Saturday, December 31, 2016

dappled things

Watching waterfalls, it is easy to be transfixed by the crashing of the water into the rocks below. But if you look above that scene of liquid disaster and flying spray, there is a scene of timeless joy right above it. If you watch, you can follow a group of droplets as it free-falls from the river, through the air, as it tumbles towards the tooth-like rocks that jut up to greet the stream as it splashes on the stone's knife edges.

That moment, as the water falls is a moment of frozen time. The water leaps from the river bed, tumbling through the air. Some of it is wicked away by wind and becomes spray. But some of it is drawn towards the rocks below, like iron towards a magnet. Wavering in the air, the water seems to be tied to no path. But it falls. Gravity pulls it down to continue its journey. It keeps falling over and over and over again.

And it seems impossible each time. Those water droplets, flying through the air, suspended before a moment before they fall, might go anywhere.

But they fall. They splash. They crash into the rocks that have also fallen from the ledge above.

It's a newer way to look at waterfalls, for me. To look not at the roar but at the silent, frozen tumble of the droplets before the crash.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

refulgence of his glory

In this sense, we are all victims, and the mythological instinct is a sound one which represents the human race as the collective victim of the devil, a personified principle of deprivation, the great 'despoiler'. Yet such a discovery can only be made by beginning from the particular facts of the violence for which I am responsible, not by a bland generalization. By discovering my past of oppression, I can discover my own self-diminution in the process; and in pressing back to the source of this vicious spiral, I discover the primary lack of wholeness, the primary deprivation, which is a part of belonging to the single human story.

But the freedom, the 'space', to undertake this process of discovery requires the presence of the 'pure victim', the symbolic figure who transcends the order of human violence, a figure first to be identified with my victim, then with myself.
--Resurrection, Rowan Williams

What do our creches mean in the midst of civil wars, senseless death, and rampant fear? Who is the infant Christ in a world of violence? 

Theophany is not native to the nursery, but this child lets history march over Him in her entropic, callous stride. He too will bear the whips and scorns of time, become a figure lost in dust of passing centuries, in which all humans, one day, vanish.

He endures the bitter snub of human forgetting. He, too, has been ravaged by history, as we are, trampled by time, humbling himself to our lowly fate of blind players, flailing on the world stage.
He who began time will watch his own time run out. His birth is almost as violent an effrontery as his death, and so we celebrate it all the more. For a God who can endure the indignity of history is a God who loves us more deeply than we could possibly imagine. A God who submits to being painted in the "chromatic pains of flesh," who exchanges ineffable unity for the indescribable particular containment of the particular of a human person is a God more generous than we anticipate.

Isaiah's words are trying to blow open Israel's imagination: Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. None of these capture the immense beauty of the God whose love has given us Emmanuel.

Christ, the pure victim--the one who endures violence and never inflicts it--comes crashing into our world of violence, opening up space for peace. Peace the world cannot give, because the world is forever victim and violator. But peace that comes from love, undaunted by the night of death that presses upon Him even at his birth, a love that pitches His tent among us. And we beheld his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

a new matins

O strange feast and scandalous sacrament, that history should bear the weight of her author, written in a margin. Blessed is the insignificant century whose years bore the God-man.

O cosmic riddle and salvific joke, that evolution should have marched past the carpenter's son in His own crib. Blessed is the universe made newly-ordered to the rhythm of his cross.

O sheer gift and utter blessing, that Love would dare to enter into time. Blessed is even the death that touched Him from His birth.

O terrible God and Lord beyond our minds, that the impassible enters temporality. Blessed are the baffled minds who still believe.

O purest light and kindest Savior, that shocking love should come to live with us here. Blessed is this truth, too beautiful to be false.

Irrational marvel! and mystifying sign, that all the meaning in the universe lies here in the manger. Blessed are the few and tired eyes who saw his sacred feet. Alleluia.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

ladies room

During these days, says Luke, Mary set out and to visit her cousin Elizabeth [insert Visitation story here]. It is so easy to zone out during these infancy narrative stories; accepting the story as expected, allowing it to become routine, and never surprising.
But wait, I thought, what is this story a picture of?

Did Mary go to Elizabeth for comfort? Did Mary arrive at Elizabeth's doorstep frightened, in need of comfort, disturbed, questioning her sanity, or feeling all alone? Was she scared of how she would tell her parents, dreading the thought of sharing this story with Joseph?

I thought of Mary, scared, uncertain of what the vision she had received was. The Protevangelium of James says that Mary "forgot" the message of the angel, and was troubled when she came to realize that she was with child. Perhaps it was in this scared, uncertain state Mary went "in haste" to visit Elizabeth.

Perhaps, timidly, she approached Elizabeth's door and called out for her cousin. Reached for the sure support and comfort of an older, wiser relative. Elizabeth's greeting to Mary is filled with the Holy Spirit, and knows that Mary needs a word of comfort. Her words, the Evangelist claims, are prophetic, they come from God, they are inspired. They are exactly the words that Mary needs to hear:

Blessed are you.
Imagine feeling your saddest, your most frightened, your most unsure, and being greeted with the beautiful, comforting greeting: blessed are you. Do not fear, Mary, whatever you are, whatever has happened to you, it is a blessing, and you are truly blessed. And your arrival here has blessed me as well. Elizabeth responds to Mary's fears with blessing. Thus freeing Mary from her own uncertainty to acclaim her joyful prayer of liberation and thanksgiving, the Magnificat.

This Bechdel-test-approved pericope gives us a beautiful paradigm for companionship and accompaniment. In her vulnerability, Mary seeks support, Elizabeth receives her vulnerability and blesses it with inspired words. Through Elizabeth's blessing, Mary's own blessing ascends.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

new Christmas

I walked into the dorm, and I walked into my home
not home in the sense of Casa Blanca,
not home in the way of DEREK,
not home in the mode of LG-02,
not home as in my mother's kitchen
a home that lacks the weight of memories
that linger in my childhood home,
a home that's not cozy and compact,
and full of tea and wine and
the fruit of Nash's crafting,
as DEREK was.
not the ramshackle glory
of the creaking, haunted Casa Blanca
not the soulless shell of a city apartment
filled with heart by loving friends,
but the comfort of new home,
one that's most surely mine
and not me,
but filled with bodies to love.
One can slip into the backdoor
into the bright and dingy stairwell,
like the warmth of wearing socks to bed.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

anamnesis

I do not want to forget.
The sun shining off of the sparkling waters of the Harlem Meer
The woman running with her beloved Toto.

I do not want to forget.
Striking up conversations about Annie Dillard or White Christmas with the young folk. Teaching them my culture, as they have taught me theirs.

I do not want to forget the pattern of awnings as I walk home up Lexington late at night, because the 6 has stopped running.
I do not want to forget walking to the Astor Square stop, and hearing the train pull away as I run down the steps.
I do not want to forget the feeling of being on the prowl, walking down 9th Avenue.
I do not want to forget acknowledging how there is a latent attraction, and I wonder why latent attractions exist.
I do not want to forget the babies in the swings in Central Park, the smell of public bathrooms, and the willow tree blooming by the water side, swaying in the morning sun, and radiant with green.

I do not want to forget what it is to be young in New York City.
I do not want to forget.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

rose-bowl dust

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
--T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

Surely, God is in this quiet.
A silence falls upon us, as we rustle into place like autumn.
The silence fills with Eliot and Spirit,
growing with each stanza, each breath.
Restless hands and hearts sink into the silence
and the peace--
God--
so much peace descends upon us.
Not a worldly, global peace,
not the peace of justice,
a peace of just us.
This is the fruitful kind of quiet,
throbbing with creative thought,
words bursting through the air,
phrases wafting through the stillness.
This is the sort of silence
in which you hear your heart beat,
thumping against your ribcage,
pulsing with creative force,
keeping you alive, and enjoying it, too.
your heart is bursting.
It might one day burst out of you--
you cannot contain it.
This is the sort of silence that makes you want to reach for a pen,
but you cannot contain this in a pen.
The silence is so beautiful, you can't move,
as you grasp for it, reach to crystallize it,
it slips through, billowing beyond your reach.
Laughter is the asymptote of this silence.
Laughter climbs to the Joy of this silence,
we laugh until we reach this peace, together,
where our joy is complete in wordless eternity.

Monday, December 12, 2016

altagracía

There was a boy, dressed in an Aztec dancing costume, dancing before the altar. Dancing with drumbeats and various shaking rhythms, dancing a la the video Deandra showed us of David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, the dance moves were strikingly similar. As he danced before the altar, I thought of David. And, as he made his way to the front of the Basilica, the boy bowed before the altar. A simple reverencing towards the sacred. But his bow, in the midst of his dance, was full of grace.

We cold, stiff Midwesterners watched as they danced. The stinger of our hive instinct, that this dance is supposed to incite, apparently, plucked from our bodies through centuries of Puritan ancestors, good solid Protestant religion, and the gnostic fumes of American spirituality.

I thought that my Latin American students, who love the feast of Our Lady of Altagracía, and who appreciate any mass with a little more zest and movement than the average, would love this. This dance felt warm, alive, like it had just stepped out of a land soaked in sun. It was certainly born far from the cold winds of the Indiana plains.

I loved this dance, because it reminded me of many joyful liturgical celebrations with my students. It reminded me of Masses where I was the guest, welcomed into their culture. Where I was caught up in the hot joy, shedding my cold Midwestern skin.

-El Señor esté con ustedes.
-Y con tu espiritu.

As the words rolled off my lips before I knew what I was saying, my muscle memory had already jolted me back to daily mass with my abuelitas. I remembered what it was like to be a guest there, too. And there I was welcomed into a tradition not my own, and found my place in it, and it has found a place in my body, my memory, my language.

I remember it felt warmer and homier than all these stiff-backed sons of German immigrants watching the Aztec dance.

I, too, am a stiff-backed son of German immigrants. And I was as unsure and awkward as the rest of them.

But then the boy bowed before the altar. And I was sure. That was gesture I understood. A simple reverencing towards the sacred. His bow, in the midst of his dance, was full of grace.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

christ our wonder

O great mystery,” cries the Christmas hymn, “and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!”  The liturgical praise of the Church, from the Philippians hymn to O Magnum Mysterium, fulfills Gregory of Nazianzus’ command to his flock to “luxuriate in the word,”  and to “rejoice with trembling.”

Christ is boundless and, truly, “the only thing completely comprehensible about [the divine] is its boundlessness,” laughs Gregory, who I imagine is quite punch-drunk while delivering this oration. Heady on the soft vision of snow fall on a frozen world, staying up late to write his homily, and bursting with all the wonder of theophany that his sermon is celebrating.

The Divine Christ cannot be circumscribed by any proposition or formula of faith, but is constantly evading our definitions.

Thus, the Christian task is twofold. On one hand: to discover the shape of Christ’s boundless reality, chipping away the heterodox, to reveal the figure of the mystery. And, on the other, to luxuriate in the inexplicable wonder of Christ the cup who offers himself to our lips, to drink deeply of the marvel of God’s utter magnanimity to deign to be contemplated by weak human intellects. The Christian must praise “the incomprehensible one” who “has willed to be understood”  by poor humanity.

Oh great mystery, indeed, that Christ escapes our complete comprehension, and yet has blessed us by becoming a subject capable of contemplation

Oh new mixture! Oh unexpected blessing!”  shouts our wholly and holy intoxicated Gregory of Nazianzus on the feast of Christ’s Incarnation. God’s incomprehensibility is not cruel torture, whetting an ontologically insatiable appetite. No, rather, the Divine remains incomprehensible in order to “draw us to itself.” Piquing our wonder through the ineffable mystery of Christ, God seeks to “be yearned for all the more.”  By acting upon this holy yearning, we humans are purified, becoming, through imitation and grace, “like God,”  so that each one of us might become a new mixture of divine life also. Oh truly unexpected—and undeserved—blessing.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

towards all our ghostly good

 I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round  
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is a doctrine that continually mystifies me. Each year as December 8th rolls around, I annually struggle to understand what exactly is so significant here that elevates this feast to a holy day of obligation. The meditations of last year never seem to have borne discoveries that adequately satisfy my questioning. What is so important that it merits mandatory Mass attendance? Why is this doctrine one that Pope Pius IX felt infallibly imperative to declare solemnly a dogma in 1854?

Read the rest of my Immaculate Conception reflections here. I think today has quickly become one of my favorite feast days, because it is one I understand the least.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

wish that we could talk about it

I miss the way we used to argue
Locked, in your basement
--LCD Soundsystem

Outside my window, the shadow of the valley of death is pitch black; and, just past it, the lights of a not-quite-semi-truck flicker down the small road that leads to the dining hall.

It's cold in that you don't want to leave your house kind of cold. I haven't taken out my AC window units yet, which probably explains why there are inhospitable drafts leaking into my apartment. The cold reminds me of when I would stand too close to my windows in my sunny room with the beautiful wooden floor to look out on the snow on the train tracks. I don't mind the drafts. They're just an excuse to wrap up in blankets. They're certainly better than the stifling heat of old buildings, that smells iron like the radiator, and makes you sweat underneath your turtleneck after walking up three flights of stairs.

Now, I live about as far away from Metro North train tracks as you can possibly get. And all the buildings are filled with dry, hot, air. I can feel my skin turn to paper and my hair crackle into dry threads. I miss falling asleep in my oceanic bed as the trains rumbled by under the roaming moon. The pipes sang in the middle of the night, I wrapped myself in blankets, and snow piled up on the roof outside.

Right now, the year is very dark. There is no snow right now, just bitter wind as the sun sets.

Today, I prayed in the chapel of the theology building with friends. The chapel of the theology building is situated at what could only be described as the hinge of the building. The chapel juts out like a tumor from the unremarkably L-shaped structure. It has lackluster windows, with various trees cut out of the stained glass. I don't know what those trees signify. I try to decipher their enigmatic symbolism with my stare.

But the sun that juts through the wood beams of the roof, and that darts through the glass trees is radiant. The poor winter sun is so wane and sickly, and musters up just a hint of golden right before she falls. But, in the chapel, the light is warm and healthy. As we sit there, the sun sets, and twilight seeps through the windows, as the chapel grows more silver and shrouded in dark.

I remind myself that on December 6th in New York, the pink strips of sunset do not arrive at 5:30, but at 4:30, and they are hidden behind the Trump developments on the West Side Highway, so I should count myself blessed that I get to enjoy the mauve sunset at 5:30pm at the end of a long day, the view blocked only by a few low buildings, and lots of trees.

But myself is not consoled. I forgot how concrete insulates, guarding a pedestrian from winter's coldest winds. And how quick the walk was from my doorstep to the subway station. It's much closer than the walk between library and classroom.

My blood feels so cold. I have completely forgotten the annoyingly sticky sweat of July, and how beads of perspiration roll down my back if I so much as move a hair. How can I still be the same person who sweated bullets on the subway platform? I can feel the blood pumping through my legs like iced tea washing down my gullet on a hot July day. I would not be surprised if the plasma froze solid in my capillaries. I am much colder than I used to be.

Perhaps it is only natural to greet the end of the year with nostalgia for what has been, and sadness that the sun's life has been sucked out of her. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

hang our harps

Something's flown in on
the change of seasons,
the sidewalk slush
makes me miss the
dirty city snowfall.
Some nostalgia's
fallen from the sky
in between the quiet
crystals,
coating the world
in silence and sehnsucht.

If I forget you East Harlem,
Let my tongue burn on
hot Dominoes pizza
that I have ordered,
betraying the memory
of your dollar slices,
lining the corners of
Lexington Avenue.

There's too much space to breathe here--
But this shy first snow--
like a dry subway breeze--
fills the rattling void.
I finally feel
that magic kind of
isolated and suffocated
all at once.
The crowded sort of lonely
lousy in the City.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

daily ritual I should call prayer

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness
has come
and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it
--Stephen Dunn, Sweetness

We ought to approach prayer the same way we approach art museums.

There is too much to be said in prayer to say it all.
There is too much art in the museum to see it all (at least today).

We walk into the Gallery 127, looking for the Seurat everyone is making a fuss about. But a small Monet catches our eye.

Monet, with his sunlight, is telling us something about the sun. It is beautiful. He is speaking in a code we know, but we only know because we, too, have seen the beauty and we imagine it. He is revealing the sunlight in globs of paint, stuck inelegantly in the corner of the canvas.

With a magic code hidden in our eyes, we capture the message that Monet has encrypted in his gauche oils. The joyful globs of paint become sunlight. We now it is so, because we too have seen this vision of the sun: a specific sun we have seen peep through stormy banks of clouds on a gloomy day.

Just like Paul, Monet revealed the light, brought to light an inscrutable mystery, but in oils instead of ink.

If we were so intent on reaching the Seurat, which everyone tells us ought to be our destination, we would miss out on the Monet's small revelation.

We must stop and look at the painters who are shedding light today. We follow the small shards of beauty that catch our eye, stay with them as long as they enchant us, and continue on as our eyes begin to weary.

We'll stop by them again on the way out, and next time on our way in, and that small painting will take new meaning with each new visit, its daubs of paint a dappled beauty for eternal pondering.

---

We ought to approach prayer like a deconstructed latte. (Postmodernism's a hungry beast folks, there is nothing safe from her deconstructing powers.) Deconstructed lattes are a trendy new phenomenon in the coffee world, that I once discovered in a posh East Village coffee nook. Led there by Instagram and my fashion forward friend, I was witness to a ritual of coffee nearing the liturgical.

The barista presented us with a neat wooden board holding three small espresso glasses: one containing a shot of espresso,  one a small bit of "not quite raw" milk, and the third the two elements combined in an actual latte. The underlying logic behind this is that when you taste the two ingredients separately at first, you can better distinguish their unique tastes in the latte. You train your senses to look for these two tastes, and your discipline results in a fuller enjoyment of subtle differences in flavor usually glossed over.

When you begin your day with prayer, in the silent peace that radiates from the morning sun, you can better pause to find that peace in the chaos of the day. When you begin your day resting in the quiet embrace of God, it is easier, throughout the day, to taste the undercurrents of peace that run through the tangled events of life. In the morning's exercise of quiet, you have primed your senses to taste grace, and you can find its melody in the synesthetic symphony of the hustle-bustle of the everyday.