Friday, February 24, 2017

The Comma Section

The book I've been working on is done, or rather, it's out of my hands and in the hands of my editor.  It will be back on my desk soon enough.  Now I'm excited to clean my study, putting away the books I used and generally re-organizing life with a bit less writing in it.  I have stacks of reference books — Ancient Christian Commentaries on the Scriptures, Rahner's sermons, Tillich — and a small heap of commas that were sieved out of the text.

The commas got pulled after Crash did a read through, along with some light editing, noting: "General comment: You use a LOT of commas in the reflections and sometimes, as here, they obscure rather than clarify your sentence structure."  He's right.  I tend to use commas to help me pace the reading of the text, rather than as the framework on which I am hanging phrases.  This is fine when I am the sole user of the text, otherwise, it obfuscates.

I don't know how many commas I took out (though I could know), but I do know there are 1528 still left in the text, one every 13 words.

Prompted by Ben Blatt's recent short piece in the Atlantic about the number of exclamation points great writers use, I counted those up, too.  They range over two orders of magnitude; a low of 50 per hundred thousand words for Hemingway to 1000 for James Joyce. As it turns out, in this instantiation of my writing, I'm more in line with Hemingway than Joyce: 78 ! per hundred thousand words.

I've been resisting writing the code to produce a version of these cool images of punctuation patterns by Adam Calhoun.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Judica me, Deus



Judica me, Deus, et discerne causam meam 
de gente non sancta, 
ab homine iniquo et doloso 
erue me.

...from unholy people and from deceitful and cunning ones rescue me.

I have been praying Psalm 43 since the president of the US abruptly halted the entrance into the country of refugees and immigrants, including at the start, permanent residents, who could not return to their homes and jobs.  Called a "temporary inconvenience" by some White House staff, I wonder if they would consider it a temporary inconvenience to be barred from their homes, and their incomes, for three months?  Or if most parents of five year olds would consider being separated from their child for three months merely inconvenient?  Military parents certainly don't view it that way, we call it a sacrifice in those cases, because it is so painful.

The president calls it a success, we are safer he says.  We were safe before, not perfectly safe, for we never are, but safe enough.  So safe, that those whose cities are in ruins, whose children are dying, want to come here.  Not a single refugee who has come to the US, from any country, has carried out a fatal attack here.  And if one were to do so next week, we would still be safe.

Do not be taken in by screaming anecdotes from either side.  Stories may be true, but they may not reveal the truth.  Ask for data. Data that shows the policy is working, data that shows it is not.  Pray for light, not noise, to guide you.

O send forth your light and your truth;
let these be my guide.
Let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.



Sunday, January 29, 2017

God chose the lowly and despised of the world

My mother-in-law, Gabrielle Donnay,
an eminent scientistwho arrived in the 
US at 17, a refugee from Nazi Germany
Consider your own calling, brothers and sisters.
Not many of you were wise by human standards,
not many were powerful,
not many were of noble birth.
Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing,
to reduce to nothing those who are something,
so that no human being might boast before God.
It is due to him that you are in Christ Jesus,
who became for us wisdom from God,
as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,
so that, as it is written,
"Whoever boasts, should boast in the Lord."
—Paul, Apostle


For justice:  for those whose rights have been ignored, for those whose lives are threatened, for the oppressed and the vulnerable, we pray…

For the strangers among us: for refugees, for immigrants, …we pray

For the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned…we pray

For the courage to be faithful to the truth...we pray

For humilty...we pray…

Prayers of the faithful. Written on Wednesday night. #HolySpirit

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Galactic language for the liturgy?

Stairs up to the Vatican Observatory's
Zeiss Double Astrograph in 
Castelgandolfo 

"With joy we give you thanks and praise.
Where once was nothing, your love
brought matter into being and motion,
thus creating time itself,
and countless galaxies, each with its countless stars,
and, to prepare a home for us,
delicately circling round one single star,
this one small globe, our mother earth." — John Daly, SJ

Recently on PrayTell there has been a discussion about a draft of a Eucharistic prayer by John Daly, SJ, that uses language and imagery drawn from modern science — a prayer for the 21st century.  [UPDATE: Kimberly Belcher of Notre Dame now has a post up at PrayTell extending the conversation.]The post grabbed my attention both because of the science and because I'm currently writing prayers for a book that is nearing completion. What should go in them?

There's a lot to critique in the draft (which you can read here, along with Thomas Reese, SJ's commentary here) but Fritz Bauerschmidt posed the question which interests me: "But a more general question might be whether we want eucharistic prayers that are so thoroughly invested in a particular scientific worldview that they are likely to sound outdated before too long."

That said, I would suggest Bauerschmidt's question is moot.  To my eye, the science in this Eucharistic prayer is isn't going to get outdated period, let alone next week.  It's all pretty settled at the level of the broad strokes used to describe in the text, and despite the title of the PrayTell post none of it is from the 21st century, some of it dates back hundreds of years.  For example, the universe is indeed billions of years old, as the prayer implies. we've known the age of the universe is on the order of billions of years for almost a century.  Whether that's 13.81 billion years or 13.77 billion years might still be up for grabs in the cosmology community, but it's immaterial in this context, Daly didn't get into that level of detail.
David Brown, SJ observing using the Zeiss
refractor at the Vatican Observatory in
Castelgandolfo

The rest of the science is similarly situated: baryogenesis did happen (i.e. matter came into being) even if the details are yet a bit murky, the earth circles the sun and is not flat. Evolution is a biological process, life on earth began at single cell level, humans evolved much later. The word chaos is used several times, but not in its technical mathematical sense.  Primal chaos is a pretty reasonable word to use to describe the universe as it existed in its earliest second, so tangled and so dense even light could not escape its clutches.

But I sense in the conversation something of the notion that scientific imagery and language just isn't sacred enough, perhaps a subtext of 'doesn't it sound silly to be thanking God for having discovered the Higgs-Bosun [sic]?' in one of the first comments.1 The serious question I'd like to raise is,  is it really laughable to be grateful to God for scientific discoveries in general?  If not in general, then for specific ones?  May we pray for "scientists," but not for "computational chemists," or for "galaxies" but not "Bose-Einstein condensates"?  On the telescope domes atop the old papal summer palace are inscribed the words, Deum creatorem venite adoremus, come adore God the Creator.  The laws of physics are as much God's creation as the dewfall.  Dew and rain, bless the Lord.  Bosons and fermions, bless the Lord, too.

Science is not a merely secular pursuit, I would argue it's very much a dialog with God about creation.  In that sense, it's prayer.  Contemplative prayer.

It's a more than a bit ironic to deprive our liturgical spaces of any mention of "science", bearing in mind that science has always made these spaces possible, from the engineering and math that ensures the buildings stay up, to the vinter's chemistry, to the dyes used on the vestments, and these days, made those albs resist wrinkles in ways linen ones never would.

When the book is done, perhaps I'll try my hand at a litany of praise for science, galactic and otherwise.



1.  Well, yes it does sound silly, because there is no Higgs-Bosun, it's the Higgs boson that got discovered; bosons are a particle type, not a person's name, but I know that because I deal in bosons and fermions on a daily basis!)

And while we are on the subject of science imagery in the liturgy, I remain distracted by dewfall (which doesn't fall, it condenses), and the bath of regeneration in the blessing over the way, which also distract me, but freely admit the failing is with me.  I'm certain everyone encounters language in the liturgy that abruptly bumps them out of the prayer and into something else.  Prevenient, anyone?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Syllabi, world creation and via ferrata

Via ferrata in Austria
By Luidger - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
I'm spending my days layering class prep over the final work on a book manuscript due to the publisher in about a month.

Writing today felt a bit like I was climbing up this cliff. Strapped onto a cable, exposed to the elements and grabbing for any handhold I could.  (Thanks, Flannery O'Connor for the lift midafternoon and to Crash who read a texted version of a couple of paragraphs on his phone between planes).

These fixed climbing routes are called a via ferrata - an "iron road" in Italian.  In some ways my intro chemistry class is a via ferrata, a way to climb through some tough material using fixed points I've constructed. It's a collaboration between the climbers and the creator of the route, and work is required on both parts.  (I have climbed a couple of easy routes this way - in Acadia and in New Mexico - the views were great, but I was pretty terrified the whole way, which hopefully my students will not be.)

I also read somewhere, by someone, a great essay about syllabi as a genre, specifically "world creation" genre.  I wish I could find it again.



Book report:  100% drafted; 77% in reasonable draft; 43% in near final draft; 23% in rather drafty draft.  This week's goal - to get those pieces in drafty draft well on their way to final draft.

And if you're wondering how I stumbled onto the term via ferrata -it's how you get to this hotel.  Warning, the photos are not for the height averse.