelvin than for Celsius," I sheepishly admitted, "300 K is a very warm room."

Math Man just looked at me.  He thought he knew what he was getting into when he made a mixed marriage.  It's just that he thought we were a Celsius-Fahrenheit couple, not a Celsius-Kelvin mix.

I am really a geek.  Sigh.

1.  If you've ever wondered what zero on the Fahrenheit scale corresponds to in nature, read about frigorific (yes, that is really a word) mixtures and what that might have to do with temperature scales on my other blog.
2.  For the non-geeky among my readers, Kelvin is an absolute temperature scale, where each degree is the same size as a Celsius degree, but where the starting temperature is absolute zero, the coldest it can be.3
3.  If you mess with quantum mechanics, you can get (slightly) colder than absolute zero.  Read about that here.

Photo is from the Science Museum of London via Wikimedia.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A rushing wind

These days I often sit outside at night to pray.  The back yard is cloistered by summer's greenery, and should there be a full moon, it will be perfectly framed between the enormous cypress and my neighbor's unimaginably tall apple tree.  The view is lovely, but it's the soundscape that I find most attractive.  Though I live more than a mile and a half (as the bird flies) from a major highway, at night I can hear the traffic rush by, like a river just at the edge of my awareness.  The sound of the wind rustling through the tall trees far above my head always makes me think of the Spirit, ever stirring the pot, even when I can't otherwise feel or see her movements.

This morning at Mass, in the silence after the homily, I realized that behind me I could hear a once familiar sound in my life:  tiny cars being pushed along a wood surface.  The young gentleman was being (for such a young gentleman, he might have been all of two) very quiet, but in this acoustically lively space, still audible.  This, I realized, was the sound of the Spirit, rushing in to build up the Church.

I could hear, too, the off the cuff comments of the man who still faithfully comes to Mass with his wife, despite his progressing dementia.   He is not a fan of the silence, grumbling today, "Why doesn't the lector just get on with it!" and can't remember the words to the new translation.  Fr. Dennis' chanted "The Lord be with you," garners a firmly spoken "And also with you." He is a sign of the ways in which this moment is firmly anchored into all those other celebration of the Eucharist, all the way back to the first.  He may not get the silence, but Peter didn't get the washing of the feet, either.   This translation, that translation; we are still Church and the Lord is with us, as it was in the beginning, is now and forever will be.  This is the sound of the Spirit, praying in us when we can no longer find will or words.

The Spirit gives us ears to hear what those we might prefer stayed home to "watch the Mass on TV" or were in the cry room have to say to us.  We are all Church, we are all living stones, we require each other.

For another take on the how to hear Pentecost, read Fran's thought provoking reflection at There Will Be Bread: I believe in the Holy Spirit...and other annoyances.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


Crash has a week of down time between the end of his finals and the start of WJU's1 summer presession (which is followed by the regular summer session).  Starting next Monday, he is taking Ancient Greek, putting the polish on the equivalent of two years of Greek.  After spending all day, every day for three weeks in Greek class, I expect to pick him up speaking fluent (ancient) Greek.  Or at least reading it.  In the meantime, he is reflecting about his freshman year on his blog (like mother, like son — except that he can write poetry and fiction.)

Even though it has been many years since I finished my first year in college (36 to be precise) his latest post on the utility of doorstops has me thinking about the doors (metaphorical and literal) that I make an effort to keep open, those that have been blown shut by an errant breeze and I haven't bothered to reopen — and those that I've jammed shut and painted over.

My orationis angulus was made by pulling the doors off a large awkwardly shaped closet in my study.  Crash holds the door open to let new people and experiences drift into his life.  So what was I saying when I created this space for prayer, with no doors at all? There are no boundaries. Can I bring this utter openness to my prayer?  Does it enable the prayer to pour back into my life?

Photo is of doors to chapel at the old Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville.  Note the doorstop!

1. WJU = Wonderful Jesuit University

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dancing with the Holy Spirit: Arts & Faith

The drawings in the photo are by Osamu Nakamura, an artist who lives a simple heremetic life in the mountains of Japan.  The contemplative traditions course I taught a couple of years ago spent two days visiting with Nakamura-san, getting a sense for how this sort of life looked on a daily basis — and enjoying a chance to do some art ourselves in a place that was steeped in solitude and silence.

I had visited Nakamura-san's aerie a few months earlier, and shared the photos with a friend who is a stained glass artist, who then created a beautiful piece of stained glass that we gave to Nakamura when we returned.

Wayne designed the piece while on retreat at Wernersville's Jesuit Center, which had more than one connection to the class.  Much of Wayne's work embeds shards of the prayerful silence, as he reflects in a post earlier this week.

When I made the Exercises at Eastern Point, at the start of the retreat a box showed up, containing a note from Wayne (who had recently completed the Exercises) and a jewel-toned star.  It hung in my window throughout the 30-day retreat, a potent reminder of the beauty that comes from letting the Light shine through you, rather than bounce back.  And a reminder that many others had walked these paths before us, and were praying for all of us there.

Loyola Press is launching Arts and Faith this week, celebrating the myriads of ways artists wordlessly dance with God, collaborating in acts of beauty.  Like Wayne's stained glass, through which God and light both stream through, we are each works of art, collaborations between ourselves and God.  Go take a look, and see if you can find God streaming through the people and the beautiful things they create at Arts & Faith.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Grading Day

Yes, yes I know it's Mother's Day in the Hallmark ordo (CSS has its limits, please imagine the hearts and butterflies and glitter). Math Man wished me a happy Mother's Day when I woke up this morning. "Should I make you breakfast?" "Truly, I just want a cup of tea and a cinnamon roll." (Note that this does not constitute breakfast in Math Man's book!)  There is a pause. "Does that mean just put the water on to boil for you?"  Absolutely, that would feel like amazing pampering in my book.

I came down to find the kettle just whistling and a cinnamon bun (its plump contours peeping over the top of the soup bowl in which it had been plopped — the plates were all in the dishwasher) and the mug that makes me laugh laid out on the counter.

The chore awaiting me today, though, is not anything anyone can help me with.  I have a dozen senior papers to read and a stack of general chemistry exams to grade.  Senior grades are due tomorrow morning (in my department by 9 am).  Math Man is already sprawled on the sofa doing the same thing, while The Boy (still recuperating from Friday's prom) is gearing up to study for Monday's AP Physics exam.  Here it's all about exams and grades and papers, mothers (and the 7th Sunday of Easter, for that matter) are on the back burner.  May I wish you a "Happy Grading Day"?

Like my mother or Mary DeTurris Poust, an official Mother's Day is not a need in my book. What I treasure are all the daily reminders of the ways in which I am webbed into a warm and loving community: Crash who sends me his final essay (on prostitution in London in the 18th century?); the ephemera in my breviary, holy cards for friends' mothers — and their children; postcards from friends clipped to the board in my offices at home and work; an origami love note from The Boy, left on my keyboard one afternoon years ago — still on my desk; the flowers Math Man brings home when he does the grocery shopping; the funny notes students have been leaving on the white board on my door...

"...that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them."

Thursday, May 09, 2013

To ascend or not?

As I scrolled through my Facebook feed earlier this evening, I came across this icon posted by a friend — without seeing the punchline at the bottom.  I laughed out loud.

It made me think of last year, where I missed the celebration of the Ascension entirely.  On Ascension Thursday, I was on retreat at a monastery in a diocese where the Solemnity is transferred to Sunday, replacing the Seventh Sunday of Easter.  (Something that took me longer than it should have to work out at a 5:15 am celebration of the Office of Readings.)  On Sunday, I was in a diocese that celebrated Ascension Thursday on Ascension Thursday.  Jesus was staying for the summer it seemed?

It was awkward, it left me feeling off kilter all the way to Pentecost.  Praying the Liturgy of the Hours keeps me tuned in to the ebb and flow of the liturgical year on a more than daily basis, and when the external liturgical cues skip a beat, I notice.

The last time I missed Mass for Ascension, I was confined at home recovering from the birth of Crash.  I was hungry for the Eucharistic liturgy, as other than one outing for the funeral of my spiritual director, who had died suddenly, I had not been to Mass for two months, confined to bed with a complicated pregnancy.  That whole experience was rather like breathing through a reed underwater, the Hours dance round the Eucharist, but they do not replace it.  Today's first psalm at Lauds reminded me of that experience:  My body pines for you, like a dry, weary land without water.  Maybe that was a time when I wanted God like air.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Who is Oliver Sacks? and other complications of senescence

Signs I might be getting older:

1.  Last night I was excited to find Oliver Sacks had tweeted about my article in Slate.  Math Man wasn't home, but I told The Boy who looked at me blankly for a moment, and said, "Who is Oliver Sacks?" (I prompted "Uncle Tungsten?" which provoked a mild grunt of recognition.) Today I chatted with Crash, who said once he had looked up Oliver Sacks he could see why I was excited.

2.  A student in my office today who wondered why I needed to swap glasses to read what she wanted to show me.

3.  My doctor, who when I asked about a symptom at an appointment this morning told me, with a matter of fact air, "You're aging."  To which I actually responded with a moan.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Binge writing

The last day of classes at Bryn Mawr is better known as "the end of written work" (declaimed in the same tone James Earl Jones might use for "the end of the world as we know it.")  After 5 pm today, the only piece of work I may require of (or accept from) students is a final exam or paper.  Late work requires authorization from the dean.  So there have been flurry of very firm deadlines facing my students this week in every class, and predictably they are pretty sleep deprived.

I can empathize. I went to sleep some time after 2 am Friday morning after a day spent binge writing a piece for Slate magazine.  On many levels, this sort of writing binge can be fun.  Now that Crash is away at Wonderful Jesuit University and writing (whiling?) away the night hours at the library, I have some virtual company while on an authorial bender.  We compare progress, we commiserate, we cheer each other on — all via text message.  There is a bit of nostalgia to it all, too.  When I was in high school and college, I spent many late night hours drinking endless cups of tea and typing papers at the kitchen table.  With five younger siblings it was the only time I could be sure of quiet!

These days it's amusing to see how lively my virtual life could be at those hours.  Between their residence in other time zones and their teen-tuned circadian rhythms, many of my nieces and nephews are posting away.  Student emails fly in (are they shocked when they get an answer back at 1 am, I wonder?). All things considered, though, I prefer a more contemplative pace when I write, and the chance it brings to let my prose marinate.

Like binge drinking, binge writing has risks.  I lose perspective, though unlike alcohol1, which I suspect makes think you are better than you are, I tend to think my binge writing is awful, perhaps as bad as the paper this faculty member received.   And there is a serious downside to all that caffeine, unlike my college-aged self, I can't just topple into bed and fall asleep once I'm done.  I hit send on the email at 1:01 am, but had to wait another hour to unravel enough to climb into bed.

1.  I discovered at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop that alcohol and writing don't mix well.  It's not that it lowers my inhibition, it lowers my hourly word count. To zero.  One beer and I just sit there happily with my hands on the keyboard.  A lovely Assam on the other hand?  That works like a charm....

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Ordinary mystics

It's May, the month of May crownings (and in my Augustinian parish, St. Rita's Triduum) and final exams and graduations and tomato planting time....but what if God came calling while I was emptying the dishwasher?  Thomas Merton suggests the gift of such intimate encounters with God are "part of the normal equipment of Christian sanctity."  Is there such a thing as an ordinary mystic?  And are we brave enough to pray for the gift — or at least the desire for the gift?

"I sometimes wonder just what Mary was doing when the angel Gabriel appeared. Was she out for a long walk in the hills? Stopping to rest for a moment while hauling a heavy water jar from the village well? Or was she in the kitchen? Luke’s gospel tells us nothing. Whatever she had planned for that moment, for that day, I’m almost certain she did not imagine an angelic visitation. 
'How can this be?' she asked Gabriel. I can almost hear her thoughts, 'What are you doing here, in my kitchen, on this hillside, on the cool damp steps up from the well? Right now?'"
You can read the rest at Phaith....the photo is of my mother in roughly 1940, crowning Mary in her First Communion dress and veil, note the sea of identically veiled heads in the foreground!