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).