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 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/19/katskhi-pillar-monk-georgia-maxime-qavtaradze_n_3950192.html).

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