Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Common Doctor: Thomas Aquinas

We Ourselves find so justified the magnificent tributes of praise bestowed on this truly divine genius, that We think it proper to call, not only the Angelic Doctor, but also the Common or Universal Doctor of the Church, him whose doctrines the Church has made her own, as so many documents of every kind show. Studiorum Ducem

It's the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas today and I'm hoping this means I'll be able to finish a reflection on a prayer attributed to the sainted scholar and doctor.  In the course of working on the piece, I discovered what may be the only website entirely in Latin (even the copyright notice!).  The site provides research materials and some quite wonderful digital tools for working with the Thomistic corpus. It is in Latin, according to the introduction, because if you are scholar working on Thomas you obviously read Latin.  The Index Thomisticus, originally developed by Roberto Busa SJ, was of great help as I tried to track down the original Latin text of the prayer (which may or may not have been written by Aquinas).

In the course of my reading Paul Murray OP's Aquinas at Prayer, I discovered the prayer Concede mihi...which I had not encountered before:

GRANT me, O merciful God, to desire eagerly, to investigate prudently, to acknowledge sincerely, and to fulfill perfectly those things that are pleasing to you, for the praise and glory of your holy Name.

O my God, order my life, and grant that I may know what you will have me to do; and grant that I may fulfill it as is fitting and profitable to my soul.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Urban myths of the Catholic Church: Altar girls and vocations

A church in San Francisco has banned women from serving at the altar. This is the pastor's prerogative. What fascinates me is the conversation around these decisions, and around women's presence overall in sacred space.

The argument that is regularly trotted out begins with the observation that a majority (two-thirds of diocesan priests) report having been altar servers.1  Therefore altar service is a pipeline to the priesthood, which is only open to males, so we should not waste space on girls or women (a) who cannot become priests, and (b) whose very presence discourages boys from participating.2 Some go so far as to suggest that such permission led directly to a drop in priestly vocations.

In a thread on Deacon Greg Kandra's Facebook feed, someone thought it might be interesting to explore that suggestion more quantitatively.  I did a quick search, found the data at CARA and noticed that it contradicts the hypothesis: priestly ordinations in the US have gone up since women and girls have been allowed to serve.

So I pointed out the data was not difficult to obtain and what it showed.  There was some exasperation, as well as toe-tapping with a hint of "you're making it up" (at least that's how I read the "Well, we're waiting.").

Herewith is the data:

Let me be clear, I don't for a minute believe this correlation implies causality (see this graph showing the correlation between mozzarella cheese consumption and engineering doctorates from the delightful Spurious Correlation generator.)  Permission to let girls serve did not cause vocations to the priesthood to tick up.  The data do suggest that allowing women to serve did not result in a crashing of priestly vocations, but a far more detailed study would be needed to assert that with any certainty.

What did prompt the rise?3  People have theories,4 there may be peer reviewed work on the subject, but I'm unaware of it, but in all that I've read I've seen remarkably little conversation about God's work in it all.  The assumption seems to be the stream of men called is constant, so if vocations decrease, it is because there is a problem.  A problem with the times or the men or the Church or... pick your favorite high horse. Celibacy.  Altar girls.

But is it true that more men are ignoring a call to the priesthood or is it that the Holy Spirit is calling fewer men? And how would we know? What would the answer tell us about how the People of God should respond? To my mind, those are questions worth exploring, prayerfully, with an open and listening heart.  And perhaps a bit of data.

1.  A nearly equal number report having been lectors, arguably as fertile a ground for vocations as altar service, but I don't notice many parishes closing off that ministry to women on these grounds (though I was in such a parish long ago).
2.  The Burke effect
3.  To quote Clinton, one wonders if it is the economy, grad school applications go up when the economy goes down.  Did the bursting of the dotcom bubble send a few good men into the priesthood?  This is certainly true in the military.
4.  The person who pointed to the book cites Arlington as an exemplar of increasing vocations per capita, but I note that vocations are flat in Arlington over the past 5 years and at the same per capita rate as the US overall, so it's hard to argue for banning women servers on that score.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Screwed up

Dear Refrigerator Manufacturer,

This last week, after almost 15 years of faithful
service, the light bulb in the refrigerator failed to produce photons on demand, i.e. when the door was opened.  How wonderful, I thought, that the bulb would last so long.

Shopping five days later, I purchased the correct bulb.  Only $2.69.  How wonderful, I thought, that the local store had just the bulb I needed, and that it cost so little.

I brought home the groceries and put them away, started dinner and then turned to what I imagined might be the task of a moment.  Replacing the bulb.  How wonderful, I thought, that I could do this small task tonight.

I went to remove the plastic grill that covers the bulb.  But the tabs wouldn't budge.  It was then I noticed that in the back of the grill, it was screwed in.  How wonderful, I thought, that I have screwdrivers right here in my kitchen drawer.  Phillips and flat head.  I got my flashlight out to see which I needed, to discover that neither would suit.  Oh dear, these were hexheaded screws.  Never fear, I have an adjustable crescent wrench up here, too.

It was here that things began to seriously degenerate.  Whoever installed these screws had used a device that left the heads a bit stripped.  Not much, just slightly rounded.  Now imagine the steam in my kitchen condensing on the surface of the screws, which are in the roof of the fridge and set back from the front, hidden behind the grill, making them slippery as all get out.  How wonderful, I thought, that I have such a command of invective that I need not repeat f--k over and over again.1

I did manage to remove both screws, and replace the bulb.

I wanted to let you know that while our experience has suggested that I will need to replace the appliance long before the light bulb, I did replace the supplied @#$%^ hex heads with my own flat headed screws.2  I hope this does not affect my warranty.

Yours sincerely,



Math Man came home, opened the fridge to look for a snack.  When he wandered into the sun room I asked him if he'd noticed anything about the refrigerator.  "You bought me yogurts?"  I face palmed.  "Indeed I did."  Sensitive husband that he is, Math Man inquired, "Is there something else I should have noticed? Oh, you got me milk."  I did, but suggested that he might want to look again. "You fixed the light." Ah, indeed I had.  If he's going to notice anything, I'm glad it's my feelings he notices!!

  1. I ran through four of the five languages I can swear in; it would have been hard to swear in ASL while dealing with the screws.
  2. The screws came from my mother-in-law's stash of small screws, all neatly labeled in a set of drawers that we inherited when my father-in-law died twenty years ago.  I was grateful for her organization, and the labels.  It was an unopened box of screws, which makes me wonder why they had been stashed away.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

#tbt: The Daily Working

My copy of Jim Manney's Ignatian inflected commonplace book is already sprouting post-it notes, pointers to new authors I've discovered, questions to think about.  Today's author wasn't new to me — it was me, a snippet from a piece I wrote for This Ignatian Life in September 2012!  But funnily enough, in this first week of the semester where I feel inundated with meetings and organizational details it was good to read my own words and to remind myself, I really do love the daily working, the writing of an introductory course lecture, the office hours, my students.  Admittedly, I'm still working on loving the grading.  As Urban Spiritual Director was wont to say, "first of all we preach to ourselves."

You can read "The Daily Working" at This Ignatian Life; the title comes from a line from dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham — and see what questions it prompted Jim Manney to pose for reflection by checking out page 30 of the excerpt above!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Adsum: #usemeinstead

After sliding our way to and from PHL today to get our Egg onto his plane for California College, I spent much of the rest of the day nursing a sore throat while listening to the freezing rain hit the roof. Too sick to go to Mass, I prayed through the propers and readings for today and enjoyed the short reflection from Carlo Carletto in Give Us This Day in lieu of a homily.  Wait on God, he says, until the time comes when we are called, when we must speak out.

Adsum, says Samuel, in the Latin translation of today's first reading.  Here I am. I come to do your will.

Wandering through my Facebook feed tonight, I found Samuel's story replaying in Amy Chanson of Diary of a Contemplative's post:  "Use Me Instead." She is taking part in the #usemeinstead campaign where clergy are offering their photographs to be used in lieu of the African-American men's images currently being used that had been used by the North Miami Beach police department for sniper training.  She is called, and speaking out powerfully.

Adsum.  Here I am. #usemeinstead

My friend Fran was also writing about being called - for yesterday's Feast of St. Anthony.  Read her reflection, "A compelling call," at PrayTell.

DotMagis: Wild Joy

Alan Holdren/CNA
"There are very few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into his hands, and let themselves be formed by his grace."

— Ignatius of Loyola

I'm still fruitfully pondering Pope Francis'  Christmas message to the Curia, with its helpful list of spiritual maladies and cures. (Though I wonder if there is a spiritual equivalent of hypochondria or medical students' disease?)

The pope prescribed prayerful humor and joy for the malady of the funeral face. Which prompted me to wonder in reflection posted at DotMagis last week, can we abandon ourselves to joy in prayer?  What might happen to us — to others — if we did?
"...I love the impish way Thomas More’s prayer begins, with a request to the Lord for good digestion, and, oh, by the way, some food to digest would not go amiss. It reminds me of the way my college-aged sons banter with me in the kitchen, certain enough of my love for them, and theirs for me, to playfully tease me. In his Exercises, St. Ignatius encourages us to speak to Jesus as one friend to another. Do I love God enough to banter with him, as my sons do with me? Or perhaps I should ask if I’m certain enough of God’s love for me that I would risk bantering with God in my prayer?" the rest at DotMagis

Friday, January 09, 2015

Swimming Lessons

“People who have faith in life are like swimmers who entrust themselves to a rushing river. They neither abandon themselves to its current nor try to resist it. Rather, they adjust their every movement to the watercourse, use it with purpose and skill, and enjoy the adventure.” — David Steindl-Rast

Swimming lessons mean winter to me.  When I was young, living in a small town west of Chicago, we took lessons at the YMCA about 30 minutes away.  My mother would pack all five or six of us up in the car and head off to the Y, where we wound our way downstairs to the locker rooms, stuffed our mittens, scarves, hats, coats, and uniforms into lockers and magically turned into Guppies or Minnows or Sharks.  I can still remember how the snow piled up against the glass panels as February drifted into March, the humid air condensing in a misty veil.  Rumor had it the panels were opened in the summer, turning the indoor pool into an outdoor one with a few turns of a wheel.

I'm back taking lessons again, heading to our new Y twice a week for an in-the-water weight and aerobic training class.  The kids' classes are in the other half of the warm pool, and as I did grand battements on the side, I could hear them playing "red light/green light."  Fifty years ago, I was playing the same game in a warm pool while the winter winds howled.

I am in miserable shape.  My head knows how to move, but my joints creak in all new ways, my plantar fasciitis has returned with a vengeance, and my body won't alway do what my head says.  It's a strange feeling to feel so out of sorts in my own body, but on balance, I'm enjoying the adventure of getting my balance again.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Shades of Mary Poppins

Wanted a nanny for two adorable children
If you want this choice position
Have a cheery disposition
Rosy cheeks, no warts
Play games, all sorts
Hurry nanny, many thanks 
Sincerely, Jane and Michael Banks

It's the start of the new semester and I'm reorganizing a set of files for my general chemistry course.  Like the sheets of paper that find their ways into odd places, so too, do files occassionally land in the wrong folder.  And with about 1.25 million files on my laptop, I might not happen across such misplaced items anytime soon. This time I found an ad for an afterschool babysitter — written by the boys. They aren't as witty as the lyricists for Mary Poppins, but they did have opinions:

Baby Sitter 


  • Has a car
  • Can handle an 12 year old and a 10 year old
  • Has some medical experience
  • Doesn’t smoke
  • Likes to play with kids

I loved the colors and the exclamation points, and the idea that medical experience would be a good idea. When I asked them why, they said it was because they were active and might get hurt.  From this we found the most marvelous of companions for the boys, who learned to cook with them, studied with them, was an all around big sister for them, who shaped them in so many ways.