Thursday, October 21, 2021

It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world

 It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is a 1963 movie which I'm pretty sure I remember my parents going to see in the theater (I would have been in kindergarten). I've never seen the movie, but it's an apt title for tomorrow. I have class to teach, two meetings, and appointments with 5 students. My calendar is bleeding green (the color I use to denote work commitments.) If it were Vulcan, it would need Dr. M'Benga.

I front loaded stuff into Wednesday and today, and worked after dinner. I will need the Sabbath this weekend. Maybe I'll watch the movie. Or maybe I'll watch Dune?

Sunday, October 10, 2021

New Book: Prayer

It’s a book! I’m proud to announce that my latest has just launched from Liturgical Press

The book is designed to be used as a point of departure for reflection, either individually or in a group. I wrote it as a retreat, the questions for reflection in the margin mirroring my own reflections as I wrestled with the material.

In addition to the biblical wisdom, there is wisdom from the desert mothers and fathers (Amma Syncletica and Abba Poemen both have their moments and saints and blessed from Augustine to Ignatius of Loyola to Dorothy Day. I sought to pull in a diverse set of voices, women and men from many eras.

I have to thank my delightful editor, Amy Ekeh, whose deft surgery on my too-long manuscript managed to keep the structure intact and who was behind me all the way as we sought illustrations that would be in the budget, but still reflect the diversity of the People of God. Also, no blonde, blue-eyed Jesuses. My favorite image has to be the great doors to Sagrada Familia in Barcelona with the Our Father on them in 50 languages. 

I am grateful, too, to the spiritual directors and soul friends who have walked with me, literally and metaphorically, through the years. 

Autocorrect tried to replace Poemen with  Pokémon. The desert mystics, catch them all?

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Stripping the altar


That sunlit corner is my prayer space, now with a window onto the to heavens. As part of the Great House Renovation Project of 2021(TM), we got  a new roof. And if we were getting a new roof, this was the moment to put a new window in it. Now it needs painting (as do various other spots in the house). So yesterday I stripped the altar. The vase of blessed palms, the bowl of prayer cards, the candles — all were moved to the far corner of the room. And the relic of St. Therese of Lisieux and the roses I leave for her have translated to a small table in the window dormer.

Now that the altar is bare, I can see that it is dusty, the glass votives need cleaning and perhaps the overflowing bowl could use some pruning. I suspect the same could be said of my prayer life, which might benefit from a close look,  a brisk cleaning and a bit of pruning.

It's almost fall break on the college calendar, and my hope is this weekend to be able to put back the altar and perhaps bless the space anew. And then to spend a bit of time laying my prayer life bare.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Pedal pushers


I have a snazzy new bike, which runs on photons (it's electric "pedal assist" and we are solar powered at home, and I'm ultimately solar powered, too, all those plants soaking up photons to power their metabolism). I've commuted by bike when I can since my grad school days. On a mango ten-speed, uphill to the science building at UCI, eventually on a blue internal hub bike, uphill both ways (I have to cross a saddle point) to Bryn Mawr. Now with a supercharged ebike. Those uphills are a bit easier!

I'm a bike commuter going short distances and so I'm not interested in have to change in and out of bike gear for each trip. So a chain guard is key to my use of the bike. But "real" bikes aren't supposed to have them and unlike the last one, my new ride does not. 

Yesterday my (argh, new) pants got caught in the drive belt (no chain on this bike, actually), then wrapped themselves so tightly around the pedal mechanism I couldn't free myself or get my foot on the pedal or down to the ground. There I was, balanced like a stork on the side of the road, my foot slowly turning blue.  A passing dog walker and his energetic Doberman puppy stopped to help. We couldn't get me untangled. I called Math Man to bring me a pair of scissors to cut me free. In the meantime a woman from across the street came out to see if she could help. She brought scissors. Not sharp enough to cut the durable black linen, she went back for another pair.  This pair did the trick. "Now these are pedal pushers," she said, and we laughed. The dog walker was perplexed, we explained that in the 60s, pedal pushers were a style of pants. Ones that wouldn't get caught in your pedals.

I am so grateful for the calm help of these strangers. The world can be a good place.

Math Man appeared a couple of minutes later, bringing scissors and the ever helpful bike garters. And off I pedaled to work, no time yesterday to go home and change. I taught and met with colleagues and students in my torn pants. 

I've ordered gaiters to gather up my pants and queried the bike company about a guard, and ordered new pants, grateful that I'm uninjured (aside from my pride) and that none of this is a financial strain. When I was finishing my PhD I rode my bike down the ramp at the back  of the building after a rain storm. As I turned out into the parking lot, my bike slipped in an oil slick. I went down, slid across the pavement and ruined a brand new pair of soft pale yellow corduroy pants. And scraped up arm and knee pretty majorly. There was nothing in the budget to replace them with.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Young widows

9/11/2001. It was  such a beautiful day. Those clear, blue skies that cried autumn, with its new beginnings, an unimpeded line into the future. And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, there were so many young widows. 

In those first days after Tom died,  I remember my mother lamenting her inability to give me any advice to help with what I was going through. (I note my mother was steadfast and wonderful through it all.) She and her friends were still too young, none of them had lost spouses, let alone had children who had. I remember, too, her thought that in other eras, I might have been less alone in such grief. She grew up in the shadow of WW II, which rent young families in so many ways.

I remember walking near John Wayne airport that afternoon — I was stranded in California on a business trip — seeing the planes parked across the runways to block them, and thought of all the times I’d driven past there with Tom when we were at UCI. And thought of the shock that had overturned my life 14 years before. How I could not wrap my mind around what the cardiologist on call was trying to tell me, how desperate I was to have one more chance to tell Tom how much I loved him. How excruciating the wait to know for certain what was coming next. And the avalanche of decisions that would descend. And I thought of all those living rooms and kitchens and offices where this scene was playing again, not in the privacy of a dark hallway in a local hospital, but under the unrelenting glare of a national tragedy. And I prayed for them all.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Miscreant and mellifluous

I have some of those magnetic poetry words on the file sorter screwed to my wall. They have been there such a long time, I no longer recall why I pulled these specific words out of box. I love mellifluous words, odd words, obscure words, clever words. I've spent so much of the last year in my domicile, at this desk, worried that my words are banal, hoping they're salient or perhaps droll.

Why did I not notice until this morning that the word Kafkaesque is hovering just over the top of my monitor? Perhaps because in the midst of this Kafkaesque time I have spent too much time looking at the screen and not enough time staring at the walls. Or maybe it's because the kerning is so poor on this rendition, that my eye refuses to stay on it for any length of time.

As I move into the real writing I need to do this morning I'm hoping not to be opaque, or obscure, or obtuse. Just productive.

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Squid, skunks and Jesuits

I'm working on an essay for Nature Chemistry about weird pandemic cooking, prompted by my experiments with ikasumi (squid ink). The Boy and I modified my dad's recipe for seeded rolls to bake charcoal black versions. They looked burned, are black through and through and taste...just fine. 

And shades of the Food Babe, who was all about the beaver butt that definitely isn't in your vanilla ice cream. Squid ink (which doesn't come from squids, but from their relatives the cuttlefish) is basically melanin rich snot that the cuttlefish squirts out its behind. 

It's richly ironic that the chef Jamie Oliver went on Colbert and said there's beaver butt excretions (i.e. castoreum) in vanilla ice cream (again there's not) but who has recipes for black ink pasta on his web site. Are you really going to eat something with squid snot in it?  Castoreum has always been expensive and rare -  in Roman times you had to be careful not to buy counterfeit castoreum. 

Fun fact of the day, one of the smellier components of skunk spray is an approved food flavoring in both the US and the EU. Vile at high concentrations, at low concentrations it tastes and smells of onion and garlic. 

Also - a 17th century Jesuit wrote home after an encounter with a couple of skunks that he thought he knew what Catherine of Siena's stench of sin might smell like.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Beach tunes

We’re down the shore for a few days. The weather has been great and I’ve spent hours and hours on the beach and in the water. Beach space is so tight they have all sorts of regulations about umbrella size and shape and sun shelters and playing games and throwing things… but there’s no regulation on music. Lots of people have brought small speakers and are playing their beach lists. Lots of families with young kids, so the music has leaned to classic rock and pop. It was a bit of the sound track of my California teen-aged beach days, where it was radios playing up and down the beach. 

Yesterday a group of young adults set up camp next to me and brought out their tunes. Some K-pop and Spanish rock and then rap with lyrics that might not be appropriate for the younger set digging nearby. Suddenly they switched to Fleetwood Mac. What?? Then their playlist leaned way into the 60s and 70s. The lady who’d laboriously crossed the sand with her cane leaned over to say, “I’m really enjoying the music.” To which the young woman running the show replied, “I looked around and curated the music to the demographic.” “Can you play some Queen?” asked one of her companions. She could and did.

Sunday, July 11, 2021


“Upended” might have been a understated description of 2020, but it captured my last week pretty well, too. On Monday, it was a iconic summer day — breezy, sunny and not too warm. I spent the morning working on the patio outside. At noon I took my lunch out on a tray, reluctant to waste a moment of this day inside. As I stood up to go inside, I lost my balance, knocked the table, and sent my plate and iPad crashing to the slate. I caught the $3.99 IKEA plate before it hit the ground. I did not catch my iPad. I now have a new iPad.

Tuesday I managed to upend things again. I had a stack of books at the back of my table in my office, lined up to read for the current writing project. There were no bookends holding them up because I didn’t have any bookends. My shelves are always stuffed full, who needs bookends? There were fresh flowers on my desk, too. I felt and competent. My desk was clear, working space well organized, writing underway…and flowers! I reached for a book, the whole set tipped over, hitting the vase which then tipped a liter of water over my desk and the open book and notes on it. I now have bookends. 

Neither of these events are by any measure catastrophes. My life — and those of many others — have been upended in far worse ways. But these little reminders how quick things can turn from serene to chaotic have kept me grounded in the present, eyes open for joys in the here and now. Like another beautiful summer day to write on the patio. I’d rather view this week as bookended by joy than by grief. 

Monday, July 05, 2021

Whales, Atoms, Psalms and Star Trek


“Never and always touching and touched.” This line from “Amok Time” kept surfacing as I read Peter Wayne Moe’s Touching This Leviathan. (I bet you thought this would be about Star Trek IV.) Leviathan is a composition in the literal sense, deliberately placing psalms next to essays on sentences, side-by-side with reports of 19th century whaling vessels against lines pulled from cetacean necropsies. And of course, Moby Dick. 

There is more here than we can grasp, says Moe. We can pace a whale’s length out on the ground, embodying the knowledge of its vastness. But we can stand underneath their skeletons and not be able to see them for what they are. We get only glimpses of them in their natural habitat; it is the rare human who has seen them alive and entire soaring through the sea. 

It’s like the psalms for me, in my body after all these years, in my body from the very beginning. Andre Chouraqui — “We were born with this book in our very bones." Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  "The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all its strength." 

I catch glimpses of the Divine as I pray the psalms, but like the whales surfacing, what I see does not convey the whole. Sometimes all I see is a brief mist on the horizon and I wonder if that was a spout and if I should steer in that direction. And every once in a great while, the Transcendent breaches, water sheeting from its sides, shimmering in the light, suspended for a moment against the sky, until all its torrents and waves crash over me. Always and never, touching and touched. 

I suspect atoms for me are a bit like whales. I’ve never picked up a single atom in my hands, handled it like a marble, yet my hands are always touching atoms, on this keyboard, the nitrogen in the air battering at my hands, thousands upon thousands of unnoticed touches every second. I am wrapped in atoms, I am atoms. Always and never, touching and touched.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Portal Math

Last week I read a poignant short story by Aimee Picchi (Advanced Word Problems in Portal Math) which had me feeling all sorts of feelings about doing math at different points in my life and how the people around me reacted to it. Coincidentally my sister found some of my elementary school report cards in boxes she’s been going through. These days, I note, I’m surrounded by women who enjoy math!

Still, I wonder what my path might have been like if I’d been more (or for that matter, less) supported in my mathematical explorations in high school? Which portals would have opened for me? Which would have closed?

Picchi offers three endings to her story. In that spirit I offer two alternate trains of thought.

The portal in MY refrigerator is not functioning as expected. When I open the freezer door and reach into the ice bin, it has apparently connected to a tropical island rather than the arctic facility it has reliably opened to in the past. No ice appears no matter how I wave my hands. Penny, can you help? 

I also read a thread on Twitter by a #tradwife. TA;DR (too awful, don’t read — advice I should have heeded): women aren’t really meant to do math or science. I’m still trying to wrap my head around a theology that holds that God created women capable of doing, say, quantum physics (to pick a random example), but they shouldn’t actually do it, and if they do, they certainly won’t be happy. They would be 100% happier cleaning house and forgetting all that nonsense. Seriously. Quantum mechanics is apparently objectively evil when done by women. Or is it original sin? A temptation to be resisted by women. I just can’t find a coherent theology here.

Friday, July 02, 2021


I keep getting these emails asking me if I want sign up for training about pivot tables in Excel. No need, thank you (not in the least because I don't use Excel unless forced to it). Why is no one offering me training on how to pivot to summer, or how to pivot to a post-pandemic semester, or from long writing projects (a book) to short pieces (500 words!) and back again? While they are at it, the parish is pivoting from one pastor to another, and I would take some advice there, too. Pivoting is pretty pivotal, professional and personally.

The Rockettes have advice on the pirouette, if not the pivot.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

A flying visit

The last time I got on an airplane was February 2019, when I caught the last flight ahead of an impending ice storm in North Carolina. The airport was eerily empty, most of the flights had been cancelled the night before. The COVID-19 virus was already here, which I’d thought about on the flight from Philly, which included several scientists returning from a trip to China. 

Last Tuesday, I drove to PHL at 5 am to catch a flight to San Jose, then drove 150-ish miles south to my brother’s house. Surprise! I hadn’t told anyone I was coming. My sister was retiring after 21 years at her second career as a high school teacher and I hadn’t seen my sibs in more than 2 years. I thought it would be fun to just show up unannounced at her retirement party. I did and it was. 

My sister-in-law found a bed for me to sleep in (shout out to their amazing AirBnB), one brother flew (himself - he's a pilot) up from SoCal. It was grace and joy from one end to the other.

Over the course of forty-eight hours I shared five meals with (variously) four of my five sibs, three sisters-in-law, one brother-in-law, two nieces and a nephew. I ate In-N-Out burger, sushi, Joe's diner (twice), but the real feast was the time with family. 

Now I'm back, settling into the summer writing rhythm. 

I fly home, settling back into myself — Rainer Maria Rilke

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

But what about Galileo?

The Vatican Observatory foundation has a newly redesigned website. There is an ever growing set of resources on the intersection of science and faith (including a ton on the whole Galileo affair), and NPR did an interview did an interview with Guy Consolmagno SJ about it, which included a description of a drive through the gardens at Castelgandolfo and a shout out to the papal cows. I have enjoyed yogurt from those cows’ milk! I caught the last lines of the interview in the car, fun to unexpectedly hear a friend’s voice coming out of the speakers.

Predictably, NPR’s tweet about the piece attracted a number of people saying, “But what about Galileo?”  Which led me to have an exchange of the following sort:

Troll: Galileo. Therefore the Church has always ignored and denigrated scientists.

Me: Aquinas. No.

Troll: One counterexample is not enough.

Me: (List of five Catholic scientists and mathematicians, mostly women.)

Troll: That’s not enough either.

Me: I recorded a 12 part audio series covering a 1000 years of Catholic science. Mostly the Church is an enthusiastic supporter of science and scientists, Galileo notwithstanding.  

Troll: “A completely unverifiable claim based on conjecture and blind faith in the righteousness of your own position…’


I did wonder what claim he thought was unverifiable. That I’d recorded the series? That you can’t take an inventory of Catholic scientists and see how many have had their science suppressed by the Catholic Church? I don’t merely have a conjecture, I have a spreadsheet of data. Also, an audio series

Want to know more about the Galileo affair? The Observatory has a two part series here.

The Thomas Aquinas quote: “The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule…if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.” 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Overcome with Paschal Joy

It’s in the Easter season prefaces to the Eucharistic prayer, “Therefore, overcome with paschal joy, every land, every people exults in your praise and even the heavenly Powers…sing together…”

Every time I hear that line I wonder, am I overcome with paschal joy? Are we, here in this church, gathered around this altar overcome with paschal job? What does overcome with paschal joy look like anyway?

Joy is perhaps not the word I would have chosen to characterize this particular spring, shadowed as it was by the pandemic and by familial tragedy. Yet. Still. There it is, a stark declaration, not as a hope, not as something promised to some at some time to come. Here and now, the preface promises, every place and every person, are overcome with paschal joy. So sing.

Novelist Léon Bloy wrote in a letter to his fiancée that joy was the surest sign of the presence of God. (No, that was not Teilhard de Chardin.) Be on the look out for joy, there you are likely to find God. I wonder if it is the opposite that I need at this moment, to first seek out God and perhaps then joy will erupt. Perhaps to be overcome with Paschal joy is to be overcome by God.

There are a profusion of buds on the rose bushes under my back windows. But on this Pentecost day, just a single red bloom. I came out here to pray, to submerge myself in God, and there it is. A single blossom of hope. I’m overcome.


Photo is of my mother's roses.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Feminine or masculine genius

Necessary emphasis should be placed on the "genius of women," not only by considering great and famous women of the past or present, but also those ordinary women who reveal the gift of their womanhood by placing themselves at the service of others in their everyday lives. For in giving themselves to others each day women fulfil their deepest vocation. Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them. In this way the basic plan of the Creator takes flesh in the history of humanity and there is constantly revealed, in the variety of vocations, that beauty not merely physical, but above all spiritual — which God bestowed from the very beginning on all, and in a particular way on women. —John Paul II Letter to Women 29 June 1995

There was a recent editorial in Our Sunday Visitor wondering about whether "masculine genius" was a thing. I read it and wondered briefly if the real masculine genius is convincing (at least some) women that they are fundamentally created by God to be servants, to do the work of seeing and accommodating the emotional and material needs of others before anything else. That the default assignment of emotional labor to women is not cultural, but ontological, and therefore unavoidable. Men might be able to do these things, but it is women's "deepest vocation." Women are thus created to enable men to do...what precisely? What are men's deepest vocations, if not service?

I remain convinced that service is fundamentally what we are called to do as Christians, not by virtue of gender, but by common vocation. We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, accompany the sick and those in prison. We are called to kneel at each other's feet and wash away the dust of the day.  Should men not see each person as they are, acknowledge the human dignity of each person they encounter? Should men not be able to perceive the strengths and limitations of others? Ought they not be oriented toward service? To serve is not a particular genius, but a universal call realized in particular ways by particular people.

My particular genius is quantum mechanics, work which has aided in the development of drugs for cancer, hypertension and AIDS. It is not to keep the family calendar, or arrange flowers for the altar. The first is a skill that can be mastered by any competent adult, the second perhaps requires a sense of color and proportion and of the sacred, which a quick gander through the works of "the great masters" suggests is not limited to women. 

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Eat Sleep Sit


It arrived in the mail last week, an envelope with a single used book, carefully wrapped in brown paper, inside. Eat Sleep Sit, Kaoru Nonomura's account of a year of training at the Zen monastery Eiheiji. I had ordered a used copy weeks ago, though I could have gotten the electronic version in an instant.

I'm glad I waited, the physical book is beautifully bound, it lies open in my lap without the need to hold it. Printed in Japan in 2009, the typesetting is plain and spacious. It is a joy to read. Why are hardbacks so often glued rather than sewn? I know, money. But this is such a small and delightful luxury.

The book itself is reminding me of Nancy Maguire’s Infinity of Little Hours, which follows Carthusian novices through their first years and early training. 

Photo is of monk Thomas Yūhō Kirchner, in the old training hall at Tenryu-ji, in Kyoto. I visited with a class in 2016.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Faithfully footnoted


Summer is closing in once again. Paradoxically, summer for me is the time that feels more closed-in than the bitter cold winter months. As the trees around my house in the neighborhood grow flush with leaves, I can no  longer see more than the house next door peeping past the young oak and magnolia. The setting sun that blinded me in February barely limns the leaves come the end of the day. The bustle of students and colleagues who fill my days at the college is traded for time in my study at home or to sit on the back patio and read and write and think and rest, enfolded within the green canopy that encloses the house and the neighborhood. 

Last summer I was writing a book about prayer, struggling with the notion that I might have anything of value to say about prayer. I'm neither Teresa of Avila nor Abba Joseph of the desert — all flame. But I took heart from a wise friend who suggested that it wasn't so much my competence that mattered here (for who can be competent in God), there could be someone more competent (who is this generation's Teresa?) but my willingness to show up and do the work did matter. 

I showed up and did the work and yesterday got the final proofs. It's a short book, some 10,000 words or so, framed as a meditation on three scriptural passages: Psalm 63, Paul's exhortation to the Thessalonians to pray always and Luke's account of the Our Father.  I tried to pull in a rich set of voices, to make up all I lack in expertise and authority, including Amma Syncletica's tart advice as well as the reflections of modern scholars such as André Chouraqui. The Spiritual Exercises get some space, as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church (which has some beautiful things to say about prayer even if you aren't Catholic.) And I do not fail to quote both St. Augustine as well as St. Ignatius of Loyola. There are pictures —of sere deserts and the incredible Sagrada Familia.

And it's all faithfully footnoted, a map of sorts to a pilgrimage through the practice of Christian prayer. I even provide the correct reference to the quote oft (and incorrectly) attributed to Teilhard de Chardin SJ: "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God." You can find it in Léon Bloy's letters to his fiancée  (Léon Bloy and Barbara Wald, trans. Letters to His Fiancée, Sheed & Ward, 1937, p 57.)


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Rose are red, these flowers are not

In the last couple of weeks I have celebrated a birthday, I am currently in my 1,000,0002 turn around the sun and according to my youngest son, not old at all, “You are so spry!” 

Math Man cooked me an amazing steak dinner (he’s been learning to cook) and gave me a beautiful bunch of red roses. I had to chair the parish council meeting right after dinner, so left the roses on the table in their florist’s wrapping to put into a vase later.

Post parish council meeting, I came downstairs, picked up the flowers, walked into the kitchen, looked down and with a start realized the flowers I held were assorted tones of violet. But I was so certain that I’d been given red roses?!? (This is a sentence that cries out for an interrobang.) I looked again, no sign of roses, just the paper wrapped violet bouquet. Math Man was in his own meeting, so I wasn’t going to get an answer there. 

[a hour later]

When I confessed my confusion to Math Man,  he ducked into his study and came back with the bunch of red roses he swapped for the violet ones. April fool! I laughed so hard, and needed that laughter so much.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Sorrowing in a season of joy

Though eagerly gathered to hear the miraculous news that was being reported, the disciples were nevertheless terrified when that good news appeared in front of them in all-too-real flesh. What seemed conceivable at one remove —  perhaps it had been a ghost on the road to Emmaus —  was suddenly, shatteringly, staggeringly present. 

I can sympathize with the disciples' confusion, having once spent an Easter morning surrounded by families celebrating in their Easter finery only to spend that same Easter afternoon at a funeral home greeting black-clad mourners at my husband’s wake.  I struggled then to hear Christ’s “Peace be with you,” over the clamor of grief.  I struggled to reconcile joy and sorrow, certainty and uncertainty. I struggle again this Easter,  in the wake of my nephew's murder, to experience Easter as unalloyed joy.

In his book, Into the Silent Land, Martin Laird, OSA, points out that when we go in search of peace in prayer, we often find what feels like chaos. But, he says, it is precisely in this meeting of confusion and peace that healing happens. Not by erasing our pain, but by opening a path for grace. The resurrection did not erase the pain of Christ’s passion, nor does it take away our own travails, as this reflection on Mary's experience captures so evocatively here. Even as I grapple with the paradox of that long ago Easter morning, it exposes as yet unhealed wounds. 

I find in this gospel a space where those of us who are rubbed raw by sorrow in the midst of joy, who are simultaneously mourning and rejoicing, can reach for healing. Stretch out your hands to me, says Jesus, touch my wounds and find a glimmer of peace. For I am here with you, wounded and yet whole, to the end of time.

This is a version of a reflection from Rejoice and Be Glad, Liturgical Press, 2019.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

First and afire: Mary of Magdala


“…go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17b)

St. Augustine called Mary Magdalene "the apostle to the apostles" because she was sent from the garden to tell the apostles the good news. Magdala means tower in Aramaic and I find the image of Mary the Tower as a complement to Peter the Rock a potent one. The Church may be built on the rock of Peter, but Mary of Magdala ignited it with these words, "I have seen the Lord.” 

Every time I hear this Gospel I wonder what happened to Mary Magdalene next.  Medieval legends say she retreated to pray in a cave in France, where she was fed by angels.  The Orthodox Christian tradition places her with Mary, the Mother of God, in Ephesus. 

“Go” Jesus told Mary Magdalene in the garden. I doubt Jesus meant for her to take a walk and deliver his message to the disciples, and then vanish.  Poreuou, the Greek word translated in today’s Gospel as “go,” carries the sense of heading out on a journey. Its ultimate root is “pierced through.”  It is a call to re-order your life’s direction, to push a message out into the world despite barriers and with a piercing clarity. Go out, Jesus demands of Mary Magdalene, I want you to proclaim again and again, “I have seen the risen Lord.” 

So I doubt Mary Magdalene stopped proclaiming the Good News when the disciples laughed at what they thought nonsense, to quietly retire to a cave or a small house in Ephesus. I imagine her so aflame with the Gospel that wherever she went and whoever she met she could not help but deliver the message for all ages to come, “I have seen the risen Lord.”  And I cannot imagine that Christ expects me to do anything less. 

From Rejoice and Be Glad, Liturgical Press, 2019. Painting is Rembrandt, Christ and St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

The work of Easter

Like the women in the Gospel this morning, Mary of Magdala and Salome, I rose early this morning. As they undoubtedly were, I was wrapped in a shawl against the cold, all of us off to seek the Lord. There was no music, no alleluias at the first Mass of the morning. No Easter sequence. Just the Paschal candle burning hard and bright next to the ambo, a reminder of the mysteries celebrated here last night. I prayed. I listened for the Lord. I received, that I might become...if not whole, at least less fractured.

Then I went home and cleaned the kitchen and made sweet spice bread for breakfast. As I scrubbed last night’s sheet pans, I wondered if this really was how I should be celebrating Easter, clad in a well-worn apron and wielding a soapy sponge. Or perhaps this is precisely how Jesus imagined the celebration as he knelt on the floor, a towel around his waist, washing feet. Women, up early to do the work of feeding the hungry and tending to the needs of the living and the dead. Women with the courage to stay in the face of unspeakable pain, and a scandalous death. Women with the courage to profess what they had seen, in the face of mockery and derision.

I didn’t hear about these women in this morning’s homily, though I wished I had. I hear them now, though, wondering how they would roll the stone back so they could care for the Body of Christ. I’m wondering much the same thing.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Deep waters

Save me, O God, for the waters 
have risen to my neck.
I have sunk into the mud of the deep,
where there is no foothold.
I have entered the waters of the deep,
where the flood overwhelms me.

I am wearied with crying aloud;
my throat is parched.
My eyes are wasted away
with waiting for my God. — Psalm 69:2-4

Holy Saturday. We have waded into the depths, we are overwhelmed. I remember that awful liminal time between talking to the surgeon, and hearing that Tom had died, and finally seeing his body, and truly knowing that he was gone. I was exhausted from the long hours of waiting while he was in surgery, from the sleepless night, from keeping vigil. Exhausting from calling out to God. 

I’m once again facing an Easter exhausted by grief, though I suspect I am not alone. We are all exhausted from the pandemic.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

A body of grief

What follows is about grief, death and violence, suicide. 

Once again I was in a meeting, this time tucked up in my study under the eaves. It is once again Holy Week, once again the evening before Holy Thursday. And once again, someone crooked their finger at me and said come. And just like that, standing in a doorway, the world exploded. 

My brother-in-law was on the phone. My husband choked out that my nephew had been killed, murdered by an intruder, who then killed himself. Then he collapsed into sobs. 

I am surprised by how quickly my body remembers how to grieve. My stomach roils, my appetite vanishes in a blink. I shiver with shock. 

In his poem, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” John Updike claims that “ if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle” we — the church — have nothing to stand on. But equally the passion must have been held in the body, the pain not kept at arms length, the thirst for air and the failing grasp at consciousness not metaphor, not sidestepped, but a cup to be drunk to the bitter dregs. 

These mysteries we stand at the edge of, for all their transcendence, for all that we cloak them in light and shimmering music and solemn words, ought to find their way into our bodies. We should ache and shiver and weep with a mother who has lost her son. And pray with all our being that the light will overcome the darkness.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

To be all flame

I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6b)

One of my favorite stories from the fifteen hundred year-old collection of wisdom from the desert fathers and mothers is of Abba Lot and Abba Joseph of Panephysis. One day Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph for advice. “I fast, I pray, I live in peace,” he said, “What else should I do?” Abba Joseph lifted his hand to heaven. Flames danced at his fingertips and he turned to Abba Lot and said, “If you wish, you can become all flame.”

We have fasted and prayed and given alms this Lent. What more is expected of us? We hear in Isaiah that we are to be a light to the nations, a light visible to the ends of the earth. All flame, if we wish, says Abba Joseph. But how? Writing on the psalms, St. Augustine points out that our light does not come from ourselves, it is the Lord who sets our lamps alight. Lift up your hands to heaven and pray to be alight, to be all flame.

To pray to be light is risky. We are not asking for a light to see by, for something to hold up that we might illuminate our failings or to show us the safe path — as perilous as those prayers might be. We are asking to be light that others can see by, to be set on fire by the Lord, and what is set aflame is utterly transformed. Christ dares me to lay aside my own desires and let him light my lamp, remaking me in ways I cannot imagine. If I wish, I could become all flame. But do I wish?

Cartoon from Radio Free Babylon. From Not By Bread Alone, Liturgical Press, 2018.

Monday, March 29, 2021

The Weight of Glory

Almost one in four families in the US did not always have enough to eat last year. The UN thinks that those struggling with hunger will double across the world thanks (no thanks?) to the pandemic. I think about it each time I grocery shop, as staples for the food cupboard are standard on my list, a tithe of my grocery cart for the hungry:  5 pounds of rice, tuna fish, cereal, coffee, jam.  When I pack up the bag each week to take to church I sometimes hear the dinner guests in Bethany murmuring in my ear, seventy-five thousand hungry people — do you honestly think what you are doing makes any difference?

We are engulfed by the Passion in Holy Week. It seems such a long way from Ash Wednesday, when the ground was hard and cold and the branches stuck out like bones.  Against that stark backdrop, the call to justice sounded clearly, but now that the trees are misted green with new leaves, it gets harder to imagine that people around me are still cold and hungry.  In the glory and the chaos of Holy Week it’s easy to let the every day work of the Gospel become submerged.  

But listen, I hear this gospel say to me, don’t let the enormity of what is happening overtake you, pay attention to the people on the edges of the action. Watch the disciples in the garden and the women at the cross, called to companion and witness.  Hear the centurion, driven to cry aloud a newfound faith.  Feel the weight of the body of Christ, like Simon the Cyrene and Joseph of Arimathea.  None of these acts would be enough to save Jesus, but all of them made a difference — then and now. 

I wonder what happened to Simon the Cyrene and to Salome.  The Gospels are silent, but somehow I suspect that whatever they went home to, it was never quite ordinary again. What will happen when this week is over? Will I return to the ordinary — or what passes for ordinary these days — dropping the faded lilies on the compost heap on the way out? Or will I be willing to bear the weight of glory?

This is an edited version of a reflection from Not By Bread Alone, Liturgical Press, 2018. Photo is of the door to the Passion facade at Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Midwives for the Holy Spirit

...for each of us is the midwife of God...

I find this line from Daniel Ladinsky’s poem If You Wish, which riffs on lines from St. John of the Cross, regularly surfaces in my prayer. It reminds me we are entrusted not only with bearing God within, but with bringing God to birth in each other, bound to supporting each other's prayer.

For Lent I am following Mary Forman OSB’s Praying with the Desert Mothers. Even the cover draws me deep into the stillness. Each chapter begins with a scripture passage and a prayer, then follows on with a reflection that draws on the writings of the desert mothers and their contemporaries. My academic heart delights in the copious footnotes that accompany each chapter. They are like deep wells, ready for me to draw from if I thirst for more. For now, what is here is enough.

Now with you is Wisdom, who knows your works
and was present when you made the world;
Who understands what is pleasing in your eyes
and what is conformable with your commands.
Send her forth from your holy heavens
and from your glorious throne dispatch her
That she may be with me and work with me,
that I may know what is pleasing to you.
— Wisdom 9:9-10

Friday, March 05, 2021

Dreaming of God


“When his brothers saw that their father loved him best of all his brothers, they hated him so much that they could not say a kind word to him.” Gn 37:4

As one of a large, talkative family, I wonder what it felt like for Joseph, to be so isolated from all his brothers, who had not a kind word for him, or perhaps any words at all.  And yet when his father asked, Joseph went the full distance and more to check on the well-being of a group of men who wouldn’t give him the time of day. 

My ear is usually caught in this reading by the mention of the 20 pieces of silver, the betrayal that prefigures Judas and Christ.  I wonder if subconsciously I’m eager to get to Easter, to fast forward to the story where I know there is a happy ending.  Yet the brothers’ betrayal didn’t start with throwing Joseph into the cistern, it began when the brothers — all of them — stopped saying hello to Joseph.  

I suspect that like the brothers, there are more than a few moments every day where I haven’t a word for God.  Praying first thing in the morning? “Are we out of milk?” calls my husband from the shower.  At midday?  There’s a desperate student knocking on my door.  Surely I can find a moment at the end of the day?  “Forgot, I have a meeting tonight, can you start dinner now?”  

I don’t set out to push God out of my daily life, it’s a gradual thing. It’s not malicious, it’s merely the clamor of my daily life. Joseph’s story reminds me that even when the urgent, and not-so-urgent, daily demands lead me to push off my time with God, God still finds his way in. Perhaps Joseph is not the only one whose dreams are God-sent. 

— Excerpted from Not By Bread Alone (2018), Michelle M. Francl-Donnay

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Salt and ashes

The images the prophet Jeremiah uses in today's readings are harsh: bushes that bear no fruit, lava wastes, fields sown with salt.  They feel all the more so to me after hiking through lava fields a few years ago, blackened, fissured swaths of land scoured clean of life winding through lush grasslands.  With no soil to hold the rocky surface in place, the gravel rolled under my feet, leaving me off balance, unstable, at risk.  The ground had been cooling since before I was born, yet I still burned my hand on steam roiling out a crack in the earth. Sulfurous mist swirled around the crater, eating away at skin and lungs.  I longed to dive into a pool of cool water.

I have tasted salt and ashes in my life, too, stumbling when I encounter uncertain ground, looking for life and breath in places where there was none. I have committed sins that created seemingly uncrossable fissures between me and those I love. Between me and God.  

Like the rich man in Luke's gospel, who begged Abraham for drop of water from Lazarus’ hand, I long for the cool sweetness of consolation.  Just a drop of holy water from a saint’s hand and all will be well, I think. But as a single torrential rain storm will not bring life back to the lava waste, neither is one drop enough to restore my soul, even from the hand of a saint.

Tolle lege, a voice called to St. Augustine in the garden one afternoon: take and read. “You have Moses and the prophets,” I hear Abraham say.  Meditate on God’s law day and night, urges the psalmist.  Let these streams of running water wear away the roughness of your stony heart.  Root yourself deeply in the rich soil of the prophets. The readings encourage me to pick up the Scriptures: Take and read! Read to go beyond what is presented to me at Mass, and read to actively seek out the Word.  Find ways to let scripture’s cool comfort wash over me day and night.

— Excerpted from Not By Bread Alone (2020), Michelle M. Francl-Donnay

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Wearing grace

"...we will always be tempted again to take fright and flee back into what is familiar and near to us: in fact, we will often have to and will often be allowed to do this. But we should gradually try to get ourselves used to the taste of the pure wine. of the spirit, which is filled with the Holy Spirit. We should do this at least to the extent of not refusing the chalice when His directing providence offers it to us.

The chalice of the Holy Spirit is identical in this life with the chalice of Christ. This chalice is drunk only by those who have slowly learned in little ways to taste the fullness in emptiness, the ascent in the fall, life in death, the finding in renunciation." Karl Rahner, SJ in "The Experience of Grace"

Jesus' question to the disciples in today's Gospel — "Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” — led me to pull my tattered copy of Karl Rahner, S.J.’s beautiful essay “The Experience of Grace” off my shelf. In it, Rahner speaks of the chalice that is offered to each of us, the wine within tasting of Christ’s sacrifice, his emptying out. We might not always be able to drink from this cup, Rahner says, perhaps the best we can do at a given moment is not to push the cup away, but watch and wait. To trust in God’s slow work. To let grace wear away the rough edges.

I am moved by Rahner’s tacit assumption that we all have had moments when we have drunk from the chalice of grace. We might, he says, occasionally sift through our own experiences. Look for the moments when we’ve said yes to renunciation, yes to rising in the face of death and destruction, yes to pouring ourselves out. For the times when some impulse beyond ourselves has driven us to sacrifice, or when sacrifice has brought us no sense of achievement, no pride. We ought to search not so we know how far we’ve come in our spiritual journey, but that we might grasp how far we have to go. 

I’ve read Rahner’s essay so often it has become detached from the book. When I open it pages of grace drift to the floor.  Notice, it seems to say, the lived experience of grace.  Detached. Scattered. Pulled from what has kept it bound, so that others might read it: in our faces and in our actions.  

(Based on a reflection in Not By Bread Alone, 2018.)

Sunday, February 21, 2021


“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15

The images in today’s readings are arresting — devastating floods and burning deserts replete with wild beasts.  And out of it all, Mark shows us in today’s gospel Jesus striding forth, proclaiming: “Reform your lives! Believe in the Good News!”  The readings speak of pledges and covenants, of new life and a new kingdom.  “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand!” cries Jesus.

Today I hear Lent’s clarion call: reform your life: today I find strength in Jesus’ bold proclamation: the time has come, the kingdom of God is upon us. But will I go to my office tomorrow, without once thinking what might come to pass?  The reign of God is at hand, surely, but come morning I’m likely to be caught up in a flood of papers to be marked and the roaring needs of cranky colleagues and desperate students. 

The Rev. Fred Rogers, who hosted a gentle TV show for children, advised parents trying to explain frightening events to their children to “look for the helpers,” that in times of trouble, someone always finds the strength to help. As Lent begins in earnest Jesus reminds me to cling to the Good News, to believe that the Kingdom of God is breaking through, even in my office, and to look around me for the signs.  

There are signs of the Kingdom everywhere.  The cross atop the church, stark against the sky, like a bow set in the clouds. God is here. The helpers, those who willing walk into deserts and brave roiling waters, and those who tidy my classroom each morning so that I might teach and my students learn.  

The kingdom of God is within reach, Jesus tells us.  Believe in the Good News, and be on the watch for the signs of the reign of God breaking through.

— Excerpt from Not By Bread Alone (2018), © Michelle M. Francl-Donnay

Call a fast

“This, rather, is the fasting I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke…Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry…” Isa 58:6a,7a

I’m now of an age where I am no longer bound to the Lenten fast, which I ruefully confess is a relief. It had become more and more of a struggle over the last few years and what was once a minor irritation, a useful chafe on my conscience, took on an outsized importance. I’ve traded the fast for other disciplines that remind to think of those for whom hunger is not a choice, of those who are bound to yokes that exhaust them. 

But it has me wondering if I should have given up on the traditional fast with such alacrity. When should a discipline be discarded? When it is too hard? I talk to students about the “zone of proximal development,” when an assignment is tough enough to leave them feeling delighted with their ability to master it, but not so difficult that all they are is frustrated. And fasting certainly pushed me out of my zone. 

This unsparing reading from Isaiah suggests that the Lenten fasting we are called to isn’t really a discipline at all, it’s not meant to teach me something, it’s meant to accomplish something. I’m meant to turn away from sin, turn away from my own needs and see to the needs of my sisters and brothers. So, how have I fasted today?

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Take up your cross

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23b)

I regularly take up a cross.  As an altar server, as often as not I carry the cross in procession. I stand at the end of the main aisle, holding a cross that is taller than I am by half and weighty enough to feel it in my shoulders as I raise it up so that it can be seen above the heads of the assembly. And as I lead the procession down the aisle I cannot help but think about the less literal crosses that I will have to lift in my life. Will they make my shoulders ache, will I be able to balance them as I walk, where must I take them?  

My eyes go to the enormous painting of Christ crucified that hangs above the century-old marble altar in my parish church. Each time I hold the cross aloft I am brought face-to-face with Christ’s suffering, face-to-face with Christ in the tabernacle, face-to-face with Christ in the People of God assembled here. I walk without a hymnal, so the only words I have to take along for this journey are what are already in my heart and head. I will surely falter on the second verse. Clothed in white, a reminder of my baptismal garment, hands and face raised up, I walk. I walk toward God made flesh, toward boundless mercy.  Will this be what my last walk be like, from this life into the next? Stripped of words and pretenses, face-to-face with God and surrounded by those who have gone before me — praying not to falter? 

Take up your cross, says Christ, and follow me, for this is the road to eternal life and I will not let you fall.

— Excerpted from Not By Bread Alone (2020), Michelle M. Francl-Donnay

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A time to notice

There is a beauty as well as a wildness to Lent’s path. In a reading from Isaiah at the Easter Vigil we hear God tell Israel, “I lay your pavements in carnelians, and your foundations in sapphires.” The readings marking our way along the days of the Lenten season are indeed like gemstones. Join me in walking the path this Lent.

“ Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them.” Matt 6:1a

“Why?” asks Jesus in the gospel. Why do you pray, fast, give alms? To be noticed? To be applauded? To be witness? Or to become? To become the face of Christ to your neighbor.

Lent is a time of noticing, rather than being noticed. To stand back, sit down, empty out, and notice why and how I pray, where I am needed, who I should be.

Lent calls us beyond the giving up of small luxuries, or even necessities, but through that emptying of ourselves and that carrying of others, to become Christ. “Where is their God?” cried those who saw Israel’s travails in the first reading. God is among us, in our neighbors, in our hearts. Would that you could read that on my face every day. 

— Based on reflections from Not By Bread Alone (2018), Michelle M. Francl-Donnay

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Sowing light

Lent sends me searching for light in the scriptures, in my prayer, and in my sisters and brothers. For light is how God broke into the world in the first place. Let there be light, he said.  He offered the life of his Son to be the light of the human race. A light to shine in the darkness, a light the darkness cannot overcome. Light is what heralded the resurrection, an angel whose arrival shook the earth, shining as bright as lightning in the dimness of a garden at dawn. 

I pray in Lent for God’s light to break into my life, to light the path forward. But Lent’s light is more than what we receive. It’s about who we are, and what we should be about. In his poem, “Sowing Light,” Alden Solovy turns a line from Psalm 97 — Light is sown for the just. [Ps 97:11] — back on itself. Light is what the just must sow, in healing, in blessing, in love, prays Solovy. This is the light we are given. This is the light we must sow. This light, we will hear in the Easter Exsultet, will never be dimmed in the sharing.

This Lent, let us long for light: For the light sown in us, for the light sown by us, for the Light sown for us, for a light that will set us aflame. Let us long to be light itself.

— Excerpted from Not By Bread Alone (2020), Michelle M. Francl-Donnay

I will post daily reflections from Ash Wednesday through the Triduum. Some new, some previously written for Liturgical Press and The Catholic Standard and Times.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Of celery and prophets in the temple of the ordinary

I wrote the opening essay for this month's Give Us This Day.  I riff off the story of Anna the prophetess who appears in today's Gospel for the Feast of the Presentation. We hear that Anna prays day and night in the temple precincts but not a single word of hers is recorded. She stands as a saint of the Ordinary, her prayers beating out the rhythm of her days.

"As extraordinary as it is to be drawn into a relationship with the immanent and transcendent Triune God, prayer is meant to be an ordinary part of our lives. Like the making of dinner and doing the dishes, it is what sustains us. In his short book The Need and the Blessing of Prayer, theologian Karl Rahner, SJ, advises, 'Pray in the everyday; pray the everyday.'"

The whole essay is posted at the Liturgical Press blog if you want to read the rest.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Taking flight


As a conversation starter recently someone asked when we had taken our first airplane flight. It was 1966, I was 6 years old and headed to my uncle's wedding on Long Island. My mother and I and my baby brother (number 5 in the family order) flew from O'Hare in Chicago to JFK — perhaps on TWA and to Eero Saarinen's terminal. 

It might have looked something like this photo from 2020, complete with VW van. I was fascinated at the time by the flight attendants briskly heading to their flights, and the boards with destinations I could only imagine going to. And to a young girl who lived in a tiny town, just a few thousand people, it was a memorable adventure.  

My next flight wasn't for a decade, I was 16 and flying solo to Mexico City to meet my grandfather and spend the summer in Oaxaca where he was living. The plane was delayed, but I had no way to let my grandfather know and remember worrying the whole way whether he'd know. The whole family — all six kids — visited the following Christmas, but we went by train from Nogales. 

It would be almost another decade before I'd get on a plane again, this time to Vancouver on my honeymoon. We flew past Mt. St. Helens about a year after the major volcanic eruption, it was still smoking. 

I didn't get a passport until I was in my thirties. 

For the first third of my life, my trip were mostly confined to the ground and to at most a few hundred miles. I camped in Wisconsin, hiked in the San Gabriel mountains, rode my bike to the library and to see friends who lived on nearby farms. Yet I never felt confined, books took me to Russia (Anna Karenina) and to Venus and Pluto and beyond (Podkayne of Mars and Have Space Suit Will Travel). I haven't been on a plane since last February (the photo of JFK notwithstanding), and rarely get more than a couple of miles from home and that mostly on foot or by bike. But I'm taking flight nonetheless. To worlds too real (How to be an Antiracist) and worlds that lean over the precipice of fantasy (Mexican Gothic).  

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

There is always light


...our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,

battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it
Amanda Gorman, in “The Hill We Climb”

I was riven by Amanda Gorman's fiercely resolute poem for the inauguration, drawn not only by the images of light, but the way she lays out what the light demands of us. Where can we find light, she asks, among all the shade of events recent and distant? Look around, look inside. Strive, not for the perfect union, but "forge a union with purpose." Look not at "what stands between us/but what stands before us".

She demands we see ourselves, see each other, as aflame, always alight, always light. If you wish, she whispers, you can be all flame.

I had used pieces of John O'Donohue's "Matin"s at a day of reflection earlier this week, and Gorman's images gave me a very different read of that poem.

"Somewhere, out at the edges, the night
Is turning and the waves of darkness
Begin to brighten the shore of dawn.

The heavy dark falls back to earth
And the freed air goes wild with light,
The heart fills with fresh, bright breath
And thoughts stir to give birth to colour.


May I live this day

Compassionate of heart,
Clear in word,
Gracious in awareness,
Courageous in thought,
Generous in love."

John O’Donohue, from "Matins" in To Bless the Space Between Us

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Truly Pray(TM)

Not everyone likes my writing, something that doesn’t surprise me or particularly rattle me. I don’t find delight or inspiration in every piece of writing I pick up either, sometimes for reasons weighty and sometimes for reasons irrational. 

Occasionally someone writes to let me know that they thought I’d missed the mark in a piece or in a book. Several years ago one such critic let me know they found a set of Lenten reflections insipid and shallow, an opinion offered after having apparently spent Lent reading each day’s offering. I have the deepest respect for that letter writer, whose judgement was clearly not based on a cursory read and delivered without drama. Though I’m not sure my writing has improved in the interim, I do think of that note often, and ask myself if what I’m writing is weak or without depth. 

A few weeks ago someone wrote to tell me I was cancelled in his book for writing something contrary to Catholic teaching.  His prerogative to be sure (though this particular book had an nihil obstat - a declaration that it is free of anything contrary to Roman Catholic doctrines, faith, or I responded (I know, I know...) with a reference to the Catechism. His response was surprisingly thought provoking (though I suspect not in the way he imagined) "I often wonder if people like you Truly Pray..."

As I've just finished writing a short book on prayer, this is perhaps the key question. What does it mean to "truly pray"? And do I do it?

By "people like you" he means sinners. A point I won't contest, in prayer or otherwise. 

Also, I was captivated by the capitalization. Does he think this is a trademarked term?

Photo is of the space where I go to pray as best as I can, truly or not.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Custody of the Eyes

I've been blogging long enough to remember when blogs were often curated lists of links, pointing (eventually one hoped) to interesting reading. Now there's Twitter for that. Which is where I encountered Terence Sweeney's two beautiful pieces (in Plough and in Macrina) on those who find their way into our churches.  The subsequent conversation on Twitter sent me hunting for this piece I wrote almost a decade ago for a now defunct blog on Ignatian spirituality, during a previous sabbatical leave. 

As I get ready to write my report to the college detailing conferences attended, talks given and manuscripts written — essentially answering the question "How have I grown as a scholar during these past five months?"— I'm prompted to think if I've grown at all as a person since this last leave. Do I have sharper eyes for the poor? Do I attend to those I see on the margins? How do I live out the preferential option for the poor? 

A version of this essay appeared at This Ignatian Life in March 2012.

I spotted him a block off, a bubble of space surrounding him on the crowded sidewalk as the on-their-way-to-work crowd gave sea room to his awkward, rolling gait.  His oversized black sneakers gaping open, nearly engulfed by his coat and clutching his cane like a staff, the young man painfully made his way along Chestnut Street. No one would meet his eyes.  

City dwellers practice an unsympathetic custody of the eyes.  Do not acknowledge with even the flick of an eye what — who —  stands on corners, crouches over steam vents or sits plastered against the walls of buildings.  Do not accord the pleas for food or for money a space in your conversation, not even for a single beat.  It’s safer, they say.  So we walk with eyes locked straight ahead, doggedly intent on our conversations.    

I’m on sabbatical leave from my teaching job this semester, doing research at an archive in the city, traveling several days a week from my sedate 1950s neighborhood in the suburbs into Philadelphia.  A leave is a gift of almost unimaginable luxury, time to be spent lavishly on a project of one’s own choosing, to gaze at new horizons and grapple with new and perhaps challenging ideas.  

I spend my days in a sumptuous and silent 19th century reading room, soft carpets scattered about the polished hardwood floors, and a magnificent gallery of paintings on the mezzanine above my head, served by a staff of librarians who at my merest whisper bring me whatever materials I desire.  Whatever I hunger for —  books, consultation with learned colleagues, a cup of tea —  is there.  There is almost no need to ask; in stark contrast to the sidewalk outside, people are attending. 

Two summers ago, on my way to this same archive, I crossed Market at 7th and slid between the line at the food cart and the walls of the Free Library. The woman was heaped on the walkway to the library. Her green aluminum cane made a sharp contrast to the sun washed red brick of the entryway. She slumped over her belongings, asleep, exhausted already by the heat that had just begun to rise. Her lined face, pink with heat, was turned to passersby. She looked like my mother, shifting restlessly in pain.

I stood there for a fleeting moment. I wanted to reach out and hold her. I wanted to bring her to a cool, safe space to sleep. I wanted to ask what she needed. I wanted to help. And yet...I did none of these things. I walked on down 7th, headed to a cool, dry archive where a librarian would bring me the books I desired, without my lifting more than a finger.

We issue lists of grave sins, delicta graviora.  We wrangle over translations, theological nuances and liturgical praxis.  We worry whether we are sufficiently reverent with the body of Christ when we receive in the hand, and all the while the body of Christ lies crumpled and abandoned on the sidewalk. And I walk past, averting my eyes. 

“And what about His hunger, cold, chains, nakedness and sickness? What about His homelessness? Are these sufferings not sufficient to overcome your alienation?” challenged John Chrysostom sixteen centuries ago.  How can you continue to walk through the city, pretending not to see, failing to recognize what is before you?  It’s not just new perspectives in science I seek on this sabbatical. What about His homelessness?  I chose to work in the city on this leave, not just because the materials I needed were here, but because I wanted to look at this horizon, to struggle with my response to these challenging questions.  To face what I had walked away from two summers previously.   

Inside the library, I continue to map out the threads of challenging conversations in chemistry.  On the sidewalk outside the library, I’m grappling with challenging conversations as well.  I hear John Chrysostom’s voice in my ear, “is this not sufficient to overcome your alienation?” and try not to look away, try to attend to the person of Christ in “distressing disguise”.

When I met the eyes of the young man on the sidewalk this week, he stopped in front of me and asked in a gentle voice, “Do you have anything to eat?” “Let me help.” I dug into my purse and pulled out one of the envelopes I now keep handy and handed it over. It’s a card for a cafe and take out place with enough on it for breakfast and lunch and a cup of coffee.  He thanked me and with not even a hint of rancor remarked, “No one ever looks at me, you know.  I didn’t think you’d stop, and I’m so hungry, I haven’t eaten in a day.”  I wished him a good morning, and turned to go up the marble steps to the library.  It’s a start in overcoming my alienation.  Next time, I’ll remember to ask his name.

A bit more from the blog about the preferential option for the poor.