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Category: spirituality

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!

ordinary time

noddling bells of spring

deep in the recesses of my DNA, these knowings lurk. those little bits of knowledge slipped in once upon a time, those bits that order time, that frame the paradigm, the window frame, through which i watch the passing picture show called life.

somehow this week there was a whisper barely heard that told me ordinary time had come. technically, liturgically, it had come because the church i grew up in, the catholic church, ordains the monday after pentecost sunday as the opening of the long chapter of the year called “ordinary time.” and so, this week, as i slipped into this time, i couldn’t keep myself from considering the folds and undulations of just what ordinary means.

all around me, as lily of the valley sent up its flagpoles of perfume, as apple blossoms drifted down like vernal snowfall, as songbirds in feathers shocking pink and golden yellow darted in and from my feeders, i hardly thought things “ordinary.” the world’s in exultation.

and in my daily everyday, there was no relenting from the news that never stops and never slows to a trickle, nor was there quelling from the firehose of bumps and bangs that comes with loving widely, deeply. one night had me up till 2 a.m., making sure a young typist came to the end of his bibliography and junior theme (aka massive term paper) before we clicked out the lights. that same night had me dispensing nursing cures to a long-distance patient whose neck was in some spasm. all while keeping track of a train chugging to st. louis, where my sweet mate and familial co-conspirator drew more distant by the minute and the mile. by day, i somehow managed to turn in — on deadline — my own newspaper assignment, the first such one (a cookbook tale, complete with half a dozen lively interviews) in quite a while. none of this seemed “ordinary,” if by ordinary we mean “having no distinctive features,” as the oxford american dictionary tries to persuade us.

oh, around here, it’s distinctive all right.

i even plopped my bum on the old cedar slab i call my prayer bench, amid the ferns and bleeding hearts of my secret garden, intent on keeping watch on this so-called ordinary time.IMG_0172

lured by curiosity to the pages of old books, i dug around to learn a thing or three about this ordinariness. here’s a bit of what i learned: the church, in all her wisdom, divides the year into chunks of time (perhaps to fine-grain our focus, knowing full well we’d succumb to blur if not for demarcation). the church knows, according to one wise writer, “that human psychology desires the marking of moments.”

there are, apparently, two liturgical mountain peaks in the year, easter and christmas, each with preamble (lent and advent, respectively) and in between (here comes “ordinary time”) “the pasture between the mountains,” otherwise referred to as “vast verdant meadows,” of ordinary time, of tempus per annum (my church loves its latin, and, according to my resident latin translator, this literally means “time throughout the year”).

it must be the quiet season, the chunks of year when — inside the church and beyond — there is not the cacophony that comes with birth (christmas) or death and dying and its glorious resurrection (easter).

in one lovely meditation, i read that God, in infinite wisdom, invented the notion of seasons (not unlike the kaleidoscope that turns a notch and explodes in all new shapes and colored bits) as “invitation to reflection,” to jostle us awake as the all-around ever shifts. yet another meditation opined that God uses seasons to “translate wisdoms into a language of purpose for our lives.”

what that means, i think, is that it’s no accident that some of us walk around fully willing to be klonked on the head by the 2-by-4s of revelation that have us extracting lessons from earth and sky and trickling waters in between. it’s why a vine that blooms long after deadline (the week before thanksgiving, one year) might speak to me of undying courage, and the quiet of the dawn reminds me to settle my soul and breathe deep before the launch of day. it’s why the springtime stirs me full of hope, and all but insists i power up my rocket blasters.

ordinary, i read, comes from “ordinal,” or numbered, the weeks of the year simply counted off, one by one. amid the canvas of quiet, without profound distraction, our task in this stretch of time is to think hard and deep about the mysteries in the weft and warp of being alive. as this is the longest time of year, a full 33 to 34 weeks of ordinary time, depending when the feast days fall, i suppose the point is to settle in, sink deep, into the extraordinary work of living, with our attention meters cranked as high as we can muster.

all of that is literal, is what the books i sought spelled out. i tend to veer off the page. and that’s when i began to really contemplate the power of unencumbered ordinary. as if we’re given unfettered canvas on which to quietly and without bother absorb the sacred simple. the gift of being alive without all the inner chatter. the charge to scan the hours of the day for those moments that break us out in goosebumps. the blessing of deep, slow breathing. the chance, scant chance, to catch God in the act….
IMG_0173

of late, i’ve become intrigued by what i call the theology of the sacred ordinary. not the loud bangs and pyrotechnics, not the stuff that comes at the end of miles-long, desert-crossing pilgrimage, but rather the stark and quiet notion that we are living the Holy right now.

it’s the hush of a whisper, the percussion of the rain, those are the sounds that call us in, call us to behold the simple pure sacred. it’s the humility of the moment that belies its grandeur, its magnificent majesty……

and perhaps that’s the invitation of ordinary time, to dwell amid the plain-jane, stripped-down quotidian of the everyday. to awaken our deeper senses, our fuller attentions, to behold the Beautiful, the Wise, the Profound amid our daily stumbles and bumbles. to live as if the Book of Wonder has been placed upon our open palms, its pages spread akimbo. to extract, inhale, deep breathe its mighty and eternal lessons. the ones that whisper, the ones we hear only when we truly, truly listen.

what does ordinary time mean to you?

this morning’s writing came in fits and starts, as it sometimes does, as somehow this morning this old house clattered like it was grand central station, locomotives and the people who aim to board them rushing in and out the station, barely and noisily keeping to the clockwork schedule.

reporter’s notebook: on poetry and peepers and what’s hierophany?

reporter notebook faith and writing

because it’s sunday night, and late at that, and because i promised to ferry home a satchel filled with poetry and wisdoms to mull for a week or a day or a lifetime, i’ll cut straight to the cuttings from my notebooks, the two i filled front and back, draining three fine pens of all their ink.

i will say — because it’s impossible not to — that besides the breathless whirl of words and words and kindness and words that sometimes lifted me from the hard pew on which i was sitting, or the hilarity of anne lamott that made me marvel — and love her rare brand of kooky brilliance — all over again, the most mystical moment came late two evenings, as i walked alone toward the far end of the vast asphalt acre that was the calvin college parking lot.

the moon was half both nights, or nearly so. the sky, a western michigan sodden blue. the daylight not yet rinsed out. the night shadow inking in. and then, from the lacy backdrop of leafless woods, the rising vernal chorus of the spring peepers, that amphibian night song that breaks you out in goosebumps — or it does me, anyway. it’s a froggy croak — a high-pitched rendition, indeed — i’d not heard since trying to fall asleep in the upstairs dormer of my husband’s boyhood home, where the backyard pond and its full-throated citizens lull me to dreamland with their percolating melodies. i wanted to record a few bars for you, so you too could share the goosebumps. instead, i offer this, borrowed from the land of internet.

and now, from my notebooks:

notes from the festival of faith & writing:

reading list*:

william spencer, the poet’s poet according to keats.
brian young, one of the more powerful poets writing today, according to poet geoffrey nutter. died last week. “recollection.”
theodore roethke opened up nature and poetry for poet and scholar kimberly johnson.
before the door of god, religious poetry through history, by jay hopler and kimberly johnson.
“man killed by pheasant,” john t. price. short story.
loren eiseley, “the star thrower.” 16-page essay.
chenjerai hove, zimbabwean author, poet, playwright and human rights activist (outspoken critic of robert mugabe) who lived in exile in norway, wrote the novel bones, and inspired okey ndibe.
jessica mitford, great memoirist, the american way of death.
patricia hampl: “if i could tell you stories.”
“the whaling chapters” of moby dick.
“the inheritance of tools,” essay by scott russell sanders.
lia purpura, “rough likeness.” a book of essays.
john fowles, “the tree.” essay.

* these are the titles i scribbled every time one of the truly enlightened speakers tossed out an exhortation, “you must read…” a reading list in progress (in perpetuity, actually)….

words to fall in love with:

pullulating: means “sprouting.” or breeding or spreading.
hierophany: places where sacred and secular meet. The term “hierophany” (from the Greek roots “ἱερός” (hieros), meaning “sacred” or “holy,” and “φαίνειν” (phainein) meaning “to reveal” or “to bring to light”) signifies a manifestation of the sacred.
petrichor: word for the smell of rain on dry rock. petra, rock; ichor, blood that flows through vein (in greek mythology, the ethereal golden fluid that is the blood of the gods and/or immortals). in modern usage, it’s a glorious word for a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. (who knew there was a word for that most delicious spring perfume?)
adiaphora: “meaningless things.”

a few fine lines, and the lively minds who put breath to them:
notes scribbled from my notebook (in order of appearance over the three-day festival)…

uwem akpan, nigerian catholic priest (formerly a jesuit), author of say you’re one of them, collection of five short stories telling of african horrors, each told through the voice of a child:

“if you’re afraid to fail, then don’t try. sit in your room. don’t marry. don’t give birth.”

“for those who want to be writers, be brave, act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly before your god.”

most poignant moment, after his talk when a young blogger walked up to him and said she’d been writing from darkness all month, in the eclipsed days since feb. 13 when her 29-year-old husband died, after a years-long battle with cancer, leaving her alone with a not-yet one-year-old. akpan, a priest since 2003, magnificently ministered to her with his gift of words. i cried, and through tears, i scribbled some of what he said after folding her into his embrace: “get into rhythm. don’t shy away from anger. the prayers may not come. go to the psalms, let them fall off your tongue. when God sends you on a trip, he arrives there before you.

“right now you’re alone in that body of water, rowing toward the shore.”

geoffrey nutter, poet, author of four poetry collections, most recently, the rose of january. teaches poetry at princeton:

it’s been said that his writing gestures toward what t.s. eliot called, “frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist.”

“comprehension is unnecessary in reading a poem. apprehending is instantaneous response: what poetry does best. to poets, the image creates the powerful image more so than ideas. images are more intelligent in the poet, do more work. unfold into resonance. it’s where the soul work is done. poems resonate with mystery.”

“the moment when empathy was born: when jesus, scribbling in the sand, said, ‘don’t judge lest you wish to be judged.’”

calls 17th-century poet henry vaughan “one of my best friends.” adds: “words written in the 17th century in a moment of passion, like a note slipped under the door to us.”

“certainty leaves no room for imagination. if uncertainty can wake up our imagination, our imagination is the beginning of empathy.”

eliza griswold, guggenheim fellow, journalist and poet, author of the tenth parallel: dispatches from the fault line between christianity and islam, and a new collection of poetry, i am the beggar of the world: landays of contemporary afghanistan

“heirophany, places where sacred and secular meet. one of the most fundamental places in my life, this space where the horizontal, secular, meets the ultimate; literally, the shape of the cross. that’s poetry, everyday time is punctured by the sacred….my calling is there, the place where sacred and secular meet.”

mary szybist, poet, 2013 national book award winner for poetry for incarnadine:

szybist, a reviewer wrote, has “an appetite for the luminous; reaches for the heavens without bypassing earth.”

“hard for me to believe faith is possible without doubt. or reverence without irreverence.”

kimberly johnson, poet, translator, literary critic, professor of renaissance literature and creative writing:

“writing a poem is like walking around all day with someone pecking on your forehead. something just beneath the surface is waiting to be let out.”

“i want to live my life in epiphany. i want all my pores open. it’s easier for me when language and culture and stripped away. it’s unmediated experience. my antennae is tuned to stuff that exists beyond the social sphere.” (it’s why she loves nature).

from john t. price, essayist, nature writer, professor of english:

quoting mary oliver: “attentiveness is the root of all prayer.”

okey ndibe, nigerian writer, poet, journalist, author of arrows of rain and foreign gods, inc.:

referring to some not-so-cheery bloke: “no milk of human kindness in him….” (an expression that found me muffling my out-loud sigh of verbal wonder)

“a story that must be told never forgives silence.”

thomas troeger, professor at yale divinity school, hymnist, ordained episcopal and presbyterian minister, who has been quoted as saying (not in this festival, but i couldn’t resist):

“I am trying to map the landscape of the heart that still rejoices in God yet lives in a world that is often oblivious to the spirit.  I believe to live gracefully with this tension is the mark of wisdom.  Such an understanding may baffle the dogmatic mind, but it does not lie beyond the capacity of the poetic imagination.  The imagination often holds together realities that are logically inconsistent yet dynamically coherent.”

reading from his essay, “season of lament”:
“we are living in a season of sorrow for the human community, and part of our role as musicians is to help the human heart relieve its tears so that we might sense anew the resilience of hope that we will never know if we have never wept.”

might i mention that he was a textbook portrait of old-school yankee sartorial splendor, with taut bow tie, tweed jacket, and crisply-creased khakis. all topped off with a mop of professorial white curls.

anne lamott (who was brilliant through and through, and hilarious to boot. oh, and who had just turned 60 the day before her friday night keynote).

“it doesn’t help that when you sit down to write, all your unresolved psychiatric issues choose to come visit you that day.”

(and as she sat down let sunday morning to type a facebook post about turning 60) “all the psychiatric issues sat on the bed with me — and they’d had a lot of coffee. they wanted me to know how they thought it was going — not very good.”

“laughter is carbonated holiness.”

“because we’re religious people we’re not going to spackle our hearts closed to block out the hurt.”

panel with peter marty (pastor/writer), christine byl (seasonal laborer, clearing trails in alaska, where she lives in a yurt with her husband and a band of retired sled dogs, author dirt work: an education in the woods), john t. price (nature writer)

quoting henry james: “a writer is someone to whom nothing is lost.”

quoting patricia hampl: “we don’t write what we know; we write to discover. to go off on an adventure.”

christine byl: “i write about what i don’t know about what i know. that’s where i enter. i enter the familiar with an eye toward the undiscovered.”

fred bahnson, writer, farmer, former peacemaker among mayan coffee farmers, author of soil and sacrament: a spiritual memoir of food and faith

“our job is not so much to make a point but to evoke something. invocation is one of the oldest forms of communication. it’s a priestly urge. the act of focusing your attention on something. creating a shared empathy. they’re not beating them over the head, you’re simply saying, ‘look, attend.’”

mycelium (vegetative part of fungus): “perfect metaphor for prayer.”

amen and amen. and good night.

it’ll be two more years till this festival convenes again. i’ve plenty to read till then, and more than enough to think about….(and in the meantime, big giant thanks to my dear old friend and latter-day pathfinder, bruce buursma, the tribune’s longtime religion writer — later baseball writer — who pointed me to the festival in the first place…what a mensch. and great wise soul.)

anything above strike your poetic fancy? who would you add to an essential reading list of poets and thinkers and brilliant essayists (oh, by the way, some fine soul reminded me this weekend that the word essay, with french roots, means “to try, to attempt.” is that not all we can ever do, weaving words into thoughts into rocket blasts from our heart)? what words would be among the most delicious on your plate? 

the barefoot monk and his God of pots & pans

the tale of brother lawrence

dispatch from 02139 (in which we meet a 17th-century monk with wisdom for the ages….)

the snows have been tumbling since the cloak of twilight fell last eve. a short pause here and there, but mostly tumbling, tumbling. with little sound but the shooshing of slush as it spits out from under thirsty tires on the street below, i’m tucked inside, home alone, curled up with a tiny blue slip of a book.

i’d not heard of the book, nor its author, until just a week or so ago, when a wise woman of letters likened something i’d written to the musings of brother lawrence, he with his God of pots and pans.

she mentioned this in passing, as if of course i knew the fellow. i did not.

no more need be whispered. i stood intrigued. and i set out to unearth this humble fellow who stumbled on the Holy amid the clangings of his monastery kitchen, not long after the pilgrims pulled ashore at plymouth.

i marched straight to the nearest epicenter of literary procurement — aka, the cambridge public library — and there i found the shelves were hollowed of brother lawrence and his sole literary offering, “practice of the presence of God,” a line i’d heard over the years — been struck by, really — though i never knew its origins. nor ever thought to wonder.

my friendly librarian managed to scrounge up a solitary copy from the bowels of some far-flung college archives. she dispatched it swiftly, and it came into my possession just days ago.

this white-freckled morn of mounding drifts offered the perfect occasion for making its acquaintance.

so down i plopped. and here i share the tale.

no bigger than a folded-in-half index card, a mere 80 yellowed pages, the title etched in gold gothic letters across a navy canvas, it’s a wisp of a volume. weightless as the wing of a dove. a book that might get swallowed whole at the bottom of a satchel, where it nearly did get lost this week.

yet it packs a mighty wallop.

it’s a humble collection of conversations and letters of one barefoot monk who, back in 1666, spilled the wisdoms soaked up in its now fragile pages.

the gentle fellow took the name “brother lawrence” upon entering the monastery of the barefooted carmelites in paris, not long after an uncanny conversion that came one winter’s day, staring at a tree, dry and leafless. seems the good brother absorbed the stark emptiness, but in that way that saints and wise souls do, he saw beyond it.

he imagined the possible.

as is written in the six-itty-bitty-page preface: the soon-to-be brother lawrence stood before the naked tree “reflecting on what a change God would make in it with the returning spring.”

and thus he was hit, head-on. the surging sense of the immensity of the Holy One all but knocked him down, realizing the life force, the Beautiful that would burst from the Barren.

again, from the preface: “it may seem strange so affecting a sense of Divine attributes should have been occasioned by so common an incident as seeing a tree, dry and leafless in the winter, and by reflecting what a change God would make in it with the returning spring. this may seem strange; but, in fact, it is rather to be wondered at, that others are not affected as he was, and that the little miracles of nature make so little impression upon us.”

and so, a little miracle of nature led the man, born nicholas herman of lorraine, to the great stone monastery in paris around the year 1626, when he was but 18.

there, brother lawrence, who described himself as “a great awkward fellow who broke everything,” (indeed, so kindred a spirit is my newfound bumbling ally, ol’ larry) found himself dispatched to the kitchen, “to which he had naturally a great aversion.” for some 15 years, he was cook to the society of monks.

amid the pots and pans, he established a profound yet simple spiritual practice: “i began to live as if there was none but He and i in the world,” he writes in the first of 14 letters pressed into the pages of his book.

in his second letter, he writes: “i make it my business only to persevere in His holy Presence…an habitual, silent, and secret conversation of the soul with God.”

in other words, imagine that God is always near, dangling over your shoulder, tucked in the pocket of your dungarees. no need for piety, or gilded cathedral walls. no need for practiced vespers, or slipping away from the cacophony of the everyday. brother lawrence’s is the God of the here and now, especially when it’s messy.

“it is not necessary for being with God to be always at church,” he says. “we make an oratory of our heart, wherein to retire from time to time, to converse with Him in meekness, humility, and love…”

from the tenth letter: “He is always near you and with you; leave Him not alone. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone, who came to visit you; why then must God be neglected? do not then forget Him.”

and in perhaps brother lawrence’s most oft-quoted line, and one which i’ll now carry to the cookstove, especially in the harried half-hour when tummies are growling, and what’s in the skillet spews coils of smoke:

“it was observed, that in the greatest hurry of the business of the kitchen, he still preserved his recollection and heavenly-mindedness. he was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even composure and tranquility of spirit. ‘the time of business,’ said he, ‘does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, i possess God in as great tranquility as if i were upon my knees at the Blessed Sacrament.’

surely, i was meant to know the barefooted brother. a fellow as likely to be thunderstruck by the lifeless silhouette of woods in winter, a good soul brought to bended knee by delphinium on the brink of brilliant blue. a reluctant cook who carries on heavenly discourse while the spaghetti scorches in the pot.

Brother_Lawrence_in_the_kitchen

who, pray tell, inspired you this week? 

and before i go, a few more lines from brother lawrence:

“…we ought not be weary of doing little things for the love of God, Who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

“our only business was to love and delight ourselves in God.”

“…his prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God…”

“by little and by little”: dorothy day, a guide to loving

dispatch from 02139 (in which, at long last, there is time in the day, here on the banks of the river charles, to take a few lessons from one of the 20th century’s modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries, dorothy day…)

if sabbatical has its roots in sabbath, to rest, to restore, then that is what pulled me, three months ago, to sign up for religion 1004, “modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries.”

i scanned across the list of saints whose lives we’d be studying — gandhi, martin luther king, thich nhat hahn, abraham joshua heschel — and i was hooked. i saw one more — dorothy day — and i was writing the professor begging to be allowed at the seminar table.

dorothy — for i don’t think she’d want me to call her ms. day; she’s not like that — has been my deep catholic hero for a long, long time. her brand of catholicism, the catholic worker movement founded, in part, on hospitality houses for the poor, the lost, the wholly left-to-the-margins, is the brand i still believe in.

i grew up, spent my holy years, in the 1960s.

stepped into my first dark confession box back in those turbulent days — just post vatican II, when the church was turned on its head, a year after JFK was assassinated, at the height of the escalation of the vietnam war — heard the opaque window slide open, heard the priest’s breathing, heard my own heart pounding as i scoured my soul, got ready to spill all my sins there on the ledge. tasted my first dry, wheat-y communion wafer. wondered what to do when it got stuck on the roof of my mouth.

and then, in seventh grade, it got really deep: we had a nun who’d stripped off her habit, who stood there in sweaters and skirts, strummed a guitar, and turned off the lights so we could watch — over and over — “the red balloon,” sing kumbaya. radical jesus — with his long curly hair and sandals, friend to the thieves and the whores — was a god made for the decade of protest, anti-establishment.

all along, i’d spent hours at bedtime, praying that i could be better come daybreak. be more of a saint. try harder. one lent, when i was in third grade, i think, i got up early, rode my bike to 7 o’clock mass every morning. because i thought it would make my soul shine brighter.

i never stopped trying.

and then, along came the likes of mother theresa and gandhi, and later, dorothy day.

they were my brand of catholic. they scooped souls out of gutters, touched the untouchables, turned away from the gilded altar cloths and the chalices locked away in a safe in the dark of the church.

they were what drew me to appalachia in college, what pulled me into a soup kitchen on the west side of chicago. they and my mother, truth be told.

but my mother has never written out her theology, just told me once, in a few short words (all i needed to hear really) that, after my father died, she figured she’d devote all the days of her life to God, and live a gospel of love. so she does, and i watch.

over the years, i’ve read snippets of the life of dorothy day. knew enough to call her my hero, claim her as my personal saint.

but i hadn’t taken the time to pore over her writings, to absorb the whole of her story — in her words.

and right now, because we’re at that part of the reading list, because for the next two weeks, on mondays at 4, i’ll be sitting at the seminar table in the great gray stone tower that is harvard divinity school, i am reading dorothy. curled up on the couch with her all yesterday afternoon, an afghan under my bare toes, a fat mug of tea and an orange fueling me along the way.

i read paragraphs that could change me forever. so, of course, i’m sharing them here. see if you, too, discover a trail to carry you through the rest of your days, even the days when we’re lost in the deep dark woods. (the italics, for emphasis below, are mine.)

“…she did not expect great things to happen overnight. she knew the slow pace, one foot at a time, by which change and new life comes. it was, in the phrase she repeated often, ‘by little and by little’ that we were saved. to live with the poor, to forgo luxury and privilege, to feed some people, to ‘visit the prisoner’ by going to jail — these were all small things. dorothy’s life was made up of such small things, chosen deliberately and repeated daily. it is interesting to note that her favorite saint was no great martyr or charismatic reformer, but therese of lisieux, a simple carmelite nun who died within the walls of an obscure cloister in normandy at the age of twenty-four. dorothy devoted an entire book to therese and her spirituality of “the little way.” st. therese indicated the path to holiness that lay within all our daily occupations. simply, it consisted of performing, in the presence and love of God, all the little things that make up our everyday life and contact with others. from therese, dorothy learned that any act of love might contribute to the balance of love in the world, any suffering endured in love might ease the burden of others; such was the mysterious bond within the body of Christ. we could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage. these were the loaves and fishes. we could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase. it was all a matter of faith.”

— from “Dorothy Day: Selected Writings,” edited and with an introduction by Robert Ellsberg.

by little and by little.

now there’s a theology i can grasp, clench in my hot little fist.

we could only make use of the little things we possessed — the little faith, the little strength, the little courage.

these were the loaves and fishes.

we could only offer what we had, and pray that God would make the increase.

most days i don’t have much. but by little and by little, i can steady my wobbles, and put one foot forward.

i can try, with all my might, to live a life of love, by little and by little.

there is much this week to pray for, in the heartbreaking wake of hurricane sandy, who has left my beloved in-laws without heat or light or power on the jersey shore, who has turned my sister-in-law’s new york brownstone into a hospitality house for all those with nowhere to go. who spared us, and our sweethearts in maine. for all the heartbreak, up and down the eastern seaboard, i pray for repair and for strength, by little and by little. 

your thoughts on the wisdom of dorothy day? and if she’s not the one who guides your days, who is?

independent study: the poetry of search

dispatch from 02139 (in which the bleary-eyed one demonstrates that she can rise to fumble with a college paper from 3 till 5 in the morning, return to faux slumber, then get back up and start all over again) …

so here we are, just an hour ago, back before i went to bed the second time, the sky out the front window that looks out over franklin street, and beyond to where the atlantic tickles the shore, it was pitch-black velvet stitched with one french-knot of a star and, dangling just above that, as if buttoned there, one silver crescent of moon.

now, it’s all poufy pink ruffles, backlit in gold, an underskirt of grey inching its way up the legs of the day. the sun rises over boston, over cambridge, over the whole eastern seaboard. the wind in the willows just two yards away, it’s already starting to rustle. the forecast is gloom for today. but when you’re up early, you get the first — sometimes the only — snippets of heaven on earth.

and that’s what i’m looking for here, that’s why i’ve pressed my nose against glass here of late.

oh, i suppose i always knew that behind the story of this trooping off to college, me and my old-fashioned pens and my notebooks (why, i might as well dip quill into inkwell, scritch-scratch my notes onto papyrus, so out-of-date, obsolete, i do seem to be in the land of laptops and iPads), i’d had a hunch that there just might be one other plot line. one other reason for being plucked up and re-planted, half a land mass from home.

i picked up on it early on. back before the start of summer, perhaps, when i first tiptoed through this apartment, spotted the books on the desk of the man who would become my landlord, yes, but more so my lighthouse keeper and guide. he had tall stacks, tomes of poetry, titles that spoke of the sacred. poetry and the divine, it was there in nearly every corner. and i kept poking along.

as i trace my fingers along his bookshelves, in the weeks and months since, i’ve often felt the pull to not leave the apartment, to slide a thin volume off the shelf — any shelf — (there’s wendell berry, thomas merton, a whole thicket of mary oliver, squeezed in between wislawa szymborska, the nobel laureate; there’s e.e. cummings, emily dickinson, and t.s eliot, to run through the c, d and e’s. wallace stevens abounds, as does octavio paz, and a good dash of old robert frost).

i imagine nothing so fine as a seminar for two, if you count bound pages as one half of that pair. i imagine curling up under one of the afghans i’ve pulled from high-above cabinets this week, as autumn’s chill has crept in through the windows. i’ve imagined beginning and launching my poetry school right here where i scramble up eggs, and scrub the sink of its leftover toothpaste.

the school didn’t wait, didn’t dawdle. didn’t put off what october demands (for we pull up stakes, turn back into pumpkins in a mere seven school months).

i knew, back in the summer, that my friend and soon-to-be landlord was writing a book, a book he told me might be the one thing in this world he was meant to make.

the book arrived with a thud on my doorstep this week. it’s titled, “prayers of a young poet: rainer maria rilke,” translated by mark s. burrows.

it’s a beautiful book, a book covered in gold, with a grainy turn-of-the-last-century sepia photo of the great german poet, best known, perhaps, for two works: “letters to a young poet,” published in 1929, and “the book of hours,” in 1905.

“prayers of a young poet” contains, for the first time, rilke’s raw drafts of a cycle of 67 prayers and one long letter written in verse, all penned over the course of three-and-a-half weeks, back in the fall of 1899, in berlin.

they belong, burrows writes, in the genre known as “the poetry of search.”

burrows goes on to tell his afghan-draped pupil that the allure of these prayers is that they give voice to what rilke calls “the stillness between two notes / that don’t easily harmonize.” and there, writes rilke, writes burrows, is where God dwells, within “the dark interval.”

rilke is a poet drawn to the woods, and to the monastery. in these newborn poems, he imagines a monk is the writer, the discoverer of the divine “behind trembling trees,” in the “mushrooms [that] stood up in the forest,” and in the “wet leaves of the blood-red, withering vine.”

but what is pulling me even deeper into the syllabus that spreads across 132 pages is that rilke’s “God,” according to burrows, “is one who is always becoming, ‘the dawning one from whom the morning rose.'”

rilke’s God is not known in intricate trace. rilke’s God is the God of primal darkness, “not sheer absence, but…rather a gesture toward a presence we can ‘sense’ but cannot know.” darkness, burrows writes, is the place of God’s becoming — for rilke, for apostles of rilke.

the poet writes: “I love the dark hours of my being / for they deepen my senses… / From them I’ve come to know that I have room / for a second life, timeless and wide.”

and so, for a student who has dwelled in the murky fog of not knowing for far too long, achingly long, these words come as a trumpet blast of hope.

here, on the pages of a book that landed thwop on my doorstep, i’ve discovered a matchstick to strike in my darkness.

i’m only just 61 pages in, but already i’ve felt its pull, a stirring deep where the pulse begins. i understand that i need to carve out quiet, embroider my days with stillness. it is the poetry of search.

i find it here in the nooks and crannies, the holy sacred rooms this city offers.

in the light-dappled pews of memorial church, on harvard yard, where i slid in yesterday morning, me and my red-strapped backpack, just as the reading began of an amy hempel story that served as scripture.

and, again, just past noon yesterday, when i shoved open the great wood-planked door of the monastery at the bend in the charles river.

i tiptoed in, and found the monks deep in noon song. i fell to my knees on a blue needlepoint cushion. i struck a match, and licked its flame against the wick inside a cobalt blue glass jar.

the blue glowed, a white light of halo within it, behind it. i bowed my head, and did not mind, for once, the not knowing. i am peeling back the poetry of search, and learning that in the darkness of my hours, i just might find what i’ve been waiting for, for so so long.

you can find mark’s rilke book here. who is the author of your most sacred prayer?

must dash (posting this as roughest of  draft); long day of classes, and grammy comes in on the train from portland, maine. big weekend here in 02139.

power cord

week after week, i weigh the passing thought that i ought to set my alarm, oh, a good hour earlier than all the rest of the days so that i could slip out from under the sheets (for it is sheet, not cover weather these past few balmy days) and cloak myself in the velvet hours of night giving way to dawn.

so i could slither into my garden, curl up on the creaky bench, not unlike an inchworm in repose, and spy on all the doings of the morn.

i could, perhaps, watch the shrunken globes of dew catch firstlight, cast a hundred itty-bitty rainbows, a daily morning magic show for those who, like the robin and the cardinal, do not waste the dawn in slumber.

i could, if i was lucky, catch the fronds of fern unfurling, as the fiddleheads let loose their clenched-fist grip, give way to warming rays, awaken to the sun.

i might catch the first flash of golden yellow feathers, papa goldfinch, pecking at the thistle seed.

i might even be there to greet the hungry cat as he moseys back from all his midnight mischief, staggering ’round the garden bend, stopping for a slurpy drink from the mossy bowl where robins splash and preen.

the morning hours on a friday are the ones i call religion. oh, yes, i need to pack the lunches, chase the children out the door. there are chores aplenty all day long. but it’s the one day i set aside for meditation, planned meditation.

i might catch a snatch here or there, gazing out the windows of the el train as it rolls past a cemetery. or peering down an alley, watching a teetering old man picking through the garbage. i find time to stitch deep thoughts all throughout my week. but i don’t have unbroken time too often.

and that’s why i call friday mornings my very own three-pronged power cord.

i plug my soul back into the great generator in the sky. that sounds too flip, and i don’t mean it to be. it’s just that i hear the whispers of the divine when i am crouched down low to the earth in all her glory.

when i am wrapped in birdsong. when the saintly soprano of the wren sends shivers down my spine. when i am close enough to holiness itself to hear the rush of the blue jay’s wing as she flutters by.

when i am filling my lungs with the incense that wafts right now from my korean spice viburnum, a sacrament on branches if ever there was one.

some weeks by wednesday i am limping, grabbing hold of counters, trying to find my middle so i’ve half a chance of staying steady till the workday rushing ends, and before the mad-dash of the weekend reaches out to grab me by the throat.

through serendipity and schedules, friday is my sunday. the unfolding of my sabbath, the day when i drink in my strongest dose of why we’re plopped here in the first place.

for all the hurricanes and sirens that seem to whirl around me saturday through thursday, i am at heart a soul who needs a prayer shawl of quietude, to put my ear to the metronome of heaven here on earth.

i don’t want the breathing of the garden to be drowned out by what’s coursing through some squawky earphones. i don’t want to miss one inch of the slender stalks as they shimmy toward the clouds.

i want to be front-row witness to papa cardinal slipping sunflower seeds into mama cardinal’s beak, the closest thing to kissing, surely, in the feathered world of birds. i want to be the one who’s tiptoeing through the garden when the summer’s first monarch alights, the telltale stained-glass wings brushing by my nose.

and so if i don’t get my celestial dose before the house awakens, erupts in rushing-searching-slurping-dashing, i sit in solitude and bliss once the last dish is rinsed and put away, once the grocery list is scribbled, once the last bed is made, the pillow fluffed, the cat pulled out from hiding under someone’s covers.

it’s some cathedral the place in which i cast my prayers. a redbud branch is my domed ceiling. the lilies of the valley fill the choir loft. the wren’s song is my epistle. and it’s the breeze rushing off the lake that this morning carried me to where i meet the heart, the hand of God.

what on earth serves as your power cord? what recharges you? fills you with saintly essence? where did you meet God this week?

deep-breathing the beautiful

all around us, sometimes, the walls of the world seem to be crashing in. i read the pages of the newspaper, and soak up stories from faraway and not so far. stories of thugs and mobs and rapes and shootings at close range. i read of fathers who kick children with steel-toe boots, and dump lifeless toddler bodies in bags in the woods.

it gets to be deadening. to the spirit. to the soul. to the sparks of the hope that won’t be snuffed, not yet anyway.

and so, with a world whirling around, a world scaring me, making me wonder, i find myself clinging–like oxygen straight from a tube–to the wisps and the inkblots of God’s world that won’t be daunted, won’t be dulled, won’t be wiped away.

the great orange glowing orb of a moon that clung last night just over the skyscrapers along lake shore drive.

the clouds that skittered by, played peek-a-boo, made faces along with the moon.

the wisp of green, lime green, spring green, starting-all-over-again green, here on my kitchen table, branches clipped and brought in from the cold by my dear neighbor who must have known that by week’s end i’d need an infusion.

it is these scant stitches of beautiful, of infinite, that hold me in place, that keep me from sliding off into the pitch- black abyss of human nature gone haywire, and the aftershocks that do in souls like you and me.

there are readers and listeners, i suppose, who take in the day’s news and scurry along, undaunted, undented.

i am not one of them.

last night, riding home on the el, the clackety train that is chicago’s–and my–answer to swift public transit, i pored over the dispatch of nicholas kristof who found himself on the streets of bahrain, in the capital city of manama, and who wrote: “as a reporter, you sometimes become numbed to sadness. but it is heartbreaking to be in modern, moderate bahrain right now and watch as a critical american ally uses tanks, troops, guns and clubs to crush a peaceful democracy movement and then lie about it.”

he writes of seeing corpses with gunshot wounds, of a promising and prominent plastic surgeon who went out on the streets to tend to the wounded and wound up bloodied, unconscious, and nearly raped (the police pulled down his pants, threatened to rape him, before the idea was abandoned and an ambulance allowed to rescue him).

he writes of ambulance drivers pummeled, guns held to their heads. of hospital corridors full of frantic mothers searching desperately for children gone missing in the attacks.

i shuddered, sank low in my hard plastic seat on the el.

but then i glanced out the window, as the train emerged from its underground tunnel, began its rapid ascent to the tracks that run above street level. a bright orange something caught my eye. hyphenated by all the houses and towers the train passed by, i had to hold my gaze to catch that orb again and again.

it locked me. i couldn’t keep my eye from searching the sky. i wanted to tap the shoulder of the long-haired woman next to me, the one plugged in to her wired-in sounds. i wanted to say, “isn’t it beautiful?” but she wasn’t looking. wasn’t open for business. she was locked in her unnatural bubble.

at last i emerged from that train, stood for a good long while on the platform, waiting for the next of my trains. i didn’t mind.

the wind blew. played with the clouds, that played with the moon. while i stood watching, witness to the unending beauty, the light, the certainty that reigns in the sky.

that same moon, i thought, is the moon shining down on bahrain, on egypt, iraq and iran.

it’s the one constant. the one shared link i have at this moment with those souls on the streets, those frantic mothers searching for children.

and here on my table for the last two days, the serviceberry branches, laid on the counter when i wasn’t looking. now upright and sipping up waters, opening, unfurling, reminding: life comes again. the cycle begins, returns, life comes from death.

i find myself returning my eyes to the branches. i can’t get enough. i seem to need to remember, need evidence. i seem to need to deep-breathe the beautiful.

it’s the one thing bigger than us, even in the utter humility of its whispers, the moon in the nightsky, the branches unfurling weeks before their time, coaxed along by the warmth of my house, by the vase full of waters.

it is the beautiful that is eternal, ever here and always.

it is more breath-taking, perhaps, because we need to search for it, peek behind branches, poke through the woods.

once found, though, it sustains us. fills us. offers its grace to all of our emptiness, our shadow.

it is the hand, i am certain, of the Holiest.

it is offered for those of us who get light-headed from all of the darkness, who can’t read the stories and carry on as if all’s well with the world.

when it’s not.

thank God for the balm that comes with the gracenotes of beauty. for the whispers that remind: beauty won’t go away. it’s there, deep in the heart of all that pulses and breathes. and we can’t let the darkness take over…..
where did you find the beautiful this week?

a world cloaked in the beautiful

i was dashing–the verb that most often fits me. the air was the sort that sweeps up behind, roars up your neck, wakes you up with a tingle.

it was morning, not long after dawn.

i’d not quite rolled from the bed. as so often happens, a wisp of the last worry of the night before was there before i was, wriggled into my waking-up-ness, before i was even awake. that sort of pit that weighs you down while your legs, leaden, try to shake off the sheets and the blanket. where one night’s fret melts into one morning’s dread.

i hadn’t had time to shake it off, think much about it. it was simply there, a part of the weight of the still-groggy dawn.

but then, not long after, not too long anyway, i loped out the door, and i saw–beheld, really, stopped and beheld. the tangle of grasses and weeds, transformed into the beautiful. nearly blinding.

the first frost of the autumn, the glass-beaded luminescence that captures the slant of the sun, refracts it, refines it. wraps it up in a ball, makes it more than it was, broadcasts it.

practically shouts: look here, absorb the poetry, the power, that comes without words.

the world is at work in its tasks that trace back to the birth of all time.

there was darkness, there was light. genesis says so.

and so began the miracle of sunbeams captured in wee globes of dew.

or might it be the cold sweat of dawn’s labor, the hard work of night turning to day?

when first frost comes–when the architecture of water and cold finds itself frozen–that morning light is magnified, glorified, held up for ovation, a show that won’t last.

all part of the whole-cloth majesty that is the autumn.

when leaves drop their drab summer-worn green for jaw-dropping amber and gold, copper and crimson. air turns wake-me-up chilly. pumpkins weigh down the vine.

the slant of the sun as it drops in the sky, as we twirl farther and farther away, it all is a call to attention.

don’t pass me by, whisper the blades of the grasses. do not disregard the morning light captured, contained for a fraction of time, the white glow of october’s first breaths.

holiness unfurled like a sparkling carpet. gospel spread forth on the tongue of a bent strand of grass.

without clanging or cymbal, i stumble time and again on the truth that, for me, the natural world is some sort of a 24-7 wi-fi connection to the almighty Divine.

just when you think the only thing that matters is starting the car, getting to school before the big hand sweeps to the 5, getting the boy in the seat there beside you into the door before the scritch of the teacher’s pencil marking him late. just when you dare let that trivial thought distract you, get in the way, the white light of dew frozen stops you.

forget not that this is a web of water and light, air and creation. we are but players. and the dramas and plots we hold in our hearts, they pale put up against the jaw-dropping, breath-taking magnificence that is the first light of the first frost of the autumn.

the Divine is among us, always among us. if only we open our eyes, and drink in the wordless call to attention that dares to stop cold our mad-dashing, our mad-sad-dashing farther and farther away from what truly matters.

big weekend: jack’s baby boy gets married. the man i married marks the official pub date of his latest adventure in book-writing, “terror and wonder: architecture in a tumultuous age.” the firstborn i birthed decides which college. my faraway brother from up in the mountains comes home for a whirl. dear friend’s baby girl is bat mitzvah. so many glories….

what stopped you in your tracks lately?

stirring sweetness

the beautiful thing about leaping into a religion that’s not your own, is there is no rule book.

well, there might be a tome or two on the shelves, but when you’re inventing, you often concoct as you go.

oh, sure you ask zillions of questions, you turn to the texts, pore over pages, searching for answers. but plenty of times, you go with the zeitgeist and, frankly, you wing it.

and so it was i bounded out of bed yesterday morn, on the dawn of the new year, rosh hashanah, and set out to make rosh hashanah bread pudding.

now, nowhere in the cookery books will you find such a sweet and pudding-y dish. there is no step-by-step guide to a sweeter morning than the usual cornflakes and cow’s milk.

ah, but like many a someone embracing something that’s new, that’s just a touch foreign, exotic, i can’t get enough.

give me a rosh hashanah prayer about morning stars and particles of dust floating on the wind, and i am swooning in my pew, thinking to myself, by jove, they’re talking to me, those ancient hebrew poets, the ones who thousands of years ago carved out these words to speak to my heart, here in the waistband of america, where leaves are just starting to rumble with thoughts of shedding their greens, too early just yet to unfurl great bolts of color.

truth is i tingle, through and through, here in these days of downright awe.

i am not a jew. but i love a jew. married him. bore our children. am raising those children in a house that is bathed in the best of two great and rather old faiths: we are catholic and jewish.

and this time of year, in these sacred golden-dripping days of awe, i cannot get enough of a whole-body immersion.

i am cooking it. praying it. setting the table with it. poring over the verses with it. inhaling every last drop of it.

everywhere i turn, there is awe. and it is sweet.

let’s start with the light: have you noticed the great kaleidoscope that is the turning of season has cranked it just to the north a notch, and now the sunbeams that hit us are amber molasses, tinged with spoonfuls of honey?

why yes, they drip on my bed pillows, my pages, my old creaky floorboards.

and then there’s that charge in the air, the one that has us un-sashing the windows, pulling back shutters, clearing the way so that cool night breezes might billow in, that air that seems at last purer and crisper, more certain to clear out our lungs from all the sticky still jungle air that took hold in the long hot summer.

but mostly, there are the prayers and the knowing now what i’ve always known: this is sacred time, new time, time that deeply matters. the days when our steps are counted, our deeds recorded, our fates inscribed in the holiest book.

God is paying attention, rapt attention, and so too must we.

thus, as if to upholster the year, to tilt it toward sweetness the whole way through, we stir it in in great dollops. a handful of raisins here. a bee-bumped macintosh chopped and grated over there.

we are watching as honey drools from a spoon. and wiping smudges, sticky, off from the table.

tonight this old house will be filled. the table as crowded as it knows how to be. if we could have layers of table, we would. i would invite everyone i have ever loved, and then some.

and just as the sun slips over the ledge and sacred twilight comes, having stirred the stews all night, and having set out my grandma’s silver, and the glasses of cobalt blue, i will strike a match and kindle the lights.

i will call on the legions of saints and angels who march behind me wherever i go. i will call on rachel and leah and rebekah.

i will look over (not down anymore, for the top of my head no longer makes it even to the cusp of his shoulders) at my firstborn, and gulp back the tear that comes with knowing he’ll not be home next year, or for years to come for that matter, on these sweetest of days upon days.

i will be humbled and filled all at once. will marvel that i, a deep quiet catholic, was somehow swept into the river that bathes me so richly, so wholly, so anciently. calling me back to where i must have once begun.

i count myself among the blessed, the ones who are stirred by the ancient hebrew poets, a people who marked time by the stirrings on the bough and in the field. who kept time by the heavens, the night star and moon. i read these rosh hashanah prayers through dual lenses, and in them i find such powerful majesty, such knee-buckling knowing of the intricacies of the human heart. today this meander is merely an unspooling, no deep lesson or question, other than this: what is it of this time of year that heightens in you a deep sense of awe, no matter your religion?

p.s. that rosh hashanah bread pudding? nothing more to it than torn-up bits of the night before’s raisin-studded challah, with a fat granny smith grated into it, along with a handful of even more raisins and cranberries (why stop when studding your pudding?) i had promised rosh hashanah bread pudding to my little one who loves a good reason to leap out of bed. and thus, once stirred from my dreams, i had little choice but to come up with a version that lived up to the promise.