Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Have you all donned your sackcloth and ashes this morning? As a friend e-mailed me yesterday, "I am always ready for Advent and never ready for Lent," a sentiment with which I, for one, can heartily agree.

And yet, a few days in, I always somehow get into the desert spirit of this long--long, long, LONG--liturgical season.  Fast, pray, give alms--so not my first impulse, any of them. And that is why I need a good seven-plus weeks of intense practice each year.

That today kicks off a period of reflection--an intimate alk with Christ--is the main thing. On a more minor note (though of course major to me), today also happens to be the day the first of what will be a weekly column of mine runs in the Catholic portal of patheos.

Here's how it begins: [In fact, since as of May 25, 2011, I'm bowing out of patheos, here's the whole thing:]


This is my first column for patheos, and like a shy, ill-dressed newcomer to freshman English class, I thought to set forth a bit about myself and what I hope to do here. The art, the music, the books! The power and the glory of the smallest moment of daily life! The stories, the conflicts, the struggles, the dark nights of the soul, all lit from within by Christ!

The very next moment an Emily Dickinson poem sprang to mind: “I’m nobody! Who are you?/ Are you nobody, too?” Which somehow seems a perfect introduction to me and my work, and especially apropos for Ash Wednesday...

I’ll start by saying that the title for the column--“A Book of Sparks”--came from the preface to The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer from 4th-century ascetic Christian monk and author Evagrius Ponticus. “Throughout the Middle Ages [his writings] spread through Europe from monastery to monastery in Italy, France, Austria, Spain. An eighteenth-century monk of Ligugé inserted certain extracts…into a sort of digest which he entitled Liber Scintillarum, A Book of Sparks, which was widely diffused. A Cistercian of Clairvaux in the twelfth century did much the same.”

And now an ex- falling-down, blackout drunk; a former lawyer; and a Catholic convert laywoman in 21st-century L.A. is going to do the same again. I describe myself as an ex-drunk not to try to be edgy, or to draw undue attention to myself, but because the central fact of my existence is that almost 24 years ago, the obsession to drink--to which I had been an abject slave since the age of 13--was removed. The central fact of my existence is that, at a rehab among the lakes of Minnesota, I was delivered from the bondage of hell. Mercy reigned. My bad track record was not going to be held against me. For years I had huddled off in a dark, cold corner with a morsel of moldy bread, and all along, a place had been laid for me at the banquet table.

With no theology beyond what I remembered from Protestant Sunday school (which wasn’t much, because I’d been too busy making fun of the teachers), I “understood” the parable of the Prodigal Son. I “understood” that things happen in a realm we can’t see. Events that had heretofore seemed the province of sadly deluded nutcases suddenly appeared to underpin the universe. What was the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection of Christ, I remember thinking, to the fact that I, who for years could not go more than a few hours without a drink, no longer had the desire to drink?

I was grateful and if you are very grateful, you begin to want to find someone to thank. And if you want to find someone to thank badly enough, and are out-of-step enough so that neither the culture, nor piling up a ton of money, nor continuing to live a vicious lie, hold very much interest for you, you will find your way to Christ. He said so himself—“Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Mt. 7: 7)--and Christ never lied. If you are lonely enough, and spiritually hungry enough, and desperate enough, you will eventually see a cross with a body on it, stop in your tracks and realize: That is me. When I converted, 14 years ago, I did not know a single practicing Catholic. No matter: I had the saints. I had the living water of the Gospels. At Mass, in the confessional, in my heart, I had Christ.

All this took place in the midst of vibrant, chaotic, often maddening L.A.: I attended RCIA, was confirmed, and took my first Communion at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood.  “How can you be spiritual in L.A.?” people sometimes ask, and I always think, “How can you not be spiritual in L.A., a city so saturated in paradox, a place where both heaven and hell, often simultaneously, are so vividly in evidence?” More to the point, how can you not be religious, no matter where you are? For religion means to bind back together, and surely the deepest truth of the human heart is that it was shattered, split asunder, in the Garden of Eden, and that we have all been trying to put it back together since.

Since then, I have I experienced cancer, the slow, painful death of my father, a divorce and annulment, the advancing Alzheimer’s of my mother, obsessions, compulsions, the ever-advancing prospect of my own mortality, a shattered heart. I have driven across country, twice, in my car alone: pondering, praying, going to Mass. I have driven to the desert, hiked the mountains, sought out in monasteries, convents, and retreat houses. And all along, against all odds, I have grown in spiritual maturity.  I have become a better friend, a better sister, a better daughter, a more fervent, if forever stumbling, follower of Christ.  

I have also become a writer. During the “dark years,” books literally kept me alive; kept me from killing myself. Hungover, in anguish, I almost lost my will to live, but I never lost my library card. Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson--the authors who wrote of the truth of the human condition--were my truest, often my only, link to humanity. I have always considered the vocation of writer to be a calling as noble, in its way, as the calling to be a doctor or teacher of priest, and I believe that even more strongly since I’ve become a writer myself. “There is only one thing I dread,” said Dostoevsky, “not to be worthy of my sufferings.” I dread a second thing, and that is not to be worthy of the honor and responsibility of my vocation as a writer.   

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” the priest will say today, as he makes the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads. We do not come to Christ as Protestants or Catholics, as Democrats or Republicans, or even as believers or non-believers. We come to Christ as sinners, as beggars.  We come in fear and trembling, in  wonder and astonishment, and let us never forget,  in crazy, wild-card joy. We come and then we want to go out to the world and say, “You come, too! You won’t believe this! God has come to earth as a mortal human being! He’s  pitched his tent among us!...

“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it,” observed spiritual writer Madeleine L’Engle.

And perhaps even more succinctly:  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn. 1: 5).

Even if the light is the tiniest of sparks.
And here's wishing one and all a deep and fruitful Lent...


  1. repent and believe in jesus christ who has come to this earth as emmanuel.


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