Thursday, December 30, 2021

Reckless grace

“Be recklessly gracious.” read the post on a friend’s Facebook stream. What does reckless grace look like in my life? Unplanned conversations with a stranger? A sentence or paragraph I write? An image I share? Something I choose not to say? 

Can I be in this year to come, recklessly patient, recklessly compassionate, recklessly gracious? Equally can I be open to the grace that is restlessly swirling around me?

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Thirsting for the face of God: new book of homilies

What does it mean to thirst for the face of God? It's a question I wrestle with in the little book on prayer which was published by Liturgical Press this fall, and it is the subtext of many of the homilies collected in the latest book by Homilists for the Homeless: Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C. The Homilists for the Homeless project is led by Deacon Jim Knipper and Clear Faith Publishing. All of the authors have contributed their writing to these collections, so all the proceeds go to projects to care for the poor. This book will support projects that help people get access to clean water, as a chemist something I support wholeheartedly. (I'm not the only chemist contributing to this volume, Magg Blackie also has two homilies in here and Jim Knipper started as a chemist.)

My homilies are for the second Sunday of Lent and the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time. The first reflects on an experience of the Transfiguration on the hot and humid day on the streets of Rome, what should we do when we encounter the transfigured Christ sprawled on the ground? The second dares us to pray boldly:

So dare to beg God for what you desire. Dare to be persistent. Dare to be shameless. Dare to pray for the improbable and the impossible. Dare to pray for the insignificant and the inconsequential. Pray boldly as long as you have breath, for our God always bends down to listen.

The volume includes homilies by Phyllis Zagano, Fr. James Martin SJ and Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ as well as the delightful Fran Szpylczyn, Meredith Gould and many more.  Find the whole list here.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The best books

The New York Times Book Review recently ran a survey to find the best books of the last 125 years from their curated list of 25 books. Looking at the list — in which I note there are few books by women, 7 of 25 — I began to wonder what my list of the best books I've read would be, which of course begs the question, what does it mean to be a best book?

My definition of "a best book" would be the books that get under my skin. The books I can't forget even years later, the books that have pushed me outside my comfort zone, the books that have shaped me in fundamental ways. Forthwith my list of nine (like the NYT list, a perfect square) best books, more or less in the order I encountered them. What's on your list?

Madame Curie, Marie Curie's biography written by her daughter, Eve Curie. I continue to be perplexed that there isn’t a Disney version of Manya Skłodowska Curie’s life. Between the death of her mother, the sleigh rides with Kazimierz Żorawski, her wonder at the university in Paris, fainting in a garret, the glowing radium in the lab...her life seems Disney-princess ready. I read this book during the summer I as when I had been very ill, unable to get out of bed without help. It is more hagiography than cold biography, and perhaps that's why I hear whispers of it from time to time as I reflect on my own life work. I could not get her grief at the sudden death of Pierre out of my mind the first time I read it, and given my own experiences, have thought about it many times since.

The Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This was another book that I read the summer I was so ill, the treat of several new hardcover books from my mother is one I still appreciate. I was taken with Sherlock Holmes scientific approach, the use of data to draw conclusions, and the attentiveness to the small clues that others might overlook. It might not be too much of a reach to say that my interest in molecules that misbehave in my attentiveness to the small clues they offer in their structures derives from reading these stories that long-ago summer.

Have Spacesuit Will Travel By Robert Heinlein. This may be the first science fiction book I read. I rode my bike to the little library which was housed with the rest of the town's services in a residential house on a humid summer day.  I can close my eyes and see the cover, a bright yellow and black. While these days I find the politics that infuse Heinlein's   writing a bit off putting (ok, perhaps more than a bit off putting) this book really captured my imagination, in part because of the strong women characters in it. And in the year that we landed on the moon for the first time, it was a particularly exciting read! 

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden, I read this tale of a monastery of contemplative nuns when I was in high school. Since then I have read it any number of times, the nuns are exquisitely human, struggling with cold feet and academic jealousy and the budget. The main character, Dame Philippa, is a late vocation, a widow with a tragic past. After having been department chair, I also sympathize with the abbess, Dame Catherine.The book jumps in time and perspective, the nonlinearity gives it a depth that makes it worth revisiting.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I read this when I was 11, after an excerpt in a book I'd been given for Christmas piqued my interest. From it I learned the joys of long and richly  textured novels. A couple of years later I watched a cinematic version of war and peace and then wanted to read the book, which led to a long argument between my mother and the librarian who did not want to let me check it out. Not because she thought the themes were too adult, but she did not think I was capable of finishing the book in the allotted two weeks. When she finally reluctantly checked it out, she gave me lots of advice about how to read it, including making lists of characters. Advice which I promptly ignored and simply dug in.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection Benedicta Ward OSB's translation of the Apophthegmata Patrum, the sayings of the desert fathers, is something I return to again and again, the pithy advice of these early Christian hermits, both mothers and fathers, is often just what I need.

Ink, by Sabrina Vourvoulias. This book is rooted in places and people and rituals I recognize. There is a chemist and people who risk much for justice. And the world is more than what we see. It’s is also terrifyingly prescient, written before Trump, but plays out what could be, what now has been. I read the news and after reading Ink found I could no longer tell myself, “I had no idea. I can’t imagine such a world.” 

Book of Hours, Rainer Marie Rilke. I am particularly fond of the translation by Anita Barrows, which places her luminous translation against the original German of Rilke. I really don't have the words to say the way some of these poems reach to the heart of my experience of prayer, except perhaps to quote the poet through Barrows:

In deep nights I dig for you like treasure.
For all I have seen
that clutters the surface of my world
is a poor and paltry substitute
for the beauty of you
that has not happened yet...

My hands are bloodied from digging.
I lift them, hold them open in the wind,
so they can branch like a tree. — II,34

Liturgy of the Hours. Never far from my hand, the round of psalms enfolds me, shapes me, comforts me, challenges me. The imagery  buzzing bees, slimy snails, broken pottery, heart tearing grief, raucous parties  drags me in.

Photo is of Fluffy and my current read, A Psalm for the Wild Built by Becky Chambers. Monks, tea, robots, electric bikes, hermitages and pilgrimages. What makes a soul? It's a terrific read. 

Final list from NYT - To Kill a Mockingbird is on top.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Here in our midst

Here in our midst, O God of mystery, 
you disclose the secret hidden for countless ages. 
For you we wait; for you we listen. 

Upon hearing your voice 
may we, like Mary, embrace your will 
and become a dwelling fit for your word. 

Grant this through him whose coming is certain, 
whose day draw near: 
your son, our Lord Jesus Christ, 
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
God forever and ever.


From Opening Prayers - Collects in Contemporary Language 

Monday, December 20, 2021

Inflammate omnia

Math Man is at a Zoom meeting tonight and I’m enjoying the post-kitchen-cleaning quiet in front of the fire with a sleeping cat nosing her way onto my keyboard. The cat is purring, the fire crackling and there is the faint hum of the dishwasher in the background, a testament to industriousness now rewarded. The tendrils of silence that are wrapping around me are bringing back memories of the 30 days I spent making St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Could it be thirteen years already?

I learned to make a fire on that long retreat, from an Irish priest. There was an enormous fireplace, but as it was bitterly cold in Gloucester that January, the cold air pouring down the chimney tended to extinguish fires before they got going. The trick was to set everything up so that with a single match it went up with a great “whooosh!” The rush of hot air reverses the flow in the chimney, the fire will now burn merrily along. 

This is also a metaphor for the Exercises. Ignatius sets everything up, with the hope that with the touch of the Holy Spirit, it — you— will all go up in flames come the fourth week. Ite, inflammate omnia, Ignatius often signed the letters missioning his Jesuit brothers. “Go and set it all aflame.” 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Unbridled Joy

Twenty-six years ago, I was standing in my parish church rehearsing the music for an upcoming Mass, eight months pregnant with my youngest son. The choir director went to move the grand piano into place, and suddenly its top came down with a discordant crash. I didn’t jump, but the babe within my womb did, his arms and legs flailing out in that classic newborn startle reflex. It made me viscerally aware that there was someone inside of me whose thoughts were not my thoughts.

I vividly recall that experience every time I hear the gospel story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. It surfaces more than sweet memories of my son, each time it reminds me to contemplate who is moving within me now, whose thoughts are not my thoughts. How do I notice and respond to God dwelling within me?

The nineteenth-century French Catholic novelist Léon Bloy wrote that joy was the surest sign of the presence of God. Surely Elizabeth’s experience of both her own joy and that of the infant John the Baptist was a sure sign that they were in God’s presence. In his encyclical on love, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that being Christian isn’t a purely rational choice based on some ideal or ethical system, but an encounter with an event, a person; a meeting with God that decisively orients our life. Elizabeth and Mary’s lives were profoundly reoriented by their joyful encounters with God. 

How do we discern God’s movements within us? How might we know we have encountered the Word among us? We might be alert to those moments of unbridled joy that arise in our hearts. For joy is the surest sign. 

— From M. Francl-Donnay, Waiting in Joyful Hope, Liturgical Press, 2020.

The baby is me.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

O Lord

The O Antiphons, so familiar from their musical setting, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” are said at Evening Prayer these last seven days of Advent. Each day has its proper antiphon, starting with a biblical title for Jesus. The one for today begins “O Adonai”—O Lord—and ends with a plea to come and save us.

Advent or not, that phrase or one like it is on my lips multiple times a day. Just now, the cat appeared at my study window, demanding to be rescued from the roof, and I sighed, “Oh, Lord.” I turn onto the main road to find it backed up, and breathe, “Dear God.” An exasperated and exasperating student taps at my door and I choke back an “Oh God.” “Lord,” I wail, when the phone rings the instant I pick up my pen to grade the stack of homework on my desk—the one I’ve been trying to tend to since nine this morning. I step outside to go home, look up at the fiery sky, and gasp, “Oh, my God.”

I sound thoughtless, I know. And frankly I wonder if this is just a habit, my glib invocation of the Lord of the universe anytime I am startled or something doesn’t go the way I wish. But just maybe, just sometimes, it is the sort of prayer that comes from deep within my soul, that acknowledges my dependence upon the Lord for the very breath I use to call his name. Could it be that I am struck nearly wordless by my Redeemer, so that I can say no more than O God, hoping God will know whether I’m in awe or in need of rescue? O God, I hope so.

— From M. Francl-Donnay, Waiting in Joyful Hope, Liturgical Press, 2020.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Pregnant with Christ

We are more than halfway through Advent, and like everything in my life during this season, it is going all too fast. I long to take my prayer and my tea to a sunlit corner and linger with God in the warmth. But this is not the life I live. My office is filled with papers to grade, my calendar crowded with review sessions and meetings. Even in this pandemic the grocery store and farmers' market are packed with people. The traffic in the parking lots is unspeakable. These are not moments I should think anyone would wish to linger in, pandemic or not. 

But Advent is not a season for lingering—it draws us out, propels us forward. It calls us not to sit out and watch the world go by, but to live as if we are bringing something to birth within the world and within ourselves. And as with all births, to be ready without quite knowing when we will be brought to our knees in labor. In a homily for students at Georgetown, theologian Walter Burghardt, SJ, reminded them—and us—to be people of ceaseless hope, a people always living into tomorrow. We are asked in Advent not to simply endure the waiting, the frustrations, the difficulties. Instead, we are asked to live with and into all the possibilities the difficulties open up: “This very moment, with all its imperfection and frustration, because of its imperfection and frustration, is pregnant with possibilities, pregnant with the future, pregnant with Christ.” 

My body still remembers the bone-weariness of being pregnant, the all-encompassing work of laboring to bring my sons into the world, those frustrations and difficulties never overshadowing the hopes I cradled in my heart for them. So I should not expect in Advent to be other than weary and stretched to my limit, for in this moment, I, too, am pregnant with Christ.

— Adapted from M. Francl-Donnay, Waiting in Joyful Hope, Liturgical Press, 2020.

Illustration, Jacques Daret, Altarpiece of the Virgin Wikimedia

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Can I drink tea while I pray?

There's an old joke — you can tell the age by the reference to tobacco — about a Franciscan and a Jesuit discussing a conversation with their spiritual director. The Franciscan said he'd asked his director if he could smoke while he prayed. Horrified, his director had said absolutely not. "Ah," said the Jesuit, "I asked if I could pray while I smoked. The answer was 'of course!'"

Drinking my tea with morning prayer this morning, I thought about that joke and a comment by my pastor earlier this week that perhaps people have become accustomed to going to mass online and having their coffee along with it, something you simply cannot do in person. I miss joining my community for the Office, but also find joy in praying it bathed in sunshine with a cup of tea in hand. This morning, as I drank, I noticed the way in which the ribbons of steam curled and billowed above the cup. At times it seemed to be breathing, suddenly puffing out a cloud of steam, then pausing, seemingly gathering strength for the next emanation. My prayers rose like incense along with the steam. 

What is normally hidden was suddenly revealed in all its intricacies. The air  is warm and seems still but in truth it is lively and complex. Its unceasing movement is momentarily revealed by the intersection of the condensed water within the vapor and the bright morning light of the sun, low in the winter sky.

Prayer too, has those moments, where what is hidden is suddenly revealed. Where God's breath puffs out, and we are suddenly aware of its presence, rising from the depths, twining upward, wrapping like silk around my hands.

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Where do exams come from?

Where do exams come from? I had a student stop by last week to see about finding a time to ask some research questions. When I said that I was busy this week getting ready for final exams the student seemed confused. "But exams haven't started yet?"

"True," I replied, "they do not start for students for more than a week, but I need to have the exams written well before that." At Bryn Mawr students may take what we call self-scheduled exams, where they pick an exam up from the registrar's office in an envelope, take it to a space designated for exams to complete and return it to the registrar's office. This means my exams must be written and copied well before students start to take them. And writing an exam, a good one anyway, takes time.

It made me wonder where students think exams come from. I often hear students say about a question on exam, "what were they asking?" As if there is some mysterious "they" that writes the questions not me.


Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Leaving room to be surprised

I have a weakness for fancy Advent calendars, the sort museums publish with artwork from their collection. My favorite is a fifteenth-century triptych, the Mérode Altarpiece, depicting today’s gospel, the Annunciation. Mary is curled up with a book in a sun-washed room, utterly serene, imagined by the artist in the moment just before she notices her angelic intruder and all her plans—for her day and for her life—were upended.

Mary, I’m certain, had no expectations of playing such a pivotal role in our salvation, no need to be anything more than who she was, the daughter of Anna and Joachim. She was as open to a day spent like any other day as she was open to bearing the Messiah. She left space to be surprised by God.

Reflecting on hospitality and Christmas in the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day reminded us to leave space to be surprised by God. It would be easy to remember to make room for God, she noted, if we saw people with glowing neon signs hovering over their heads: Christ here. Or if they were beautifully dressed and serene like Mary in the painting I so delight in. People would have fought to give Mary a place to stay if she’d appeared in Bethlehem wrapped in gold cloth with a crown of stars, suggested Day. But I noticed that no one was falling over themselves to give money to the woman on the Broad Street train who said she was coming down from a heroin high and needed something to eat. 

We ought to help those we encounter, says Dorothy Day, not out of Christian duty, or because we are reminded of Christ or in case they might be Christ in disguise. We ought to do it with joy and ease because, perhaps to our surprise, they are all of them Christ. Make room!

— Adapted from M. Francl-Donnay, Waiting in Joyful Hope, Liturgical Press, 2020.


Surprise! I had this image hanging over my desk for several years before I noticed the tiny Jesus flying in through the window, carrying a cross. For a detailed tour of the painting by Robert Campin see Kelly Bagdanov's post

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Holy madness

"Pope St. John XXIII once suggested that without some holy madness the Church cannot grow. I suspect that without a touch of holy madness, or perhaps holy daring, we cannot grow in grace, either. The Gospel demands that we dare much. Dare to reach out to those the world rejects. Dare to forgive, each other and ourselves. Dare to expect forgiveness. Dare because we love God madly and God loves us beyond all reason."

— Adapted from M. Francl-Donnay, Waiting in Joyful Hope, Liturgical Press, 2020.

Saturday, December 04, 2021

A time for way-finding


As soon as the first Sunday of Advent dawns, I feel as if Christmas is already pounding at the kitchen door, demanding to be let in. Boxes piled high in her arms, she’s humming Unto Us a Child Is Born, trailing tinsel and lights and a long list of “must be dones” behind her. Wait, I say, my back to the door. I have other plans for Advent.  I always do. 

I plan to sit, to stay, to wait. I love to linger in these enclosed days where the sun is struggling to get above the trees. I yearn to stand outside in the sharp night air and watch the stars burn and the planets serenely transit the sky, knowing that God has counted us all. I covet time to soak in the readings from Isaiah that sing of breathtaking possibilities, of a God set down in the midst of his weary, war-torn people, pulling us by the hand out of darkness. I hunger for time to pray. 

The reality is my Advent plans inevitably collapse under the weight of the year’s end. My office is crowded with students hoping I can help them pull their grades up, while piles of papers to mark threaten an avalanche on my desk. Isaiah waits hopefully on the chair in the corner, along with my lunch. I promise myself a few minutes after Sunday Mass to sit with God in the warm stillness of my parish church, but the nave is alive with rehearsing angels and shepherds and wise men. Dear God. That’s about as far as I get. Dear God, I sigh, and wait, still thirsting for what I cannot quite grasp. 

After all these years, it’s starting to dawn on me that perhaps these unsettled Advents are the plan. The season asks not that I wait, placidly or otherwise, for the inevitable arrival of Christmas day, but it demands I acknowledge why I cannot settle patiently for what is here and now. My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God?  Like the psalmist, I ache to see the unveiled face of God, to plunge into depths that my beloved winter skies only hint at. 

Advent isn’t a season of the present, no matter how demanding the to-do list, or of the past, as dazzling the miracle of God come among us was and is. Advent is a time for way-finding, a glimpse of our destination. 

I’m reminded of T. S. Eliot’s Magi, who had a hard time of it, battling refractory camels and inhospitable towns. I imagine them returning to their homes, leaning into the wind, knee deep in slush and mud, never again at ease.

Advent isn’t calling me to linger, but to lean into the chaos, to live on the road, plans never firm, never quite settled. We are all milling about, like those tiny angels and shepherds, rehearsing for an encounter we only dare to imagine. Dear God, this is the people who long to see your face. 


Michelle M. Francl-Donnay. From Give Us This Day, December 2018.


Thursday, December 02, 2021

I thirst

"I thirst." It's has more of a Lenten flavor than an Advent one, I admit. Yet it feels so apt for me this Advent in particular. Advent was once a longer season, sometimes called Saint Martin's Lent for the feast of the saint (St. Martin of Tours on 12 November) that marked its start. I feel like we've been living in a long Lenten season through this pandemic. We have been fasting not feasting, for so long.

I thirst for a brightly lit house full of people. For years I have made a fancy breakfast for my physical chemistry students. I break out the china, make rich casseroles of cream and sausage and vegan treats from cranberries and rice, redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg. I lay a fire and make plenty of coffee and these days more often than not several pots of tea. I enjoy this little breath between the end of the semester and the start of the final exams, and hope my students do too. But there was no breakfast last year and there is no breakfast this year, instead I will stuff exams into envelopes and hand them out on the last day of class.

And so I was particularly grateful on Saturday evening to find the trees outside my parish church wrapped in blue violet lights, and the altar adorned for Advent. Incense rose from behind the providers chair, and the lights have been dimmed ever-so-slightly. The shift from Ordinary Time to the new season was palpable.  I was thirsty for more than just the bare minimum, longing for a reminder of the depths that await us.

To thirst is perforce to wait. To wait for something that we desperately need as well as long for. There is no life without water. I am thirsting for the Living God. 

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Tear open the heavens

O, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for.
Isa 63:19b,64:2

I cannot think of Advent without thinking of Alfred Delp, SJ, who in 1944 spent the Advent and Christmas seasons in a Nazi prison. Delp’s writings, letters and reflections on Advent, were smuggled out from prison on scraps of paper by two friends. In one letter, he wrote that he thought it would be a beautiful Christmas. Under such circumstances you might wonder how? 

Delp was handcuffed night and day and confined to a small cell, facing a death sentence. There would be no moving liturgies, no exquisite manger scenes. But with all the ornaments and romantic imagery stripped away, Delp said he could see clearly the shaking reality of what Christmas promised: God in the flesh, God taking a stand with us against the unimaginable darkness. Christmas, offered Delp, is the chance to celebrate the mystery of the great howling hunger of humankind for God — if we are willing to give over our complacency and pretensions.

In Advent’s dark and cold days I am, I confess, often drawn to meditate on the gentle mysteries of a babe wrapped and warm, puffy sheep in the fields and angels in the sky trailing glory. Wondrous stars. Enigmatic strangers from the East. Gold and rare spices. It is the proper and cherished stuff of Christmas pageants. Yet this isn’t quite what the People of God asked for through Isaiah, “Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” begs Isaiah, “be what we don’t dare hope for.”

Delp wrote that to live in the knowledge that the divine and the human have collided in time requires a willingness to let our romantic notions be burned off, that we might have a clear vision of what is and could be.  

Dare we join with Isaiah and cry out to the heavens this Advent, imploring God to do for us what we cannot bring ourselves to hope for? Might the hungry be fed, might the migrant find safe harbor, might God visit peace on the nations? Shine forth from your cherubim throne, O Lord. Rouse your power and rend the heavens.

— Adapted from M. Francl-Donnay, Waiting in Joyful Hope, Liturgical Press, 2020.

More reading about Delp:

Mary Frances Coady, With Bound Hands: A Jesuit in Nazi Germany: The Life and Selected Prison Letters of Alfred Delp (Chicago: Jesuit Way, 2003).
Alfred Delp, SJ and Thomas Merton. Alfred Delp, S.J: Prison Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004).

And a beautiful choral setting of the Isaiah text (H/T to my friend Marie).

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Moving into Advent

I bought the four volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours in 1987, the summer after Tom died. I’d been keeping the hours for a couple of years at that point, having happened on a small volume that included a two week cycle of Morning and Evening Prayer and Night Prayer for Sundays.  Those four volumes were an extravagance at the time, but I so wanted the texts of the Office of Readings, to keep vigil with on those many nights when I couldn’t sleep. 

Saturday night I pulled the first volume — Advent and Christmas season — off the shelf in my small prayer space. Each year I mark the start of the new liturgical year by re-reading the instructions that are included in this volume. It’s a reminder to pray mindfully rather than on auto pilot.  There is always some nuance that I’ve missed in previous readings.

This year I was struck by Pope Paul VI’s reminder that when we celebrate the office it is both our voices echoing in Christ, and Christ’s voice echoing in ours. He reminds us too that we are called to a warm and living love of the Scriptures, particularly the psalms. On a cold night, sitting to pray by a warm fire, I am drawn to the warmth of that inner fire as well.

As I paged through the rest of the volume, resetting ribbons as I go, I remember those whose prayer cards are tucked into the propers of the Saints. My mother, the mother of a close friend, the priest who gave me my first communion, the young daughters of two friends. There are photos of my children when they were very small, and one of a sunrise that I saw on the long retreat. There is a page marked with a blank strip of paper, and — on a fine piece of rice paper — a list of the O antiphons waiting for those last Advent days. 

I’m moving into Advent, looking back at where I’ve been and forward to what is to come.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

A seething season

Come down, begged Isaiah, that the mountains might quake and the nations tremble. As fire makes water swell and seethe, so will your wondrous deeds be known across the earth, promises the prophet. I am struck by this imagery as I stand in my dark kitchen, watching the water in the glass kettle swell and seethe as it comes to the boil, and contemplate Isaiah’s images. Bubbles tumble about, irrepressible, ever changing, refracting the blue light of the flame until the water seems to glow of its own accord. 

For all that I yearn for a season filled with quiet and prayerful moments to spend preparing for God’s coming, it is not to be. Like the water in the kettle, my Advents seethe, boiling over with things-to-be-done and people-to-be-seen. Yet despite the end of year chaos — or perhaps because of it — the rich images in the Advent Scriptures dance irrepressibly through my days. They spill forth light, shining beacons in the drearing days. They draw me deeply into that super-luminous darkness, the depths where God dwells.

I find in Advent not so much a refuge from the demands of my life and of the world as a series of mysterious contradictions that leave me slightly off balance, stumbling forward. The Scriptures of this season promise us light in the midst of the darkness, but they also make clear the demands the kindling of such a light place upon us. They disrupt my preconceptions about what it means that God has come to dwell among us, forcing me to come face to face with what it means for me, here and now, to encounter God in human form. 

In an Advent General Audience, Pope Francis spoke of the manger as an invitation to contemplation, a reminder of the importance of stopping. Contemplation is sometimes called the art of stealing time. I am committing to stealing a few moments each day this Advent to listen to God’s irrepressible, radiant Word, to wrestle with what it means to incarnate the Risen Lord.

For all that Advent propels us toward Christmas, the stable in Bethlehem is not a destination. It is a way station, a momentary gathering of those who will be dispatched to all corners of the earth. Strangers and shepherds and angels stop and then depart as quickly as they came. Not to follow the same paths they came by but sent on to new roads and new lives. May our lives, too, be open to being transformed by what God has done and is doing in the world. 

— Adapted from M. Francl-Donnay, Waiting in Joyful Hope, Liturgical Press, 2020.

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.