Monday, April 27, 2015

Silence is about who I am, not where I sit

The last week has been as raucously wild as Madeleine Delbrêl's factory.  I have: gone to Manhattan to help launch a book I contributed to (up and back in a single evening), been on the radio, recorded an interview for TV, been called a rockstar of chemistry (honestly, I'm not, though I'm touched that someone thinks I am), been privileged to serve at the altar for First Eucharist, given a public lecture on science and religion, had 20-odd students to dinner (cooked by 10 people in my kitchen at once) and been part of some challenging meetings for work.

I'm standing deep within the interior silence amid the clamor, but I have to confess, I'm ready to flee to a nice hermitage somewhere.  Silence may be about being, but I could use some sitting.  Here, perhaps?

This column appeared at on 27 Apr 2015.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 1 Cor 12:4-6

I sat in the second to last pew, praying Evening Prayer before the Saturday vigil Mass. Warm spring breezes billowed through the open doors of the church, carrying with them the sounds of passing cars, and people walking past on the street. The vestibule burbled with conversations, as that evening’s batch of excited First Communicants gathered around the baptismal font, and parishioners streamed in.

It sounds distracting, but in truth it wasn’t. And for all that it wasn’t quiet, the river of sound had a current of silence within it. I thought of Madeleine Delbrêl, a poet and author, who founded a contemplative lay community in the suburbs of Paris in the early 20th century. She wondered why we thought that the howling wind and the pounding sea “all count as silence, (but) not the pounding of the factory machines (or) the rumbling of the trains at the station?” Or even the murmuring sound of an assembly gathering to celebrate the Eucharist?

For Delbrêl silence wasn’t so much an external condition, but an internal stance, one that was still and quiet, the better to hear God in the wind, in the roar of traffic or in the hum of a full church.

As Catholics, we believe that Christ is present to us at the Eucharist not only in the bread and wine we consecrate, but in the Scriptures, in the person of the priest — and in the assembly itself. Gathered for this purpose, we are the real presence of Christ, long before we reach the Eucharistic prayer.

What do I hear God saying in those voices washing over me? Delight and joy, in the warmth of the weather, and the ongoing gift of Easter. Excitement about receiving Christ for the first time, calling me to remember how deeply I desired Christ, not just when I first received, but now.

God is present to us in myriad ways. In the deep silence of an empty chapel warmed by the late afternoon sun. In the bustle of a city sidewalk. In the woman wailing with hunger in the subway station. And in the hum of a crowded church, poised to receive him. If you cannot recognize Christ in the beggar at the door, offered St. John Chrysostom, you will not find him in the chalice. There are many voices, but one God, one Lord, speaking to us through them all.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Adventures on the air

A couple of weeks ago I took the train into Philly to record an interview for WNYC's On the Media about the Food Babe.  The interviewer and the producer were in New York, but the engineers on both ends make it sound like we are in the same room.  I could hear everyone through my headphones, which made it feel rather like having an interview with the voices in your head.  The whole thing took about 45 minutes to do, which then got edited down to a pithy 9 minutes and a bit.

The interview aired on Friday evening on WNYC and is airing on other NPR stations around the country this week.  (The map on my Culture of Chemistry blog stats suggests where it's aired today and yesterday.)  I didn't listen to it until Saturday night, even though it had been on line for a whole day by then, since I thought it would be more fun to do that with Math Man.  (Which it was!)

Yesterday I upped my game and did a TV interview (which hasn't aired yet).  Far more nerve-wracking than the radio.  Wear a solid colored blouse, not black or white.  But all I own are black and white!  I found one, just one, solid color blouse in the back of the closet. Powder?  I don't wear make-up!  My hair was spritzed within an inch of its life to keep my bangs out of my face and the frizz from frizzing.

Then not only did I talk to the voices in my head, but to a smiley face on a music stand.  I so rarely sit still and talk, that was the hardest thing to do!

Both adventures were fun and gave me a deeper appreciation for those who do live radio (my friend the brilliantly calm and composed Dr. Lisa comes to mind), it was nice to be able to say, "let me try that again," a couple of times!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Malverne Rolls

Malverne rolls
I posted some photos to Facebook the other day and my friend Robin asked what was with the "Malverne Rolls" that kept showing up in my timeline. Somehow this has gotten set as the default album that photos from my phone go to, so I now have about sixty photos of random events in that album.

Malverne rolls are a recipe developed by my dad in an attempt to duplicate the hard poppy seed rolls made by the bakery in Malverne, NY where my mother grew up.  They are incredibly right out of the oven, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.  There are never leftovers.

Some of my best memories of visiting my dad involve driving up just as he pulls a pan full of these from the oven, and breaking bread standing in the kitchen.  The rolls still steaming inside, spread lavishly with butter.  Sustaining on so many levels.

A few years ago, King Arthur's baking magazine showed up in the mail, and the Egg looked at the cover and said, hey, someone else makes something called Malverne Rolls.  So we turned to the recipe and started reading the back story.  It quickly became clear that this was my dad's recipe.  He hadn't seen it yet, so it was fun to call him up and let him know.

The recipe is here:  Take all of you and eat.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Column: Doubt is one element of faith

My first husband, Thomas.
The line about doubt comes from the second volume of Tillich's Systematic Theology, and one that has pushed me to think about faith in the resurrection two thousand years out from the event.  But I find his comment about the relationship between faith and reason to push me even further:  "Faith transcends reason, reaching ecstatically beyond itself."  Passion is one thing, even for a scientist.  Ecstasy is quite another.

This column appeared at on 15 Apr 2015.

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe. — John 20:25b

I recently wrote a short reflection which opened with a two-line sketch of the night my first husband died. A friend who read a draft at first thought I was writing about a bad dream, then when I assured her I was recounting a real event, still could not bring herself to believe I had been a widow. It seemed impossible to her, looking at my life now, that anything so terrible could have happened.

It made me think of Thomas in John’s Gospel. He, too, can’t believe what he is told by the others, despite all that he saw and experienced in Jesus’ company. He saw Lazarus raised from the dead, yet when he is told Jesus has returned, he still cannot grasp the reality. He doubted, so much so that two thousand years later he can’t shake the name, “Doubting Thomas.”

We don’t doubt, or at least we say we believe. Each Sunday we profess our faith, stating firmly that we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was crucified, died and was buried, only to rise again on the third day. But I wonder if I shouldn’t doubt a bit more.

Has my faith in this extraordinary event become ordinary? Can I put myself in the place of the disciples after the resurrection, marveling at the impossibility of this, that someone could die on a cross, lie in a tomb for two nights, then appear to share a meal with me? Do I really grasp the enormity of the Resurrection? The reality of Christ’s presence, here and now?

“Doubt,” said theologian Paul Tillich, “is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” We risk something essential when we put our faith in it. Not the risk of mistaking a fact — that Jesus, God and man, rose from the dead — but the risk that we might mistake who we are, who we are called to be. We risk ourselves.

Welcoming doubt into my faith lets me experience again the magnitude of Christ’s gift, invites me to say again and again, “My Lord, and my God,” and demands that I risk it all again, allowing myself to be made over in the image of Christ. This is my faith, one that transcends cold reason, a faith that is not just about knowing, but about being. I believe that Jesus rose, but I am a dwelling place for God in the spirit, a part of his resurrected body.

Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships, 

You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,
God shall o'er-brim the measures you have spent

With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze

And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment

Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease. 

Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent: 

Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

— From Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. “Easter Communion”

Monday, April 13, 2015

The sound of cherry trees blooming

There is a famous haiku by Matsuo Bashō, a 17th century Japanese poet, about a frog and a pond:

An old pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of water

On Saturday afternoon Math Man, Crash and I went to see the famed Japanese cherry blossoms in Washington DC along the tidal basin.  I had a meeting in DC starting the next day, and by some miracle, the trees were at "peak bloom" so on the spur of the moment, off we went.  Along with a million other people.

Bryn Mawr's campus has some beautiful old cherry trees on it, and Math Man was imagining a serene walk around the tidal basin admiring the blooms.  It was about as Zen a walk as my first visit to the iconic Ryoanji in Kyoto.  People, so many people, in such a small strip of land.  Horns blasting, buses thrumming, traffic cops' whistles tweeting, helicopters buzzing us.

White blossoms open
to the late afternoon sun
with a sigh.  Beep!  Screech!

We can now say we've seen the cherry blossoms, but we've booked a date to walk around Bryn Mawr on a warm evening, when the trees are in bloom, and experience them.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Column: An act of faith, constantly repeated

Mary Magdalene is venerated as "the apostle to the apostles," first to see the risen Lord, first to proclaim the resurrection.  One meaning of Magdala is tower and I enjoy the sense of Mary the Tower as a complement to Peter the Rock.  The Church may be built on Peter, but Mary ignited it with these words, "I have seen the Lord."

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly on 8 April 2015.

Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and what he told her. John 20:18

A musical friend posted on her Facebook feed, “Jesus is risen, but the music ministry has collapsed in exhaustion.” I, too, had gone home after the Easter Vigil, wearily joyous after a long week of work peppered with rehearsals, liturgies and three late nights of vigil. Following a night of trumpet blasts, where our voices shook the walls of the church, Easter day was quiet and still.

This morning I laid my breviary on the kitchen counter, and while the water came to a boil and my tea brewed, prayed Morning Prayer for Easter before I went to work. The Church celebrates Easter as an octave, eight full days of feasting, so each morning, the prayers replay Easter. The same psalms. The same antiphons. A sparkling feast hiding within an ordinary day.

Did this Easter change anything for me? Or exhausted from Easter, will I let the brilliant alleluias fade from my consciousness? I find myself wondering what happened to Mary Magdalene, who in John’s Gospel encounters the newly risen Christ in the garden. Can I proclaim with such calm certainty what she did that Easter morning: “I have seen the Lord”?

Last week Pope Francis reminded us that as Christians we are called to be “sentinels of the morning.” We should be people who know how to see Christ, not just on an altar, suspended high in a glittering chalice, but in our ordinary days, planted in the middle of the aisle at the Acme and huddled on a street corner in Philadelphia.

Dorothy Day, who established the Catholic Worker movement in the early 20th century, wrote that many people wondered how she was able to see Christ in the people she served and served with. “It is an act of faith,” she said, “constantly repeated.”

The octave celebration of Easter, with its continually repeating round of prayer mixed into my daily routine, is a powerful reminder to me that Christ is risen, here and now, in the everyday as much as in the glorious liturgies of Easter. And that good news is to be proclaimed again and again, here is Christ, among us. Here is Christ, in need. Here is Christ, come and receive.

It is an act of faith, constantly repeated: I have seen the Lord. And once I have seen him, how can I not bend down to anoint his feet with perfumes, or to offer him a meal, or something to drink when he thirsts?

May the Light we carried into the Church on Easter never be exhausted, but still be found burning in the day and months to come.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Food Babe versus the Science Babe: Of Beaver Butts and Bullsh*t

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for Slate about the Food Babe's tactics, prompted by the flurry of publicity for her new book, The Food Babe Way.  I pointed out the Food Babe's strategy of "malicious metonymy" whereby she deliberately confuses the source or use of something with the molecules.  So instead of reason you get "because beaver butts," her favorite example being that vanilla ice cream might contain castoreum, a  purportedly vanilla scented natural flavoring extracted from sacs found in beavers (yes, near their butts): "Readers of my blog know that the next time you lick vanilla ice cream from a cone, there’s a good chance you’ll be swirling secretions from a beaver’s anal glands around in your mouth." There is not, and here is why.

"While in low concentrations castoreum reputedly tastes of vanilla with a hint of raspberry, I’ll admit I’ve never tasted it. Not because I’m particularly disgusted by the source—I eat animal products and am inordinately fond of the fermented genitalia of Theobroma cacao—but because of its scarcity and cost. Enough castoreum extract to replace the vanilla in a half-gallon of ice cream would cost $120. Worldwide, less than 500 pounds of castoreum is harvested annually from beaver pelts, compared with the more than 20 million pounds of vanilla extracted from the ovaries of Vanilla planifolia orchids each year. Perfumers, not ice cream manufacturers, are the real market for castoreum. So while beaver secretions just might be in the expensive perfume you dabbed on your pulse points or in the aftershave you splashed on your face—did you just touch that with your hands, yuck—rest easy, there is no chance that the pint of ice cream you picked up at the store contains it. Not at the price you paid for it." -- read the rest at Slate.

The Science Babe took on the Food Babe yesterday in Gawker - neatly taking apart each of her standard tropes, with references to others who have done the same. The Food Babe wasn't happy and shot back.  Her response to the Science Babe, who has a long history of debunking her claims, begins with a nasty ad hominem attack.  But none of Food Babe's rant changes the science, or the history.

No Food Babe, nitrogen is not an additive to air in airplanes mixed in by evil airlines (up to 50% oh dear!), we breathe 80% nitrogen all the time.

No Food Babe, the microwave was not used by the German army in WW II, even Wikipedia knows it was invented after WW II.

Yes, Food Babe, that "MSG free tomato soup" you tout on your blog contains 400 mg of glutamate and a lot of sodium, which makes?  Monosodium glutamate.  MSG.

And did you know that Food Babe recommends high daily doses of oxidane, laced with 2-methyl-5-(6-methylhept-5-en-2-yl)cyclohexa-1,3-diene?  Write her now and demand that she confess to drinking chemicals with gross and hard to pronounce names.

Eat naturally, but eat knowledgeably.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Vigils, again

In the early hours of Holy Thursday, 28 years ago, I sat vigil in a darkened hospital lounge.  My breviary and I had been separated early on, but I prayed the hours from memory, scraping the psalms from a battered Bible found on a table in the hallway.  I came back again and again to the scene in the garden, "take this cup" alternating with "I will drink it if you say so." I shook with the cold, or perhaps the shock of it all. The sounds of the hospital were muted, and I was aware of how helpless I was, though Tom was in surgery just a few yards away, there was nothing I could do. He surely did not know I was there.  But I could pray, I could keep watch.

This year, in those early hours, I was awake again, curled up on an air mattress in a dim hallway at a local shelter,  wrapped in a sleeping bag.  Cold. And keeping vigil — again.  The little ones were restless, many of them with colds.  A baby woke up every 30 to 40 minutes, the mothers' voices, hushed, exhausted and taut. And I woke, too.  There was nothing I could do, a stranger in the middle of the night is no comfort to a crying child when their mother is there.  But I could pray.  I could keep watch.

I have an icon of Christ in prison on my desk at the moment.  He slumps on a bench.  Alone, exhausted, pulled taut between heaven and earth. I wonder who was keeping watch at that moment, surely his mother was awake and praying. What were the women who would so faithfully remain with him the next day doing?  I imagine them awake, too.  Being present when there was nothing to be done. Except pray.  And keep watch.

To keep vigil is a powerful lesson in "being" rather than "doing."

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Keeping vigil

I came to church tonight to stay.  I came early and sat at the foot of the altar, looking back at the rose window of Our Mother of Good Counsel, enjoying the light washing the walls with soft, deep colors, and the stillness.

I stayed through the briefing for the Easter Vigil, taking blocking notes for Crash, who will be an altar server, but tonight is still at Wonderful Jesuit University, madly writing papers.

The light had left by the time I headed to the old school on the parish grounds, stopping to grab my sleeping bag on the way.  I'm taking a turn as portress at the shelter here, keeping vigil over the Body of Christ, in these little ones and their mothers. Tomorrow night, I'll be back here, on the other side of the parking lot, keeping vigil again with Christ, in a chapel filled with light and flowers, a stark contrast to the toys and paper cups stacked on the plain table here tonight.

This space is no less sacred, no less imbued with God than the chapel whose walls I can see from my station at the door.  Stay here with me, I hear Christ saying, remain here with me.  Watch.  Pray.