Sunday, January 30, 2011

THE MUSEUM OF JURASSIC TECHNOLOGY

From wikipedia:

“The Museum of Jurassic Technology is an educational institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and the public appreciation of the lower jurassic. Located at 9341 Venice Boulevard in the Palms district of Los Angeles, California, the Museum holds a specialized repository of relics and artifacts evoking some of the more obscure and poetic aspects of natural history, the history of technology and science, and their entwined realizations in human artistry and ingenuity. It was founded by David Hildebrand Wilson and Diana Drake Wilson (husband and wife) in 1987.


The Museum of Jurassic Technology traces its origins to the earliest days of the institution of the museum, which it dates back to Noah's Ark, the first and most complete Museum of Natural History known to man. The Museum's catalog includes a mixture of artistic, scientific as well as some unclassifiable exhibits, and evokes the cabinets of curiosities that were the 18th century predecessors of modern natural history museums. The factual claims of many of the Museum's exhibits strain credibility, provoking a rich array of interpretations from commentators. The Museum was the subject of a book by Lawrence Weschler in 1995 entitled "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder," and the Museum's founder David Wilson received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 2001.


The Museum maintains over 30 permanent exhibits including:

The Delani/Sonnabend Halls - recalling the intertwining story of an ill-fated opera singer, Madalena Delani, with a theoretician of memory, Geoffrey Sonnabend, whose 3-part work Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter suggests that memory is an elaborate construction that humankind has created, "to buffer ourselves against the intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and the irretrievability of its moments and events." There is only experience and the decay of experience, an idea he illustrates with a complex diagram of a plane intersecting a cone.

Tell the Bees: Belief, Knowledge, and Hypersymbolic Cognition: An exhibit of pre-scientific cures and remedies

The Garden of Eden on Wheels: Collections from Los Angeles Area Trailer Parks.”


The Museum of Jurassic Technology, in other words, is simultaneously utterly serious, utterly tongue-in-cheek, and a kind of elaborate gift/puzzle/hoax. When I first moved to town, I lived right around the corner from the place and the first time I wandered in, I knew I’d stumbled into an alternate world. The way I remember it, an ordinary Victorian tea set was exhibited with grave, respectful, “museum-type” commentary. A horn, supposedly cut a century or two ago from the forehead of a woman, was mounted like a pair of stag’s horns on a heraldic board. Four and twenty moldy blackbirds were baked into a plaster-of-Paris pie--but maybe I'm mixing that up with the "mice on toast" diorama. For someone like me, whose central belief is that the mundane is also utterly transcendent, I felt like I’d wandered into a part of my psyche I’d always known existed but had never quite yet met in the flesh.

ROTTING DICE FROM THE COLLECTION OF RICKY JAY
“One of the things that we are greatly interested in is helping people to achieve states of wonder,” observes curator David Wilson. In the excellent Dr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, writer Lawrence Weschler describes the effect of the museum on one such person:

“One day, for instance, when I was talking with David at his front desk, a visitor emerged from the maze-like alcoves stupefied. He stopped for a moment and gazed on the rotary pencil sharpener on David's desk. He stared at it, manipulated the rotor, dumbfounded. Like he'd never seen anything like it in his life. It was just an ordinary pencil sharpener.”


"Hear me, hear me! My God, my master, my king, my Father, my cause, my hope, my wealth, my honor, my home, my country, my salvation, my light, my life! Hear, hear, hear me, in that way of yours, known best to few!"
--St. Augustine of Hippo

ROSE AND ANT FROM THE FLORAL STEREORADIOGRAPHS OF ALBERT B. RICHARDS

Friday, January 28, 2011

THE OBLIGATION OF LOVE


In a 1940 letter, Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, told of a story a friend had read in The Saturday Evening Post in which:

“a young girl is wildly in love with a wastrel until later on when this had been broken up and she had been married for a year to a man of good solid character, she ran into her former love again. She confessed to her husband that she had been afraid of meeting him for fear some of the old glamour remained, and she said to him: ‘Now I can see him as he is.’ And her husband, who must have been a man of great discernment, said to her very sadly: ‘Perhaps it was before that you were seeing him as he really is.’" "Or as he was meant to be," added Day.

Isn't that beautiful?

I’m reminded of this passage from Thomas Merton: “One reason I am so grateful for this morning’s sermon is that my worst and inmost sickness is the despair of every being able to truly love, because I despair of ever being worthy of love. But the way out is to be able to trust one’s friends and thus accept in them acts and things which a sick mind grabs as evidence of a lack of love—as pretexts for avoiding the obligation of love.”

I’m reminded of  Kirsten Arnesen Clay, the Lee Remick character in The Days of Wine and Roses who, by way of explaining why she can't or won't stop drinking, says: “...I want things to look prettier than they are”...

I’m reminded of Dostoevsky’s line about Paradise in "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man": “And not only in their songs but in all their lives they seemed to do nothing but admire one another.”

I think I am FINALLY done with that damn, I mean the blessed book I have been graced to write about my year-long walk with the literally sainted St. Thérèse of Lisieux. From whom, believe me, I have learned A LOT. Meanwhile, I'm off to Palm Springs tomorrow to stay for three days with my friend Christine who hails from Zermatt, Switzerland, and wears pointy Moroccan leather slippers, and has an orange tree in her backyard and...I'll give a full report!...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

BLUE SKIES: L.A.'S FIVE DAYS OF WINTER

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN'S
THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL
This is adapted from an essay published many years ago in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. That was when newspapers paid a dollar a word. That was when newspapers published essays. That was when the L.A. Times had a Sunday Magazine...

Since I'm going back in a few weeks--and spoke yesterday to my ex-husband, who lives on the New Hampshire coast and reported that his cousin Jeremy's thermometer in Vermont read 35 below the other morning--this seemed a good time to haul it out. And as he also noted: "These winter days, with the light sparkling off the ice and the trees and the stillness, are the most beautiful days of the year"... 

Every summer I travel to New Hampshire, where I grew up, and every summer I hear the same remarks about Los Angeles, a place 99% of the people who feel called upon to make the remarks have never seen. "Different strokes for different folks," they shrug, in the same tone of voice a person might use if asked to say something neutral about cannibalism. "Better you than me!" they chuckle uneasily, and avert their eyes, the way you do at the sight of blood. One man this year, upon learning that I was visiting from Southern California, actually made the sign of the cross in front of my face, as if warding off a hex.

But perhaps the remark I hear most frequently is a pitying, "Don't you miss the four seasons?" The answer is, frankly, no. New Hampshire has its charms but, to my mind, they are mostly available from June through September. I know there are people who thrive during months when the sun sets at three-thirty in the afternoon, who find it a happy challenge to drive on roads made treacherous by glare ice, who do not entertain daily thoughts of suicide at the prospect of spending two-thirds of their lives housebound because they risk frostbite if they step outdoors--people, in other words, who enjoy the full length of a New England winter--but I am not one of them.

In all my most vivid childhood memories, I am shivering. For the better part of the year, I waited for the schoolbus in weather so cold my teeth ached, stood hunched in the cold at recess and came home to a mother who was a throwback to another, hardier age, a woman who considered it perfectly normal for citizens of the twentieth century to inhabit a house the temperature of an igloo. At night, I climbed between sheets that felt as if they'd been stored in a refrigerator and, in the morning, woke to a room whose air had the raw bite of the tundra. One fairy tale character in particular had a devastating hold on my psyche: Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl, the gentle street urchin who froze to death on New Year's Eve.

Those long, bleak winters, interspersed with the achingly ephemeral days of summer, shaped a world view that I have spent most of my adult life trying to change. They made me believe in a God who made you earn every happy moment by imposing a hundred of misery, someone who snatched things away just as your fingers closed around them, someone with a block of ice in the socket reserved for a warm, beating heart.


They are a big part of the reason that, twenty years ago, I moved with my (now-ex) husband to a place where, by Eastern standards, it is summer all the time. They are partly the reason that I, for one, am still here, in spite of the fact that, for many long months, everything about Los Angeles seemed alien and inscrutable and disorienting. We searched in vain for a center, something to help us get our bearings, but there were no parks, no open spaces, no plazas or commons like the ones we were used to.

We ended up renting a stucco box of a house in Palms, a dreary part of town that, with its grids of identical rectangular apartment buildings, identically landscaped with azaleas and impatiens, resembled the outskirts of an airport. We were lonely and broke and afraid we had made a mistake; had been rash to move so far away from everything we knew. But on the south side of that nondescript house, a camellia bloomed that first uncertain February, tipsy with flowers that spoke of mystery, promise, hope; flowers so pink and lush they made me want to throw a party. Such wanton abundance--in February!--while in New England, spring was heralded by a single demure crocus pushing from a crust of snow.

Besides the camellia, the yard was bare; the previous tenants had used the lawn, which was as hard and dry as concrete, for a driveway. It seemed impossible that anything could take root in it but, inspired by the succession of balmy days and the friendly, encouraging warmth of the sun, I turned on the rusty sprinkler every night. After a few weeks, a soft shroud of green appeared, which eventually needed mowing. We sent away for seeds and bulbs, dug up flower beds, bought Jerusalem sage, evening primrose, coral bells. We planted dusty miller and pansies around the tree on the far side of the walk. We filled flowerboxes with dwarf stock and marigolds and started a compost heap.

Febrile with enthusiasm, we began to think of vegetables. We had no back yard--a rectangle of cramped apartments crowded right up to our door--so we dug another patch up front, stuck a square of chicken wire in the ground, and planted sugar snap peas, a bumper crop whose vines were eight feet high. Collards grew like kudzu. We put in squash, tomatoes and cukes, and wondered if municipal law forbade the keeping of goats. On weekends, in the midst of this bounty, we dragged our lawn chairs out front and read in the sun like a couple of hayseeds. My husband sometimes wore his carpenter's overalls and dispensed farming advice to curious passersby. We met everyone on our block that way.

We lived in that house for two years. Three months after we moved, to the “east side,” we drove by the old place and everything we had planted was dead. But it didn't matter, then; that house, that yard, had already sustained us, already unleashed a new capacity for hope, already given us a taste of that strange combination of anonymity and intimacy so characteristic of L.A. that made us want to stay.

Over the next several years we experienced the usual things people experience: major surgery, career changes, aging parents. We did, in other words, what just about everyone who lives here does: carved out a day-to-day life that is in most respects very much like the lives of the people who think Los Angeles embodies the anti-Christ. Much as I love the New England seacoast, I’m probably “happier” here, and though it would be far too simplistic to attribute this to the climate, I am still overwhelmed with gratitude that I no longer live in a place where summers are fleeting interludes of happiness for which winter is the terrible, inexorable, endless price.


I have even become grateful for the frigid winters I endured for 38 years, because the memory of them makes California weather seem continually miraculous in a way I am not sure is possible for those who were born and bred here. I have never learned to refrain from exclaiming, "Isn't it gorgeous out!" to natives who meet my enthusiasm with bored, blank stares. I have learned that L.A. does have seasons—even if, as my landscape architect friend Judy notes, winter lasts about five days. I have never quite lost the feeling of having stumbled, undeserving, upon an outrageous piece of luck, an endlessly self-replenishing pot of gold. There is something in this of the immigrant's dream fulfilled, and part of me still lives with the immigrant's lingering fear that some morning there will be a knock on the door and they'll make me go back home.

On any given day in, say, November or January or March, when people back East are getting snow down their necks and scraping ice from their windshields; when here, sunlight the color of honey streams down the golden canyons like a benediction, I sometimes think that, in Los Angeles, the story of the Little Match Girl has been rewritten. This time her father doesn't beat her, she doesn't freeze to death, they don't find her thinly-clad corpse, blue with cold, on New Year's Day. This time the visions of the gleaming stove, the fragrant goose, the Christmas tree with its candles like stars streaking across the sky do not fade in the time it takes a match to burn down. Instead, they are resurrected, day after perfect day, as our simplest, most essential blessings: Light. Food. Warmth.

WILDWOOD CANYON
photo: Seaotter71

Monday, January 24, 2011

DANIEL C. DENNETT AND DARWIN'S NON-DANGEROUS IDEA: THERE IS ONE DANGEROUS IDEA, BUT IT IS NOT THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION


Early last year, I realized it was finally time to read a little more deeply of Darwin.  I had read a book I thoroughly enjoyed called Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories  by Adam Phillips. I had read a wonderful book by Lyanda Lynn Haupt called Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin’s Lost Notebooks But I still didn’t get how evolution was antithetical in any way to “God,” God to me being the questions of meaning, existence, and love. 

I was staying in Taos, New Mexico at the time, and limited to what I could find in the public library. So first I read Voyaging, the excellent Volume I of Darwin’s biography by the estimable Janet Browne (the library didn’t have Volume II), and then I plowed through Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by a man named Daniel C. Dennett who seemed just a tad hostile toward the "people of religion." “God is greater than God,” observed the the 16th c. German mystic Meister Eckhart, a point that seemed to be entirely lost on the (why so often humorless?) folk who thought a scientific theory—a theory! no matter how painstakingly crafted, pondered, and worked over—could “disprove” God. I never did quite get from Dennett's book exactly what Darwin’s idea was, or why it was so dangerous. But after reading for about the twentieth time that the algorithmic process underlying evolution is mindless, purposeless, and stupid, I did look out my window at the sky, the clouds, the sun, the snow-laden trees, the magpies and starlings, the downy woodpeckers and the red-shafted flicker and think: Well let's see you do it.

Maybe in my
naïveté I had missed the whole point. But a God who lets us in on at least some of the underpinnings of creation, who works within time so as to allow us to discover clues, who makes all of creation a model and metaphor for, among other things, the spiritual evolution of any single human life, which, like natural selection, works in fits and starts, with seemingly wasted hours, days, years, decades, wrong turns, interests taken up and discarded, ideas that seemed revelatory at the time transpiring to be dead ends, chance encounters, random occurrences, failed careers, loves lost, homes packed up and moved, hearts shattered, years of seeming stasis followed by a barrier seemingly suddenly jumped, all the detritus of a single life which—coupled with the talents, gifts, triumphs, successes, the wild card of free will, and the mystery of the grace—like any given species, is sometimes cut down for no apparent reason, sometimes blossoms, sometimes withers, and sometimes bears one or two hard, infertile fruits and dies on the vine, struck me, from what I could understand, as entirely compatible with "evolution." 

I'm no genius but I am probably as smart as the next person and if after reading several books I still couldn't remotely see how evolution could explain everything, as Dennett insisted--again, I could be wrong, but something seemed not to add up. A theory that purports to explain the meaning of life can't simply dismiss the stirrings of human heart. In fact, the main difference between the people of science and the people of religion (assuming they're different people, which let's hope more and more they're not) seems to be that the scientists think the human heart is the least important question while the people of religion think it's the most important.

The best I could figure was that some of the scientists had taken the theory and twisted it to fit their own agenda. 
So I puzzled and puzzled--because science is a beautiful thing! I say more science, more discoveries! One thing I came up with is that a theory that purports to "explain" all of creation has to be both simple enough so that everybody of moderate intelligence can get a hold of it, and profound and endlessly complex enough so that everyone, from the most intelligent to the least, can, if they choose, make  a life's work of grappling with it. That "theory" to me is "Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind, and your whole strength, and your neighbor as yourself." [Mark 12:30]

Also, it seems to me, the "test" of a theory or a philosophy is whether you can live by it, and if so, what the people are like who purport to live by it. Believe what you like, that goes without saying, but whatever your beliefs, they have to at least give you the wherewithal to find and do work you love, spring from some kind of basic affection for your fellow human beings and their/your terrible plight on earth, and make you marginally happy to the point where you can at least laugh at yourself once in awhile. 

Anyway, in my admittedly comically untutored (scientifically, that is) state, I grappled for several weeks myself and came up with the following:

‘If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organization, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, at some age, season, or  year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.’” [Origin [of the Species], p. 127 [facs. ed. of 1st ed.] (quoted by Dennett, pp. 41-42)]

Natural selection:                                                   
“You did not choose me, but I chose you…”  [John 15:16].                              

Severe struggle for life:
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me.” [Matthew 25: 31-40]

Malthus: animal populations, including human, “self-regulate,” both by natural and non-natural means, according to availability of resources, chiefly food:
“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” [John 6: 35].

“Can [the speed of an antelope, the wing of an eagle, the shape of an orchid, the diversity of species] really be the outcome of nothing but a cascade of algorithmic processes feeding on chance? And if so, who designed that cascade? Nobody. ” [ Dennett, p. 59]:
“God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM.”  [Exodus 3:14]
"Before Abraham was born, I AM." [John 8: 58]

Natural selection is random, purposeless, and apparently cruel:
“Do you think I am like you?” [Psalm 50]

“Survival” defined as longevity, either individually or as a species:
Survival defined as continued participation in the work of ongoing creation, even after death.

Survival of the fittest:
“But many that are first will be last, and the last first.” [Matthew 19: 30].

“Man is nothing but a more developed animal.” [Browne, summarizing Darwin's thought, p. 513]:
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” [Matthew 6: 26].  
Not infinitely more--but more.

Nature abhors self-fertilization:
Hence, the sacrament of marriage.

Species are mutable and ever-changing:
Indeed: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” [Matthew 8:20].  

“We can now reformulate his fundamental idea as follows: Life on Earth has been generated over billions of years in a single branching tree—the Tree of Life—by one algorithmic process or another.” [Dennett. p. 51]:
“I am the vine, you are the branches.” [John 15:5].

Algorithm as proof of mindless, random, force that proceeds from nowhere, goes nowhere, and gave rise by the sheerest accident to man:
“‘Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”  [John 3: 3-8]

No protagonists, no drama, no plot, no story:
“But there are also many other things which [he] did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” [John 21: 25]

The driving goal of strong, healthy parents is to produce strong, healthy offspring:
“Who is my mother and who are my brothers?...Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.” [Matthew 12: 48, 50]

A loving God would prohibit or prevent suffering:
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” [Mark 8: 34]

"Why would a God devise a system which eventually renders him unnecessary?”: [Richard Dawkins, from a podcast I downloaded off itunes in which Dawkins debated I believe an Episcopal minister and in which the minister, simply by virtue of his tone and voice, revealed himself to be so happily good-humored (as well as intelligent, probing, and deeply engaged in the question of existence) and Dawkins such an ill-tempered, hectoring crab that you didn’t even have to listen to the words (though I did) to know which of the two had more deeply tapped into the "meaning(s) of life"]:
“Though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not deem equality with God
something to be grasped at.
Rather, he emptied himself
and took the form of a slave,
being born in the likeness of men.
He was known to be of human estate.”
[Philippians 2: 6-7]

Whoever lives longest, either individually or as a species, “wins”:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5: 3].

“Triumph” through adaptation:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” [Matthew 5:29.]

Science reigns:
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:41].

Procreative advantage:
The Virgin Birth.

“[W]e can see that benign or harmless memes will tend to flourish, other things being equal, and those that tend to be fatal to those whose minds carry them can only flourish if they have some way of publicizing themselves before—or while—they go down with the ship.” [Dennett, pp. 362-363]:
The Crucifixion.

“Controversy about the mechanisms and principles of speciation still persists, so in one sense [no proponent of natural selection has yet] explained the origin of the species.”  [Dennett, p.44]:
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” [Matthew 13: 11]
And:
“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.” [John 16: 12-13]

Death is to be shunned, feared, rejected, and scorned as the ultimate failure:
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” [John 12: 24]

Death:
Eternal life.  

Mind:
Mind, Heart, Memory, Understanding, Will

Pharisees:
Disciples

Professors:  
Friends

Science:
Science suffused not just by the search for truth, but by love for the truth. For love for the truth must  acknowledge that to put one’s own interests aside in favor of the interests of others, to drop out of the race to survive, to have self-renunciating love as the goal of one’s life is such an egregious failure to adapt that the trait, and its aftereffects, would be expected to die out instantly. Instead, it’s such “adaptive” traits as  arrogance, rudeness, boorishness, selfishness, narcissistic self-promotion, grandiosity, contempt, hatred, and craven toadying that, though often “advantageous” in the short run, die on the vine along with the person who exhibits them. We remember Hitler but we don’t imitate him. We remember Genghis Khan but he does not illuminate us. Love—which “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” [1 Cor. 13: 7]—“survives” both the person who dies young and/or the person who dies, at any age, with no offspring.

In a theory based on the biological struggle to survive, in other words, a single individual engaged in the religious struggle to surrender throws the whole scheme out of whack. For how can it be that a man who died in agony at the age of 33, betrayed by his closest friends, his life’s work an apparent failure; a lifelong celibate who chose celibacy in order to be in solidarity with the lonely, the unlucky, the aged, the deformed, the weak and unwanted, and who died childless, should have “lived” for over 2000 years? How is it that a man whom of all men “adapted” to nothing except total integrity, total truth, total humility, and total love, should have had a more profound and enduring influence on the course of mankind, and shed more light, than anyone who ever has lived?

Proof:
Scientific truth interpreted through the lens of the human conscience and heart, which in its childlike purity abhors all thought of genetic engineering, cloning, selective abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and Artificial Intelligence.“He made from one stock the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us.” [Acts: 17: 26-27]. 

“Hence all the intermediate forms between the earlier and later states, that is between the less and more improved state of a species, as well as the original parent-species itself, will generally tend to become extinct.” [Origin, p. 121]:
“Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” [Matthew 28: 20]
  
“I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent…If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish.”: [Dennett, quoting Darwin, p. 60]:
“And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” [Mark 16: 8]

“You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?...A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” [Matthew 7: 15-20].

Sam Harris:
Anne Frank

Daniel C. Dennett:
St. Maria Goretti, an 11-year-old Virgin Martyr who was stabbed to death in 1902 rather than yield her virginity

Christopher Hitchens:
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Richard Dawkins:
St. Maxmilian Kolbe, who offered himself up to starve to death in another man’s place in the death camp at Auschwitz

Charles Darwin:
Jesus Christ

THE CRUCIFIXION
PETER PAUL RUBENS, c. 1610
And thus, the really dangerous idea, it seems--is the Gospels. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

LOST AND FOUND

photo: adam foster
Thirty years ago I “hid” a fifty-dollar bill between the pages of a red leather, gilt-stamped journal that now sits, along with all my other old journals, on a shelf in my bedroom closet. Every so often, I still leaf through, hoping to find that fifty bucks.


I think of all the other things I’ve lost in my life: the moss agate bracelet my parents gave me for my 23rd birthday, left behind one hazy night—dropped? impulsively given away?—in the bar of the Copley Square Hotel. The ninety dollars of waitressing money that fell out of my pocket near the old Boston Garden in the fall of 1988 and I mourned for months because it was some of the last money I ever made waitressing and I’d waitressed for 15 years. The black leather jacket (how? where?) somewhere between my apartment and the Southwestern Law Library, right after I’d first moved to L.A. and was studying for the California bar.

            
moss agate, rough
I won’t count the things that were stolen, which is another kind of loss; or the things I gave away to the wrong person: my virginity, for instance; or the things I knew I was going to lose in advance, like a little chunk of my left breast when they cut out that tumor. A few years ago, for the first time ever, I lost a library book--Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile--which I hated not so much because the book cost 35 bucks to replace (plus I didn't like it) but because the loss blemished the perfect library record I’d had since I was 6 (I found it later, under a floor mat in my car, and got a refund). It’s as if all those lost things tell their own story; form a path linking my past and future, like Hansel’s and Gretel’s crumbs.

Why do we lose things so much more often than we find them?
Why can’t we be more careful?
Do the things we’ve lost feel like they’ve lost us?

Maybe in some other dimension everything’s there, keeping each other company: the whirligig for the Krups food processor I accidentally emptied into the garbage, along with the plum pudding, that really bad Christmas in the mid-90's. The 250-dollar reading glasses with the thick black frames I’m pretty sure I left at a Starbucks on the main drag in the mountain town of Temecula, California. The green ribbed sweater that disappeared one night in the Twin Towers jail in downtown L.A.


The clothes, the books, the jewelry, the money: maybe they're all in some cosmic lost-and-found; maybe in an alternate realm, a small carefully-tended pile, labeled with our names, awaits each of us.  Maybe everything finds its way back: the fragments of broken heart, the minds that wandered off and never returned, the roads not taken. Maybe in another world, we get to start over: the illusion that our parents were perfect, that he’d never look at another woman, that we weren’t going to die.

“I’m so sorry to hear it,” Andy Warhol said when he learned that everybody dies. “I just thought things were magic and that it would never happen.”


Friday, January 21, 2011

CONFUSÃO



I'm not in a state of confusão; if anything, I'm actually feeling unusually clear. But I have been, and will be again, in a state of confusão. And so, while I can't at the moment do justice to the incredible Polish journalist/travel writer/philosopher/poet Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), this link should whet your appetite. And for now, here's a tiny sample of his work:

"Confusão is a good word, a synthesis word, an everything word. In Angola it has its own specific sense and is literally untranslatable. To simplify things: Confusão means confusion, a mess, a state of anarchy and disorder. Confusão is a situation created by people, but in the course of creating it they lose control and direction, becoming victims of confusão themselves. There is a sort of fatalism in confusão. A person wants to do something, but it all falls to pieces in his hands; he wants to set something in motion, but some power paralyzes him; he wants to create something, but he produces confusão. Confusão can overwhelm our thinking, and then others will say that the person has confusão in his head. It can steal into our hearts, and then our girls dump us. It can explode in a crowd and sweep through a mass of people—then there is fighting, death, arson. Sometimes confusão takes a more benign form in which it assumes the character of desultory, chaotic but bloodless haggling.

Confusão is a state of absolute disorientation. People who have found themselves on the inside of confusão can’t comprehend what is going on around them or in themselves. Nor can they explain specifically what caused this particular state of confusão. There are carriers who spread confusão, and others must beware, though this is difficult because literally any person can at any moment become a perpetrator of confusão, even against his will. By confusão we also understand our own states of perplexity and helplessness. We see confusão raging around us and can’t do anything to stop it…The best thing is to act slowly and wait. After a while confusão loses energy, weakens, vanishes. We emerge from a state of confusão exhausted, but somehow satisfied that we have managed to survive. We start gathering strength for the next confusão."

--Ryszard Kapuściński,  from Another Day of Life 


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

JUST SAY YES TO NO!: THE SPIRITUALITY OF IMPERFECTION



I’ve been pondering a quote about St. Thérèse of Lisieux from the excellent Ida Friederike Görres biography, The Hidden Face:

 “[S]he rejected all ascetic efforts which were directed not towards God but toward one’s own perfection.”

More and more, I see this is a very deep point.

Because I, for one, have a way of trying to be perfectly accommodating, perfectly forgiving, perfectly available, perfectly responsive which is somehow not about the other person, but about me and my idea that if only I can manage and control my environment--instead of if only for once in my life I could rely on God--all would be well. 

One reason I've had a chance to ponder the point is that, as happens in life, I've had a number of incidents lately where people have in one way or another approached me and after I've responded with as much grace, patience, compassion and generosity as I can muster, have proceeded, in the most unnerving way, to nitpick, bully, and scapegoat. In the past I've tended in such situations to offer a long, heartfelt explanation of how they had misunderstood, and why I thought and felt as I did, thinking my job was to be friendly and open.  Now I’m more likely to respond, “You may be right!”--or not respond at all--mentally wish the person well, and move on.

As an introvert, part of my spiritual discipline is making sure I do a certain amount of participating in the world: socializing, visiting, supporting other people’s work. At one point, this translated into never saying no. If someone had invited or asked me to do something, in my mind that meant I was obligated to say yes, and so no matter how tired, wrung out, or overwhelmed I felt, I would be there, cheerfully, ready to give.

Now I feel confident enough in my willingness to participate—which for me is always a “contrary action”—that I don’t have to say yes every time. Now I feel sure enough that my basic stance is goodwill and generosity that, unless I’ve truly done or said something that requires an amends, I don’t have to go on and on explaining myself. I know the hours I have spent patiently answering every e-mail, writing thank you notes, sharing whatever experience, strength and hope I can: whether the other person knows doesn’t matter. I know the years and years of trudging to Mass and Confession, of writing and sharing moral inventories, of praying, meditating, pondering in order to develop some basic ground of integrity: whether the other person is convinced of that doesn’t matter. (Plus, you can always defriend him or her on Facebook).


No, but seriously, I'm also deeply aware of the myriad ways I fall far, far short every day: of my selfishness, my jealousy, my petty spite, my obsessive-compulsive thought patterns. But what Christ came to say, it seems to me more and more, was you are never going to get where you want to go by merely following the rules. The rules are important, but only to let you know whether or not you’re moving in the right direction. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” [Matthew 5:17]

Part of the fulfillment is that you get to take yourself into account. You don’t embark on some willy-nilly saying yes to everything even though you’re hungry, angry, lonely and tired; out of some misguided sense of martyrdom, which for me is often a thinly-veiled disguise for my fear that the other person won’t like me if I say no. Maybe not everyone can relate, but as the oldest of six in a family affected by alcoholism, the delusion that if only I were good enough, accomplished enough, pretty enough, perfect enough I could save them  ("them" being my family, the poor, the sick and suffering, the world) has been seemingly hard-wired into my psyche since practically my first sentient day. 

Of course there’ll be many times when you “sacrifice.” Your friend calls you because her car broke down on the way to the airport: of course you “give up” your quiet evening of reading to go pick her up. But you’re not trying to get good spiritual marks. You’re not doing it to get straight A’s on some cosmic report card; you’re doing it because you’ve prayed long and hard enough, you’ve developed enough of a relationship with Christ, so that you can now actually feel and somewhat gauge the stirrings of your heart. You’re able to discern your motives. You say yes because you know you’re going to be able to reciprocally participate in the flow of give and take. You devote your energy to the people and things that nourish you instead of frittering it away trying to win useless arguments.  

But you're also not operating out of some vague, abstract "Let’s-all-make-up-our-own-rules" notion. You're based on the solid-rock belief that our prayer, actions and life are toward moral conversion. To love each other as Christ loved us necessarily, almost instantly, calls up moral conversion. Because the second you try to love another as Christ loved us you come up against your complete unwillingness—and even after you become willing, your utter inability—to sacrifice, examine your motives, work, stretch, or change.  You come up against the fact that your idea of love is really love for yourself, and your comfort, security, and needs. 

Christ’s way is less harsh but also calls us higher. You’re going to go way beyond following the rules. You're going to move into the uncharted area of relationship. I mean look at the face on the front of that Görres book. Does that look like the face of a timid sheep who unthinkingly followed a set of senseless, arbitrary rules? No. That is a face annealed by suffering. That is the face of a warrior for love. That is a face that cared not for the approval of the world, but for the heart of Christ. 

So here's my current manifesto: Quit explaining yourself. Give yourself permission to say no once in awhile. Leave the scapegoaters to their own sad and secret sorrows--and pray for them, for we are all scapegoaters in our way. Listen to the birds. Take a walk. And as my ex-husband Tim would say: Come on in, the water's fine....

DETAIL, BAPTISM OF CHRIST
PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA, 1448-50

Saturday, January 15, 2011

THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON

Rembrandt van Rijn
The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1662
Collection: The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) once saw a reproduction of the Rembrandt painting of the parable of the Prodigal Son and became so entranced that he traveled to St. Petersburg, wheedled the administration and guards, and sat before this great work of art for five days, gazing, reflecting, pondering. The trip resulted in two books: The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers and Sons (1992) and (the posthumous) Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (2009).

Nouwen reflects deeply on the younger son, the elder son, and the father (at different times, we are all of these characters), realizing in the end that he himself was called to be a "father"--as a priest, as a person. And he makes a very interesting point, especially for those of us who are getting on in years, about how people don’t want to consult with the father about the little comings and goings of their daily lives. They want to be out and about having fun, they don’t want to consult with or invite or let the father in on everything, they just want him to be there when they need him, when they need guidance or direction or mercy or the deep God-like welcome that asks no questions, that doesn’t condemn or judge but simply welcomes, embraces, and blesses.

Having had my own one huge Prodigal Daughter experience when the obsession to drink was lifted in the late '80's, and many slightly smaller ones since, the parable has always been close to my own heart. Here it is, with some excerpts from Nouwen's second book:

11 And he said, A certain man had two sons:
12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:
23 And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.
26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.
28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.
29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:
30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.
32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.
 --Luke 15: 11-32, King James Version 

HENRI NOUWEN
"Before now I was never able to see how the love of the father embraced not just the return of his younger child but also his running away from home…Perhaps the whole movement of leaving and returning is only one movement rather than two, especially as it is experienced in the loving heart of the father. This is not a parent who says, “Don’t go.” That kind of statement is not in keeping with the spirit of this story. The spirit of the story is different. It reads, “Yes, son. Go. And you will be hurt and it will be hard, and it will be painful. And you might even lose your life, but I will not hold you back from taking that risk. When and if you come back, I am always here for you. But I’m also here for you now in your leaving. Yes, we belong together and I am never separated from you.” This aspect of divine Love is, for me, a critical life-connection.” 

"And in the passage of return there is a further step to be taken. The return is not just about you and me, but it has to do with our response to another person’s resentment. Seeing what we do, and working to change, there is an urge to critically judge resentment seen in others. This is important because we each must choose our reactions to the anger and pain of others. It is when we are primarily giving thanks for our lives that we have the potential to receive another’s anger and judgment while remaining upright and letting it move through us. When we are looking for occasions to be grateful we hear anger and pain in a new way and can more readily accept it as being theirs and not ours. It is in that spirit that we try simply to receive it without judgment. This is only possible as we adopt thanksgiving as our way of living. Otherwise their resentment connects with ours and that only makes things worse. In the grateful life we no longer listen to another’s resentment as an affirmation of our own. Nor do we judge. We simply receive it in love."

"Each one of us, as well as all who went before us, share the human condition and suffer from being loved imperfectly. [to wit, by our parents] We are not meant to stop at simply feeling the pain of these wounds, nor are we to become stuck in guilt or accusations. Rather this whole experience is to move us toward accepting a relationship with God’s living Spirit of Unconditional Love. Our spiritual journey is nothing more than a return to the intimacy, the safety, and the acceptance of that very first relationship with Love, that is uniquely present and at home within each one of us."

"We all know the lonely person in others or ourselves who, through so many disturbing behaviors, is asking, 'Please recognize me, please love me.' Human suffering is so often an expression of our extreme need to feel genuinely loved, and when we know nothing about the first love, we turn to others who cannot offer us the love we need…

Rembrandt was able to paint the prodigal son’s return only after immense suffering…

Look at the hands of the father in the painting. Very few people notice at first glance that there are two different hands, one of a man and the other of a woman. Rembrandt knew that the Divine was not merely a man looking upon creation from the sky, and he understood something about the Creator that Jesus wanted us to know…Rembrandt painted the hand of the woman for an earlier painting of the Jewish bride. She has very delicate, gentle, and tender hands that speak about who she is as women—protecting, caring, and inordinately in love. The hand of the man is Rembrandt’s own hand. It speaks of who he is as father, supporter, defender, and giver of freedom. After a long life and having lived the death of both of his wives and all of his children, Rembrandt understood the depths of holding and letting go, of offering protection and freedom, of maternity and paternity. That’s how he was able to paint this image of God toward the end of his life."

--Henri Nouwen, all from Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Detail from Rembrandt's
The Return of the Prodigal Son

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

THE TRAGEDY IN TUCSON, OUR "FILTHY ROTTEN SYSTEM," AND THE DIARIES OF OF DOROTHY DAY


Like most of us, I'm am saddened, frightened, unsettled and bewildered by the recent tragedy in Tucson. I'm also unsettled by the response--much of which, from both "sides," seems way over-geared toward the very venom, vitriol, and finger-pointing from which such a deranged act is likely to spring in the first place.

I’m thinking of Psalm 112:

Help, O Lord, for good men have vanished:
truth has gone from the sons of men.
Falsehood they speak to one another,
with lying lips, with a false heart…

I’m thinking of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the lay Catholic Worker movement, who believed not in pointing fingers, but in doing penance…Not in trying to ferret out other people's motives, but in ferreting out, and amending, our own..."Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system," Day wrote, and this seems a fitting week to offer this review of her diaries I wrote a couple of years ago for the newspaper of the L.A. Catholic Worker, The Catholic Agitator.

                 
                        THE DUTY OF DELIGHT: THE DIARIES OF DOROTHY DAY

           On the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1932, Dorothy Day visited the National Shrine and prayed that “some way would be opened for me to work for the poor and the oppressed.” Right there is the difference between Dorothy Day and me, or maybe you. I, too, often pray for help, for solace, for relief—but I’m not always thinking of poor and the oppressed, if you get my drift.  
            When Dorothy returned from the National Shrine to her apartment in New York, Peter Maurin, a Catholic French social activist with peasant roots and a philosophy of personalism, was waiting on her doorstep, and on May 1, 1933, the Catholic Worker was born: first a newspaper, then a soup kitchen, then the first “house of hospitality” from which a worldwide lay movement would eventually blossom. Dorothy’s checkered past—the Bohemian nightlife, the flirtation with Communism, the abortion, the 1927 conversion, the common-law marriage—were behind her. She’d given up Forster Batterham, the resolutely atheistic love of her life, because of his refusal to sanction the baptism of the child they’d conceived together, Tamar. The separation was wrenching, the hardest thing, she later said, that she would ever do. 
            If Dorothy said a thing was hard, you know it had to be. The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, span the years from 1934, a little under a year after the CW began, to nine days before her death in 1980, and nothing could be clearer than that they were written by one fierce burning flame of a Catholic and a woman. Dorothy herself, notoriously unwilling to suffer fools gladly, said, “Don’t call me saint!” But if the saint “is the person who wills the one thing,” as Kierkegaard opined, it seemed to me, as I closed this 654-page book, that she came pretty darned close.
            “A crowded, confused day with a great desire on my part to write on love and the strange things that happen to you in growing in the love of God,” she wrote on September 20, 1953. The love of God was the one thing she willed, and she willed it through poverty, conscripted celibacy, chastity, obedience, labor strikes, jail time, illness, struggles with the Church; through WWII, the Cold War, and the 60’s: “We see her traveling to Cuba on the eve of the missile crisis, fasting for peace in Rome during the Second Vatican Council….and standing in solidarity with young men burning their draft cards,” writes editor Robert Ellsberg in his admirable introduction. 
           She willed it through the Vietnam War, through a showdown with the IRS over her refusal to either pay taxes or register the CW as non-exempt (Dorothy won), through the women’s and sexual liberation movements with which, having lived through and witnessed the effects of similar upheavals in the ‘20’s, she was unable to muster much sympathy. She willed it through moral loneliness. Because when you’re Dorothy Day, who is your peer? She had no peer.
            Peter Maurin’s role was to “enunciate principles”; Dorothy’s was to implement them. By May of 1935, the circulation of the paper, The Catholic Worker, had already reached an astonishing 100,000. By 1936, the CW had moved into 115 Mott Street in Manhattan which would remain headquarters for the next 14 years. The same month they established the first farm outside Easton, Pennsylvania. By 1941, there were already over 30 independent but affiliated CW communities in the U.S., Canada, and the UK.
            In 1943, exhausted, Dorothy took a year’s leave of absence (“For the last few years I’ve been thinking a great deal of putting aside the responsibility of the Catholic Worker…”) She spent several months at a Dominican convent in Farmingdale, Long Island, and used  the time typically, not to relax but to spiritually prune herself. (“Exam. conscience…One’s faults stand out. Also to establish how hard it is to establish regular habits.”)
            Of course, she returned to her beloved Catholic Worker. But for the woman who co-founded, and for decades ran, arguably the most influential Catholic movement of the 20th century, this habit of examining her conscience persisted throughout her life:
            “I am oppressed in general by a sense of failure, of sin.”
            “I have no wisdom, no ability to run things and manage a household.”
            Dorothy frequently quoted the Dostoevsky line: “Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” and the diaries give ample testament to the twin crosses of community and poverty:
            “Breakfast a thick slice of dry bread and some very bad coffee….I have prescribed for myself this day in bed but I keep thinking it is my spirit that is all wrong. I am surrounded by repellent disorder, noise, people, and have no spirit of inner solitude or poverty.”
            “Two teeth pulled Monday at a filthy hole in the Bowery. Too weak to go further.”
            “Snow, cold. No coal or oil.”
            “So little time. Sow time to reap time, Fr. Roy used to say. One’s spiritual life takes 3 hours a day at least.”
            “We are begging [the fish man] and he said he would bring us cuttings from filets for chowder.”
            But the real poverty consisted in the conflicts within the community, in meager results, in the fact that no matter how much she did, it was never quite enough to stem the tide of drunks and crazy people, the shell-shocked, the quarrelsome and argumentative who streamed through the house and whom she made it her life’s mission to love and serve.
            “The prevalent complaint when I arrive at the farm for a visit [is]…`you are never here!’”
            “[M]y Halgren’s catechism, stolen. I know by whom, because he thought I, aspiring to be poor, must be kept poor.”
            “Our house will hold just so many, we can feed just so many, and after that we must say no. It makes us realize how little we can do.”
            “What did our poverty consist of? Insecurity—loss of jobs—no ownership—no property—no responsibility—lack of a philosophy of work.”
            “In time of trouble [workers] are most anxious and grateful for our help, but when there is no crisis, they are condescending….They still think, as they have always thought, that church and schools, church and state, church and unions cannot be mixed. In other words, they distrust Catholics because of the aims of Catholics.”
            After 40 years, you’d think her followers would have at least thrown the woman a decent party—but no. “May 1. [1973]. Anniversary [of the CW]: Such drunkenness and noise in the house tonight that I could not stand staying downstairs for our 40th birthday anniversary party. A vision of hell. Went upstairs and wept.”
            Reading along, month after month, year after year, I began to wonder, Why is this feeling so familiar? When I saw that entry, I realized, That sounds like the people with whom I've often been surrounded! That sounds like my life! This is the beauty of the diaries. They show us someone just like us, except perhaps a little, if not about ten times more, focused, more harder-working, more disciplined. Someone who took note of the daily details of life--what she ate for breakfast, the petty quarrel at dinner, that she rinsed out her underwear at night--but was perhaps a little more able to see God in all of it. The saint isn’t the person who refuses to see the meanness and ugliness of the world, but the one humble enough to realize that our humdrum lives, in all their brokenness and glory, are where we find God.
            Because if community was a cross, Dorothy made clear again and again, community was at the same time an enormous blessing. If she was “poor,” she reminded herself, she was also rich. As of 1944, she owned only three pairs of stockings (“heavy cotton, grey, tan, and one brown wool”), all of which had come to her “from the cancerous poor, entering a hospital to die…But the fact remains that I have stockings to cover me when others go cold and naked. The fact remains that I am now listening to a concert—Brahms’ 2nd Symphony, joyful music to heal my sadness….What right have I to recreation? What need have I of recreation?”
            Over and over she reminded herself not to judge others, but to love; not to look at the faults in others, but at the faults in herself.  She praised St. Thérèse of Lisieux for being as strict with herself as “the Spaniards” (St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila), but she was equally strict with herself. In all those years, she never allowed herself a word of self-congratulation, never once rested on her laurels. “Physical and spiritual senses need to be ‘mortified,’ subdued, disciplined,” she observed. That was at the age of 78.
            Who talks about work any more—hard work as an antidote to our “modern” illnesses of neurotic guilt and depression? Dorothy did. She cooked (“My bread is beginning to be very good.”), cleaned, planted, resolved disputes, spent hours caring for Tamar (and later, Tamar’s seemingly innumerable children). She kept up a voluminous correspondence, hand-writing up to 10 letters a day (that she didn’t keep carbon copies she considered a small act of humility). She was an avid reader: Étienne Gilson, St. Augustine, Jacques Maritain, Chesterton, Léon Bloy, Charles Peguy, C.S. Lewis, Butler’s Lives of the Saints; the novelists D.H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, Ignazio Silone. She loved music: Bach, Brahms, opera.
            But first and foremost, Dorothy considered herself a writer. “I must learn to contain myself, to do my own work which is writing, correspondence, and the constant study, meditating on both natural and supernatural life.” She was continually preoccupied with getting the newspaper to press, writing her column, “On Pilgrimage,” and publishing her books: The Long Loneliness, Loaves and Fishes, and several others. She was a beautiful, pithy, unsentimental writer, as the diaries alone attest, and those who have tried to write themselves will marvel at her ability to get so much done with such constant inner and outer distractions.  
            They will marvel and then they will take note that perhaps the reason she was able to accomplish so much was that she built her life on a bedrock of daily devotions: the Divine Office, rosaries, vigils, prayer, fasts, and always, the Mass. For over 40 years, Dorothy went to Mass almost every day. In fact, perhaps her greatest accomplishment was her blending of the active and the contemplative lives in a way that was entirely traditional and yet entirely modern and new. For all her radicalism, she was as observant as any medieval nun. For all her activity, she was at heart a mystic:
            “I was overwhelmed at being right over the altar, the Blessed Sacrament out of my sight but so near, and the strong sound of Gregorian rising in waves of adoration and praise, which seemed to fling themselves joyfully against the altar.” 
            “[I]f our faith were as a grain of mustard seed, we would be prostrate as we entered His presence.”
            “Time only for the prayer of Jesus—always time for that. Waiting traveling, at any time, in any place, that murmur of the heart. My Lord and my God, my Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
            Obedience to and love for the Church allowed her to smoothe her occasional disagreements with it, or more accurately perhaps, the Church’s disagreements with her. In 1951, for instance, she was told by the chancery that “we would either have to cease publication or change our name.” She responded that “ceasing publication would be a grave scandal to our readers and would put into the hands of our enemies, the enemies of the Church, a formidable weapon.” The newspaper continued.  
            As for her frequent, and lifelong acts of resistance, she emphasized that the way to approach civil disobedience is as witnesses to our own complicity in the violence and suffering of the world. Every year from 1955 on, the CW refused to participate in the city-wide Civil Defense Drill and every year they went to jail.  In 1958, the protestors, including Dorothy, were sentenced to 30 days. She published an explanation of her motives which included the following: “We do not wish to be defiant, we atone in some way, with this small gesture, for what we did in Hiroshima, and what we are still doing by the manufacture and testing of such weapons.”       
            Perhaps that is why she could write, “I am not interested in politics or elections.”  She was interested in the homeless, the hungry, the forsaken. She was interested in peace and justice and brotherly love, and she believed that all genuine love is grounded in Christ-like self-sacrifice. “Peter [Maurin’s] greatest message for us, greater even than his message of poverty, was man’s freedom and responsibility…Peter did not want to be fragmented, if we can use that word, by being labeled pacifist or anarchist. First of all we are Catholics, then Americans, Germans, French, Russian, or Chinese. We are members of the Body of Christ, or potential members. We are sons of God.”
            “The year is turning out differently than I planned, as all things do,” she wrote in 1944, and could have written about almost any year in her harsh, difficult, sometime dangerous, yet always rich and varied life. In May, 1957, she was shot at while visiting the Koinonia Community in Americus, Georgia, an interracial Baptist community.  In January, 1958, she set out for a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. She spent weeks with Tamar and her grandchildren in West Virginia and Vermont, and time and again retreated to the Peter Maurin Farm on Staten Island, closely observing birds, flowers, trees, stones, and horseshoe crabs:
            “Out in the fields, the cover crop shows pale green against the black soil, and scattered are quicksilver pools reflecting the sky.”
            “White shades of pink, yellow centers, 9, 9, 6 petals per flower. 8 leaves, 4 flowers on some. Very fragile, growing around trees on Wood Rd. Are these anemones?”
            I myself (again, I’m sure very unlike you) was rabid to know more of her personal life, but even in her diaries, Dorothy is reticent.  An interesting footnote appears about Berkeley Toby, the man she married in 1920 on the rebound from an unhappy love affair—the marriage lasted less than a year—but that’s about it.  She was a traditionalist, and the rampant promiscuity of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the fact that dear friends and fellow Catholic Workers were marrying outside the Church, pained her. 
            But she never judged. She recognized that we’re so starved for love that we often settle for corrupt forms of it, and her views were always based on charity, courtesy, and her belief that sex is, above all, a sacrament. In 1959, when Forster’s long-time companion Nanette was dying of cancer, he asked Dorothy to help nurse her, which she willingly did. She and Forster maintained a complex friendship to the end. Several entries in her last years read little more than simply, “Forster called.” The fact that after all those years, his call was the single most noteworthy event of the day says more than a sonnet.
            Throughout her life, she lectured, attended conferences, traveled around the country by bus to visit the burgeoning number of sister houses. In July, 1973, she accepted an invitation to speak at Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Palo Alto, and used the occasion to also picket with the UFW. It would be her final arrest. “The true anarchist asks nothing for himself, he is self-disciplined, self-denying, accepting the Cross, without asking sympathy, without complaint.” Her words could have been a caption for the famous photo taken that day in Delano: mouth set, eyes fierce, staring down an armed policeman.

            
            She continued her travels in California, including a visit to Los Angeles.  The entry for August 19, 1973 leaped off the page: “Sister Catherine [Morris] (Holy Child) is here at A.H. [Ammon Hennacy] house 5 days weekly. Fasting.” Because all these years later, Catherine Morris, and her husband Jeff Deitrich, are still at Hennacy House, still going to jail, still serving the poor of Skid Row, still running their soup kitchen at Gladys and 5th, still providing shelter, food, clothing and hospice to their many and various "guests." 
            On November 29th, 1980, Dorothy died in her bed at Maryhouse, the shelter for homeless women the CW had recently established on East Third Street. It seemed only fitting that she should draw her last breath under one of the same rooves that for decades had given shelter to so many of her brothers and sisters.
           
            One other entry stayed with me, the entry for August 24, 1973, five days after Dorothy’s visit to Hennacy House:  “Mass at St. Basil’s, to confession to Cardinal McIntyre. Many at Mass, great and beautiful church often crowded.”
            At the time I lived a few blocks from St. Basil’s and the morning after I finished reading the diaries I walked to Mass there myself. Dorothy was much on my mind, and when a black homeless woman—no shoes, no teeth—noisily stretched out in the pew behind me, I realized at once this was no coincidence. She was one of “the least of these” and as she moaned and muttered and the entire congregation edged gingerly back, I was reminded all over again that if you’re going to live out the Gospels you can’t have a life that’s “separate.” You can’t have too much to “lose” in the way of time, money, belongings to not share those things in some way, or at least be willing to. 
          So when Mass was over, I turned and made a point of meeting the homeless woman's eyes and smiling. Smiling back, she asked, “Do you have a dollar?” If I’d been Dorothy Day, I could have said, “Do you need a place to stay? Come home with me.” But I’m not, so I did the next best thing. I said, “Yeah, I have a dollar, but do you want me to take you downtown, too? Cause I know where there’s a soup kitchen if you’re hungry and the people there will know of some shelters.”
            “No thanks, hon,” she said, “I just want a dollar.”
            “Are you sure?” I said. “My car’s back at my apartment but I’d be glad to go get it and drive you down there”
            “I just want a dollar,” she replied, and in the nicest possible way added, “Actually, do you have five dollars? I need to get back to Compton.”        
            Sure you do, I thought, and gave her five, which seemed to delight us both.
            In the annals of human interchange it wasn’t much, but if not for Dorothy Day, I might not have even considered giving up part of my precious morning. If not for Dorothy Day and the good, good people at the LACW who have been comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable since 1970, I might not have known where to offer to take this woman. If I hadn’t spotted a copy of Day's The Long Loneliness “by accident” in the bookstore of a retreat house 15 years ago, I might never have converted at all. 
            Apropos of daily Mass, Dorothy wrote: “He took upon himself our humanity that we might share in his divinity. We are nourished by his flesh that we may grow to be other Christs. I believe this literally, just as I believe the child is nourished by the milk from his mother’s breast.” I believe that, too. What honor, respect, devotion, and love we owe this remarkable woman who, like us, doubted, sweated, bled, believed, and as we can only pray we will, stayed the course. 
            It takes a saint, or at least a Dorothy Day, to live a life that to its smallest moment shows that solace comes from helping the other person. It takes a Dorothy Day to remind us that learning to love our neighbor requires a kind of continuing, ongoing crucifixion.  If not for Christ, where would any of us go, Lord? So under His gaze, we put our arms around each other, the homeless woman and I, and walked out of St. Basil’s together.