Sunday, December 29, 2013

shekinah


it is Love alone which counts
--Thérèse of Lisieux

I met a girl once.
She was missing her two front teeth.
But she smiled more than any other human being I have met, and it was one of the more beautiful smiles I have ever seen.
She had this way of plowing right into you and hugging you so hard, all the breath would be squeezed out of you.
She only stood a little taller than five feet, so her head reached right above your chest.
In a bout of excitement, she would clutch you in her vise-grip of love, and thrust her sharp little chin into your sternum, staring up at you, laughing her gap-toothed laugh.
A laugh that came from her very core, a raspy, hearty little chuckle that pealed as joyously as a cathedral's carillon.

With my arms pinned rather uncomfortably to my sides, I was about to peel her arms from around me and free myself, so I could snatch the paint away from her classmate, (who was about to find out what blue paint tasted like), but then I would look down at her.
And her eyes would be shining up at you, her soul laughing at you through these two spheres of chocolate brown.
You were caught. Powerless to resist.
How could you escape from those eyes that laughed at you, that wrapped your heart in an embrace tighter than her jubilant, vise-like hug?


If heaven is the heart of God, peopled with the children of this earth, then the little girl whose eyes shined like a cloud of glory is dancing at the center.

All the way to heaven is heaven.
--Catherine of Siena


Saturday, December 28, 2013

shoes off





One of the best feelings in the world is the feeling of traveling solo.
[Ed. Note: Author is currently experiencing severe bout of wanderlust]
As you step out into a Big City you discover just how small you are, and that understanding makes you feel so very alive. Too many days are spent sleepwalking, but days when you travel alone you are very fully alive: from the tips of your worn boots to the top of your head, you are alert, alive, on fire.
My small pea coat turns into armor, its deep pockets filled with any number of supplies that might be instantaneously necessary.
As soon as I slide onto the train car as gracefully as I can with an unwieldy backpack and suitcase combination, I slip on a commuter face that mimics everyone else's in the car.
Public Transportation is endlessly fascinating: the boy sitting in the corner is watching something on his phone; the two women enter, laughing and joking with one another; the other girl with the suitcase briefly scans my suitcase/backpack, our curiosities mutually piqued by the similarities of our situation. An accidental kinship.

As soon as the train reaches my stop, I grab the suitcase, and somehow maneuver it down the steep and rather rickety metal staircase.
A man in front of me makes a helpful motion and a joke about steps, and I laugh a solidarity laugh.
An adventurer is never too proud to ask for help, but only in the direst of situations. This staircase is not a dire situation. Right now, we are both two navigators, adept at maintaining our composures while moving awkwardly-shaped burdens.

Once reaching street level, there is a small wind of relief.
There is a modicum of comfort and stability when one finds oneself on sturdy terra firma, instead of on an elevated platform.
There is nothing like being on solid ground on one's own two feet.
The magic of flying machines and elevated trains is all well and good.
But give me a path and a sturdy pair of boots any day.
Once descended from the train stop and finding oneself on the sidewalk, the next important step is to just go.
Move. Confidently, in a direction.
Don't worry about whether or not it's the right one, a quick reading of street signs will quickly reveal whether you must press on or take a sharp and confident u-turn.
There is no point in wandering or wobbling.
If one is to walk, one might as well do it with purpose.
If directions are needed, a quick and assured inquiry will provide the needed correction.
A solo sojourner must always look as if she is confident, prepared, and assured of the direction she is taking.
And one of the most exhilarating moments in the world is when you follow a hunch, or the vague guidance of the compass in your head, and find, after a quick glance at the street sign or a landmark, that you are indeed headed in the right direction.
Take that, confusing city streets, my Keen Adventurer Instincts and Hunch-Making Intuition have bested you.
U-turns, although often necessary, are hard to make while retaining any façade that you know where you are going.
They are a blatant admission that you had not, in fact, known where you were going.

When you locate the bus stop (its location obfuscated by the lack of street sign on the cross street), you join the crowd of people waiting for the bus, a herd of fellow adventurers.
You compare your suitcase with theirs, hoping that it is not too large and does not scream: here stands an amateur adventurer, who has not learned the art of leaving things at home.
It does not appear to do so.
A sigh of relief.
And, with much discipline and practice, you have trained yourself out of the habit of wanting to arrive an hour early for buses.
(Buses and trains are not airplanes, and I have learned this the hard way.)
To reward you for your self-restraint, the bus arrives only five minutes after you.
As you begin to board, a burst of déjà vu arrives: you have ridden this bus before.
You smile at your past self, who had not learned the art of leaving things at home.
And you realize that when your past self boarded that bus, she had never been a small person in a big city before, for she had never traveled on her own.
If you never travel on your own, you never understand just how small you are.
And if you never travel on your own, I don't know that you can fully appreciate the comfort of home, where you can shed the protective layers of armor like your winter coat and jacket, and rest your traveler's feet.

Friday, December 27, 2013

I set all my regrets on fire

It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done.
--Thomas Merton.

"What are you getting right?" a voice inquired at me from across the parking lot.
I stopped and turned around to see a friendly elderly lady smiling at me, and posing the question.
I was puzzled (naturally). It turns out she misread the words "Fighting Irish" branded across the back of my shirt.

As I turned away, I thought of the original question:
What am I getting right?
Too often, I realized, I am focused on what I'm getting wrong.
Which, to be fair, is a lot. So it's sort of natural that my mistakes take up a lot of mental space.
There are many beautiful, glorious people I know who think they're somewhat less than glorious.
Because no matter how optimistic or cheerful or joyful a person is, I think one of the fundamental human errors is that we focus far too much on our own failures.
We allow our mistakes to irk us, tug at us, distort our vision of our own beauty.
We're constantly examining ourselves in funhouse mirrors and accepting the distortion as reality.
It's easy to point out the flaws in ourselves, because it's part of our armor.
We think we're outsmarting everyone else, who we're so sure are watching us and criticizing us on the look-out for a speck in our eye on which they can comment.
For some reason, it is so much easier to notice the flaws in those closest to us--especially in ourselves--than to notice their bright spots.
There is no reason that this should be.
And the fact that it is so is one of those crazy little leaps of logic that we accept as part of the fabric of human existence, without taking a moment to notice that it is crazy.
It does not, in fact, "make sense."
It is one of those uncomfortable signifiers that maybe the cosmos does not fit us as well as our favorite pair of jeans, and maybe we do not fit into it as perfectly as we would wish.
Maybe the art of being fully alive is perhaps accepting that we are filled with a gloriousness that we cannot comprehend, because it is not ours.
We did not fashion it, we do not own it, we did not bring it into being within ourselves by weeding out all the embarrassing and awkward and rather shameful parts of our self.
It is uncomfortable that the shameful parts of our self do not always evaporate, but rather, like a splinter, must be worked out slowly, surely, with great care.
Eventually, the skin closes up, sometimes leaving a scar, woven of water and collagen.
A scar is an embarrassing marker of an injury received. But it is also stronger than the untouched and unbroken skin around it.
It is quite silly to be a human being, to be a creature of unlimited glory who has a fair number of embarrassing specks in one's eye.
We are strange, mistake-ridden creatures who somehow manage to get a lot right.

though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within
--Galway Kinnell

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

amae

Let unconquerable gladness dwell.
-- FDR

Somewhere between Thanksgiving Break and my road trip homeward bound through the snowy Wisconsin tundra with my older sister, it occurred to me that this may be my last Christmas at home in quite some time.
That realization shook me. For like the sun rising in the west and setting in the east, Christmas Traditions in my household are constant, dependable, and unchanging.
Exhibit A: 
The Gingerbread House. Going strong for 20 Years.




Until just several years ago, my super-human mother sewed us all matching Christmas nightgowns. 


 And we still sit on the stairs to take a Christmas morning photograph.
Although my six-year-old self definitely rocked the "fresh-out-of-bed" Christmas morning look better than I do now.

Christmas Traditions: Some things never change.

From decorating the tree to opening stockings, from the foods of Christmas dinner to who gets to light the advent wreath, we are creatures of habit. 
Change is disorienting and therefore discouraged.

Somewhere between the moment when the gingerbread chimney collapsed and the Adeste Fidelis at the beginning of Mass, I became absolutely inconsolable.
But, surprisingly, in a twist of Christmas magic, the communion meditation was this:




which, as I knelt in front of the Divine Mercy, wrapped in the warm wool of my coat in the cold brick church, and listened to the music praise, in the softest of tones, the greatest mystery the world has ever witnessed, I felt that change was not a death-knell of the path, but instead the promise of a future.
 One of my favorite fables is the oft-told tale of the sun and the North Wind vying to remove the coat of a traveler.
The Wind blows and blows, but it is only the Sun who can force the man to remove his jacket, for why would you hold onto a thing when you have no more need of it? 
There is no need for our protective iron armor of self-importance, or invulnerability, when we are bathed by the rays of love emanating from our neighbor, from our family, from that all-encompassing Source of Love that can't seem to stop overwhelming us, inundating us, scorching us, even, with His love.
When we encounter the warmth of a sun, we have no need for our coat.
Why keep our jackets on when the story of the world is the story of Father who cannot keep His eyes off of His children?
Why would He look away when He finds them so beautiful?

Somewhere between our pasts and our futures is the present, we are told that we are the light of the world. Which, if you stop to think about it a moment, is a completely laughable statement. There are times when I feel I contribute more to the darkness than to the light.
But we are told to bear our light; and we do not hear the call when we are ready to be perfect receptacles of love and life.
We are told, just as the imperfect motley crew of Judas, Thomas, and Peter were told, in no uncertain terms: You are the light of the world. Present tense. Not past.
The light has arrived into the darkness of night, and what a great mystery it is that the animals should be the first to see the light, lying in a manger.
And what avail is our darkness against such a light?

This makes Christmas a very practical matter.
To look at the star means receiving light and giving light, radiating in the world around us the light that we have received.
--Joseph Ratzinger

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

wstawàch


If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen.
--Primo Levi, If This is a Man

Via Dolorosa: Station V, Jerzy Duda Gracz, Częstochowa

I've begun a sort of perverse tradition of reading a very sad book over Christmas break (because if you do something two years in a row, it's tradition).
This tradition appeals to me, because I think it cements in the absolute necessity and the raw gravity of the child in the manger.
When you realize what just sort of a world this child is born into, the entire scene stops being saccharine and becomes sacred.
Is this really the solution to the awful groanings and moanings that fill the world?
This teenaged mother and her small son are somehow the solution to the awful weight of all the ills of the universe?
The mystery becomes baffling; mind-boggling; beyond all human comprehension.

You who live safe
In your warm houses
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no. 
---Primo Levi, If This is a Man

One day, in a sunny piazza in Rome, we had a discussion about what education ought to be, and how the Modern University Education fell short of this Ideal.
We found that the best classes we had taken were not so much focused on the material being learned; they did not try to force us to remember every single detail in Canto Twelve of the Inferno, nor did they quiz us on the name of each minor character in Crime and Punishment. They did not demand we learn the names of every single early Christian heresy, nor memorize the terminology of Stanislavsky's technique.
The classes that stuck with us the most, that continued to influence us long after the final exam were the classes which had taught us a different lens through which to view the world. They did not try to make us miniature scientists or philosophers or mathematicians, but rather taught us what it means to look at the world through a mathematical, philosophical, or scientific lens.
They gave us a new set of eyes through which to look at the world.
If education's primary goal is to broaden the mind, to expand the scope of our imaginations, then these classes, which gently cracked our narrow-mindedness, opening up a different view of the universe, succeeded in these goals.

One of the classes that I was in this semester taught us how to read a book and find the religion in it. Not all books are about religion or religions, but each world the author creates has to have a central orb around which their world revolves.
As you read Shelley's Hymn to Intellectual Beauty, it is obvious that a deity is being praised, even if there is no religion attached; there is a Source of All Life.
Every human will find for themselves a religion of some sort; a human being must have something central in their world, even if it is only themselves.

In If This is a Man, Primo Levi paints a picture of a world without God.
He does not deny the existence of God; but in Auschwitz, God has become almost irrelevant. Religion and its god does not belong on that side of the barbed wire.
For here, in Auschwitz, human beings are stripped of their humanity.
There is no love, no selflessness, no generosity, no gratitude, and no charity for one's neighbor.
God is not here.
Auschwitz is hell in the literal sense of the world: a space where the absence of God is.

In a moment of bitter hopelessness, as the end of the Third Reich draws near, Levi congratulates the Nazis for their creation, for their laborious effort of annihilation:
“To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one: it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded.” In this hellish universe of the lager, God is distant and far off. He is not denied; He just is not relevant.
This is a world, behind the barbed wire fence, which is hell. God is not there. There is no morality, solely the brutal fight to survive. Without God, Man is destroyed.
“How much of our ordinary moral world could survive on this side of the barbed wire?” asks Levi. The lager is a world in which morality crumbles, because man's humanity has been utterly destroyed, annihilated. 
In the world behind the barbed wire, there is no selflessness or love. All central aspects of man interacting with man have been erased. There is only survival.


Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising: 
Repeat them to your children,
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you
May your children turn their faces from you.
--If This is a Man

Levi finds a brief moment of humanity, however, in a rare moment of respite, as he walks with the younger inmate in his kommando; and, in an effort to teach him some Italian, recites for the young Pikolo the Canto of Ulysses from Dante's Inferno. 
As Levi arrives at the lines: “Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance /Your mettle was not made; you were made men, /To follow after knowledge and excellence.” In a rush, in a blast from the clouds, these lines remind Levi of his own humanity: “As if I also was hearing it for the first time: like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.
These moments of humanity arrive like a breath of fresh air, they arrive with the messengers of humanity. These are the few men in the camp who have refused to forget that they are human.
Men such as Maximilian Kolbe, whose witness is brought into high relief by the hopeless picture painted by Levi. 
For their sacrifice not only declared the existence of God in a hell on earth, not only did it say, even here in Auschwitz--God.
It declared the existence of a man; it said, even here at Auschwitz--we are man.

All the terrible events of world history seem to constitute a grave accusation against God. 
But when God appears before us, unarmed, with his love as his only might, all the frightening images of God lose their plausibility. 
In the crib and on the Cross, the glory of God is raised aloft in this world. And wherever men follow this God, a new humanity begins.

--Joseph Ratzinger “The Blessing of Christmas”

Monday, December 23, 2013

stuck in permanent bagel mode

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should 
--Rogers & Hammerstein

Well, look at this: another Religiously-Affiliated-Heart-Warmingly-Charming-Boy-Band-Male-A-Capella Group covers one of my favorite little anthems!

First the Mormons, now these adorable young Jewish crooners.

I think an integral part of the New Evangelization that we have yet to capitalize on is the formation of a Catholic RAHWCBBMAC Group [do we think that zingy little acronym is going to catch on? I think it has tons of potential for serious internet traction]. I'm only half-kidding. Look at these savvy young Mormons and our Older Brothers in the Faith; they are definitely doing something right.
I'm thoroughly convinced that there's a huge market here for some intrepid young Catholic male singers to cash into; and if they need any assistance, I have some stellar ideas for names.
(Fr. What-a-Shame and the Seven Sacraments, anyone?
Too much? Borderline sacrilegious? oops.)

~

There is one trait of human beings I find absolutely fascinating.
The name I have learned to call it by was a name given to it by one of the quirkier theatre instructors I have ever had the privilege of working with, back in the hazily halcyon days of my homeschooled youth.
This particular theatrical genius gave this phenomenon the dubiously appropriate name of
"pissing energy."
And the fascinating thing about this is that human beings do it all the time.
We tap their foot up in down in impatience, as we sit at our desk, waiting for the interminably slow last few minutes of a lecture to finally end, we shake our legs up and down in a nervous symphony of energy being wasted.
Sometimes if you're in a class or a conference or a meeting, you'll feel the table start to shake.
That means either:
You're writing your notes too fast and furiously. Throttle down there, Simba.
Or it means that someone around the table is pissing energy, as they eagerly await the ending of whatever torturous activity is forcing them to remain seated in chairs.
If the chairs swivel, you can often channel the excess energy into rotating your chair back and forth.
We all have plenty of energy, and it has to go somewhere.

I always get nervous when I'm sitting across from someone, and I can feel the table shake a bit as they bounce their leg up and down.

Because, as Parmenides taught us, Nothing comes from Nothing; and Maria and the Captain dutifully remind us of this in the slowest and unarguably the longest of all love ballads.
Albeit a beautiful song, and an even more beautiful sentiment that I have grown to appreciate more as I have grown Older and None Wiser, I have never been able to watch Sound of Music's "Something Good"  without tapping my foot up and down, or rolling around on the floor in impatience.

So this movement that my dinner companion is undertaking must come from somewhere. My overly analytical mind starts to try to parse the reasons behind the reaction.

Are they nervous? Am I making them nervous? 
(Attempt to look less threatening, and more sympathetic)
Are they angry? At me? Did I say something offensive?
Are they about to cry? (please don't cry.)
Am I boring them? Are they tired of this conversation? 
(Entertain them! Tell them a tale! Make them laugh! Regale them with your wit! Never shall a person leave Our Company bored! Are they finding this conversation dull and overly predictable? In the words of Anton: I shall know I'm finished when I become predictable.)

My theatre instructor would call out a young gentleman or lady on pissing energy when they would jiggle their leg, or shuffle their feet during a speech.
Firstly, he would scold them, because one shouldn't ever jiggle while trying to deliver Joan of Arc's speech to the courtroom.
"Light your fire! Do you think I dread it as much as the life of a rat in a hole?" just comes across with less chutzpah if your leg is flailing like a distressed jellyfish.
And this leads me precisely into the second reason:
In moments of intense energy, stress, or emotion our bodies do not piss energy.
Emotions, those hormonally-driven, mysterious parts of our body, will be manifested in our flesh somehow. We cannot hid them as we would often wish.
Whether it is our back shoulder blade muscle that tenses or our nostrils that flare, our emotions live closer to the surface than we would like to believe.
In these moments of intensity, our body seems to follow instinctively the direction set forth by the heart and will; and, straight as an arrow from a Tartar's bow, the body follows the direction of the will.

~
On the subject of energy, I would like you to see this picture:

I can haz music expertise
This man's name is Osmo Vänskä, and he is generally believed to an expert of sorts on Sibelius.
So that's nice.
And he formerly conducted the Minnesota Orchestra, which I would listen to, as I sat in a faded plush seat, staring at the cubic cosmos of the stage wall of the orchestra hall, my size four feet dangling off the edge of the seat.
My education in music was sitting in this vast Orchestra Hall, and listening to this orchestra play things like Peter and the Wolf and the Nutcracker and operas and symphonies I didn't know the names of, but adored.
My young little ears sat there, listening to visions of God, as recorded by musicians such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky.
Human beings whose listening ears were so keen, they could hear things that never before existed, and bring them somehow into being, recording them in the pedantic tongue of the pentatonic scale.

Here, in this picture below, Mr. Vänskä looks somewhat more in the natural element of Conductor.
He looks as I imagine God-in-the-Act-of-Creation would look like.


He is not pissing any energy.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.
--Dante, Inferno, Canto 26

Monday, December 16, 2013

Portrait of a Nervous Breakdown


Or, Finals Week.
(NB: This post was originally penned during tech week for On the Verge. And then, of course, like everything attempted during a tech week, was left unfinished. It is fitting to revisit it during Finals Week. Which is sort of like a taste of tech week for college students.)

Listening to Brave on Repeat is a Finals Tradition



To make a successful Finals Week

Firstly and foremostly, an equation[because those are fun. And I don't have to do any of those for finals, but some people do. So in their honor]:
C(t)=C/(t-EXAM TIME)
Translation: The amount of chocolate consumption increases as time to opening decreases.
[C=All the chocolate in the house.]
Finals Week cost you dearly in chocolate, and apparently puts you at great risk for diabetes.

~
Recommended Study Breaks:
Christmas Photos with Roommates.
Dance Parties with Roommates.
Rolling on the floor with Roommates.
Eating chocolate with Roommates.
Singing with Roommates.
Hugging Roommates.
Talking about The Purpose of Education with Roommates.
Laughing over nonsense with Roommates.
Roommates.
Not annoying. Not annoying at all.

A lovely thing about Christmas [or finals?] is that it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.
--Garrison Keillor

~
Back to studying.
Now, about this paper you've been writing for about a week now.
A thought:
To be fair, this isn’t just a problem with O’Reilly. In 1906 Albert Schweitzer observed that when people write lives of Jesus they inevitably end up describing themselves. It’s the key reason that some Biblical scholars think this whole project is bankrupt.
This is Professor Candida Moss talking about a book Bill O'Reilly wrote. But it's an interesting thought--that someone trying to write a completely objective view, will simply end up writing about themselves.
Our minds can hardly escape our own biased view of the world. Biased, as in, with us at the center.
And this is fundamentally what The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is about: when we separate ourselves from a community whose heart is eucharistia, from a communion of gratitude and thanksgiving, then no matter what other god we attempt to seek, ultimately, the only god we will find is ourselves.
And what a sad, lonely god that is.
We will constantly be grasping be grasping at straws of transcendence, but if we actually find a modicum of brave humanity to turn our vision out from the temple of our own hearts to see the world around us, we will find that we have actually found nothing transcendent. We are not soaring high above the earth; rather, we are still dabbling around, splashing in the mud, like a recalcitrant child who does not want playtime to end.
We will wax on about beauty, but find that our words fall empty on our own ears; mindless twaddle and brabble, having no weight within itself.

Perhaps a failed education is the education that does not shatter our safe little shell of self-interest. For it seems that the purpose of education is for us to encounter of transcendence, to taste the glory that is in store.
But, alone in my head, how will I find that? On my own, without encountering the thoughts of great thinkers or artists, without seeing Boticelli's Birth of Venus, without walking under massive, comforting the dome of St. Peter's, without reading "After the Lunch", without holding someone's hand when they are sad and lonely, how will I discover how far my heart's limits can stretch?
For, on my own, wrapped in the cocoon of my own mind, I will not learn that I am made in the image and likeness of the Author of the Universe, but rather, I will make Him into my own image.
That is what The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is all about.
I think this might also be what my paper is all about.

Classic Finals.
Every chance procrastination: a blog post, an email from your mother, a conversation with your roommates, a song, a stray internet article, coffee with a friend, can be woven into the final product.
For that's college, you know: random happenstances that you don't really understand, like the mad scene in the middle of King Lear, weaving together to create a masterpiece in the canon of theatre literature.

They say I'm too young to understand, that I'm all caught up in a dream/
All this time, I was finding myself, and I didn't know I was lost.
--Avicii, Wake Me Up

Sunday, December 15, 2013

ompheleskepsis

My friend told a story of her summer in Uganda, spent teaching at a school.
Her first weeks, she attempted to get to know the students.
To her confusion and dismay, the students gave her a wide berth.
One day, as she approached one of them, the girl said to her:
I fear you.
Which is probably the number one reasons that humans give other humans a wide berth.
It is a fearful thing to encounter another human being.

~

I watched a fly on the chapel wall.
As I watched it, I discovered, to my complete surprise, that the fly was beautiful.
Unlooked for beauty is like a sweet little bit of sunlight piercing through snowy storm clouds.
It sparkles on the blanket of white, allowing you to temporarily forget the mundane dirty slush you're wading through.
The fly had minuscule, delicate gossamer wings, translucent and transparent, with hard black lines drawing out small patterns on its little wings.
Encrusting his gossamer, silky little flying flaps was a hard, shield-layer of chitin.
This little fly buzzed around the chapel, hardly making what I would call a "beautiful" sound.
It's grating sound was comparable to the noise of a miniature motorcycle revving.
But, in that moment of stillness, I saw the fly not just as this annoying, buzzing insect, but as a beautiful little mystery of a creature.
If I had been too focused on how annoying the fly was, then I would have never had discovered the immense beauty he offered as a part of the crazy, zany may-pole dance that we call the Universe.

~
I sat in the dark chapel, and listened to words from the past fill the quiet room.
One of the beautiful things about repetition is that when you revisit old words, you find that they carve out a different corner of your heart.
The words seem to have remained the same; but have been transformed into something completely different.
And as you sit, reading old words, you remember the first time you read them. You remember when they were new words.
By looking back, you can remember what sort of corner of your heart they carved out when they were first read.
And you marvel at yourself, for having such imperfect vision and reading those words so unclearly.

They say that only kind of perfect vision is hindsight, which is 20/20.
But sometimes little glimpses of the eternal arms that support the world will surface.
In those moments, you can see the present, past, or future with equal ease, piercing through the cloud across our vision with their dazzling radiance.

Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward 
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water. 
We see the light but see not whence it comes. 
In our rhythm of earthly life we tire of light. 
 We are glad when the day ends, when the play ends; 
 and ecstasy is too much pain. 
--From T.S. Eliot's The Rock

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

stigmata of splinters

We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting an immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction.
--Thomas Merton

Today, I walked out of my last class of the semester.
This particular semester came to a rather cozy, but jarring end.
Jarring and cozy are usually mutually exclusive, but not today.
The end was jarring, as in: not unwelcome, but sooner than expected, and unlooked for.
It was also cozy, as in: the ending came on this particular day, which is filled with very large snowflakes, snuggly Starbucks tables filled with laughter, Eucharistic warmth, and Advent.

Advent means that the promise of Christmas hangs in the air, and five different Christmas caroling/Holiday concert events happen every single evening.

These are all very cozy things. 
Particularly because they take place in locations that possess central heating, which is a necessary luxury during this particularly blizzard-ly week in Northern Indiana.

The best kind of concerts are the kind that come right to you: like the carolers that invaded that hallowed and sacred study social space: The Lafunderground. 
Reminiscing all the while about the glory days of my sophomore year self, I read for a bit, laughed a lot more, and fell asleep in a Lafunderground booth, proving that all a Sleep Artist/Professional Narcoleptic needs to be able to fall asleep is a friend nearby to watch her laptop.
Or the kind of concert that comes to your dormitory, filling a common space up with gentlemen in Christmas sweaters singing sofas of ladies; and providing mistletoe as a catalyst for young men and women a bit intoxicated with Holiday spirit, daydreams of sugar plums, and perpetual "All I Want for Christmas is You" sing-a-longs to plant chaste little kisses on each other's cheek.

With fond farewells, the chivalrous carolers depart to serenade more rooms full of more ladies, and the ladies retire to their rooms to "study." 
But, as any person who has ever had a sleepover knows, sleep, study, or anything productive takes a back seat to the real task of a sleepover, which is to have tête-à-têtes and heart-to-hearts. These talks are a very Eucharistic type of cozy. 
A sturdy warmth emanates from them, the sort of warmth that glues communities together. 

I find it fascinating that we so often designate a conversation as "good."
Why do we do this? I wondered. And what on earth do we mean by 'good'?
I wondered about this strange fact, as I wandered out of the classroom rather in a haze, into the snow globe that was swirling outside.
I wondered about it more as, on my walk to the dining hall, the wind blew giant snowflakes into me, and I walked into the warm vestibule, looking like a melting snowman.

I thought, perhaps, that too often I designated a conversation good if I so palpably felt that warmth of intimacy emanating from it.
If I could feel the delight in sharing words and moments as solidly as the sweet, hot oatmeal in my stomach, then I would call the conversation good.
A "good" conversation, I perhaps too often decide, is one which every exchange of words is as nurturing and filling as my blueberry breakfast oatmeal.
But those conversations are not "good" conversations, they are the best conversations, they are the ideal.
But, being human, after all, means that the ideal eludes us 99.87 percent of the time.
Perhaps conversations are somewhat like a piece of art, which is imperfect, but always strives for the ideal.  
Our art, our conversations, will sometimes find it; in a glorious moment, for a glorious moment, what we have created will be the ideal. But most of the time, it is flawed.
But its flawed nature doesn't mean that it is not worth making.
On the contrary, we make art to be imperfect.

My theatre professor chided me for looking for the flaws first and foremost.
Such a critical eye for looking at other humans, he warned me with an avuncular twinkle in his eye, would preclude any sort of romantic relationship.
But also, he taught me that we are too attuned to the imperfect, to apt to push away what seems imperfect, and too keen to criticize, instead of embrace, the flawed.

For hidden inside the imperfectness are veins of gold, darting through the stubble like gilded sparks, sparkling, dazzling revelations of the ideal that, if we are only seeking perfection, could easily be brushed over, forgotten, their significance lost on our inattentive minds.
But if we only take the time to truly see them, perhaps we will find the art not so flawed after all. If we stop looking for the flaws and start looking for these little gems, then perhaps we will find it good.

  

Monday, December 9, 2013

cliff notes; spark bars


That last year at the university was an idyllic year; fall, winter and spring, glowing with health and youth, we enjoyed them all, the burning heat of the prairies, the dry cold of the winter snows, the smell of the upturned blue-black spring earth.
--Dororthy Day, The Long Loneliness

Right now is my favorite time of the year.
It is a mixture of weather-induced angst: it is sort of gloomy and cold, and the sky has forgotten its summery shade of cerulean, and is now overcome by foggy mornings and clouds that are bursting with snow waiting to fall.
But our Advent Calendar is slowly marking the days to Christmas, and our home has turned into a little haven of warmth and twinkle lights in the midst of the cold.
The autumnal pumpkins that still grace our flower box are gilded with gelid blanket of icy white.
Christmas trees have popped up in all the appropriate places on campus (and some inappropriate places as well).
There is a veritable cornucopia of Christmas decorations on this campus, and surrounded by this wild proliferation of festive foliage, it is difficult to let the gloomy weather and the restless nights of reading and writing get you down.

This morning, as our chitter chatter and laughter quieted to a dullish roar, our professor bid us good morning (which it was: it is a bit chilly, but I had a peppermint mocha by my side, as well as a friend or two, and that's pretty much all you really need, and the snowflakes are quite large and distinctly shaped into delicate little lacy hexagons, so I am appeased).
Then, he announced the news that this day was our last day of class.
I turned from my peppermint mocha to my friend, and made a face of sadness and surprise.
I was not ready.
I imagine it was analogous to how I would feel at the Second Coming: Wait. No. Really? I wasn't ready for this. I still had more to read, I was going to catch up on the assignments I had not yet done, and I was going to transform into a brilliant classroom commenter who wouldn't constantly trip over her two verbal left feet.
Advent is about being prepared for the unexpected, and I realized that I should maybe work on that.
It's also about anticipatory Joy.
Anticipatory Joy is about stretching your heart out each day, in anticipation of a Joy much larger than you can imagine, and much wider than your capacity to receive arriving, waiting for you to welcome it into your overcrowded inn.


One of my favorite feelings is when you look back on the semester and realize how much you have actually learned.
You realize that somewhere between the skipped assignments and tardy papers and skimmed pages of reading, you have added a bit to your body of wisdom and knowledge, and that is sort of miraculous: that you find enlightenment almost in spite of yourself.
When an unexpected ending came to our class, we realized that we were not done learning.
The brilliant, dazzlingly intelligent student I had hoped to become has not yet materialized.
So how on earth could a class come to an end?
I was not finished with it. I had more to read, more to think about, more to learn.
Then, you sit back and realize that thoughts you are thinking right now are not thoughts you could have been thinking four months ago.
You simply did not have the skills or the knowledge or the ability to think them.
And that is sort of stunning and humbling.
There is an infinity of wisdom to encounter, to dive into, and you find that just when you think you've waded all the way out to the deep end of the pool, you're back in the shallows.
You thought you had plunged into the deep waters, but you're just splashing around on the bank.
So you strike out again and again, the deep end of the pool, tantalizing, always just within your reach.

When you say Yes to God unconditionally, you have no idea how far this Yes is going to take you.
--Hans Urs von Balthasar


Saturday, December 7, 2013

we are closer than our breath


My dear Sam, you cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole for many years. 
--The Return of the King

Of all the mysterious marvels we encounter in the world, the most mysterious and outlandishly, incomparably marvelous is the present.
Here, in the present moment, we encounter grace, pain, joy, and sorrow.
It is in the overwhelmingly real reality of the present where we learn to fall in love, to hurt, and to forgive.
Hypotheticals are enchanting; we are creatures addicted to daydreams.
So the present moment calls to us, pleads for our attention with little darts of Beauty.
It is often beauty or pain, or a sad and glorious combination of both that yanks our attention to the moment unfolding in front of us, bursting to the seams with life.
On Friday night, when the cold winter air was lit up with Christmas lights, we listened to five little stringed instruments play a piece by Brahms.
The notes of this piece whirled through the air, dancing in the warm splash of spotlight on the rough wooden stage floor, lifting back the shadows that pressed in, and illuminating a little pinpoint of air and stage.
The notes worked their way into the ears of its listeners, and through their ears to the blood, and through the blood to their heart.
Soon, the music was a part of their heartbeats, bringing the ancient harmony of the diastole and systole into a vibrant life.
Because what that music did, instead of trying to drown out the present moment with noise was to work its way into the oxygen of the atmosphere, and gild it with effervescent beauty.


For here we discover a profound law of reality: that life is attained and matures in the measure that it is offered up in order to give life to others. 
--Evangelii Gaudium

It is in this present moment that we will find reality.
Reality, which one would think would be so obvious, is actually quite difficult to discover.
We are too good at making hypotheticals and too adept at story-making. An overactive creative imagination combined with an extremely limited vantage point makes for a dangerous combination.
The little slice of reality we get to experience is so slight that it is almost impossibly difficult for us to grasp the real story that is unfolding underneath our feet.
Friendships are those bridges between stories, that widen our scope of reality.
Friendship is an adventure embarked on by two people, a serendipitous meeting where
Often we use words as simply an exchange of goods. When we are learning foreign languages, all too often, we learn the utilitarian phrases first: Where is the train station? How much is this? Which way to Hotel X? We communicate only in exchange.
Words become vehicles of procuring goods for ourselves from other people.
In the friendships that occur in a community, however, our communication falls outside of the boundaries of exchange.
Our communication is transcendently experiential. The words we use are not just couriers to run our errands for us. Words incarnate bits of our stories, the work we put into our friendships shows itself in our vocabulary. We craft and build a world of words and phrases, that woven together, make up something beautiful that unites us. We call that thing a relationship.

Friendship is an accident which becomes a necessity.
--Professor Cyril O'Regan

Friendships are the things eternal, these eternal things that bring with them the inexpressible and glorious joy that Peter talks of so often.
We are called on incessantly to recover our joy.
The problem here is that we live in a world that is sorrowful, that is indeed, a veil of tears.
It is hard, when we are pressed from the inside and outside with worries, hurts, and fears.
Pain seems to be very much inescapable.
Joy, like love, friendship, and every other worthwhile thing in the world is, perhaps, a choice.
There comes times when the weight of the cumulative sorrow of many moments crowd into the present, creating an inexpressible and immeasurable pain.
Joy, it seems is somewhere on the other side of these moments.
One simply must choose to seek it.

He never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. 
With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew.  
--Evangelii Gaudium

The sun shone, cutting through the cold air, the delinquent leaves clinging to the trees, and sparkling off the crisp, glassy surface of the lakes.
The sun caught the white clothing of the woman, and my breath as well.
Through the air, the wind carried with it little flurries of giant snowflakes.
They floated on the air currents with grace and calm.
In the midst of this moment of peace, I spun around and saw the swans floating on the water, like magnified snowflakes languidly moving through their own atmosphere.
In that moment, my heart beat with the vitality of the moment, and all the invisible souls who were as much a part of that idyllic scenery as the snowflakes and my breath.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

flaming dresses and dancing sermons

If we undertake this task with greater faithfulness, perhaps we will realize that what we sometimes consider a stumbling block is rather a rock that we can step on.
--Mama T

Let's just face it: nobody likes saying No.
Unless you're in a perverse mood, in which case, responding to everything and everybody with a decided and iron-willed "No" is the most deliciously satisfying thing in the world.
But, I think it's fair for us all to take a moment to admit that saying Yes is more fundamentally joyful than saying No.
Saying Yes is more thrilling, more delightful, somehow more in tune with our human nature.
We do not want to say no.
And I think this is at the heart of why human beings can sometimes, indeed fairly frequently, resent The Rules. Because often The Rules seem to be a list of No's.
And a list of No's is, while often understandable and helpful, always sort of grating, like a single fingernail squeaking across a chalkboard.

This is the largest problem, I find, with purity.
Because purity, we often see, as saying no after no after no after no.
But there's something about a human being's heart that desires to say yes. We are beings burning to acquiesce.
"Human beings," Professor Cyril O'Regan said one day in class, "are longing to belong." And we are never quite sure how to belong. But we know that union comes through, not a no, but a yes. Yeses are what unite people. And we are thirsting for union. So we yearn to say yes; we are craving to find the union in which we will belong.

One of the lessons that my mother and almost every mentor I have ever had has tried to impress upon me is the skill of saying no.
For, as a person who loves to say yes, I would often say yes to every opportunity that flew into my inbox on the wings of an email from a various club or organization.
An invitation to that meeting, or this dinner, or that one event.
In an incessant and insatiable longing for belonging, I would adore saying yes to everything and everybody.
This is called untempered enthusiasm, and while there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it, it leads to lack of sleep, exhaustion, and extreme grouchiness.
My mother, in teaching me to say no, was not trying to curb my enthusiasm, or twist my nature from a yes-loving creature into a no-loving creature. 
Rather, she was helping me to face the fact that, as a human being, I am necessarily finite. Which means I have a limited amount of time, energy, and Yeses.
I cannot say yes to everything. 
Because, you see, a yes is a choice.
And while there is an infinity of good things in the world to choose from, I am not infinite, and so I cannot choose them all.
If I am to say yes to something, I must, by necessity, say no to something else.
This is called making a choice, and although we are human beings enamored with choices and our own power to make them, making choices isn't always very fun. Often it is sort of dull and un-glamorous. It is a chore and not a delight.
Sometimes it is even rather painful.

We are not people of no's, but of a Yes.
A single, all-encompassing Yes.
And the thing about our hearts is that they have a pure nature, a singleness of purpose in their nature. We can try and try and try, but we will never succeed in splitting our heart: we have not learnt how to teach it to say both yes and no.
Once you have said yes, then you must pursue that yes.
It will maybe mean saying no after no after no to many other things--perhaps to many things which is would seem more glamorous and desirable and thrilling to say yes to.
To your little heart, burning and craving for the union of yes, saying no is exhausting.

If we first and foremost desire belonging, yearning for union that can only be achieved through a yes, then the joy of saying yes must be worth the price of saying no.