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.