Thursday, March 27, 2014

Give Me A Word: Seeking Patience in Prayer

John Colobos is otherwise known as John the Dwarf, or John the Short.  My favorite story about him is the one where he keeps forgetting about the man with the camel who came to pick up his weaving.  And there are days when I am jealous of St. Simon's pillar.

This column appeared at on 27 March 2014.

“Abba Poemen said of Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.” — from the Apothegmata Patrum, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers

The ashes have long been washed off our faces, and despite the stacks of bright yellow peeps and chocolate bunnies in the grocery aisles, Easter seems immeasurably far off. Time seems to have been sucked into a black hole in these middle weeks of Lent, my prayer feels stale and frozen. I struggle to get out of the sludge that trips me up.

It is said that St. Simon the Stylite spent 47 years living on a pillar in the desert, praying and offering spiritual counsel to those willing to climb fifty feet up a ladder to speak with him. In some ways, I suspect that remaining constant in prayer, day in and day out, is harder by far than spending 47 years on a pillar in the desert. And I think the desert mothers and fathers knew it. Inevitably our attention wanders, we lose our resolve, our energy flags. What then?

Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior, a disciple of St. Anthony the Great and an early desert solitary, that every single day he made a fresh beginning. The famously persistent Abba John Colobos, who watered a piece of dry wood every day for three years until it sprouted green leaves said, “When you arise at dawn each day, make a fresh start in every virtue, with great patience.” We need, says Abba John, to be patient with ourselves.

In an audience with high school students last year, a young man asked Pope Francis for advice on his struggle to live a life of faith. Walking is an art, the Pope told him candidly. It is the art of looking up to see where you are going, to grasp what your destiny is. It is the art of being attentive to the ground you are walking on, so you don’t stumble, and so that you understand the country side you are walking through, and know the people you are walking with.

But above all, suggested the Pope, the art of walking isn’t so much having the skill to stay on your feet as it is the art of getting up again, and again, for we all will fall. Pope Francis ended by saying, “You won’t be afraid of the journey?”

“Be careful about praying for patience,” a friend advises, “lest God give you chances to practice.” Stuck in the mud of Lent’s middle, I’m praying for patience, practicing standing up. Each day a fresh start, I am unafraid of the journey.

To read from Scripture:
The Israelites feel forsaken in the desert, they grumble, but God sends them manna to eat. Exodus 16:1-15

To pray:
Psalm 130, the De profundis, named for the first two words of the psalm in Latin.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
O let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleading.

If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is found forgiveness:
for this we revere you.

My soul is waiting for the Lord.
I count on his word.
My soul is longing for the Lord
more than watchman for daybreak.
Let the watchman count on daybreak
and Israel on the Lord.

Because with the Lord there is mercy
and fullness of redemption,
Israel indeed he will redeem
from all its iniquity.

To listen:

Composer Michel Richard Delalande’s setting of the De profundis opens with a dark baritone solo, then gradually spirals up into an exquisite harmony.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Out of the depths

More than watchmen for the morning...

It's been a tough winter, and a tougher Lent so far.  A tincture of agere contra  has been prescribed, so I will refrain from listing what has beset and besieged me (frankly much of this I could not blog, though I keep saying I could put it a novel) and merely say that I'm keeping my eyes fixed on the graces, like the watchman for the morning.  I'm hoping to see hope.  Hope is patience with the lamp lit.  Tertullian.


Sitting on the floor last night, with a wide-eyed baby in my lap, talking with her young mother about the longing for an uninterrupted night's sleep I had when The Boy was that age, listening to her worries and hopes.

A smudge of violet crocuses on the hillside next to campus.

A pot of bolognese sauce on the stove.

The letter that said The Boy has a place at college next fall. "Good news is enclosed" it said on the front.

Out of the depths, O Lord, I cry to you.
Lord, hear my voice...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Give Me a Word: Abba Paul and a measure of lentils

When I think of lentils and desert fathers, I always think of poet Marilyn Nelson's Abba Jacob and the Theologian:

…the theologian interrupts her first
spoonful of lentils
to lean forward again
and cut off the flow of God.
Reverend Father, she asks,
what is the highest spiritual virtue? Abba Jacob looks to heaven
and groans.
“Humor,” he says.
“Not seriously, of course.”

This is the third in a series reflecting on the desert fathers and mother and the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving written for

This column appeared at on 17 March 2014 and the picture is not Abba Paul -  points for anyone who knows who it actually is.

“They used to say of Abba Paul that he lived through Lent on a measure of lentils and a small pot of water.” — from the “Apothegmata Patrum,” the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers

By four in the afternoon on Ash Wednesday, I had a headache. I was crabby. I was distracted. I was fasting and I was hungry.

I was sitting though a 90-minute academic lecture on food insecurity in the United States, and if I were not aware enough of what it was like to be hungry when most of the people around me were not, the people sitting on either side of me were relishing the cookies and chips provided as refreshments.

My mind kept wandering from the numbers and maps on the screen to what I would have for dinner. Time and again I dragged my thoughts back from my own hunger to listen again to how so many of my brothers and sisters go without the food they need.

How did Abba Paul the Great manage to get through all of Lent on just lentils and water? Is it easier in a desert where the reminders of scarcity are all around you? Are the temptations quieter when no one is savoring a cookie two feet away? Probably not. It would seem from the advice they gave, that many of the desert fathers and mothers struggled with fasting, too.

As Catholics we are obliged to fast, metaphorically tied to the Lenten practice of hunger. Yet Evagrius, a fourth century desert father known for his sharply practical advice on prayer and the spiritual life, suggests that fasting is not purely a burden, but can free us.

Hunger, Evagrius says, allows us to enjoy even the simplest of food. It also frees our resources to help those for whom hunger is not an occasional spiritual discipline, but a regular physical reality. These resources are not just monetary, but give us eyes open to the subtle signs of hunger around us.

I tend to think of hunger as a personal practice, as something that sharpens my appetite for God, something that strips away excess. But many people, including almost one quarter of all the children in America, do not have the luxury of electing hunger as a spiritual practice. They are simply hungry.

In the midst of one of the richest nations on earth, children go hungry. Here in Philadelphia, children go hungry. Here, in my neighborhood, people are hungry tonight. Not because they are electing to fast, but because as individuals and communities we are unable to free the physical and spiritual resources to feed them.

We heard in the readings on the first Friday in Lent Isaiah’s full-throated and unsparing call for repentance to the Israelites: do not go about wearing of sackcloth and ashes, but instead God desires we share our bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when we see them, and not turn our backs on our own (Is 58:1-9a).

This Lent, I am fasting not for mortification, but for education, to teach my eyes to recognize the hungry people I encounter, and to see clearly what I might do for my brothers and sisters who hunger and thirst. This is the sacred fast Isaiah calls me to, to lavish my food on the hungry. To not turn my back on God’s people.

To read from Scripture:

Isaiah’s call to the Israelites to fast by sharing what they have in abundance with the poor, that they might repair the breach and restore what lies in ruins. Isaiah 58:6-12 

To pray:

The Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of humility, in which she recalls the promises made by Isaiah and the prophets that the hungry will be fed. The name of this prayer comes from the first word of the Latin version, Magnificat anima mea Dominum, sometimes translated in English as “My soul magnifies the Lord….”

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

To listen:

Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat

Arvo Pärt, born in 1935, is an Estonian composer of sacred music. His style, which draws strongly from the Church’s tradition of Gregorian chant, is sometimes called mystical minimalism. It is very spare, but with an underlying richness that reminds me of the vast beauty of a desert night sky.

The visuals for this recording are of Philadelphia in the 1950s, and were a potent reminder to me that my Lenten observance is meant to keep me attentive to my neighbor. The text is the Latin version of the Magnificat.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Parable of Two Men and a Bagel

It was a bitter cold December day in Washington, DC, a couple of blocks from Union State.  A man strode down the street a bagel in his hand, briefcase swinging and the tails of his black wool coat flying.  As he reached the corner, he glanced up at the traffic light, and without breaking stride, tossed his half-eaten bagel into the trash container and crossed the street.

On a bench a few feet away sat a man in a green canvas coat, his hands pushed deep in pockets, his body hunched against the wind.  As the bagel sailed through the air he stood, took two quick steps toward the trash can, reached in, pulled out the bagel, and bit into it.

The light changed and my taxi sailed through the intersection.

So, this isn't a parable at all, though I wish it were.  Would that the hunger so great it drove some one to fish his meal from the garbage was a larger than life metaphor for spiritual hunger, not a present reality.

I wonder now if he sat there everyday, the man in his pea green coat, waiting for the man in his polished coat and tie, and his half-eaten bagel to come by.  Did the man ever notice what happened to his bagel, did he ever notice the man who was so quick to retrieve it?

It's been two years and I can still see these men, the bagel's trajectory toward the trash can, still remember my shock at that first bite of bagel.  I sat frozen in the taxi for the 20 seconds this scene took to play out, and I still wonder what I might have done differently.

Lent is a season of fasting, which surely sharpens my spiritual appetite, but do I read it as a way to test my limits, a way of mortification - a little way of dying to rise again, or does it open my eyes to those whose hunger is not elected as a spiritual discipline?  How many people am I walking by who are starving?  Do I see them? Will I feed them, not with casually thrown food, but with the lavishness that Isaiah calls us to?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

And God said to Abram: (Not quite) a Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent

From Coffee with Jesus
I am preaching this weekend, in the way of the Carthusians, with my hands, not my voice.  My homily for the 2nd Sunday in Lent appears in the collection for Cycle A from Homilists for the Homeless: Naked and You Clothed Me.

The first reading is from Genesis (Gn 12:1-4a), where God promises Abram that he will become a great nation.

But what transfixed my attention was not the promise that birthed the Church, but those seemingly innocuous opening words:  "The Lord said to Abram..."

Here is an excerpt:
The author of this passage in Genesis is terse and matter-of-fact, opening with the bald statement: The Lord said to Abram… It is easy to let the eye and ear slide past these words, to consider them a mere frame for what God actually had to say to Abram. Instead, I invite you to stop for a moment and imagine what the experience summed up in that line might have been like for Abram. God spoke to Abram.

Was it a gentle breathing of God’s Spirit, like the small, still voice Elijah heard at the mouth of the cave in the silence after the whirlwind? The barest prompting wafting under the tent flaps in the cool clarity of a desert night. Or was it more like Peter, James, and John’s experience on the mountaintop? The ordinary became dazzling, time collapsed, prophets from the past appeared, and the voice of God left him trembling and prostrate on the ground.

Savor these few, perfectly ordinary words that hold out to us a dazzling gift: in whatever way he chose, God spoke to Abram; indeed, at any moment, and in many different ways, God may choose to speak to us.

If you want to read the whole homily, send me an email or leave me a message in the comments and I will send you a copy, or you can buy the book:  Naked and You Clothed Me. All the Homilists for the Homeless donated their work, and all the proceeds from the sale of the book go to the poor.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Walking is an art: Review of Chris Lowney's Pope Francis - why he leads the way he leads

Last March 13th, just past 2:30 in the afternoon, I was (presciently) standing in the entry way of a Jesuit retreat house, fishing for my car keys and phone in the depths of my bag where I'd dropped them when I arrived the night before.  I pulled up my phone to see a message from my oldest son  “We have a Pope!"

A quick check of the webs through the tiny portal of my phone revealed that (1) we indeed had a Pope and (2) no one (aside from his fellow Cardinal Electors) knew who.

I had to be back for office hours at 4pm, so there was no retreating back upstairs and finding a spot to wait for the news, so I got in the car and tuned the radio to Philly’s all news station. This far out from the city, it was more static than news, but it was a thread that tied me to what was happening in St. Peter’s Square. At last, the scratchy voice of the Protodeacon made its way from Rome to my car on the Pennsylvania turnpike.
Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum;

habemus Papam:
Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum,

Dominum Georgium Marium
Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio
sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.
Who was this man the Holy Spirit had brought us?

My Italian was stretched to the limit (and the static on the radio was no help!), but I thought I had an inkling of what sort of leader we had been given when the newly elected Pope asked us for a favor: “Before the Bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me – the prayer of the people for their Bishop. Let us say this prayer — your prayer over me — in silence.” The roaring of the crowd ceased, while for a long 20 seconds, they prayed, I prayed, that he might be blessed in the days and years to come. Blessed, as God told Abraham, to be a blessing.

Chris Lowney — once a Jesuit scholastic, then a director for J.P. Morgan, now the head of a large health care organization — has written a book about Pope Francis, once Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and his leadership style:  Pope Francis, Why He Leads the Way He Leads. Lowney’s time in the Society of Jesus gives him an intimate familiarity with the Jesuit way of working.

In the process of unpacking for us the forces that shaped Pope Francis as an effective leader, Lowney gives one of the best short introductions to Ignatian spirituality and the Exercises that I have read, deftly laying out the dynamic of the First Week and sketching the practice of the Examen in three short paragraphs, all without burdening the reader with much of Ignatian spirituality’s specialized vocabulary.

Lowney peppers the text with illustrative anecdotes from people who know the Pope, including former students, and spiritual directees. The stories illustrate Lowney’s points well, but taken together, draw a more three-dimensional and nuanced portrait of Pope Francis than emerges from most of the articles I have read about him. We come to know a man with an acute awareness of his frailties and his strengths, who is steeped in the Spiritual Exercises. Someone who is comfortable enough with the contemplative to ask the crowd to pray over him in silence, humble enough to bow his head before them. We find, too, a man with a sharp sense of humor. “Father,” said the porter of the then rector’s visitors over the phone, “the Daughters of Jesus are here to see you.” Fr. Bergoglio shot back, “Jesus didn’t have any daughters.”

As he stood on the balcony a year ago today, Pope Francis’ first words were also tinged with humor, teasing the cardinals about how far they’d had to go to find a bishop for Rome. But he continued on to reflect on the journey he was undertaking with us, the journey that he desired would bring the joy of the Gospel to Rome and beyond. Lowney’s frames his analysis of the Pope’s approach to leadership around the Pope’s own journey to share the Gospel, from his early years, through his Jesuit training, to his work as a Jesuit provinical, seminary rector, and finally as bishop of Buenos Aires.

It is probably not surprising then that feet provide an enduring image throughout the book, from the Pope’s washing of the feet of the young men and women in a detention center last Holy Thursday to the dirty shoes that Fr. Bergoglio expected to find on his seminarians after a day spent in the barios. Lowney points out Ignatius’ hope that Jesuits would be men with “one foot raised” at all times, always prepared to take the next step, and describes well the training it takes to be ever ready.

My favorite foot image in the entire book, though, is the Pope’s in his response to a young man who wanted advice on his struggle to live a life of faith. Walking is an art, the Pope told him candidly. One that requires you keep an eye on the horizon, one that may bring you to dark and difficult places, one that can best be walked within a loving community of fellow pilgrims. You may fall, but the art of walking isn’t so much staying on your feet as it is the will to get up again. “Have you understood?” the Pope asks, “You won’t be afraid of the journey?”

I hear clearly in Lowney’s book Pope Francis’ missioning of us all, sending us to share the joy of the Gospel, sending us to be with those at the margins, urging us to get our feet dirty walking with each other, reminding us to be instruments of mercy, not forces of judgement. Lowney’s book emphasizes that call, suggesting that we are all called to lead — to serve — on this journey, and responds by suggesting a uniquely Jesuit approach to leadership, one that is predicated on a strong foundation, one that continually renews itself through the examen, and one that is oriented to service, ad maiorem Dei gloriam — to the greater glory of God.

Walking is an art, says Pope Francis. Like any art it requires our hearts be engaged as well as our heads, but I suspect Pope Francis would tell us that in the end it is our hands and our feet that must follow heart and head to bring the joy of the Gospel to the margins. I hope we will not be afraid of the journey.

Chris Lowney is walking to the margins along with the Pope, half the profits from the book will go to Jesuit ministries to the poor, see for more details. Readers looking for another book project that directly benefits the poor, might check out the Homilists for the Homeless project, to which I contributed, including the homily for next Sunday -- on Abraham’s blessing from God.

The next stop on the tour is Mary Poust’s Not Strictly Spiritual - be sure to visit!

Disclosure, I received a copy of this book to review from Loyola Press.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Give Me a Word: Prayer is the monk's mirror

When was the last time St. Augustine, Pope Francis and Björk were pulled together to talk about prayer?

The illustration is of St. John of the Ladder's ladder.  Note the spears flying (mostly from the demons in this case).  The 12th century icon is from St. Catherine's monastery in the Sinai.

This is the second in a Lenten series written for organized around the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers. What words would these desert solitaries from fifteen centuries ago have for us, in Lent's desert, that we might learn to pray?

The reflection appeared on CatholicPhilly on 10 March 2014.

Prayer is the monk’s mirror. — from the Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Fathers and Mothers of the desert

When I think of how I pray, I have to admit that the first image that pops into my mind is of my childhood night time prayers: my head tucked under the covers, my desire to have such faith that I might be able to see clearly without glasses clutched tightly in my fist along with my rosary and my pleas for protection during the deep dark silence of a countryside night arising like incense. At age ten, my whole prayer life could have been gathered up in a single phrase, “God, come to my assistance, Lord, make haste to help me.”

John Cassian, a fifth century theologian, learned from the desert fathers to use precisely that one line from scripture as his primary prayer. St. Augustine wrote of the practice in his letter of advice on prayer to the widow Proba, telling her he had heard of the brothers in the Egyptian desert who hurled their short sharp prayers like spears.

Abba Ammonas, a disciple of St. Anthony the Great and a 4th century bishop, advised a monk who came to him wrapped in nothing more than a mat of reeds and seeking advice on how to live an even more ascetic life to fast a little less and instead “have at all times the words of the tax collector in your heart and you can be saved.” Ammonas is referring to the tax collector in Matthew’s Gospel, who stands in the back of the synagogue praying, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Fifteen centuries ago, this is how the desert fathers and mothers suggested we pray, by breathing over and over again, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Today, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, still recommends the Jesus Prayer as the simplest way to pray, as both a starting point for learning to pray, and a prayer in which we can take refuge when the chaos of life threatens to overwhelm us.

This prayer is not so much a request, as it is first and foremost a creed, a cry of belief. Who do you say that I am? [Mt 16:15-16] “Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God.” But the Jesus prayer tells us who we are as well. St. John of the Ladder, a 6th century abbot of a monastery on Mount Sinai, reminded his monks “Your prayer will show you what condition you are in. Theologians say that prayer is the monk’s mirror."

And who do I see in the mirror of the Jesus prayer? Have mercy on me, a sinner. I see myself, a sinner. So, too, does Pope Francis. Beginning his interview with the Pope last summer, Antonio Spadaro, S.J. put aside his planned questions to ask, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” instead. The Pope was silent for a few moments, and at last responded, “I am a sinner. It is not a figure of speech…I am a sinner….I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”

The Pope went on to remind us that we see in the mirror of the tax collector’s simple prayer not only that we are sinners, but that we are sinners who have been looked upon by God with love and with mercy. The Jesus prayer of the desert fathers and mothers is a mirror of prayer which lets us see ourselves not only as we are, but as we could be, by the grace and mercy of God.

Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me. For I am a sinner, whom the Lord has looked upon with mercy.

To read from Scripture: The story of the tax collector in the synagogue. Matthew 18:9-14

To read from the Church’s tradition:

St. Augustine’s letter to Proba, see page 391.

To listen: 

Sir John Tavener wrote this haunting and discordant setting for the popular Icelandic singer Björk. The Jesus Prayer repeats in Coptic, the language of the desert fathers and mothers, in Greek and in English.


Monday, March 10, 2014


From the Thomas Hardy Plot Generator:
A gout-ridden pianist, courting a young lady in Weatherbury, falls in love with a dark-eyed lady farmer. But she is already married.They live in a hovel on the heath. But having surprisingly met her grandfather in an inn, their horse collides with the Night Mail. Just one of life's little ironies.
I'm not quite sure it's one of life's little ironies, but I can't write fiction, for reasons I can't quite figure out.  I suspect it's because I have no sense of a tight plot -- this random plot sound fascinating to me!  Or perhaps I prefer an eye on "what is" or perhaps the role of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "reporter from outer space."

“If  you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.”

— from Poetry as Insurgent Art

Friday, March 07, 2014

A bit of flesh in the inkpot

Writing by candlelight during a power outage.
One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one's own flesh in the inkpot, each time one dips one's pen.  ~Leo Tolstoy

I have a lot of writing going on these days:  talks, a series on praying with the desert fathers and mothers, a book review, short essays for a book project, a scriptural reflection.  I have pieces in draft, proofs, edited pieces, pieces still hatching.  

It's also been an intense couple of weeks at work.  This morning I didn't actually make it to my office until 10, my first meeting of the day was on another campus.  I plopped my bag on the floor, dumped an armful of papers on my desk --- and that was it until 5 pm, when I picked up the papers and my bag and left.  I never actually sat down at my desk.

I had a good day writing yesterday, but it was almost physically painful to set aside the work at the end of the day, knowing I wouldn't be able to return to it today.  I definitely left a piece of flesh in the inkpot.  I can see the shape this piece is going to take now, and I was finding such pleasure in fitting the pieces together, like a puzzle.  And I long for the silence that writing wraps around me, a deep well into which I can settle.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Declare a holy fast

I thought about Fastnacht last night as I drove past Dunkin' Donuts on the way home from a night class (in which I am a student, not the professor).  "Should I grab a doughnut, one last fling before tomorrow's fast?" I wondered.

In the end, I didn't stop, hanging on to the Ordinary for just a bit longer.

Today I am fasting, still bound by the obligation for a (very) few years yet.  Until recently, the Lenten fasts were not a hardship, more a matter of forgoing my after dinner snack than anything else.  But last Lent, and this summer, when Pope Francis asked the Church to fast for peace in Syria, for the first time I found the practice challenging.  I got a headache, I was crabby. I was distracted.  I was hungry.

Today was no different.  By four, working off just a yogurt, some dried fruit and two solidly sweet cups of tea, I had a headache, I was crabby, I was thoroughly distracted.  And I was sitting through a longish academic talk about food insecurity, while the people on either side of me munched cookies and chips (snacks for the talk).

I tend to think of hunger in spiritual terms, as something that sharpens my appetite for God, something that strips away excess.  But most people, including almost one quarter of all the children in America, do not have the luxury of electing hunger as a spiritual practice.  They are simply hungry.  In the midst of one of the richest nations on earth, children go hungry. Here in Philadelphia, children go hungry.  Here, in my town, people are hungry tonight.  Not because they are electing to fast, but because we have elected to let them go hungry.  It is unconscionable.

Upcoming: Pope Francis on tour

Chris Lowney has a book coming out on Pope Francis and leadership.  The first stop on the blog tour is here — on March 13, the first anniversary of Jorge Maria Bergoglio as Bishop of Rome.

You can find the rest of the tour dates here.

Stop by on the 13th to celebrate Pope Francis' first anniversary, I can't promise cake, or the Pope, but I can offer a review of the book, space for conversation and at least one photo of Rome!

Disclosure:  I received a copy of the book from Loyola Press to review.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Don't leave before the end

We’re so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are. — Bill Watterson

I ate lunch with George Aschenbrenner SJ last week, and when all the Lenten links started to pour into my Facebook feed and inbox, I remembered a piece of his advice that a long ago retreat director had passed along to a group of us in mid-retreat:  Don't start packing up until it's time to leave.  Don't let your mind wander ahead to "after retreat," but keep immersed in the graces of the moment.

So today I've not been leaping ahead into Lent, either by planning a steak dinner or by starting my Lenten reading (though the book is on my desk).  I've haven't packed my bags for the desert quite yet, but am trying to keep a measure of the ordinary for this last day.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Give Me A Word: Throw yourself before God

St. Simon the Stylite in his tower and a visitor.
I am writing a Lenten series for organized around the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers. What words would they have for us, in Lent's desert, that we might be saved?

If you are of a mind to join me on this adventure each week, here are some questions I am thinking about!   There are some resources posted at the end for reflection as well.

Do you ever long for a desert experience?
What sort of desert do you imagine visiting?
What do you think these desert solitaries might have to offer us in modern times?
Do you think it depends on whether your trip to the desert is voluntary or not?
The reflection appeared on CatholicPhilly on 3 March 2014.

In his early days, Abba Euprepius went to see an old man and said to him, “Abba, give me a word so that I may be saved.” — from the Apophthegmata Patrum

I’m dreaming of deserts these days, and of a cave tucked high into the sides of a dry river wadi, its entrance warmed by the sun, its depths all mystery. A rough and narrow path to the door clings to the cliff side, discouraging casual visitors.

I can’t be the only one dreaming of escaping to warmer places. Winter has worn out its welcome in so many ways. Most of my driveway is still covered in mounds of sooty snow. My teaching schedule is in disarray, and with two more storms on the horizon, I have little hope of getting it back on track soon.

Too, we’re sitting on the edge of Lent, with its images of the Israelites wandering in the desert and of Jesus, retreating to the desert to fast and to pray. But I suspect my desert imaginings are rooted more what I’ve been reading than the weather or the liturgical season — I’ve been soaking in the words of the men and women who came to the Egyptian desert in the 3rd and 4th centuries, seeking God, the people we call the desert fathers and mothers.

We think of the desert as an inhospitable place, a place of privation, a place where nothing grows. But the deserts vast horizons offer a certain safety, an ability to see clearly the dangers well before they arrive on your doorstep. There is also a certain extravagance in choosing the desert, in throwing caution to the wind, leaving nearly everything and everyone behind, and choosing to face God alone.

Visitors to Egypt at the time reported thousands of men and women, living as hermits in the desert outside the walls of the towns and cities. I wonder if this what Isaiah meant when he prophesized that “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly…” [Is 35:1-2a]

The fathers and mothers of the desert were not seeking to be mystics or sages, but to simply grow closer to God in the silence. They prayed, they fasted, and they were famously hospitable to those who came to see them. People sought out these hermits, walking the dry riverbeds and clambering up the cliff sides, asking them for “a word,” that they might be saved. Their short sayings were passed on, from brother to brother, from mothers to their sisters in Christ, and finally collected in written form, so that fifteen centuries later we, too, might have “a word” from the desert.

Lent is often called a desert time. What do I seek in the Lenten desert, a desert that God promises us will blossom abundantly? What words of salvation would the fathers and mothers of the desert have for me?

As Ash Wednesday approaches, I hear Abba Poemen’s extravagant advice: “Throw yourself before God, do not measure your progress, cast away your own will — these are the tools of the soul.” What would God make of me this Lent, if I walk out, alone and without expectations, into these desert days?

To read from Scripture: Isaiah 55:10-13

To pray: 
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.
— St. Ignatius of Loyola, Suscipe

 To listen:

“Silent , surrendered, calm and still,
Open to the word of God.
Heart humbled to his will.
Offered is the servant of God.”
— Margaret Rizza

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Crying alleluia at the edge of the desert

I'm standing in the desert these days, praying my way into two series of reflections on the desert fathers and mothers, praying my way through some days where every time I open my door (or email or phone) there's a sandstorm going on out there, blowing grit into my eyes, making it hard to see, hard to breathe, virtually impossible to see how to move forward.

Yet, somehow, Her Most Holy Wisdom keeps poking her head up over the dunes, crying, "look this way; see me; I am solace in the midst of woe, a drenching rain in the desert."  Alleluia.

This column from grew out of an earlier post here.  It appeared on 28 February 2014.  And if you are in need of soaking in some alleluias before the long silence, try this playlist.

“Let’s see how many alleluias we can get in before Lent begins,” suggests my pastor as he pages through the breviary to pick a hymn to open Morning Prayer. I know what he means; I’m never as mindful of all the ways alleluia plays in my life as I am on the brink of Lent.

 A single clear voice chants in the silence. Alleluia. Trumpets fly and organs resound. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. A gospel choir sways. Alleluia. A psalmist pulls at a harp in the desert 3,000 years ago. Alleluia. Praise the Lord, in Hebrew. We’ve been singing “alleluia” a long time.

My son Chris sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah at his voice recital a few weeks ago. I had heard it before, but listening to him sing I was struck by the many ways I sing “alleluia,” from James Chepponis’ resoundingly majestic Festival Alleluia to the rusty-voiced response I make to the lector’s invocation at morning Mass.

Cohen wrote dozens of verses when he was composing the piece, trying to grapple with the many meanings he heard in the word “alleluia.” Was it holy, broken, cold, blazing with light? I wonder if this is how the psalmists felt, trying to figure out how to sing out their praise of God. Baffled. Overcome. Broken.

Last week in church, the little girl sitting near me was restless. She might have been all of 3 years old, her bright purple bow bobbing up and down as she climbed on and off the pew. As the first chord to the Gospel Acclamation from the Mass of Glory was struck, her mother bent over and whispered to her, “This is your song!” Suddenly she was quiet. The cantor sang it through once, and when she raised her arms, I heard from behind me in a clear and delightful soprano, “alleluia, al-le-luuu-ia!”

Her mother was so right. Alleluia is not only her daughter’s song, but all our song. Like Daniel’s three young men in the furnace, hearing the praise of the Lord resounding in all creation, and on the mouths of all the people of God, we are created to praise the Lord.

I am struck by the thought that if alleluia is truly our song, we might consider responding to everything that happens with that one word, “alleluia” — praise the Lord. Chanting it with passion. Humming it in the ordinary. Spitting it out through clenched teeth. Crying it aloud in joy. Howling it in our worst grief. Holding it in expectant silence through Lent’s desert. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

At the very end of the song, Cohen says he’ll “stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on [his] tongue but Hallelujah.” Could I stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but “hallelujah”? Then again, could I stand before God with anything on my tongue, but alleluia?