Tuesday, December 30, 2014

do you love me more than these?

Your promise is not an easy one:
For your promise is simply this:
 I am with you.
In sickness and in health,
In riches and poverty.
I am with you.

Your promise is not an easy one:
that if I would descend to the depths of the netherworld,
that if I would end up alone and lonely in the cold,
that if I would end up deserted, beached on the lonely
shores of failure,
your promise would be unbroken.

These bridal vows, lifted
from Solomon's Song,
are renewed today, this Christmas day,
And all the days that follow it.
This sweet and solemn covenant
That you offer to me,
Freely, of your own volition,
Awes me, humbles me,
And frightens me.
That there can exist a love so great,
A mercy so limitless,
And I am so limited in scope,
So truncated in imagination,
That I can hardly understand
But can only respond:
with the words:
You know that I love you.

I hardly even know it,
Most days I cannot believe it,
But you--and perhaps only you--
You know that I love you.
I do not "wish" to love you,
I do not "try" to love you,
I do not "hope to one day fully love you,"
You know that I do--in fact--love you.
And that truth by which I live my life
Is all the promise
I can muster in return for yours.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

ode to homes of Christmas past

before the images fade from view:
remember the tea kettle--
the sweet little red tea kettle,
cheerfully brewing your tea--
and the way that the tea cupboard looked
and the smell of searching for baked goods
in the pantry.

Imagine, for just a second,
if it will not break your heart,
the dip in the floor on the first step down
from the landing.
Remember the curve of the couches,
and the feel of the pillows sliding off
the slick leather,
and laughing because we store
the vitamins and wine in the same cabinet.

Recall the blue curtains on the French doors
and the table cloth from Ecuador,
or the one from Kolkata,
the international coasters--
touching Istanbul
and Madrid as you clean
the living room--
I. Am. India.

Feel for a second the feeling
of hanging your keys on the
row of pegs that always falls down,
and the satisfaction of all the mugs
lined up like little ducklings
on the kitchen ledge.
Remember punching in the
security code, pressing "Away"
when someone was still sleeping
Think of the feel of the carpet,
as you rolled around, laughing.
Remember the dinners with wine,
guitars and ukuleles singing.
And think of your thermostat,
taking the temperature of our home and hearts.

Who was crabby?
Who needed tea?
Who needed a knock on the door
and a listening ear?--
Or a shoulder to cry on or
just a bit of space to breathe.
Who was out shopping for retail
Who had been gone from home since
And who was doing homework
late in the library?

The clutter on the kitchen counter
and the stacks of junk mail
always needing to be thrown away
were a lot more manageable
when living with four
broken images of the divine,
who each day, filled my cup
with tea and joy-
a good measure, pressed down,
shaken together and spilling over
into the spaces of my heart
that retain the memories
of how our kitchen smelled
of avocado toast and warm, sweet candles.

Friday, December 26, 2014

on the second day of Christmas

...my true love gave to me:

lots of lights.


Simple dog, simple joys

Thursday, December 25, 2014

when ages beyond number had run their course

The most challenging part of this piece for me was the second line of text having to do with the Virgin Mary. She above all was chosen to bear the Christ child and then she endured the horror and sorrow of his death on the cross. 
How can her significance and suffering be portrayed musically? 

 After exploring several paths, I decided to depict this by a single note. 
On the word "Virgo," the altos sing a dissonant appoggiatura G-sharp. It's the only tone in the entire work that is foreign to the main key of D. That note stands out against a consonant backdrop as if a sonic light has suddenly been focused upon it, edifying its meaning. 

It is the most important note in the piece.

--Morten Lauridsen, "It’s a Still Life That Runs Deep: The Influence of Zurbaran’s Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose on Morten Lauridsen’s Composition 'O Magnum Mysterium',"
Wall Street Journal,  February 2009

Christmas has always been a time that is steeped in traditions.
Growing up, we had many beautiful traditions: my mother made us matching Christmas pajamas; we had an annual ornament hunt; we made oodles of traditional cookies; we watched the traditional Christmas movies; we celebrated all the feasts in Advent that are so familiar and comfortable--Our Lady of Guadalupe, Santa Lucia, St. Nicholas Day; and we crafted gargantuan gingerbread creations (among whose ranks were the Titanic, a functioning lighthouse, a windmill, a full-size Candy Land board, to name a few).

Now that we are all growing up and growing older and growing away--spreading out of our house like pumpkin vines shooting over autumn leaves--our traditions remain, but in more subdued forms. They are not as necessary or important, they seem. Somehow, it is just our presence together that is important. And our traditions shape that time together, but they are not the point nor the purpose.

Last year began a new tradition for me, as it was the first time I think I'd ever heard Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium at Mass. I think. I can't be sure, because the melody sounds like every single heartbeat that's ever coursed through my body. So definitively pin-pointing when was the first time I heard it exactly is a bit difficult.

Last night, at Mass, the choir sang O Holy Night, Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, etc. Songs that would formerly have satisfied me. But now, I think, Lauridsen's piece has spoilt me. I will no longer be able to celebrate Christmas properly without listening to O Magnum Mysterium (on repeat, of course).
I will never find another piece that truly encapsulates Christmas as Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium does.
None. Ever. Again. In. My. Life.

The wonder of Christmas is partly derived from the utter insanity it is, to think that one human life matters so much that still, thousands of years later, one man rises in front of a congregation to proclaim that, in this specific time:
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the foundation of the City of Rome; in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, 
there was this cataclysmic event: God entered into the world of men. The world seems to shiver at such a momentous thought: that grace Himself has entered the world, entered into the story of humanity, has become a player in history like you and I. How can the story be the same after that? How can we be so magnificent to believe that such particular, quantifiable events have such cosmic implications? And yet, there we gather, listening to the man announce the fullness of time.

 The Word--eternal, mighty, consubstantial (oh comforting word! Word that assures us that no other being but God Himself was sent to save us) with the Father--came into our midst through the lowly portal of a woman's uterus, was born as a weak, helpless, innocent child, at the mercy of--well, everything. What baby can survive in the world if she is not tended to ceaselessly, nurtured tirelessly, and cherished, caressed, comforted, made to feel safe?

In his motet, Lauridsen somehow captures not only the immense wonder and glory of today, but also its heartbreak, and the momentous suffering and hardship that it portends.
Mary, writes Caryll Houselander (and I will poorly paraphrase her here), by giving Christ His humanity, has already started Him off on the journey that will end in the cross.
Here, even in the joyous celebration of new life, death is imminent; for this journey that begins today will eventually lead to a cross.
And yet, on this dark night, on this cold day, lit by thousands of little lights, and the warm glow of family surrounding one another, there is a love so real that it still reverberates through our world today.
It is a love that never fails.
Today, sorrows of the cross on the horizon are trumped by the sheer wonder of this love that has made itself so weak, in order to enter so intimately into this human family. It might give us pause to remember that this baby we adore, so innocent, fragile, and love-able, will hang as the man of sorrows--the afflicted servant--on Golgotha one day for our sake.
That is the moment that is captured in Lauridsen's appoggiatura g-sharp--a sharp, stinging grace note that sets the pure wonder of the day in high relief.
So we keep all these things, marveling at everything that we have heard and seen, pondering them in our hearts.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

whom canines sigh for

I see him, though not now; 
I behold him, though not near:
--Numbers 24: 17

Our psychotic puppy has become fascinated by lights.
Which, it being Christmas-tide, are [in]conveniently sprinkled all over our house.
He has become particularly entranced by the lights that hang above our kitchen cabinets.
Accordingly, he has set up camp right in the small pathway between the counter and the cabinets, staring up at the lights. Which, is obviously a ginormous inconvenience for the rest of us, who have to maneuver around him.
As he stares up at the lights, his limbs shaking (which is disturbing), his pupils widening in a really concerning way, he whimpers a bit, and begins to pant, utterly transfixed by the unblinking glow of the icicle lights that hang from our ceiling.
We haven't timed him yet, but it looks like--if left undisturbed-- he could go on staring at the lights for potentially an eternity.
Sometimes, his excitement overwhelms him, and he runs away from the lights, then runs back, as if he was expecting them to have disappeared or changed somehow. Then he cocks his head to one side, and his ear folds back on itself, making him look officially deranged. And he keeps staring.

We keep trying to find other things to attract his attention, since he looks absolutely psychotic staring up at the Christmas lights all day long. The smell of fresh pizza from the oven was about the only thing that did it.

While sitting at our kitchen table, looking for inspiration, my eyes landed on our dog (desperate times, desperate measures), and I instantly thought of those words of Balaam's prophecy. Perhaps, I thought, that is what living in a truly liturgical posture looks like: eyes transfixed on the light, unmoved and undeterred by the frantic attempts of others to distract us. A star shall rise from Jacob, quoth Balaam, and those whose eyes remain fixed upon the horizon will be the first to see it.

On that note, I'm going to go take our dog on a run now. Because staring at a Christmas light for hours on end has got to do a number on one's psychological health.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

you say I am blessed because of this

If He does not remove those vexations, we do not suppose ourselves to be neglected by Him, but rather, in patient endurance of evil, hope to be made partakers of greater good, for so His strength is perfected in our weakness. 
Letter 130 of St. Augustine to Proba, Chapter 14, 26.

This Advent, I have found myself more often than not, truly vexed.
I was annoyed at the man in the unmarked black van who offered me a ride ("Where're you going? airport? downtown? uptown?") when I was waiting for the bus. (Seriously? Really? Oh perfect, I was actually just waiting for an unmarked van to kidnap me thank goodness you arrived.)
I was perplexed by the ease and routine with which humans can lie and take advantage of one another.
I was distraught by the violence and the injustice that seems to be ceaselessly perpetuated, world without end, one human against another.
I was frustrated by the commercialism of the Christmas season in New York City.
While the Rockefeller Center tree, the ice-skating, and the pop-up shops in Bryant Park are all lovely, and I enjoy walking by the clever window displays in Lord & Taylor and Saks 5th Avenue as much as the next person (and grumbling about "tourists blocking up the sidewalk" grumble, grumble), they are not quite the point. They are like cream cheese on a really good bagel. Really good bagels don't need cream cheese. If you have a really good bagel, then cream cheese is just a nice additional fun thing. But if you have lived on crappy bagels all your life (as I have for the majority of my life), then you're going to live in the delusion of thinking that cream cheese is a vital part of eating a bagel.
When, really, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Really good bagels don't need cream cheese; and Christmas doesn't need to have any fancy window displays or glitter to be Christmas.
(Oh this is very Seussian: Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas...perhaps... means a little bit more. Let's see if I can steer this poor post away from a sloppy Death by Sentiment)
I'm not trying to be a Grinch, because I love sparkly lights and holiday-ish razzle-dazzle. I love all of it. It's magical and marvelous, and it puts a bounce in my step on a day that I'm dragging my feet (usually. Unless I'm walking behind a someone who's laden down with shopping bags. Then it's grumble grumble commercialism grumble grumble.)
But it's not the point, and I think a lot of people are rightly frustrated by Christmas, when the only sort of Christmas they see is a lights display on 5th Avenue, carols blasting over H&M's loudspeaker, and weekend sales at Tiffany's.
What is the point of this sort of Christmas, this rather excessive display? When the world is so full of vexation and injustice, full of murder and mayhem.

If only, perhaps, we would look a little harder, we would see a little child born--not unto a wealthy brownstone on Upper West Side, or an apartment on East 63rd and 5th--not born in the midst of splashy displays of Palestinian wealth, but inside a humble stable. I think of this stable every time I pass the grungy garage next to the bodega down the block.
I would not want to give birth to a child in that garage, nor would I want to spend the night in that garage with my first born. And in fact, I think if there were a donkey and an ox inside that barn with me, I would throw a hissy fit instead of "pondering all these things in my heart." There would be words, and I'm not talking about the good tidings of great joy kind. I would be one incredibly peeved theotokos. 
But that is what Christmas is about: that God entered the world in the midst of inconvenience and discomfort, in the midst of trial and tribulation instead of comfort and glamour.
Christ did not come to dispel all inequality and injustice--if only it were that simple. If only God could wave a magic wand and turn us into automatons that treated each other with kindness and love all the time, and were selfless instead of selfish. Rather, Christ chose to enter the world to assure the victims of inequality that they are not alone; He came to enter into the struggle for justice on the side of the underdog. Which, if that was Christmas is all about, it seems to me to be a very relevant sort of holiday for our world, a world rife with violence, unrest, confusion, and despair.

Then, perhaps the moments this Advent when I have been most indignant, frustrated, annoyed, confused, perplexed, and pissed-off are the moments where I have been truly preparing myself for Christmas.
Those are the moments I have been acknowledging how broken our world is--and how broken I myself am--and how I need a savior so desperately, along with the rest of this mess of a globe.
If only this was what we thought of when someone wished us a Merry Christmas:
May, in all your moments of darkness, of sadness, of great pain, you understand that the one to whom you cry is right beside you--that God has truly come to dwell with you. 
Now. Here. In the intimate particular of our lives.

Monday, December 22, 2014

an ode to Minnesota

I tear through the Philadelphia airport,
my feet racing to my next gate
(just a few moments to spare!),
the gate that will take me home to
the Winter Wonderland of my origin.
I think I am in love with Philadelphia,
simply because she is not New York.
I grin like a dope as I speed-walk
through the terminals,
And I think "God only Knows"
plays in my head and I understand
the magic of traveling home.
I make it to my plane (woo!)
And fall asleep next to a skinny man
with a ukulele and a perfectly trimmed beard.
I let the sea of clouds and patches
of farmland roll under the wing of the aircraft
unheeded and unwatched, because I must
hibernate until we reach the Lindbergh terminal.
The dust of Minnesotan shores kisses my feet,
and I am tempted to bow down and kiss
the neatly tiled floors of D'Amico & Sons,
shining like a diamond in a bog,
because it is the most Minnesotan of all corner cafés,
and I beam at every single person I meet,
and they smile back, but we're too concerned about
respecting each other's personal space to say: "good morning"
so we just smile, because we want to assure them that we
wish them well, and hope they have a Merry Christmas,
or whatever holiday they celebrate.
But let's be honest, it's probably Christmas,
with lots of jello mold and lutefisk,
and grandpa baking blueberry pie while grandma stokes the fire--
real fire, with real logs in a real fireplace--that sends
swirls of smoke up into the crisp, navy-blue night sky,
cut by the teeth-like shadows of evergreen trees
which surround their modest house.
Everyone I pass is slender, tall, and tow-haired;
even the Jewish man with yarmulke and ritual fringes
looks like he descended from some Nordic god.
They are denizens of the snowy north.
The shitty upholstery of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport
is a welcome sight to city-sore eyes.
It is blessèd because it is a part of this fair city:
clean, comfortable, and each person looks
like they belong in the wild outdoors,
kayaking or biking along the Grand Rounds
in summertime by Minnehaha.
And then I come home to my cul-de-sac,
And all our halls are decked with Christmas decorations.
And inside my refrigerator there are
peanut butter chocolate chip scones.
Oh, truly, there is a balm in Gilead.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

it pulls you down away from me

I've given everyone I know
A good reason to go
I was surprised you stuck around
--Fun. "All Alright"

I am wearied of dispensing kisses
like Pez candy to small boys,
Who gobble each up greedily,
With unwearying, grasping hands.
I have grown tired of lending kisses,
borrowing them to moochers
who never have the kindness
to eventually return the smooches,
Who fail to prove lendees with security,
Leaving a woeful and empty-handed lender,
Grown cynic by much usery.
This world's is too greedy for this peasant king,
I am coming home to Ithaca,
To make an honest woman of me yet.

I swore one warm June night,
As I watched the fireflies dart through
The still night air,
That I would remember me how much
My kisses mean.
I am through, I said,
Of inconsequential meetings of
flesh and tongue,
rendered without meaning.
I would never lie with an injurious tongue,
Then why--oh why--is my body such a perjurer,
Speaking in a language full of falsity?
When untrue words pass my lips, I blush,
And stammer, ashamed of me for professing
Something I am not.
So now my body must be held to a standard,
higher and purer, deeper and more true,
A newer banner of integrity.
I am coming home to Ithaca,
To make an honest woman of me yet.

And the next time I am on your shores,
I will disembark more gracefully,
Knowing that my ship has sailed
through stormy waters,
but has followed your lighthouse faithfully,
a homing beacon straight to Ithaca.
Unlike the schemer Odysseus,
wily and untrue,
Waylaid by Circes and Calypsos,
Distracted by the privileges of
Ancient men,
Lording over each new island empire
With my hubris and my chiseled Grecian chest,
I set my course for your loom and chamber,
Not to be deterred.
With steady heart, I gaze to the horizon,
Searching for the tumbled coastline
Of your shores.
I am coming home to Ithaca,
To make an honest woman of me yet.

Friday, December 19, 2014

an ounce of twenty-twenty vision

Walking away, I think:
How do I--
I am interrupted
By me,
Endless Me,
Stretching over the sidewalk,
Curling around wrought-iron railings,
Filling up the City landscape,
From Battery Park to 180th Street.
There I am.
A lot of Me.
Spilling out
Of every empty crevice,
That I hope
Will contain
A You.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

shimmering reality underneath

"Art uncovers relations that ordinary seeing and experiencing obscure or even deny."
--Rowan Williams, Grace & Necessity

On my walk to work each day, I pass a young girl outside her apartment building.
Some days, she is with her brother, who runs faster than she does, and can cross the street in one big bound. Some days, she is just exiting the front door, while her mother stands and watches. Some days she is standing by the traffic signal, her body braced against the cold. Some days, she is playing with the newspaper box and singing softly to herself.

The first days, when I would pass her, I would smile with my eyes, but, both of us being shy of one another, we wouldn't say anything. But acknowledge this stranger sharing our street. Then, after a few weeks, I would smile with my mouth and my eyes. And she would smile back. Now, when we pass, I wave and say good morning. And she says hello back, but doesn't wave. And I feel the sisterhood that arises when you encounter another person in the midst of an anonymous city; a kinship of humanness in the crush of the machine. Somehow the repetition of a person in your day makes them more real. They exist in a pattern outside of yours, an independent movement that intersects with your own. It is endlessly jarring to find yourself constantly bumping into them.

But jarring in a way that jolts you out of the complacency of self-absorption. Jarring in a way that reminds you: wake up! The world is rife with humans living out their stories. Jarring in a way that encourages you to look more closely at the world around you.
Because if you look closely, you'll see messages graffitied on the sidewalk.
You'll see rows of brownstones reflecting the rain water.
You'll see the sunrise over the East river, turning the sky into a mottled mural of carmine and gentle amber.
You'll see the world rising into activity out of the slumber of the night, slowly bustling down the quiet streets that bleed into the chaos of midtown.
You'll hear the train rumbling by overhead on the elevated tracks, and you'll watch the rainwater drip off of tunnels.
You'll smell the sweet rolls and the tacquerias and the bodegas making something or other.

The world is such a rolling, roiling mass of senses and sensory experiences, washing over you as you clip-clop down the sidewalk.
It is so easy to get lost in the ocean of everything all around you.
Encountering another person is like a lonely scuba diver finding another diver underneath the waves.
Can you imagine what a surprise that would be? As one is expecting only sting-rays and keeping company with clownfish, to find, amid the coral reef, an inmistakable human face and form, someone kindred to yourself in the midst of the foreign and the alien.
And I imagine these two underwater travelers, too, would wordlessly smile and wave, and then part ways to follow their path beneath the sea.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Her mother carefully folded together the newspaper into the shape of a delicate little ship. She stood on the edge of the bridge, clinging to the railing. Her eyes wandered back and forth between the clear blue water below, and her mother's hands, swiftly and delicately crafting a small bark out of the paper, the newsprint smudging from the warmth of her fingertips.
Gently, tenderly, her mother tucked in the corners, smoothed out the creases, opened a flap here, made two corners meet one another, until she had crafted a dear little ship.
The small girl eagerly reached for the newspaper craft, but her mother checked her hungry motion for but a moment.
Behind her mother, the black-eyed Susans swayed in the summer wind. Her mother reached for two flowers, and stuck them in the prow of the boat, two glad little banners to celebrate the christening of their small paper boat.
One for your wish, said her mother, and one for mine.
The child closed her eyes and wished very hard.
For the new doll that she had seen in the department store window.
For her father to bring mints home with him from the office tonight.
For her sister to not eat the last leftover slice of birthday cake.
For summer holiday to last forever.
For her mother to never grow older, so that they could always run together in the park, and make paper boats on their favorite bridge together.
What are your wishes, Mama? the girl asked her mother.
Her mother smiled.
I wished, she said, that our little boat will sail very far before the water soaks it through.
What will happen, asked the girl, when the water soaks through it?
It will sink, said the mother.
The girl was disappointed. She had hoped their boat would sail down the stream all the way down to the river.
She had heard that the river reached to the ocean. But she could hardly believe that such an ordinary thing as her river reached all the way to something so grand and full of occasion as the shores of the ocean.
How far will our boat go, Mama? asked the girl.
Let's follow it and find out.
The girl leaned over the railing of the bridge, and held the boat out over the edge.
Her fingers trembled, as she felt the immense anticipation of a boat on the eve of its maiden voyage and its doom.
She let it fall, and it landed with a miniature splash on the crystal surface of the stream.
She ran down in front of her mother to the creek's bank.
The small current carried the boat gently away from them, but not so fast that they could not keep pace.
The girl and her mother followed the boat as long as the boat could stay afloat, which was not, sadly, for long.
As they reached the third bend in the creek bank, the boat, saturated with water, slowed, and began to sink in a whirlpool, underneath the rippling water.
The girl watched, dismayed, at the ending of her toy, and yet she was surprised to feel inside her heart a certain, small grain of satisfaction.
Why, Mama, am I sad that our boat has sunk. And yet, the fact that it is gone now still makes me happy?
It has come to its natural conclusion, her mother said, with a trace of sadness in her voice.
That small twinge of sadness made the girl look up into her mother's eyes.
But the eyes were smiling, although they shimmered as they reflected the sunlight on the water.
So the girl said nothing, but watched as the two yellow flowers bobbed on the surface of the stream, their petals floating on the current, small promises that their wishes would one day reach the sea.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

reeds and trees

Because a man 
Even if he be wise, feels no disgrace 
In learning many things, in taking care 
Not to be over-rigid. 
You have seen 
Trees on the margin of a stream in winter: 
Those yielding to the flood save every twig, 
And those resisting perish root and branch. 
--Antigone, Sophocles

The other day, my friend reminded me of a sad story from last January. And it caused me to reflect on how full of sadness and difficulty this past year really was. It is so easy to forget that it was a year of hardship, because it was also a year of great joy. And the joy sticks in my mind more permanently than the sorrow.

But as I pondered last winter, I thought of one night as I sat with a crying friend in the beautiful Walsh chapel. In front of us was the beautiful stained glass window of the Visitation: Mary reaching out to embrace Elizabeth, who echoed her cousin's open arms of welcome. We mimicked the image by holding one another: but no one uttered any Magnificats.

He uses such strange material for His purposes, why it is that lives which, judged by our standards, are tragic and frustrated may, in fact, be the most glorious.”--Caryll Houselander

It felt strange and unexpected, to be so at a loss just when we felt so assured of ourselves. Four years of careful growth had formed us into slender stalks of healthy wheat, ready for the harvest, full-grown, standing tall and strong. All of a sudden, the soil that we were planted was broken up by the rough hand of the tiller.
It hurts; it is confusing to find yourself being churned in with the rich loam, the plow dragging your strong stalk down to earth, when you are just beginning to bear fruit.

And yet, what a beautiful gift to be given: to have to start over again, just when you have reached your prime. Just as you are beginning to find your feet, to walk, the rug is pulled out from underneath you, and you find yourself back to crawling. It is a gift most welcome, even if it is a difficult on to bear.

And I think I will hold on to that image for a long time: of being comfortable, secure in myself, my world, my status, my community; and then suddenly feeling myself uprooted and unsure. It is a reminder that there are very few things in life that one can hold onto with the assurance that they will always be there.

But there is an uprooting, a plowing, a razing that occurs naturally in life. A burning of the underbrush that helps a forest grow. All the seasons in life include a season of death. And this season of death leads to a season of renewal.

Friday, December 12, 2014

without cost you have received

It’s easy to love a deer
But try to care about bugs and scrawny trees
Love the puddle of lukewarm water
From last week’s rain.
-- "Love for Other Things", Tom Hennen

I stepped off the stone steps, onto the sidewalk, then into the stream of traffic. My sneakers were itching for a run, and I was ready to dart through Central Park's paths, feeling the wind fly under my legs and the world move more swiftly beneath my feet. As I stepped off the sidewalk into the crosswalk, I passed a man with a walker.

The walker seemed to be a barely functioning aide to him, as he dragged his feet along underneath him. Uncooperative, his legs wobbled as they managed step after torturous step. I slowed my gazelle's gallop down until I was walking next to him--paused for a moment--my motion suspended as his own movement checked mine.

Excuse me, sir, I asked: Do you need a hand at all?
With what? I mentally responded to myself.
It seems rude to ask someone if they need assistance, because you're poking through their exterior veneer of poise and self-possession. You are saying: I couldn't help but notice you look as if you aren't quite as in control of this situation as you would like to be; I couldn't help but notice that you are vulnerable. Pointing out someone's vulnerability is hardly a kindness, is it?

But perhaps that is because I am too in love with my own veneer of invulnerability, my own desire to appear unbreakable and unstoppable. Perhaps I am just projecting this tendency of mine to discourage any helping hand onto my fellow sisters and brothers all around me.

This man looked up, a smile breaking on his face.
Oh no, he said. I'm fine.
But he smiled. And I smiled.
And so I walked with him across the crosswalk, at his pace. A slow, laborious pace, where each step took effort, and each footfall was a victory. The red hand went up before we were halfway across, and the headlights of the cars lined up on the edge of the crosswalk looked menacing, as they prepared to roar across the white lines demarcating our zone of safety. So I walked with him, honored for a moment to play Simon opposite his Savior.

When we finally landed from our perilous crossing on the concrete port of the sidewalk, I asked him if there was anywhere else I could walk with him.
Oh no, he responded, as he made his way to the library. It's a bit of a struggle, isn't it?  But, you know, life," he said, "is a struggle."

So he walked to the library, and I ran off to the park.
And I thought of how very important it is to stop and walk with someone who is walking at a slower pace. Because when I grow up, and my feet can no longer leap across central park hills and quickly dodge yellow taxis, I hope that someone will walk with me, as I drag my uncooperative limbs to the library, and perhaps I can share with them a line of wisdom that my years of living has taught me. And maybe they will walk away, as I did, with the witness of my struggle impressed in their minds, and the strength of my spirit instructing their hearts.

So thank God for men with walkers, whose hurting feet and steady pace teaches us novices how to walk with the Lord.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

nubes pluant justum

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

Familiar words, right?
The Serenity Prayer is perhaps one of the most well-known modern prayers, made famous by its ubiquitous presence on the covers of Barnes & Nobles journals and Hallmark trapper keepers. And usually that's where the quote ends.

But wait, there's more.

Reinhold Niebuhr, of Union Theological Seminary penned the famous prayer, but he did not just write those three short lines. He writes on:
...and wisdom to know the difference,
living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time,

A call to live in the present. How beautiful and timely.

...accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.

Just today we heard that Christ's yoke is easy and His burden light. But how foreign this idea is to our world. That suffering and pain--perhaps meaningless and pointless, unjust and burdensome suffering and pain can be the avenue to our salvation. This is the hope that the Christian story brings: that all suffering, even the most cruel and unjust, can become our pathway to hope. If we look at the story of Christ we see that He lived out this truth. His death was untimely, immeasurably cruel, and a senseless act of violence. The Resurrection does not erase that fact, it does not erase the cruelty and the evil; rather, it opens up an avenue of life that is beyond the reach of all evil. But this new union with God, with light and with life as made by possible by Christ is crucial if our suffering is to mean anything. Without the Cross and Resurrection, our suffering is senseless, but through both, God has entered into every ugly part of our life and turned it into an opportunity for grace and new life.

Taking as Jesus did this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it, trusting that he will make all things right
if I surrender to his will

Last Friday, I marched with so many people who were frustrated, tired, angry, and saddened by innocent death and the lack of justice in our world.
As we lay under the Christmas tree in Bryant Park, a sad December rain poured down on our faces.
And the words of Isaiah came to mind:
Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down the Just One.
(Is 45:8)
Our world, so broken, so hungry and tired for justice, was begging for that rain.
In that moment, the great sadness and beauty of Advent hit my rain with the force of a rainstorm.
There I was, among people who walked in darkness, yearning to see a great light, yearning for a Savior to come into this broken world.
But He is already here.
Christ has not stopped massacres and injustices, rather He has suffered them Himself. He has undergone the pain of being a victim of injustice and violence. Because when you love someone, there is no part of their life in which you will not share. Is that comforting?
Perhaps it is a harsher sort of comfort, a more dearly bought serenity.

that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with him forever in the next.
--Reinhold Niebuhr, Serenity Prayer

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

the world's only realist

“He never even suggests that pain will be banished from the world. Still less does he exalt himself above it in transports of pity or enthusiasm. With customary realism, he looks it straight in the eye; he never loses courage, never grows tired or disappointed. The sympathetic, all-comprehending heart of Jesus Christ is stronger than pain."
--The Lord, Romano Guardini

You understand-
your realism is stronger than any other, harder truth.
And the harsh breaking of it hurts my heart,
as it runs along the train tracks,
squeaking like nails across steel.

The tenderness of the lights
is like a punch to the guts.
The sweetness of the music
is the sound of scissors snipping,
severing our last life-line.
I watch the words fade into the clouds
like I watch the world's last ship
fade into the waves,
mounting higher,
gaping aquatic Rockies,
bound to swallow us whole.

And so I take the very last poem
and dip it into the salty trough of water,
just as a wave crests to meet my hand,
and watch as the very fragile paper--
more delicate than you
predicted it would be--
succumbs to the rippling
fingers of water
that rush through its fibers,
ripping the ink from the weaving,
tearing the words from the web,
and running with them,
back into the ocean.

Reality's a cruel mistress,
but I have dodged her
slings and arrows long enough.
I steel myself for the very worse,
screw up my resolve
to just below the sticking place,
leaving a small thread
of space
for you to have some leeway.

With a sigh,
the sonnet sinks beneath the
roiling plain of stormy blue.
And I watch,
as it floats past my reach,
and back to you.

Monday, December 8, 2014

well how CAN this be?

"Once we see this clearly, we realize that for Jesus, the problem is quite a different one. He sees the mystery of suffering much more profoundly--deep at the root-tip of human existence, and inseparable from sin and estrangement from God. He knows it to be the door in the soul that leads to God, or that at least can lead to him; result of sin but also means of purification and return."
--The Lord, Romano Guardini

The first reading of Mass today is one of the top 100 Bible Passages that is in the most danger, I think, of becoming rote.
This passage, which is the moment in the third chapter of Genesis when God encounters Adam post-fall.
If you listen to the actual story, not just letting the words sweep over you, but actually sink into you, you'll hear something so tender and tragic and moving that today's feast will be brought into high relief.
So: first we have the call of God to Adam. The Creator of the Universe, calling out to His most beloved creation, this man into whom He breathed His own life, into whom He imparted such a great deal of Himself. This man has gone missing, has intentionally hid Himself from God.
When called, Adam steps forth, and tries to explain why he was hiding. Despite trying to create an elaborate excuse that rationally explains his actions, the reasoning behind his actions that Adam shares is a damning account. Well, Adam stutters, I hid because I was naked. One can't just walk around naked. Aren't I wise? Now I know that being naked is Not a Thing.

I don't know about you, but I find myself mimicking this particular action of Adam's far too often. Instead of just simply owning up to a wrongdoing, admitting to myself: "I did this. This was wrong and I freely chose to do it", I come up with so many excuses, elaborate arguments to hide my own actions, by own being from myself. Sometimes self-awareness is too daunting a prospect for our souls to take on, so we, like Adam, hid the real reason for our avoidance of the Lord. Why were we really hiding? We stutter, like Adam, for some reason trying to pretend that our selfish grasping was not actually that. It was something wise of us, really, wasn't it? Wasn't it? Or,  at least, natural?

But God gently asks, patiently, with kindness, leading Adam out of his lie, into the truth, even though it is painful: "Who told you that you were naked?" Poor Adam cannot escape: the truth is always there, confronting him. In his attempt to excuse himself, he has just given himself away. In one last desperate attempt, Adam tries to pin the blame not only on Eve, but on God. "The woman whom you put here with me." The utter childishness of such an action ought to make us cringe; not only out of embarrassment for our first ancestor, but because we see these actions echoed so painfully in our own lives.

There is something embarrassing and illogical that lies inside of all humans. It usually is most visible not in the large, epic crimes of nations and grand historical figures, but in the petty, daily sins. Our petty sins are so horrific, because they reveal something petty inside of us, something mean and small, something miserly and greedy. Our daily struggle to do right reveals to us an unattractive instinct inside of all of us for grasping and grabbing that rears its head in these small margins of possibility each day.

How all too ordinary it is to say to ourselves: "If this person/car next to me tries to squeeze into this crowded subway car/budge me in line/merge in front of me on the highway, I am going to lose it/honk at them/elbow them in the ribs," or has felt gladness at another person being the company scapegoat rather than ourselves, or has ever worried about there being "enough for me," or has taken something for their own that was about to be given as a gift anyway. There is a point where we are actually illogical: if we operated on pure logic, then Lady Logic would lead us to do good. But we are not. We are led by logic up to the point of action, then it is up to us--up to our courage and our virtue--to take the leap from abstract known goodness into goodness-in-action. And yet we don't. This is where it gets me. Although it would be logical to do good, we do not do it. We chose our selfish desires of the moment. This ugly pettiness of ours is most unattractive, but we usually cover it up so well, we rarely have to confront it. But it is the impetus that drives most of our wrong-doing.

This absolutely illogical bent of desire is what the Theotókos did not have. She was, somehow, free from this basic instinct towards pettiness. And what a great glory. Imagine the Joy that would be hers at receiving a gift with no whiff of anxiety or selfishness. Imagine the great love and charity with which she would rejoice in the goodness of others. Imagine the complete, utter, total gift of self that was Mary's fiat. While I can say: "Yes" over and over again, I am still held back: by my own limitations, the my own borders of selfish desire. These limitations did not exist for the Theotókos. Her "Yes" had no limits: it was complete, pure, total, quite willingly and knowingly uttered. If there ever was a yes so ready and able to bear Christ into the world, it would truly be the "Yes" of Mary.

And today, we celebrate this "Yes", and the sweet grace that allowed her to utter it, not just for her sake, but certainly for ours. And for Adam, poor Adam, still stuck in his own small, mean, grasping. Mary has uttered his "Yes" for him again. She has re-taught our first ancestors what it means to walk with God. And soon, as she takes his small little toddler hand in hers, she will teach the little God-man what it means to walk.

It was as if the human race were a little dark house, without light or air, locked and latched. The wind of the Holy Spirit had beaten on the door, rattled the windows, tapped on the dark glass with the tiny hands of flowers, flung golden seed against it, even, in hours of storm, lashed it with boughs of a great tree-the prophecy of the Cross-and yet the Spirit was outside. But one day a girl opened the door, and the little house was swept pure and sweet by the wind. Seas of light swept through it, and the light remained in it; and in that little house a Child was born and the Child was God.
--The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander

Saturday, December 6, 2014

an apology for unseen music

I do not usually seek the seduction of
poetic force
wrapping my dim world in lighted poesy.
The world is much richer
without the Midas touch
of quicksilver words encasing
eternal beings.

I never mapped a cartograph
of those times we walked among
the lanes together
and fingered crumbling tombstones and the moldy rotting leaves,
our hands soldered together
with our fingertips,
sodden with the  dew of too-early mornings.

But perhaps there are mysteries in our past,
things too dangerous to be spoken of,
that still smart with such a strength,
our pens and tounges revolt,
and refuse to make a word
for moments that are best left
crystallized impermanently
in the grey limbo of Lethe's banks.

Or, perhaps--a theory more dangerous still--
nothing in each story is beyond the reach
of the light that creeps
from the dark horizon hills
into the womb of the waking world,
that slender, fundamental beam of light,
dismissing shadows as unnecessary,
that bathes the world in an eternal glow,
the generous, life-giving luminosity
that limits the edges of each dark shape.

It threatens, with a sweet, sharp edge,
to draw the petals into the
rose's center,
to break the adamant-like spell that
holds the tense buds apart,
to string the ring of roses round
the central orb
and anchor it there,
to bring all the distinct shapes
into union.

Where will I be?--
when the light has suffered nothing to remain dark.
Where will I remain?--
a creature suffused in shadow.
The light beckons me into something more
eternal than just an I,
the terror of its immanent demands
might break the bedrock of pride
that serves as my objectionable cornerstone.
Perhaps--a theory I can hardly
bring myself to bear--
it beckons me into
a We.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

but it still falls

" Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine," Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. "'Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your father knowing it.' "
"But the sparrow still falls," Felipe said quietly.

--The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell

When my friend first recommended to me a book called "The Sparrow" I thought: Oh how nice: it's probably a great devotional book about Mary or Jesus or St. Francis, or like you know just like gentle lambs frolicking under the providence of God. A sweet devotional book, with some meditation on providence and sparrows flying about in the tender hands of the Lord, singing sweet psalms of praise in the dewy mornings.

That is not this book.
There are no gentle, innocent lambs in this book.
There is nothing sweet and soft in the denouement of this book. The shrouded evil that has attacked, battered, and broken our main protagonist priest is only revealed in the last few pages, and it is an evil so bizarre and ugly that the shock of reading those words will be an impression I remember for a long time.

But in this tale of broken and mangled human nature, I found a story of Divine Providence more powerful than any tale of lambs in meadows. But what an incredible books about providence--more powerful than lambs frolicking in a meadow.

It reminded me of one of my favorite books, Silence, (coming soon to a cinema near you, courtesy of Martin Scorsese, starring Andrew Garfield, whose casting in this movie is courtesy of Divine Providence) While Shusaku Endo's Silence is a sharper novel, more poignant and theologically more mature, The Sparrow follows in its footsteps with delicate artistry and on an unabashed epic scale. They are books where God is felt in His heartbreaking and haunting distance; where the question that runs through each chapter is: Where is God in all this?

My heresy sensors were on red alert throughout the book. "Heresy Sensors" are the name that my friend and I have christened that unique tension that appears, mounting inside of us, as an unknown and as-yet untested homilist begins his sermon at Mass. In the presence of a bringer-of-truth, something screws itself up in your stomach, a fundamental fear of being lied to. You listen to them and wonder: can I really trust this person? Will this person lead me astray or lead me aright?
Some fundamental concern and anxiety screws itself up inside our hearts, and we find ourselves on the edge of our seats, our ears tensed up as we brace ourselves for the first thud of an indelicate, ungraceful sentence of unorthodoxy.

This is not because we are fashioning ourselves as Grand Inquisitors, championing a cold, cruel justice in the name of Correct Thinking. Rather, our Heresy Sensors are what I imagine watching a second Philippe Petit dance between the Twin Towers would be like. You are watching a human being attempt something grand, beautiful, and terrifying: trying to walk the thin, delicate road of Truth. Who can attempt it without falling, careening into the quarter-mile cavern of sky between you and ground? Speaking the Truth is not for the faint of heart, and I tremble as I watch a man step out into the void with nothing but a cable and a long balancing pole to aid him.

 As I turned each page of the book, I felt the thrill of watching these characters dance on the edge of truth, particularly the character who spoke with the author's voice, and her counterpart and foil. It was breathtaking. Just when I thought that the book would just be about to endorse full-fledged, scandalous error, it would spin around delicately and subtly to the brink of orthodoxy. Ms. Russell's lovely, thoughtful, and anything but conclusive prose leads the reader to the edge of truth, but leaves it suspended in the air, inescapable, compelling, yet tantalizingly just beyond an easy grasp. There is never an easy grasp of truth, and Ms. Russell is not going to pander to our wishful thinking that would have it so. Her story has a lovely adolescent, tempestuous theology. It is raw, honest, provocative, with gaping wounds from growing pains, and a firm intuitive grasp of the truth, without the ability to articulate its subtleties.

This book drove me to do what I swore I would never do: follow in my mother's footsteps and read the ending of a novel prematurely. I was stuck on page 100, and I was so curious, fed-up, and frustrated with not knowing what evil had fallen upon poor Fr. Sandoz on this other world of Rakhat that I just read ahead to where he finally choked up a confession of his story. Because, until I finally had the story, I was reading 100 some-odd pages of a man wallowing in his misery. Unless I had a story and a reason behind the misery, I was quickly losing sympathy and patience. So I read the ending before the fullness of time.

I defend my inexcusable choice for two reasons: the suspense isn't spoiled so very much: you know from the very beginning that something tragic happens to Sandoz, and that he ends up back on earth, broken and alone from page one of the novel. And secondly, knowing the pain that Fr. Sandoz was feeling, the book read less as a thriller, with suspense as the driving force that pulled me along until the shocking and heart-breaking end. Rather, it was a tender and bitter Via Dolorosa, that I walked with Fr. Sandoz and his fellow travelers. Which, I felt, brought home the reality of the novel in a deeper way. The Passion that Fr. Sandoz undergoes is truly awful, ugly, brutal, and evil, and knowing that this was the climax of his journey tinged the events leading up to it with a much keener sadness and beauty.

--"What is this man?" 
"He is a soul in search of  God."
--Brother Behr

I have never read a book that has so consistently moved me to tears--tears of sorrow, and tears of great love. Throughout the book, I found myself in awe of a God so beautiful and desirable, that, even in such dark nights, when He is completely hidden from us, when nothing seems farther from us than our Beloved, He is there. That some how all the ugliness of the world cannot tear the desire to seek God out of the human soul. Is that what Divine Providence is in its essence? Is it dangerous, Ms. Russell's book asks, to let oneself fall in love with God? Of course it is.
How can it not break your heart?

 The "passion" that Fr. Sandoz undergoes is brutal, ugly, full of the wickedness of sin. It is harsh, ugly, like Flannery O'Connor-levels of brutal grace and then some. But, perhaps the hope--our grim and desperate hope, as heavy and as essential as an anchor--is that there is really no situation which can break the human being's connection to God. There is no place--in this solar system or another--where we can be held away from God. Not in a sentimental way, but just in a solemn factual way. But, that, we believe, is the entire point of the paschal mystery, of Christ's death, descent into hell, and Resurrection. There is not one part of the human condition into which God will not descend with us.

So: Where is God in all this? He is here. He is not far off; His immanence may be intangible, but it is inescapably true. This may be the only consolation and comfort we ever receive, this terrifying and brutal truth. But maybe this is the consolation that, as we could only confess to ourselves in our darkest nights and moments of deepest honesty, is the only one that fundamentally, truly matters.  

 "He's the genuine article. He has been all along. He is still held fast in the formless stone, but he's closer to God right now than I have ever been in my life. And I don't even have the courage to envy him."--Fr. Giulian

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


The sublimity of your youth is a fetching show of strength,
a stunning look into the lives of him who knows.
Your face, your eyes,
beheld by one
who loves the rasp inside your vocal chords when evening's foggy soup
subsides and leaves its residue clinging to the walls of your esophagii.

You are not cowed,
by crowds, by loneliness,
perhaps, even, by me.

The lone biographer of your anonymous epiphany.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

they flutter like the butterfly's eyelashes

the place where faith would give the clay of flesh its flight, 
a semblance whose stones would tug the heart towards prayer, 
build in it the desiring of heaven.  
--Chartres, Glenn Shea

How sad for anyone who prayers only with the end of the lips.
--Christian Meditations, "Fifth Sunday After Easter", Blessed Basil Moreau
Inside a little prayer book I find a thousand million words, all arranged in forms that I wish I had the power to create, but usually fail to bring into existence. Instead, I find that in the words of the Suscipe, the Anima Christi, and the Prayer of St. Bonaventure, I have given form to thoughts already in my heart. And, by praying these words over and over, I find that they teach my heart how to desire, and on what to focus them.

The words that we ingest form our minds, these words provide the code with which our incredible apparatus of thought functions. Words are the amino acids to the proteins of our brain; they are the building blocks that construct our thoughts, which are what shape our words, which are what inform our actions, which define who we become. The words that we ingest influence our entire self, they influence how our thoughts are shaped, they create new thoughts in our brains, they have a sway on our very actions.

The words that I ingest each day, in small little blue book, embossed with gold that holds the spidery black print on the feather-light paper page, are the food I feed my heart. They teach my heart what to say, by showing her how to say it. Basil Moreau says that "Prayer consists less of words than of desires and aspirations of the heart that need no long formulas nor abundance of word. Prayer is a fervent and continuous desire." If inchoate desire is the raw material of prayer, then these find black letters are the gentle chisel that molds it into something fine and beautiful. These words teach the desire what it truly is; for the desire, on its own, cannot know anything but itself. It burns continually on its own self-perpetuating fuel, a yearning stronger than death that can be so easily quenched. If not tended to, the fire of desire will weaken, turn to a desolate smoldering. It will be reduced to quickened heartbeats and sweaty palms. The desire that could have seared transcendence into my soul will be relegated to the dusty confines of animal earth, vegetating on its own impotence.

So these words, by daily reminding that little flame of desire inside my breast what it longs for, kindles the flame when it has burned down to only glowing embers. These words are the bellows that fan the flames, when it is as strong and deep as a smithy's fire. These words are what instructs the fire how to burn, that teach the flame to dance aright. These words are not the prayer; but without them, I would find myself hard-pressed to learn to pray. Like a child learning to walk, these are the low coffee tables, the soft piano cushions, the edges of sofas that provide me with a firm grip as I learn to move my feet. They whisper even as they aid: One day you will be grown and will have no need of us. Not because we are rendered obsolete, but because the muscles in your legs will be carved with memories in the shape of us. As perfect teachers open all their wisdom to their students, the lessons that we taught you will become incarnate in the first free footfall of your child feet.

Let us ask, crying out until we are answered. It is neither lukewarm prayers that touch the heart of God nor weak sighs that accomplish the work of our conversion. It is not the idle chatter of our lips or the actual cry from the mouth that we have to have heard. Rather it is the cry of the heart.
--Christian Meditations, "Third Sunday After Epiphany", Blessed Basil Moreau