Monday, May 4, 2020

Spiritual Direction in Pandemic

It was the third Monday of March, and I had been ready to drive out that afternoon for a session with my spiritual director until she emailed me the day before. She asked whether we might Skype or FaceTime or just telephone our Monday meeting. The members of her religious community had expressed concern about her leaving the house and meeting her directees face to face.

I knew I would miss our routines of greeting one another and getting settled into one of the small parlors at another community house across town. There was always the initial banter with Grace. If the weather was hard, she would comment on it. I would settle my coat on the back of an armchair across from her. There was something cozy about the two of us settling into our places, both of us in our sixties, one a nun, the other an ex-Jesuit. We each knew the territory.

That had been the comfort with Grace. We shared a vocabulary. We each knew when we used certain words why that word had occurred to us. We could reassure the other that that was exactly the word to use to describe that reaction in prayer. We didn’t have to translate.

When Grace started each session by lighting a candle and invoking the Holy Spirit, she wasn’t just staging. The space around us and between us would be holy as a result of what we were going to say, what we were going to hear. That was Grace’s conviction. 

I feared this lovely ritual of spiritual friends would be flattened on my iPhone screen.

A woman who had worked in many retreat settings, Grace was adept at sitting with individuals and hearing about their prayer. Her training and her temperament worked together for the ease of retreatants removed from routine and family. Grace was patient about letting people figure out how they wanted to talk about their experience.

Now here Grace and I were on one another’s screens undertaking our first FaceTime session.

Grace lit a candle that I could not see although I watched her strike the match on the side of the box. She prayed for the Holy Spirit to be with us.

I was relieved to be with her again. I suspected the wariness on her face about this procedure mirrored a little of my own. Would this work? At a time when I really needed someone familiar, I kept wondering where to focus my gaze. I didn’t want to seem to be staring at her.

She laughed a little. I laughed just a bit.

What could go wrong?

“Tell me about your retreat.”

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Transportation Grief

I have discovered that I am grieving the freedom of boarding a train and ending up downtown. It had been part of the dowry from my marriage to Jim three years ago.

He gave me a way to see my life in this city. He gave me something I had lost when I used to count on my car to get me wherever I wanted to go.

With retirement I parked my car in front of our house and moved it less and less. I did not want to find parking places although I could and did when Jim and I went into neighborhoods where church services and movie theatres and eateries beckoned.

When Jim suggested turning his car in to a dealer and consolidating our transportation needs, the logic had made sense. Why did we need two cars?

I found I liked sitting with commuters whose languages challenged me. I wanted to see how people travelled when they had to travel this way. When I waited on station platforms in the cold, I thanked God that I could breathe in the air and know the neighborhood where my trip would end.

I appreciated the occasional offers of a place to sit on a train. I appreciated as well the sense that I could join lots of people who had to hang on to a strap to keep their balance when trains started and stopped.

I have learned that so much of my life lies before me. There is so much I didn’t know I didn’t know about the city in which I live. My life before Jim has come to seem so protected. My life with him is a choice I am glad I made.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Lifelong Learners

It has been four months since I was last seated with other “lifelong learners” — as the program on the nearby university campus calls us.

I had been listening with twenty-five classmates — my age or older — to works by twentieth-century composers. Our concluding class in the last week of November focused on familiar composers like Prokofiev and Barber, but it was a cello sonata by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu that gave me a reason to search out his works at home on YouTube.

As part of another course last fall, I accompanied the facilitator of the course and six classmates to the Harvard Art Museums. It was a Saturday afternoon. I had not known about Paula Modersohn-Becker before, but her “Girl in a Red Dress” (1902) was hanging starkly against the white wall of one gallery. German expressionism had a new face for me that afternoon after long minutes standing before her work.

For obvious reasons many of the retired people drawn to these courses are former teachers like me. In a course on religious liberty, two women raised their hands during a discussion of the 1962 Supreme Court decision banning prayer in public schools. They had both taught in public schools most of their professional lives; they vividly recalled how changed the atmosphere of their classrooms had felt when they were no longer able to lead their own students in prayer.

Most of the courses meet six times during a term, once a week for an hour and a half. An old church friend from whom I first learned about the lifelong learners program had advised keeping my classes to two days of the week. So twice a week I walked the twenty minutes to the nearby train station, got off at the fourth stop, and caught the shuttle bus to campus.

As I walked the hallways of the campus buildings, I had to get used to students passing me without meeting my eye or greeting me. How would they know anything about me that would elicit even that little bit of their attention? I was no longer a teacher or an administrator — I was an older man enrolled in one of those classes that were restricted to retired people. This was that university program that brought more customers to the food court to linger by the salad bar at midday.

I would be happy to be standing by that salad bar again.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

A Month Home from Rome

The time you might most want a guidebook is on your return from a destination.

The questions of what you will do there and where you will eat and how you will get from and to the airport no longer need answers. Other more important questions may.

The guidebooks I am finding most useful a month after my return from Rome, however, are unexpected ones.

One of them I began writing myself over twenty years ago when I was about to see Rome for the first time. Sitting at the airport gate in 1997, I looked down at a new leather-bound journal and determined to put the nearly inexpressible into words. I would find several occasions in the following days to open the journal again. Rome was all around me, I kept telling myself, and how could I possibly be the same? It was a time for "letting certain fears surface -- the fear of wasting this time in Rome, the fear of dying one day while Rome went on being Rome, the fear of not wanting enough to waste time with God." It was a "strange wonderful week of graces and pilgrim moods and tasks" before the arrival of my partner and the launching of two more weeks of sights.

Other guides for this time of return are early textbooks still on my bookshelves. Sometimes not anything I ever used in my own Catholic high school classes, Latin textbooks with my older brothers' names on the front pages had fed a young curiosity of mine. "Latin Still Lives!" began one cultural reading: "At every moment, somewhere in the world, a priest stands at the foot of an altar and says, in Latin, 'Introibo ad altare Dei,' 'I shall go in to the altar of God.'" Line drawings of Christian martyrs and Roman soldiers, black-and-white photographs of the Forum, a rare color plate of the Colosseum gave shape to what I might look for as an adult in a later Rome.

Another volume in my bookcase is a copy of a book I first discovered in a public library in the neighborhood where I grew up. This Is Rome, published in 1960 when I was nine years old, features the TV celebrity Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in dramatic black-and-white images by Canadian photographer Youssef Karsh. The idea of the book had been to show this handsome silver-haired cleric in his sixties walking the Appian Way, saying Mass in the catacombs, striding a Vatican corridor lined by Swiss Guards. A nine-year-old great nephew of Sheen's accompanied him, and the avuncular tone of their interactions became the focus of many a scene in Baroque churches and ancient ruins. Did I, silver-haired in my late sixties, treading down the Via del Corso, threading my way through the streets of Trastevere, betray even a bit of clerical gravitas?

Within a few days of our return to Boston, Jim and I had a good friend over to dinner and shared tales of our trip. In her early eighties, this woman has an academic background which enabled her to visit Rome again and again during her career. On a sudden, I took down from my shelves still another volume, a paperback copy of the Odes of Horace that I had purchased during my sophomore year of college. One afternoon a friend and I had attended a campus lecture on the structure of the four books of the Odes; I had gone directly afterwards to the college bookstore and found the English translation by James Michie, the Latin text on facing pages. Not a classics major, I nevertheless found myself drawn into this lyrical world with its Sabine farm and the snow-topped Mount Soracte. Having the book again in hand and resting it on our dining room table, wine glasses and learned conversation all around, made me feel a familiar tug.

What does that tug do to people? I found at the Boston Athenaeum more than one book that addressed the question. Repeatedly translators' introductions undertook to explain how Horace could come alive again after a long-ago classroom introduction to the Odes. There are standard biographies of the poet that show up on most bibliographies, but it was a book by another poet that has done the most to immerse me in the psychology of Horace. Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet is part biography, part personal memoir, part literary analysis, part translation, part travelogue. Harry Eyres has a journalist's sense of how to explore a strange phenomenon -- a befriending that takes place through a text, a venerable text by a writer who must have guessed he could end up being known as much as his poems did -- given the right reader.

It was an ambitious project Horace had set himself as a lyrical poet. It might have cost him an easy popularity. It might also have provided the kind of freedom that a freedman's son could value rightly. There would have been a lot of quiet for a writer like Horace distancing himself from Rome. Most evident was his ability to measure wisely the kinds of company he most wanted -- even if it did not arrive at his door with frequency and predictability.

Rome memories are fresh, and the pictures we took a month ago are not going away.

How did I ever hope to be standing again in front of so much of my life?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Podcast Thing I Did in 2019

With the arrival of 2020, I woke up to the memory of conversations from the previous year.

Someone who customarily trusted the written word to help me find out what I was thinking, what I wanted to say, what I needed to say -- I had composed not a single blog entry in a year.

There is no 2019 on the Writing Cabin.

On the other hand, I accepted a number of invitations for significant conversation.

Here's what I sounded like on one of those occasions.

Feel free to listen.

I guess I'm back.