Friday, December 30, 2016

Darkness and light

At 10 am on Christmas Eve we headed to the airport to collect Crash, fresh off his run as the Ghost of Christmas Future in Christmas Carol (and tech crew for same).  Before we left, I tossed all the towels — kitchen and otherwise — into the wash.  We retrieved Crash from the clutches of the airport, and returned home to decorate the tree.  (#WarOnAdvent)  I went to turn on Christmas carols, but the computer refused to start.  Was it unplugged?  Ah, the light was out in the back, too.

I headed down to check the circuit breakers.  Uh-oh, the basement is dark, too.  Washer and dryer?  Dead, dead, dead.  And not a single circuit breaker is flipped.  Uh-oh.  And the internet is out.  All together half the house is out of power, though thankfully not the circuits on which the oven or the furnace rely.  Shall we  try to find an electrician on a Saturday that is also Christmas Eve?  The first 24/7 place I tried turned out to be not quite as 24/7 as you might think.   But a local company was still open and sent someone.  (He suspected it was not the interior wiring; I call PECO, our local power suppliers, who begs to differ.)

He was right, it was the power lines to the house, so nothing he could fix. I call PECO back, wending my way through layers of menus. (We've been watching Stranger Things on Netflix - the menus remind me of the membranes that separate the parallel universes, sticky, hard to get through.)  We eventually get into the queue to be repaired, after I assured them that we'd had an electrician out who could verify the issue was in their lines, not ours.

Meanwhile my tech crew strung extension cords from working sockets to light the tree, and power the mixer and on we went, decorating hearth and tree, making dough for sweet cinnamon buns and crisp hard rolls.

A people in darkness have seen a great light, proclaimed the lector at the vigil Mass at which I was serving.  I wondered how much light we'd have when I got home.  Not much as it turned out.  My merry men had dragged a floor lamp into the back room and were playing a rousing game of Carcassonne.  PECO had arrived moments before and the lights went off in the whole house.

The lights returned after a while, and suddenly, in the east, there was light.  Two lights actually.  A people in darkness were once again linked into the universe, or at least the interwebs.

Once connected, we didn't fully plug back in for a few days, until Crash departed, even though we could.  No TV or movies.  We played games, we ate, we cooked together, we read.  We laughed and talked.  And ate some more.

Today is the feast of the Holy Family.  Crash has gone back to work on a new production, and I'm still thinking about light and darkness and family, the Nunc Dimittis gently playing in my mental background and this gorgeous detail of Simeon holding the infant Jesus, dancing with light on my desktop.

This version of the Tallis Scholar's singing Arvo Pärt's setting of the Nunc Dimittis is worth a listen.

We are finally back up and running, thanks to the work of three different PECO crews, a tree trimming crew and my own crew.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Column: Holy Family: Pondering God-within

Illustration of the Holy Family from the
15th century Besancon Book of Hours. 
I encountered this illustration on Twitter, then tracked down the source.  I love not only that Mary is reading in bed and St. Joseph is cradling a sleeping infant Christ, but I also adore the cow ass munching on St. Joseph's halo.  The whole scene feels like a lesson in lectio divina, where the ancient monks advised chewing on scripture as cows on their cud.

And my mother was much on my mind this Christmas, though it's been more than a decade since she died.

I'm two books into those Christmas gifts...and shipped Crash what didn't fit into his carry-on.

A version of this column appeared at

“…his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” Luke 2:51b-52

The day after Christmas, Christopher Howse, who writes on religion for Britain’s The Telegraph tweeted a picture of his favorite Nativity scene — Mary in bed reading a book while Joseph cradles a sleeping Jesus in his arms — taken from a 15th century French Book of Hours. Thinking of the Gospel for the Mass on Christmas Day, the prologue to St. John’s Gospel, I retweeted the image with the comment, “We take our Christmas cues from John’s Gospel - in the beginning was the Word.  Book, books, everywhere…”

It’s true, we all got books. History, fiction, science-fiction and fantasy, math. Once we’d opened gifts on Christmas afternoon, everyone settled down with a new book. My mother loved to read, so it’s not a surprise that her children or grandchildren share her passion for the written word.  But the line my mother loved best from all those books was from Luke’s Gospel, where it appears not once, but twice, in the second chapter: “Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

As I listened to the Gospel on Christmas, I thought of my mother and this verse.  What do I treasure? What do I hold close in my heart, turning it round and round?  Like Mary, joys and sorrows both. Family. God, surely.

But in the depths of my heart?  Every Friday, in the psalms set out for Morning Prayer, the Church prays this verse, “Indeed you love truth in the heart, then in the secret of my heart, teach me wisdom.”

Christmas brings me face to face with God revealed, God who has arrived, God who had pitched his tent among us.  It nudges me to look outside myself, to notice God loose in the world, God in the everyday — in line at the post office, knocking on my office door and huddling in the rain on the corner of Lancaster and Morris, waiting for the bus.

But Luke’s portrait of Mary reminds me that God-with-us is also God-within-us. That as much as we are called to kneel in adoration at the manger, or to trumpet “Joy to the world!” we are also called to quietly cradle God in the secret recesses of our hearts, to open the book in which God resides, to relish it, and ponder the Word in our hearts. It is a reminder that we are all called contemplative prayer, to sit quietly with a few or no words, to rest in God.

So over these next few days I’m sneaking out each night for a short walk amid the beautiful lights in my neighborhood, taking some quiet time to hold God-within, to ponder the words of the psalm, “teach me wisdom,” that in this new year I, too, might find favor before God.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Column: Advent 4: The dawn from on high

A winter's dawn at Wernersville's Jesuit Center.
I am still clinging to Advent, to the minor keys and clear tones, to the short days and the sun that reaches deep into the shadows.

I was struck by how much energy the sun puts out — 1026 joules per second — and how little of it reaches my sunroom floor...

This column appeared in at on 21 December 2016.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. — From the Benedictus, Luke 1:78-79

It’s still Advent in my house. The only signs of the impending Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord are the small Holy Family on the mantle, bought by my youngest for me this summer on a trip to Iceland, and the Nutcracker half hidden on a bookshelf, forgotten since last Christmas.

It’s still Advent in part because it’s the end of the semester, a time when I think it a miracle if I manage to get the laundry not only washed, but folded and put away. But even if it weren’t the most wild and crazy time of the year for me, it would still be Advent, because I am loathe to let go of these precious few days of lingering light.

The dawn breaks late these last Advent mornings, washing over my shoulder at Morning Prayer. Midmorning, the light leans in through the windows, stretching out its rays deep into my office, its warmth defying the cold outside. From almost 100 million miles away, this light seems gentle, comfortable, wrapping around me like a cloak, turning the steam above my tea into smoky whirls, like incense, rising in prayer.

Yet this tender light pooled on the floor by my feet is but a tiny fraction of the power residing in that single star. A million billion billion times more energy pours forth each second, streaming out into the universe. Untouchable, unthinkable power, the merest tendrils of which are enough to let forests flourish and people in darkness find their way.

It’s still Advent in my house, because it will always be Advent, until the end of time.  Every morning, the church raises her voice in the Benedictus, Zachariah’s hymn upon the birth of John the Baptist. At each celebration of Morning Prayer proclaiming again and again the dawn that will come, in power and glory, radiant with joy, resplendent in majesty, full of mercy and compassion.

It’s always Advent, for we are ever awaiting the coming of God among us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

From Jesuit Father Karl Rahner’s reflection, “God who is to come” in Encounters in Silence.

O God who is to come,
grant me the grace to live now,
in the hour of your Advent,
in such a way that I may merit to live in you forever,
in the blissful hours of your eternity.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Expectation values

It's my boss' (Guy Consolmagno, SJ's), boss' (Cardinal Bertello's) boss'  birthday today. Ad multos annos, Pope Francis!

I'm thinking about what his mother must have thought when he was born, what expectations she had of what his life might be like.  No inkling, I imagine, that he might walk into the Sistine Chapel one day, and walk out as -- among other things -- the absolute monarch of Vatican City State.  And today's readings (well, really tomorrow's, but I'm scheduled to serve at the vigil Mass in a few hours and sat with the readings for a stretch this week in preparation for writing the universal prayers) with babies whose arrival raises expectations - of rescue and salvation, also have me thinking about all the as yet to be realized possibilities contained in such tiny bodies.

But it's Paul's language writing to the Romans, "to all the beloved of God" that leaves me wondering...what expectations does God have of us?

The geekier part of me is thinking about operators and eigenvalues and what that has to say about possibilities.  #grading #finals

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Column: Advent 3: Heavy with the incarnate Christ

Jacques Daret - Altarpiece of the Virgin
It was 23 years ago, on a Sunday in Advent when I felt the first stirrings of Mike within, an experience I wrote about here.

This column appeared at on 14 December 2016, along with additional materials.

…cheer the fainthearted,
support the weak, be patient with all.
See that no one returns evil for evil;
rather, always seek what is good for each other and for all.
Rejoice always.
Pray without ceasing. — 1 Thessalonians 5:14b-17

St. Paul’s parting advice to the Church at Thessalonica is spot on for this week of final exams. Students come to my office hours and send me email. They catch me in the corridors, full of chemistry questions, but equally in need of reassurance. I cheer the fainthearted: “Yes, I expect you to do fine on my exam!”; support the weak: “Sleep. Eat. Everything looks better after a nap.” And I stretch my time, and thereby my patience, with varying success.

As I approached this Advent, which arrived at the end of a more chaotic than usual semester, I asked God for the grace to be “in love with the roughness of this world in hopes of the eternal,” as an ancient commentary on the book of Job suggested. I wanted both the patience to sit with the world as it is — slow traffic, purgatorial parking lots, and all —  and a sure hope for the future.

In a sermon on Christmas Day, St. Augustine encouraged us to be re-born, to see Christ’s birth as both a one-time event and an eternal reality; Jesus, born of a virgin in Bethlehem, and born of the Father before all ages. This was not just a theology lesson from Augustine, but a challenge — a challenge to let Christ be born in us, always.

When I was expecting my sons, it was hard to avoid knowing I carried someone else within me. Their elbows and hiccups were potent reminders that they were with me.  Advent offers me the same chance to be nudged interiorly to recall that we, too, are pregnant with God. Let us be as Mary, says Augustine, “heavy with the incarnate Christ.” We, too, should be heavy with the God-made-man, letting his compassion be born in our hearts.

Augustine is suggesting that we be aware of God within us, and how we bring that incarnate God into the world. Do we see those in need? Can we offer a cheerful smile, simple courtesy, or a bit of support, whether it’s to the man trying to get out the door of the Acme with an overflowing cart and two little ones in tow, or to the confused student at my door?

Can we seek what is good for each other? Cheer, support and be patient with all?

As we move deeper into Advent, I long to be heavy with the incarnate Christ, to know him stirring within. To rejoice always; for God is with us, before all ages. To pray without ceasing. For God will come again.

I've been listening to Bernadette Farrell's God Beyond All Nameswhich pulls many of Augustine's themes into a composition as still and sharply clear as an Advent night.

God, beyond all words, all creation tells your story,
you have shaken with our laughter, you have trembled with our tears.

All around us, we have known you;
all creation lives to hold you,
In our living and our dying
we are bringing you to birth

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Column: Advent 2: O nata lux

I wrote the first draft of this while listening to Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna, which includes a setting of the traditional hymn for the Tranfiguration, O nata lux, but which seemed as appropriate for Advent. It is, to quote a friend, an ineffable piece of music. You can listen here and if your week is anything like mine, do!

I recalled the Our Father in so many languages on the wall at Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I thought, too, of the mosque I visited in Abu Dhabi years ago where one gold splashed and white wall was covered with words, ninety-nine attributes of God:  the All Merciful, the Truth, the Maker of all things.  Peace.

A column for the first week of Advent which appeared at CatholicPhilly (along with some suggested materials for additional reflection) on 7 December 2016.

What came to be
through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it. — John 1:3b-5

“And by light you mean photons, right?” asks the student in the first row. “Yes, I do.” At least in this context. There is always a bit of irony in these last classes of the semester. I’m lecturing about light as the winter darkness grows deeper. Or maybe not.

As I packed up to return to my office, the lines from the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel ran through my head, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Chemists see light as active. It doesn’t just illuminate, driving away the darkness, it can fundamentally change what it touches. One molecule becomes another. Yet more wonderfully, once the light has soaked in, it can shine forth again, in new ways and new directions.

The Light has shone in the darkness, and we are fundamentally changed. But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God. What’s more, we are called to be beacons of light: You are the light of the world.

We have been kindled, we hear in St. Matthew’s Gospel, not to be hidden under a bowl, or within the walls of our parish churches, but to shine forth, banishing the darkness around us.

Reflecting on these lines from John in his “City of God,” St. Augustine tells of St. Simplician, a late fourth century bishop of Milan, who recalled a pagan scholar once told him that the opening lines to John’s Gospel “should be written in letters of gold and hung up in all the churches in the most conspicuous place.” This is where our faith begins. In the darkness, yearning for light, life and God to come among us.

As Advent moves more deeply into the darkness, I imagine John’s words, written in letters of gold, shimmering on the walls of churches everywhere. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory … full of grace and truth.

I look for the Light dwelling among us, praying that it might change me; that I, too, might be aflame with the Word, filled with grace.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Collisional cross sections

The kinetic theory1 of gases connects the properties of individual molecules with the behavior of the bulk gas.  For example, if you know the mass of a particular gas present in a bottle of known volume and temperature, the idea gas law (PV=nRT) lets you predict the pressure in the bottle.  Since the pressure of a gas is related to how often the molecule hit the walls of the container, collision rates are a fundamental part of the theory.

How often molecules collide is of interest to chemists because getting molecules close together (really close together, within tenths of nanometers) is fundamental to their ability to react, to change into other things.  Molecules bump into each other more often when the temperature is high (they are moving faster and so cover more territory) and when the pressure is high (there are more of them to hit).  But collisions also increase when the target area is larger.  Think about trying to move through a crowded grocery store with a big cart versus when you just need to grab a gallon of milk.  The surface area you present to other shoppers is large when you have that cart and you are more likely to run into other things.2  This surface area is the collisional cross section.

I've been moving fast lately and the pressure has been high, which if I were a gas would mean I would be having more collisions, but in reality has left me feeling like all I do is wave as I race past people in the hallway or on campus. Sorry, can't talk now, have to run. Whoosh.  The semester is winding down, with the gift of a Friday with no classes or meetings on it.  Not only that, but this was the very same Friday that The Egg is singing as part of a quartet at his SoCal college. A most welcome collision on my calendar.  

I booked a flight, and now I am here. Not only that, but Math Man figured out he could take a day off and come, too.  So this morning, I met The Egg on campus and as we walked to get breakfast, we "ran into" Math Man on the sidewalk.  Surprise!

But there was more collisional fun to be had. A delightful colleague was in Philly to give a talk which I couldn't go to (vide infra).  We booked a time for tea and Skype later in the month, a moment to virtually collide, if not literally.  But on Thursday evening, while headed to my gate at PHL, my phone rang. The number was delightful colleague's.  "Are you by any chance at PHL?" she asked.  "I am."  We were flying out from adjacent gates.  Which resulted in two women running (literally) into each other at PHL, and we enjoyed twenty wonderful minutes to hug, hang out and catch up on the really big things that had happened to each other.  And some of the small delights. 

A high collisional cross section?  Almost worth the pressure.

1. Theory in the sense scientists use it, meaning a coherent system of ideas used to explain something,  not theory as it is often used outside of scientific circles, where it carries the connotation of something unlikely to be realized in actual practice, or notions that are not yet and probably won't  proved true. 
2.  To get a sense of how lightly populated a gas is, a molecule at room temperature on average travels about 300 times its length before hitting another molecule, the equivalent of my walking 500 yards without getting close enough to anyone to shake their hand.  Not my experience of the grocery store after work!

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Column: Advent 1: This very moment the pavements are laid in carnelians

A column for the first week of Advent which appeared at CatholicPhilly on 29 November 2016.

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

“What do I need to cook a turkey, besides a big pan?” wondered my oldest son, staging Thanksgiving hundreds of miles from home. “Time,” I texted back. “Time to defrost it and time to cook it.” Time, I thought, wishing I could jot it on the shopping list next to onions and potatoes.

Time feels in short supply right now. It’s the end of my semester, so time for advising and writing letters of recommendations needs to be found amid classes and review sessions. My pile of grading stretches into eternity, and deadlines sprout on my calendar like dandelions, one puff and there are four more tasks rooted in my to-do list. And very little can wait for another week, or perhaps even another day.

I long for the luxury of waiting, of having time to sit and watch, to take long stretches for prayer. But the Advent I dream of is not the Advent I have. So I take heart in theologian and Jesuit Father Walter Burghardt’s encouragement to be aware of what is right before us: “This very moment, for all its imperfection and frustration, is pregnant with possibilities, pregnant with the future, pregnant with love, pregnant with Christ.”

This very moment is the only one that I have; can I see what it holds? An undisturbed five minutes to drink a cup of tea, washed in the sunlight of an early morning, the psalter open on my lap. The single leaf that floated past my office window, reminding me that seen or unseen, aware or not, God is at work in creation. The pool of quiet that emerged on the sidewalk outside of the post office on Saturday afternoon, a breath of stillness in the midst of a long list of errands, a reminder to be still, let go my grasp and know that God is with us. The student who, seeing me struggle with a stack of books for class, turned around on the stairs and helped me carry them to my classroom, Christ before me.

Perhaps Advent is as much a time for rousing, as it is for quiet waiting. “Now is the hour for you to awake from sleep!” cried St. Paul in the reading we heard on Sunday.  Stay awake, be alert to the signs of God among us.

Advent reminds me that, even in these storm-trammeled days, despite my imperfections, this moment is ever pregnant with possibilities, this moment is always charged with God’s grandeur. Look around, the pavements are laid in carnelians, the walls of precious stones. Now and always.

I wrote this with Michael Joncas' In our hearts be born.  A link to that and more resources for reflection are at CatholicPhilly.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Putting air in the tires

Spider plants and Klein bottle. 
I put air in the Mini's tires today.  The low pressure light has been on for...well, longer than a week, and longer than I would like to admit.  Surprise, the car drives better when the tires are properly inflated.  But I just haven't had the time to do it.

I needed air, too.  Work has been chaotic, so much to do, and no breathing room at all.  This week I had more than 30 scheduled work hours on the books -- meetings, classes, talks, office hours.  Everything else — two manuscripts to edit and return, class prep, grading, letters of recommendation to write and submit, administrative planning, and dear God, the email, the email — had to be shoehorned into the remaining waking hours. And still they knocked on my door. Every 10 minutes one afternoon.

By Thursday, the email was flowing into my box at a rate that exceeded my rate of response.  I would answer an email, click back to the main screen to find three or four new ones.   No, I had to tell students, I can't meet with you this week, and perhaps not next either, as the molten lava of commitment creeps across my calendar, leaving ashes in its wake.  The good news was that saying "no" at this point was easy. There was no more time to give away.  The bad news, I was desperate for air.  For space to breathe.

On Friday, I had a lunch time appointment with my spiritual director. And this weekend, I had no work committments that required my presence elsewhere (for the first time since the middle of August).  And I declared a day of rest.  A sabbath of sorts.

I wrote yesterday.  I transplanted the spider plants and their offspring.  I got my hair cut.  I went to the farmer's market. I did my laundry and folded the towels.  I got my flu shot. I prayed.  I put air in my tires — and in my soul.

Lessons for young faculty (and others with high demand, high autonomy jobs) in learning to say no.  Or in my case, re-learning.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016


I am with her: the sobbing child, whose mother cannot afford medical care for her ear infection.

I am with her: the mother in the shelter, who does not know where she will live next week, next month, or perhaps tomorrow night.

I am with her: the mother whose child died of their mental illness.

I am with her: the mother in Aleppo, the mother in Mosul, their bodies wrapped around their children, sheltering them from the unthinkable.

I am with her: the mother in Virginia, sleeping in her car in the heat of July to get glasses for her children, and dentures so she can eat.

I am with her: the mother whose children were bullied and beaten and killed because of their race, their ethnicity, their religion, their gender or their sexual orientation.

I am with her: my student, whose faith in God has been impugned, dismissed as evil.

I am with her: my student, who cannot afford to complete her degree.

I am with them:  those who live in fear, those whose lives are in peril, those who are hungry and naked and sick and trapped by forces they do not control.

Here is where I stand.  I stand with Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.  I know where I stand.  At the foot of the cross. Unwilling to look away from the suffering. Willing to witness. Willing to pick up the bodies and care for them.

Here is where I stand. 
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, 
and not minister to your needs?’ 
He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’


Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Boycotts, dovecots and apricots

In my course on contemplative practices yesterday we spent time looking at plans of monasteries (thank you, Bryn Mawr Art & Archeology library), ranging from an Egyptian monastery built in the 4th century and continuously occupied (and updated) until the 19th century, to a much later Carthusian charterhouse.

The questions to wrestle with included how the rule of life was supported by the architecture, but students also noted the practical sides of life which needed to be provided for.  Kitchens and infirmaries. And dovecots, to provide a ready supply of domestic pigeons.

One student joked if a dovecot was a place to keep doves, what did that make a boycott? ...and what about apricots?

So now I know that boycott is an eponym, for Charles Boycott, an Irish land agent who was shunned for his demands during the Irish Land Wars.  The tactic of refusing to use a service or good now bears his name.

And apricots get their cot from precocious, through the Latin praecocia - they ripen early.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

In the thicket of this world: doing science as a person of faith

Let us go forth to see ourselves in Your beauty,
To the mountain and the hill,
Where the pure water flows:
Let us enter into the heart of the thicket.

St. John of the Cross
Spiritual Canticle

I'm off to Mt. St. Mary's in Maryland tomorrow, to give the 2016 Ducharme Lecture:  In the thicket of this world:  doing science as a person of faith.  The title is taken from a commentary on the Spiritual Canticle:  “God passes through the thicket of the world, and wherever His glance falls He turns all things to beauty.”

What does it mean to do science as a person of faith?  I'm going to argue that at least for me it means approaching science as I approach prayer. Contemplatively.  Open to mystery and beauty and awe.  Drenched in the details. Caught in the burning layers of grace and creation.  With humility and a dash of humor.

And I'm grateful that for this trip, there's no change in time zones!

There's a livestream at the link.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Writing a bite at a time

"Dr. Francl," teased my colleague, stopping in on his way to class to borrow a piece of equipment, "your door says you're writing a lot.  But how much do you write?"

I keep a spreadsheet of completed projects, in part to help me plan how much time to budget for a writing project, so this is a question to which I know the answer.  Between thirty and forty thousand published words a year, I told him.  The equivalent of a 120 page book each year for almost the past decade.

I don't think he expected an actual number in response and I must admit that when I think about it in that way (which I generally don't), it's a lot of writing.  On the other hand, at roughly 650 words a week, it seems like not very much.  Which I suppose is a testament to my mother's advice about large projects:  "How do you eat an elephant?" she would ask.  "One bite at a time," we'd moan in response.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Portable Academic

Before we left for Japan, one of my colleagues warned the students that we had a couple of long travel days and they should be prepared with a book or music or whatever amused them.  Dr. Francl, he pointed out, starts writing as soon as she gets on the bus. I am a portable academic.

While I was away, I finished and submitted one essay, and dug into the writing of a second.  I didn't make any progress on the book (though I had brought it — or rather its Scrivener instantiation — along), but that was hardly a surprise, the trip was pretty packed.

So what does this portable academic require?

  • iPad with research notes and writing app
  • keyboard
  • stylus
  • shawl
  • reading glasses

That's it.  No laptop. Wi-fi can be nice, but not always necessary.  Same for a thermos of hot tea. It all fits in a small bag (even the thermos of hot tea).

Despite this, there are moments when I imagine being some sort of Victorian professor, with a full office that gets ported about.  Chairs and desks.  Silver inkpots.  A tea tray. A butler who brings the tea tray.

Parking Violations

"Last week was fall break, and since Math Man had a series of talks to give in Honolulu, I broke my trip back from Japan in Honolulu.  Yes, I realize life is tough here.  We enjoyed a couple of days on the big island of Hawaii, watching the growing lava lake atop Kilauea (it was about 54 feet below surface of the caldera when we were there, clearly visible, and it rose 20 feet yesterday!), hiking into the caldera of a volcano that erupted when I was a year old, and where the lave lake is still cooling...."

I started drafting this post last week, but in dribs and drabs as I tended to other obligations (make-up lectures, department meetings, letters of recommendation...).  I finally finished it on Sunday afternoon, but it refused to format nicely and dinner was nearly ready.  No matter, I thought, I'll just save it and figure it out later.

Clearly, I'd left it parked in a browser window too long.  When I opened it up this morning to finish, it was all gone but those first lines.  Towed away into the sea of data.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything

A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked for a word.  The old man said to him, "Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach your everything." - Apophthegmata Patrum 

My students, and my two colleagues  spent two days in Kyoto last week, staying at Shunko-in, a temple cloister in Myoshin-ji, a large temple complex.  We did some meditation training with the vice-abbot there, Rev. Taka Kawakami, but also visited with Thomas Yuho Kirchner, a Zen monk, at Tenryu-ji, a 14th century Zen training monastery (that is still active) set in a gorgeous garden.

Thomas gave us a tour of the old monastery (the training monastery has moved to a quieter spot on the grounds, there can be 20,000 visitors in a single day to the UNESCO World Heritage gardens next to the zen-do!) Monks in training lived, ate and meditated all in the same spot in the zen-do.  Everything they needed — from bedding to rice bowl — was kept there.  No dividers between the beds, you rolled up in your futon at night, next to your snoring neighbor.  If the monastery was full, the most junior monks might not even have a full tatami to themselves.

It reminded me of my 30-day retreat, walking down the hallway of the (now torn down) building at Eastern Point at 3 am, listening to the snores of other retreatants, with just a drawer and a shelf and a few hangers in my room to store things.  And yet, I had space for all I needed (and perhaps a bit more).  Now I'm thinking about my study at home, where books and papers from projects completed and in progress are stacked on a table, and piled on the floor. The clutter is not just literal, but metaphorical, my days too stuffed right now with project to take a couple of days out and tidy.

Sitting in a monastic cell, mine or not, always leaves me reflecting about spaciousness in my life, time and space colliding.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Stylites and circling sushi

Students had a day on their own in Tokyo, choosing between a number of different sites, which meant the faculty had time on their own as well. I watched a bit of the debate, streamed on YouTube, but spent the morning seeing what it might be like to be an urban stylite.

Early in the fifth century Simeon the Stylite lived on top of a pillar in the desert near Aleppo, dispensing spiritual wisdom and hiding from the crowds.  There are still modern stylites, Maxime Qataradze lives atop a rock pillar in Georgia (

I had breakfast sitting in a window on the 25th floor, watching the commuters flood the streets below.  The last time I was in Tokyo, we ate lunch in a rooftop garden, high above Shinjuku.  Yesterday I bought dumplings and sushi in the fancy food hall in Isetan, then took my sketch pad and lunch back to that garden.  It has been uncomfortably hot in Tokyo, and the heat tumbling out of the rooftop air conditioner units didn't make the roof any cooler.  But with height comes perspective, if not spiritual wisdom.  I had a better sense of the landscape, but also of the value Japan places on green space in such a crowded city.  From the top I could see pockets of green in all directions.

My class has been reading Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space.  Bachelard 'reads' gardens and grand vistas as a connection to the cosmos, something that pulls the resident of a space out of themselves.  Vast landscapes always leave me with the sense of how small I am in comparison to the universe, which certainly pulls me out of myself.

For dinner one of my colleagues and I found (on Yelp - where else) a conveyor belt sushi spot.  It was great fun to sample in this way, and thanks to the little signs in Japanese and English popped onto the belt, I (mostly) knew what I was eating.  It was mesmerizing to watch the sushi circle around, and fascinating to see the attention paid to the ever-changing array of little plates.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Go and come back

At 6:45 this morning, the amazing Math Man dropped my colleague and I at the college. All fifteen of our 360 students were gathered, packed lightly for two weeks on the road. We're headed out for a longer experience, fifteen days on the road, traveling to contemplative sites in Japan.

"Carry-on!" and "Hand wash!" Is our motto, after four weeks of reading about simplicity in my course, we're trying it out in the field. What comforts are you willing to leave behind if you're going to live on top of a pillar as the desert ascetics did, or, in our case, fly at 34,000 feet and be pilgrims when we arrive? (Clearly not the iPad I'm typing this on, though I did leave my actual laptop at home - meaning I can't do quantum mechanical calculations on the fly unless I want to log in remotely to the Beowulf cluster.)

 Last night I spread everything out on the bed, and decided that anything I was remotely uncertain about bringing should stay home. Not an extra shirt, or a few bags of my favorite tea. I did decide in the end to bring my travel breviary, though I have an app that will let me pray the hours. There was something anchoring about having, if not my usual volume, at least a book. Each time I pack, I let a little more go.

One of the Augustinians, who lived for many years in Japan, wished me a good trip yesterday after Morning Prayer. "Itte irasshai!" he said. Go and come back. There is something in that saying that implies balanced travel, travel that practices indifference.

I'll be writing about the trip as we go, posted at the college, and if you want to follow our adventures in real time watch for #Japan360 and #BMC360 on Twitter and Instagram. .

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Drinking from the mug of Indifference

Mugs are firmly embedded in my prayer life.   If I'm going on retreat -- even for a night of silence -- I take my mug.  Morning prayer with a hot cup of black, sweet, tea is both bracing and warming.  Outside when the weather permits, a window with a view if it does not.

The 30-day retreat to make the Spiritual Exercises was no exception. But three days into the Exercises, while washing it out, my mug slipped out of my hands and crashed into the sink.  So. I will not prefer my mug to one of the mugs set out in the dining hall.  #PrincipleAndFoundation #Indifference

Last week I took a group of students up to the Jesuit Center at Wernersville for three days to try an experience of silence. They are taking a linked set of courses on contemplative practices, one on the Buddhist rhetoric of meditation, one on the psychology of mindfulness, and mine, on the spaces of silence in the western contemplative traditions.  We are also headed to Japan in a couple of weeks, two weeks, no checked luggage, and so while reading the desert fathers and mothers, we've been talking about living and traveling light. 

I left my mug home.

I missed it.  I also didn't pack the yuzu tea I've been drinking for an awful case of laryngitis, or my favorite English breakfast tea.  I missed them, too.

It's not that they took up so much room in my bag, I could have tucked them in without effort.  There was something of the experience of simply going, of leaving without looking back.  No second tunic, no mug when I was sure there would one there I could use.  Fuge, tace, quiesce. Flee, be silent, be still.
This lesson in indifference reminded me of the story of my mug at summer school for theology. I was taking an early morning course, and tea at the break was most welcome. There was a lounge downstairs with a kettle and sink and a place to hang your mugs, mostly used by the sisters who were in the MA program and staying for the summer in the dorms. I brought a bright yellow mug from home to use, hung it on the rack, and enjoyed my tea for the first two days. Day three and my mug is nowhere to be found. I brought another one in.   I couldn't imagine that any of the sisters would have taken it, we all had our own mugs. 

 A week later one of the sisters took me aside and told me she found my mug. The bishop had it, she said.   A bishop from South America had come for the summer to brush up on his theology. He was a delightful fellow student, but he had also wanted a mug for his coffee. He asked the dean where he might find one, and the dean had come down, unaware that the mugs on the rack were not "seminary mugs," pulled down my mug and handed it over. "This should do," she said.

My informant had the story straight from bishop, by asking him where he'd found the great yellow mug. And no, none of us told him! He was such a nice guy, we could not bring ourselves to embarrass him, or the equally delightful dean.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Engaged in espionage

"I Love You!"

These days Math Man and I are watching The Americans, a series loosely based on an actual Soviet program to place spies in the US disguised as nuclear families.  (This piece in The Guardian describing the experiences of two kids who found out in their teens that their parents were spies is great.)

The episode we watched last night had a spy leaving a message inside a toilet paper roll, which Elizabeth (one of the two undercover KGB spies) discovers because the toilet seat was up in an apartment where a single woman lived.  This morning, as I pulled out a new roll of toilet paper to put in the upstairs bathroom, I joked to Math Man that I had thought about leaving him a coded message inside the roll.  I mimed peering inside to find....someone already had left a message.

Walking down the aisle at Our Mother of
Good Counsel, where we still go to Mass.
OK, it wasn't in code, but still. And then I noticed the toilet seat was up.  "Did you leave it that way to suggest the message?" I demanded.  He did.

I love that I married someone as crazy and goofy as I am. Tomorrow it will be 24 years.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Caught in the nets of creation

St. Ignatius contemplating the stars. A copy
hangs in the Vatican Observat
It's September 1, a day of prayer for the care of creation.  This year Pope Francis calls us to add the care of our common home to the works of mercy: "a grateful contemplation of God’s world which allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us.”

Today I'm reflecting in Give Us This Day about Paul's comments on wisdom and vanity to the Corinthians, and on Luke's description of the call of Simon, with its description of the nets full to overflowing with fish.  I'm thinking not so much of the famous "fishers of men" line, but about the ways in which we can be surprised by the world and how it works.  That scientific work is not vanity, but a way toward wonder, a "grateful contemplation" of the world. When I wrote this, the day of prayer for care of creation wasn't on my mind, but perhaps it was on the Holy Spirit's agenda?

"This is is the wisdom Simon gathered for us in those groaning nets: that caught in the crevices between atoms, and spangled across the heavens, are countless invitations from God to put out fearlessly into the depths. “Come, plunge your hands and hearts and skills into the universe and come to know me more intimately.” In laboratories and  fields, in kitchens and classrooms, wherever our daily work takes us, we are called to cast our nets broadly and seek the face of God. To pursue not so much wisdom, as wonder."  — from Give Us This Day September 2016

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Ever ancient, ever new

Door honoring Pope Benedict
in St. Thomas of Villanova church
in Castel Gandolfo.
I just sent off a draft of an essay about water, prompted by reading a paper about "primordial" water, water trapped in the rocks for 2 billion years or more.  Where does the water on earth come from?  For that matter, where does the water in the universe come from?  In one sense, it's incredibly old. The hydrogen atoms, the two H's in H2O, were made when the universe was 1 second old.  One second. My mind still can't quite take it in. It will take almost another half billion years for oxygen to make an appearance, three times that for water to begin to form.  The earth's water is almost as old as the solar system itself, 4.5 billion years old.

Detail.  Note equations! You can see the tail end of a
double helix at the upper left. 
But individual water molecules don't last long, the average lifetime is on the order of milliseconds. So no water molecule is old, those particular two hydrogens and that oxygen might stay together for a few milliseconds, then exchange a hydrogen with another water, an eternal dance, hand over hand.  The atoms are ancient, the molecules — brand new.

The famous line from Augustine's Confessions kept running through my head, "Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!"  Water, ever ancient, ever new.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Transition states

In chemistry, transition states are high energy states, corresponding to the structure at the high point between reactants and products. These structures are stretched and bent beyond the normal bounds of molecular structures.

It's been a week of transitions here, and it's been high energy as a result.  As of Monday morning I took over being chair of the chemistry department.  (Think service — she who does the paperwork — not power here.) I'm already two meetings and three crises deep.

The Egg's show closed, sending him cartwheeling into a couple of weeks of summer vacation.  He started work less than 24 hours after he finished his European choir tour.

Crash graduated from Wonderful Jesuit University in May, a month so busy I didn't get a chance to write about it, or maybe I'm just in denial, as honestly it seemed as if we'd just dropped him off a month or two before.

Yesterday, he packed up the tiny red car, a task which required stretching normal space I suspect, and left for Kentucky with The Egg at the wheel.  (He has a nine month long (paid!!) stint with Actors Theatre of Louisville's professional training company.)  Six hundred some-odd miles and eleven hours later he arrived in Louisville.  He has rented an apartment, he starts work tomorrow.

When I asked him yesterday how he was doing, he commented that the transitions are always the hard part for him.  If molecules could talk, they'd say the same thing.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Guidelines, prayer and terrorism: For what else shall we pray?

  • Casualties figures in this list are the total casualties of the incident including immediate casualties and later casualties (such as people who succumbed to their wounds long after the attacks occurred).
  • Casualties listed are the victims. Perpetrator casualties are listed separately (e.g. x (+y) indicate that x victims and y perpetrators were killed/injured).
  • Casualty totals may be underestimated or unavailable due to a lack of information. A figure with a plus (+) sign indicates that at least that many people have died (e.g. 10+ indicates that at least 10 people have died) – the actual toll could be considerably higher. A figure with a plus (+) sign may also indicate that over that amount of people are victims.
  • If casualty figures are 20 or more, they will be shown in bold. In addition, figures for casualties more than 50 will also be underlined.
— from Wikipedia entry for monthly summary of the toll from terrorist attacks.

At morning prayer, after we pray for the Augustinians who have died, the presider will often say, "...and for what else shall we pray?"  It's the question that I face each Wednesday night.

I am part of the team that writes the universal prayers for  my parish's Sunday liturgy, usually writing a draft for us to work from every other week.  We cannot pray specifically for every thing, every week, yet we think it important to pray specifically for some things every time we gather for prayer, whether at Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours.

But which specific things?  Which weeks?  Do we pray only for the things close at hand? How do we listen to the needs of the world outside our own orbits?  The attacks in Nice and Normandy were impossible to miss, but how many of us can recall the horrific bombing in early July in Baghdad in which more than 300 people died?

Last week I was looking for the details of an attack in Somalia, which I had heard about., but couldn't remember when it had occurred.  Should we pray?

Which is how I found that Wikipedia has tables of terrorist attacks, one for each month, including one for the not-yet-begun month of August. Sortable by date or by casualty count. Bold numbers if over 20 dead. Underline when there are more than 50.  There was something so disheartening about seeing a blank table for August, and something so appalling about the guidelines to decide which horror was horror enough.

So for what did we pray?  For those whose lives have been wracked by violence... in France, Germany, Japan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia...and in our own cities and neighborhoods…

Now the list for August has begun to grow.  For what shall we pray?  And why?

"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."
— C.S. Lewis

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Column: Mary Magdalene and talking to the Pope

St. Mary Magdalene - scientist?
Domenico Fetti, Maddalena penitente
About that time I made Pope Francis laugh, and why the feast of Mary Magdalene is so important to me.

This column appeared at on 22 July 2016.

What would you say if you met the pope? I had a chance to think about that question last fall when I was asked to write an account of an imaginary conversation between myself and Pope Francis about science and faith. It was tough to write, not only because it was hard to imagine any circumstances where I would speak with the Holy Father, but because, well, what would you say?

Little did I know that less than a year later, I would be standing in a garden in Vatican City, waiting for an audience with Pope Francis, once again wondering what I would say if I had the extraordinary privilege of speaking with him.

How did I end up here? In March of this year, I was honored to be appointed an adjunct scholar of the Vatican Observatory, to be in this way a part of the Church’s mission to seek God in the created universe, and to be witness to the ways in which science and faith can work together to help us grapple with the ultimate mysteries of creation.

Fast forward to June, when the students and faculty of who were attending Vatican Observatory’s biannual summer school and those members of the Observatory staff who could, had a private audience with Pope Francis.

So what did I say to Pope Francis? “¡Gracias!” Thank you for elevating St. Mary Magdalene’s day to be a feast. He looked puzzled for a moment, in part because I had so badly mangled the Spanish for Magdalene, and just perhaps because this wasn’t quite what he was expecting someone from the Observatory to say after his remarks to us about science. Then he laughed aloud, grasped my hands and said, “Bueno.” It is a good thing.

Why was I so grateful for this change to the Church’s liturgical calendar that that’s the one thing I would choose to say to the pope? Timing, they say, is everything, and the official announcement of the elevation of Mary Magdalene’s feast to be of the same import as the 12 apostles she had been sent to, had been made the day before.

But in truth it was because this feast is to me a potent reminder that nature is a place to encounter God, not only as the creator, but as the risen Christ. Mary Magdalene met Jesus after the resurrection in the garden, a space hollowed out within a city to let people come closer to nature.

I can meet God, and indeed Christ, in my scientific research, in the depths of the atoms as well as in the breadth of the stars. Science, too, is sacred ground, a meeting place for the everyday and the extraordinary.

Christ sent Mary Magdalene as the first witness to his resurrection, a reminder that anyone and everyone is called to announce the Gospel’s good news. The new preface written for Mary Magdalene’s feast reminds us it is our duty “to preach the Gospel to everyone.” It nudges me, too, to remember to listen for Christ in the unexpected corners, in the ordinary people I meet as well as in the extraordinary. It’s a good thing.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Mary, Mary, I'm going to be contrary

In working on a piece about Mary Magdalene I did I quick search for the collect for the feast (because I was too lazy to walk downstairs and get my breviary).  This page from Fisheaters came up, and while it didn't have the collect on it, it did have some recipes for ointments on it, as something traditional to do for the feast of Mary Magdalene.  I put it aside, and came back to it after a day of writing thinking to stash the material for a possible retreat.

Alas I read it.  It starts out by trying to straighten out any "agenda-driven obfuscation" about the good saint.  Great.  If only it did.  Instead the author suggests any attempt to unwind St. Gregory the Great's conflation of three women into one is not careful exegesis, but an attempt to "undermine the authority of the Church and paint Her hierarchs as 'woman-haters'".

It is barely possible to connect Mary of Bethany, who is identified in John's gospel as the woman who anointed Jesus' feet [Jn 11:1-2], with the unnamed woman who comes to the house of the Pharisee and anoints Jesus' feet in Luke [Luke 7:37-50], by assuming this was a one time event and the same event described in Matthew and Mark [Mt 26:7-13; Mk 14:3-9], and that the Mary who had chosen the better part, living with her brother and her sister was also a notorious sinner.  We could all argue the point until kingdom come (at which point surely we can just ask Mary of Bethany).

But to say that Mary of Bethany is without a doubt Mary of Magdala stretches credulity. Fisheaters explains that because Luke mention a Mary of Magdala a few lines after his account of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus, she must be the sinner.  Really?  Do we think Luke just suddenly remembered her name after penning the previous story?  Why isn't Susanna the sinner?  Or Joanna?  By this logic, we must assume that Simon Peter is the demoniac of Luke's chapter 4.  Because that story follows directly, in the same style.  Possible? Sure.  Probable.  No.

And why is the sin committed by the woman Luke describes necessarily sexual?  The stated agenda of Fisheaters here is to keep the most prominent female figure in the Gospels (after Mary the Mother of God) associated with sexual sin.  If we did not associate Mary Magdalene with sexual sin, we would be "keeping them out of mind, ignoring the need of repentance for such acts." And if she were not, no one would ever think of them?  never repent?  Um.

As an aside, I'm puzzled by the assertions here and in other places that the Talmud use "Magdala" (see figure for what shows up in the old Catholic encyclopedia) to mean "curling women's hair" which is a euphemism for adulteress, and that is used as further support to assign Mary Magdalene the role of sexual sinner.  The Gospels refer to her in Greek as Mary of Magdala, suggesting a place name, which itself means "tower."

So here's the scoop:  Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection, remanded by Jesus to bring the Good News to the apostles. She remained faithfully at the foot of the cross.  She supported Jesus and his disciples in their travels. She was the embodiment of fidelity.  She was a tower of strength, as her name might suggest, while Peter was having a rocky time.  Was she a sinner?  Of course, aren't we all?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Did you see the Pope?

The counter at Pasticceria Al Duomo in Albano.

"How was the trip?  Did you see the Pope?" wondered a colleague I hadn't seen since the end of the academic year.

The Pope? What?

In late May through early June I spent about three weeks at the Vatican Observatory in the hills outside Rome, visiting with colleagues there (in March I was appointed an adjunct scholar of the Observatory, one of nine on the staff) and enjoying the chance to explore the Observatory library's collection of historical materials (which includes such marvels as Maria Agnesi's book on calculus, thought to be the first published math treatise by a woman).

The biannual Vatican Observatory summer school (VOSS) for young astronomers was on while I was there, and it was great to be able to pop into lectures about planetary geology or comets.  I shared delicious lunches with the faculty coming to teach and with students from 21 different countries.  I tagged along on their field trip to Tivoli to see the famous water gardens.  And to the private audience they had with Pope Francis.

VOSS audience with Pope Francis.  I am on the right side, toward the back.
So yes, I met the Pope.

To say that feels like a show stopper, an experience that effaces all the rest, and so I haven't written about it. But a few days ago, I happened upon Garret Gundlach, SJ's reflection at the Jesuit Post whose Jesuit confrere's only question about his time in another iconic spot, Yellowstone, was "Did you see a grizzly bear?"  "Yes," he sighs, "I saw a grizzly bear."  But wait, he says, there's more.

We live in a time where icons and logos help us thread our way through an overwhelming amount of information.  I'm grateful for those easy to recognize signs when I'm trying to find the train to the airport in the chaos of Termini station, or the app on my phone that gives me a weather report.  But like Gundlach, I worry about reducing each other's experiences — to say nothing of each other  — to a set of binary flags.  Did you see a grizzly bear?  the Liberty Bell?  the Pope?  Are you liberal or conservative?  Democrat or Republican?  Catholic or Muslim? Immigrant or citizen?

Asunta and Gina at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences while 
we waited to meet Pope Francis.
It would be one thing if we held those labels loosely, understanding that the grizzly bear could have been sleeping or charging, encountered around the corner on a trail or in a zoo, and that all of these are quite different experiences.  And grasping that not every Republican supports Donald Trump (1 in 5 does not).  But we do not.  What helps us locate the bathroom in the train station blinds us in very dangerous ways, it flattens our experiences, it deadens our relationships.

I met the Pope, I shook his hand, I made him laugh when my tongue got tangled around a Spanish word.  It was an extraordinary experience, do not mistake me.  But there's more, and all of it equally outside the bounds of my ordinary life.

I met the woman in the coffee shop, who helped me navigate the midmorning scrum at the counter, and taught me the name of my favorite sweet rolls. Her smile lit up my mornings, it still does when I think of it. I met Gina and Asunta, who cooked for us, who put our lunches together for the field trips and came with us, too.  I wish I could wear a red leather jacket with Asunta's panache! I met the woman in the local shop who helped me pick out cheeses and salumi, and made sure I got some of the local bread to have with it.  I met Jinia, a young astrochemist from India, another chemist among all these astronomers. These were extraordinary experiences, too, to travel a quarter of the way around the world in a few hours, to be in a place and for a moment, to be part of it, not just part of the background, but seen for who I am.

There's more!  In another moment of interesting parallels, Gundlach notes: BUT YELLOWSTONE IS A SUPERVOLCANO!  Albano sits on a volcano, too, and it's not as dormant as people thought.  Check out the article, the aerial photo is incredible!

You can watch a bit of the audience at Vatican TV, here (in Italian), and listen to a report in English from Vatican Radio here.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

We wait for peace, to no avail

Have you really cast Judah off?
Is Zion loathsome to you?
Why have you struck us a blow
that cannot be healed?
We wait for peace, to no avail;
for a time of healing, but terror comes instead. — Jeremiah 14:19

I have prayed the Liturgy of the Hours for more than 30 years, reciting these words hundreds of times.  When I read the news about Nice tonight, this verset from Jeremiah arose without conscious thought.   "We wait for peace, to no avail."

Instead we have arrived at a liturgy for terror and violence.  Tricolor filters are starting to appear on Facebook (and doubtless Twitter, though I haven't looked), and so we vest our social media selves for the liturgy:  We stand with Nice, we say.  We are praying for Nice, we post.  We make the sign,  #PrayForNice.  Amen, amen.

We could make a litany of these liturgies.  Baltimore. Baton Rouge. Brussels.  Orlando. Dallas.  Nice.

The rest of the 14th chapter of Jeremiah is dark, I read it tonight looking for the light, shining through the cracks. I could find none.  Then a friend reminded me that in the end, light overcomes the darkness.  Evil, she said, cannot prevail.

"Know where you stand and stand there," said the late Daniel Berrigan SJ.  I know where I stand, in the face of hateful language, in the face of those who would trammel the poor, in the face of a culture that obsesses about which sunscreen is the safest, while in a single year 33,000 people are shot to death - nearly 2,000 of them children.  I stand for peace, as naive and as impractical and ineffectual as that sounds.

Tomorrow at Morning Prayer, the canticle the Church will pray is this pericope from Jeremiah.  We pray, the Body of Christ wincing from the blows that have struck us, filling up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Column: Stammering about God

Look closely and you can read the inscription:
Deum creatorem venite adoremus
A version of this reflection appeared at CatholicPhilly on 8 July 2016.

The heavens proclaim the glory of God,
and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands. — Psalm 19:2

I stayed up far too late last night, watching the Juno space probe as it entered orbit around Jupiter, whirling 77,000 kilometers over the planet’s surface. I cheered when the craft signaled it had successfully slipped into orbit, to the amusement of the soggy 20-somethings returning from the Philly fireworks.

Of course, I couldn’t really see Juno plunging toward Jupiter, it was just a beautifully done simulation. But last month, I had an incredible view of Jupiter’s stripes and four of its moons — all in a tidy row —  through a telescope at the Vatican Observatory outside Rome.

Just after sunset on an early June night, a group from the Vatican Observatory Summer School went observing with David Brown, SJ an astrophysicist who studies stellar evolution and the caretaker of the telescopes.

We entered through the big wooden doors that open from the piazza into the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace where Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI spent their summers, packed into the miniature elevator, and rode up to the roof where the domes housing two of the observatory’s telescopes sit.

We saw Jupiter and Mars, its canals faintly visible. But it was the last planet that took my breath away. I bent to the eyepiece and adjusted the focus, suddenly floating in front of my eyes was Saturn, its rings clearly visible along with two jewel-like moons.

“Oh, my God!” I spit out. And I meant that in all seriousness. Reflecting on the relationship between science and faith, Jesuit Father Karl Rahner, an eminent theologian of the 20th century, noted that, “To be able to stammer about God is after all more important than to speak exactly about the world.”

I had questions, about the rings, about how the telescope functioned, but in that moment, all I could do was stammer about God.

The Vatican Observatory’s motto, inscribed on the walls of one of the telescope domes, is Deum creatorem venite adoremus. It’s an imperative: Come, adore God the creator. But it’s also an expression of hope, that those who come here might enter into the work of science and in doing so not only deepen their awareness of God who created the heavens and the earth, but fall on their knees and adore the one who set the stars in motion.

Tolle lege — take and read — are the words that heralded St. Augustine’s conversion. Later, in a sermon, Augustine urges his congregation to pick up and read the book of the universe, “… there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead, he set before your eyes the things he had made.”

Last week, on a late evening walk with my husband, I pointed out Jupiter, Mars and Saturn, bright balls of light hanging in the sky, and once again felt that flash of inexpressible awe at what has been created, and Who created it.

In the depths of these summer days, I am taking St. Augustine’s advice to heart. Look up, read God’s book written in the stars strewn across the skies. Look out to the sun that burns with such intensity that we can feel its heat millions of miles away. Look below at the dew fallen on the grass, or the waves lapping at your ankles.

Come and adore the God whose hands made it all, take up and read the book of creation, stammer your thanks to the Spirit who breathed upon the chaos and brought order and beauty to the universe.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Dreams of the third oyster

Math Man and I spent the weekend on Cape Cod, staying with friends.  Math Man loves fresh oysters, so this is a great spot to be. Last night, our host shucked fresh Wellfleet oysters for us.  Sweet and briny and icy cold.  I ate one (my third), and announced, "I will dream of the third oyster."  It was the perfect oyster.

My hostess ducked downstairs, and returned with M.F.K. Fisher's essay "My First Oyster," (in The Gastronomical Me) set in a girl's school in southern California in the 1920s. 

"I remembered hearing Mother say that it was vulgar as well as extremely unpleasant to do anything with an oyster but swallow it as quickly as possible, without thinking, but that the after-taste was rather nice...raw, they must be swallowed whole, and rapidly.  

And alive."

The oysters had been shipped live from the East coast ("I love Blue Points," oozes one of the fashionable young ladies.) Fisher considers this an almost unimaginable luxury, the sort of thing that might be experienced only rarely at the venerable Victor Hugo's restaurant, built on the cliffs in Laguna Beach, where I once had dinner.  

 Fisher keeps you on the edge of your seat. What will happen to that first oyster?  Will it go down...alive?  Will it stay down?  She is swept onto the dance floor by one of the senior girls.  "The oyster was still in my mouth."

It does.

We also learned that oysters are hemaphroditic, and fecund, releasing over a million eggs.

Sunday, July 03, 2016


The fleet out for a sail
I bought the Fiat Lux in the depths of winter in 1989, seduced at the Philadelphia Boat Show by its sleek lines, red color and physics.  The physics?  I could get a rigging designed for my weight class, with less sail area and a shorter mast, which bent slightly under load to keep the force centered on the correct spot.  The vector diagrams were so lovely and compelling.

The Quantum Theology Laser fleet now has two boats, mine and a second, standard rigged Laser (which makes Math Man happy as that is geared for his weight class - allowing him to get a up a good head of speed).

We went sailing yesterday, the family plus (including Crash's girlfriend, The Lady of House Clark, and a friend of The Egg's), on a day when the winds were just a bit stronger than optimal for a first of the season sail.  Math Man was excited, I kept saying there is such a thing as too much wind!

I enjoyed having a team that knows what they are doing in terms of rigging the boats, and lifting the boats is easy when you have six people on the job. The winds were a bit wild, shifting direction by 180 degrees a couple of times, and the Egg had a hard time holding the standard boat down, flipping it once.  I took my boat out twice by myself, enjoying having to pay careful attention to keep the sail trim and full.

But the most fun?  I had to hike all the way out to hold the boat flat, flying about a foot above the water!  And the moment when I was over the side and still had six inches of the lee gunnel under water.  Whee.  And no capsizes for me — unlike two years ago.

I do have some epic scrapes and bruises, however, as a result of clambering around the shallow cockpit wearing my somewhat less limber body and a personal floatation device that increases my effective circumference to 55 inches.  It's like trying to sail while dressed up like an enormous Campfire marshmallow.  Despite this, I am invested in wearing a life vest.  I like floating. And while I swim well, no one swims well while unconscious.