Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The egg song: some observations on chicken vocalizations

The view at dawn
I'm visiting my brother and his wife, enjoying a respite from the East Coast's humidity and some time with family. They have an outdoor bed, on an second story deck tucked within the trees. They also have chickens.

I hadn't quite realized the range of chicken vocalizations. I have just been treated to the "egg song," the victorious cackle hens make when they lay an egg. There are apparently at least two dozen distinct chicken vocalizations, including different alarms for aerial and ground predators. A rapid clucking supposedly indicates a ground predator.

I've been sleeping on the outdoor bed. It's amazing to fall asleep to the rustling of the leaves in an evening breeze as the temperature drops 30 or 40 degrees in this high desert place. What does this have to do with chicken vocalizations, you might ask?

Two nights ago, about 4:30 in the morning, I was awakened by a frantic screeching and wild flapping of wings as a possum chased a loose chicken across the  yard. No rapid clucking in response to this ground predator, just frantic shrieks. By the time I grabbed glasses and flashlight, there was no helping the chicken, alas. And the hissing, bared teeth of the possum did not encourage me to get any closer.

Despite the early morning alarms, the bed is a marvelous place to sleep among Paso Robles' namesake oaks.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Cheerio Section

Daniel Schwen - Own work, CC BY 3.0
Periodically I hear rumblings about parents who bring their children to Mass. The children are noisy, they won't sit still. And the Cheerios. All those crumbs. If you are going to bring children and their Cheerios, better bring your dust buster and clean them up.

Sometimes I think the subtext is that these parents haven't taught their children how to behave at Mass. Can't they get through an hour without eating? Can't they sit still?

I sat in the Cheerio section for Mass on Sunday, a little one to the right of me, a little one in front of me. Each with their Cheerios. As I knelt after communion, a little face popped up in front of me, her bag of Cheerios in hand. She ate one and flashed a contented smile. Meanwhile, we are singing "I am the Bread of Life, you who come to me shall not hunger..."

It occurred to me that parents who bring Cheerios for their kids are teaching them that the Mass is a place where their hunger can be fed. And is that such a bad thing?

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Saints in the broom closet

A few weeks ago I misplaced my breviary, the one that generally I keep in my work bag, wrapped up in a furoshiki so that it does not suffer the fate of its predecessor (which disintegrated after 30 years of prayer). There had been an epic house tidy, so I thought it had just been moved to a new spot in the house. Or perhaps I'd left it on my desk at the office. Or in the back of the car. Really, it's not in the back of the car? Not in my office?

Did I leave it in the chapel? in the sacristy? No way to check as I was on and off the road, in and out of early meetings, and not at the parish in the morning. I made do with the iPad breviary and my little travel breviary. And the four volume set. All right, yes, I have...five different breviaries: a UK travel version, a US travel version, the four volume set and the one volume Christian Prayer. And the electronic one. And a couple of psalters. Lack of monastic simplicity, or simply a hunger for the psalms? You pick.

Finally back at the parish, I checked the chapel and sacristy. No luck, but several of the Augustinians remarked it had been in the chapel, then disappeared. They helped me do a quick search of the sacristy drawers and closets. No luck. Not in the music cabinet (where my breviary had once landed after being mistaken for a choir book and "put away" by a helpful choir member). Not stashed in the meditation space behind the tabernacle. Not stripped of its cover and popped into the collection of breviaries kept in a basket in the chapel.

I joked that it would reappear once I ordered a new one, but inwardly I mourned that necessity. I could let go of the book itself and its wrapper, the furoshiki bought in a small town at the head of a pilgrimage route in Japan that each time I tie it reminds of all those on pilgrimage and of friends who have walked the Camino. The grace imparted by the blessings of the book did not vanish with the volume. Even the holy cards and notes that it has collected over the years could not truly be mourned, they are just physical talismans of prayers made and promised. What I mourned was the way the book had subtly molded itself to my hand, the softness of the ribbons, shifted multiple times a day to mark the passage of hours and days and seasons. The constant reminder of the ways in which prayer had adhered to my daily life.

Stoically, I ordered a new breviary. And on the way out of morning prayer last Friday, as a friend reminded me to pray to Pope St. John XXIII (a sure-fire finder of lost things), and as I responded that I should really pray to my mother, who even after she had lost much of her sight could find almost anything, the pastor appeared around the corner triumphantly holding up my wrapped breviary.  Until that moment none of us had thought to look in the closet behind the confessional where microphones and brooms are kept. And of course that everyday book of prayer would be stored not with music for feasts or linens to safeguard the holy of holies, but with the brooms.

Thanks, Mom (who I imagined having celestial coffee with that sainted Pope John and laughingly conspiring to send a brief dusting of grace my way.)

Friday, June 07, 2019


I'm working on a short book on Isaiah. I'm at the very beginning of my work, and am reading a couple of translations of the book straight through, including Robert Alter's. The opening lines ring in my head, but the 5th through 7th verses could have been pulled from my heart.
“Every head is sick
and every heart in pain.
From footsole to head
no place in him intact,
wound, bruise,
and open sore —
not drained, not bandaged,
not soothed with oil.
Your land is desolate,
your towns are burned in fire.
Your soil, before your eyes
strangers devour it,
and desolation like an upheaval by strangers.”
For I am desolate, aching with the pain of the revelations that continue to ooze forth. Wounds that go to the bone, that are undrained and unsoothed.  West Virginia, Baltimore, Memphis...what were these men thinking? doing?

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Hey Siri, will you take a memo?

Secretarial staff, circa 1930 Library of Congress
Siri. In my dreams, I can call out to the air and my personal virtual assistant will calmly do my bidding. Set a timer. Add something to my to-do list. Take note of an idea and file it where I (or she) can find it later. Check the traffic and remind me when to leave for the DC train station. She's the dream of some 1950s executive, minus the typewriter, steno pad, salary and corporeal existence.

Instead, I've got Siri. She's like a sulky secretary with a Brooklyn accent in a cheap private eye's office. I ask her to set a timer and get, "Hang on...I'll tap you when I'm ready." "Not now, boss..." she snaps her gum, "I'll let you know when I'm ready." Or this morning, when I had my hands full, but wanted her to add a few things to my to-do list. She cheerfully added the first errand to the list. When I asked her to add another one, "You'll have to continue in Things." I waited a couple of minutes and tried again. Yeah. No. I can hear her subtext, "Boss, if you've got more than one, find yer list on that desk and start addin' 'em yerself." She crosses her legs, and takes out her compact. Little puffs of powder dance in the early morning sun.

I think I'd be happier if Siri's subtext was just her text.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Attendite et videte

O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte: Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus.

The text comes from the Vulgate translation of Lamentations 1:12, a current translation reads

Come, all who pass by the way,
pay attention and see:
Is there any pain like my pain...

It's a common refrain on Holy Week, for Good Friday in particular. So why is it showing up in my mental sound track this week, between Ascension (Thursday in my diocese) and Pentecost?

I took the photo at the left from the train just outside Union Station in Washington DC yesterday morning. I wanted to capture the sign on the building, Mathematica, as it is coincidently the name of a software package I use with my students to do technical computing. I grabbed the photos as the train rumbled past, stuffed my phone back in my bag and continued on my way.

When I got home yesterday afternoon, I pulled down the photos from the weekend and flipped through them. It wasn't the building that caught my eye this time, but the homeless encampment in the foreground. O vos omnes I chanted under my breath.

I had spoken at Daylesford Abbey on Sunday about science and faith, about the ways in which a serene and tender attentiveness to the world — something scientists can perhaps model for those of faith — ought to move us toward what Pope Francis referred to in Laudato sí as a painful awareness.We should dare, the suggests, to dare to turn what is happening in the world into our own pain, then use that pain to help us decide how we can and must respond.

I told the story at the Daylesford talk of the two men and the bagel, and noted every time I went past that intersection outside Union Station in DC, I thought about that encounter. And how each time I regret my lack of a response in the moment. It made me painfully aware, to say the least, of both the problem of hunger and poverty and of my own lumbering response to it. Someone commented in the question period that perhaps God's desired response is that I continue to tell the story. True, perhaps, but I don't think God is letting me off the hook quite so easily. Do I really think that Paul wrote letters about the Christian life, but didn't live it and live it immoderately? I can't imagine that Matthew's account of Jesus life was drawn not just out of Mark and the Q source, but out of his own response to Christ's call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger.

Nor do I think that whatever response I've made or will make— the giving of alms or working in a shelter or food bank — is sufficient either. Perhaps this is just another way to frame the kenosis, the emptying, we are called to. That whatever we do, we are always emptying ourselves out for the Gospel. Come, all who pass by, pay attention and see, for
All her people groan,
searching for bread;
They give their precious things for food,
to retain the breath of life. — Lamentations 1:11a

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Sacred space

Yesterday I went down to Georgetown, to give a talk for the annual Vatican Observatory Foundation seminar. Before the talks, we got a tour of the old Georgetown astronomical observatory, which might be the oldest observatories in the US still in its original location and with its vintage equipment. (The Mt. Holyoke telescope is from 1881 which predates this scope from 1888, but this building is older).

The astronomy department was closed in 1972, one of my colleagues at the Observatory, Rich Boyle, SJ, was one of the last Ph.D.'s from that program.

Both building and telescope are in need of work: the dome moves, but not 360o; the gears on the telescope mount are frozen (perhaps), so you can't change the angle of the scope; and the top of the stairwell, with no railing, is downright terrifying. But there is an active group of student astronomers who gather there, to see what can be seen past Washington DC's lights and to talk space and stars with each other. Given Crash Kid's experience at Georgetown working with the student theater group, I can see the same kind of enthusiasm in this group.

The observatory building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is surrounded by a conservation garden, replete with ponds and native flora and fauna, used by the biology department.

The photo to the left is of Br. Guy Consolmagno SJ, the current director of the Vatican Observatory. It looks to me like a set up for a 19th century painting (minus the camping chair!).

The evening went well, I enjoyed hearing Paul Mueller, SJ  talk about pastoral approaches to the perceived conflicts between science and religion, along with some background about the Catholic tradition vis a vis science. Both Paul and I quoted Thomas Aquinas. David Brown, SJ, talked about the collaboration between the Vatican Observatory and a group from Potsdam to get high resolution spectra of stars about which there may be planets. As he summed up his talk, "it's an exciting time to be an astronomer."