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 morals...so.) 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.