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.