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Date: Tuesday, 22 Apr 2014 22:25

I love the gentleness of the Whitacre piece, and even his initial reluctance to write it.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 21 April 2014.

…then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Genesis 2:7

It began with ashes and dust, a charcoal rendering of the mystery of redemption on my forehead. “Remember that you are dust….” With a deep breath taken at the meeting point of darkness and light it ends, “Exult, let them exult….”

“Breathe Easter now … you vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,” says Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., in his poem, “Easter Communion,” to those who have been pursued by the cold breezes of Lent. After this winter, after this Lent, I want nothing more than to breathe Easter. To let God’s breath fill my soul, to let resurrection billow in my heart.

St. John of the Cross, in his commentary on his “Spiritual Canticle,” suggests that this is how we are made and remade in this life — by God breathing in our souls, by our souls breathing in God. An act of creation I find no less miraculous than that wrought when God’s breath first moved over the waters.

Gregory of Nazianzus says our souls are a mingling of heaven and earth, the breath of God with the dust of the earth. They are lights “entombed in a cave … unquenchable.” Light that will not dim in the sharing, we who kept vigil through Lent’s dimness are promised.

In the end it is Augustine who takes my breath away. God’s breath is what first bound body to soul, he says. Our bodies may have been formed from the dust of the earth, but our souls were held within God, waiting. But even as our souls were breathed forth, bringing us into being, they are never separated from God, for God is not bound by place. We were created not to be separated from God, but joined to his very breath. In God we live, and move, and have our being.

We were once but dust and ashes, what we are now lives by God’s breath, by the Word that died and rose again. Breathe Easter, and exult.

To read from Scripture: Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord. Psalm 150.

To pray:
Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.
Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I may love only what is holy.
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, that I may defend all that is holy.
Guard me, O Holy Spirit, that I myself may always be holy.

— St. Augustine of Hippo

To listen:

Eric Whitacre’s Alleluia. This is a very gentle setting of the Alleluia, a choral piece that feels to me like a single breath, of God in us, of us in God.

Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Monday, 21 Apr 2014 10:03
In a celebration with a congregation a short homily may follow the reading to explain its meaning, as circumstances suggest. [General Instructions for the Liturgy of the Hours, 47]

We celebrate Morning Prayer six days a week with the Augustinian community that staffs our parish, but as Morning Prayer follows daily Mass, the circumstances do not conduce to a homily.  On Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, there are, of course, no morning Masses so we more often than not have a short homily. This year I was privileged to "take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners" and break open the Word at Morning Prayer on Good Friday and Holy Thursday.

On Good Friday I reflected on the connections between the stories of the Trappist monks of Tibhirine in Algeria and of Frans van der Lugt, the Jesuit priest who was killed in Syria recently and Psalm 51, the Miserere.

I closed by inviting us to shift our focus in the Passion later that day, to look upon Christ’s walk to Calvary and his death on the cross, not as some divine transaction that bought us out of our sins, but as a psalm of mercy, a way of proceeding from death to life.  To see Christ singing mercy, literally and figuratively, all that way, even unto the cross, forgiving the unforgivable.  To take a page from Augustine (and from the previous night's homily), May we see who we are, may we become what we see. 

For more on mercy as a way of being:
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Sunday, 20 Apr 2014 18:32

God shall o'er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

from Easter Communion by Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ

I woke up this morning miserably ill (some awful throat virus has been plaguing the choir all week, felling cantors, choir member and directors alike), but still over brimming with joy with the gathering in communion of parish and family. The boys are making dinner, I'm alternately napping and reading on the sofa with a view of the backyard in nearly full flower.

The photo is of the dome at Immaculata University taken at noon, between my two talks last weekend.  I loved the way it goes up and up until the colors dissolve into the white light that gathers all their wavelengths together.

Christ is risen, alleluia!
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Saturday, 19 Apr 2014 17:20
“...human kind cannot bear very much reality.” TS Eliot

Several years ago, The Boy was in Rome on Good Friday — traveling with a group of Latin students from school. It wasn’t on their itinerary, but they returned to the Coliseum that night to see the Via Dolorosa, and to see Pope Benedict. He didn’t take a lot of photos, or shoot long videos, but instead told me that he thought I would want him to be there, to watch, not put a lens between him and the action. A theater guy all the way, that one. And yes, he was exactly right about what I would have wanted.

I wrote my column last week for CatholicPhilly about watching for the people around us walking the Via Dolorosa, those for whom Calvary is not an image, not something they settle themselves comfortably back into their pews to listen to, but an inescapable reality.

It's making me wonder if we should stand to listen to that proclamation of the Passion on Sunday, and on Friday, on feet that ache, with backs that long for support, that we should face at least that much reality. We should push away the lens we bring, and let ourselves be swept into this moment.

But even the willingness to bear what reality we can, to try to catch the moments where time is pierced through and we see Christ fallen in the dust and pinned to a tree, is a lens. Are we willing to face the realities of our own tears, our own troubles?

On Monday, I was pulling open a window in my hot and stuffy classroom, to let in the spring breezes (and alas, the odd wasp). The first one stuck, so I tugged hard on the second. The laws of physics are such that the forces all have to add up. The force not needed to open the window thus went into my tumbling down the lecture hall stairs until I hit the bottom. Hard with my head.

My first thought was how little padding there was between the carpet and the poured cement floor. My second was how quiet my classroom was. I have never heard it so silent, not even during a test. I picked myself up (with a little help from my students, the athletes checking for concussion symptoms) and perched on a lab stool for the rest of lecture, which I perforce finished. Students joked with me that I was benched from contact sports for the next couple of weeks, “No rugby for you, Dr. Francl!”

For the next two days my head ached, my shoulder reminded me it was stiff each time I reached up. Choir rehearsal for the Triduum, when deep breaths hurt my bruised ribs, felt like a a Lamaze class for potential messiahs. O vos omnes, qui transitit per viam, attendete...quick breath...videte...Breathe! and now push through...

By Holy Thursday I was feeling significantly less battered, marching through my to-do-list so I could keep Good Friday utterly clear for preaching and prayer, for sacred reading and liturgy, for a long contemplative walk. I printed something out on the printer down the hall, scooped it up and as I strode back to my office, began to proof read it. Then I tripped over the handy stop that keeps my door open, and went flying. Please, don’t let me hit my head again, I prayed. The cup did not pass me by, and I hit the metal leg of the table in my office with a clang that brought my retired geology colleague dashing in. Head wounds bleed. Our department financial wizard and guardian of the budget stuck her head in the door and said firmly, “I know you don’t want the fuss, but I’m calling public safety.” The campus EMT came, the campus police came to get a report, the safety officer...

Some hours later I’m cleaned up, dressed in my best black dress for Holy Thursday and sporting a neat set of stitches across my brow, a touch of the “crown of thorns.” I ache in every muscle. Each subsequent liturgy has required a bit more energy than I have. Yet like Jesus, who each time he falls gets to his feet, I am walking these Triduum days, not settled comfortably into liturgies I know well, with my lens held up, but battered and bent and blown.
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Wednesday, 16 Apr 2014 19:06
“(Be)comings all involve goings. I keep musing about how Christ holds all these things in tension: birth/death; emptiness/fullness; light and darkness; dance and stillness….and perhaps that’s what it means to be fully human, to live in death and life, light and darkness?"

Easter week funerals were the topic of post-morning prayer chatter yesterday. A parishioner died this weekend, his funeral will hold until Easter Monday; and an Augustinian friar that I know died on Friday, to be buried Wednesday of Easter week. Someone wondered how it was to be on hold through these days. So I said, difficult and not....it's to live in the doorway between light and darkness, between life and death - we are always stretched out between heaven and earth, we just don't always notice how it feels.

Tom died 27 years ago today, on what was Holy Thursday that year. We held his wake on Easter afternoon, the funeral was on Easter Monday morning...
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Mercy-ing   New window
Date: Tuesday, 15 Apr 2014 12:42
At times when I write, I'm acutely conscious that it is a way of holding open a door for God to enter the world, a way in which the Word takes flesh and walks among us, pitches His tent within us.  I think of Annie Dillard, wondering how we dare to come to prayer at all, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?”  I have perhaps a faint idea of what we are invoking.  Such awareness generally does nothing for my writer's block.

Today I'm writing at DotMagis about the Word made flesh, word,s and Pope Francis' notion of misericordiando — mercy-ing.
"I’m both consoled and challenged by the pope’s notion that mercy is not just an object, but an action. Mercy-ing is a way of proceeding, a way of being in the world. Like Hopkins’s “just man who justices,” who, “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—Christ,” mercy-ing calls us not just to be merciful, but to be mercy..." 
Read the rest at DotMagis.
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Sunday, 13 Apr 2014 19:09

The police shot the robber (inside the bank), but he survived.  When Crash saw the man the guards had shot being carried from the bank and put into the ambulance, he turned to me and said, "Did he not go like a bunny?"  Every time we crossed a Roman street I would entreat him to "go like a bunny" so we didn't get flattened by a Roman driver. I suspect I made a noncommittal noise, not wanting to go into detail at that moment about what had happened.

The crowd dispersed and we were on our way, though for the life of me I don't recall where we went from there.  The Vatican museum?

What do we see?

This column appeared at Catholic Philly on 10 April 2014.

You see many things but do not observe; ears open, but do not hear. Isaiah 42:20

Many years ago, when Crash was four and The Boy only two, we traveled to Rome for a couple of weeks, so that my husband could present a paper at a conference there. While Victor worked, the two boys and I enjoyed the sights of Rome.

The shortest route to the subway stop ran through the local indoor market, a cool and colorful oasis in the soggy heat of a Roman summer. One afternoon we wove our way through the crowded Friday market and popped out onto the street to find ourselves at the edge of a crowd, all pushing and craning for a look at the street. We couldn’t turn back and couldn’t move forward. Sirens were sounding, and men were barking orders. In the confusion I turned to the man next to me and asked in halting Italian what was happening. “There’s been a bank robbery,” he said, “with guns.” I clung tightly to the boys’ hands and prayed.

I am cantoring Palm Sunday and in preparation to sing the Psalm, I spent some time earlier in the week meditating on the readings, lingering with Matthew’s version of the Passion. I began to wonder what it might have been like, had I been in Jerusalem the morning that Jesus was crucified?

Would it have been like that Friday in Rome? All noise and confusion, with very little information to be had, and no time to think before you are confronted by a difficult and frightening reality. Would I have grasped what was happening at all, understood that in the dust of Jerusalem street, lay Jesus, the Son of God, dying for my sins?

I wonder, too, how often I miss seeing Christ walking that road to the crucifixion here and now, seeing Christ, as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ put it, playing in ten thousand places. Have I learned from listening to the Passion narrative how to spot those bearing crosses, those caught up in living out the Paschal mystery through their own suffering, or do I stand there in the crowd, confused and a bit too complacent?

I watch an elderly man come into the dim church, himself a bit unsteady on his feet, holding tight to his frail wife, bearing as much of her weight as he can. I see Simon of Cyrene steadying Jesus, pulling the weight of the cross onto his own shoulders.

I see a photo of a priest standing alone before a crowd, a cross in his hands, a soldier pointing a gun behind him. I hear Jesus in St. John’s Passion, “I came to testify to the truth.”

I read of parents in the Sudan, boiling poisonous roots for their children to eat. I see the soldiers offering gall to Jesus to drink.

I will hear the Passion read twice this week, but had I eyes, I could read the Passion daily. For Christ plays in a thousand places, looking up at me from the dust where he has fallen, asking, “Do you see me? Can you hear me? Will you pick up my cross and walk with me?”

To read:
Read slowly and meditatively Mark’s account of the Passion (we will hear Matthew’s on Sunday and John’s on Friday): Mark 15:1-41

To pray:

Anima Christi
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from you.
From the wicked foe, defend me.
At the hour of my death, call me and bid me come to you
That with your saints I may praise you
For ever and ever.

To listen:
The text sung here, which comes from the book of Lamentations (1:12 ), is from a response traditionally used during Holy Week:

O vos ómnes qui transítis per víam, atténdite et vidéte: Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus. Atténdite, univérsi pópuli, et vidéte dolórem méum. Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.

O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see: if there be any sorrow like my sorrow. Pay attention, all people, and look at my sorrow: if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Monday, 07 Apr 2014 22:12
As we move toward Holy Week and Easter, I find myself listening harder for the voices that call from unexpected places, wondering how I can be Christ in these situations, so far away from me, not only in physical distance, but in experience.  I'm struck with remorse that mothers must scavenge food for their children in bombed out streets in Syria, that parents in the Sudan are boiling inedible roots for their children to eat.  Would I wash their feet?  Greet them with joy?  Bring them a meal?

We argue about the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday - does the mandatum stretch to more than twelve?  to the non-ordained? to women?  Then I look at these photographs and know whose feet Jesus would be washing, whose feet he command us to wash...

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 3April 2014.

Amma Sarah said, “It is good to give alms. If a person does it to please people at first, he will come from pleasing people to living in awe of God.” — from the
Apothegmata Patrum, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers

A flustered-looking student I did not know knocked on my doorframe last week. I looked up from my desk and asked if I could help her, thinking she was lost in the maze-like science building. “Do you have a charger for a phone?” Amazingly I had the charger she needed, and perhaps equally amazingly, I handed it over to her, without thinking to ask her name or when she might be back.

When she returned the cables an hour later, overflowing with thanks, it struck me that my loan was the modern day equivalent of providing a bucket for travelers to pull up water from a cistern in the desert; we depend on being able to fill our phones up with electrons, we feel so lost without them. (Modern oases do offer both water and electrons to desert travelers!) I handed over my bucket without a thought to whether I might later need it to power up my own phone — it was a most immoderate act of hospitality.

The stories of the immoderate hospitality of the men and women who fled to the desert echo the Gospel call to see the stranger as Christ. Lord, when did we give You to drink? Whenever you do this for the least ones, you do it for me. Visitors to these desert solitaries were met with warmth and care for their physical as well as spiritual needs. As a 4th century visitor to a desert father writes, “when he saw us, he was filled with joy, and embraced us and offered a prayer for us. Then, after washing our feet with his own hands…he invited us to a meal.”

The hospitality practiced by the desert fathers and mothers went further than meeting the needs of their visitors as if they were Christ in a different guise, but were obedient to them as if they were Christ himself. The fathers and mothers of the desert tell the story of a monk who was fasting, but when visitors invited him to eat, he did so without comment or complaint. Later, his fellow monks wondered whether he was upset at his failure to keep his fast. “I’m only distressed when I do my own will,” he responded.

The mothers and fathers of the desert practiced a radical generosity, one that depended not on material wealth, but on their poverty of spirit. They were able to set aside not only their physical needs, but their spiritual needs. Priest and theologian Johannes Metz reminds us this self-abandonment is not to be practiced in isolation, fasting for the sake of fasting, but must respond to our encounters with our brothers and sisters.

Is it harder to fast than it is to let others — to let God — offer themselves to us? Can we not only see, but hear and answer, God in our brothers and sisters? As Lent moves toward Holy Week, I am listening for God’s voice in my classroom and on the streets. Speak, Lord, I am listening.

To read from Scripture:Lord, when did we feed you? Christ reminds us that He can be found in the people around us. Matthew 25:42-45

To pray:

In the silence of the stars,
In the quiet of the hills,
In the heaving of the sea,
Speak, Lord.

In the stillness of this room,
In the calming of my mind,
In the longing of my heart,
Speak, Lord.

In the voice of a friend,
In the chatter of a child,
In the words of a stranger,
Speak, Lord.

In the opening of a book,
In the looking of a film,
In the listening to music,
Speak, Lord.

For your servant listens.

Speak, Lord by David Adam

To listen: Where do we hear God speaking to us? Margaret Rizza’s beautifully still setting of David Adam’s poem reminds me that listening to God is not done in isolation, even by those who live in the wilderness of the desert, but within the relationships we have with our sisters and brothers.

Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Wednesday, 02 Apr 2014 00:07

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

A few weeks ago a friend posted this video on his Facebook feed. Where I see birds on a wire, someone else sees music.  What do I miss when I'm not expecting grace to intrude, but merely looking for the ordinary?  What would the world sound like if we could hear grace?
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Thursday, 27 Mar 2014 23:02
John Colobos is otherwise known as John the Dwarf, or John the Short.  My favorite story about him is the one where he keeps forgetting about the man with the camel who came to pick up his weaving.  And there are days when I am jealous of St. Simon's pillar.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 27 March 2014.

“Abba Poemen said of Abba Pior that every single day he made a fresh beginning.” — from the Apothegmata Patrum, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers

The ashes have long been washed off our faces, and despite the stacks of bright yellow peeps and chocolate bunnies in the grocery aisles, Easter seems immeasurably far off. Time seems to have been sucked into a black hole in these middle weeks of Lent, my prayer feels stale and frozen. I struggle to get out of the sludge that trips me up.

It is said that St. Simon the Stylite spent 47 years living on a pillar in the desert, praying and offering spiritual counsel to those willing to climb fifty feet up a ladder to speak with him. In some ways, I suspect that remaining constant in prayer, day in and day out, is harder by far than spending 47 years on a pillar in the desert. And I think the desert mothers and fathers knew it. Inevitably our attention wanders, we lose our resolve, our energy flags. What then?

Abba Poemen said about Abba Pior, a disciple of St. Anthony the Great and an early desert solitary, that every single day he made a fresh beginning. The famously persistent Abba John Colobos, who watered a piece of dry wood every day for three years until it sprouted green leaves said, “When you arise at dawn each day, make a fresh start in every virtue, with great patience.” We need, says Abba John, to be patient with ourselves.

In an audience with high school students last year, a young man asked Pope Francis for advice on his struggle to live a life of faith. Walking is an art, the Pope told him candidly. It is the art of looking up to see where you are going, to grasp what your destiny is. It is the art of being attentive to the ground you are walking on, so you don’t stumble, and so that you understand the country side you are walking through, and know the people you are walking with.

But above all, suggested the Pope, the art of walking isn’t so much having the skill to stay on your feet as it is the art of getting up again, and again, for we all will fall. Pope Francis ended by saying, “You won’t be afraid of the journey?”

“Be careful about praying for patience,” a friend advises, “lest God give you chances to practice.” Stuck in the mud of Lent’s middle, I’m praying for patience, practicing standing up. Each day a fresh start, I am unafraid of the journey.

To read from Scripture:
The Israelites feel forsaken in the desert, they grumble, but God sends them manna to eat. Exodus 16:1-15

To pray:
Psalm 130, the De profundis, named for the first two words of the psalm in Latin.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
O let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleading.

If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is found forgiveness:
for this we revere you.

My soul is waiting for the Lord.
I count on his word.
My soul is longing for the Lord
more than watchman for daybreak.
Let the watchman count on daybreak
and Israel on the Lord.

Because with the Lord there is mercy
and fullness of redemption,
Israel indeed he will redeem
from all its iniquity.

To listen:

Composer Michel Richard Delalande’s setting of the De profundis opens with a dark baritone solo, then gradually spirals up into an exquisite harmony.

Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Thursday, 27 Mar 2014 10:14

More than watchmen for the morning...

It's been a tough winter, and a tougher Lent so far.  A tincture of agere contra  has been prescribed, so I will refrain from listing what has beset and besieged me (frankly much of this I could not blog, though I keep saying I could put it a novel) and merely say that I'm keeping my eyes fixed on the graces, like the watchman for the morning.  I'm hoping to see hope.  Hope is patience with the lamp lit.  Tertullian.


Sitting on the floor last night, with a wide-eyed baby in my lap, talking with her young mother about the longing for an uninterrupted night's sleep I had when The Boy was that age, listening to her worries and hopes.

A smudge of violet crocuses on the hillside next to campus.

A pot of bolognese sauce on the stove.

The letter that said The Boy has a place at college next fall. "Good news is enclosed" it said on the front.

Out of the depths, O Lord, I cry to you.
Lord, hear my voice...
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Tuesday, 18 Mar 2014 23:07
When I think of lentils and desert fathers, I always think of poet Marilyn Nelson's Abba Jacob and the Theologian:

…the theologian interrupts her first
spoonful of lentils
to lean forward again
and cut off the flow of God.
Reverend Father, she asks,
what is the highest spiritual virtue? Abba Jacob looks to heaven
and groans.
“Humor,” he says.
“Not seriously, of course.”

This is the third in a series reflecting on the desert fathers and mother and the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving written for CatholicPhilly.com.

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 17 March 2014 and the picture is not Abba Paul -  points for anyone who knows who it actually is.

“They used to say of Abba Paul that he lived through Lent on a measure of lentils and a small pot of water.” — from the “Apothegmata Patrum,” the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers

By four in the afternoon on Ash Wednesday, I had a headache. I was crabby. I was distracted. I was fasting and I was hungry.

I was sitting though a 90-minute academic lecture on food insecurity in the United States, and if I were not aware enough of what it was like to be hungry when most of the people around me were not, the people sitting on either side of me were relishing the cookies and chips provided as refreshments.

My mind kept wandering from the numbers and maps on the screen to what I would have for dinner. Time and again I dragged my thoughts back from my own hunger to listen again to how so many of my brothers and sisters go without the food they need.

How did Abba Paul the Great manage to get through all of Lent on just lentils and water? Is it easier in a desert where the reminders of scarcity are all around you? Are the temptations quieter when no one is savoring a cookie two feet away? Probably not. It would seem from the advice they gave, that many of the desert fathers and mothers struggled with fasting, too.

As Catholics we are obliged to fast, metaphorically tied to the Lenten practice of hunger. Yet Evagrius, a fourth century desert father known for his sharply practical advice on prayer and the spiritual life, suggests that fasting is not purely a burden, but can free us.

Hunger, Evagrius says, allows us to enjoy even the simplest of food. It also frees our resources to help those for whom hunger is not an occasional spiritual discipline, but a regular physical reality. These resources are not just monetary, but give us eyes open to the subtle signs of hunger around us.

I tend to think of hunger as a personal practice, as something that sharpens my appetite for God, something that strips away excess. But many people, including almost one quarter of all the children in America, do not have the luxury of electing hunger as a spiritual practice. They are simply hungry.

In the midst of one of the richest nations on earth, children go hungry. Here in Philadelphia, children go hungry. Here, in my neighborhood, people are hungry tonight. Not because they are electing to fast, but because as individuals and communities we are unable to free the physical and spiritual resources to feed them.

We heard in the readings on the first Friday in Lent Isaiah’s full-throated and unsparing call for repentance to the Israelites: do not go about wearing of sackcloth and ashes, but instead God desires we share our bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when we see them, and not turn our backs on our own (Is 58:1-9a).

This Lent, I am fasting not for mortification, but for education, to teach my eyes to recognize the hungry people I encounter, and to see clearly what I might do for my brothers and sisters who hunger and thirst. This is the sacred fast Isaiah calls me to, to lavish my food on the hungry. To not turn my back on God’s people.

To read from Scripture:

Isaiah’s call to the Israelites to fast by sharing what they have in abundance with the poor, that they might repair the breach and restore what lies in ruins. Isaiah 58:6-12 

To pray:

The Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of humility, in which she recalls the promises made by Isaiah and the prophets that the hungry will be fed. The name of this prayer comes from the first word of the Latin version, Magnificat anima mea Dominum, sometimes translated in English as “My soul magnifies the Lord….”

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

To listen:

Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat

Arvo Pärt, born in 1935, is an Estonian composer of sacred music. His style, which draws strongly from the Church’s tradition of Gregorian chant, is sometimes called mystical minimalism. It is very spare, but with an underlying richness that reminds me of the vast beauty of a desert night sky.

The visuals for this recording are of Philadelphia in the 1950s, and were a potent reminder to me that my Lenten observance is meant to keep me attentive to my neighbor. The text is the Latin version of the Magnificat.
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Monday, 17 Mar 2014 21:47
It was a bitter cold December day in Washington, DC, a couple of blocks from Union State.  A man strode down the street a bagel in his hand, briefcase swinging and the tails of his black wool coat flying.  As he reached the corner, he glanced up at the traffic light, and without breaking stride, tossed his half-eaten bagel into the trash container and crossed the street.

On a bench a few feet away sat a man in a green canvas coat, his hands pushed deep in pockets, his body hunched against the wind.  As the bagel sailed through the air he stood, took two quick steps toward the trash can, reached in, pulled out the bagel, and bit into it.

The light changed and my taxi sailed through the intersection.

So, this isn't a parable at all, though I wish it were.  Would that the hunger so great it drove some one to fish his meal from the garbage was a larger than life metaphor for spiritual hunger, not a present reality.

I wonder now if he sat there everyday, the man in his pea green coat, waiting for the man in his polished coat and tie, and his half-eaten bagel to come by.  Did the man ever notice what happened to his bagel, did he ever notice the man who was so quick to retrieve it?

It's been two years and I can still see these men, the bagel's trajectory toward the trash can, still remember my shock at that first bite of bagel.  I sat frozen in the taxi for the 20 seconds this scene took to play out, and I still wonder what I might have done differently.

Lent is a season of fasting, which surely sharpens my spiritual appetite, but do I read it as a way to test my limits, a way of mortification - a little way of dying to rise again, or does it open my eyes to those whose hunger is not elected as a spiritual discipline?  How many people am I walking by who are starving?  Do I see them? Will I feed them, not with casually thrown food, but with the lavishness that Isaiah calls us to?
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Sunday, 16 Mar 2014 11:13
From Coffee with Jesus
I am preaching this weekend, in the way of the Carthusians, with my hands, not my voice.  My homily for the 2nd Sunday in Lent appears in the collection for Cycle A from Homilists for the Homeless: Naked and You Clothed Me.

The first reading is from Genesis (Gn 12:1-4a), where God promises Abram that he will become a great nation.

But what transfixed my attention was not the promise that birthed the Church, but those seemingly innocuous opening words:  "The Lord said to Abram..."

Here is an excerpt:
The author of this passage in Genesis is terse and matter-of-fact, opening with the bald statement: The Lord said to Abram… It is easy to let the eye and ear slide past these words, to consider them a mere frame for what God actually had to say to Abram. Instead, I invite you to stop for a moment and imagine what the experience summed up in that line might have been like for Abram. God spoke to Abram.

Was it a gentle breathing of God’s Spirit, like the small, still voice Elijah heard at the mouth of the cave in the silence after the whirlwind? The barest prompting wafting under the tent flaps in the cool clarity of a desert night. Or was it more like Peter, James, and John’s experience on the mountaintop? The ordinary became dazzling, time collapsed, prophets from the past appeared, and the voice of God left him trembling and prostrate on the ground.

Savor these few, perfectly ordinary words that hold out to us a dazzling gift: in whatever way he chose, God spoke to Abram; indeed, at any moment, and in many different ways, God may choose to speak to us.

If you want to read the whole homily, send me an email or leave me a message in the comments and I will send you a copy, or you can buy the book:  Naked and You Clothed Me. All the Homilists for the Homeless donated their work, and all the proceeds from the sale of the book go to the poor.
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Thursday, 13 Mar 2014 09:34
Last March 13th, just past 2:30 in the afternoon, I was (presciently) standing in the entry way of a Jesuit retreat house, fishing for my car keys and phone in the depths of my bag where I'd dropped them when I arrived the night before.  I pulled up my phone to see a message from my oldest son  “We have a Pope!"

A quick check of the webs through the tiny portal of my phone revealed that (1) we indeed had a Pope and (2) no one (aside from his fellow Cardinal Electors) knew who.

I had to be back for office hours at 4pm, so there was no retreating back upstairs and finding a spot to wait for the news, so I got in the car and tuned the radio to Philly’s all news station. This far out from the city, it was more static than news, but it was a thread that tied me to what was happening in St. Peter’s Square. At last, the scratchy voice of the Protodeacon made its way from Rome to my car on the Pennsylvania turnpike.
Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum;

habemus Papam:
Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum,

Dominum Georgium Marium
Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio
sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.
Who was this man the Holy Spirit had brought us?

My Italian was stretched to the limit (and the static on the radio was no help!), but I thought I had an inkling of what sort of leader we had been given when the newly elected Pope asked us for a favor: “Before the Bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me – the prayer of the people for their Bishop. Let us say this prayer — your prayer over me — in silence.” The roaring of the crowd ceased, while for a long 20 seconds, they prayed, I prayed, that he might be blessed in the days and years to come. Blessed, as God told Abraham, to be a blessing.

Chris Lowney — once a Jesuit scholastic, then a director for J.P. Morgan, now the head of a large health care organization — has written a book about Pope Francis, once Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and his leadership style:  Pope Francis, Why He Leads the Way He Leads. Lowney’s time in the Society of Jesus gives him an intimate familiarity with the Jesuit way of working.

In the process of unpacking for us the forces that shaped Pope Francis as an effective leader, Lowney gives one of the best short introductions to Ignatian spirituality and the Exercises that I have read, deftly laying out the dynamic of the First Week and sketching the practice of the Examen in three short paragraphs, all without burdening the reader with much of Ignatian spirituality’s specialized vocabulary.

Lowney peppers the text with illustrative anecdotes from people who know the Pope, including former students, and spiritual directees. The stories illustrate Lowney’s points well, but taken together, draw a more three-dimensional and nuanced portrait of Pope Francis than emerges from most of the articles I have read about him. We come to know a man with an acute awareness of his frailties and his strengths, who is steeped in the Spiritual Exercises. Someone who is comfortable enough with the contemplative to ask the crowd to pray over him in silence, humble enough to bow his head before them. We find, too, a man with a sharp sense of humor. “Father,” said the porter of the then rector’s visitors over the phone, “the Daughters of Jesus are here to see you.” Fr. Bergoglio shot back, “Jesus didn’t have any daughters.”

As he stood on the balcony a year ago today, Pope Francis’ first words were also tinged with humor, teasing the cardinals about how far they’d had to go to find a bishop for Rome. But he continued on to reflect on the journey he was undertaking with us, the journey that he desired would bring the joy of the Gospel to Rome and beyond. Lowney’s frames his analysis of the Pope’s approach to leadership around the Pope’s own journey to share the Gospel, from his early years, through his Jesuit training, to his work as a Jesuit provinical, seminary rector, and finally as bishop of Buenos Aires.

It is probably not surprising then that feet provide an enduring image throughout the book, from the Pope’s washing of the feet of the young men and women in a detention center last Holy Thursday to the dirty shoes that Fr. Bergoglio expected to find on his seminarians after a day spent in the barios. Lowney points out Ignatius’ hope that Jesuits would be men with “one foot raised” at all times, always prepared to take the next step, and describes well the training it takes to be ever ready.

My favorite foot image in the entire book, though, is the Pope’s in his response to a young man who wanted advice on his struggle to live a life of faith. Walking is an art, the Pope told him candidly. One that requires you keep an eye on the horizon, one that may bring you to dark and difficult places, one that can best be walked within a loving community of fellow pilgrims. You may fall, but the art of walking isn’t so much staying on your feet as it is the will to get up again. “Have you understood?” the Pope asks, “You won’t be afraid of the journey?”

I hear clearly in Lowney’s book Pope Francis’ missioning of us all, sending us to share the joy of the Gospel, sending us to be with those at the margins, urging us to get our feet dirty walking with each other, reminding us to be instruments of mercy, not forces of judgement. Lowney’s book emphasizes that call, suggesting that we are all called to lead — to serve — on this journey, and responds by suggesting a uniquely Jesuit approach to leadership, one that is predicated on a strong foundation, one that continually renews itself through the examen, and one that is oriented to service, ad maiorem Dei gloriam — to the greater glory of God.

Walking is an art, says Pope Francis. Like any art it requires our hearts be engaged as well as our heads, but I suspect Pope Francis would tell us that in the end it is our hands and our feet that must follow heart and head to bring the joy of the Gospel to the margins. I hope we will not be afraid of the journey.

Chris Lowney is walking to the margins along with the Pope, half the profits from the book will go to Jesuit ministries to the poor, see www.chrislowney.com for more details. Readers looking for another book project that directly benefits the poor, might check out the Homilists for the Homeless project, to which I contributed, including the homily for next Sunday -- on Abraham’s blessing from God.

The next stop on the tour is Mary Poust’s Not Strictly Spiritual - be sure to visit!

Disclosure, I received a copy of this book to review from Loyola Press.
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Tuesday, 11 Mar 2014 16:43
When was the last time St. Augustine, Pope Francis and Björk were pulled together to talk about prayer?

The illustration is of St. John of the Ladder's ladder.  Note the spears flying (mostly from the demons in this case).  The 12th century icon is from St. Catherine's monastery in the Sinai.

This is the second in a Lenten series written for CatholicPhilly.com organized around the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers. What words would these desert solitaries from fifteen centuries ago have for us, in Lent's desert, that we might learn to pray?

The reflection appeared on CatholicPhilly on 10 March 2014.

Prayer is the monk’s mirror. — from the Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Fathers and Mothers of the desert

When I think of how I pray, I have to admit that the first image that pops into my mind is of my childhood night time prayers: my head tucked under the covers, my desire to have such faith that I might be able to see clearly without glasses clutched tightly in my fist along with my rosary and my pleas for protection during the deep dark silence of a countryside night arising like incense. At age ten, my whole prayer life could have been gathered up in a single phrase, “God, come to my assistance, Lord, make haste to help me.”

John Cassian, a fifth century theologian, learned from the desert fathers to use precisely that one line from scripture as his primary prayer. St. Augustine wrote of the practice in his letter of advice on prayer to the widow Proba, telling her he had heard of the brothers in the Egyptian desert who hurled their short sharp prayers like spears.

Abba Ammonas, a disciple of St. Anthony the Great and a 4th century bishop, advised a monk who came to him wrapped in nothing more than a mat of reeds and seeking advice on how to live an even more ascetic life to fast a little less and instead “have at all times the words of the tax collector in your heart and you can be saved.” Ammonas is referring to the tax collector in Matthew’s Gospel, who stands in the back of the synagogue praying, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Fifteen centuries ago, this is how the desert fathers and mothers suggested we pray, by breathing over and over again, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Today, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, still recommends the Jesus Prayer as the simplest way to pray, as both a starting point for learning to pray, and a prayer in which we can take refuge when the chaos of life threatens to overwhelm us.

This prayer is not so much a request, as it is first and foremost a creed, a cry of belief. Who do you say that I am? [Mt 16:15-16] “Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God.” But the Jesus prayer tells us who we are as well. St. John of the Ladder, a 6th century abbot of a monastery on Mount Sinai, reminded his monks “Your prayer will show you what condition you are in. Theologians say that prayer is the monk’s mirror."

And who do I see in the mirror of the Jesus prayer? Have mercy on me, a sinner. I see myself, a sinner. So, too, does Pope Francis. Beginning his interview with the Pope last summer, Antonio Spadaro, S.J. put aside his planned questions to ask, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” instead. The Pope was silent for a few moments, and at last responded, “I am a sinner. It is not a figure of speech…I am a sinner….I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”

The Pope went on to remind us that we see in the mirror of the tax collector’s simple prayer not only that we are sinners, but that we are sinners who have been looked upon by God with love and with mercy. The Jesus prayer of the desert fathers and mothers is a mirror of prayer which lets us see ourselves not only as we are, but as we could be, by the grace and mercy of God.

Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me. For I am a sinner, whom the Lord has looked upon with mercy.

To read from Scripture: The story of the tax collector in the synagogue. Matthew 18:9-14

To read from the Church’s tradition:

St. Augustine’s letter to Proba, see page 391.

To listen: 

Sir John Tavener wrote this haunting and discordant setting for the popular Icelandic singer Björk. The Jesus Prayer repeats in Coptic, the language of the desert fathers and mothers, in Greek and in English.

Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Plotting   New window
Date: Monday, 10 Mar 2014 17:59
From the Thomas Hardy Plot Generator:
A gout-ridden pianist, courting a young lady in Weatherbury, falls in love with a dark-eyed lady farmer. But she is already married.They live in a hovel on the heath. But having surprisingly met her grandfather in an inn, their horse collides with the Night Mail. Just one of life's little ironies.
I'm not quite sure it's one of life's little ironies, but I can't write fiction, for reasons I can't quite figure out.  I suspect it's because I have no sense of a tight plot -- this random plot sound fascinating to me!  Or perhaps I prefer an eye on "what is" or perhaps the role of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "reporter from outer space."

“If  you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.”

— from Poetry as Insurgent Art
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Friday, 07 Mar 2014 23:25

Writing by candlelight during a power outage.
One ought only to write when one leaves a piece of one's own flesh in the inkpot, each time one dips one's pen.  ~Leo Tolstoy

I have a lot of writing going on these days:  talks, a series on praying with the desert fathers and mothers, a book review, short essays for a book project, a scriptural reflection.  I have pieces in draft, proofs, edited pieces, pieces still hatching.  

It's also been an intense couple of weeks at work.  This morning I didn't actually make it to my office until 10, my first meeting of the day was on another campus.  I plopped my bag on the floor, dumped an armful of papers on my desk --- and that was it until 5 pm, when I picked up the papers and my bag and left.  I never actually sat down at my desk.

I had a good day writing yesterday, but it was almost physically painful to set aside the work at the end of the day, knowing I wouldn't be able to return to it today.  I definitely left a piece of flesh in the inkpot.  I can see the shape this piece is going to take now, and I was finding such pleasure in fitting the pieces together, like a puzzle.  And I long for the silence that writing wraps around me, a deep well into which I can settle.
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Wednesday, 05 Mar 2014 21:53

I thought about Fastnacht last night as I drove past Dunkin' Donuts on the way home from a night class (in which I am a student, not the professor).  "Should I grab a doughnut, one last fling before tomorrow's fast?" I wondered.

In the end, I didn't stop, hanging on to the Ordinary for just a bit longer.

Today I am fasting, still bound by the obligation for a (very) few years yet.  Until recently, the Lenten fasts were not a hardship, more a matter of forgoing my after dinner snack than anything else.  But last Lent, and this summer, when Pope Francis asked the Church to fast for peace in Syria, for the first time I found the practice challenging.  I got a headache, I was crabby. I was distracted.  I was hungry.

Today was no different.  By four, working off just a yogurt, some dried fruit and two solidly sweet cups of tea, I had a headache, I was crabby, I was thoroughly distracted.  And I was sitting through a longish academic talk about food insecurity, while the people on either side of me munched cookies and chips (snacks for the talk).

I tend to think of hunger in spiritual terms, as something that sharpens my appetite for God, something that strips away excess.  But most people, including almost one quarter of all the children in America, do not have the luxury of electing hunger as a spiritual practice.  They are simply hungry.  In the midst of one of the richest nations on earth, children go hungry. Here in Philadelphia, children go hungry.  Here, in my town, people are hungry tonight.  Not because they are electing to fast, but because we have elected to let them go hungry.  It is unconscionable.
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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Date: Wednesday, 05 Mar 2014 20:17
Chris Lowney has a book coming out on Pope Francis and leadership.  The first stop on the blog tour is here — on March 13, the first anniversary of Jorge Maria Bergoglio as Bishop of Rome.

You can find the rest of the tour dates here.

Stop by on the 13th to celebrate Pope Francis' first anniversary, I can't promise cake, or the Pope, but I can offer a review of the book, space for conversation and at least one photo of Rome!

Disclosure:  I received a copy of the book from Loyola Press to review.
Author: "Michelle (noreply@blogger.com)"
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