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.