Monday, February 29, 2016

An indifferent Lent

Not what's in my lunch
Raspberry yogurt.  It’s my Lenten penance. No, I did not give it up for Lent.  I am eating it for lunch. Every day. Every single day. Or at least until the supermarket starts stocking another flavor. I like raspberry yogurt, but almost three weeks into Lent, the lack of variety in my lunch is getting tough.  So far I’ve resisted driving to another market to see if they stock orange or lime, or any other flavor.

I’m practicing indifference for Lent. Rather than choose to do or avoid any one thing, I am just paying particular attention to the choices I have — and trying to live with what is offered, rather than try enlarge the set of choices I have. It’s meant that I’m eating more meals from what is on hand in the house, rather than pick up what I’m craving any particular night.  And clicking “Yes” on meeting times that aren’t my first (or second or third) choice of time to meet, but that I could make.

I say I subscribe to St. Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation, that my only desire and my one choice is this:  whatever will let God’s life deepen within me.  Today as I listened to the first reading, where Naaman dismisses Elisha's advice to go bathe in the Jordan — what's so special about that river?  nothing! — I thought about what's so hard about raspberry yogurt.  Nothing, except it's what is right front of me.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Column: Mercy is never exhausted Psalm 130

Every night, around 10 pm, my friend Cathy shares the  Episcopal Church's end of the evening post on Facebook.  If I'm on my computer at the time, I know it's time to pack things up for the night when Cathy's post ghosts in the corner.  Often the post draws from Compline's reading and prayers, and deepens my sense of the work of prayer being passed from hand to hand, in so many different traditions and in so many different ways.  I treasure the echoes I hear in Cathy's post.

And when I wake in the night, it's to be buoyed up on these prayers.  And The Egg is fine, it was just a tough week, and sometimes you really do need to call your mom.

This column appeared at on 24 February 2016

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
O let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading. — Ps 130:1-3

Tuesday night, I woke to the phone ringing on my bedside table. It was 12:55 a.m. and my youngest son was calling from California. Sometimes you just need to talk to your mom at the end of a long and tough day. We talked until a bit after 2 a.m., then I slipped back into bed, to catch a few hours of sleep before a long day of classes and meetings.

That night, as I sat down to say Compline — Night Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours — I thought of all the nights where I prayed this “last” prayer of the day, only to be up again and again with little ones. The psalm set for this Wednesday night is the De Profundis, Psalm 130, named for the first words of the Latin translation. Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.

When my sons were young, this prayer so often rose out of the depths of my exhaustion. Hear my voice, O Lord, and let this little one fall back to sleep. Or in my worries over a sick child, I would long for the morning to come, when things inevitably would seem less frightening.

Now when I pray Psalm 130, memories of those long dark nights swirl across the pages of my breviary, and I can feel in my depths the yearning of the psalmist for relief, for the Lord’s merciful presence. My soul is longing for the Lord, more than watchman for daybreak.

Pope Francis speaks of the way God’s mercy is like the love of a mother or father for their child. It is a visceral love, arising from the very depths: tender, compassionate, indulgent and merciful. It expresses itself in very concrete ways. God binds up the wounds of the brokenhearted, he sets prisoners free, he forgives us all our sins.

It is a love that doesn’t keep count, that is never exhausted. Like a mother, one ear always open to hear the child who calls out in the night, God is listening for us. Each and every time we cry for mercy.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Justice and peace have kissed #ScaliaFuneral

Door on the Passion facade.
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died this week. His daughter went to Bryn Mawr, where I teach. I have vivid memories of some of the invective directed toward her father that boiled over when she graduated, which now seems mild in comparison to some of what I've seen on Twitter and quoted in the news.

I have to admit that my first thoughts were not about whether the President should or should not nominate a replacement (ok, yes, we elected him for a 4-year term, not 3-years and a holding action and I expect each branch to do its job).  Nor did I start dreaming about a different court and what that might mean.  What I thought about was a woman who answered the phone or the door or was pulled into the kitchen to sit and told, "Your husband is dead."  No warning.  No chance to say farewell.  Just, "you are a widow. What arrangements would you like us to make?"  Two who were once one flesh have now been cruelly sundered.

I don't need to imagine what this feels like.  Twenty-nine years ago this April, at an evening faculty meeting, the college president was pulled out by campus security officers.  Something was happening at the pool.  I took advantage of the break and grabbed my stack of exams to grade.  Suddenly she is gesturing for me to come into the hallway.  "Your husband is ill at the pool, you need to go," she said. And I walked off with the officer, leaving everything behind.  My purse.  My exams.  My breviary.

Tom died during surgery to repair a ruptured aortic aneurysm on Holy Thursday.  There was a kiss. There was a plea for help just before he lost consciousness.  There was no chance to say good-bye.  I could not even be with him when he died.  It was like hitting a brick wall, decelerating from 70mph to a full stop in a microsecond.  It was brutal.

So I'm still not contemplating Scalia's decisions as a justice, my feelings about these have not been changed by his death, nor spending much time speculating about the political pitfalls and possibilities his death presents.  Instead I'm thinking, Maureen Scalia is now a widow.  And meditating on how we are all one flesh, in the One Body.

Kindness and truth have met
Justice and peace have kissed
— Psalm 85:11 Robert Alter's translation

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Column: Beating out mercy Psalm 136

Cimbue crucifix in Santa Croce, Florence.
The crowd was restive at Union Station on Monday, and in all the rush, the staff forgot to board those with small children and the elderly first, they were left behind in the surge to get to the gate.  Few were willing to make space for them to get through.

The ride home was reminiscent of the trailer for Snowpiercer, wisps of snow driven up by the train's passage twirling past.  A dark grey snowcovered landscape. Bare trees. Sitting in the quiet car, with many empty seats, while the rest of the train tried to cope with overcrowding.

A version of this column appeared at on 18 February 2016.

He remembered us in our distress
for his mercy endures forever. Psalm 136:23

The crowd was anxious and impatient, pressing up against the boarding gate, shouting at the screen. The train was late. An ice storm was coming. You could almost hear the thoughts, they were so loud. Would we be stranded in Union Station? Have mercy on us, I thought.

It was hard to be calm. I, too, wanted to be home in my PJs with a cup of hot cocoa, not huddled overnight in a cold, damp station juggling a paper cup of tea and my bag, smashed between two oversharing college students. Have mercy on us, I prayed.

On my wrist was a prayer rope, 33 knots of black wool. I pulled it off and let its litany of mercy run through my fingers, knot by knot reminding me that crowds and discomfort notwithstanding, sinners and saints alike, we were saved. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me.” Mercy, mercy, I murmured.

In the introduction to his setting of the Psalms, Jesuit Father Joseph Gelineau notes that the psalms work on our hearts not by reason, but by hammering. Phrases and images repeat, shaping our prayers and our souls, like a metalsmith beating at gold. Mercy, mercy, mercy.

Psalm 136, called the Great Hallel — the Great Praise — by our Jewish brothers and sisters, is traditionally sung on all the great Jewish feasts. Scripture scholars believe Jesus sang this hymn of mercy as he made his way to the garden of Gesthemane. The Psalm beats out a refrain of praise, recounting our history of salvation, each of God’s great deeds met with a cry of “for his mercy endures forever.”

Pope Francis suggests in Misericordiae Vultus [MV 7)] that this continual reminder of the enduring nature of God’s mercy “break(s) through the dimensions of space and time, inserting everything into the eternal mystery of love.” It hammers at our hearts, breaking down the barriers between the holy and the profane, between the sacred and the ordinary.

We are challenged, says Pope Francis, to take up this refrain in our daily lives, to follow the example of Jesus who prayed these words on the eve of his Passion, a potent reminder of why he would undergo this ordeal. That we might know God’s mercy endures forever, whether we are his people struggling to cross the Red Sea, refugees fleeing war in Syria or have simply been caught in a tide of jittery travelers.

Do I have the courage this Lent to let the psalms hammer at my heart, the sparks of mercy flying, until I am re-formed? Perhaps, but yes or no, God’s mercy endures forever.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Column: Lessons in Mercy

This column appeared at on 9 February 2016, the first in a series of six on mercy in the psalms.

Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.  Lk 6:27

Grading is the hardest thing I do.  It’s not that there are so many papers to grade, or that the math for my graduate course in quantum mechanics is so complex my students’ assignments looks more like runes than English. It is that I must, over and over again, balance mercy with justice, compassion with discipline.

Without fail, each time I mark a midterm exam, I hear Jesus’ words from the 7th chapter of Matthew:  “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.”  It keeps my red pen focused on comments that will teach, not scold, and reminds me to be attentive to each student, even the ones whose handwriting makes me cross-eyed. Give me wisdom, I ask God, that they too might gain wisdom — at least when it comes to chemistry.  Teach me to be merciful, O Lord, as you would be merciful.

How do we learn to be merciful as our Creator is? From the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has urged us to live mercy, to be mercy-ing. In Misericordiae Vultus, in which he formally announces the Year of Mercy that began in December, the Pope tells us we must first of all open ourselves to the Word of God, to rediscover the silence in our busy lives and meditate on mercy in the scriptures.

For many years, I have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church’s universal public prayer, as a way to steal moments of stillness in the midst of busy days.  The psalms are the skeleton on which the Liturgy of the Hours is built.  As Jesus turned to the words of the psalms on the cross, so, I seek their steadfast strength and solace in my daily life.

The word “mercy” appears dozens of times in the English translation of the psalms used at the Liturgy of the Hours.  Psalm 51, the first psalm and last psalm we hear at Mass in Lent, and which opens Morning Prayer on Ash Wednesday, begins with a plea for mercy. “Have mercy on me, God…” It is one of the psalms that I know by heart.

I hear in this psalm a short lesson in what it might mean to embrace mercy. Make me hear rejoicing and gladness. To live mercy means being aware of the wellspring of joy and peace upon which our salvations rests. Do not cast me away from your presence, nor deprive me of your Holy Spirit.  To live mercy means not turning my back on the troubled or troublesome.

Mercy, says Pope Francis, is the beating heart of the Gospel.  As I enter into these Lenten days, I put my ear to God’s heart, seeking its comfort in my own sinfulness, and praying that my heart, too, will take up the rhythm of mercy.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Names and faces

A topological line serving as a hotness manifold.
It's the time of the semester where I'm working at putting names and faces together with my students. I'm also working on an essay about thermometers, inspired by a visit to the Museo Galileo in Florence last fall, and thereby putting names to faces ranging from Gabriel Fahrenheit to Pennsylvania born zoologist Mable Frings.

The research for the essay has surfaced many interesting characters.  Historian Hasok Chang, who wrote this wonderfully wrought history of the thermometer — and who went to the same high school my friend Robin did.  Mathematician Jim Serrin —  may I call him Jim, I wonder? — who crafted my favorite definition of a thermometer ever: "There exists a topological line M which serves as a coordinate manifold of material behaviour. The points L of the manifold M are called 'hotness levels', and M is called the 'universal hotness manifold'."

Last week I tracked down what I thought was the earliest reference to the use of cricket chirping rates as rough thermometers (there is a famous chemistry problem about this phenomenon), to a Prof. Dolbear in 1898.  Then I picked up a paper on chirping rates (grasshoppers this time) by a husband and wife team, Hubert and Mable Frings, which opened with an incredible review of the chirping literature, tracing it back to....Margarette Brooks in 1881.  Mable, I'm hugely impressed with your ability to track this down in the days before citation indices or electronic databases with full-text search capabilities.  (At least I assume it was Mable...)

I read a short section of Mable's biography.  She suffered a compound fracture of her leg in a car accident in the 1930s, and went on to do field biology.  It makes complete sense that she'd have the patience to track down obscure data.  Their work contributed to a number of key discoveries in animal behavior and indirectly, to a deeper understanding of human epileptic seizures (though I would perhaps not consider them as obscure as Wired does here.)

None of this will make it into the essay, but there is something important to me about knowing the people behind what I'm reading, it adds a certain depth to the picture I'm developing of the science.  It like having a conversation with them over dinner, where we bounce between plunging the depths of science and forging social ties.

See a photo of Mable and Hubert Frings here.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Column: With one accord

Looking up into the central vault.
 Last October, Math Man and I visited Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, an experience that I'm still trying to put into words.  I can say that I agree with Pope Francis' assessment, Gaudi is a great mystic.  (There is a movement to have Gaudi canonized.)

After I submitted this column, my friend Cathy shared this moving and beautiful video of the Apostles Creed.

This column appeared at on 2 Feb 2016.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day
in accordance with the Scriptures. — From the Nicene Creed

I could hear each and every voice, all 20 of us who had made it to Mass in the aftermath of last week’s epic blizzard, as we recited the Creed. The pastor, firmly starting us off, “I believe…,” the snow-suited youngsters in the back, the retired teacher across from me. We couldn’t let the tide of voices from a packed Sunday Mass carry us along. All of us were needed to bear the standard of the faith.

Last fall, I visited Antonio Gaudi’s magnificent church, La Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona. The words of the Apostle’s Creed, in many languages, are emblazoned on the walls of Sagrada Familia behind the main altar. I read this starkly simple statement of what we believe again and again — in English, Latin, Spanish and Catalan — each word taking on a new depth. Wondering at the way the bones of what we believe are built into the bones of this sacred place.

The quiet strength of our voices last Sunday pushed me again into this sort of slow meditation on the creed, to think more deeply about what I was affirming, word by word. In particular, I heard anew the statement of the paschal mystery that anchors my faith:  that Jesus suffered, died and rose again “in accordance with the Scriptures.”
The Apostles Creed in English on the interior wall.

The word we use in the English translation has changed with the new Roman Missal, from fulfillment to accordance. It struck me that the cor in accordance derives from the Latin word for heart, cor. Jesus’ coming, his death and his resurrection, was more than prophecy fulfilled, as the Gospel for the day proclaimed. Jesus’ sacrifice was of “one heart” with the Scriptures.

In retrospect, it’s obvious even without the new translation, how could Jesus, the Word made flesh, be anything other than of one heart with the Word we hear in the Scripture? But in this Holy Year of Mercy, it reminded me again that our faith principally resides not in a list of historical happenings, nor in a big book of rules, but the core of our faith lies in the heart. In the love of God, who as St. John reminds us, so loved the world that he gave to us his only Son. And so, with one accord, we pray and we believe.

Monday, February 01, 2016

If you give a mouse a cookie

When it came to circular tales, my kids preferred the warped humor of Bill Grossman's My Little Sister Ate One Hare, to the still transgressive, but more sedate If you give a mouse a cookie... by Laura Numeroff, but I still read it aloud often enough to be able to recite much of it.

Last week, a student emailed me to tell me I had a typo on the problem set.  Clearly the equation to the right (Hardy's approximation to cosine) should read cos ( ) = 1 - (x2)/...

I thanked her and then thought I should just make the correction and send it out to the class, rather than try to describe it in an email.  How long could that take?

The file was created in Pages. The new Pages.  At home.  My computer at work didn't have the new version, so I went to update it.  To update it, I had to install the new version of the Mac OS.  The new Pages needed me to reinstall MathType.  Some where in all this I had to install Java.  I felt like I was trapped in an adult nightmare version of If you give a mouse a cookie...  And if you're stuck in such a loop, of course you should complain on Facebook, where I friend will suggest that you need a cookie.  And a cup of tea to go with it.

By the time it was all updated, I'd almost forgotten about the missing 1 in the problem set.  Maybe I should go fix it now?