Tuesday, January 29, 2019


I was responding to a spate of emails from students — it's the start of the semester and my inbox is filled with small, urgent requests.  Yes, I told a student, that's fine. And closed with "Beset, Dr. Francl".  Oops!

Sometimes my fingers know before my mind does, what is going on.  Beset indeed. This morning I am channelling my inner anchoress and closing my door to write, write, write.

1000 words for the day, if I can. And no, I'm not checking email. Thanks for asking.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Overreading Nehehmiah

Lots to see here for even the littlest!
Sunday's first reading has provoked some interesting exegetical conversation about the presence of young children within the sanctuary,
In the square in front of the Water Gate, Ezra read out of the book from daybreak till midday, in the presence of the men, the women, and those children old enough to understand; and all the people listened attentively to the book of the law. Nehemiah 8:3
Fr. Michael White reads this passage to support excluding children from the sanctuary, falling clearly on the side that the Mass is entirely a rational experience and those without the intellectual capacity to understand (presumably including those with dementia or other cognitive deficits) should be provided for in other ways, e.g. by investing in strong children's programs. Worship should be serene and uninterrupted by the messy realities of everyday life.

White mocks those who sit where their children can see, "as if they’re looking." Certainly my experience in a church which does not provide differently for children, or those otherwise unable to "understand," is that children are far more attentive to what is happening on the altar than you might think. The three year-old boy next to me who joins in the prayers of the faithful, the little girl dancing to our song — Alleluia — or my own son, who on hearing the opening to the second reading, "St. Paul's letter to the Romans" leaned over to say, "Rome, I've been to Rome." He was 4. Father White might spend a few weekends sitting incognito in the pews somewhere to see where children are looking and what they are doing and how parents are investing in their formation, and then revisit the issues he takes up in his essay.

Listening to the reading this weekend, I was struck by who was in the assembly. If all the people, the men and the women alike were there, who was home with the children too young to understand?  I had visions of houses with infants abandoned in cradles and toddlers wandering the streets. Perhaps the meaning to be wrung from this passage isn't that we shouldn't bring children into the church until they are old enough to understand, but that they are old enough to grasp out for and onto God from the very start. For are we not to love and worship God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength.  Frankly, it's more than any of us can understand.

H/T to Fritz Bauerschmidt at PrayTell, "Suffering the Little Children"

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Ten year challenge

Chair in the basement laundry room at Eastern 
Point, which was an apt place to work with the 
material of the First Week. Note the journal.
There's a meme going around on social media recently, often tagged "How hard did aging hit you?" with the invitation to post current photos next to photos from ten years ago.  Ten years ago today I was at Eastern Point, on the coast of Massachusetts, deep into the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola as laid out in the 20th annotation. Thirty days of silence, away from home and family, free to pray.

In the fall, I wondered how I might revisit the Exercises this winter. And then my father died and I tossed my winter break plans out the window. Now I wonder if I shouldn't reframe that 10-year challenge question: how hard did the Long Retreat hit me?

I pulled the black Moleskine journal I kept out to browse, flicking through the pages, stopping to look the photos that I added when I came home, wondering at the neatly printed notes I made each day on post-it notes about my prayer to prepare for my meetings with my director.  I would stick them to the front of my journal and then generally never once refer to them.  Much of what was written there went unsaid, as is true of so much of the Exercises. But I'm grateful for those notes that I carefully taped into the journal now, because they are about the only thing I can read. The Exercises might change lives, but they did nothing to improve my handwriting. I'm equally grateful for the letter my director suggested I write to future me, noting what I might want to re-visit later.

How hard did that Long Retreat hit me? Hard enough that a decade later it is still unfolding. #fifthWeek

Letters to and from the past

A section of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Wikimedia.
I taught a Balch seminar (a required first year course for all Bryn Mawr students) last fall. Emily Balch was a Bryn Mawr alumna, a graduate of the college's first class in 1889, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for her work at The Hague on forging peace in the wake of WWI and through the first half of the 20th century.  She was a founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and contributed to the development of international disarmament policy. She had been a faculty member at Wellesley for more than 20 years, but when she asked for an extension of a leave of absence from Wellesley to continue the work she was doing, the board fired her.

We began each class with a short writing prompt, one of the last ones was "Write a letter to one of your great-great grandmothers."  I knew one of my great-grandmothers, Mary Bach Chapp, but not any of my great-great grandmothers.  And I know only one story about any of them, one from my mother who heard it from her grandmother. It's the story of a woman living in 19th century Wales who each night traced a blessing over the banked embers of the fireplace, to be sure a fire could be roused in the morning. Her life and mine, separated by a century, what would I tell her? What would she want to know? What would I want to know about her and her life? What if we could write to each other?

I've been writing about Isaiah, who had things to say to the Israelites in that present moment, but who also has something to say to the far distant future. For what is Scripture, but letters to the future from people who cherished God so much they could not help but let themselves be opened to the Eternal and write and sing of such love for generations living in a future they could not imagine.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

A homily for my father

Mission San Miguel Arcangel - my parents' parish church.
When I visited him in the care home last October, my father asked me if I would take care of planning his funeral. Sure, I said, is there anything in particular you want?  No, not really; like your mother's.  At the Mission. (My parents' parish was one of the original California missions, San Miguel Arcangel). I went home, and a couple of weeks later my dad went home, where he could be with his wife and his beloved dogs. We didn't talk about it again. Now he has truly gone home, to be with my mother and all those who went before him. So last week I was faced with selecting readings and music, but not a homily. But this is what I would have said if I could have preached at his funeral Mass.

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 27; 1 John 3:1-2, Matthew 11:25-30

My dad had bad knees, a trait he passed on to most of his offspring, much to our dismay. So when I sat down to consider readings for his funeral Mass, a line from a favorite section of Isaiah came to mind: Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak. It's not a traditional reading for a funeral, but the imagery that surrounds that verse was so rich, so warm, it seemed the reading to send my dad home on.  And those weak knees being made firm — well, they made me laugh and so firmed up my soul.

The prophet promises much to a people in travail.  Streams will burst forth in the desert, and rivers in the steppe. The burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water.

Water here is precious.  It doesn't burst forth from the hillsides, or even run in the river beds, but winds its way unseen beneath our feet. The ground is always thirsty, our tongues and hands dry. So we pull water up from the depths, and dribble it out through irrigation systems. We hoard water from our showers and drag it bucket by bucket out to our gardens to keep a rose bush alive, or let an olive tree bear.

So to live here is to know better than most how to thirst, how to ration, how to live with the least you can. It becomes hard to imagine what to do if suddenly faced with an abundance of water.  I have lived back East for more than thirty years, in a place where my biggest worry about water is how much is in my basement during a deluging rainstorm, and yet...each and every time I cross over the Schuylkill River near Philadelphia, I am awestruck. All that water, flowing and flowing down to the confluence with the Delaware River and out into the sea.

To thirst is a gift. It's a potent reminder that we are visitors here, that we live ever on the road to Zion, with just enough to enable us keep us moving.  We long for firm knees, we thirst to see again those who have gone before us - wives and husbands and parents and siblings...and dogs. To thirst here, is to leave ourselves open to be awestruck by what awaits us at our end.

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song. 
They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.

Light, too, is precious here. I walked outside the other night, it was too dark to see the ground I walked on. I walked by faith, the crunching of the gravel under my feet reassuring me I was on the right path. The glory and splendor of the numberless stars above took my breath away, yet each is known to God.

We are each walking in darkness,  occasionally catching a flash of something that lets us know we are on a right path, occasionally allowed to see a glimpse of one another as we truly are, beloved children of God, lights in the darkness of this world. We walk in worry, and doubt, uncertain if the next step will be on sure ground.

My father knew how precious water and light were. He kneaded flour and water into dough, feeding family and friends and people he didn't even know. He handed on light — the light of faith, the light of education, the light of a warped and wicked sense of humor — to his children and grandchildren, to people he knew and people he didn't.

Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy; They will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee.

My father was ransomed - as were we all. He has been met with joy and gladness, crowned with everlasting life, awash in water and light. May we all be graced to thirst, that we might be eternally awestruck at what has been done for us.

And dad, I know you were once worried that you'd be bored in heaven, resting was never high on your list. But surely heaven, of all places, is well set up for carpenters? I have faith you are well loved. May eternal rest be his, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.