Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Column: Epiphany: What you seek is seeking you

The musical accompaniment for this setting of the traditional hymn Conditor alme siderum uses a bloogle resonator, which I find evocative of some of the 'sounds' of space.   If you prefer a more traditional version, try this one from the monks of the Cistercian abbey of Heiligenkreuz in Austria.  (I am a regular reader of Heiligenkreuz monk Pater Edmund's blog Sancrucensis.)

The column was prompted by Fr. James Kruzynski's reflection at the Vatican Observatory Foundation's blog about what the magi might tell us about paths to the holy.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 29 December 2015.

My whole being thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and see the presence of God? Psalm 42:3

The Magi are still on the far side of the shelf, separated from the creche by a blooming Christmas cactus and a tumble of ivy.  When I was young, living in a small rural town, the Magi were my favorite characters in the Nativity.  Colorfully attired, riding exotic animals — living in a large family amid dairy farms, babies, mangers and and cows were no mystery to me— they seemed ambassadors from a world as far beyond my reach as the stars.

I imagined what it might be like to peep over the pasture fence and see the flowing silks, the camels, and hear elephants trumpet.  Would I follow them to see where they were going?  Or return to my chores — all unaware of Epiphany passing me by?

Four decades later, these wise ones from the east still capture my imagination, though now I see them as companions, fellow scientists, intently reading what St. Anthony the Great called “God’s other book,” the universe.

Looking for concrete signs in the created world that pointed them toward the presence of God, the Magi were firmly grounded in the practical. Measuring, calculating, and predicting. Methodically proceeding onward.  Yet they burned with a desire to get ever closer to God, a thirst that drove them to travel who-knows-how-far to throw themselves face down in the dust before the Word that set the universe in motion.

In a recent reflection on the Epiphany posted to the Vatican Observatory Foundation’s blog, priest and amateur astronomer James Kruzynski urges us to reflect on own journey to the holy. Are we magi, seeking God in what is around us, in the tangible fabric of the universe?  Are we shepherds, responding to intangible calls, listening for God in our inmost being?

His reflection made me think not only about the myriad paths along which I pursue God, but reminded me God is simultaneously pursuing me, continually revealing himself to us all in what we can see and touch, and in what we cannot.  Aware or unaware, God makes himself known to us.

Magus or shepherd, scientist or mother, the Epiphany reminds me that no matter if I plumb the universe’s depths with quantum mechanics, or head to the basement to throw in another load of laundry, God is there. The living God, for whom I thirst.  The living God, who thirsts for me.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas!

"When the sun rises in the morning sky,
you will see the King of kings coming forth
from the Father 
like a radiant bridegroom from the bridal chamber."

—Evening Prayer I, Christmas

The Gifts of Christmas: Guest Post

Two summers ago I spent a week at the Collegeville Institute for one of their writing workshops.  (They are an incredible experience, the next round of applications is open, check them out!)  Melynne Rust, a United Methodist minister, was one of the other writers in my workshop.  She is a writer with an ability to turn the ordinary into the memorable. I still remember the opening to Melynne's piece that we workshopped for her — and this piece, too, resonated deeply with me, in part because Crash has gone off to spend Christmas with the brilliant and deep and funny Maiden of House Clark, in part because I can still remember my mother wistfully reflecting as I moved a continent away from her, that once she was married, she never again spent Christmas with her family of origin.

Just as I can always hear Good Friday and Easter simmering under Christmas, I hear in Melynne's beautiful reflection the tension between holding on and letting go. It's the Transfiguration, it's Mary Magdalen's moment in the garden, but written in the letters of our own lives. We want to cling, but are called to let go.

I note that I gave Crash luggage tags for Christmas last year, so likely shouldn't be surprised that he uses them.  Now, over to Melynne:

The Gifts of Christmas
Melynne Rust

It is the morning of Christmas Eve when my daughter announces she will be leaving the day after Christmas. I am heartbroken; it feels as though she has only just arrived. Initially, she planned to be home for two weeks, now she will be gone in half that time.

April says she wants to return to school to work, to earn money for her trip to Argentina after her college graduation in the spring. This is what she says, but it is not what I hear. What I hear is that she does not want to be with us, her family, at Christmastime.

This brings up memories of when I was her age, when I was in college and went to spend the holidays with my fiancé’s family instead of my own. It turned out to be the best Christmas present of all, not having to go home to all the dysfunctional messiness that was usually magnified this time of year. I am afraid April feels the same way about us that I had felt about my family of origin; that all she wants is to get away from us. Are we dysfunctional? Are we a mess?

I confess my fears to her, and she tries to reassure me that it simply isn’t true. She says she loves being home with us, but she wants to get back to her job at the coffee shop. It is something I cannot understand as thoughts of my younger self flood my rational brain. I am despondent the entire day, yet I hide my sadness and fear beneath a cloak of self-righteous anger towards April.

And I keep wondering, what happened to my little girl who didn’t want me to leave her at bedtime? Where is that precious child who could charm me into staying with her as we read and re-read her favorite storybook? Every night we finished the book with the same ritual of declaring our love for one another. “I love you up to the moon, Mommy,” April would say, and my steadfast response would be, “I love you up to the moon, and back.”

How can someone who had been such a ‘mama’s girl’ be the same person who, when she was only sixteen, spent a year in Austria as an exchange student? And then, as a junior in college, she spent another year in Argentina as part of a study abroad program. And now she is determined to go back. Why does she always want to leave?

At the Christmas Eve service that night I cannot bring myself to join in on the lovely carols we are singing or the special scripture passages we are reading. After we return home, I am unable to celebrate with the others as we share delicious desserts and toast with champagne. I want to be filled with peace and hope and joy, but these elusive Christmas sentiments are well beyond my reach as the melancholy envelops me.

The next morning I go through the motions of making coffee and tea and try to fix a smile on my face as my grown children find their stockings and discover the gifts I had stuffed inside. As I watch from a distance, April unwraps two beautifully crocheted luggage tags. I had forgotten about buying those for her. She holds them gingerly in her cupped hands, and then glances over my way, a mesmerized hint of a smile on her face. I can’t say for sure, but that look on her face makes me worry that she might consider the luggage tags to be my blessing on her never-ending travels.

I think back to when I first saw them. They had caught my eye because they looked like April; they were creative and vibrant, the colors of her spirit. But that wasn’t the only reason I had bought them for her. It was also because I knew—deep down inside me I knew—that discovering the world is the way April discovers herself. This is who she is.

I had forgotten this yesterday, when my own history and my own needs stood in the way.
Whether or not I want to acknowledge it out loud, I know the luggage tags are my blessing on April’s perpetual leave-taking. I know they symbolize my maternal longing for her to live into all of who she is, even if it draws her away from me.

Something softens in me, and it causes my anger to lose some of its edge, my sadness to lose some of its focus.

After the kids finish with their stockings, they begin to pass out their gifts for my husband and I. April comes over and gives me a handwritten note and a photo of a painting she is having done for me. It is a night scene of the ranch where she had worked in Argentina, and it has a full moon shining down upon the land.

Here is what she wrote: “Dear Mama, I think now more than ever this painting is appropriate. I want it to symbolize that we are always together in spirit, despite our physical location. It has and will continue to comfort me knowing that wherever we are, we are both looking at the same moon. I love you to the moon and back. Love, April.”

As I tearfully read the note, I finally begin to hear April’s voice, to really hear what she had tried to say to me the previous day. April has given me what I could not claim for myself: the gift of her continual love and devotion, even in the midst of venturing off into her own dreams. She has also given me something I had not been able to receive the night before: the gifts of peace and hope and joy, the gifts of Christmas.

Melynne Rust is a United Methodist minister, writer, wife, and mother living in a small coastal town in Florida. She and her husband have three adult children, two of whom live nearby and one who lives in Argentina. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent 4: A midwife for the holy

Leonardo da Vinci's study for St. Anne,
Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist
A homily on Sunday got me thinking about the voices we don't hear in the Scriptures, and Mary's mother, traditionally Anna, is certainly one of those voices of strength.  What does it take to let your daughter, on the verge of delivering her first child at a time when one in a hundred women died in childbirth, and one in ten babies did not live out their first month?   Mary's strength is perhaps a gift from her mother...

And I'm still thinking about St. John of The Cross, darkness and light, in particular the opening liens to Daniel Ladinsky’s luminous poem If You Want:

you want,
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say…

“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
My time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
taking birth

as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.

A version of this reflection appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 22 December 2015.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, a to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Luke 2:1-5

“What time do you need to leave?” I asked my oldest son, Mike.  He came home last night, and leaves this afternoon for Tennessee to spend Christmas with his girlfriend and her family. At 2:35, they tucked their bags in the back of my car and I drove them to Philadelphia’s airport, wishing them safe travels, watching as they walked off.

As I drove home, I thought of Anna, the mother of Mary.  What had she thought as she watched her very pregnant daughter walk out of Nazareth, headed for Bethlehem — 80 miles and a mountain pass away?  What advice did she give Mary, what might she have tucked in her bags, “just in case”?

There would be no phone call for her, letting her know they were safe in Bethlehem. No email with a photograph of her newborn grandson.  She must simply trust that all in the end would be well, letting go of her daughter and the hope she bears within her.  Parting with what she treasures, to let God’s will be done.

My reflections pushed me to pull German theologian Johannes Baptist Metz’s small book, Poverty of Spirit, off the shelf to read in these last days of Advent.  This poverty, he suggests, is where “the meeting point of heaven and earth…the point where infinite mystery meets concrete existence.”  It is how we encounter God, with empty hands.

Jesus’ life was characterized by the poverty of the commonplace from the moment of his birth — laid in an makeshift, last minute bed in a stable —  to the moment he was laid in a borrowed tomb. Living out in his daily life a radical dependence on God, a grace of openness to which we all have access in our own lives.

I suspect that Mary learned this fundamental way of being from her mother, Anna, who waved her off on her journey, committing herself again to the uncertainties, depending on the grace of God to watch over her daughter.  I look to Anna in these last days of waiting to learn again how to let go of what has been entrusted to me when the time comes. In ways that are concrete, in the moments that are commonplace, in the places that are hidden, where I might not otherwise look.

Advent is helping my heart to empty out, not simply in preparation for this great feast celebrating a long-awaited birth, but emptied to allow me to become a midwife to the Christ.  That I might let him enter my soul, and willingly offer him to the world through my hands. Emptied that I might become a simple cradle for the holy one of Israel.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent 4: O Key of David

Door to my office (winter noren).
At the start of the summer, I pulled most of my college keys off my ring.  I wasn't regularly going in to my office, and appreciated the reduced weight in my bag.  Earlier this month I needed to get a book from office on a weekend, but couldn't find my keys, without which I could not get into the building off hours.

I looked, to no avail.  They were not in the bowl of keys I keep in the kitchen, where I drop my keys when I come in.  Not on my desk upstairs.  Not in the bag I'd be carrying all summer and through the fall.  I finally gave up, and got the book on a weekday.

On Saturday, Math Man and I had a date.  I donned a dress bought on a whim in Florence, and pulled a purse to match from the closet rather than carrying my trusty canvas bag.  Inside that purse?  My keys.

I suppose this means my sabbatical is meant to be nearly over?

Friday, December 18, 2015

Advent 3: Crashing in

A typically straightforward Irish sign
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
 still nothing is as shining as it should be
 for you.  Under the sink, for example, is an
 uproar of mice—it is the season of their
 many children.  What shall I do?
— Mary Oliver "Making the House Ready"

I've been on a cleaning binge these last few days, trying to reverse the entropy resulting from several months of travel and writing.  My study is more organized than it has been in more than a year; I catalogued more books; I filed completed projects (though I still have a 3 foot high stack of tear sheets and other writing ephemera teetering in the corner).

The universe, however, always exacts a price for tidiness (cf. the second law of thermodynamics).  The bill came due this afternoon when a woman knocked at the kitchen door. She was in tears, "I just ran into your car."  "Come in," I said.

She'd bumped into the little Green Goddess (the venerable Mini Cooper the kids drive when they are home), breaking its tail light.  I told her not to worry, over the last decade that car had seen more than its share of bumps (here and here and here and here, where Crash earned his blog name and broke the other tail light).  Like Mary Oliver's uproar of mice, what shall I do?  Nothing much but listen.

I broke the news to The Egg by text, he's on his way home from California College.  He's not perturbed, either.  It drives. The heat works.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Column: The marriage of lament and joy

Santa Croce, Florence
The dark notes sound loudly these days, I hear them in the muzzy voice of my father on the phone, in the tired footfalls of refugees, in the exhausted sighs of those delivering packages to my front porch, and in the thrum of hate pouring forth from presidential candidates.  Yet out of the depths, comes the Beloved.

The photo is of the main altar in Santa Croce, where Galileo and Michaelangelo are buried, and there is a memorial to Enrico Fermi as well.  But you almost miss the cross amid all the beauty of the stained glass and frescoes.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 15 December 2015.

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete: modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione petitiones vestrae innotescant apud Deum.

Rejoice in the Lord always:  again I say, rejoice!  Let your kindness be known to all, for the Lord is near.  Do not be anxious, but in all things, with prayer make your petitions known to God. — Entrance antiphon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent

Rejoice!  Shout for joy!  The readings on Sunday rang with strength and shimmered with joy.  In case we missed it, St. Paul, repeats it. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, rejoice! I hear fragments of this call to joy everywhere in these last two weeks before Christmas — from the glittery displays in the stores to the houses draped in lights to the relentless cheerful tunes playing on the radio. Rejoice!

But there is a counter-melody threaded through the trumpets and festive choral anthems.  Anxiety creeps in. When is the last date I can ship something to California to get there for Christmas?  Have I submitted all the letters of recommendation students need?  My father has fallen and is in the ICU.  Will I need to go to fly to the West Coast? A friend is very ill; another’s family is fractured by the loss of a young father.  How can I rejoice when the darkness seems to encroach from all sides?

I wonder if amid all the ringing bells and bright lights we miss the ways in which the Christmas story is one of dislocation, of Mary and Joseph — and surely many other refugees — on the road to fulfill the edict of an occupying force, of God infinite and immortal moving into flesh and time.  How it is a story, too, of abandonment, of a people who wonder if they have been forsaken by their God, who promised them so much in Isaiah, of Mary, who bore God within her very self, left spent and emptied of God in a stable.

Monday was the feast of St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Carmelite monk and mystic who wrote “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a poetic and spiritual exploration of the difficulties that can afflict us on our journey to God.  This commemoration always falls in Advent, pinned as it is to the day St. John died, December 14, 1591. Each time we celebrate it, I am struck by the contrast between the scouring darkness St. John experienced and the warmth and light so strongly associated with God’s coming among us at Advent — with its images of kindly innkeepers, shepherds and sparkling angelic hosts.

Yet it is just this juxtaposition of light and darkness, where lament plays a counterpoint to joy, that St. John of the Cross embraces:  “O living flame of love, how tenderly you wound my soul in her profoundest core!” In his poem “Del nacimiento” (Of the birth), he writes of “God-in-the-manger” weeping, not for us, but in his own distress and confusion, even as humankind rejoices to be swept into the mystery of the Trinity through this incarnation.

The full chord that Christmas sounds for us may have as its top note bright joy, but the deeper, dark notes, are what shake us to our core.  For in the end we are sustained, not by the songs of angels, but by the Body of Christ, given up for us.

Read St. John of the Cross' Del nacimiento (in Spanish and English).

H/T to my friend Cindy for this short piece on T.S. Eliot and John of the Cross, which quotes a bit of Eliot's East Coker.

Advent 3: On the birth

Ya que era llegado el tiempo
en que de nacer había,
así como desposado
de su tálamo salía,

abrazado con su esposa,
que en sus brazos la traía,
al cual la graciosa Madre
en su pesebre ponía,

entre unos animales
que a la sazón allí había,
los hombres decían cantares,
los ángeles melodía,

festejando el desposorio
que entre tales dos había,
pero Dios en el pesebre
allí lloraba y gemía,

que eran joyas que la esposa
al desposorio traía,
y la Madre estaba en pasmo
de que tal trueque veía:

el llanto del hombre en Dios,
y en el hombre la alegría,
lo cual del uno y del otro
tan ajeno ser solía.

—St. John of the Cross
In the fullness of time
he was born,
striding like a bridegroom
from his chamber,

to embrace his spouse,
to hold her in his arms,
The child, born of Mary,
laid in a manger,

among the animals
guesting at this wedding.
We came singing,
the angels exultantly caroling,

The Beloved joined to
the beloved in one flesh.
But God-in-the-manger
wept and moaned,

His tears, jewels,
brought to this marriage bed
His mother wonders
at the price paid:

God laments as man,
while man rejoices in God,
each tastes what was once
the other's sole domain.

Translation is loose, rough and mine.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent 3: John of the Cross

Santa Maria sopre Minerva in
Rome.  St. Catherine of Siena
is entombed here

I'm always momentarily taken aback when the feast of St. John of the Cross appears in Advent — as it does almost every year (well, not last year, and not in 2025, or any other year the 14th of December falls on a Sunday).  The feast of St. Lucy which precedes it by a day, with its candle adorned maidens, seems like a better fit for this season of light and birth than John of the Cross, consigned to a dungeon by his Carmelite confreres, mired in a darkness both literal and spiritual.

I pulled out a copy of his poetry, written during those months of confinement, this afternoon to read.   I had forgotten about his triad of poems on the incarnation (maybe because most scholars diss them as "perfunctory") but today found them again, tucked into the appendix.

The last poem of the cycle plays with the tension that I always feel around the incarnation, or at least the current celebration of it, between the sweet, warm scene at the manger and the cold reality of it all.  Mary, stripped of God's presence within her.  Her son, the Word, left wordless.  Maybe John of the Cross' dark nights are not so far off the mark.
Pero Dios en el pesebre
allí lloraba y gemía,
que eran joyas que la esposa
al desposorio traía. 
Y la Madre estaba en pasmo
de que tal trueque veía:
el llanto del hombre en Dios,
y en el hombre la alegría,
lo cual del uno y del otro
tan ajeno ser solía.
But God-in-the-manger
wept and moaned
His tears, jewels
brought to this marriage-bed. 
His mother wonders
at the exchange:
God laments as man
while man rejoices in God;
Each tastes what
was once the other's
sole domain.
Read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Advent 2: Jesus and Coffee

View from St. John's Abbey Guesthouse dining room near dawn
It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m sitting at the gate in Minneapolis. My flight doesn’t board for another 2 hours.  The smell of coffee brewing fills the air. There is a long line for at each of three coffee stands, and Midwest accents twanging brightly all around me.  The terminal is bright and bouncing (all that caffeine, I think).  Such a contrast to solemn vespers at the abbey last night, where light pooled around the altar, barely keeping the darkness at bay.  Quiet, even with a hundred voices chanting.  The scent of incense still clings to my sweater. Still.

I woke as if the bells were still ringing the hours.  12:11; 1:11; 2:11.  The rumbles of the snoring monk in the room next to mine reminded me of walking down the first floor hallway at Eastern Point at 3 in the morning, hearing the snores of sleepers, imagining the blankets rising and falling like in a cartoon.  The walls in the abbey guesthouse are not thin, so it took me a while to figure out what I was hearing when it began.

At 2:45 am I grabbed my bags and headed upstairs to drop off my key, stop in the church for a brief visit at the tabernacle and then be in front of the abbey church at 3:00 am as directed to catch my shuttle to Minneapolis.  Little did I know that Jesus would be dressed in blue sweats having coffee and reading the paper in the dining room.  “You can’t sleep either?” he inquires.  I’m packed lightly, but still, I’ve got a bag slung over my shoulder, and am dressed for a Minnesota night.  He offered me coffee, too, and I think might have been inclined to chat, but I had that shuttle to catch. No time now to stop in the church, I left the keys and dashed up to the bell tower to find the shuttle just pulling in.

While we waited at St. Cloud for another passenger, I checked my mail, to find a string of emails from my sister, chronicling a night which included 2 ER trips for my dad, one by ambulance after he collapsed getting ice cream, a transfer to the bigger hospital 40 miles away and over the pass, emergency surgery and much worry.  (As I write this, he’s recovering well…and my poor sleepless sister is utter toast.)  I kept my sister virtual company by text message — glad at that moment to have had to get up at this crazy hour.

And when I pulled my sweater off tonight, I can still smell the incense of last night's solemn vespers.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Advent 2: Voices of mercy

Entrance to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome
The Jubilee Year of Mercy opens today, the doors unsealed first in Rome, spreading outward in these next weeks.  Four voices of mercy...

Last night, at Evening Prayer for the Vigil of the Immaculate Conception, the monks here read from John Paul II's encyclical Dives in misericordiaRich in mercy.  In it he reminds us of "the mystery of the cross, the overwhelming encounter of divine transcendent justice with love: that 'kiss' given by mercy to justice." Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced. The reader stood at the edge of the darkness that flooded the church nave, the cross suspended above him.  Mercy and faithfulness, justice and peace, stretched out before us, stretched out for us.

This morning, I wondered at a hundred men (and four women) chanting the canticle from Samuel, "My heart exults in the Lord..." It is, of course, not Samuel's song, but Hannah's, which Luke puts in Mary's mouth as the Magnificat.  We pray both canticles over and over in the Liturgy of the Hours, but how often do we think about the voice? God's enduring promises of mercy and justice, pouring forth in a woman's voice. Do we hear the call for mercy when it comes from unexpected places, do we disregard it when it issues from those we considered unworthy, less?

I read with my morning tea, the Papal Bull for the Jubilee Year.  In light of the shameful hate-filled political rhetoric in the US this week, this section struck me deeply [23, emphasis mine]

"There is an aspect of mercy that goes beyond the confines of the Church. It relates us to Judaism and Islam, both of which consider mercy to be one of God’s most important attributes. Israel was the first to receive this revelation which continues in history as the source of an inexhaustible  richness meant to be shared with all mankind. As we have seen, the pages of the Old Testament are steeped in mercy, because they narrate the works that the Lord performed in favour of his people at the most trying moments of their history. Among the privileged names that Islam attributes to the Creator are “Merciful and Kind”. This invocation is often on the lips of faithful Muslims who feel themselves accompanied and sustained by mercy in their daily weakness. They too believe that no one can place a limit on divine mercy because its doors are always open.

I trust that this Jubilee year celebrating the mercy of God will foster an encounter with these religions and with other noble religious traditions; may it open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; may it eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination."


Yes, this last might prove difficult.  But might I suggest Fran Rossi Szpylczyn's reflection for the day, "Say Yes"?

To celebrate the opening of the Jubilee Year, Loyola Press is featuring daily moments of mercy for Advent. Sign up here to get a bit of mercy in your email!

I note in passing that the New American Bible posted at the USCCB elides the connection with Hannah in its notes on Luke.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Column: Deus absconditus. Deus revelatus.

I'm taking a few days of quiet retreat to end my sabbatical leave, staying in the guest house at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota.

The waning light, the monks processing in for Sunday Mass, their chant heard long before I can see their outlines in the cloister, long before they flow into the church on a river of incense have made this a time of enclosure.  Even outside, the horizon seems very close, and everywhere, God, a deeply hidden mystery.

A version of this column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 7 December 2015.

Truly with you God is hidden, the God of Israel, the savior! Isaiah 45:15

The door was not easy to find. Look next to the elevator, says the note in my room. There, in 24-point font, discreetly grey against the pale wall, it says “Abbey Church.” I push open the door and peer into the warm darkness. The lights flick on and I enter. Huge gleaming white pipes are braced to the walls — “Low Press Steam” and “Ret Cold Water” — while bundles of wires snake across a tray set on the floor, trailing off into the darkness, connecting the guesthouse to the abbey proper like an umbilical cord.

I follow the tunnel, turning left, then right, trusting that the lights will turn on when I need them, and surprised at the end of a long series of doors to find myself on a staircase that leads without barrier into the back of the church.

I rummage through the binders on the shelf in the choir stall, hunting for the setting of the canticle listed on the board. A monk appears over my shoulder, and quickly flips to the correct page — 10, as it turns out, is in the back, hidden behind a tab labeled “Canticles.” “Do you need a marker?” he asks. I slide a crumpled note from my pocket to hold the spot. Grinning, he taps the books I’ve arranged, “one, two, three” and returns to his spot behind me.

Incense rises in front of the altar, iridescent white against the night-dark walls, winding around the cross suspended in midair over the altar, shrouding the monks arrayed across from me.

The tabernacle in the chapel is close enough to touch, the flame burning in the doorway reveals its contents, while the matte planes of its surface obscure the infinite Beauty confined within. Deus absconditus. Deus revelatus. God hidden and God revealed.

It’s Advent, where we remember God hidden, shrouded within Mary all those months, and yearn for God revealed, for the child given to us two millennia ago, for the Christ risen in glory we await now. A living God, breathing in and out, at each moment both emptying himself and filling all the universe. God hidden. God revealed.

I walk through these dim Advent days, yearning to know that God is here among us, yielding to God unseen. I search for the subtle signs that He is just around the next corner, concealed in my day-to-day encounters. God hidden. God revealed. Emmanuel, God with us.

Advent 2: Making raids on the ineffable

I crept through a tunnel on the bare edge of dawn today, intent on raiding the ineffable.

The pines outside my window, ghostly pale in the lights from the patio above, stood guard as I pulled on black turtleneck and dark pants and slipped out my door, what I need to jemmy open the gate on the other side in my hands.  I came to the surface in a dark corner,  and keeping to the shadows made my way to the pool of light at the front.

I bowed to the tabernacle and took a place in the choir section reserved for guests, put my reading glasses on and opened wide the gates into the mysteries, finding the psalms and the canticle and the hymn.  Habits rustled and seats eased into place.

We rose and fell, breathing our way into the day.  Lord, open our lips, we said, and proceeded to raid the psalms, foraging ruthlessly for the day's food.  We followed St. Ambrose, as he ransacked Luke's account of Mary's visit to Elizabeth, shaking it until each word gave up its worth.

One by one we slid across the altar and out the door, hands empty, but not empty-handed.

The image of raiding the unspeakable comes from this op-ed by Gile Fraser in The Guardian.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Advent 2: In statio

I went for a walk around the lake abutting the St. John's Abbey today.  The fog was just beginning to close in again.  The bell rang, the geese honked and I looked out to see the geese swimming two by two, seemingly processing in statio toward the abbey.  Like the monks at Evening Prayer tonight.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Advent 1: Lit from within

My morning generally starts with tea, the warmth of the cup in my hand as welcome as the jolt of caffeine my dark and bitter Assam provides.  My tea kettle is a glass flask, and in these dim days I've noticed that when the water reaches the boil, the flask suddenly seems to glow.  It's just physics, refraction, the way light changes direction when it hits the interface between two phases (gas and liquid in this case).  Instead of the smooth almost planar interface at the surface of the water, suddenly I have non-planar interfaces all over the place, bending light in many directions, themselves moving, spreading the light out yet further.  Ergo, my flask seems lit from within.

Advent is by far my favorite liturgical season.  I have an Advent playlist on my computer, the readings from Isaiah and the minor prophets reach places deep within me.  I wish we could return to a longer Advent season.  But this year I've had a tough time shifting from Ordinary Time into this time of expectant waiting.  It may be that so many other pieces of my life are moving.  On sabbatical, I have few regular anchors to my daily rounds.  Write today. Visited a class for a colleague yesterday.  Oops, pack up tonight to leave on an early flight in the morning.  Does that mean doing laundry?  Or would what I did Tuesday after the last trip suffice?

I long for stillness in these days that are anything but.  Yet Advent is also a season of light, one that supposes that a single radiant dawn can illuminate the world, refracted again and again through prophets and preachers, through each of us.  We, too, are lit from within.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Advent 1: What shall we pray for?

At the edge of a grave near Bellmullet, Ireland
I made dinner last night while the soundtrack of KTLA's coverage of the horror in San Bernardino played.  This morning I sat down to draft the intercessions for this coming Sunday, pulling up the readings, "Jerusalem, take off your dress of sorrow and distress, put on the beauty of the glory of God for ever, wrap the cloak of the integrity of God around you..."  Baruch holds out glory, mercy and justice, the mountains that separate us leveled and the chasms filled in.  Those who sow in tears, promises the psalm, will reap rejoicing.  The words grate.  I want to stop up my ears, to cry "not now."

I listen to the sirens wail, the helicopters hover.  I read of the bombings — plural, not once, but twice, a "double-tap" — of the MSF hospital in Al Zafarana, Syria last weekend.  And try as I might, I cannot scrub this Pulitzer Prize wining picture of a dying 8-year old, popped into a rapid fire presentation Tuesday night, from my mind.  Women and children. Fathers and mothers.  Lovers.  Dear God, the children.

"And for what should we pray on Sunday?" I ask, my hands restlessly tapping on the keyboard.  Should we pray at all, or is that just a way, as the NY Daily News suggested with its cover, to slide out from under any obligation to act? God's will be done, eh?

I think of C.S. Lewis:  "I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time — waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God — it changes me." I hear Karl Rahner, SJ.
Beg so that your continuing prayer of petition appears to be a pledge of your faith in the light of God in the darkness of the world, for your hope for life in this constant dying, for your loyalty of love that loves without reward. — from “The Prayer of Need” in The Need and the Blessing of Prayer
Four years ago, I drew a line in a column for CatholicPhilly between "diffident 'whatever you wish' prayers" and "fierce prayers that transfigure 'I beg You' into 'I offer all that I am for You.'" What happens when I pray with the understanding, however pitiful, that I am praying not for a miracle, but for courage.  That I'm praying not for some deus ex machina miracle, but offering to be conformed to Christ, to act in God's eye what in God's eye I am, to take a line from Hopkins. Christ.

What should we pray for?  "For those whose lives have been torn asunder by violence:  in San Bernardino, Paris, and Syria...we pray"  I want to write a litany.  Beirut. Nairobi. Colorado. Georgia.  North Carolina. Guinea.  El Salvador. Chicago. Jerusalem.  Palestine. To keep going until we all fall to our knees, or throw ourselves onto the altar for the offertory.

What should we pray for? To be changed. To be the hands of God made flesh dwelling among us.  I'm not begging.  I'm offering.

See, too, James Martin SJ's response to the NY Daily News cover at America.

1.  It's a great quote, but it's not clear C.S. Lewis actually said it, though screenwriter William Nicholson puts the words in Lewis' mouth in  Shadowlands.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent 1: Messiah mix-up

In a sleep-deprived fog, occasioned by a delayed flight that got me home at 3 am yesterday, I wandered onto Twitter where two chemist friends noted that they never came away from a reading of Messiah without new insights.  My first thought was they were talking about the classic quantum mechanics text by French physicist Albert Messiah.  Actually, not.  Handel's Messiah was the text under discussion.

Evidence I really am a science geek first and foremost.  I used Messiah's text when I took a year long course in quantum physics as a graduate student (from the physics department, have exhausted the chemistry offerings as an undergrad).

The text is still in print, though Albert Messiah died in 2013 at aged 92.  We pronounced his name "mess-ee-uh" rather than "mess-eye-uh."  I wondered today how he might have pronounced his name, and dove into the interwebs to see if I could uncover any clues.  I discovered Messiah had been part of the French Resistance in World War II (joining at age 19, the same age of my youngest son), worked at Princeton with  Niels Bohr and returned to France to teach and write this text.

I also listened to a few minutes of a presentation Messiah gave in 2009 at Le Ecole Polytechnique.  It was oddly moving to hear the voice of someone whose written words I had spent so much time wrestling with almost forty years ago.  And at the end of the presentation, I learned how he pronounced his name.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Advent 1: A Little Office for Advent

My brother and sister-in-law's cat waiting
for their return.
We tend to view waiting as problematic, penitential even. And it can be.  We wait for forks in the road, to know our fates, in things trifling and significant.  This waiting can be hard, for change is potentially ahead, with all the uncertainty that brings. Will I get this fellowship? What will the test results show?

But there is the other kind of waiting, the yearning for something or someone to arrive.  We went to California to see my youngest son, who I hadn't hugged since the middle of August, and to see family up the coast.

This sort of waiting challenges my relationship with time.  I want to arrive, but once there I want time to move with the traffic on I-5 on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.  I wait, only to wait again.  For departures. And for the next arrival.  (He's coming home in less than three weeks!  I can hardly wait. Again.)  This waiting is liturgy, a cycle that sharpens senses and soul, and slowly peels my fingers away from the things I cling too tightly to.  A Little Office of Advent.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Fitting the mold

Math Man is giving a talk today.  As we walked into the beautiful new building where he is scheduled to speak, I felt for a moment  like one of the wives of the scientists and mathematicians of the 1960s, whose biographies I've read on this leave.  Their kids grown, they accompanied their husbands to conferences (where there were special activities organized for them), and to give talks.

Maybe it was the fact that I'd ironed Math Man's shirt for him this morning (to give him more time to spend with a visiting cousin), or maybe it's that I'm not wearing the sort of clothes I'd wear to give a talk in.  Or maybe it's because I don't quite fit in the physical space.

A dean at Claremont McKenna College resigned last week, after sending an email characterizing minority students  as not "fit[ting] into our CMC mold"; a student at Princeton noted that the protests there are steps toward "creating a campus environment that will eventually allow people like me to feel more comfortable on this campus.”

All this has me musing again about fit and comfort in the physical spaces we construct, particularly in science.  I wrote an essay four years ago for Nature Chemistry (Sex and the Citadel of Science) women and science and the various ways in which we do and don't see women fitting into science, including the physical spaces we create to do science in. In it I noted that when I arrived at Princeton, it wasn't an entirely comfortable campus:
"When I pushed open the door to the ladies', I encountered a wall of urinals. I quickly ducked back out and checked the door. ‘Women’. In more than a decade [since they began admitting women,] the only thing this highly regarded research university with a large endowment had managed to change was the sign on the door. "
When I returned to give a departmental seminar many years later, the urinals were gone, so at least in this way, Princeton is no longer sending the message that they are so unsure women will major in science that it's not worth renovating a bathroom for them, but progress toward a campus where all the students can feel comfortable is clearly slow.  (And while I'm fully in favor of bathrooms that accommodate all users, in 1983, I'm pretty sure that's not why Princeton left the urinals there.)

While waiting for Math Man to return from visiting colleagues, I sat down in one of the chairs scattered about for students on the first floor here.  And immediately got the message.  Women aren't to sit here.  My feet dangle a full 4 inches from the floor.  I physically don't fit.

A bit of trivia. The standard chair seat is 17 inches from the floor; the natural seated position for the average male is 17.1 inches from the floor. Chairs are built to accommodate the majority of men, and a minority of women (less than 5% in fact).  It's a subtle statement, and I suspect an unintentional one, but a statement nonetheless.  This is men's space.  Women don't fit the mold.

The good news is that I've discovered there are a variety of seating options around the building, for the long and the short legged among us, and that the seat heights of the chairs in the classroom nicely adjust to accommodate a variety of body sizes and shapes.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

DotMagis: Hearing Places

After a month of travel, a delightful mix of work and rest, I was anxious to get home. Still, I wasn’t looking forward to negotiating yet another airport, where each line earns you the privilege of waiting in another. As we approached check-in, we were waved off to wait with a half-dozen others. “Are you sure they sent us to the right line?” I asked my husband, as I watched people in the long queue next to us check their bags for Philly while we waited— unmoving —  behind a rope.  “The sign says Philadelphia,” he reassured me.

Suddenly a young woman appeared, and without any preamble, began to ask us questions in careful English.  “What did you see?” she asked me brightly.  It was a hard question to answer.  I had spent a number of days walking the northwest coast of Ireland, I’d seen the Atlantic stretching out before me, breath-taking cliffs, tumbled-down chapels, and sheep — lots of sheep.  I’d seen Gaudi’s magnificent Sagrada Familia, and Michaelangelo’s David.  I took a lot of pictures, but my most potent memories of this trip are as much about what I heard as what I saw.  Why don't we ask people who've been away, "what did you hear?"

The walk where it was so quiet, I could hear the sheep tearing at the grass.  The rocks rolling on a shore far below.  The bubbles breaking in my cappuccino.

The experience led to a short reflection on Ignatius' notion of the composition of place posted today at DotMagis (with a great graphic!).

The mystery of the lines was that they were funneling people off to let trainees practice.  Did we look patient?  Like teachers?  We each got a little gold star on our passports, regardless.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Deserts and detachment: thoughts on my library

Trinity College Library
Paul Campbell SJ wrote today about gratitude (for cars!) and attachments, and Elizabeth Scalia has a post up with a quiz challenging readers to match books with the person who would want that volume if stranded on a desert island, and Robin is wondering about questions to ask herself as she balances at a life cusp. All of which got me thinking about my relationship to books.

I'm just off a long plane ride (the 7th in as many weeks), and the very first thing that goes in my carry-on bag is a book — or maybe several books.  Because I get anxious at the thought of being stranded somewhere with nothing to read.  I brought a book when I was in labor.  And I read it between contractions. At least at first.

These days ebooks should in principle lighten my load.  Except that I carry a charger and an back-up power stick...and a real book, just in case I'm really stuck. What do I read into this need to having reading material close to hand?  It's an attachment to be sure, and one that literally weighs me down at time. The deeper question is whether it weighs down me down metaphysically, are my books windows or doors or chairs - possessions that let light in, allow me to move to new places, or settle down with old friends, with God?  Or are they stumbling blocks, hemming me in?

While I was in Ireland a few weeks ago, I saw a beautiful bowl set into the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic near Slieve League and wondered what it would be like to live in a hermitage there. (Never mind my fear of heights and how I might get to a hermitage that was in the middle of a cliff side — that's fodder for another post about enclosures!)  What books would I pack to take?

Sagas, I think, long tangled pieces of fiction to read in front of a fire, and short stories, to hopscotch across worlds while living in this one small place.  Saints, too.  John of the Cross for the long nights and the desert monastics for the long days (or perhaps vice versa). Poetry, words that can never be exhausted.  Rilke and Rumi.  Marilyn Nelson and Billy Collins.   The Psalms.

And then I think a solar panel — to charge my iPad — and a satellite connection, and wi-fi, so I will never run out of things to read.  And I start to worry that I could never drag it all up the cliff...

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Phrase banks for the peripatetic

Where have I been?  Today?  I began at bunch.like.laptop and ended up at forgot.select.harsh.  My brother the Geek Guru pointed me to this very cool site which maps three word English phrases to small areas on the globe.  How small?  "forgot.select.harsh" is the pet food aisle at my local Acme.  I also made a brief swing through produce, which is bars.hunter.swift.  Small!

I could have told Math Man to meet me at forum. drama.alas after Mass at St. Peter's Basilica.  Instead we went through a couple of iterations to make sure we both agreed on which fountain we intend to rejoin forces at.  And I can't count the number of times I've waited on one side of a hotel lobby to meet someone who is patiently standing on the other side.

There is a warmth to naming a place that numbers don't carry — even for me, who loves numbers.  In the 40th chapter of Isaiah, God counts the stars, but also gives them names.  I enjoy, too, the randomness of the words.  Are we a bunch who likes laptops, who also gather to celebrate the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours in a small chapel at the back of the parish church?  We may be.  We are a geeky lot.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Walking with saints

On Inis Caoil

Math Man and I have been away for the last month, on holiday first and then some work related travel for me interspersed with a bit more tourist time, hence the light posting for October.

This lengthy time on the road, so far from home, and the many miles of walking I did most days, had me thinking about the difference between going on pilgrimage and taking a holiday.

Pilgrimages have some spiritual destination attached to them, and holidays are meant to amuse, and divert (as long it's not your plane that's being diverted!).  But for me at least, the fabric of this trip, while certainly having as its warp vacation, had pilgrimage as its weft, weaving over and under the threads of rest and diversion.

We spent the first two weeks of the trip in Ireland where Math Man experimented with hard sphere trajectories (golf) and I walked.  One day I walked at low tide across tidal flats to an island with the ruins of a small chapel on it.

Ruins of St. Connell's chapel
There was a small church and monastic house, along with a cemetery with graves dating back to at least the mid 18th century. The church was dry stacked stone, with a few beautifully arched windows. Someone had numbered the stones in the apse, I suspect some reconstruction had taken place.   I said morning prayer sitting on the altar base, an altar stone lying a top it.  

I walked back along the shoreline, then climbed over a stile into the far pasture (no bull to be seen despite the signs, but I stuck to the path next to the cliff, in case I needed a quick escape route).  I walked to the far end of the island, maybe a mile or out, and stood at a little point and looked out over the Atlantic. The rocks were a deep, deep black, against the brilliant green grass and some bright green-yellow seaweed.  The ocean was calm, and deep blue out here; shading from turquoise through light bluegreen to deepest cobalt blue in the bay.  The contrasts between white foam on the waves and the black rocks and that grass was pretty incredible.  There were the remains of at least one other house in the middle of the island.  I had pretty serious hermitage envy. 

Wading back from Inis Caoil
The monastic ruins are said to be where St. Connell had a monastery in the late 6th century; St. Dallen and St. Connell are buried under the walls of the church.  St. Dallen was killed by pirates who stormed the abbey in 596 or 598.  Dallen was said to be a poet, and his severed head, tossed into the ocean by the marauders, was miraculously returned to his body and reattached, Connell then buried him under the walls of the church, where he himself would be buried a few years later.

I was very aware of the sacred history under my feet as I walked the ruins, and the rest of the island.  To pray atop the tombs of saints was an extraordinary experience, but to me the real miracle of the place was not Dallen's reattached head, but the courage of those who waded out here to celebrate Mass when it was forbidden, and those who worked to live out there in the 7th and 8th centuries.  I may fantasize about a hermitage, but it would not have been an easy life then.

If a pilgrimage is travel that moves your soul to new places, this day's walk was indeed a pilgrimage.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Column: Praying for the unnamed dead

Cemetery on Mullet Peninsula, Ireland
This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 30 Oct 2015.

The ruined chapel stands on a windswept headland off the western Irish coast. The only way there is to walk, the road ends a couple of miles away. A small cemetery surrounds the tumbled stones of the church, a dry-stone wall keeps the sheep at bay, the grass is knee deep and heavy with dew.

There are a few graves marked with carved stone crosses; a handful have headstones with neatly carved names and dates ranging back hundreds of years. But most of the graves here are marked only with large unmarked stones, hauled up from the beach below.

As I make my way to the chapel, I keep thinking of all the souls buried here, whose names no one remembers any more, whose graves pass unnoticed by many of the walkers here.

Over and over I repeat the prayers for the dead, “Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them…” May they rest in peace.

The feast of All Souls (Monday, Nov. 2) is upon us, reminding us of our obligation to pray for those who have gone before us, marked with the same signs of faith we were at our baptism. The word “obligation” comes from the Latin “to bind,” another reminder to me of the ways we are bound to each other in the Body of Christ, ties that even death cannot sever: we believe in the communion of saints, and life everlasting.

“Lumen Gentium,” Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, describes our relationship with the dead: “The union of the wayfarers with the brethren who have gone to sleep in the peace of Christ is not in the least weakened or interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the perpetual faith of the Church, is strengthened by communication of spiritual goods.”

We pray for the dead that they might be freed from the sins that bound them here on earth; they intercede for us before the Father.

It’s one thing to pray that the dead I know — my mother, my first husband — be freed from their sins, and another to pray for the nameless men and women buried in this Irish graveyard. Yet, we are invited by the Church to do just that, to remember the unremembered dead, not only on All Souls but throughout the year.

As the feast approaches, I’m praying each night for all the souls of the faithful departed — those known to me, and those unknown.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bogged down

Climbing up Beefan and Glabhross

We've just finished a glorious Irish holiday.  Math Man and I have been bouncing around the west coast of Ireland for much of the last two weeks.  Some days he's been walking golf courses, while I've been walking coastal paths.  Together we've been listening to traditional Irish music in the pubs, driving the (narrow) Irish back roads and doing some hiking and touring (more driving on those roads.)

Last week, toward the end of a day in which we took a boat ride out and along the coast to see the tallest seaside cliffs in Europe, we drove to Glencolmkille, a small coast village associated with St. Columba (the founder of the famous Iona monastery).  I wanted to see Columba's Holy Well, which the map in town suggested was just at the outskirts. Up and out we drove, across a stone bridge, to the end of the road, where there was a brown sign, "Columba's Well."  We parked, grabbed our late lunches and headed off on the path that led up.  There was an incredible view of a Glenn Cove below us, we sat and watched the waves crash and the water sparkle.  A magical place to dine.

But where was the well?  How far along could it be?  I hiked up a bit, spotting what looked liked a carved stone well up the mountain.  We headed up that way, up and up, through the sheep.  To arrive to find that, no, this was not the well, just an very regular natural stone.  At this point, we decided to keep going up to the top of the mountain, where a Napoleonic watch tower was situated (these are scattered all the way up and down the coast.

The views were just amazing, each turn of the trail and revealed yet more views of the cliffs, the water, the surf and the tiny towns below.  But things got muddier as we got closer to the top.  At one point, unwilling to get my stout walking shoes too mucked up with mud and sheep droppings, I stepped off to walk around a muddy patch.  Three steps, and on the last one there was a great slurping, sucking sound and I was suddenly up to my knee in the bog.

As I tried to pull my leg out, I could feel my boot slide off.  My first thought was of the (fictional) Miles Vorkosigan and his experience in the tundra bog (from which he never did extricate his missing boot.)  I was quite stuck and it took some significant tugging from Math Man to extract me.  I now have a totally visceral feeling for what it means to be "bogged down"  -- caught in muck that won't let you go, and that you may well need help to extricate yourself from.

A bog (on another hike)
 I did the rest of the hike with a sopping wet pant leg and a shoe that squished at every turn.  But it was totally worth it.  The view from the tower was amazing.

We headed back down the mountain, and as we neared the car, finally saw the ruins of the monastery St. Columba had established there, and the marker for the well up the hill a bit.  Math Man joked that we got the better hike by failing to find the well, and I think he was right, even with the bog!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Year of Light

Antique Bunsen spectroscope. Interior.  c. Michelle M. Francl
Halloween is still a few weeks out, but I'm getting in the mood by writing a post for the UN's "Year of Light" blog.  2015 is the UN Year of Light, celebrating the 1000th anniversary of the publication of Ibn al-Haytham's Book of Optics and the 300th anniversary of Newton's Optics.

While much of the excitement around the Year of Light is directed toward the physics of light, chemistry owes a huge debt to light as well (and vice versa as I argued in a recent more scholarly essay).  Bunsen and Kirchhoff's invention of the spectroscope in 1860 would allow chemists to add more than a dozen new elements to the periodic table by looking for their spectral (ghostly) lines in the light from flames.  You can read the whole thing at the UN's blog.

Light is something I think about in many of my hats — as theologian and writer and as quantum mechanic.  What would a Year of Light look like from the religious end of things?  We have a year of Mercy coming up, why not a Year of Light?  All Advent, all the time?  My favorite season!

Sunday, October 04, 2015

One Flesh

It's a complicated Sunday. World Communion Sunday. Respect Life Sunday. Opening of the Synod on the Family in Rome. Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. On my more local calendar, we are anointing the sick at my parish this week, I gave a talk at the a nearby Episcopal Church on science and religion, and went to a friend's husband's funeral. In the greater world, there are floods and shootings and mudslides and "collateral damage" at hospitals.

It has me thinking about what it means to share in the sufferings of the Body of Christ, of the world.

And in this reflection, written many months ago for Give Us This Day, I wonder if we are missing something about the sacramental sign that is matrimony.

Do we weep for each other, as we would weep for a beloved spouse?
"'Are you trying to tell me that my husband is dead?' I asked the surgeon. 'Yes.' In that harrowing moment of my first marriage’s dissolution, I finally grasped in my bones the reality of these words: They are no longer two but one flesh. Half of me had been torn off, and what remained was pouring out onto the floor in a pool of tears.

It is tempting to hear these readings from Genesis and Mark as mere marriage instruction, demanding husbands and wives to cleave to each other no matter the cost. I see in them instead potent images of what it feels like to be one body, not just in marriage but as the People of God: you are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. We proclaim in the Communion antiphon that we are one body. But do we feel in our bones that we are one flesh, mingled with Christ in our communion, as the water and wine mingle in the cup we share? One. Inseparable.

These readings point us to realities beyond marriage, challenging us to deepen our fidelity to one another and to Christ as members of his One Body. This indeed is a hard teaching for all of us, not just those struggling with marriage. Are we torn open by the sufferings of our brothers and sisters? Do we weep for each other as we would weep for a beloved spouse? We are no longer two, but one flesh."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Column: Lovely in eyes not his

The faces, everyone's faces. That's what I will remember from the Papal Mass on the Parkway this weekend.  Christ, lovely in eyes not his.  The sister caught singing on the Jumbotron, her eyes closed, her face alight. The smile of the man sitting on cardboard on Market Street, watching the pilgrims head out toward the parkway, as memorable as Pope Francis' smile.  And a brief glimpse of my own first born son on the big screen, with a seat all the way up front, singing the psalm.

Hopkins' poem, When Kingfishers Catch Fire, and Jeremiah's prophetic words kept running through my mind all day.  I had to pay careful attention to sign posts and road markers — at one point I lost Crash in the crowd, even having marked our place (between Latvia and Lebanon on the inner drive).  As I stood there scanning the crowd, someone asked me if I needed help finding someone.  Soon I had a team peering at Crash's photo on my phone and looking for him. And they found him.  Not 10 feet away.

While there are more traditional reading of Hopkins out there (male, British accents), this chanted polyphonic version by female vocalists  felt truest to his style.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 29 September 2015.

Hear the word of the Lord, you nations,
proclaim it on distant coasts, and say:
The One who scattered Israel, now gathers them;
he guards them as a shepherd his flock.

Shouting, they shall mount the heights of Zion,
they shall come streaming to the Lord’s blessings…
— Jeremiah 31: 10,12a

A thousand priests and deacons began to wend their way from the altar on Eakins Oval out into the parkway. As I watched the steady line of men in white, their companions holding bright white and yellow umbrellas over their heads, carry the Eucharist to the waiting crowd, this line from the 31st chapter of Jeremiah ran through my head: “They shall come streaming to the Lord’s blessings.”

“Faith opens a ‘window’ to the presence and working the Spirit,” said Pope Francis in his Sunday homily. “It shows us that … holiness is always tied to little gestures.” This morning, I went back and read all of the 31st chapter of the prophet Jeremiah, letting its images wash over my memories of all the little gestures that pointed to God’s presence during this extraordinary weekend.

In it, God speaks of the families of Israel, loved and showered with his mercy. We are an enduring structure, God tells Jeremiah. Living stones, literally holding each other up as we waited hours along the barricade around Independence Mall for the pope to drive by, that lifted children high to see Francis’ motorcade. We shared chairs when we were too tired to stand, and water when we were thirsty.

“Carrying your festive tambourines, you shall go forth dancing,” proclaims the Lord. Representatives of the Neocatechumenal Way from the U.S. and Tanzania led dancing across the mall in the morning, and the festive tambourines of a delegation from Puerto Rico kept time as we sang in the afternoon, welcome counterpoints to being packed into long lines, and a soundscape of sirens.

“Set up road markers, put up signposts; Turn your attention to the highway, the road you walked,” cries the Lord. As I made my way back to the El, I thought about Pope Francis’ question, “What about you?” What should I turn my attention to as I go forth from this celebration? What about me? What will I take from these days?

Two things to start. A deep sense of the unity of believers, and of our shared responsibility for each other in the small things. And the eyes to see the people that that came streaming to receive the blessings of these days, Christ playing in ten thousand places, lovely in all those eyes not his.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

What about you?

We left home before 7 this morning, arriving at an empty parting lot on Villanova's campus headed to hear the Pope speak on Independence Mall.  Travel was smooth, though the train we were directed to board at 69th street made a loop and deposited us at — 69th Street.  We switched again and were soon at 2nd & Market in Philly.  No waiting at security, and we set our blanket out on the grass.

At 8 am in the morning, view of stage utterly blocked by
press bleachers.  Not Philadelphia's finest moment.
Next to us were visitors from Maryland and Seattle.  They had brought the liturgy of the hours along to pray, so we ended up praying it together there on the lawn. It was a lovely way to start this event.

What was not so lovely was the view. The press area had been set up between the standing crowd and the reserved seating directly in front of the Pope. This meant that at an event where we were about 300 or so feet away from the Pope you couldn't see him, even as a dot.  People who had driven from as far away as Montreal were very disappointed. The Jumbotrons were set low, so even though I was about 20 feet away from one, it was hard to see in the press of people when the Pope was speaking.

New friends with whom to pray Morning Prayer.
Since I really wanted to see the Pope in person, not on a screen, I decided to camp out on Market street along the barricades, as the word was the Pope would come down Market on his way to the event. So there I stayed, from 8ish until indeed the Pope drove by at 4:20.  He was 10 feet away, it was amazing.  But equally amazing was the wonderful group of people from Puerto Rico I stood with.  There was such tender care taking going on, including for me.  Water bottles appeared and snacks were shared.  Math Man had thought to bring one of those tripod camp seats, which I had brought up to the barricade to sit on, but which ended up providing relief for the older members of the group. Places were carefully saved for those who had to use the bathroom.

I did two media interviews: one at the start of the day and one at the end. I met Giovanni, whose mother stood next to me on Market, who was singing for the Papal Mass the next day.   I played peek-a-boo with two delightful kids across the street from me.  I prayed.  I read a book about hermits and recluses.  I watched the clouds.

I loved watching the Mass, and hearing the voices of those around singing the responses, the Sanctus in Latin, the Amen.  I read the text of his homily on line!  What about you, he asked. How will you respond?

What was the Philly Pops playing as the Pope emerged from Independence Hall, wondered the college aged people standing next to me.  "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copland.  Not some Star Trek theme.  No, I assured them.

I strained to listen to every word of the Pope's talk, on religious freedom and immigrants.  We are the voices of the those at the margins.  We are voice for the transcendent.

I loved listening to all the voice praying the Our Father, Pope Francis' voice gradually fading out, and ours carrying it.  What about us?  Can we carry the work forward as well as the prayer?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Column: What All the Dark Cannot Extinguish

Maybe the lines from Frank Sherlock's poem stuck because I've been writing about light in other contexts.  (It's the International Year of Light, marking 1,000 years since Persian natural philosopher Ibn al-Haytham published his work on optics and I wrote an essay about chemistry and light for Nature Chemistry.) Or maybe it was the plea to "give me what it takes to dejewel" and thinking again of the jewel-like interior of the Fish Church?

I had already written the section about Merton's epiphany in Louisville before I listened to the Pope's address to Congress, where he highlighted the Cistercian monk's dedication to peace through dialog. Maybe all those papal documents I read had an effect too.

You can read Frank Sherlock's What All the Dark Cannot Extinguish here, scroll down to the end.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 24 September 2015.

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” — St. Francis of Assisi

I spent yesterday at the World Meeting of Families, walking through the convention center. There are talks to go to, and hundreds of exhibits to browse and so many wonderful books on display. But it’s the people that keep drawing my attention.

The group wearing matching orange sunhats, maps in hand, standing at a crossroads, trying to find their session. A family with four overtired little ones fleeing for a quiet corner. Lidia, in front of me in the long line to pick up tickets for the Papal Mass, waving her Colombian flag so her parents could find her. The homeless men hidden away on the thin stretch of grass between JFK and the train tracks. The sisters waiting for the traffic light to change at Broad and Arch, veils fluttering in the wind, faces raised to the warming sun.

Standing there watching them, I couldn’t help but think of Cistercian monk Thomas Merton’s epiphany at a street corner in Louisville, his sudden realization that we were not strangers to each other, but one family, one people, all walking around “shining like the sun.”

If only we could see each other as God sees us, he prays — as I do, now, here in Philadelphia. Each person a light, each a light capable of sweeping away darkness by its mere presence, each a light to be tenderly shielded from the winds that buffet each of our lives.

I heard, too, fragments of Philadelphia poet laureate Frank Sherlock’s poem “What All the Dark Cannot Extinguish,” written for this historic visit. “Allow me to be passage for the newest arrivers; eyes to see sisters/brother in the convent the rowhouse the tent…”

I prayed as I walked: Give me eyes to see my sisters and brothers, the ones newly arrived, the visitors, those who live in convents and those whose only shelter is a blanket or bundle of newspapers.

This morning Pope Francis went St. Patrick’s Church in Washington where he was to have lunch with the homeless. In his remarks there he reminded us that beginning with the Our Father, prayer teaches us to “see one another as brothers and sisters.” Jesus, he said, keeps knocking on our doors, not with fireworks, but in the faces of the people next to us. We are called to answer, in love and compassion and service to each other.

I am, of course, eager to hear Pope Francis speak in person this weekend, but as the time draws near, I find myself even more joyfully looking forward to hearing Jesus knock on the door of my heart in the faces of everyone I encounter. I pray that I might be a channel of peace, an image of love, a witness to the light that all the darkness cannot dim. Not just this weekend, but all the days of my life.