Monday, February 29, 2016

a walk down Park Avenue

I walk down Park Avenue on my way to Mass.
And it is twilight, according to my almanac of sunrise and sunset that I printed out, and the windows are all lit up. This is my favorite time to walk down Park Avenue: I gape at all the houses

There is a dog that is not like the other dogs on Park Avenue. The other dogs are perfect Afghan hounds or small maltese, or yorkies, or nice beagles in well-tailored sweaters.
This dog is an elderly and unkempt chocolate lab. And he flops on the sidewalk despondently whenever his owner tries to walk him.

This is for the woman with hair so gray it is mauve.
This is for the woman in the dress that is decorated in a pattern that looks like a Hieronymus Bosch coral reef.
This is for the woman who sits next to me in the pew and takes my breath away. She seems so much more solid and real than I, with her flawless, smooth skin, rolled out on her bones like a delicate layer of chocolate. She is tall and slender, her build is economical. I feel like a lumpy fluke of evolution, wasted away in polar regions.
This is for the woman who turned to me and said: Your eyes are beautiful. I lost my breath, and foundered in the muddle of people running from the 6 train to the 4. And I have never felt so loved; to have received such admiration, with nothing expected in return.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

realization of love

One of the great miracles of love is that it not only persists in the face of sin, but can become deeper and more profound in the wake of it.

In the Taïm on Spring Street, there is not much room for eating, much less conversation. There are no tables with chairs you can sink into for a good long chat. The small restaurant is lined with three slick glazed bars with rigidly chic orange barstools. The implication of this arrangement is that the main event here is the food. You may look out into the dark world of the SoHo night while enjoying your Harissa falafel, or you may look in the darkly glazed mirror at your self, consuming your tabouli, but you are not encouraged to distract yourself from the business at hand.

My friend and I, however, not discouraged by the feng shui's subtle hints to scarf down our hummus sandwiches and bolt, grafted ourselves to the barstools and proceeded to ponder the infinite mystery of God's love for us, and all the terrifying implications that has upon our lives.

The most terrifying being the revolt that was simmering in my breast and was finally spoken out too loudly in the all-too-quiet falafel bar on Spring Street: I don't want to love as God loves.

Oh how I desire to desire it. But there is a small kernel of rock solid pride inside my heart that refuses, absolutely refuses, to budge.

To love as God loves means to give of myself completely, knowing that even my very self: my quick-witted mind, my smile, my writing, my kind heart, and my laugh are all just pure gift, and none my own merit. Even my intelligence is simply a gift received from my parents and their parents before them and their parents before them. An endless lineage of gift.

And I am so covetous of these precious gifts. For they are precious; and they are gift. And as freely as I have been given, so ought I to give away.

And yet I do not.

Because, I say to my friend, terrible and righteous anger searing my heart and tears stinging my eyes, how can I give myself to someone who does not deserve the gift? How can I give myself to someone whose image of me is bent through eyes tired through unchastity? Why would I ever reveal myself to someone who has seen too many revelations of women, and whose encounter me is now tainted by his encounter with them? [A question too many women have had to grapple with. It is the injustice of this nearly universal grappling which causes the anger, and pity for the offender which causes the tears.]

For my reaction, in the face of others' sin and my own, is to run away. I don't want to encounter that part of my life, I don't want to encounter that part of another person. If the other person will not receive me with all the grace and the pure love that I deserve to be received, then he gets no part of me, I think.

I have always been fascinated by women who withdraw. Because women who withdraw retain their power. They do not allow themselves to be wounded by porn-stained men. They do not allow the precious gift of themselves to be trampled all over in the messy fracas of relationships. They withdraw to the convent, into the precious sanctuary of their own minds, into the dark chambers of their own hearts.

As I stare at the congealing yogurt sauce, through my tear-blurred vision, I see the angry, hurt words I have left hanging in the air form an image cruciform.

God did not, as the Kabbalistic creation myth would tell us, withdraw.
God did not withdraw into Himself, leaving us creatures in the void where He is not.
God did not recoil from our sin.

Rather, He emptied Himself. He, whose nature is total gift, emptied His gift to us entirely,  the Omnipotent laid down all His power, and was crucified for us. He loved, despite the injustice of the hurts sustained. He loved, totally, completely, holding no part of Himself back. He loved, despite the inability of we, His beloved, to see Him as we ought. Our vision is stained by our sins.

And still He comes to us. He did not crucify Himself once, and say: okay, now that's enough. I've loved you well for just today. As if that in itself wouldn't be enough. That is the hardest part: to let one's love lead you to the cross, and nail you there, to hang and bleed to death.

No, He comes to us in the astonishing, bizarre humility—totally abhorrent to that rock of pride inside my heart—of a piece of bread. A piece of bread that could tell a story of hurts received far, far longer than my sorry litany of grudges and wounds sustained. He comes to us so sweetly, and always the same. Always pouring out His infinite love upon us, unworthy humans. And never does He withhold Himself from us, because we are not worthy.

In the face of our sin, He proceeds to shower us with greater love.

I loved God when I was twelve. I really did. And sometimes I yearn to be twelve again, in the safe, untouched recesses of youth, when the worst sin I had committed was lying to my mother about making my bed. How much better, I thought, I loved God then. When there was so little of my self to get confused with God, and fewer sins that fretted at the bond of love between us, and fewer wounds that pock-marked my little heart.

But now I love Him so much more than I ever did. Because His response to my sin has never been to leave me behind and run away, but always an embrace. If only, I pray, I could desire to love others with that same reckless embrace. So thoughtless of the pain that will be received, and so mindful of the great Joy of loving the other.

One of my students recently had her journal open during class, and as I walked by, I saw over her shoulder large, manga-style script decorating the soft pink (of course it was pink) page. The sprawling, spindly black letters read: "Never Knew a Love Like This Was Real."

And of course, my first reaction was an eye roll and a snarky interior chuckle: "teenagers."

But my better self rebuked me. Those words should be my daily prayer of praise. Love that is total, self-giving and so un-self-interested boggles my imagination. But I have felt for myself that it is real. And, even more humbling, I have tasted in other human loves so great a love. Others are capable of loving me with love that far more resembles God's for me than mine for them.

And after beating my breast and moaning about "how difficult it is" "how unjust" that I should have to love a creature that is imperfect, I laugh at my own ridiculous histrionics. For who am I but the paragon of imperfect creatures, who has the superbia to pretend to demand perfection from the rest? Who am I but the same beloved who has wounded my love with my sin. And He has not left me to famish while he retreats into the inner ring of righteous ninety-nine, but He seeks me out to feed me, each and every day, not because I am good, but because He is.

Oh Lord I am not worthy that thou should enter under my roof, I whisper hoarsely at the back of mass, tears stinging my eyes. Only say the word, I cry silently. And just like that, I am lifted out of sin and into love.
Could it really be that easy?


Thursday, February 11, 2016

the prodigal smell of biscuits

Curtains forcing their will 
against the wind, 
children sleep, 
exchanging dreams with seraphim. 
The city drags itself awake 
on subway straps 
--Awaking in New York, by Maya Angelou

In Yorkville, on a quiet street, a street you would expect nothing of, there is a church. It is a very striking, almost grotesque-- church that rises out of the dark of the February night. Its spires seem to introduce into the clear air-- cold as frostbite--a smog of mystery.

Its steeples rise alarmingly out of the surrounding brownstones and nondescript apartment buildings. They are Gothic and ancient, intricate little harbingers of another world. It was startling to see a free-standing church, as all its compatriot city churches on similar small streets are tightly tucked between different buildings.

Avenue churches get to be grand and magnificent. Street churches are usually squished against the surrounding houses.
 
But this church has a churchyard, complete with wrought iron fence and grass. It is a proper English Church transported to the center of Yorkville. Now, as I walk down the sidewalk, I think the street is enchanted, because of this Church. This church harbors green grass and stained glass, which harbors a different world. This place is not of this world; it belongs to England and cobblestone streets; Parliament and winding alleys that lead you to authors' homes.

This little Church is a sacrament of something quieter and sweeter, in the midst of the bustle of the city. I think the city is filled with all these little signs, if I'm willing to pay attention to them.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

bless our presentations

 and I’m half crazy with the wonder of it — the abundance of the leaves, 
the quietness of the branches, the hopelessness of my effort.
 And I am in that delicious and important place, 
roaring with laughter, full of earth-praise.
― Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings


I am leaning against the kitchen counter, listening to the morning Radiolab, the rush hour traffic beginning its shrill roar of sirens and tires screeching outside, and the pop pop pop of incoming messages from Nathan. The sound of thoughts boiling and conversation brewing. The sounds of the day churning into waking.
I am watching the tea kettle steam, and the dark leaves of the tree in the backyard swaying in the deep shadows of the twilight morning air, and Sean's big box of green tea teeter precariously on the shelf above the oven.
I am eating eggs and toast, and waiting for the grilled cheese I have made for lunch to be finished, poking at the browning bread as it sizzles in the skillet on the stove-top. I am thinking about the words of the Gloria we sang yesterday at Mass.

We praise you
We bless you
We adore you

We bless you.

And I wonder what it means to bless the Lord, exactly, what it could possibly mean to "bless" God. And, while we're digging through these thoughts, I might as well ask what a "blessing" is. In many ways that we use the word, it seems to mean someone who has bestowing something on someone else, a someone who has not. It is me, who has, bestowing something on him, who does not have.

As I slowly chew my eggs and listen for the whistle of the tea kettle, I think wonder if there is something in this moment that blesses the Lord.

~

Back in the day--the Old English day--"bless" was the verb that was chosen to translate benedicere, which means to speak well of. To bless someone, I infer, means to speak well of them, or to give them a good word, to speak words to them that are good. Perhaps blessings are fundamentally linked to words. Perhaps, our words of blessings remind us that all our words have a power in them that we usually do not attend to. Words leave our lips quickly and glibly throughout the day. But maybe words of blessing have a power in them that we usually neglect to attribute to our ordinary words. Our words are not just sound. They carry with them the power to build something beautiful or cut and destroy.

Bless, the verb, also comes from the Proto-Germanic blodison  which means to "hallow with blood." That's a word you can really get behind. "To hallow with blood" is not a half-assed word. It is not for the milk-blooded among us.

This definition of blessing baffles me. For blessing means to make hallowed. To consecrate. How can I make holy Holiness Himself? What sort of benediction can I offer the font of all blessings?

I sit in the over-heated lady chapel in St. Ignatius Loyola, and ponder the baroque architecture of Schickel and Ditmars, I think that this church is just another fumbling attempt of the human race to bless God. A pathetic little Holy of Holies.

In front of the tabernacle is just a simple white candle. Which seems a terribly inadequate symbol of the presence of the Lord. If God really is fully, entirely, substantially present in the little white host nestled in the small box on the wall, then shouldn't there be a greater sign of his presence than this ordinary little flame? Shouldn't there be more beauty, more grandeur--shouldn't there be here the most grandeur and beauty and majesty our human hands can make?

When I think of what would make a sufficiently perfect temple for the Lord, suddenly the thrusts of marble and the gilded vaults seem like such a foolish home for the Lord, the architect of the sunrise, the designer of photosynthesis, the engineer of RNA. There is such an elegance in nature that even our cathedrals cannot capture. The grand church seems jejune in comparison to the constructions of the natural world. How silly of us to think that these marble pillars could adequately house our God.

But again, I think. Is this not the whole point of learning to bless the Lord? To bless means to attempt to make holy what we have been given, a foundering, imperfect effort though it may be. To bless means to attempt to hallow with beauty, if not with blood, the raw materials of our earth. We are stumbling, imperfect creatures. And this church is an imperfect offering of love. But is not this simple, childish blessing what we are being commanded to offer?

How do I make holy Holiness Himself? How do I hallow in blood Him who hallowed me in His?

The great foolishness  and great wonderof creation is that God put His hope in us. That God loved us, and in loving us gave us the power to wound Him, to curse Him and not to bless Him. To speak ill of Him, to leave a moment unconsecrated. The love of God for man is total gift-love, but also, for the vision of Creation to be fulfilled, you and I are needed. You and I are required to be present at the wedding feast, where Creation sings to bless the Blesser, the Blessed, and the Blessing between them.

And perhaps learning to bless the Lord is learning to consecrate each moment, turn each particle of time into a canticle of praise. It seems so intimate. But perhaps blessings are intimate affairs.

Again. The praise. Praise: to express our admiration and love. To glorify. But to bless. To bless has to be something different than just regular old praise. I think of the canticle of Daniel:

Mountains and hills, bless the Lord;
Everything growing on earth, bless the Lord;
Seas and rivers, bless the Lord;
You sea monsters and all water creatures, bless the Lord;
All you birds of the air, bless the Lord;

 The tapestry of blessing that these words weave seems an intimate portrait of love. The blessing of Creation upon the Lord is an intimate love affair. It is an imperfect gift, in exchange for a perfect one, the way you offer your parents a small gift like a book or a scarf in return for your life.

~

So I take this moment in the kitchen, this moment wrapped in the freshness of morning, the creature comforts of breakfast, and the joy of love, and try to offer it to the One who gave it. I try to bless it, the way Schickel and Ditmars blessed the marble from which they built the sanctuary. Or, more accurately speaking, this moment is blessing the Lord. As the voices of Jed and Rob yammer happily in the background, I sprinkle blood (metaphorically) on this moment. This moment has been hallowed.
The tea kettle sings, and I pour the water into the thermos in a smooth, calm stream. Outside, rain is hanging in the February morning, falling onto the ground in a gentle mist. The rain is hallowing the thirsty earth with water, not with blood.

How do I make holy Holiness Himself? How do I hallow in blood Him who hallowed me in His?


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

bitter anguish bearing

Thus, in the heart of anguish are found the gifts of peace and understanding: not simply in personal illumination and liberation, but by commitment and empathy, for the contemplative must assume the universal anguish and the inescapable condition of mortal man. The solitary, far from enclosing himself in himself, becomes every man. He dwells in the solitude, the poverty, the indigence of every man.
--Rain and the Rhinoceros, Thomas Merton

Sometimes, when I walk down the street in New York City, I am overwhelmed by sorrow. All I seem to see in the faces around me is pain. And as I walk by the people all around me, I am just smote with sorrow for them. I'm not sure how this started, as usually when I walk by people, I am struck by their beauty.

But for some reason, in New York, people bring me pain.

One day, last week, I watched Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. The violence was surely gratuitous, but in addition to the overwhelming sight of blood and guns and violence, a strange sadism pervaded the film. Particularly the climax of Vince's death in the pawn shop. The camera watched this men bound and gagged with a lascivious eye. The violence felt beyond indulgent and, frankly, pornographic.

Violence seems to us to be a part of our daily milieu. Not only does it pervade our television and movies, but stories of real-world violence fill our newspapers and inboxes. There are refugees dying, there is a morass of civil wars in the Middle East, there are stories of gun violence, murders, protests, riots, suicides all around us.

In some ways, we think that we are used to violence. We imagine we are desensitized to it. But really, we are not. We live our lives in the perfect happiness of safety and security. I do not walk around the streets anticipating the sort of violence that Pulp Fiction narrates. That sort of violence is foreign to me. I implicitly trust the people all around me on the street to not to tear me to shreds.

I am saddened by injustice.

There are sometimes when I am riding the subway, and I keep my head down, looking into my book. I am not reading, the words are disappearing behind a thin glassy layer of tears. I look down so that the man in the tweed coat, riding the rails to 42nd Street Grand Station, where he will hop on the Metro North to Greenwich cannot see the tear that falls and smudges the clean pages of the library book.

I am crying because
of lethal injections
of rude internet comments
of injustice at the hands of the law.
Of the constant victories of lies over the truth.

And I am dismayed. I am dismayed at my own inability to help turn the terrible hurts of the world into goodness.

And I think: I wish that I could just sit in a monastery all day and pray for all the people who need praying for. I wish I could just retreat, and spend all day ministering to the wounds of the world through prayer. I know that there are those whose vocation it is to do that; to pray for all the rest of us, and they do so continuously. And I (senselessly) envy them that.

But that doesn't seem to be quite enough, I think, for me. That is not enough. I cannot simply become a reactionary to the darkness, but it seems essential that part of the mission is to roll back the darkness with light. Not only must I cry for the world, on occasion, and shed tears for men and women's sins and my own, but I must love the world. Embrace it. Live in it. Build something beautiful within it. It is not enough for me to mourn all the sinful brokenness. I must find Joy in the midst of the world. I cannot reject it, run from it--run from the people who inhabit it--I must build beauty and pursue Joy in the world. And this seems to be the greatest challenge: to let the sadness of the world not overwhelm me, but inspire me towards greater joy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

what perhaps prayer is


Ava's Prayer

I was sitting in silence at the back of a church in Chicago, thinking that I should pray, and suddenly not knowing what that meant at all. When I say: "I will pray for him," what do I mean?
When I say to a friend: "I will pray for you," what will I do?

What did those words mean? Would I address God directly, and say, Lord watch over your servant? Would I remember them that night in prayer before I fell asleep? Would I offer up a prayer right there and then, as I typed those words? The simplest form of prayer-- petitionary--had completely stumped me.

I turned to the book of prayer intentions behind me on the wall, and began to flip through. Ava's message to God struck me. "Dear God, please pray for my little Sister Isla because she is going to make her first communion this Sunday.
Love, Ava"

While perhaps phrased in less-than-accurate theological language, Ava's prayer possessed a clarity of purpose and a simple message of communion that pierced the clouds of my confusion.

~

I think perhaps prayer is the tears I cry in place of my mother's, and perhaps it is an embrace between us in place of words. Perhaps to pray for another person in their sorrow means to sit silently besides them, and simply let them grieve, quietly. Maybe to hold their hand. But maybe just to witness to the sorrow that holds their heart.

Grief is so sacred and quiet. It dwells deep within your heart. Who could you allow to touch it or enter it? To speak of it loudly, in passing, to strangers or even loose acquaintances seems like trampling over holy ground. Only those who take off their shoes and walk gently can be admitted to your grief.
But grief is like a scar, chiseled into your forehead, for the entire world to see. If someone does not comment on it, it seems a callous oversight. How could they not see the throbbing scarlet wound that marks your brow, and not acknowledge that you are marked.

To pray with one who grieves perhaps mean to say nothing, but to feel their grief, heavy on your own heart.

There seems to be a prayer in reading through old letters, deciphering the script of the past, trying to make sense of long-dead stories. Reading the words of our grandparents from times long past, treasuring the bits of who they were caught in ink and paper, is a kind of communion with the deceased. Perhaps.

~

I know that prayer means a saving from myself. When I travel too often, or too long, my mind goes a little bit haywire, spinning in barrel rolls as the plane speeds through the air, I find myself running through the same thoughts over through my head. Tires spinning, going nowhere but growing more entrenched in the mud.
Then suddenly, a voice enters the chaos of my internal dialogue. That voice that is not my voice, and brings with it thoughts that are not of my creation. These thoughts are not my thoughts, and they speak of ways that are not my ways.

That voice: born out of something deeper inside me than myself, and so wholly foreign to my selfish being, that voice, perhaps, is prayer.

~

I was walking in the woods with my father, staking out the property line at my grandparents', our feet molding soft impressions into the damp earth. I was spilling tea from my mug each step we took, the steam from the spilt tea rising from the cold forest floor. And the woods smelled like pine straw in the rain. The sky was damp, and the air was filled with the smell of dormant life. We followed the dated and dilapidated barbed-wire fence through the near-empty creek bed, under fallen trees, and through the rivulets and ravines that snaked through the evergreens.

I walked with my father, and we talked together some. But mostly we just walked and marked the trees: with purple paint, orange nylon tape, and memory. Is this, I thought, a kind of prayer? Are my father and I praying together right now? Am I praying for him as I follow his steps through the woods, laughing over new memories and old?

I was pondering what it meant to be Mary the Mother of God, who did not do anything extraordinary, until all of a sudden she was asked to do the most extraordinary thing. She knows what it must be to have a plan, to know with peaceful certainty what life will bring her. But then, to have her ordinary frustrated by the extraordinary. She knows what it is to maneuver through the in-breakings of the miraculous that mire our simple lives in inconvenience.

She accomplished the decrease that accompanies God increasing. She was forced to make her life about God and not about her at all. Yet nothing about this woman full of grace is forced. Her acquiescence to the invasion of Divine Love is graceful, peaceful, and elegant. Nothing could be more natural.

I think that prayer is walking through the woods with my father, and
remembering, with a sudden force,
that my life is not about me.
My love is not about me.
Suddenly, seeing my life in the light of the cross.
Perhaps that is what prayer is:
allowing the cross,
some grief,
a voice,
to break into
my vision of my life--
with force--
but to be received with grace.

Monday, February 1, 2016

nourishing

I am loath to leave my bed,
packed with warm daydreams
and the safety of sleep.
But if I pull myself
from under the down comforter
of slumber,
I am rewarded with the
Harlem sunrise,
shimmering like
liquid grapefruit,
dazzling the sky
above the East River,
and singing us into waking.

Rain is suspended
in the air of the courtyard,
dripping from the snow
melting off the tin roof
of the church.
I am sprinkled with
a bit of holy runoff,
as I glide under the eaves,
eating.
My stomach is
filled with the warmth
of food cooked with
caring.