Friday, June 29, 2007

Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul

Today is a very important feast that I usually try to recognize, if only minimally. Three years ago, I was in Rome for the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. Today, alas, I am not. But I am working on my dissertation, so I'll take a moment to share writings of these two great apostles on the sacrament that binds the People of God.

From the first letter of Peter:
But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.(1 Peter 3:14-22)

And from the letter to the Colossians (whose authorship is disputed, but may be Paul himself; I am no scripture scholar, but it is a great passage):
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.(Colossians 2:8-17)

Happy feast day.

Edit: I almost forgot to mention that I found the first of these through an interesting (though poorly formatted) online essay on the Fathers' writings on baptism. Here it is.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

On the breath

In the Roman blessing of the water in a baptismal font, there's a particularly interesting stanza that I'm looking at for my dissertation today. You'll have to pay attention to the emphasis, so read it aloud.

At the very dawn of creation
your Spirit breathed on the waters,
making them the wellspring of all holiness.

When read slowly aloud, "Spirit breathed" comes out big and bold in the middle of those three lines. Reflecting on that has reminded me of one of Thomas's most surprising habits. It's so surprising to me, in fact, that I don't really expect anyone else to believe me, but I'll write about it here anyway.

It started when Thomas was younger, and Matt, of course, noticed it first. I was staying up after Matt and Thomas were in bed to work on my dissertation, and then I'd come to bed around one or two and lie down. Thomas would be sound asleep, but inevitably (Murphy's law, right?) he would wake up just as I fell asleep and want me to pick him up. This seemed to happen every night, but I pretty much assumed it just seemed that way because I was tired.

That is until the night I was crabby and complained to Matt about it (he, unusually, had also woken when I came to bed): "It seems like he always wants to be cuddled and nurse right as I'm falling asleep!" Very matter-of-factly, Matt replied, "Yeah, he does. I've listened when I was awake as you were falling asleep. As soon as your breathing changes and I know you're asleep, he wakes up and cries. I think he recognizes that breathing pattern and it makes him want to cuddle." I stared at him. "Really?" "Sure," he said. "Remember, he knows your breathing from being in the womb. I'm sure he hears it even in his sleep."

Less surprisingly, it works the other way: if Thomas isn't really sure he's tired, but he's cuddling with me and I fall asleep, he does too, especially if he's lying where he can feel my chest rising and falling.

What does all this mean for the Spirit breathing and baptism? Well, the Spirit has always been the "breath" of Christian identity -- the unexamined, but still disciplined (think about swimmers and singers) root of all Christian activity, the foundation of human communication, the mark of life. Baptism, through that little involuntary "catch" of the breath when the water impacts, captures all this and makes it holy. When we become children of God, we come to be attuned to the rhythm of the waters of creation, the breathing of Christ, through his Spirit.

One might say we begin to return to the womb of Christ, to become enfleshed with him, "one body of Christ," as child and mother share one body before the child's birth. When we breathe, when we speak, we use Jesus' breath. When he holds his breath from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, all hold their breath; as one ancient homily has it, "the whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep."

So all the baptized should listen for the rhythm of Christ our Mother's breath. And we'll all keep breathing.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Am I making space?

Inspired by Michelle (whose comments here I greatly appreciate), I've been at this throwing-things-away thing for three weeks now. Am I, as I so optimistically named the project, making space?

Externally, probably not so much. It's only five things a week after all. And the number of things I get rid of seems to be inversely proportional to the size of the object under consideration. I threw away a lot of inkless pens, but I could probably have gotten rid of a few dozen more without noticing. On top of that, I'm having a lot of trouble getting things out the door. I've packed up a sizable pile of things to take to SVDP, but haven't managed to get them into the car yet. In the car there's an even larger collection of objects to take somewhere that's been languishing.

I agree with Michelle that the endeavor is symbolic of my spiritual life. And maybe that aspect of it has been the most helpful so far.

At a talk at the conference I attended this week, my advisor advised (ha!) his auditors to get rid of the things in their lives that are "props for an imaginary existence." What kind of an imaginary existence, judging from my rejects, am I (not) living? Well, first of all, it's a scholarly one, but a scholarly life marked by ease. In my imaginary life, I am just about to pick up a bunch of scholarly projects that I've been just about to pick up for the past 6 years of so. Surely this summer is the one in which I'll really become proficient in German. And write 5 papers as well as finishing my dissertation. That'll really be no work at all. In fact, in my spare time, I might just take up a new hobby. One for which I have to purchase plenty of supplies.

I can be scornful of that imaginary life, but perhaps I can only laugh at it because it camouflages the more subtle one I also see in the list: an imaginary life of old fear. All these things on my list are old: old medicines, old tea, old pens; and many of them were also free, or very cheap: the disposable newborn diapers from the hospital, the dollar store picture frames from my apartment when I commuted, the old address labels. And staples? Please, I was saving staples?

These are things that are all easily replaced, but they seem to somehow represent something internal and irreplaceable: confidence in myself and in my reception by others. Maybe, in my perception of my own incompetence, I tend to gather these functional objects around me, in a kind of moat of utility. My own personal horses-and-chariots-of-Egypt. In the same way, I think, I wall myself off in a blaze of projects and activities, a welter of started-never-finished imaginary glories, to keep myself from knowing that there are still some parts of my soul and some relationships in my life that are damaged, and I may never be able to fix them.

But now I have one relationship in my life that I feel I really can't afford to screw up, even for such an imaginary peace. Therefore the five real things I think I should get rid of this week are old fear, old defensiveness, cowed silence, social anxiety, and fearful avoidance.

Can I do it?

Not alone.

"Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help
and who rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
or consult the Lord!" (Isaiah 31)

Friday, June 08, 2007

On experts who bother

This week I went to the doctor and, long story short, I have to go on a course of vaginal antibiotics. Well now, this is an issue because whenever you take medicine while breastfeeding, you have to find out whether the medicine you've been prescribed is compatible with breastfeeding. And this is an issue because there are relatively few studies done on medicines and breastfeeding, and those that are done do not differentiate between breastfeeding newborns and (let's say) 10 month olds. Obviously there is a weight difference as well as a difference in the child's physical development and ability to process drugs. Also 10 month olds nurse less frequently and get proportionally less of their calories from breastmilk. So there are differences.

The problem is that despite these differences, even well-informed medical professionals seem to mostly read the yes-or-no answer to breastfeeding while taking medicines off a table somewhere. These tables are clearly based on medical data, but it's data I don't have access to, so I am unable to make my own informed decision. In this case, my gynecologist told me that the medicine he had prescribed was compatible with breastfeeding, and the pediatrician said it was not. Grr. In fact it was the nurse at the pediatrician's office that actually returned my call, and she was clearly reading it off a table, and did not pay attention to the fact that I mentioned the medicine was not oral but topical (which means less is absorbed into my bloodstream, so less is available to the milk-making process). She told me I needed to just pump for a week and throw out the milk.

Now, when you're nursing a baby who's ten months old, eating solids, and drinking from a cup, and is used to breastfeeding about 4 times a day, forgoing nursing altogether for a week doesn't just mean he's going to be very mad (though I wouldn't look forward to that), it might mean he gives up nursing altogether. So I called the gynecologist back to see if he could prescribe a different medication. He called me back himself (concept) to say that he still thought the original medication would be fine vaginally, but he had another thing he could prescribe. It was often used to treat premature infants, he said, so was ok for babies. Then he called back again and said, regardless of the fact that it is used in pediatric patients, that medicine is specifically not recommended for breastfeeding mothers by the American Academy of Pediatrics (why? wouldn't we like to know?). He said we'd have to go back to the first medicine, but we wondered if I could still nurse a couple of times a day without affecting Thomas too much.

Well, there's something I always do when I have medical questions about Thomas I can't answer. I try to put it off as long as possible when the questions aren't cardiology-related, but... I inevitably call his cardiology team. Because they answer the phone, they answer my questions, and they always thank me for calling. So this time I called, and I got Kerry, and I explained the problem. She would consult with the hospital pharmacist, she said, and call me back. When she did, she said the pharmacist had looked up some studies and had some numbers for me. There were no studies on breastfeeding while on the vaginal preparation, but there were studies that showed that the concentration of antibiotic in the blood while using the vaginal preparation were 1/50th of the levels while taking the oral preparation. About a third of women still reported side effects. Breastfeeding while on the oral antibiotic tended to cause diarrhea (a major problem in a newborn; less so in an older infant). After discussing it with her, I felt confident that I could store some milk in the fridge and then try nursing Thomas, see if he has any problems. Nursing him a couple of times a day will almost certainly not cause a problem.

I told Kerry she deserved a medal, and she denied it. I don't think people like her realize what an amazing luxury it is to have someone like her, with medical knowledge and access to specialists outside her area, just a phone call away.

I was going to end this post with a special tribute, but it's already too long and I have too much to say about the tributee. Next time.

Second wave

Matt and I went on a baby-food making frenzy tonight. It actually only took us about 2 hours because we've become amazingly efficient. Here's our whirlwind food tour:

I defrosted a chicken thigh, pulled the skin off, and put it in a pot to boil. I started water in the kettle to put under the steamer, and washed some snap peas. Meanwhile, Matt was distracting the baby and, when he was calm, cutting up cauliflower and the bok choy. When the water boiled we put the steamer on the wok with the cauliflower and I set the timer for 15 minutes.

Matt started cutting some unknown root vegetable that came in our organic food box. I think it's a turnip. It looks like a beet except yellow. When he was done I put that in the water with the chicken and let them boil for 30 minutes.

When the cauliflower was done I poured it in the blender and put the snap peas in the bottom of the steamer, the bok choy on top, and set the timer for 10 minutes. Blended the cauliflower , poured it into an ice cube tray, and washed the blender. Matt was cutting swiss chard, a pear, and 4 apricots.

I blended the snap peas and then the bok choy while cooking the chard on the bottom of the steamer and the fruit on the top, 10 minutes on the timer. Matt gave Thomas his snack and medicine. Blended the chard and put the timer on the fruit on for another 5 minutes. Took the chicken and turnip (?) out of the broth and put it in a bowl with about 3/4 cup broth to cool a little. Poured a cup of lentils into the rest of the broth and set the timer for a half hour. Blended the pears, then the apricots.

I took Thomas and started putting him to bed. Matt took the meat off the chicken bone and blended the chicken and turnips with the broth, turned off the lentils. Put Thomas to bed. Blended lentils.

There's a lot of new food in the house.

First wave of baby food posts

First a few more family recipes, 10 months:

Thomas's first stir fry:

Stir fry 4 chicken breasts, cubed, in vegetable oil with garlic, soy sauce, and ginger.
In separate wok, heat vegetable and safflower oil. Add garlic and broccoli, stir fry for a few minutes. Add kale, stir fry for a few minutes, add snow peas and stir fry a few minutes, add ginger and soy sauce. Add water chestnuts and cherry tomatoes and stir fry for a couple minutes. Stir in chicken and serve over rice.

Take one serving and puree in blender. This worked out way better than I expected. I think if I'd known how well my blender would handle meats, I wouldn't have bothered buying a food mill. Thanks Ty! It's six years old and still blends like crazy.

This was Thomas's favorite meal so far, I think.

Beef stew with beets:

Cut up 1.5 lbs. beef roast. Dredge in flour and brown in large saucepan with fresh garlic. Add 2 Tbsp cooking wine to loosen brown stuff on bottom of pan. Add 4 cups vegetable broth, 4 baby beets, cut up, 6 small potatoes, cut up, 1 large onion, cut up, 2 carrots, cut up, and any other loose vegetables looking for a meal to be part of. Bring to a boil and simmer for an hour, covered. As before, put one serving in blender. The beets give a really nice richness to the broth.

Barley risotto:

Add 1 cup barley to large saute pan. Add about 3/4 cup chicken broth or enough to just wet barley. Add about 4 cloves fresh garlic, sliced. Bring broth to a boil, stirring constantly, and boil until most of the liquid is gone, then add a little more broth. Keep doing this for about 40 minutes, then add 1 zucchini, sliced, and a bunch of spinach, torn into pieces. Cook 2 links sausage, removed from skin, in a separate pan and add towards end of cooking. Continue to cook barley until it has absorbed about 4.5 cups of liquid (I used 4 cups chicken broth and 0.5 cup water).

In retrospect I think this would have been better with chicken instead of sausage, but it's hard to tell. Thomas liked it, anyway. So did I. Barley risotto is pretty excellent. I'll have to make it more in future.

Developing a syllabus

I'm working on my syllabus for Foundations of Theology in Spring 2008 today. It's a nice self-contained project and I don't feel like reading this morning.

I'm working on a list of noncanonical Christian authors I feel the students ought to read. The concentration will be on patristic authors, but I'd like to work in a couple of medieval writers too, especially as there are virtually no female voices (virtually: there is Egeria) in the first five centuries of the Church. Sorry, I'm too lazy to create links. In approximate chronological order:

  • Didache
  • Clement of Rome (1 Clement)
  • Ignatius of Antioch
  • Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • Justin Martyr
  • Tatian's Diatesseron
  • Irenaeus of Lyons
  • Origen of Alexandria
  • Ambrose
  • John Chrysostom
  • Cyril of Jerusalem
  • Egeria of Gaul
  • Gregory of Nyssa
  • Basil the Great
  • Cyril of Alexandria
  • Augustine (On Genesis 2-3)
  • Jerome (Life of Paul of Thebes)
  • Pseudo-Dionysius
  • John Damascene
  • Gregory the Great
  • Thomas Aquinas
  • Medieval women mystics: Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich
  • Teresa of Avila

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Notes on Ch. 2, part 1, of Johnson, Rites of Christian Initiation

Pre-Nicene period, East

In the first half of ch. 2, Max summarizes the documentary evidence for Christian initiation in the East (that is, Syria and Alexandria) in the first three centuries. Syrian evidence: the Didache, Justin Martyr (included in Syria rather than Rome because of his background), the Didascalia Apostolorum, and the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. The Didache really gives very little information, but the other sources contain some characteristic emphases: the role of Jesus' experience in the Jordan, especially the descent of the Holy Spirit, as a model for Christian baptism; the textual variant Ps. 2:7 ("You are my son; this day I have begotten you") for the baptism is reflected in the rite of baptism for Christians; fire is a dominant symbol, especially referring to "fire in the water" at Christ's baptism; the pneumatological and ritual emphasis of the accounts tends to be on the anointing with oil before the water bath rather than on the bath itself; finally, the Spirit is often seen and imaged as feminine.

These characteristic emphases seem to actually all fall together: for example, in the Syrian liturgical year the Epiphany feast was originally a combined feast of Christ's birth and baptism (48), while the baptismal font is often referred to as a "womb" (of the Spirit "Mother"). The witness of Father and Spirit at the baptism is why this event and feast are the Theophany of the whole Trinity and reveal the intra-divine relationships.

A quote from the Acts of Judas Thomas: "This is the baptism of the remission of sins; this is the bringer forth of new men; this is the restorer of understandings, and the mingler of soul and body, and the establisher of the new man in the Trinity, and which becomes a participation in the remission of sins." (44) And one from Gabriele Winkler: "Christian baptism is shaped after Christ's baptism in the Jordan. As Jesus had received the anointing through the divine presence in the appearance of a dove, and was invested as the Messiah, so in Christian baptism every candidate is anointed and, in connection with this anointing, the gift of the Spirit is conferred . . . . The description of Christ's baptism culminates in the appearance of the dove and the divine voice . . . . In the process of ritualization, therefore, it was the anointing that became, in Syria, the first and only visible gesture for the central event at Christ's baptism: his revelation as the Messiah-King through the descent of the Spirit." (47)

Regarding initiation in Egypt, Max again asserts that the Jordan event/John 3 provide the structure for theological interpretations there, but there seems to be a difference. Rather than referring to the Jordan baptism of Christ proper, Clement and Origen are motivated by that event to develop Old Testament tropes into baptismal symbols. Both use Israel's crossing the Jordan under Joshua's leadership as a primary symbol, and Origen expands it to cover all of Exodus: the Red Sea is the entrance into the catechumenate; the Jordan is baptism. Origen, however, also alludes to Romans 6 in his interpretations, a move that is probably motivated in part by the Alexandrian reading of the "Secret Gospel," a extra-canonical passage in the Gospel of Mark (which was the one read in Alexandria during this early period) which tells the story of Jesus raising a Lazarus-like figure from the dead and then initiating him: "...Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan." (55)

Origen is also a witness to threefold questioning at baptism: "Do you believe in the Father... Do you believe in the Son... etc." and to infant baptism.

Overall, I have some questions about interrelationships here. Granted the close relationship between Egypt and Syria, it is not long after this point that the differences between then start to cause tension, as well. Does the seeming Alexandrian emphasis on OT passages arise merely from coincidental selection of excerpts for this book? Is it relevant that the Syrian witness seeming to bear the closest similarity to Clement's theology of baptism (53) is Justin Martyr, whose testimony as a "Syrian" witness is problematic (though his testimony as a "Roman" witness is even more problematic)?

HOW many fewer?

Browsing through blogs I stumbled on a woman's blog that I am really enjoying reading a bit, Quantum Theology. She has a discipline (oops, Talal Asad again) going on right now where she trashes, recycles, or gives away 50 categories of things in her house every week. Wow. Not just 50 objects (I could do this indefinitely and not notice, I suspect) but 50 categories of things she is keeping that she doesn't need to be keeping. Then, as she says, "Choosing to count "classes" of stuff rather than total items has had the benefit of letting me discern once about the need for an item and then each new encounter doesn't require repeating the process."
I'm not sure I'm ready for 50 a week, but I definitely need this discipline. I'm going to start the process at 5 and see how it goes. (Yes, I'm one of those people that walk into cold water instead of diving right in.) The process depends on keeping a list of the things you're eliminating. Here, I guess, why not.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Notes on Ch. 1 of Johnson, Rites of Christian Initiation

"Regarding 'initiation' into such a diverse and inclusive 'table companionship,' however, it is important to underscore the fact that nowhere do the Gospels record anything specific about rites of entrance or preparation for this meal sharing with Jesus. Rather, to use our own now traditional sacramental language, the meal itself was not the culmination of initiation but appears, rather, as the inception, that is, the very beginnings of initiation, the 'sacrament' of initiation, or, the rite of incorporation into Christ. Nothing, not even baptism and certainly nothing like confirmation, were required as preparatory steps. Entrance to the meal of God's reign, anticipated and incarnated in the very life, ministry, and meals of Jesus of Nazareth, was granted by Jesus himself and granted especially to those who were not prepared and not (yet) converted, to the godless and undeserving, to the impure, and the unworthy. Conversion itself, it seems, was a consequence of, not a pre-condition for, such meal sharing." (p. 6)

The blog's about to become, well, more bloggy. Well, maybe. Sort of. In the sense of much more random. I need to take some notes to finish my second chapter of my dissertation, the part on the history of Christian initiation (and what it says about Christian identity). I decided to take them here for portability, a little feeling (probably an illusion, honestly) of accountability, and just in case anyone's interested.

The history stuff is based on Max Johnson's The Rites of Christian Initiation, which is a great book that I've read before. My goal is to read it and take notes in the next two weeks, then write the last part of chapter 2. I think that part should be 15-20 pages. If I run across something particularly interesting, I may make a detour through some other source material.

Chapter one of RCI focuses on the NT material on initiation, starting out with the major point that the initiatory practice of Jesus himself, if it can be so called, seemed to be a radically inclusive table companionship that earned him the ire of his contemporaries. From this context comes my quotation above, which, it seems to me, gives significant insight into Christian initiation. Following from this view of table companionship is the idea that Christian identity is not something one seeks out, proves oneself worthy of, and comes to earn. Rather, Christian identity is offered as a gift before one comes to seek it out. This is obvious and well-known. But looking at it further, this also implies that Christ and the Christian community recognize in the recipient of initiation (before he or she has become purified, converted, etc.), a gift to the community. The gift of initiation, then, is actually two-fold: a gift given by the community (acting in the person of Christ) to the initiate and the initiate's gift to the Body of Christ. The church recognizes in the unworthy worthiness, and by recognizing it, begins to initiate the person; by initiating him or her, the church begins the redemptive process that eventually makes the person worthy. This view of the sacrament (and it is the Catholic view, as far as I can see, throughout the tradition) is why the Catholic church has always initiated infants.

Moving on, Max calls attention to the fact that Jesus' baptism is considered historically factual by the consensus of NT scholars. He argues for the independence of John's baptismal practice from Essene ritual washings and from proselyte baptism. He mentions the possibility (based on John) that Jesus himself was a "baptizer" in the style of John the Baptist, that footwashing constituted an early initiation practice.

Most interesting from my perspective are the comments on the primitive links between baptism and the Holy Spirit: "it is the presence and gift of the Holy Spirit that distinguish Jesus' own and subsequent Christian baptism from that of John." The synoptic accounts of Jesus' baptism "are about what happens in Christian baptism, in general, namely, the very gift of the Holy Spirit inseparably associated with that baptism, who therein brings about the new birth of God's beloved 'sons and daughters,' in whom God is well pleased." (15) "[F]or the earliest Christians, baptism and Holy Spirit were bound together inseparably" so that when baptism was not accompanied by the gift of the Spirit or the Spirit came before baptism itself "this anomalous situation had to be remedied by the apostles themselves so that this normal relationship between baptism and Holy Spirit would be (re)connected." (26)

On baptism and the bestowal of Christian identity Max says, "to be baptized 'in' or 'into the name of Jesus' is to be baptized into Christ, to be associated as closely as possible with Christ himself as the very mediator of God's salvation." He ties this to Mt. 28 and the trinitarian shape of Christian identity, modeled on the trinitarian shape of Christ's identity as depicted in the synoptic baptismal accounts, by drawing on Aidan Kavanagh: Matthew 28:16-20 may be "a 'theological declaration' of the new relationship which baptism establishes between the baptized and God, a relationship signified in the paradigmatic story of Jesus' own baptism in the Jordan, where his identity as 'Son' in relationship to both 'Father' ('You are [This is] my Son, the Beloved') and 'Holy Spirit' is proclaimed." (28, bracketed portions original, see Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism, 22)

Finally, on page 30, Max refers to the fuzziness between actual liturgical practices and theological interpretations of initiation in the NT. While some of the images (e.g. anointing) may reflect actual practice, it is possible that the metaphorical use of them in the NT, guided by OT language and events (e.g. Ps. 2:7) led to the development of related ritual practices.