Friday, July 24, 2015

Column: Praying when and where we can

I'm on my second trip to Texas in two weeks, I unpacked from the last one, washed it and packed it up again.

Today I'm with family outside of Houston, Sunday I'm off to a practicum on preaching north of Dallas.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly on 24 July 2015, check there for more resources related to this column.

“Of old you made yourself the guide and the way for your people as they wandered in the desert; be our protector as we set out on this journey, so that we may return home safely.” — From the Order of Blessing of Travelers

“Which suitcase do you need?” my husband calls from the basement. He’s packing up for a trip to New England. I’m headed to Texas for the second time in a week. My oldest has been living out of a single duffel bag since the middle of May. There’s a lot of packing and unpacking going on here.

As I gather my things, making sure I have all the cables I need for my computer and enough shirts to get me through a four-day workshop, I’ve been thinking about what I pack for prayer.

I sometimes think my prayer life suffers as much from jet lag as I do. On the road, my schedule is not entirely under my control, weather can shift plans in an instant, and finding a quiet private place for prayer can be a challenge whether I’m visiting family or at a chemistry conference.

So just like I pack comfortable shoes for walking, I’ve started thinking about what I take along for more comfortable prayer on the road.

On my last flight, where we waited in a long line to take off, then waited for a gate to open up, then waited again for everyone to put everything back and get strapped in so we could move to a gate with a working jetway, I noticed the man in the row in front of me was coping the same way I was, with a prayer rope on his wrist — 33 woolen knots to say the Jesus prayer on.

Having a rosary or a prayer rope so close to hand is a physical reminder to offer up this time of waiting and pray for the needs of the world, particularly for migrants and pilgrims.

I miss Morning Prayer with my community, the steady rhythm of the psalms that keeps my prayer from racing ahead of itself. I keep a small prayer book tucked in my bag — a travel version of the Liturgy of the Hours — so that when I find a bit of space, I can slip into the round of prayer that the Church is continually offering.

I am spoiled at home, with daily Mass to be found within a few minutes’ drive, at various times of the day. At my dad’s, the nearest Catholic church is a 40-minute drive — each way — over dirt roads, and there is only one Mass. I travel with a monthly booklet that has the readings and prayers for each day, along with a short reflection.

Just like travel broadens my horizons, getting to hear the Word broken open by so many different homilists gives me new perspectives on my faith life.

As unsettling I find it when my prayer life is upended with travel, it’s a potent reminder that my prayer is never entirely in my control. We are all pilgrims in this world, waiting, walking and praying as and when we can. Pack accordingly!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Listening Fail

I was the lone altar server at the 11:15 Mass today.  There was nothing complicated to manage today.  No incense, no visiting priest, no bishop, not even a deacon, just the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The only glitch was a terrific homily: vivid imagery and clarion call to take time in these slower summer days to consider what God desires for us, to sit in the quiet and listen for God's invitation to each of us.  How could a good homily be a glitch, you wonder?  Ah, if the altar server takes the quiet moments after receiving communion to sit with God and contemplate call and response.

I missed the return of the EMHCs, I missed Fr. Dennis settling into the presidential chair for the usual post-communion quiet.  I missed the entire community standing at their cue, "Let us pray..." That would also be my cue to bring the Roman Missal up to the chair.  Thankfully a quick, "Psst..." on the part of the presider and I came to my senses.  Mortified.  I was mortified.

I've wrote a bit on both blogs last week about Jeannette Piccard, a Bryn Mawr college alum, a chemist and the first woman to leave the troposphere.  Dr. Piccard broke other barriers as well.  She was one of the Philadelphia Eleven, eleven women deacons irregularly ordained to the Episcopal priesthood on July 29 in 1974;  the first to be ordained because of her age. She was 79 years old and had felt called to the priesthood for almost 70 years. (In 1916 she wrote an essay titled "Should Women Be Admitted to the Priesthood of the Anglican Church?")

I was thinking about the depth of a call that persists for seven decades, and that when it was finally possible to respond adsum, here I am, wondering at the courage she had to do so, regardless of age.  About patience and trust. And prayed I would have both in the years to come.

There is, I realize, no small irony in failing to listen while contemplating listening.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A plethora of Pic(c)ards: Star Trek, Jesuit science and women in outer space

Those hats?  Would Jean-Luc ever be caught in s
such a chapeau? Auguste Piccard, Jean-Felix 
Piccard's twin is on the right. Licensed under 
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Summer makes me think of space.  I can still remember the thrum of the air conditioner, as I sat on a square white naugahyde cushions in the dim green basement, the cool air pooling around my bare feet, glued to one space launch or another.  "T-minus 10 minutes and counting."  Today I've got another countdown going in a spare window on my screen.  New Horizons is just over a million kilometers out from Pluto, 20 hours and 49 minutes from closest approach.

I'll admit to a long time fascination with extraterrestial travel.  I was born 6 months after Sputnik, held my breath through Apollo 13's aborted mission, waited in a long line to see one of the moon rocks (and then was too short to peer into the case), and can remember where I was standing when I heard the news about Challenger.  And yes, I'm a Star Trek fan.

Reading about the Pluto mission yesterday, I happened across a mention of Jean-Felix Picard, a 17th century Jesuit astronomer who measured the circumference of the earth to within 0.44% of the currently accepted value and made enormous strides in the development of telescopes, early steps on the path that allows me to click and see Pluto's topography.  Was there any relation between this Jean Picard and the future captain of the Enterprise Jean-Luc Picard?  Legend has it that another Jean-Felix Piccard - a 20th century chemist and balloonist Jean-Felix Piccard was Gene Roddenberry's inspiration for Picard, but spelling aside, the Piccards were from Switzerland, while Jean-Felix Picard, like Jean-Luc, was French.  Could the Jean-Felix's have been mixed up somewhere down the pike? I can't track down the original source of the rumor, but in the run up to the feast of St. Ignatius, I'm enjoying the thought that there might be Ignatian threads in Star Trek.

In the process I discovered an early 20th century Bryn Mawr graduate and chemist, Jeannette Piccard, whose altitude record stood for almost 30 years, broken by the Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova in 1963.

Oh. If you search Jesuits and Star Trek, you quickly find yourself in conspiracy theory territory.  Seriously, the Jesuits are the Borg?  (Check out the address of the Jesuit Curia to see where that myth got started.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Column: Summer reading

Fra Angelico The Conversion of St. Augustine
If you haven't encountered Pope Benedict's school of prayer, a series of general audiences from 2011, I highly recommend browsing them.  A convenient list with links is here. So far my favorite is the one about summer reading, linked below.

At the moment I'm reading The Hopkins Manuscript an early SF novel reprinted by the delightfully elegant Persephone Press. What's on your summer reading list?

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly on 6 July 2015, check there for more resources related to this column.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. —John 1:1

Chris was curled up on the sofa, recovering from getting his wisdom teeth out and reading. “Why did you pick up that book?” I wondered aloud. Biographies and American history are not his usual fare and we are finally past the summer reading list stage in my house. “It’s the book for all the first year students next fall.” Ah, and since he will be a new student advisor, he thought he’d get on board, too.

Summer with its long light-filled days seems the perfect time for reading, even for those of us no longer bound to lists. Many communities, from colleges to cities to entire states, take up a single book to read. This year, Philadelphia read Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train.

Reading one book gives us common ground to start conversations. It also lets us travel to new places and hear new voices together. Reading can move us, even transform us.

In July of 386, St. Augustine was sitting in his garden in Milan. He was ill and torn by indecision. Should he continue to teach, or should he follow St. Anthony’s lead and abandon everything for the sake of the Gospel?

Then over the garden walls he heard the voices of children calling out, “Tolle, lege!” Take and read. Augustine walked over to where he’d left his copy of St. Paul’s letters, picked it up and opened it at random to the 13th chapter of the letter to the Romans and read, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” And he did; he was baptized at the Easter Vigil the following spring.

This summer, my pastor, who is an Augustinian friar, invited us to “take and read,” to read one book from sacred Scripture from beginning to end. In the summer of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, as part of his general audience comprising a “school of prayer,” made a similar summer reading suggestion, “to enjoy (the Bible) in a new way by reading some of its books straight through.”

My pastor proposed we try the book of Psalms, the 150 hymns and sacred poems the People of God have been praying for almost 3,000 years. In his remarks Pope Benedict recommended trying some of the lesser known books, even giving short teasers for the books of Tobit, Esther and Ruth. (Spoiler alert: he gives away the endings for all three!)

Whatever is on your summer reading list, stir in at least one by the best-selling author, God. May it move you, transform you and give you common ground with centuries of other faithful readers. Tolle, lege!

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Mathematician's Mistress

I've been thinking about numbers and sequences this weekend on my other blog.  In part because I'm a geek, in part because I read this piece in the NY Times and in part because Math Man has spent much of the last couple of days in his study with his mistress.

Before you get the wrong idea, there is a joke about mathematicians which goes something like this: Ask a mathematician if (he/she/they) would rather have a (wife/husband/spouse) or a (mistress/lover/leman2). The answer is, of course, both. When you leave, the spouse will assume you are off with the lover, the lover assumes you are with the spouse and you can go do your math undisturbed by either of them.

Math Man has been hot on the trail of a new math result, and so has been spending hours with his 'mistress' — the math.  He wakes up thinking of her, he vanishes into his office to look deeply into her...expressions. She has yet to completely yield to him, but he pursues her nonetheless.

I note that the apple (or in this case The Egg) does not fall far from the tree.

1.  Actually, all the versions of these sorts of jokes I see assume the engineer, the physicist, the mathematician, the whatever are straight cis men, which doesn't completely encompass my lived experience and so frequently annoys me.  Yes, I know, I've no sense of humor about this (#dontaskalice), and perhaps it would be more productive to rewrite the jokes imagining a somewhat more diverse set of scientists,  but in the meantime, I'm annoyed.

2. Honest to heavens, I was reading a modern piece in a magazine which used the word "leman" which I had only before seen in pretty bad medieval romance novels.3

3.  Yes, I'm aware this reveals that I have read bad medieval romance novels.

Summer silence

Last night Math Man and I watched a documentary about life in Antarctica on Netflix. The film by New Zealand filmmaker Anthony Powell, focusses not on the science, but on the everyday life of the people who work to support the science. The cooks, shopkeepers, pilots and communications techs.  Through the austral winter.  As I sit on my back patio, surrounded by greenery, warmed by the sun, it's hard to imagine that at this moment it's dark 24 hours a day and 27oF below zero at McMurdo station.  (Fascinatingly, Google's weather icon shows a bright yellow sun for "clear" at McMurdo, though the sun was last seen above the horizon on April 24th.)

The film is visually rich, with beautiful time lapse photography of vast panoramas and tiny details.  The rugged reality of a visit to the penguins in midsummer is revealed, along with delightful clips of penguins flying in and out of the water.  It's not hard to see why it won so many awards.

I was struck by the silence in the desolate Dry Valleys —  no trees to rustle in the wind, no birds chirruping, no traffic noise.  This morning, I was struck by the silence in my own backyard.  Yes, I could hear the birds, and the bell ringing in the tower of the Episcopal church a mile and quarter away.  But there was no roar of air conditioners, no leaf blowers screaming, no rumbling of lawn mowers.  It wasn't silence in the same sense as that scene in the Dry Valley, but there was the same sense of stillness in the air.

As an aside, Dropbox mailed me a flashback, a handful of photos taken more or less around the 4th of July for almost the past decade.  I was struck by how many years I've been on retreat around the 4th.