Monday, March 28, 2011


When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy rises in man’s heart: this is the rock’s victory, this is the rock itself. The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane.
--Albert Camus, from “The Myth of Sisyphus”

Micheltorena Street and environs, Silver Lake, California, in the rain: March 24, 2011.


Sunday, March 27, 2011


"A pilgrim preaches the gospel, but in order to preach it he has to live it day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. For what is he really about, that pilgrim of mine? He is preaching the gospel with his life and so his pilgrimage has to reflect his life...

It is a strange pilgrimage. It is utterly unhurried. It is a pilgrimage whose only goal is the heart of God. It's not a pilgrimage to shrines. It's not a pilgrimage of seeing countries like so many young people have done lately. No. It's a pilgrimage that has one precious thing besides its poverty. It hold a key, and every day that key goes a little deeper into the heart of God until one day--click!--it will be open and man and God will be one. That kind of pilgrimage creates peace in order to give it to others, since  man is in search of God and in search of peace from the raucous noise of the modern technological society.

It's a strange thing that the pilgrim who walks has the ability to stand still long enough to allow a neighbor to catch up with him...

Maybe it will take him weeks. Maybe he appears to settle there wherever he is, but he never settles. He is always on the march. His particular task finished, he moves on again. There is no settling down for such a pilgrim. Sometimes it may take him years to do what God asks of him...

The pilgrim, being human, sometimes likes the spot where he has been placed. He wants to stay there. He wants to make a flower garden of that spot. Suddenly he hears, 'Friend, come on higher!' and the pilgrim turns his face and sees the mountain of the Lord. There is snow up there. He can hear the cold wind and he clutches the key that was given to him by the resurrected Christ to go higher, to enter a little deeper into God's heart, to enter a little more into sobornost, to do his will better, faster, more joyfully as a voyager. It's not easy, for the voice keeps repeating, 'Friend, come on higher!' "

--from Strannik: The Call to Pilgrimage for Western Man, by Catherine de Hueck Doherty

Beethoven, Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 5 in F ("Spring Sonata"), Op. 24, II, Adagio molto espressivo

Friday, March 25, 2011


Good Lord God a-mighty, I am WIPED OUT. That trip to Anaheim, followed by the receipt, at long last of the galleys for my St. Thérèse book, over which I have been poring all week with a fine-toothed comb and have still not finished, combined with two deadlines, a dental appointment, many social engagements, and the usual snafus, errands, unexpected obstacles, small joys, too much coffee, not enough sleep, and dogged attempts to take long hearty walks in the driving rain have thrown my schedule all to hell.

So I thought I'd offer just two of the many gifts that have fallen into my lap(top) this week.

1. Rita A. Simmonds reports from Brooklyn with a Mother Teresa story:

One day, Mother Teresa was asking a baker for some bread to feed the hungry children in her orphanage. The baker was furious with her request, not only did he turn her down, he spat at her. In response to his outrageous actions, Mother Teresa calmly reached deep into her pocket, took out her handkerchief, wiped the spat off and said "That was for me, now what about some bread for my poor children." The baker was touched by Mother Teresa's love and greatness, complied and thereafter provided bread for the children in the orphanage. (story courtesy of Learning Made Simple)

2. Andrew Mass, a member of the editorial team at Magnificat, contributes "Six Insights from the Life of Dorothy Day," a lecture by Archbishop Dolan of NYC, given at St. Joseph's Church in Greenwich Village:

Have a great weekend, folks!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011



Last weekend I attended the annual, huge, Religious Education Congress in Anaheim (California). I’m such an introvert that even to drive to the Anaheim Convention Center and stand outside would have been a stretch. But I gamely made my way through the crowd and marched inside to meet a dear, kind editor friend who’d arranged several meetings with potential publishers.

The throng at this thing can top out at 45,000 and the hall was enormous. Booths and booths of candles, rosaries, vestments, and, mainly, mostly, books. Monastic wisdom, catechetical instruction, breviaries, Bibles. Books on prayer, healing, grace, vocation, forgiveness, action and contemplation.

The Congress’s other big draw is a roster of stellar, big-name lecturers. Fr. Robert Barron, founder-director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministrieswas giving a talk called “The YouTube Heresies” and next I made my way there.

Several years ago, Fr. Barron began posting a series of video lectures on YouTube. From the voluminous comments he receives, 90% are negative, and he laid out what he sees as the four great patterns of resistance/heresies:

1. GOD. There is deep confusion about what we mean by God. “How nice for you, that you have your little fairy god who gives you everything you want,” people will say.One way to get across that this is not our God, Fr. Barron observed, is to realize that God is not one being among many. God is not the highest being: God is the sheer act of “to be.” God is the ground where we are being created. God is to be “to be.”

2. THE BIBLE. Confusion abounds as to how we Catholics read the Bible. Apparently, people tend to think we read the Bible the way Muslims read the Koran: as if it were dictated, word-for-word, by God himself.

Fr. Barron’s point is that we don’t’ see the Bible as a book; we see the Bible as a library. In Genesis, we have a saga, in Samuel, a theological history, in the Song of Songs, erotic poetry. This isn’t “cherrypicking.” No-one reads poetry the same way they read journalism and we don’t either. Neither do we read, say, Hamlet, in a vacuum. We read it in light of the thousands of commentators, scholars, linguists, playwrights, and actors who have sifted through its meaning before us. Just so, we read the Bible within the long and complex interpretation that’s evolved through the centuries, in and through the Church.

3. RELIGION AND SCIENCE. Deep confusion is generated by the assumption that religion is antithetical to science. Descartes, observed Fr. Barron, gave the Western world the most followed orders in history: “If you’re smart, go toward science. Develop cures for the human body. Master nature. All knowledge can be reduced to the scientific and therefore any knowledge outside science is nonsense.”

The danger is becoming so impressed with science that philosophy, poetry, literature, drama—the more “truthful” forms of communication—are minimized and ignored.

Newton, Kepler, Pascal, Tyco Brahe were all formed by Catholic universities. Gregor Mendel, founder of modern genetics, was an Austrian scientist and monk. The Big Bang theory was developed by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest. In fact, religion and science are allies, resting on the mystical assumption that the world is intelligible.

4. RELIGION AND VIOLENCE. Here, I confess, I zoned out a bit as I am so cognizant of my own tendencies toward violence—to annihilate people who are in my way, of whom I’m jealous, who annoy me—that Old Testament violence hardly seems bloody enough. As Fr. Barron emphasized, however, the Bible must be read in its entirely through the interpretive lens of Jesus Christ. Who for all time established: We fight, yes. But as soldiers going as to war. Not with the puny earthly weapons of guns and bombs, but with the weapons of non-violence, charity and love.

Finally, he made the point that the people who respond with such intense negativity to his YouTube lectures, most of them young, could not possibly be spending so much time studying and dissecting and objecting to his message if they, like us, were not groping for meaning and truth. Keep on writing, he said. Because if our voices are extinguished, the young people coming up behind will have no-one to grapple with, no-one to respond to them, no-one with whom to work these questions out that we are all working out together and always will be.

Having received my own, thankfully to date small, share of hate mail, Fr. Barron's brilliant lecture and consoling words could scarcely have been more timely. They stayed with me all afternoon as I met with acquisition editors. “What do you write?” Unh…I guess you could call it everyday mysticism? My joy, my love, my struggles, food, birds, trees, the stars, my friends…” What are you looking for?” Books that sell…

Toward the end of the day, I was invited to participate in a Mass that another of the priests there held in his hotel room. We were twelve or so, standing, sitting on the bed, propped up on the floor. Very simple. Very short. The reading was Matthew 5: 20-26, which begins: “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.’”

The priest gave a very short homily. “The true follower of Christ,” he said, “is never defined by his or her stance on an issue. The test is never ‘I’m against abortion and therefore I’m a Christian.’ It’s never ‘I’m for peace and therefore I’m a Christian.’ The litmus test of a follower of Christ is whether you love your enemy and forgive the murderer.”

Love your enemy and forgive the murderer. All the books, all the rosaries, all the Masses, all the lectures: Love your enemy and forgive the murderer. So simple and so deeply, subversively radical. So simple and so infinitely, paradoxically complex. So simple and so seemingly impossible. The source of all the hunger, all the longing, all the desperate desire for connection that drives some of us to write, and that drives some to lash out at what we write.

This is what is ours to proclaim. This is the paradox we are called to live: the “lion of Judah” who turned out to be a wounded lamb.

And this is what Anaheim looks like. For miles and miles and miles.

Here are some of the pictures I took to calm my beleaguered soul:

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Recently a correspondent who, how can I put this, does not give the impression of being COMPLETELY in my corner, e-mailed and said, “Just for the record, may I ask if you voted last Tuesday?”

My first thought was: Record? What record? What have you and your hate-mongering leftist friends got a dossier on me?

My second was: None of your [I’m-trying-not-to-swear-for-Lent-ing] business.

My third was: Just for the record, who are you to go around demanding that other people give an account of themselves? Why don't you try giving one of yourself?.

I'm holding those thoughts, but I also realized I'm actually happy to share my reflections, such as they are, on voting. Voting is a whole big issue that I have been trying to work through for a long time, and this past couple of weeks I've had a chance to devote some real effort to the subject.

First off, I think you have to come from a place of sorrow and grief for this country—not government, note; country—that I, for one, love so much. I have learned to love my country by walking its streets, its mountains, deserts, prairies, and seashores, by driving across it and back, by myself, twice, by mingling with its people at Motel 6es and Super 8s and truck stops and convenience stores and churches, by seeing their spiritual hunger and knowing it is my hunger.

I love my country not so much as a citizen, but as a friend. When Christ looked out over the city where he would die and said, “O Jerusalem, how often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling,” [Mt. 23:37], he was not talking about the government. He was not talking about the political system. He was talking about the land he loved, about people’s hearts, about the spirit that hovers over a city, or a country, and the people who live in it.

I come from a blue-collar family of, on my father’s side, second-generation Irish. We were Democrats, I guess. My father didn’t talk politics: He recited poetry and tended his tomatoes. He talked the Red Sox, the Pats, the Celts. He was decent to people, he was kind, he did for his neighbors. He said please and thank you. He was for the underdog. He was always whipping out his Boston Globe at the breakfast table to read us some Mike Barnicle piece about a Little League pitcher with leukemia, or a welfare mother who rode the bus to five different jobs to support her kids.

“Geez, imagine that, the poor soul, out in the cold waiting for the bus,” he’d say, shaking his head, and then he’d go off, often out in the bitter cold himself all day, to his job as a bricklayer with which he supported eight kids. “Geez I can't stand a guy who blows his own horn,” he’d say. We were wary of, and gave a wide berth to, “rich people.” We did not feel entitled; we felt grateful for what we had. We felt very, very anxious that we might lose it.  We hid the unspoken knowledge that there perhaps was not quite room for us at the inn of the "American dream" with humor.

I grew up during the ‘60s and ‘70s. I was friends with people who were very active politically: who campaigned for McGovern, who organized the Clamshell Alliance, who maintained a years-long resistance to the building of the Seabrook (New Hampshire) power plant. I went along, and I certainly agreed with their stance as far as it went, and when I got old enough to vote, I voted Democrat—of course Democrat, that was never in question—but I always had my eye on some other realm. I always felt some basic half-heartedness towards politics; felt something was wrong with me, and the world, that no amount of political change could fix.

I went on to lead a very different life than most of my peers, past and present. I hitch-hiked across country, wandered around the streets of Boston in blackouts, had sex with strangers, experienced degradation, humiliation, poverty. I lived for years in a sort of glorified Skid Row hotel. This has given me a certain resident-alien psychic slant, a closeness to the edge, a deep awareness of my own propensity to sin. It also in a sense has given me less to lose. I don’t in any way mean I don’t care what people think of me. I care deeply, and I also deeply want to contribute. But I am maybe less concerned with appearances, with stepping outside the lines. I had already stepped as far as I could go, in the worst possibly way, by being an active alcoholic. I have lived outside the grid, in one way or another, for most of my life.

In spite of my many egregiously wrong turns, I have also always had a deep hunger for the truth. I think that was what enabled me, after I got sober and started working as a lawyer, to find my way to Christ. As misguided as my going to law school turned out to have been, I hadn’t chosen the law entirely by accident. I had always wanted to know "how things worked." And when I discovered the the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court didn't any more know how the world really worked than a Skid Row drunk--in fact, he probably knew less--suddenly I didn’t care if people thought I was stupid or crazy for starting to believe in God. I had lived a lie for so long as an alcoholic that I had an almost frantic distaste for, aversion to, cultural lies. I was, and still am, unclear on much else, but I was strangely clear on what mattered, what master I wanted to serve. I had a very strange kind of true north compass that came to me completely unbidden and that I simply know in the depths of my soul was the truth and that was Christ.

One of the reasons I was drawn to Christ was that right away, I saw he was so not a politician or a lawyer or a social worker. He said, “Pray to your heavenly Father: he knows what you need. He said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all will be given unto you.” He said, “Regard the lilies of the field.” Every time I'd hear another rant from some blowhard, self-serving politician or commentator (which wasn't often as I don't watch TV), I'd think:
We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. (Daniel 3: 38)
I'd grope to think of a prince, prophet or leader, and the only person I could come up with was the unquestionably great Martin Luther King, Jr. Which only proved my point, because MLK was a preacher, not a politician. As Clarence Jordan, another visionary Baptist who established a community called the Koinonia Farm during the civil rights struggle in the 1950's and 60's, observed :

"The thing that just burns my heart out is that the Supreme Court is making pagans more Christian than the Bible is making Christians Christians. The whole integration struggle is being fought not in the household of God but in the buses, depots and around the Woolworth tables in arguments about whether or not we can sit down and eat hamburgers and drink cokes together. We ought to be sitting around Jesus' table drinking wine and eating bread together...The sit-ins never would have been necessary if Christians had been sitting down together in church and at Christ's table all these many years."

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece called "Why I Avoid Both the Catholic Right and the Catholic Left" in which I groped to articulate what Jordan did in the quote above (which I just found, btw, on a blog called Blue Eyed Ennis). Clearly, Christ is intimately, vitally concerned with "politics" in the sense of how we are to live, and how we are to live with each other. The problem for me is that politics provides no model or example or paradigm within which to explore the question of how we are to live. Clearly, you don't roll over and play dead. You don’t sit around doing nothing. You don’t say Wake me up when it’s over. You notice everything, and you reflect day and night upon the word of God, and you labor silently, hiddenly, ceaselessly. You examine your conscience, you see how often you make people into enemies, how your heart is hardened, you devote your entire life, to it smallest hour, your memory, intellect, understanding, and will, to trying to change, to fostering inner peace, and after awhile you see, “We are sowing the seeds but we are not living in harvest time,” as Dorothy Day said.

In my case you see, Oh okay, the law is based not on justice but on power, the medical system is based not on patients but on insurance companies, politics is based not on promoting the cause of the people but on promoting the causes of the politicians. And then you think no more about it. You don't go over the malfeasance again and again, continuing to be shocked, continuing to be outraged, continuing to think that any real transformative change is going to happen there. You simply walk around it. You proceed to order your life around a completely different paradigm.

For me, that paradigm, as I said, is the Person of Christ. Capitalism is built on the notion of scarcity, of not enough to go around. Christianity is about needing less and being willing to share more. Capitalism is built on war: the war on cancer, the war on drugs, the war against terrorism, the war to end all wars that, as a child could have predicted, only paved the way for more war. Christianity is built on non-violent sacrifice. Capitalism is based on the accumulation of money. Christianity is built—politically, economically, philosophically, sociologically, psychologically, spiritually—on the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Capitalism is built on the sentiment of Caiaphas as he urged the Jews to sentence Christ to die: “You do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” [John 11: 49] It is better that one should die than many." Christianity is based on the notion of the infinite worth of a single human soul.

I’m not anti-politics, or anti-government, I simply consider both utterly, utterly irrelevant to the formation of my conscience and at least as much to the point, my imagination. I do not look to the government for guidance or enlightenment or moral instruction or any kind of inspiration. I don’t for a moment expect politicians to tell the truth, to do what they’re pledged to do, or to act with integrity. I know there are many who do and my hat is off to them. I know there are lawyers, to whom I bow in homage, who have devoted years of their lives to, say, getting prisoners off Death Row. But truth and integrity are not values our culture treasures or even recognizes. A lawyer’s job is to “shade” the truth, stretch the truth, withhold, maneuver, manipulate, lie. That is what our culture values. That is what we admiringly call “learning to play by the rules.”

So while I don’t look to the government for guidance, I don’t sit around complaining about the government either. I haven’t been able to afford even the most minimal catastrophic health insurance for years, for example. But it has never occurred to me to complain about that, or rail about that, or consider that an outrage that must be addressed. I would like to have health insurance. If affordable health insurance came to be, I would happily and gratefully avail myself of it. But I don’t consider myself entitled to health insurance. Why should I have access to medical care when a billion people in the world are not only uninsured, but hungry?

Also, I made a conscious decision many years ago to quit a job about which I was morally ambivalent (and which I loathed), that had security and benefits, in order to embark upon what I knew full well would be the precarious life of a writer. I never expected to be shielded from the possible consequences of my decision. I never expected the U.S. Government, of all “people,” to take up the slack. It would be nice to have universal health care. It would be nice if the government recognized the contribution of artists and gave us a tax break or whatever, but I do not for a minute expect a government whose economy is based on war, that tortures, kills, maims, executes, and cruelly and unusually imprisons, that sends unmanned military drones that have an unfortunate tendency to pick off stray civilians, that in August, 1945, incinerated hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese—I guess that showed the world how to pursue happiness!—is going to institute universal health care except because it is going to primarily benefit a few rich people who already have way WAY more than their share, and only secondarily the rest of us.

I kept thinking of Christ when he said “Say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no. Anything more comes from the evil one.” [Mt. 5: 37] The rub, when it came to voting, was that I couldn’t figure out how to not do violence to myself. I couldn't figure out a way to vote and not in some way say yes when I meant no and no when I really meant yes. How could I vote for the candidate who happened to be against abortion but was also a warmonger? How could I vote for a candidate who was for universal health care but also for embryonic stem cell research, selective abortion, and reproductive “rights”? The very inconsistency not only cast doubt on the motive behind the "good" portion of the platform, but created a situation in which to say yes when I meant yes and no when I meant no was impossible.

(Christ also said not to take oaths. "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. [Mt. 5: 33-35] In fact, I recently resigned from the State Bar of California because I no longer wanted to be bound by an oath that required me to uphold the U.S. Constitution.)

At any rate, for much of the 14 years I was married I had my husband (who was the son of a plumber-electrician and had enough of the same basic values I did so I knew I could trust him)  fill out my ballot. I’d take the sample ballot to  to the polling place and fill it out half the time without even looking. I wasn't exactly proud of the fact, but I didn't hide it either, and in fact would often trumpet it to my  friends as a sign of my hopeless hypocrisy and sloth. But truth to tell, I didn't really feel that hypocritical. My dereliction of citizenly duty, if any, lay not so much in my lackluster approach to voting, I felt, but in not having the balls to be a prisoner of conscience for having crossed the line at the School of the Americas in Georgia or the Nevada testing site or at an abortion clinic: not as a political action, not because I’d be trying to get people to vote a certain way, but because I'd long for the conversion of hearts. My dereliction of duty lay in the fact that I'd been so absorbed in work that for weeks, I hadn't had anyone over for dinner. 

Finally, though, I realized the more honest tack would be not to vote at all, and so for a couple of years, I didn't. I spent the first 6 months of 2010 on the road and when I returned to L.A. last July, I never registered at my new address.

All other things being equal, I like to make people happy. I like to go along with the program. I’m happy, eager even, to participate. I’m not an agitator, or a revolutionary, but at the same time I simply don’t buy any of it. I don’t buy that we are one nation, under God. I don’t buy that money, success, and an ipad are going to make me happy. I don't buy that an Afghani mother or a German mother or a Japanese mother mother doesn't grieve just as much over her soldier son who's killed as an American mother. I don’t buy that Sarah Palin is who you get if you don’t vote. I buy that Sarah Palin is who you get when you engage in the ceaseless vitriol and contempt that passes in our culture for political discussion. The kind of talk doesn’t destroy Sarah Palin; that kind of talk creates Sarah Palin.

Nonetheless, I gladly cooperate every way I can. I return my library books on time, refrain from littering, stop at red lights. I file my taxes (even though I made so little money last year my total tax bill was $7). “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” My impulse is to say I owe nothing to Caesar and everything to God. And yet, I take advantage of the roads, the libraries, the airports, the national parks. That is why the idea of paying no taxes, as a matter of principle, has always bothered me. I can’t escape the fact that I'm complicit in the suffering of the world. I can't escape that to enjoy the benefits of a government that does so much violence, that so inequitably distributes its wealth, that deals in greed and death, is to automatically be complicit in the violence. I can do penance. I can pray. I can make so little money that I don’t owe any taxes.

I can take a walk. I believe to take a walk through our heart-wrenchingly beautiful city is an action. Now there are different ways you can take a walk. You can take a walk in order to detest life even more than you already do. You can take a walk with hatred in your heart for the purpose of building up a case against humanity, the government, the cretins who don’t vote the way you do, the apathetic drones who don’t “bother” to vote at all. You can walk solely (partially's okay) for the purpose of having a hot body and the hope of getting lots of sex.

But if you take a walk with love, out of gratitude, for the sky, the stars, your legs, your life, noticing the flowers, smiling at people even though they mostly don’t smile back: I believe that is an action. It is based on an entire way of seeing the world, of being in the world, of our purpose in the world. I believe to meditate on the word of the Lord day and night is an action. I believe that to write, if writing is your calling, is a major, major action. I believe, along with the anonymous author of The Way of a Pilgrim that “The silent contemplatives are like pillars supporting the devotion of the church by their secret continuous prayer.”

At the same time, I’m deeply mindful of the spiritual peril of in any way thinking I am separate from or different from than the rest of humanity (which is another reason why I am a passionate adherent of Church).  I participate in all kinds of other communities besides the political community, but I still can’t hide a bad motive, whether it’s sloth, willful indifference, pride, self-righteousness or sheer contrariness under a supposedly good one. To say politics doesn’t go deeply enough is not to say I don’t also have an obligation to participate by voting, especially if obedience dictates.

So I finally consulted the Church--the authority to which I do look for guidance, enlightenment, and inspiration--and this is what I found.

Cathechism of the Catholic Church

"2239 It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country [N.B. not one’s government or one’s political system] follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community.

2240 Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country:

Pay to all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. [Rom 13: 7]

           [Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners...They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws...So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it. [Ad Diognetum 5, 5 and 10; 6, 10: PG 2, 1173 and 1176.]

At the same time:

2242 The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community. 'Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.' [Mt 22: 21]."

Our highest duty, in other words, is to our conscience. The Papal encyclical Gaudiem et Spes (which is crammed with all kinds of other interesting stuff about civic duties) corroborates the ascendancy of conscience, while also likewise noting: “All citizens, therefore, should be mindful of the right and also the duty to use their free vote to further the common good.”

Of course we all have different ideas as to what constitutes “the common good.” Here’s what I think would be for the common good: about a year-long period of national mourning for the hideous, hideous violence we have perpetrated, here and abroad, since our country’s founding; a deep examination of conscience: collective, personal, national, universal.

I’m not holding my breath, though. And in the meantime, taking all of the above into account, I see I have been derelict in my duty. I had let the din of the haters, the scorners, the bulliers drown out my quiet wonder at the way things generally run smoothly enough to allow me to go about my day; my gratitude for the vast army of unsung folks--sanitation workers, teachers, firemen, gardeners, park rangers--who keep things afloat: locally, state-wide, nationally. So the other day I sent off a registration application for my new address and from now on, I am pledged to vote.

I’ll take my conscience with me. If I can’t say yes when I mean yes and no when I mean no, I’ll leave that box blank. I’ll take a sample ballot I filled out myself.  I’ll take a heart that I’ll pray is pure: not begrudging but joyful, not in opposition to but in solidarity with, not hateful but hopeful.

And most of all I’ll take my father: who was decent, and courteous, and funny, and kind; who for 40 years laid brick to support his wife and kids. Who loved to take a ride along the ocean, and point out the first maple turning in fall. Who didn’t talk much about politics, but whose heart bled for the boy with leukemia. Who always had a quip for the guy at the gas station. Who never forgot the welfare woman on the bus.

Whose own account is recorded in a dossier not of this world: who took not more than his share--but less.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I've mentioned my friend Christine before. She divides her time between Palm Springs and Zermatt, Switzerland,  the chi-chi tourist town located in the shadows of the Matterhorn where she was raised. Her family are hoteliers and Christine, chi-chi herself to the core, often manages the design end of a new project. In fact, she's on one of her work jaunts to Zermatt right now.

She always sends back photos and in that way I've learned of some interesting and charming Swiss customs. A few years back it was the wayfarer's chapels that dot the slopes of the Alps. Yesterday she catalogued the annual five-day Mardi Gras bash in Lucerne where the streets are jammed around the clock with folks in elaborate hand-made costumes and oversized masks. The carnival starts at 5 a.m. on Thursday morning with a "Big Bang" and ends the following Tuesday with 60-plus bands, playing at punk-band-decibel, all at once.

And yesterday, I learned of a group of folks who, thrillingly, roll up their sleeves, take up a stout staff, and in our techno-centric, speed-of-light world, go the way of medieval pilgrims:

Christine writes:

"This is something that might interest you. The strapping lads below are part of what is known as 'wandering apprentice carpenters'. Such lads occasionally show up for work in Zermatt. They are sworn to live by old guild rules. Dressed similarly to the Amish--though they are not-- they travel all over creation. They have to do so on foot or by getting a ride from someone. They are not allowed to handle finances, to pay for  train/plane/bus tickets. Nor are they allowed to pay for board and lodging.

Similar to Buddhist monks, they depend on the kindness of strangers or work off their room and board. All they are allowed to own is what they carry in a satchel on their back. This custom almost died out, but had a resurgence during the 80's. The apprentice carpenters commit to do 'the waltz' as it is known, for 3 years and 1 day, during which time they have to keep at least a 60 Km distance from their home at all times. 

During the Middle Ages, it was mandatory to do this stint in order to gather the experience necessary to become a master craftsman. Now, of course, it's strictly by choice. Girls do it as well. I think the big draw for them is the romance of the adventure.  A few years ago, I had a couple of these apprentices working for me and one of them had been all the way to Japan! They can have an email address but cell phones are not allowed. Bakers and roofers have the same tradition. The guy in white belongs to the baker's guild."

So haul out those rucksacks, folks, and wrestle down Jed Clampett for his hat! And which reminds me: I have got to write soon of an itinerant gal on our side of the shore: the late, great Peace Pilgrim.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I'm so encouraged by the response to the guest blog by Rachael Watson I posted the other day (not to mention that when you put up things other people have written, you don't have to write anything yourself!), that I've decided to go on a bit of roll with some of my other my e-mail correspondents.

Bill MacIver (who, like Rachael, I've never met) is another of those folks who show up out of the blue and, for no good reason other than the kindness of their hearts, proceed to brighten your day. He very generously sent me a book called Everything is Grace: The Life and Way of St. Thérèse of Lisieux that is changing my life. He turned me on, and again I'm forever grateful, to faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman.

And now he has sent me this anecdote by and about Charles Chaplin that is especially apropos for Lent.

While dining at my house, Igor Stravinsky suggested we should do a film together. I invented a story. It should be surrealistic, I said--a decadent night club with tables around the dance floor, at each table, greed, at another, hypocrisy, at another, ruthlessness. The floor show is the passion play, and while the crucifixion of the Saviour is going on, groups at each table watch it indifferently, some ordering meals, others talking business, others showing little interest. The mob, the High Priests and the Pharisees are shaking their fists up at the Cross, shouting: "If Thou be the Son of God come down and save Thyself." At a nearby table a group of businessmen are talking excitedly about a big deal. One draws nervously on his cigarette, looking up at the Saviour and blowing his smoke absent-mindedly in His direction.

At another table a businessman and his wife sit studying the menu. She looks up, then nervously moves her chair back from the floor. "I can't understand why people come here," she says uncomfortably. "It's depressing."

"It's good entertainment," says the businessman. "The place was bankrupt until they put on this show. Now they are out of the red."

"I think its sacrilegious," says his wife.

"It does a lot of good," says the man. "People who have never been inside a church come here and get the story of Christianity."

And the show progresses, a drunk, being under the influence of alcohol, is on a different plane; he is seated alone and begins to weep and shout loudly: "Look, they're crucifying Him! And nobody cares!" He staggers to his feet and stretches his arms appealingly toward the Cross. The wife of a minister sitting nearby complains to the headwaiter, and the drunk is escorted out of the place still weeping and remonstrating, "Look, nobody cares! A fine lot of Christians you are!"

"You see," I told Stravinsky, "they throw him out because he is upsetting the show." I explained that putting a passion play on the dance floor of a night club was to show how cynical and conventional the world has become in professing Christianity.

The maestro's face became very grave. "But that's sacrilegious!" he said.

I was rather astonished and a little embarrassed. "Is it?" I said. "I never intended it to be. I thought it was a criticism of the world's attitude toward Christianity--perhaps, having made up the story as I went along, I haven't made that very clear." And so the subject was dropped. But several weeks later, Stravinsky wrote, wanting to know if I still considered the idea of our doing a film together. However, my enthusiasm had cooled off and I became interested in making a film of my own.

--Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography

Friday, March 11, 2011


"We must all be saved together! Reach God together! Appear before Him together! We must return to our Father’s house together…what would He think if we arrived without the others, without the others returning, too?"
--Charles Péguy

Last week I posted a piece called "Why I Avoid Both the Catholic Right and the Catholic Left." One e-mail I received in response was from a woman who said: "This business of personal confession saving the world has been on my mind for a while, so wrote up my thoughts on the subject this afternoon in a fit of theological gravity ;-).  I did it for myself mostly--it just occurred to me that you might be interested, too, so I'll attach it to this."

Now, to put it delicately, such offerings tend to range widely in quality, tone and thrust. But I warily plunged in only to discover perhaps the deepest, most insightful piece I have ever read on the Sacrament of Reconciliation. At once, I thought: Other people should see this. The whole world should see this.

And so this morning, with her permission, from Berkshire, England--I give you Rachael Watson:

"Confession is a sacrament of hope, at one and the same time sublimely particular and profoundly unifying. Hope, by its very nature, has these all-embracing dimensions. It reaches to our own depths and stretches us out to embrace the whole world. 'Our hope is always essentially hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my personal salvation as well.' (Spe Salvi 48)

When we go into the confessional laden with our own sins, we bring our connection to all the sin in the world. We are part of a vast network of interrelated weakness and malice. Who has had the perfect childhood or received an unflawed genetic inheritance, or lives out their life in utopia? We are constrained to sin by our very humanity and by the time we know and understand what sin is, we are already partially disarmed in the fight to resist temptations and to free ourselves from vice. We are warped in relation to ourselves, to others, to the world. In defending ourselves from those around us, or simply in coping with the effects they have on us, we can become puckered with pride and snarled with self-loathing.

When we do fight our sinful nature and our vices, we often fight the wrong way. We harden our hearts, stiffen our necks and set ourselves against the rest of sinful humanity. We want to control and conquer ourselves, to enter heaven triumphantly holding up our own souls. We grab our own bridles and yank ourselves this way and that, only to ourselves battling seven devils in place of one.

What I am learning is that to confess is to acknowledge my place in space and time. Sinned against, I have sinned in turn. Kneeling in front of that grille, with my sins and my certainty that, without grace, I will sin again, I can look back at this vast inheritance that makes me what I am--the threads of interwoven pride, depression, anger, hardheartedness, selfishness and limitations of all the people in my past, the people in theirs, in theirs, and so on. They are all present in the person I am in that moment, and I also am present in myself, connected to them, yet distinct in my capability to turn all this to Christ.

In asking for his help and forgiveness, I turn also to all of these people. My encounter with Christ changes the meaning of all I have inherited through them, just as statements in a dialogue acquire a new meaning through the interchange and resolution. Their restoration and forgiveness is, in a sense, embedded in mine. Their sinful actions, insofar as they have shaped and affected me, are drawn into Christ, into my and the world’s re-creation.

These threads, however, do not just lead into me, but out. I have contributed in turn to the sins and the weakness of others--sometimes directly and maliciously, sometimes indirectly--by failing to be all that I should have been. I stand not just at the end of a long line of sinners, but at the head of one as well. How, I wonder, will these things I have done play out? Will they terminate in heaven or in hell, and for whom? And with this sense of responsibility, I seek not just forgiveness for myself, but mercy for this world that bears the brunt of my failings and waywardness. The final meaning of what I have thought, said, done and failed to do, is, in part, determined by other souls. My restoration and forgiveness is embedded in theirs. What has passed from me to them will only become a truly happy fault if they are willing to open themselves to the love of God.

In seeing this I also see in confession Alice Meynell’s 'bolder way...wilder enterprise' and this is to use my own person to imprint the “Our Father” on my crossroads of space and time. It is to accept what comes to me as the sum of the world’s sin and to give it to God to carry in me. It is to ask God for a healing that is also a wounding, to beg Him to conform my weakness and warping to His own mystery of reconciliation won by self-emptying. It is to give up my own ideas of perfection and to ask Him to make me perfect in a way that I will never understand or see. It is to sift my whole self through that grille for a re-creation on the other side quite inseparable from my neighbor’s."

After I sat stunned for several minutes, I wrote back, "You are kidding, right? You dashed this off yesterday afternoon in your spare time? Are you a writer yourself?"

She replied:

"No, I'm not a famous writer or anything like that, just one more person trying to make sense of my life. I do write more and more stuff like this at the moment, and it all sits there on my computer. I'm not very sure what I should do with it. Most of it comes out of thinking about St. Philip, his spirituality and the Roman Carnival--a weird set of connections, I know--but one that seems to open theological doors all over the place! He didn't leave much in the way of papers or writing, but there's a poem remaining with the line, 'Gladly would I learn from Thee how it is made, that net of love which captures so many.' I think one way he constructed the net was confession...he tells confessors that sympathy with the penitent is the best way of not falling into sin themselves. My thoughts about that mushroomed into this.

I suppose what lies at the back of that piece--in part--is the sense that sin is a loss of relation, and so also of our potential to be ourselves and become ever more ourselves in relation to others. The Trinitarian connection is right there, of course--God gains infinitely by being three in one, one in three. We can't go back and reclaim what is lost for ourselves, but need others to give it to us. If all those totalitarian monsters aren't there in heaven with me, I'll be worse off for the loss of all they could have been. And, of course--my personal sticking point--others will be worse off if I'm not there. God wants us all, wanting and with each other."

I hope you're as stunned as I was. And can we all pray that Rachael Watson keeps writing?...

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...

Saturday, March 5, 2011


I could never give my trip to New Hampshire its due except to say that, in spite of the arctic weather, those were a gilded two weeks. Even though challenges arose, and lots of various kinds of hard situations, I never felt the situations as too hard or burdensome myself. I felt happy and useful and grateful the whole time, and somehow the balance between solitude and people worked out perfectly, and to have a rental car AND stay in a hotel were unbelievable luxuries that allowed me to have a whole different experience than I usually do staying at someone else’s place.

I could sit by the little heater in my hotel room and be comfy and warm and look out the window at Route 95—the people heading north toward Maine; the people headed south towards Boston—and ponder. I hooked up right away, as I always do, with the local sober drunks who, also as always, saved my life. My brother Geordie, in from fishing, called almost every day and we must have gone out four or five times, just driving around or to breakfast. We are both up early and had no-one else that was up early and  just to have someone, however briefly, who will call you and wants to hang out for an hour or two was a huge gift.

But the main thing was my realization that, at this late stage of the game, I may at least have started to grow up. I visited with many family members and friends who were in chronic physical and/or emotional pain, and for the most part I was able to not somehow make their pain about me. I was able, in whatever small way I could, to stand at the foot of the cross with people but also somehow didn’t try to do TOO much. I was available to others if they needed me or wanted to be with me, and at the same time I think I probably would have been okay even if nobody wanted to, or had been able to see me.

The real deal, in other words, is that my childhood wounds, my narcissistic wound, may at last have been healed. The fretful craving, the stubborn grievance based on my insistence that I didn’t get “enough" love, the misguided idea that my job was to save my family, my whole story that I’ve told myself all my life…all, for the moment anyway, were simply gone. The result being that, also for the first time in my life I felt like I truly loved the members of my family. I was way more open and available and loving somehow to them, and of course, consequently, the love was returned in a new way: pressed down, good measure, overflowing…

What can I say? All is grace. I loved seeing my mother, even if she didn’t seem quite sure who I was at times. I mean what’s not to love, she is so…accommodating. So accepting, so wants to know about you, even if, with the Alzheimer's, she won’t remember from one minute to the next. And Sunday, as if to reassure even there, the Old Testament reading jumped out as if written just for me:

"Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you!
--Isaiah 49:15


Thursday, March 3, 2011


Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

--Robert Frost

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Seems time for a little levity, and as if on cue, a correspondent has turned me on to Kathryn Kuhlman (1907-1976), a Methodist faith healer, evangelist and born-again Christian who had a weekly program in the 1960's and 1970's that I sorely regret having missed.

I mean check this out:

How can you not love someone who was married (briefly) to a man named  Burroughs A. Waltrip of Dallas, and who was sued by her personal administrator for purportedly stashing away a million bucks in jewelry and another million in fine art? What's really funny, as I told my friend, is that I actually agree with everything she says.

Anyway, I have a little miracle of my own to report, which is that next Wednesday--which happens to be  Ash Wednesday--I will "debut" with a weekly column in the Catholic portal of the apparently much-watched and widely read ("Balanced Views of Religion and Spirituality").

The column will be called "A Book of Sparks" (I'm obviously extremely drawn to fire), which I got from the preface to The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer from Christian monk and ascetic Evagrius Ponticus: "Throughout the Middle Ages [the writings of Evagrius] spread through Europe from monastery to monastery in Italy, France, Austria, Spain. An eighteenth-century monk of Ligugé inserted certain extracts from his writings 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 a laywoman convert in 21st-century Los Angeles is going to do the same again. Here's the description. I'll be able to post the opening paragraph or two here and then link to the full piece. I'll be joining a roster of many other fine writers and thinkers. My editor will be the insanely hard-working, smart, and well-connected columnist, writer, and blogger Elizabeth Scalia, aka The Anchoress.

I'm deeply grateful for the honor and opportunity. And let's hope those folks over at patheos have a sense of humor!