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, " 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....

Friday, August 09, 2013

The Courage to Blink: Poetry and Spiritual Direction

What does it mean to be religious? What does it mean to be a religious writer? a religious poet?

Tim O'Brien SJ courageously plunges into these waters at The Jesuit Post, writing about Krista Tippet's recent interview with poet Marie Howe. (H/T to Fran and her daily FB round-up). Can you be a religious poet without intending to be a religious poet?

Meanwhile, a recent op-ed in the New York Times is looking at people who subscribe to a belief in higher power, but profess to be atheists. (Though I have to admit the first thought I had when I read anthropologist Tanya Luhrman's excellent and thought provoking op-ed "Addicted to Prayer" was not "wow, this a great piece to use in my class on contemplative practices to start the conversation about whether they need to be embedded in a particular tradition" but that the young woman who was so distressed by the intensity of her prayer needed a spiritual director.)

My response to this pair of articles is currently up at CatholicPhilly
"Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton once wrote, “Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to Him, being attentive to Him, requires a lot of courage and know-how.”

When it comes to being spiritual and religious, perhaps the poets can give us the courage to see the world with different eyes — eyes of faith — and the spiritual directors can help us develop the wisdom to know when to blink."
 Read the rest at

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Python mom

The Boy got a Raspberry Pi (a small very, very inexpensive computer) from his uncle, Geek Guru, for Christmas. He brought it with him to California and yesterday the two of them spent much of the day trying to get an LED to light up on command. They downloaded and updated, The Boy learned some vi (an editor), some more Python (a programming language). The LED lit up, it flashed, a series of LEDs flashed. There was much cheering coming from the dining room.

He wanted to play again tonight, but Geek Guru went out to dinner with his wife No-No Nannette (for their 25th wedding anniversary). So I'm sitting at the kitchen table listening to The Boy gripe about the vagaries of using vi to edit a file on a Mac (the mapping of commands to keys is a bit of an issue). I taught him to keep a backup of a working piece of code, and to edit only the copy. I advised on Python where I could (I'm a pale substitute for my brother on this one; Geek Guru is a nationally recognized Python expert).

I helped him figure out one bug in his Python code, and when the LED lit up, he leaned over to me and said, "You are the best mom ever." You've heard of tiger moms? I'm a python mom.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Outsourced prayer

I subscribe to a service that will do the occasional task for me — or at least anything legal that can be done by someone with a phone, internet connection and common sense. It's great for scheduling and for tracking down odd bits of this and that. This morning they rolled out a beta test of a new service, which looks at my calendar and suggests which task they might be able to take off my hands. So I awoke to an email which offered to take "morning prayer" off my hands every day.

When I joked about this in the kitchen this morning, my sister-in-law No-No said, "but isn't that what the monks are for?" True enough, priests, deacons and religious offer the Liturgy of the Hours on behalf of the Church, so that we can rise to Paul's challenge in Thessalonians to "pray unceasingly."

For the record, I didn't take them up on the offer — though I wonder what they would have done if I'd send them the texts — or a link to the Virtual Abbey? It's legal.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Light from light

The Boy spent today visiting two colleges in LA near my brother The Artiste. He had an interview, an information session and a tour at each. The (always very independent) Boy and Crash went to the information sessions and took the tours, while Math Man and I wandered around the campuses, checking out the science buildings. I saw a sign pointing the way toward a James Turrell Skyscape and got excited.

I had seen some of Turrell's work in Japan two years ago. The interplay of light with light in Turrell's work is breathtakingly beautiful (perhaps literally, to view one of the pieces in his current exhibit at the LA County Museum of Art you must sign a waiver  that you understand the potential health hazards in viewing). The solidity of some of the forms Turrell creates from light fascinates my quantum mechanical persona. Matter is not as solid as you think, you can diffract electrons and helium atoms — they act as if they are light. You can write a wave equation to describe molecules, just like light. Turrell makes the case that light is more solid than you think. Maybe I will take my quantum mechanics class on a field trip to the Guggenheim in NYC before the exhibit there closes.

The Skyscape installation at Pomona runs every morning beginning 100 minutes before sunrise (and again at sunset, starting about half an hour before the sun sets). The sky is framed above water, and you sight and contemplate the deep blue plane that seems to be suspended over your head. It's contemplative, slowly unfolding. It fosters patient attention.

This afternoon we're off to see the Turrell exhibit at LACMA.