The Song of the Desert

dots-by-barbara-w-on-flickrThe Word of God which is his comfort is also his distress. The liturgy, which is his joy and which reveals to him the glory of God, cannot fill a heart that has not previously been humbled and emptied by dread. Alleluia is the song of the desert.

—Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer

When the hospice nurse and social worker come to my parent’s home the first time, they are not what my sisters and I expect. Perhaps I was expecting a cliché: calm and restful sorts, hired because of their ability to show quiet dignity to patients who are dying. Instead, they are chatty and gregarious. Though their demeanor is initially surprising, there is a certain charm and assurance to their lack of worry about being so close to death; surely they also need a way to cope with the heavy burden of their job.

They are kind and highly knowledgeable, but they rush my mom through the heavy information about signing Do Not Resuscitate at Home forms, the different kinds of pain management options, and noticing the stages before death.

The nurse enthusiastically declares that she used to be afraid of morphine but she loves it now because of the relief it offers to suffering patients. I suppose it could seem jarring to someone newly acquainted with hospice care, but I think it’s necessary for my mom to hear. She’s been afraid of giving my father too much pain medication, afraid that she’ll be the one to kill him, not the cancer. [Read more…]

Saying Yes to the Annunciation

annunciazione-by-fabrizio-boschi-on-wikimediaOf all the Gospel episodes, the Annunciation has long been one of the favorites of poets. The scene is unique and literally earth-shaking: Gabriel’s sudden appearance to the girl Mary, his announcement that she will bear a son who will be “the Son of the Most High,” her puzzlement (“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”), and her final yes—“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” [Read more…]

Stiff Necked Church Lady

red-pews-by-charles-clegg-on-flickrChurch Ladies.  Most of them are pretty darn good souls. They’re at the church every day, bent over pews, cleaning the sanctuary, baking pies, and keeping all the committees peopled. They’re also gorgeously individual souls with their own private concerns, loves, and extracurricular interests.

But everyone’s probably known at least one church lady like the iconic Church Lady rendered by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live: easily scandalized and convinced that even benign things are the property of Satan.

I’ve been that Church Lady. [Read more…]

Divine Infection

night-landscape-by-stanze-on-flickrI once took modern dance technique classes with an instructor who asked the dancers to stand in a two parallel lines, facing each other; one line of tired bodies with eyes shut, the other line observant. While our eyes were closed, he asked us to make all of our bodies’ thirty-seven trillion cells seen.

It’s a meditation exercise, a mode of entering the darkness inside ourselves, though I imagined redness—sanguine and illuminated. When we finished and sought our partner across the space, the force of eye contact—the seeing and being seen of thirty-seven trillion entities—was like an electrical shock.

I don’t know what forges strange connections between people. I know that there are many things you can’t look up in a book but have to learn instead through geography. Though we have thirty-seven trillion cells, we don’t really know that much about them, and we’re especially ignorant of how cells function within their membranous outer shells.

Scientists recently announced a project to map cells individually, to learn by collecting and watching. So much of what’s known about them is based on how they behave as a group; so much has been found to be wrong. [Read more…]

Traveling Through These Days of Awe

Rick Chess photoI’m in a plane ascending to 37,000 feet.

How restless have I been this year? How easily distractible?

Already on this flight, from the time of boarding the plane until now, I’ve jumped from e-mail to Facebook to FiveThirtyEight to Jane Hirshfield on Basho to Mishkan Hanefesh, Sanctuary of the Soul, the Reform movement’s new high holiday prayer book. Already I’ve skipped from skimming to sinking to expanding to avoiding: I don’t want to look at that e-mail right now. It can wait.

We boarded at around 4 p.m. and maybe it’s around 4:50 p.m. now, and in that brief span of time I’ve registered for a free online course on The Science of Meditation, knowing full well that next week, when the webinar is live, I will have no time to participate but I must participate because I just offered to teach on my own “The Art and Science of Meditation,” a course that I’ve taught with three other colleagues, including a neuroscientist, for the past two spring semesters, and I am going to need all the help I can get with the science part of the course this spring. [Read more…]