Tongue-Tied: Muscle Memory in Prayer

From the Dominican High School we attended, my sister has a framed ‘run-off’ copy of the student’s prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas which we were all required to learn and recite in school before examinations. ‘O Thou Infinitely Perfect Creator,’ it began, ‘who out of the treasures of thy Wisdom didst lay out the heavens in beauty . . . ‘ it went on (I believe). I can’t access it in the memory banks in its entirety, nor in the form we learned it from the peripheral back-up memory generator that is the web, but imperfect as it is in memory, something of it inhabits my bones and I treasure it.

I was to have learned it ‘by heart’ but in truth I could not recite it, and not simply because of the anti-authoritarian streak that characterised much of my adolescence. Was there something of the Dumb Ox (the epithet attributed to Aquinas) about me? (The hagiography notes his large size and what they call ‘taciturnity’–which we might call introversion in our day–as the reason for the name.) Introverted, yes, (and stubborn and willful, too, at the time, ox-like qualities, I know, being a farm-girl) but my tongue-tie is more straightforward: my tongue has possibly the worst memory of any muscle in my body! I can recall and taste and savour words and phrases, but whole poems (which, surely this goes without saying, all good prayers should be), word for word – my talents do not follow my desire for, and admiration of, that kind of memory.

I can feel all the way from the soles of my feet to the top of my spine the scrape and rumble of chairs pushing out from desks on wooden parquet flooring and the daily drone of the noon-time Angelus. I remember bumbling through large parts of that not very long prayer, too. It was not that I was opposed to the old-fashioned language, either. No: I have a genuine affiliation and affection for that. All those ‘thees and thous’ engage my enthusiasm because it is important, in my opinion, to have a language that is ‘higher’ (not totally removed, however) to raise our minds in ritual.

The value of recitation (and corporate prayer) is without question. This opinion from Jeanette Winterson underscores its importance:

Any actor will tell you that the way to learn lines is to learn them out loud, and that the repetition of lines seems to explain their meaning. When we read out loud, or when we recite from memory, we have an audience, even if there is no one in the room. We start to convince or entertain an invisible other, and as we do so, both the sense of the passage, and our confidence in it increase. It doesn’t even matter if we don’t understand all the words. Booming out poetry helps kids no end, and is why why why, we need them to grapple with Shakespeare, with Donne, with Dylan Thomas. The more unfamiliar the language the more spectacular the transformation from incomprehension to delight.

A few weeks ago there was, on the topic of memorization and recitation of poetry, an engaging piece over at the Poetry Foundation (Orality, Literature and the Memorized Poem). It’s worth a look not only for the description of the way mind can begin to work on material remembered when the time is right, but also for the part of the analysis catalysed by the Walter Ong S.J. classic, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (in Part III).

I’ve a good number of hours ahead in the next couple of months to be quietly disengaged from my daily interactions proctoring exams and in other university ceremonies, and in preparation for these (and despite my professed weakness in recitation!) customarily tuck away a print of a poem in a pocket that I endeavour to commit to memory. As St. Thomas is the patron of all universities and tomorrow begins our season of entrance examinations to the University, doubtless the prayer would be a good one to revisit!

For an in depth and feminist approach there is Tina Beattie’s Lacanian reading of Thomas Aquinas, Theology after Postmodernity: Divining the Void. I am about a quarter of the way through a (necessarily!) very slow read and will take in these Symposia, too, which engage the work and the author.



Questions of home

One of the most affecting books I read last year, which also happened to be the last of the year, was Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Listen to this very enjoyable podcast of the Scottish Book Trust [a new treasure trove, I suspect!] which will give you a good bit of background (in case you need convincing). I went to the reading more or less ‘cold’ and was swept away by it. It is described as ‘a tale of adventure, faith and the ties that might hold two people together when they are worlds apart.’ I was deeply affected by it in many ways but most potently it seemed to speak to the condition of alienation that I have (been?) chosen to inhabit and explore in my adult life (thus far).

The story is about Peter, a Christian missionary (sometimes it is helpful for me to think of myself in that way) who embarks on a journey which takes him away from his known world, his home, his relationships, his roots. I recognized myself, obviously enough, in him; one important difference being that when I made my way over here it was at an age when one characteristically begins to explore and expand oneself into new territories. And though my early journey had signs enough that I was on the right track: so much so that when people asked in conversation why I had come and I said ‘God knows’, with a variety of feelings colouring the utterance, I really did believe it. (And, God help me, I still do!)

Here in Japan one is always, like Faber’s protagonist, Peter, radically, profoundly and visibly, Other: an Outsider.* It will come as no surprise that I am particularly fond of the metaphor of Christ the Stranger (read this!) nor that questions of home are quite tangled at a deep level. (This is probably true for many of the diaspora, wherever you’re from, the world over.) Of course, the orienting of my blog title & epigraph I trust, indicates a belief that Home is a layered, necessarily complex, concept.

My compatriots, at home on an island surrounded in the vast majority by people of their own kind, who speak the same language and observe, for the most part, similar cultural being-in-the-world, are among the more rooted folk imaginable. I sometimes envy them this. Amid this strong sense of native identity, I have often been brought to tears just to hear someone who sounds of home, like the people I grew up with: not simply English, you understand, for that is available most places. This flash of recognition is a wound, a treasure, a grace, ultimately a reflex I am grateful for. I know in my bones, in my own history, what the separation of ‘fallen’ means. I know, too, that home, like God, is always here and always coming. So I like to hope that I am poised for that moment of ‘beholding’ (which makes the music of Haendel’s Messiah essential to my well-being).

It happens, every once in a while, you are reminded that, in life, you are at play in heavenly fields, and can, in an instant, be transported if not ‘home’ then ‘homeward’. Peter experiences this in the letters he is able to exchange with his wife, Bea. Who can tell what seeds blossom and when? To wit: I have enjoyed recently an encounter in the virtual world via letters, in a way, with someone who went to the same high school as me. Once we played in the same fields (literally); now we share the wounds of the loss of home, we share a particular longing (read ‘Nostalgia‘) and our grown up selves bear tinges of this particular sadness. Nonetheless, I am jazzed with hope and the sense of possibility that seeds, that were not even that close in our field way back when, might have had, in the meantime, the breath of the spirit blowing  over them . . . inviting us, if not home, then homeward.


* Faber has said in interviews that he had initially thought of setting the story in North Korea.


Children, Design, Spirit

I’ve recently started reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘spiritual memoir’ Living with a Wild God, in snatches, before bed. I’m not sure it is suited for this time. It is clear-eyed and wise; it is tempered, beautiful and rich, so far, with a fine sense of craft about it. And while it is grounded, plain-spoken and economical with emotion I often find myself feeling quite emotional, aghast at what causes the sense of detachment she cultivates (and the drama and credibility of her remembering of it) to keep herself together.

I look forward to the coming of the Wild God in the story, I admit. Ehrenreich’s bold and forthright manner of self-examination and her candour make this event something to anticipate.

After yet another gloom and doom report of the dwindling Japanese population a phrase from Ehrenreich’s popped into my mind. It buzzed actually, in the way that things do when they accord with observations that influence your way of thinking. She wrote about the ‘artisanal project’ that the child has become: a kind of golem, the ‘intelligently designed child’. All teachers know young people whose parents are engaged in this worrisome project. (And I find myself tempted to make the connection to the Edge Question for this year: What do you think of machines that think? . . . as if a child could be programmed.)

How is it that economy and technology — and their attendant anxieties — now so dominate our ways of thinking and being in the world? Has it ever been so? Perhaps that is not a useful question. Peter Gray’s recent article in the Independent exhorting us to ‘Give Childhood Back to Children‘ is well worth a read. (It lends support to my suspicion that cultures with Confucian underpinnings may be more susceptible to this apparently rather instrumental view of the Child. But since this is where the Woman’s centre of power in ‘traditional’ society is, it is by no means a simple matter to disentangle or judge with clarity.)

Lately I listened to an interview with Dr. Vivienne Mountain, a specialist in the child spirituality movement. [‘Turn your life around‘. It’s about 30 minutes long and starts around 27″ in.] Her latest piece of research works with the image from Matthew 18 that has the child at the centre of the circle. It seemed to me that there were two different things covered: the child in society, first, and second, the qualities of the child, those parts which need to be kept fresh in the adult person, like imagination, trust, vulnerability, dependency, humour, etc.

Rachel Kohn (a very fine interviewer) remarked appropos of the ‘artisanally’ raised child:

‘. . . Kids seem to be leading the way in our popular culture. Parents seem to be running after children rather than the reverse and I’m wondering whether . . . this is just another example of putting kids first.’

Mountain admitted that the Child Theology Movement wrestled with the question.

‘The child is not an idol. We don’t put the child up as being God; the child is standing beside Jesus . . . and on the other hand, if you look at our children today, there is a kind of debate as to whether they are being put in a central role or are they more like a trophy child?’

There is a chapter in Mike Higton’s book on Rowan Williams (Difficult Gospel) entitled ‘Adulthood and Childhood’ that I read last summer that I am reading again more closely as I delve into this question. Jacqueline Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan is another one that invites attention for its exploration of the conception of childhood and its (and our) relationship to language, sexuality and death.

I come to the interest in children as part of a society that isn’t reproducing sufficiently, as a person who works with young adult women and as a teacher with an interest in and focus on children’s and young adult literature. It seems to me that growing up and inhabiting the role of the adult person properly and patiently is a central challenge of our age and essential to the future of society.

To protect childhood and to foster real adulthood are not easy tasks: they require from us great patience and great vigilance. (Higton, 110)





Your Health: Wassail and the Winter Greens

Utsuta hime no iki ga kakarite fuyu kitaru

We feel the breath
of Princess Utsuta:
winter has come


Princess Utsuta is meditating quietly and the hillsides are drab in their winter greys and olive greens. There are trees that sport golden winter berries, reminiscent of Christmas lighting. Solstice has come and gone; we are still in the wintery depths.

January 7 in Japan is marked in many households by the eating of a gruel (unmistakeable Dickensian resonance in that word) that is made with 7 wild grasses/herbs. The landscapers used to pick these grasses when uprooting young pine trees waaaaay back in the Heian era (794-1192). It is a healthy cleansing elixir that is taken for rebalancing after the (old year and new year) carousing and feasting is over. Traditionally it should come with a warning: Bitter Greens Ahead (terribly enlivening, I’m sure.) Here’s a recipe for nanakusagayu that I especially liked for its flexibility.

I was interested to see that in England, the tradition of wassailing took place on Twelfth Night (just passed) and see that it is “a traditional ceremony that involves singing and drinking the health of trees”, the purpose of which is to “awaken the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn.”

Just this morning we finished the last of the ultimate, very, incredibly delicious red apples from Nagano. Cider’s not big here so the lamb’s wool wassail – in honour of the Year of the Sheep will do nicely.

Hmmmm, cleansing gruel or good spirits . . . ?

(Bring on the froth!)




The Upside-Down of Epiphany: The Rich, The Poor

Though Paul Claudel, the French-Catholic poet, a man who knew the East, has the Magi not as sages or kings in his poem Chant de L’Epiphanie, because they would have found themselves distinctly out of place among the poor gathered at the Crib, I can’t help wondering if that ‘out-of-placeness’ is precisely the point?

I find I need the Kings’ conversion; I need them to turn around (repent) and go back along a different path. I’m not quite sure why they came – an errant star? (oh, yes, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?) – but they did and they were not the same afterward.

The poets, the tender-hearts, stand with us on the threshold, inviting us to see the Word made flesh/fresh.

For me, this holy day/season is one for the missioners of the world: those who are ‘out-of-place’, those who (ideally) serve the poor*, leaven communities, are (in) themselves working theophanies, always in the process of deeper, wider conversion through their encounters with the strange and unfamiliar.

It matters to the story, I think, whether the Magi are poor/regular or rich/privileged. It is interesting to read the story with these possibilities in mind.How different are the scenes? (For example, with the Kings rocking up late to the birth.) How do the messages/meanings differ?


Revolutionary love is full of surprises for both, in any case. This is exactly what the Mother of God foretells in her prophetic song.


Walter Brueggemann’s poem is new to me, but also a beautiful expression of the upside-downing and unmooring of a world we have consented to and made in our image.


by  Walter Brueggemann

 The wise ones hurried from the East.

They are the wise of the world.

They are the ones wise in science,

for they read the “intelligent design” of the stars.

They are the wise ones of the economy,

for they come with gold.

They are the wise ones of politics,

for they sought a king.

They are our delegates, as we stand

carrying all the learning of the academy,

of the market,

of the laboratory,

of the halls of power.

They came, tenaciously and eagerly and regally.

They came and bowed down before your foolishness.

They sensed the contradiction

between his vulnerability and their sagacity,

between his innocence and their calculation,

between his exposure and their many concealing robes of power.

They worshiped him!

They recognized that he called into question

all that they treasured,

so they yielded their best to him,

their preciousness,

their secret potions,

their rich perfumes.

And we stand alongside them with

our wealth,

our control,

our smarts,

our sophistication,

our affluence.

Give us freedom like theirs

to yield,

to worship,

to adore,

to have our lives contradicted.

Give us grace like theirs

to embrace the foolishness of the child,

that the first will be last and the last first,

that the humble will be exalted and the exalted humbled,

that we may lose the world and gain our lives.

Give us imagination like theirs

to go home by another route

on the path where foolishness is wisdom

and weakness is strength

and poverty is wealth.

Make our new foolishness specific

that the world might become —

through us — new.

This delightful contradiction is utterly disorienting; eucatastrophic (defined here for the non-Tolkienistas), one might say and I find this especially appealing. Imagine it! To have our lives contradicted, to yield, to worship & adore: to make the world new.

And on a final related note, I’d like to give respect to Thomas Piketty who refused a French government honour saying that he didn’t think it was ‘the government’s role to decide who was honourable’. Also, to Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, who cut off his electronic tag and rejected his illegal detention. These are just stories that have cropped up in the last couple of days but are illustrative to me of the kind of folly of the powerful that we can, and perhaps should, interrogate.

* Very nicely glossed by Benedict XVI [here] “It is a canticle that reveals in filigree the spirituality of the biblical anawim, that is, of those faithful who not only recognize themselves as “poor” in the detachment from all idolatry of riches and power, but also in the profound humility of a heart emptied of the temptation to pride and open to the bursting in of the divine saving grace.”

Beyond the Poles: The Journey of the Wise People

I’ve been wondering in this season of epiphany: do we always journey to return? Or is this only the privilege of kings, the powerful? Are we (the privileged) bound by roots, by homes, preoccupied with issues of security and identity in a world where displacement is a ruling sense for so many? How do we determine our bearings?
Journeying into the desert, into prayer, into silence, to the place in which we detach and unmoor ourselves from our trappings and our anxieties, is as essential as it ever has been.
The Kings (or Magicians, or Shamans – as some translators have it) chose to journey, to go where the star led them. Can I? Will I?
One thing striking about the story of the Magi is that they returned home on a different path. This is the part I’m liking the most as I roll the story around my mind these days.
The American poet, Mary Oliver, wrote about the challenge of beginning the journey of the heart.
The Journey

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice —

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do —

determined to save

the only life you could save.

 Journeying into the new year I aim, as I often do, to stay as conscious and awake as I can, to attend. I aim also to give and take my own sweet time (it is a gift one is easily tricked out of!) and to choose carefully in favour of the further flourishing of life where I can.
The poem–it’s Mary Oliver, how can you not love it?–raises a question that I wrestle with, along with many women, I imagine, and that concerns whose life you save. I intuit the poet’s truth that the only life you can save is your own. But then there is the mystic opposition (which I suspect defies the entire logic of opposition) of ‘forget self’ / ‘intensify self’ (you are nothing / you are everything). You have to lose your life to gain it. That kind of thing. The Holy Fool, as his mother had sung in her prophecy, turned things upside down. Made things interesting.
You move in the direction of the polestar because you have chosen to open your heart, because you have been chosen, and you can do no other. It is what you are called to do. And when you do, you find yourself inside a trinity (I’m no theologian, but this is irresistable!), inside that triple star in the constellation of the Little Bear, and you find yourself on a whole other path and, uncannily perhaps, quite suddenly know you’re at Home.

The Year of the Sheep

Happy Year of the Sheep to you.
My first thought about this year’s animal representative was the line from Haendel’s Messiah that bursts out in one of the choruses “All we like sheep . . .” [listen here] which often sounds to me like ‘Are we like sheep?’ which the bible tells us we are. I notice I am feeling rather sheep-like presently and not in a pleasant, green acres kind of a way . . . but this, too, shall pass. For the time being I am putting the skittish in my heart into the pasture with  the Good Shepherd.
January is an in-between time and I am giving myself time to lie fallow and transition from the Year of the Horse (in some ways I continue to feel as if I am galloping!). Perhaps this transition will only really be complete in February when the academic year here ends and the ‘real’ Chinese New Year on the 19th, comes to pass. I have been reading my journals from the past year and praying with them, seeing if there are any hints, blessings, or signs for the way ahead of which I should be mindful. I am gathering myself to myself, letting the dark be. The world is not patient; I must be, though.
Another image that comes to me when I contemplate the sheep is that of yarn and knitting . . . which is a very comforting and nostalgic and womanly image. Knitting was part of my childhood; it was something I watched women doing and something I was taught quite early on. People wore things made by family members then. I marvel at this making now but then it was just a usual thing.
Some time ago I came upon this beautiful video of the fibre artist Renate Hiller and I became sensitized anew at the things my hands touched.
Reflecting on what Hiller says made me grateful for having grown up with lots of different kinds of animals around me and far less ‘convenience’ than I have now. It makes me aware of why holding a pen (a gift made of the wood of a tree in California) is superior to tapping a plastic keyboard whose innards are slow and need to be replaced (and cannot be without the ‘outtards’, too). This machine I need for my present work in the world, and (we’re programmed to believe) to keep in step with the world at large. But most of all what Hiller expresses is the importance of the making skills, of handwork. Pay attention to the work of your hands. We certainly don’t need more stuff, but there can be no doubt that we need better quality and longer lasting stuff.
May things knit together beautifully for us all this year and may any dropped stitches be mended calmly and well. May your meditations bring you, your actions and the world peace. May your pastures be green and may your trust in the Shepherd be, well, as dilly as a sheep’s.