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Month: April, 2019

day of deep stillness

notredame fire

radiant crucifix: notre-dame in the wake of inferno (photo credit: Philippe Wojazer of Reuters)

the soundlessness must have been haunting. a timber still cracking. a stone falling. ash settling down. the faint few echoes of footfall as one or two tiptoed in, in the first light of dawn, to begin to measure the devastation. the loss.

and there, radiant, rising from out of the billows of smoke, caught in the slant of the beams of light: gold cross glowing.

it refuses to die.

and this is the image i carry forward. this is the image i heave to my shoulder, bring to my landscape of silence, today the day of deep stillness.

the world this week stared in horror. the spire of notre-dame snapped like a pencil, teetered, crashed into the molten sky. tongues of flame, rising inferno. millennia lost, masterpiece burning. but the lasting image, the one i can see with my eyes closed, is the radiant cross — not tinged, not charred, still hanging.

seems to me the world might begin to focus on those rare few things that survive the conflagration, the fire. the dross left in the crucible. those things that can’t be burned. the ones meant to last. radiant cross rising.

seems to me this humble little planet might be wise to consider the sacred acts of starting over. rebuilding. sifting through the ashes and rubble, finding those rare few gems on which to begin again. rising out of destruction.

such is the backdrop to these holy days: the ones that draw us back to the narrative of agony, prayer, betrayal, crucifixion. the ones of exodus, too. escaping the plagues, crossing the red sea, running from slavery.

resurrection. rising. breaking into freedom.

before i get there, though, i have hours to cross in deep silence. it’s always my way on this day of remembering the dying and death on the cross. the hours of darkness, noon till three, till the heavens roil and split wide open, the hour of final surrender, when the one on the cross cried out, “father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” and then, “father, into thy hands i commend my spirit.”

words i could ponder for hours and days and weeks and years on end. words i will ponder in silence, the posture of monks and poets.

because i’ve been burrowing in the bookshelf of silence, i’ve learned of an ancient practice, one with deep eastern orthodox roots, called hesychia, “a graced depth of inner stillness.”

one of the great monastic wise men, a fellow known as saint joseph the hesychast, wrote, “the aim was hesychia, quiet, the calm through the whole man that is like a still pool of water, capable of reflecting the sun. to be in true relationship with God, standing before him in every situation—that was the angelic life, the spiritual life, the monastic life, the aim and the way of the monk.”

one of joseph’s fellow monks, abba alonius echoed, “unless a man can say ‘i alone and God are here,’ he will not find the prayer of quiet.”

as we enter into the silence, i will wrap myself in text and verse, the literary nooks and folds that hold me, blanket me. for the last six weeks, all of lent, a priest friend and i led a small circle in readings that drew us deep into the still center of the season — t.s. eliot, wendell berry, mary oliver and mary karr, pauli murray, the great civil rights lawyer and episcopal priest, were all in our lenten lectionary. we ended our weeks together with mark strand’s breathtaking, “poem after the seven last words,” a work originally commissioned to be read between movements of haydn’s opus 51, which happens to be titled “the seven last words of christ.” the performance of strand’s poem and the brentano string quartet’s haydn premiered here in chicago in 2002.

although strand, the u.s. poet laureate and pulitzer-prize winner, didn’t pretend to be religious, he turned to the gospel of thomas to find the seven last lines of jesus on the cross, and masterfully wrote lines that all but pull me onto that cross, into the darkness and depth of the hours of crucifixion. every line is a burrowing deep into the whole-body living of that crucifixion. we taste and see and hear moment after moment. strand positions us on the cross, and carries us through the agonies, through the love (glances from mother to son) and the faith (crying out to the Father), delivering us, spent and exhausted and crushed, to the final commitment, when strand writes: “to that place, to the keeper of that place, i commit myself.”

here, for your own hours of silence, perhaps, is mark strand’s meditative masterwork:

Poem After The Seven Last Words
Mark Strand

1
The story of the end, of the last word
of the end, when told, is a story that never ends.
We tell it and retell it — one word, then another
until it seems that no last word is possible,
that none would be bearable. Thus, when the hero
of the story says to himself, as to someone far away,
‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do,’
we may feel that he is pleading for us, that we are
the secret life of the story and, as long as his plea
is not answered, we shall be spared. So the story
continues. So we continue. And the end, once more,
becomes the next, and the next after that.
2
There is an island in the dark, a dreamt-of place
where the muttering wind shifts over the white lawns
and riffles the leaves of trees, the high trees
that are streaked with gold and line the walkways there;
and those already arrived are happy to be the silken
remains of something they were but cannot recall;
they move to the sound of stars, which is also imagined,
but who cares about that; the polished columns they see
may be no more than shafts of sunlight, but for those
who live on and on in the radiance of their remains
this is of little importance. There is an island
in the dark and you will be there, I promise you, you
shall be with me in paradise, in the single season of being,
in the place of forever, you shall find yourself. And there
the leaves will turn and never fall, there the wind
will sing and be your voice as if for the first time.
3
Someday some one will write a story set
in a place called The Skull, and it will tell,
among other things, of a parting between mother
and son, of how she wandered off, of how he vanished
in air. But before that happens, it will describe
how their faces shone with a feeble light and how
the son was moved to say, ‘Woman, look at your son,’
then to a friend nearby, ‘Son, look at your mother.’
At which point the writer will put down his pen
and imagine that while those words were spoken
something else happened, something unusual like
a purpose revealed, a secret exchanged, a truth
to which they, the mother and son, would be bound,
but what it was no one would know. Not even the writer.
4
These are the days when the sky is filled with
the odor of lilac, when darkness becomes desire,
when there is nothing that does not wish to be born.
These are the days of spring when the fate
of the present is a breezy fullness, when the world’s
great gift for fiction gilds even the dirt we walk on.
On such days we feel we could live forever, yet all
the while we know we cannot. This is the doubleness
in which we dwell. The great master of weather
and everything else, if he wishes, can bring forth
a dark of a different kind, one hidden by darkness
so deep it cannot be seen. No one escapes.
Not even the man who saved others, and believed
he was the chosen son. When the dark came down
even he cried out, ‘Father, father, why have you
forsaken me?’ But to his words no answer came.
5
To be thirsty. To say, ‘I thirst.’ To be given,
instead of water, vinegar, and that to be pressed
from a sponge. To close one’s eyes and see the giant
world that is born each time the eyes are closed.
To see one’s death. To see the darkening clouds
as the tragic cloth of a day of mourning. To be the one
mourned. To open the dictionary of the Beyond and discover
what one suspected, that the only word in it
is nothing. To try to open one’s eyes, but not to be
able to. To feel the mouth burn. To feel the sudden
presence of what, again and again, was not said.
To translate it and have it remain unsaid. To know
at last that nothing is more real than nothing.
6
‘It is finished,’ he said. You could hear him say it,
the words almost a whisper, then not even that,
but an echo so faint it seemed no longer to come
from him, but from elsewhere. This was his moment,
his final moment. “It is finished,” he said into a vastness
that led to an even greater vastness, and yet all of it
within him. He contained it all. That was the miracle,
to be both large and small in the same instant, to be
like us, but more so, then finally to give up the ghost,
which is what happened. And from the storm that swirled
a formal nakedness took shape, the truth of disguise
and the mask of belief were joined forever.
7
Back down these stairs to the same scene,
to the moon, the stars, the night wind. Hours pass
and only the harp off in the distance and the wind
moving through it. And soon the sun’s gray disk,
darkened by clouds, sailing above. And beyond,
as always, the sea of endless transparence, of utmost
calm, a place of constant beginning that has within it
what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, what no hand
has touched, what has not arisen in the human heart.
To that place, to the keeper of that place, I commit myself.

(from Man and Camel: Poems, 2008)

how will you enter into the silence, today or any day soon? how close have you come to that deep, deep stillness, the one the monks describe as “like a still pool of water, capable of reflecting the sun”?

may your Easter weekend and your Passover be blessed…..

blessed interweaving: jesuit girl with jewish soul

brisket making

a few months ago, i decided it was time to find out once and for all if a speck of me was jewish. i had convinced myself i was. how else to explain the profound holiness i find inside the nooks and crannies of all things jewish — the prayers, the writings, the blessing of the candles and the challah every friday night at our old maple table? most of all, the sanctification of time. of turning of the earth and all that glimmers under heaven’s dome?

turns out, there’s not an iota of jewish DNA inside me. alas. but i decided to sit myself down — at that very maple table — string together a few sentences, and bravely knock on the window of America Magazine, the great national jesuit review. i happen to come from a long line of jesuit-schooled folk: my papa, my uncles, my brothers, my very own self. in the catholic world in which i grew up, all things jesuit were spoken of in hushed and reverential tones. their intellect, most of all. anyway, America Magazine decided to green light my little essay, to post it online and run it in the print pages, too. because the world we live in now demands that a writer “share” her work on the few social media sites that might draw one or two more eyes to the equation, some of you might have seen my posting on facebook (a rare return) or twitter. but not all of you — and certainly not my mama nor my beloved mother-in-law (whose birthday is this weekend!) — so for you, i’m posting here, direct from the pages of America Magazine. 

(next week in this old house we’ll be weaving passion week and passover once again, and i’ll be deep in matzo balls and easter baskets, so the timing is especially fitting. here tis (i’d titled the essay something along the lines of “The Jewishness That Stirs My Soul,” the America editors wrote their own headline)):

How Jewish spirituality enriches my Catholic faith

By Barbara Mahany

I propped myself against the kitchen sink not too long ago and spit into a clear plastic test tube the size of my pinkie finger. I spit and spit and spit, following directions to be sure I would sufficiently trap my DNA. Once the accumulated spit crossed the “fill to here” line, I gave my test tube an emphatic shake (again, precisely as told) and popped the whole shebang in the pre-labeled shipping box. Post haste, I motored to the drive-by mail chute in my little town, tossed my parcel into the open maw of the postal box, sat back and awaited revelation. 

Over the years, I’d had a hunch that grew and grew, and I was submitting my hunch to science. Any day now, I figured, the friendly folks at DNA Central would lift the lid on what I had decided must be a long-kept ancestral secret. Surely, I must be some percentage Jewish. At least some fraction of a fractional percent. 

That chromosomal uncovering might shed light on just why it is that I—a girl schooled by the Sisters of Loretto and a phalanx of Jesuits, a girl with a rosary for every occasion—had found, all these years later, my sense of the divine so animated by the sacred Jewish lens of wonder and wisdom. All encompassing, it is one intricately tied to the turning of the earth, the sun, the moon, the shifting of the stars stitched in heaven’s dome. 

It is as if the ancient call to Hebrew prayer has reached out across the millennia and awakened all my senses. I am stirred by the command to whisper a blessing at the unfurling of a rainbow, at the first blossom of the almond tree. I am stirred by the command to scan the night sky till I spy the first three evening stars, and only then kindle the Havdalah candle, pass the spice box and recite the prayers that draw the Sabbath to a hushed and blessed close. 

I had convinced myself that deep in my DNA there must be buried some short link confirming my genetic claim to Jewish soulful lineage, aside and apart from my nearly three decades entwined in a Jewish-Catholic marriage. 

Alas, there is not. Not one strand of Jewishness to my Irish-Catholic name, not Ashkenazi, not Sephardic. How then to explain the soul-deep burrowing into the nooks and crannies of Jewish spirituality for this lifelong post-Vatican II Catholic? 

Sure, I had married an observant Jew some 28 years before. And we had raised our two boys the only way we knew: immersed in both their Judaism and their Catholicism; first Communion and Bar Mitzvahs for both, with priests and rabbis all along the way. 

Our older son, in first grade at the time, once exclaimed that interfaith Sunday school, where the curriculum taught all things Jewish and Catholic, was not enough; he wanted more, more fluency in each of his religions. So we signed him up for CCD and Hebrew school, as well as Jewish-Catholic school, and Sunday mornings meant an eight-mile dash down Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway, from Old St. Pat’s in the West Loop to the Hyde Park synagogue where he learned his alefbet and all his Hebrew prayers. (That child, now a 25- year-old at Yale Law School, has trained his legal sights on the intersection—no surprise—of law and religion.) 

My own trek into the Jewish interior began with Shabbat, the holiest of Jewish holy days, one God offers at sundown every Friday, when we are commanded to kindle lights, bless bread and wine and, most of all, put down toil for the sacred arc of 25 hours, sunset to sunset plus a smidge for holy measure. The practice of slowing time, slipping into timelessness amid the cacophony of the modern-day world, is one that literally stopped me and, from the start, stirred a deeper soulful hunger. 

It was not long after our wedding under the cathedral of oaks in my mother’s garden, when I was but a young unpracticed bride, that I set our first Shabbat table, tentatively placing amid the dinner plates two Israeli candlesticks, a kiddush cup for wine and a braided loaf of challah (which I would learn to bake over time, at the side of a Holocaust survivor who became my Shabbas friend). A rite at once domestic and sacramental, Shabbat became for me a tucked-away cloister of anointed time. 

It is God whispering, I like to think. God cocking a finger, calling us home, each and every one of us. Come, be where it is still. Put time on pause. Savor this moment, this holy stretch of hours, savor each and every sense, savor and embrace the ones you love. And so, around the globe, as Friday’s sun slips from the sky, as our world dips into darkness, there is, house by house, table by table, the kindling of sacred illumination. 

At my house, I hear the whisper early each Friday. Over the years, I have tiptoed into the kitchen at dawn to begin the alchemy of yeast and flour that becomes the challah. Awaiting its pillowy rise, I crack into the cookbooks of my various adopted Jewish mothers, peruse the spiral-bound recipes of temple sisterhoods from around the country (Bella Abzug’s Matzo Balls, among my clippings). My kitchen ministrations usher in the quietude, the prayerfulness, that has become my coveted weekly office. By the time I have set the table, ferried plates to the dining room, pulled out chairs for whoever has shown up (our Shabbat tables have often been populated by an eclectic roster of professors and scribes), I am, curiously, the Catholic who finds “church” in the holiest of the Jewish holy days. 

Time and again in synagogue, on Friday nights or during the long hours of the High Holy Days, I find my soul soaring as the cantor lifts his voice in the minor-key call to prayer, as my husband beside me bends his knees, bows from his waist, wraps himself in his prayer 

shawl. The rhythms of the Hebrew prayer, even when the words escape me, tap the sacred within. I perk my ears to the still small voice that calls us, each and all. Sh’ma Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel,” begins the holiest of all the prayers. And my soul listens. 

That blessed once-a-week Sabbath interlude—and an urge to know more, to follow some sacred cord—led me into the Jewish bookshelf, where I discovered, among others, no finer poet of Shabbat than Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote: “Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogenous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.” 

Heschel only whetted my appetite for deeper and more nuanced reading—even of the Torah. I explored such sacred instruction as the one for the harvest festival of Sukkot when, through the roof of the sukkah (a temporary shelter built for the eight-day celebration), we are commanded to be able to see the stars in the heavens. Or the Talmudic teaching to recite 100 blessings every day, a call to attention if ever there was. Inscribed in Jewish text, there is a blessing for hearing thunder, another one for when you see a shooting star. 

It is this ancient, agrarian-rooted call to see God’s wonder all around that I find woven into Jewish spirituality, and it is now an inseparable thread of my own, though I remain Catholic as ever. 

Perhaps it is the echo of ancestral Celtic spirituality or the Ignatian instruction to see God in all things, that pulsing sense that every moment of the day is a vessel of the holy. According to Celt or Jesuit or Jew, all we need do to anoint that holiness, to make it evident, unmistakable, is to bless it with our attention. And our simple prayer. 

In a word, it is “hierophany,” the place where secular and sacred meet, a “manifestation of the sacred,” a belief that dates back to ancient Greece. What stirs me most about Jewish hierophany is that it is infused with the astonishments of the cosmos, a core belief that creation is God’s first best text. Or in the words of Psalm 19, verse 1: “The heavens are telling the glory of God / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” 

It is this understanding that even before the Word, God gave us the litany of Genesis. And if we read closely the book of nature, if we surrender to the rhythms of season unfolding into season, if we allow ourselves to startle at the nascent vernal shoots, the newborn green pushing through the thawing crust of winter’s end, if we heed the mournful cry of geese in chevron streaking autumn sky, hold ourselves rapt when first snowflakes fall, if we witness the hand of God in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of wonder, we cannot help but feel ourselves cradled in the outstretched palm of the one who breathed and birthed it all. 

And so it is, in the particular and timeless attention Jews pay to the turning of earth and heaven’s dome, in the liminal hours of dawn and dusk and depth of night, hours the Jews consider the holiest of holy, that I find myself wrapped in the most sacred prayer shawl, one I had never known was mine. 

But now, it deeply is. Even if my DNA claims otherwise.

as published in America Magazine, April 9, 2019

on the soulful journey that is your own, have you been surprised by where you’ve found epiphanies and hallelujahs?

p.s. happy blessed birthday, VPK, and ellabellabeautiful, too!

cherish: these are the days i’ll forever miss

TK _ WK hug

something like feathery-flaked fairy dust — just a pinch, mind you — has descended on these days. there’s a palpable sense that we are living in hallowed time, on the permeable cusp of still holding on, but soon letting go. of liminal space, of a threshold when all the now is magnified, each fine grain of holiness amplified by the undercurrent of knowing these hours are numbered, this proximity will slip away.

cherish is the word that rumbles round my head — and my heart. it’s the sacred instruction whose imperative i follow.

fourth quarter senior year of high school started just the other day. for the kid born when i was barreling toward 45. for the kid i never ever ever thought i’d get to cradle, to fold in my arms. for the dream i feared i’d lose when his delivery got bumpy and a phalanx of top-notch neonatologists slithered into the murky shadows of the delivery room.

you never get over a miracle. i know i won’t.

even on the days when we’re nearly late for school because he won’t budge from under his covers — and what a miracle that that’s about the worst i can come up with — i never really lose touch with the blessedness of his existence.

truth be told, i get the sense that he too has an inkling of what’s coming, and he too is holding on just a wee bit tighter. even though for months now he’s teased me mercilessly about the fact that his days here are counting down.

in the last couple weeks, word has descended from college admissions offices far and wide and even close to home. friend after friend has decided, declared, committed. the boy we call our own, he is still deciding. we’re making one last trek to a couple campuses this weekend. taking one close look, and hopefully driving home knowing (although rain and more rain is in the forecast, which makes for dreary looking). maybe seeing a bit more clearly the outlines of what lies ahead.

but even without his own certainty yet, it’s the certainty of kids all around him that’s seeping in the sharp edge of truth: high school, this era he thought would never end, it’s over, done, finished, just the other side of this quarter that started this week. it’s a two-digit countdown if counting by days; it’s now less than two months away.

all of which dials up the urge to pay close attention. to savor. to cherish.

which makes this all the more, the tender season. there’s always something about springtime that pulses with a certain poignance. i always feel the equal parts light and shadow in these weeks of quickening. there’s hallelujah, there’s heartbreak, there’s loss, there’s triumph. there’s death and resurrection. nubs of newborn green at the end of the branch. mama bird in her nest-building frenzy. baby bird fallen from the nest. tender shoots bent under the crush of late-season ice or snow. the bush that didn’t survive the winter. the bulb that rises anyway. the fragile frond unfurling. the song of the wren.

i’ve written (here, and in the pages of slowing time) of the enlightened wisdom of the japanese who teach that the beauty of the cherry blossom — sentinel of spring — is its evanescence. “the very fact that at any minute a breeze might blow and blossoms will be scattered. they’re keen to what it’s teaching: behold the blossom. it won’t last for long.” nor forever.

nor these numbered days of childhood, the chapters that all unfold beneath one shared roof. the chapters where, night after night, you can perk your ears to the sounds of someone shuffling off to bed. those long-ago nights of bedtime stories and lying still beside him, in hopes that sleep would come to him before it came to whichever grownup had drawn the short straw that night, those nights are now but memory. the ritual these days is to listen for the click of the front door somewhere round the midnight hour. and not too long from now there will be no noise at midnight, nothing but the sound of a single sheet being pulled up round our noses. his room, the one at the bend in the stairs, it’ll lie untouched, un-messed-up for long weeks and months between college breaks. i’ll wander in, run my hand across the un-hollowed pillow. maybe sift through piles left behind. i’ll wonder how we got to such an empty room so fast…

i will hardly be surprised by the hollowness of those days to come. the ones where i work once again to re-wire who i am in the world. once again expand the imaginary boundaries of my mother-ness, expand to include however many miles stretch between me and my newly-faraway boy.

what’s surprising me is how tender these days are. how a softness has descended. an unspoken tenderness between us. how he calls out one last time “i love you,” before clicking shut his bedroom door, or as he climbs the stairs on his way toward homework. these are not the words he tosses willy-nilly. these are words that seem to be gurgling up from the undeniable truth that he and i have always, always sensed that we were living inside an answered prayer. and despite his disinclination to say so, he’s the bearer of one voluminous and deeply tender heart. and it’s feeling this tug in the surest quietest way imaginable.

i’ve been reading — in a glorious book titled, “the soul’s slow ripening,” by christine valters paintner, a poet, artist, and modern-day mystic now living in galway, on the western coast of ireland — that thresholds held particular attention for ancient irish monks.

“thresholds are the space between,” paintner writes, “when we move from one time to another, as in the threshold of dawn to day or of dusk to dark; one space to another, as in times of inner or outer journeying or pilgrimage; and one awareness to another, as in times when our old structures fall away and we begin to build anew. the celts describe thresholds as ‘thin times or places’ where heaven and earth are closer together and the veil between worlds is thin.”

(i love learning that the monks literally sought out “edge places,” in the desert, on the margins of civilization, in the wide-open windswept burren, “at the very fringes of the ancient world,” where they might most deeply embrace the perspective it allowed them.)

it makes me scan the terrain of this “edge time” i find myself — and my sweet boy — living in. it makes me wonder if the pinch of fairy dust, the extra-porous tenderness, the gentle grace that animates each day, as my senior in high school holds on tighter as he gets ready to let go, it makes me wonder if we’re wise to pay attention to the “thinning,” and recognize the holiness of heaven intermingling in the everyday earthliness of this very last high school chapter?

it makes me wonder. and it makes me hold tighter to each and every hour of this blessed thinning time and space…

what thresholds capture your attention? have you a sense of the thin place, where heaven and earth hover within reach?