Tuesday, March 31, 2015

As the hamster wheel turns: Episode 104

I used to share my study at home with a hamster named Rufus.  Rufus, who could have written a sequel to The Borrowers about his adventuresome life (the rescue from the sump pump, the cat, the great race) and I were most active at night, once the little ones were in bed.  He on his wheel, and me on mine.

As I polish off another round of grading (200 some odd papers, quizzes, problems sets, homework logs in the last 24 hours), I realize that I'm feeling very much on the hamster wheel this year in terms of grading.  It's good, I've spread the work out so neither I nor the students are ever overwhelmed.  It's also not so good, I'm never done (the students probably feel similarly, but they are young and can stay up later). There is a sense of relief that comes with being finished with a project that I would like to have time to savor.  Instead, I feel like the guy in this video, plodding along, no end in sight.  (And yes, there are directions for building this desk here.)

Last night my mail was peppered with messages ranging from difficult to bordering on nasty.  I had two tough interpersonal interactions to deal with, both of which I'm still struggling to understand what response the other party wanted of me, what was the desired resolution.  It's Holy Week, 4 nights of rehearsals and a dozen liturgical events are scheduled before the Feast of the Resurrection dawns.  There are more ways to be battered than physically.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Column: A Church warmed by mercy

This column is the seventh in a series on the readings from the Easter Vigil for CatholicPhilly.  The reading is Ezekiel 36:16-17a,18-28.  You can find all of CatholicPhilly's Lenten material here, including editor Matt Gambino's reflection on the collects for the Sundays in Lent. This piece appeared at CatholicPhilly on 17 March 2015. 

For I will take you away from among the nations, gather you from all the foreign lands, and bring you back to your own land. Ezekiel 36:24

No matter how early or late Easter falls, it’s never as warm as I think it is going to be on the Easter Vigil. I shiver outside in the growing darkness, my coat piled with the rest of the choirs’ in the daily chapel, a candle and my music clutched in my hand. We light the fire, the deacon and acolyte brush past, the Easter Candle held high, and we come streaming into the church, out of Lent’s cold and into Easter’s warmth.

We are coming home, those of us who were here the previous afternoon, and those who have not been through these doors in weeks or months. Among them my oldest son, back from college to celebrate this great feast with the community who first welcomed him in baptism 21 years ago; a parishioner, hospitalized for weeks, steadied by his wife, makes his way to a pew. All of us are gathered by God into this church, drawn by the warmth we find within, literally and metaphorically. We are pulled into Easter’s light by God’s merciful Word.

For the last five years, I have sung the psalm response to this reading, Psalm 51, the Miserere. “A clean heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me.” Mercy is ours, Ezekiel tells us in this reading, no matter what we have done, or failed to do. This is the night, the Exsultet proclaims, that “a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin.” And yet still I stand in front of the church, shrouded in darkness, surrounded by the assembly and beg for mercy, that God might not cast me out from his presence, that I — that all of us gathered within these walls — might again know the joy of God’s Spirit dwelling within us, sustaining us.

Two weeks ago Pope Francis announced the opening of an extraordinary Jubilee Year. The pope called for this year of mercy, set to begin on Dec. 8, that we might grow in our understand of what it means to be a church of mercy, in particular that we might be “merciful as our Father is merciful.”

Here, on the cusp of the proclamation of Easter’s good news, we hear once again of the enormity of God’s mercy. Not only are our sins forgiven, but we are renewed from within, God’s own spirit placed within us. To guard us and guide us.

Surely it will be cold when the year of mercy begins next December, but I’m hoping that my thoughts will return to the warmth found within the walls of the church, and to this reading in particular, which speaks of the depths of mercy and forgiveness. That I might grasp more profoundly that God has placed his spirit within me, to sustain me, to burn brightly, to warm not only my heart, but those of all I meet.

If you are curious as to the missing half-verse (17b) in this pericope, it's here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Column: Wisdom walks among us

Mary, Throne of Wisdom
St. John's Abbey Church
This column is the sixth in a series on the readings from the Easter Vigil for CatholicPhilly.  The reading is Baruch 3:9-15, 32 and 4:4 .  You can find all of CatholicPhilly's Lenten material here, including editor Matt Gambino's reflection on the collects for the Sundays in Lent. This piece appeared at CatholicPhilly on 17 March 2015. 

Learn where prudence is, 
where strength, where understanding; 
that you may know also where are length of days, 
and life, where light of the eyes, and peace. Baruch 3:14

A few weeks ago, on a snowy morning, there were only three of us at church for Morning Prayer. With so few the pastor proposed we recite the psalm verses in turn, rather than alternating sides of the chapel as we usually do. As each psalm moved from Richard, to Father Denny and back to me again, I was struck by how very alive the psalms seemed, as if the Holy Spirit were dancing over our heads, her breath in our mouths, her voice resounding in ours.

In this sixth of the seven readings set out for the Easter Vigil, the prophet Baruch speaks similarly of wisdom appearing on earth, moving among the people. She is, he says, the book of the precepts of God. Turn toward her, let her light direct your steps, cling to her and have life.

I hear in this reading a powerful reminder of the great gift of Sacred Scripture, God’s Word made manifest in time, the Spirit continually breathing into us life and wisdom. The Catechism of the Church reminds us that we should venerate the Scriptures as we venerate the Lord’s Body (CCC 103). They, too, are the bread of life, broken open for us on the altar. Scripture is not a historical document, but is alive and moving among us even now.

In his book The Art of Biblical Poetry scripture scholar Robert Alter writes of the ways in which the psalms sweep “to-and-fro,” moving us from the stuff of the earth — bees and mud and pounding waves — to gaze on God — in the stars, in the mountain fastness, walking the earth unseen. In Alter’s own beautifully poetic translation of the psalms he sought more than just the right words, he sought out the movements within each psalm, the ways in which the psalmist used the structure of these sacred poems to say what words alone could not capture. The psalms take flesh on these bones.

Baruch reminds us that Scripture is more than the law. Here we find fountains of wisdom, of strength, of understanding. Here there is delight, glory and joy. Here, grace and peace. As we enter into these final days of Lent, let us remember that the Word of God has taken flesh and dwells among us even now. May we cling to the Word, and have life.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Column: Sacred Rainstorms

If you are wondering about how snow makes the ground more fertile, I blogged about it last year on Culture of Chemistry.  When I went up to see my spiritual director at the beginning of Lent, the last part of this pericope from Isaiah was the reading and I noted that I found consolation in these last words for writers - that our words are watered by the Word and will not return without doing the work intended.

This column is the fifth in a series on the readings from the Easter Vigil for CatholicPhilly.  The reading is Isaiah 54:5-14.  You can find all of CatholicPhilly's Lenten material here, including editor Matt Gambino's reflection on the collects for the Sundays in Lent. This piece appeared at CatholicPhilly on 17 March 2015. 

For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it. Is 55:10-11

When I hear this reading from Isaiah at the Easter Vigil, I tend to focus on the shower of blessings with which it begins. Come, all who thirst, all who hunger, come, eat and drink without cost. Such abundance stands in stark contrast to the Lenten disciplines of fasting and self-denial, drawing my attention in those last moments before Easter dawns to the rich fare to come, the Eucharist about to be celebrated in a church ringing with alleluias and ablaze with light.

But here, in the depths of Lent, I find myself contemplating not the glowing promises, but the final two verses, with their everyday images of rain and snow, seeds and bread.

I am struck by the sense of expectation. Gifts are there in abundance to be sure, but they are beginnings, not ends.

God sends forth his Word, expecting that he will not just pass through the world, but engage with us, saturating us, making us a new creation. In his commentary on Isaiah, St. Jerome, a fourth century doctor of the Church, called the Gospels “rainstorms.” The Word that cascades down upon us, week after week, day after day, working in us.

There is power in these words, too, and reassurance. Our work in the world does not depend on our resources alone. God has spoken, and if we let the word enter our hearts, it cannot help but bear fruit, returning to God having achieved the end he desires.

I looked out at the deep blanket of snow covering my back yard last weekend. I thought about all the nitrogen trapped in the snow, given to feed the grass and fruit trees as it melts. What the plants took last year from the earth is returned to the ground, that it might burst forth again in spring blossoms and summer fruit.

I sit now under Lent’s blanket of snow, listening to the familiar Gospels, letting the rainstorms soak the seeds planted in my heart, reading them to burst forth, doing the work God intended for me.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Feast of St. Joseph

"Joseph and Joachim" by Albrecht
Dürer via Wikimedia Commons 
Today is the feast of St. Joseph. For years I've sat on the side of the daily chapel for the Hours which faces a statue of St. Joseph. He holds the iconic lily and carpenter's square, but what draws me in is the look on his face and tenderness with which he holds a young -- but not infant -- Jesus in his arms. When I was contemplating the Hidden Years in the Exercises, this was the face I saw.

The traditions in East and West diverge early on St. Joseph. Augustine and Jerome postulating perpetual virginity for Joseph, the East sticking to the apocrypha and considering him a widower. So far no one has succeeded in making either position dogma, so I'm free to disagree.

This reflection first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Standard & Times on 18 March 2010.

When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. — Mt. 1:18-19

“Do not speculate beyond the text. Do not require of it more than it simply says,” advised St. John Chrysostom, preaching in the fourth century on this fragment from Matthew’s Gospel. It was advice that had long been unheeded, at least when it came to St. Joseph. Though nearly all that we know of Joseph, the husband of Mary, is here — he was a righteous man — speculation about Joseph’s life had been rampant for at least 200 years by the time St. John offered his counsel.

Was Joseph a widower? Did he have other children? Was he old or young? When did he die?

It’s hard not to be curious about the man who would have known Jesus so well, his foster-father. A few lines later, in fact, John Chrysostom himself would ignore his own advice, asking his congregation to imagine Joseph’s virtues, “Do you not see here a man of great self-restraint? ...”

From the canonical Gospels we know only that he was a “righteous man” and a carpenter. My father is a carpenter, and as long as I can remember I’ve been in awe of what he can fashion from wood. Under his hands awkwardly shaped and seemingly unyielding pieces of wood become beautifully turned spindles for my nephew’s crib and carefully crafted shelves for my books.

The smell of sawdust is the smell of wonder and creation. So I’m not surprised that God, Creator of all, would choose to dwell in the house of a carpenter, to live surrounded by these small mysteries of creation.

Sources such as the apocryphal Protevangelium of James, which dates to the second century or earlier, and the fifth century “History of Joseph the Carpenter” suggest St. Joseph was a widower and the father of four sons and two daughters. Contemporaries of John Chrysostom, Saints Augustine and Jerome, had different ideas about Joseph’s earlier life, thinking it was fitting that he was not a widower, but like Mary, ever virgin.

I hesitate to disagree with the great doctors Augustine and Jerome, but having been widowed and remarried myself, I wonder if it is not more reasonable that Joseph had been married once before his betrothal to Mary.

To marry again you are risking being widowed again, now knowing full well the pain that brings. It takes a different kind of courage to submit yourself again to the possibility of such a loss.

Christ, having once emptied Himself to become man, will surrender His life once again on the cross. How much might a widowed Joseph’s willingness to love and cherish Mary, in the face of potential pain and loss, have strengthened Jesus in the garden at Gethsemane as he surrendered to suffering, for love of us?

I require nothing more of the text than to know that Joseph was an upright man, who heard the voice of God, who cherished wife and Son, but I do yearn to go beyond it, not so much to know St. Joseph, but through him, to better learn what it is like to live with the Son of God in your home and in your heart.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Preaching Ahead of Myself: A Homily for the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle B

Simeon the Stylite
The next time the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time will be celebrated is in 2038, but it will be the A liturgical cycle readings, not the Cycle B reading this homily was written for.  The B cycle readings will not come up in my lifetime, so this is a homily for a Sunday that will not be celebrated 'preached' by someone who cannot preach.

My friend Robin talks about "preaching ahead of yourself," and while this preaching for a moment far ahead of me in time is not quite what she means by the term, I think I can stretch it to accomodate.  I reflected a bit here about the writing of this piece, and  homilies in general.

This was written for Sick, and You Cared for Me, the third book in the series by the Homilists for the Homeless. You can read about the series here.

In the fourth century, Simeon the Stylite, it is said, spent more than thirty years living on top of a fifty-foot high pillar on the edge of the Syrian desert, confined to a platform three feet on each side. He was driven up the column, not so much by his desire to get closer to God, though that surely played a part, but to get further from the crowds who clamored for his advice, disturbing his prayers. Still they came, from Constantinople and Antioch, emperors, archbishops and farmers alike clambered up a ladder to have a word with the saintly Simeon, until finally his brother monks built a double wall around the pillar to keep the curious at bay.

There are weeks where my calendar makes a pillar in the desert, guarded by high rock walls and a solid community, seems like a great idea. I imagine the items on my to-do list jumping up and down, yelling for my attention, surrounding me on all sides, scrambling to find a ladder to climb up to the top of the list. It’s tempting to try to quiet the demanding crowd by plunging into the list first thing, crossing off this task, answering that request. But the tasks keep coming up the ladder.

A few years ago I started writing “pray” at the top of my daily to-do list, to be sure I didn’t fail to start my day with God no matter how chaotic life was. I confess I also put it there so I could cross it off, so I could feel productive, even in prayer.

God? Great! Help? Thanks. Bye. Amen.

And I check off God for the morning.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “prayer ought to animate us at every moment…we cannot pray “at all times” if we do not pray at specific times.” [2697] My habit of scheduling prayer on my calendar is not a bad thing; it’s a jumping off point, not just for my day, but for the formation of my prayer life. Writing about living with a religious rule, with its ordered times of prayer, Richard Rohr, OFM observed that it kept “my feet to the fire long enough for the Gospel to become fire, and my feet to become feet.”

My daily reminder to pray holds my feet to the fire, too, until I can pick up the day’s work and walk. Until I can, as fourth century doctor of the church Gregory Nazianzus advised, remember Christ more often than I draw breath. Of late I’ve started to wonder if I should stop crossing it off and simply let it stand at the head of my list, to be more aware of God’s presence as He “guides the beginning of my work, directs its progress, and brings it to successful completion” as Thomas Aquinas’ prayer before study so beautifully captures.

Prayer is not inherently productive, however. “Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer,” wrote Henri Nouwen. Can we waste time with God, even in the face of urgent tasks? Can we practice simply letting God look at us? Saying nothing. Doing nothing.

The Sabbath holds our feet to the fire in this regard. Today’s first reading from Deuteronomy exhorts us firmly to be unproductive one day in seven. Do no work. Let no one work in your stead, not even your animals. Let the world lay fallow for a day and see what happens when you are useless and silent in the presence of God.

Mark’s Gospel offers us one image for what might happen when we give ourselves over to sabbath time. The Pharisees are fussing about the precise limits of the rules, Jesus is letting the disciples flout the rules — fresh ears of wheat are not edible, they were not picking up a snack on the way — and all the while a man with a withered hand sits in the synagogue. Silent and useless.

“Stretch out your hand,” commands Jesus. And the hand is whole again, perfect. I gaze upon you, says God, and you are healed. Did the man notice the moment he was once again made whole, when the bones knit and his muscles responded with strength? How not? But did the person next to him?

Sunday is not the day we flip the week’s calendar over, not merely a day we are obliged to go to Mass, to make a return to Lord for what we have been given. It is not about the rules. The Sabbath is for noticing. For noticing that God is present, for noticing that we have been healed, for noticing that our neighbor has been healed.

The Sabbath is a reminder to sit unproductively, and be alert to what happens when Light shines forth from darkness and God beholds us. Stretch out your hands, and see that what has been crushed has been made whole in Christ’s dying and rising.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Column: Because I love you

St. John's Abbey
In working my way through the Hebrew, I note that the root of console used here is "breath" — and I find myself longing for the warm breath of the Spirit in these wintry days.  I was struck with the title of the section in Rabbi Heschel's book which dealt with the themes from this chapter in Isaiah:  Because I love you.  God reaches toward us, because we are loved.  Period.

This column is the fourth in a series on the readings from the Easter Vigil for CatholicPhilly.  The reading is Isaiah 54:5-14.  You can find all of CatholicPhilly's Lenten material here, including editor Matt Gambino's reflection on the collects for the Sundays in Lent. This piece appeared at CatholicPhilly on 10 March 2015. 

 O afflicted one, storm-battered and unconsoled, I lay your pavements in carnelians, your foundations in sapphires; I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of jewels, and all your walls of precious stones. — Isaiah 54:11-12

The pavement outside my door glitters, not with carnelians, but with black ice and snow that sparkles like diamonds. Like Israel in Isaiah’s time, I am weary. I am exhausted by this winter, battered by more than just the bitter cold winds and icy rains. The crises have been personal — a son sick enough to land in the hospital — and global. Refugees in Syria shiver in the cold, children are threatened by terrorists.

Yet I read this passage and am heartened by what John Kavanaugh, S.J., called “the bright reliance of Isaiah” who holds out hope to Israel, enduring the long Babylonian exile. Like me, they are longing to be consoled, to be warmed again by God’s breath, to be held safe within his walls.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel in his book on the prophets writes of the radiance and joy that Isaiah pours out in these passages. This, he says, is the language of those who seek the Lord, who long for God, who hope for rescue.

Indeed Isaiah’s language burns brightly. The Hebrew brings forth images of jewels that spark fire as if from metal in a forge, of gems that are aflame like the sun. There is strength in these images, too. Sapphires, impossible to scratch, are stones that fit tightly into place to enclose the land and keep the winds from our doors. There is hope.

We are loved, Isaiah tells us, with a love that cannot be shaken, no matter how shaky our lives feel. This is a love that will remain with us, a peace that stretches to the bounds of the earth and beyond.

I am reminded of 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich, who wrote, “He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-sear, you shall not be discomforted.’” We are clothed in Christ, she said, enfolded for love. We will not be abandoned.

We hear in this reading, too, the first hints of how God hopes we will respond to his immense and steadfast love. How we might burn brightly, how we might be built into a city whose walls cannot be broken down, how we might give ourselves and our children over to the Lord’s teaching. How we might let ourselves be clothed in Christ. How we might be Christ to our brothers and sisters.

St. Augustine, reflecting on the end of this passage from Isaiah, reminds us that the surest sign that what we have been taught comes from God is how we are drawn to respond, not from the law, nor from fear, but from our hearts, in love. Love, says Augustine, and do what you will.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Column: Rising Waters, Raising Walls

This column is the third in a series on the readings from the Easter Vigil for CatholicPhilly.  The reading is Isaiah 54:5-14.  You can find all of CatholicPhilly's Lenten material here, including editor Matt Gambino's reflection on the collects for the Sundays in Lent. This piece appeared at CatholicPhilly on 18 February 2015. 

When the water was thus divided, the Israelites marched into the midst of the sea on dry land, with the water like a wall to their right and to their left (Exodus 14:21b-22).

A few weeks ago I drove through the Fort McHenry tunnel on I-95, coming back from visiting my oldest son at college. The GPS showed our path entering the harbor, as if we were driving across the surface of the water, rather than underneath it.

The tunnel was dry and bright, a stark contrast to the dark night and sleet above. I was struck by how safe we felt in that tunnel, sheltered for the moment from the vile weather, yet staggeringly aware of the weight of more than 100 feet of water above us.

I wonder if the Israelites experienced this same unsettling mix of safety and fear as they gathered their children and belongings and walked between the walls of water across the bottom of the sea. Was it a quiet refuge like the tunnel under Baltimore’s harbor, guiding a steady stream of people across the sea? Or did the east wind sent to separate the waters howl, and the water rage against the boundaries God had imposed on it?

Origen, a third century theologian and Father of the Church, wondered, too, how much courage it might take to walk between walls of water, even knowing they are held back by the hand of God. Our souls, he imagined, at times much traverse similarly perilous waters, where it is easy to be distracted by the great waves mounding up on either side.

Keep your eyes fixed, says Origen, on God’s law. Hold it close, as Moses did.

The desert fathers and mothers, it is said, hurled snippets of the psalms like spears at what hounded them in the night. On a bitter dark night in February, with sleet lashing against the windows, I sat awake, worried about a child growing ever more ill on the other side of the country. I found myself reaching for the psalms as well. Not to hurl back at the fears that banged at the windows, but to draw up on either side of me, to hold back the waters that threatened to engulf me, to keep my eyes fixed on the Morning Star.

“I will walk in the presence of the Lord,” rang Psalm 116 in my ear. No matter how high the waters and how rough the seas, I wade into the water, singing to the Lord, ever present, ever triumphant over evil.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

I stand here in the midst

"...I stand here in the midst of them: your house, your heart, Jerusalem." When I started rehearsing the psalm (116) for this week, my first thought was "What was Rory Cooney thinking with that F# above high C?"

I thought about taking an octave's dive.  I thought about skipping the third verse entirely, no matter how directly it responded to the first reading.  I thought about punting this setting and using the sure-to-be-less-vocally-taxing Respond and Acclaim version.  And then I thought about Abraham and Isaac and the vows that we profess with our lips, but are in truth wrung from our souls.  Vows that cost something, that risk everything.

I know I can hit the note (most of the time) in rehearsal, particularly when I am belting it out, but was worried about being able to hit the note reliably when prayerfully proclaiming a psalm in front of a few hundred people, when neither a Broadway belt nor a warbly screech will do.  But I also thought about how what we profess, who we believe in, stretches us out. We, too, are held between heaven and earth on the cross, stretching ever upward.  Like those last notes, which clamber from the depths of the B below middle C up to that almost unreachable F# in the course of a dozen words.  I understood why those notes were put to this text, so that we might know where we live and breathe.

I rehearsed, I memorized the text and the music so I would not have to look down, I woke up early enough that my voice might be really warmed up.  This psalm cost me something.  And I left the final decision in the hands of our amazingly supportive, but utterly honest, accompanist, who listened and said, "yes, sing it."  I would risk everything.

This morning, I stood in the midst of God's people, in the midst of God's house, before God's heart and I gave my breath over completely to the Word.  And when I let go that last note, I heard the assembly proclaim steadily in return, "I will walk in the presence of God."  Every breath returned to the God who made us, no matter how costly, no matter how risky.

Thanks, Rory Cooney - for an F# that stretched me out between heaven and earth.