Saturday, March 26, 2016

Entering the torrents of time

It’s evening. The pastor reads the prayers from a Roman missal balanced precariously on the hands of an altar server, the wind rifling the corners of the pages, “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end…all time belongs to him and all the ages.”  As the incense pierces the beeswax of the Easter candles, these words probe the wounds of my disbelief.

Make no mistake, I believe in Christ, Eternal God from Eternal God, risen from the dead, coming in glory. My problem lies here:  time is God’s. Too often time seems to be a demonic presence harrying me from one end of my day to the other. Or it is a raging torrent that batters my heart, dragging me along when I would instead cling to the babe in my arms, or hold tight to the teenaged boys clowning in my kitchen. Even as I follow the candle into the dark church, I struggle to accept such forces could cut channels of grace.  To chant in gratitude, "Thanks be to God."

Yet here it is again, in the first reading. The Spirit swept over the darkling waters, and the Word set the universe aflame.  Time was cupped for a moment in God’s hand, then poured forth. There was morning and evening. And all the days since. It dawns on me that time is not a flaw in creation. It points me toward a God who let go what was clenched in his hands, chose to throw himself into the torrents of time with us, and promised never to leave. To this, I say amen.  Alleluia.

A version of this reflection appeared Give Us This Day for the Easter Vigil

Chrism on my hands: science and faith

Practical theology.
In the library of the Convent of San Marco, Florence.
More than thirty years ago, I moved to the East Coast from California.  We registered in our local parish, where I was surprised to find that women could not be lectors or cantors or Eucharistic Ministers.  "The only time a woman should be on the altar," the pastor told me when I asked, "is to clean it."  Ah.  He had many gifts to share, not the least the ways in which he modeled a deep and abiding life of prayer, but this was a mindset he couldn't shake.

Last week, our associate pastor caught me after Morning Prayer, with a question about cleaning.  The question came, not because he thinks that the only role women have to play in the liturgies of Holy Week is cleaning the altar and vessels (which he most certainly does not!), but because I'm a chemist.  One of the chrismaria, the glass vessels used to store the parish's stock of oils for anointing, hadn't come clean with a first round of soap or with a second round of bleach.  It had held the chrism.  What might I suggest?

I looked at the glass container and noticed it was coated in a fluffy, waxy substance.  I rubbed some of it between my fingers.  (Yes, yes, I know, chemists shouldn't touch their stuff; buried somewhere in here is a reflection about humeral veils and gloves in the lab.)  Bleach is an oxidizing agent.  Fats, like olive oil, which form the base of chrism, when oxidized can give you esters — and alcohols.  The chemical mantra when it comes to dissolving things is "like dissolves like." So....

"Try some rubbing alcohol." I offered.

With this I went off to teach quantum mechanics, to find an email when I was done that the alcohol had done the trick.  Science in the service of the faith.

My hands smelled of chrism all morning, each time I raised my hands to write on the board, this reminder of my own baptismal anointing brushed my senses.  As priest, as prophet.  The catechism of the Catholic Church notes that service is intrinsically linked to the sacramental priesthood [CCC 876], and I see its traces in Ignatius' Suscipe, "Whatsoever I have or hold, You have given me; I give it all back to You and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will."  What do I return?  What do I turn toward God?  Toward service?

I thought, too, of Kathleen Norris' short book, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and 'Women's Work,' in which she writes, "But laundry and worship are repetitive activities with a potential for tedium, and I hate to admit it, but laundry often seems like the more useful of the tasks. But both are the work that God has given us to do."  The laundry and the dishes are inextricably entwined with worship.  We learn to do one by doing the other.

Chrismaria that look like they belong in the lab!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Holy Thursday: May we be all flame

Lord, enfold me in the depths of your heart;
and there hold me, refine, purge and set me on fire,
raise me aloft, until my own self knows utter annihilation.
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

We gathered in the small chapel we use for daily Mass and for the Liturgy of the Hours.  The altar has been stripped, the tabernacle is empty, the presence lamp gone.  Light flows in.  Our voices were strong as we began, "O Sacrament of love, sign of our unity, bond of our community, whoever longs for life has here its source, let us come here and believe, united with you, and live."

Tonight I will walk in solemn procession, a river of light and incense and prayer wending its way through the church, bearing fire, standing guard.  I thought this morning of the story of Abba Lot, one of the desert fathers.  He came to Abba Joseph and said, "as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace..what else can I do?” Abba Joseph lifted his hand to heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps — aflame. "If you will, you can become all flame."

We have come to the end of Lent.  As we were able we have kept to our obligations, fasted, prayed and meditated; we prayed fiercely for peace.  And now?  Now it time for us to become all flame.

Photo is of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Column: Passion plays

In the midst of a crazy Holy Week, I found Pärt's Lamentate to be a spot to rest, to wait, to contemplate.  It's worth the 37 minutes, or even 3.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly on 23 March 2016.

I will stand at my guard post, and station myself upon the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me. — Habakkuk 2:1a

“So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray…” Jesus begs Peter, James, and John in the garden of Gesthemane. The Triduum of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord is upon us, an invitation to once again watch and pray with Jesus in the garden, on the cross and in his triumphal resurrection. But how shall we pray?

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests praying with the Gospels by reverently placing ourselves into the stories, imagining the scenes in detail. To see where you are standing and with whom. Is it cloudy? Can you smell the dust, the bread baking? Where is Jesus and what does he have to say to you? Who are you in the scene?

This is precisely the approach recommended in an Easter homily given by St. Gregory Nazianzen, a fourth century bishop and Doctor of the Church. What St. Gregory and St. Ignatius have in mind goes beyond a replaying of an historical event, or even a prayerful contemplation of Jesus’ experience. These meditations should propel us outward.

“If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up the Cross and follow,” says St. Gregory. If you are Mary of Magdalene, call out to the Lord, listen to him and then go, proclaim what you have seen. Stand at the gates of heaven as Christ ascends, raise the gates to let him enter.

To pray through these days as St. Ignatius suggests, set aside some quiet time, and find the Scripture passage you want to enter into. Mark your Bible, or find it on the web. Begin by asking God for the grace to be at his disposal in this time of prayer. Then set the scene, and slowly imagine yourself there.

Don’t worry about being historically correct, whether you see the Gesthemane of Jesus’ time, or your own garden. When you have finished, speak to Jesus as you would to a close friend. What is his desire for you, here and now?

We retell the story of our salvation not merely to know we are saved, but to grasp more deeply our own role in the coming of the Kingdom. Who are we, where do we stand as Jesus enters into these mysteries? What is he saying to us? Go, wash each other’s feet. Go, stand watch for one another and pray. Go, offer yourselves for the poor and the forsaken.

Go, proclaim the good news.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

What role do you play in the Passion?

A selection from St. Gregory Nazianzen’s Second Easter homily, given on Easter in the church at Arianzus,  a small village in what is now Turkey where the bishop lived the last years of his life in retirement.  See the Office of Readings for the last Saturday in Lent.

24. If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up the Cross and follow. If you are crucified with Him as a robber, acknowledge God as a penitent robber. If even He was numbered among the transgressors for you and your sin, do you become law-abiding for His sake. Worship Him Who was hanged for you, even if you yourself are hanging; make some gain even from your wickedness; purchase salvation by your death; enter with Jesus into Paradise,  so that you may learn from what you have fallen. Contemplate the glories that are there; let the murderer die outside with his blasphemies; and if you be a Joseph of Arimathæa, beg the Body from him that crucified Him, make your own that which cleanses the world.  If you be a Nicodemus, the worshipper of God by night, bury Him with spices.

If you be a Mary, or another Mary, or a Salome, or a Joanna, weep in the early morning. Be first to see the stone taken away, and perhaps you will see the Angels and Jesus Himself. Say something; hear His Voice. If He say to you, Touch Me not, stand afar off; reverence the Word, but grieve not; for He knows those to whom He appears first. Keep the feast of the Resurrection; come to the aid of Eve who was first to fall, of Her who first embraced the Christ, and made Him known to the disciples.

Be a Peter or a John; hasten to the Sepulchre, running together, running against one another, vying in the noble race. And even if you be beaten in speed, win the victory of zeal; not Looking into the tomb, but Going in. And if, like a Thomas, you were left out when the disciples were assembled to whom Christ shows Himself, when you do see Him be not faithless; and if you do not believe, then believe those who tell you; and if you cannot believe them either, then have confidence in the print of the nails. If He descend into Hell, descend with Him. Learn to know the mysteries of Christ there also, what is the providential purpose of the twofold descent, to save all absolutely by His manifestation, or there too only them that believe.

25. And if He ascend up into Heaven, ascend with Him. Be one of those angels who escort Him, or one of those who receive Him. Bid the gates be lifted up, or be made higher, that they may receive Him, exalted after His Passion. Answer to those who are in doubt because He bears up with Him His body and the tokens of His Passion, which He had not when He came down, and who therefore inquire, Who is this King of Glory? that it is the Lord strong and mighty, as in all things that He has done from time to time and does, so now in His battle and triumph for the sake of Mankind.

— Read the entire oration here.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patrick's Tooth

Last fall, while Math Man played a round of golf on the Irish coast, I took a walk along the water, then across the runway of the small airport to the ruins of an 11th century church, Cill Easpaig Bhroin (Bishop Bron's church).  There has been a church here since the 5th century, on the site where St. Patrick came for a visit, lost a tooth and left it with his dear friend St. Bron.

The tooth eventually became an important relic of Patrick, the reliquary is still extant, in collection of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

These coastal churches, seats of bishops or not, are tiny, and I kept trying to imagine what they looked like on a Sunday morning, when people crossed from the islands in the bay at low tide.  It was raw and cold, even on this October day, and I suspect a packed church was one way to stay warm.

The sign giving the history of the area noted that the cemetery was used until 1961, then officially closed, but there were grave markers as recent as 2015.

Walking across the end of the runway was an experience.  I watched a couple of planes take off from a distance while I was out clambering around the ruins, but didn't have to wait to cross either time!

Friday, March 11, 2016

DotMagis: Love is patient and kind, but am I?

Not the St. John's Bible by any means...

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, love is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. 1 Cor 13:4-6

St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians.  It was proclaimed when I married Tom, and again when I married Victor.  It was hardly a novel choice.  But what happens when I hear it at a funeral? I hear hard questions, not a poetic description — however powerful.

"Have I been patient? kind?
Was I jealous, pompous, or self-important?"

Read the whole reflection at Ignatian Spirituality's DotMagis blog.

...but in my own hand nonetheless
It was interesting to be reminded of the other readings we chose. From Matthew's Gospel  - the call to be salt of the earth and light for the world.  From the Song of Songs,  set me as a seal upon your heart. And Psalm 30, the psalm that ran through my head all night when Tom was dying.  Then the line that I held close was at night weeping enters in, but with the dawn joy, but for this day, you have changed my mourning into dancing, you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.  A bridge between two lives, an acknowledgement of the mystery that I would not willingly have given up the first for the second, nor now, forgone the second to have clung to the first.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Column: Dusting off Godspell

Via Wikipedia
I've been thinking about dust a lot lately, several months after I wrote this piece for DotMagis, I still can't get Marilyn Nelson's poem out of my head.  Now I have Godspell's O Bless the Lord stuck there, too, along with the distinctive album art.  My parent's saw the show at the South Coast Repertory theatre in the mid 1970s. ((Thanks to Crash and Maiden of House Clark, I note it is spelled theatre these days.)

My musical theater loving (sorry, Crash) mother bought the soundtrack, which became part of the soundtrack of my youth. I can still see it sitting on the stack by the stereo in the living room. Right there on the orange shag carpet, next to the sturdy living room set inherited from my grandparents, with its scratchy upholstery, which reminded me of the grey-green skin of dinosaurs in a diorama.

This is the fourth in a series on the psalms and mercy for  It appeared on 10 March 2016.

The Lord is compassion and love,
slow to anger and rich in mercy. — Psalm 103:8

Every time I read the 103rd psalm, multiple sound tracks criss-cross in my head. The bluesy “O Bless the Lord My Soul” from Godspell. The familiar setting by Marty Haugen, with its cascading opening to the last verse: “merciful, merciful.” The unaccompanied voices of the Camadolese monks before dawn in a monastery clinging to the cliffs of California. Let all my being, bless his holy name.

Regardless of the melody, the through line of this psalm is overwhelming reassurance:  God’s mercy is boundless. It will restore us. Renew us. Heal us. One breath from God’s mouth and our sins are blown away like dust, flying to the ends of the earth.

But today the verset that catches my eye is this one, “he knows of what we are made, he remembers that we are dust.” In lines set down long before God set up residence in Galilee, becoming human, the psalmist reminds us that God knows what we are made of. Dust. Fragile bits of creation.

The line brings to mind Marilyn Nelson’s poem, “Dusting,” where she describes dust as “tiny particles of ocean salt, pearl-necklace viruses, winged protozoans, infinite intricate shapes of submicroscopic living things.”

Dust is not merely something to be cleared away, but contains wonders beyond imagining. Dust is God’s cache of raw materials from which he constantly renews the universe. And us.

We are fragile beings, we can crumble at a touch, but God is careful of us. Abba Mius, one of the early Christian Desert Fathers, tells a story of a soldier who wondered whether God truly closed his eyes to our sins once we repented.

“Tell me,” he asked, “if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?” Of course not, the soldier assured Abba Mius, he would mend it and use it again. “If you are so careful of your cloak, then will God not be equally careful of his creation?” responded Mius. Neither does God discard us, but mends us that our entire being might bless his holy name.

Unlike the soldier’s cloak, which undoubtedly bore the marks of his repairs, God’s tender mending of our souls leaves no scar. It is as if it never were torn in his eyes.  “When God forgives, his forgiveness is so great that it is as though God forgets,” Pope Francis noted in a recent homily. Like dust, blown away, to be reborn whole.

We are dust, God’s treasured materials. And unto dust we shall return, ever his servants, ever open to his will.

If you want a more traditional setting of the psalm, try this one from a Russian Orthodox monastery (in English!)

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

A rule of life

The Episcopal Cafe featured a post this weekend on developing a rule of life, taken from a series written by Charles LaFond, the canon steward of St. John's Cathedral in Denver.  He suggests reflecting on our own particular practices, and returning to those reflections from time to time, much as monastic communities read their rule of life on a regular basis.

It's the start of my spring break (which began after a 600 mile round trip trek by car to Massachusetts and back accomplished in just over 24 hours, whew).  As I went through my Saturday routine of folding laundry and tidying the kitchen, I was thinking about the value of a measuring stick, and the comfort of routine, even for adults.  There can be a care for the whole person in such routines, especially those with a tinge of ritual to them.  I wrap each sorted load of laundry up in a furoshiki, thinking each time of Japan.  It's not strictly necessary (though it does keep me from finding socks I've dropped on the stairs), but the ritual snugging of the knots, and the colorful pile of laundry bundles are a source of delight in the midst of a very routine task.

Before the semester started, I indulged in a bit of KonMari organizing of office and clothes.  There is a joy in being able to lay hands on a turtleneck without digging through a laundry basket in the basement, a spaciousness to a desk that has just what I need for the semester's courses on it, and tidy shelves with the books for various writing and research projects stashed within easy reach.  It reminds me to be grateful for what I have, rather than annoyed with tending what I cannot find and may not need.

There is a certain amount of indulgent self-care in this, a bit less stress, in that I'm not dashing down to the basement to press a pair of pants in the morning, and less visual clutter.  But there is also a clearing of time that comes with it all.  Less searching/ironing/packing of lunches in the morning has meant an extra 5 or 10 minutes to spend just sitting quietly before Mass begins.  I'm more likely to wave on someone waiting to get out of the Dunkin' Donuts lot I pass on the way, because I'm not in a rush. Ha.  Maybe my rule of life needs to say "For the care of your soul and care for your neighbor lay out your clothes, iron your shirt and pack your lunch the night before."

Kimberly Belcher is reflecting on the practice of regularly reading the Rule of St. Benedict at PrayTell.  She pulls in her own experiences as a parent to read a particularly challenging passage.

If you don't know Rev. Jane Tomaine's wonderful St. Benedict's Toolbox, about adapting and living the Rule of St. Benedict for those residing outside monastic walls, it's a terrific resource.  It's the most practical doctoral dissertation project I've encountered!

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Not just for kids: Dear Pope Francis

Today Loyola Press released its ambitious and magnificent project, Dear Pope Francis. I found the book to be a rich source for my own meditation, perhaps because I've been on the receiving end of so many of these questions as a parent.  As an adult, I found the directness and tenderness heartening, reminding me of the core practices of my faith.  To pray wherever I am. To live in the joy of the Gospel.  To stand openly for peace and justice.  There is a lot of hope in this book, in both the questions being asked by these young people and in the responses that Pope Francis makes to them.

The review that follows appeared today at

The car was always the place for the hard conversations when my sons were young. The questions would come from the back seat when I least expected it. I can still remember the rainy night I was driving down Montgomery Avenue when my oldest son, then 12, asked me why God let evil things happen.  That remains the toughest question my children have ever put to me, bar none.

In his newest book, “Dear Pope Francis,” takes on the tough and direct questions that kids will ask.  There is 9-year old Michael from Nigeria wondering “How can you settle conflicts in the world?” and Thierry who wants to know why so many people are poor and hungry: can’t God feed them?

The book lists the authors as Pope Francis and the children of the world, and it’s clear from the start that this was a collaborative work between the leader of the Church and her members.  More than 250 children, from 26 countries, sent letters and drawings to Pope Francis. Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., met with the Holy Father and recorded his answers to the questions posed in the letters.  He then transcribed and edited the responses.  The children’s drawings are reproduced alongside the Pope’s answers, which truly bring the young writers alive.

Father Spadaro writes in the afterward that he found transcribing the conversation an extended meditation, and I found reading the book to be a similar experience.  I ended up reading it in a few sessions, stopping when I wanted to spend time with an answer — or a question.  I don’t have young ones at home any longer, so couldn’t try it out on its intended audience, but I do know that my sons would have appreciated the Pope’s directness and humor, and I would have treasured his wisdom when faced with tough questions from my passengers.

Some of the questions are poignant, one young boy wonders if his mother in heaven has grown angel wings.  No, Pope Francis tells him. She is still your mom, but she is beautiful and full of light and love for you. Others wonder about who gets into heaven and whether bad people still have guardian angels.

We learn a lot about Pope Francis and his job as we go.  He can pray in a dentist’s chair.  He loves to play soccer, but hasn’t a nimble foot, so he’s not very good at it.  We learn he is happiest in his job when he is with other people, and why he needs such a tall hat.  But in each answer, the Pope takes the children, and us, a bit deeper.  Would that we could all learn to pray wherever we were, and to more fully express our joy in God.

I sense Pope Francis’ awareness of the parents and other adults who are listening in the background to these exchanges, nudging them to think again about the tough questions, the questions that as adults we fear have no answers, that we might long ago have given up even asking.  I found myself returning again and again to the Holy Father’s answer to young Thierry about poverty and hunger.  “The real problem is that some of those who have plenty do not want to share it with others.”  What do I have more than enough of?  Where am I unwilling to share?

Reading this book I was struck by Pope Francis’ tenderness.  He is never saccharine, he never speaks down to the children, he is direct and firm.  Above all his joy in the Gospel and his deep love of God comes through in every response.  When 11-year old Clara, from Ireland, ask him if he thinks that he is really a father to us all, he tells her that he does feel like a spiritual father to us all, and that he likes being a dad.  This is a book by a holy father, indeed, who clearly loves all his children, young and old.

Full disclosure:  Loyola Press sent me a copy of this book.