Thursday, September 29, 2011


Brother Paul has been a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky since 1958.

My Novices: late 1950s
Young men came
looking for
–don’t know what–
Left the place
looking for
-don’t know what–
Of these I had no regrets.
Some came, seemed like
heard some talk about
stayed awhile
and left
talking like– Well,–
like somewhat.
Serious young men came looking.
took up talk about,
-don’t know what,
stayed long and left
about everything what-not.
Some came completely
clear and sure about
Those I sent away.
Silent young men, a few,
came looking for–
don’t know what-
and kept on looking
stayed and never got to
wore out,
had never stopped looking for
For these I have no regrets.
All of these I loved, but
seems the part I loved the best
don’t know what–
Br. Paul discusses his book of poems, Monkswear:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011



Marta is the cleaning lady of the woman who owns the house where I live. Every other Wednesday she arrives around noon and stays until around 8, thereby, if I'm home, triggering a whole range of class-consciousness/economic/spiritual neuroses.  

I myself have never—oh my God, NEVER—had a cleaning lady in my life. The whole time Marta's here I feel I should be asking if I can pitch in. She doesn’t clean my little wing (bedroom and bathroom), thank heaven, as that would drive me completely over the edge. My housemate once remarked, "I'm sure Marta'd be happy to clean your space if you want to throw her an extra 25 bucks." “Oh, that’s okay,” I replied. I didn’t bother to say that I can’t afford twenty-five bucks and if I could, I’d give it to her. I wouldn’t make her clean my bathroom.

There's nothing like making very little money but living in relative splendor to set up a kind of nagging cognitive dissonance. There’s nothing like trying to write while Marta’s here to make me feel like a hypocrite and a poseur. I’m sitting in my bedroom with the fan on, a glass of iced tea, and a basket of fresh figs writing about the Crucifixion while Marta’s out in the blazing sun emptying the mop bucket.

There’s also nothing like being in the presence of a ditchdigger or a cleaning lady or a bricklayer (as my father was) to make me feel that my whole life is a disloyalty to my blue-collar roots. My mother never—again, oh my God, NEVER—had a cleaning lady (and that was with eight kids).

So even though Marta's younger than me, she triggers all the unresolved guilt and sorrow and pride I have for my own mother, for my paternal grandparents who came over from Ireland, for my father who worked so hard, for the fact that I escaped the blue-collar life for the writing life. There's a whole world between the people who clean houses and the people who hire others to clean their houses, and that world--that gap--is where I live. 

There’s also the fact that having someone putter around the house for eight hours at a stretch makes me crazy. So while my for-the-oppressed-masses heart feels protective of and sympathetic toward Marta, the whole time she’s here I also wish she’d hurry up and leave.

Marta and I have somewhat (only somewhat because of the language barrier) bonded. We know the health problems of each other’s mothers (hers is in El Salvador). We both think it’s completely beneficial (and sane) to talk to plants. We've established that we're both Católico. When I make my afternoon coffee, I always make extra for her her and remind her where the coffee and filters are and to make some for herself any time. 

Meanwhile Marta goes about her business--vacuuming, laundering, scrubbing--and makes everything shine. My liberal guilt has been part way assuaged since the day I happened to see her check and realized that when you even it out over the twenty years I've been writing, she makes more per hour than me. So in the end, I just have to realize I’m grateful to live in a clean house, I’m glad Marta gets to make some money, I’m glad my roommate sees fit to put up with me. As always, let everyone else tend their garden and I’ll tend mine.  


Anyway, this is the truly great thing. A few weeks ago I went to Sunday Mass at St. Francis of Assisi. As I stood in the Communion line, suddenly from the adjacent line I heard an excited whisper: “Het-ter. Het-ter.”

I turned.

“Marta!” I beamed. 

And side by side, inching along toward the altar, we embraced.


Sunday, September 25, 2011


[A]t heart, Christianity is not about alleviating physical misery or imparting an exciting and consoling message. At heart, Christianity is a communication of life

--Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Love’s Sacred Order: The Four Loves Revisited

My friend Tensie lives up on the Central Coast of California with her husband Dennis and their two kids, Rozella and Thomas. Tensie and Dennis run the Guadalupe Catholic Worker: distributing food, running a small free clinic. The kids go to public school and are voracious readers, music lovers, group singers, jokesters, creative, generous and almost unbelievably well-mannered (as in they stand when you enter the room, serve you at table, and when you leave go stand on the porch and wave goodbye until your car is out of sight).

At night the four of them gather in the living room, light a candle, and have a period of evening prayer. (If you stay with them, you get to participate in this sublime event). They read from the Gospels, maybe, or a poem, or a bit of a story, and reflect on it. They go around the room and everyone tells something they were grateful for that day.

A few Advents ago, they'd been faithfully sticking to their prayer schedule. They'd done their evening prayer the night before, but the next morning was hard. There'd been a lot of hard mornings, the way Tensie tells it. And suddenly she saw a sheet of paper scoot under her and Dennis's bedroom door. Right away, she recognized Thomas's handwriting. She bent down, picked the paper up, and read: "WHERE IS YOUR JOY?"


Fr. Luigi Giussani notes: “Charity is the law of being and comes before natural likes and dislikes and feelings. Therefore, we can “do for others” while lacking any enthusiasm. There may very well be no so-called “concrete” result. For us, the only “concrete” attitude is attention to the person, that is, love for him.”

Joy is not necessarily exuberance, in other words. Joy does not necessarily even much show itself externally. Joy is a kind of trust maybe.


Saturday, September 24, 2011



A couple of weeks ago, I posted an email from my friend Benny McCabe, who's been walking the Camino.  

Here'a a note he sent about the finale: 

Castro Jeriz

The notice on the wall of the Alberque says

"The Camino de Santiago is not a marathon nor a gym where you can check your fitness.
It is a bank of challenges for your humility and a real lesson in your human and spiritual possibilities."

It is that! Yesterday I decided not to continue to the hermitage which has only candlelight which was to be my last night before turnaround. My injured right leg said no, after 3 days of continuing with the help of anti inflamitories it was time to listen to my body, time to recuperate, to reflect, digest.

As the notice says " it is the inner journey which is the important one."

The outer journey has become a container within which the human condition is explored, the body is pushed beyond comfort levels, in the conversations and sharing a different consciousness is glimpsed and touched upon.

Many memories, maybe one to give a taste?

I had walked with mark, a young man from Canada, on and off for a few days. He had a tight timeframe to make it Santiago and we had taken our leave the previous night. Somehow we met up again the following day and walked for a few more hours. Then he said " I feel as though I have come to a crossroads. I could continue walking and talking with you for the rest of today, in fact I could continue it for the rest of my life and it would be good. But I have to go on to Santiago and to think" I told him to go ahead. He replied " I would like to offer you a gift" I said I would be honoured. He said" Always remember whatever you need is  inside of you and whenever you need it it is freely available" He then strode out with his two poles and long legs as he headed for a destination 20 days ahead. I had heard what he said many times but in that experience I got it!

A couple of more reflections from the wall which I think captures what the Camino is about?

"The authentic camino is that which each does inside of oneself. This might mean that you meet your Self and it could transform your life.

It is necessary to understand that time is a teacher.

The most important equipment is your attitude of searching.

Open your eyes to the beauty of the countryside, to the art. to those who offer you hospitality. To gratuity and generosity offer gratitude."

17 days of walking, 13 different rooms slept in, sometimes with 30 others, never less than 4; 380 kilometres covered and another 450 waiting for the next time.....

It feels like a new relationship unfolds!


Sept 20 2011

Thursday, September 22, 2011


photo: I Survived the 20th century Holocaust

“Do you think God cares only for Italy?” St. Francis of Assisi asked, and much as we love our country—its hills and plains, its valleys, deserts, prairies, coastlines, and most of all, its people—we cannot seriously believe that God—that Christ, the Son of Man—cares only (or at all, as a political entity) for the secular, civilian, man-made, ideological construct known as the United States.

We cannot seriously believe that any government is tantamount to God.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” said Christ [John 18:36], thereby laying to rest all efforts to parlay him or his message into secular or political power of any kind.

We participate in and support civic affairs insofar as conscience allows, but our salvation is not worked out with or through or by virtue of any government. No government--especially not ours--has ever taught or encouraged the person who is starving to give his or her bread to a child so the child may live.

To equate God with a government is to stray dangerously, perilously far from the Way, the Truth and the Life.

“Shall I crucify your King?” Pilate asked. The chief priests answered, ‘We have no King but Caesar.’” [John 19:15].


Tuesday, September 20, 2011


There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence…[and that is] activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of this innate violence.
--Thomas Merton

"Someday I'll be able to be two places at once!" an acquaintance recently announced.

My goal is to be truly present, for five minutes before I die, in one place.

Hardly anything is more countercultural than refusing to be "busy." I like a lot of space around my activities. I look upon being overscheduled and overcrowded as a failure on my part, not a triumph.   

Sometimes that means foregoing a lesser good--say TV--for a greater good. But really what that means in the willingness not to be relevant, which Henri Nouwen posited was one of the three temptations Satan held out to Christ in the desert.

I will put in massive amounts of work on things that interest me, but I balk at staying "busy" doing work I don't believe in so I can buy things I don't need, or on trying to be all things to all people, or because I can't bear to sit in silence, contemplating the fact that one day I will  die...

To say I'm not busy is not to say I'm not absorbed, alert and interested. To say I'm not busy is not to say I'm idle.

In the Gospels, Christ seems utterly focused but he never seems rushed. He seems gathered. He seems intuitively sure of his priorities. When he learns that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been beheaded, he doesn't rush around helping plan the funeral: he goes off to "a lonely place" to pray. When Mary and Martha, distraught, summon him to tend to the dying Lazarus, he doesn't show up for three days.

In the boat with his disciples on a raging sea, he curls up and takes a nap.

Sometimes obligations to children and parents, the necessity to pay the rent, the general press of life means that we're busy from dawn to dusk and beyond; that we can't rest. But that's different than staying wilfully, compulsively busy when we don't have to.

If the Savior of the world could relax, we're probably called to as well. If someone so exquisitely attuned to suffering was able to accept that he couldn't heal everyone, we must be called to accept that, too.

That doesn't mean we don't give to the limit of our heart, mind, and strength.  It means he is the vine and we are the branches. It means we do the best we can, knowing we're going to fall short.  It means we're always willing to stretch ourselves and we're also willing to let the results go.

Here's a passage from Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research by John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts:


For in some beastly way this fine laziness has got itself a bad name. It is easy to see how it might have come into disrepute, if the result of laziness were hunger. But it rarely is. Hunger makes laziness impossible. It has even become sinful to be lazy. We wonder why. One could argue, particularly if one had a gift for laziness, that it is a relaxation pregnant of activity, a sense of rest from which directed effort may arise, whereas most busy-ness is merely a kind of nervous tic...

How can such a process have become a shame and a sin? Only in laziness can one achieve a state of contemplation which is a balancing of values, a weighing of oneself against the world and the world against itself. A busy man cannot find the time for such balancing. We do not think a lazy man can commit murders, nor great thefts, nor lead a mob. He would be more likely to think about it and laugh. And a nation of lazy contemplative men would be incapable of fighting a war unless their very laziness were attacked. Wars are the activities of busy-ness.


Sunday, September 18, 2011


"[T]he Church can't be put forward by anybody but God and one is apt to do great damage by trying; consequently Catholics may seem very remiss, almost lethargic, about coming forward with the Faith."
--Flannery O'Connor

We hear a lot from the pulpit about loving our neighbor as ourselves, and loving each other as Christ loved us, but what we don't hear nearly enough about, in my humble opinion, is: What does that look like in action? One line of thought has it that we're called to point out another's sins to him or her. A true friend will tell another when he or she is sinning, these folks maintain. A person of conviction is willing to speak the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. Friends don't let friends have gay sex.

I must confess that  stance makes me recoil.  

I’ve said “Oh I’m a Catholic—please don’t speak disrespectfully of the Virgin Mary.” I’ve said, “You might want to stop right there, because I happen to be a devout Catholic myself.” I’ve said when a friend mentions that he’s been watching internet porn: “Oh that’s no good! You don’t want to be spending your time like that!” I’ve said: “Estelle! He’s married. 

As Simone Weil said, "One cannot imagine St. Francis of Assisi talking about rights. 

But I just can’t quite picture the circumstances under which I’d be moved to inform, say, my gay friends—with whom I’ve shared my joy, pain, stories, tragedies, triumphs, meals, struggles, and soul—that I disapprove of their sex lives (about which, by the way, I know (as is only appropriate) nothing).  

Ponder as I might, I truly can't imagine how and when such an event might come to pass. When my gay friend, a clinical social worker whose clients are people with AIDS, addicts and alcoholics, is calling to wish me a happy birthday, as he has every year since high school? When my gay friend who teaches inner-city third graders, is calling to ask if I’d come speak to his students about writing? When my gay friend who works full-time as a health care advocate for the poor and in his “spare time,” volunteers at  a Skid Row soup kitchen, is serving me a meal of fava beans he grew in his garden, frittata from eggs laid by the chickens he raises, and figs from the tree in his yard, and asking about my mother?

I’m not sure what my point would be. To inform my  friends that homosexual sex is morally wrong? Cause I think it’s a pretty safe bet that, being over the age of five, they’ve heard that before (and if your friends are anything like my friends, have wrestled with it, agonized over it, suffered ongoing loneliness, ostracism, anguish, conflict and doubt over it). To inform them that, as a Catholic, I believe it’s wrong? Again, I think I can rest assured that, somewhere along the line, my friends have gotten wind of both Jesus and the Church’s stance on gay sex (not least of all because many of them were raised Catholic and have since left the Church). That would leave as my motive basically to inform my friends that I'm morally superior to them. Which in my case would require a kind of cognitive and emotional dissonance that even someone so eternally blind to her own shortcomings would find pretty much impossible to compute. 

If I disapproved of them, I wouldn’t have become friends with them in the first place, and I think this brings up a crucial point about the way Christ lived, taught, and drew people to him. Christ’s entire ministry was to proclaim the spirit of the law over the letter of the law; mercy over justice; love over vengeance, punishment, shaming, self-righteousness, and Phariseeism. So if we’re wondering whether we’re being derelict in our duty by failing to go around informing people that they’re sinning, Christ laid that worry to rest. He laid it to rest with, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” He laid it to rest with, “Take the beam out of your own eye before you take the mote out of your neighbor's eye.”

Christ never went around telling people they were sinners (though he did frequently tell people they were hypocrites). He was alert for an opening. He was ready for the moment when they wanted to start living another way and started to cast about for a way to change and a direction to turn in.

photo: the vibe source

Now if you have a beef with a friend, if something’s gone wrong between the two of you, that’s the place, or one place, to be honest. We’re totally called to say "You know what, that hurt," or "Wait a sec, that doesn’t strike me as quite fair," or "I feel like you’re wanting more from me than I’m able to give. Here’s what I can give and happy—thrilled—to give it!"

Another place to be honest is when our friend comes to us and asks for our opinion or feedback or take on a prospective course of action. I happen to have the sacred honor of being a kind of spiritual  advisor to, among others, a couple of non-Catholic gay friends. Here are the kinds of things they come to me with: “I’m going home to visit my gun-toting, gay-bashing family: how can I love them while I’m there? How can I not give in to anger and fear?” Or “I’m starting to sort of throw my weight around at work. How can I be a worker among workers? How can I remind myself I’m basically there to be of service?” Or "My partner's  sick again. I don't mind going to the hospital every night but I'm stressed to the max. How can I be kind to her and kind to myself, too?"... 

Now what is going to be put me in the best position to lay down my life for these friends? Am I going to say “That’s a very good question,” but before I answer, narrow my eyes, lean in, and add, "By the way, gay people shouldn’t be having sex." Am I going to say, “That’s a very good question--but what you really need is to become a Christian.” No, because they are Christians. They're Christians in spirit. Those are exactly the kinds of questions that a follower of Christ would ask and should be asking.

I’ll tell you why my way strikes me as more Gospel-based, and more authentically honest, than informing people they're "sinners." Because it requires me to sacrifice my time, energy, mind and heart. It requires me to give all of myself—not just my knowledge of the Catechism. It requires me to be vulnerable, to be awkward, to risk being wrong, to risk failing, to consent to NOT be very helpful, for my friend to disagree. It invites, and is underlain by, relationship.

If I were the formation director for a monastery, or an RCIA teacher, or a priest, and my friends came to me, I'd have a different relationship; I'd be acting in a different capacity. If they come to me as it is with a specific question or issue around their sexuality, I'm totally there, helping to lead them toward the God of their understanding. But under the circumstances, as soon as I inform my friends that I disapprove of their putative, not-in-issue sex lives, I’ve set up a barrier. I’ve created anxiety and mistrust—on both our parts. My gay friends (who,  like all my friends, are abundantly aware that I'm a practicing Catholic) are no longer going to come to feel safe to come to me with their concerns.

The tragedy there is not so much that they're going to miss out on me: it’s that I’m going to miss out on them. 

Obviously if our friend takes to drinking Wild Turkey, shooting meth, and going to the baths every night I'm going to say, "Whoa, what's going on?"

But I'm very troubled by the idea that the mark of a follower of Christ is that his or her friends are lily white.

I'm deeply troubled by the notion of only being willing to give, and to receive, from people with a perfect track record. In fact, that stance strikes me as the antithesis of Christianity. I don't even know such a person, and the people I've met who THINK they have a perfect traffic record are way, way scarier to me than any "sinner." .

We're talking about Christ here. Christ who said "Healthy people don't need a doctor; sick people do." Christ, who said, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." Christ, who hung out with prostitutes, drunks, tax collectors, and I think it's safe to assume, a whole ton of people who were "sexually disordered."

How can we tell people they're sexually disordered and also fail to offer them our passion, our warmth, our friendship?  How can we tell people they're called to life-long celibacy (or to marry a member of the opposite sex to whom they're not especially attracted) and not simultaneously offer them our deepest solidarity and our understanding? How am I going to be better placed to lead my friends to the love of Christ: by informing them they are wrong, or by encouraging them in the myriad ways they are right?

As Father Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household  notes: “It is not a question of God’s action depending on something that comes before it, because it clearly does not. What matters is knowing if God’s action requires something in response.

We’re brought to the light first, in other words. The response—of wonder, of gratitude, of wanting to give everything—comes afterward. 

To know Christ: this is what we want for our friends and for the world. But Christ himself—“a God so intensely alive he can afford to be dead,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar observed—strangely, does not demand that people recognize him or worship him or even call him by name before he begins to draw them to himself.

What’s required to start walking toward the light is not recognition of Christ qua Christ but purity of heart. What’s required to spiritually progress is a spirit of self-sacrifice, self-examination, service, and willingness--which all my friends have, or hope for, in spades.

At the final judgment, Christ tells us, we will be favored as sheep rather than goats not by virtue of the distance we maintained from the marginalized, but by how close we allowed ourselves to be invited to them. “For he who is not against us is for us” [Mark 9:40]. What joy in heaven--for our friends, for us--when we find we were with Him all along.


Saturday, September 17, 2011


on e-book!
(which is about the only way you're gonna find it,
other than used)
I first heard "Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me" twenty-odd years ago in rehab.

Heres' the passage from Parched (which just made the 10 Best Addiction Memoir list at

At the beginning of my third week, Pam appointed me house mother. "I can't be an authority figure," I protested. "I hate authority." But she made me do it anyway and, secretly, I was just the teensiest bit excited at the prospect of running the meetings and organizing weekend activity hours.

Saturday afternoon, we were all in the kitchen cleaning cupboards when a woman from a local church dropped off a stack of hymnals.

"Okay, I'm the boss around here," I announced. "Who wants to sing?"

A chorus of girlish squeals went up: "Pam never makes us sing!" "No WAY! They made fun of me in school." "Count me out, I couldn't carry a tune in a suitcase."

A mannish voice cut through the babble: "They tell me I don't sound s'bad." I looked over. Mo had one hand on her hip. With the thumb, fourth and fifth fingers of the other, she held a broom handle. The remaining two gripped a Chesterfield, stained ruby at the tip.

"Thank you, Maureen," I said. "I'm glad to see someone around here is willing to participate in her own recovery.

"I'll sing soprano," Naomi piped up.

"I'm alto," rumbled Mo.

"You’re more like basso profundo," I said, "but we'll make do."

We started out with "Praise to the Lord” and gained a couple of new voices on “Holy, Holy, Holy.” “That’s the spirit,” I urged them on. “Who gives a shit about cleaning the kitchen?” By the time we got to "All Glory, Laud and Honor," half the unit had set aside their sponges to join in. A bunch of us launched into "Gloria in Excelsis Deo," and then Mo taught us a hymn I'd never heard before:

"Boisterous waves obey Thy will
When thou sayest to them, "Be still."
Wondrous sovereign of the sea
Jesus, Savior, pilot me."

Even the non-singers were impressed. When I suggested charades after dinner everyone joined in without a peep, and we all had such a blast I let everyone stay up past their bedtime...

Anyway, trolling youtube, I came across a couple of versions of this splendid hymn (written by Edward Hopper (1818-1888, so not THE Edward Hopper)) that I especially liked. (Both, unfortunately, have to my mind hopelessly hokey graphics, so if you feel the same way, just close your eyes).

The first is by the great, the inimitable Mahalia Jackson. And the second is by Laura Gibson, who I stumbled across by accident. Who knew a hymn could be catchy?...

Laura Gibson: Jesus Savior, Pilot Me



To a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

--Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1880


Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Never let evil talk pass your lips; say only the good things men need to hear, things that will really help them.
--Ephesians 4: 29

A sampling of the greetings, insights, listening-reading-watching tips and general ephemera that crossed my desk this week:

From seminarian Tim Smith:

"Hey just biked 50 miles in the beauty of SouthEast Minnesota rolling hills and did a Holy Hour at this Amazing Shrine.

On the Way Home I Started Jamming to this sweet song. Know of My prayers."

From Ron Wall of Calgary, Alberta who is preparing to move with his wife Diane and possibly his son Austin to St. Louis, MO: the visas just came through.

Introducing Huke Green.

From correspondent Kevin Funnell:

From Bernadette Murphy: a blog called Little Seal by Emily Rapp about Emily's and her husband's 18-month-old son Ronan who's dying from Tay-Sachs disease. Reflections on culture, death, philosophy, theology, occasional stabs of joy, and the unhelpful things people sometimes say when your kid is sick.

Re a youtube I recently posted of a Chinese choir singing Jean Sibilius's "Finlandia":

Lovely. As a 3rd generation Finn who grew up with stories of great uncles who died during the Winter War, I thank you. It's all about "sisu."

"Sisu" is a word that most consider difficult to translate but I heard it a lot growing up in regard to that Winter War when the Russians attacked Finland. It generally means "never give up.... stick to it..... bold determination....perseverance in the face of adversity...." but as it says on my t-shirt (acquired in Astoria, OR, a great destination for many immigrating Finns) -- "SISU -- It's a Finn Thing." Of course, in more commonplace terms, I also heard it when I was in high school, struggling with algebra, and ready to give up in disgust.

Here's a link to a Time article in 1940:,9171,763161,00.html

In college, my cultural anthropology professor claimed that sisu arose from Finland’s history and it's geographical location. Surrounded by bigger neighbors who tended toward bullying behaviors, Finns needed that certain "je ne sais quoi" to cope. She was also the person who informed me that linguistically Finland is the only northern European country with a language all its own -- it's an agglutinating tongue and does not have Germanic roots.


A link to an article in The American Catholic re the surrender of Japan on September 2, 1945.

From the speech of Gen. Douglas MacArthur on that day:

Men since the beginning of time have sought peace…. Military alliances, balances of power, leagues of nations, all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war. We have had our last chance. If we do not now devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature and all material and cultural development of the past two thousand years. It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.

Take away the uniforms, the show weapons, the top hats, the white gloves, the historic pens, and the flags and you have two battle-weary human beings who probably just wanted to sit down, shoot the breeze, and eat a meal together.

From poet Rita A. Simmonds:

Sunflower Beatitudes

These sealed sunflowers
stand to the sermon of the sun,
attentive they lean,
silent as seed.
How blessed
are the poor,
the meek,
the pure.
This earth will be theirs;
their eyes will see.
How blessed
and tall,
their heads still green.
They wait
for the sun
on faces unseen.


Monday, September 12, 2011


Benny McCabe is a tango dancer, a poet, a political activist, a psychotherapist, and a citizen of the world. 

I never know where Benny will turn up. I won't hear from him for months and then suddenly I'll receive some crazy beautiful e-mail describing the birds, the various kinds of rain, and the hills through which he just rode a horse on a remote estate in South Africa.

Or suddenly it will transpire he's flown over from his home base in Dublin to spend a month at the L.A. Catholic Worker.

Or he'll be off to Vermont to stay for a week with a couple he met on some far-flung train who, say, take in Russian orphans, whittle dulcimers, write haiku, and raise llamas.

The other day I received the below and learned that Benny has taken it upon himself to walk the Way of St. James aka the El Camino de Santiago de Compestela, the centuries-old pilgrim route that begins in the French Pyrenees and ends in Galicia, Spain, where the remains of St. James are said to be buried.

Day 4 Puente La Reina

A beautiful old town with cobblestone streets and great architecture.
Tonight will sleep in an ancient pilgrim hostel/hospital in a room with 10 others, some nights its with 100.
Now the daily rythm involves rising at 6 am to be on the road by 7 am.
Each morning into the darkness, unknown landscapes and conversations ahead.
My body becomes strong and slowly the neurotic mind calms.
In the early mornings I am reminded of similiar feelings of the times I spent in the mountains of Nicaragua,
I remember, am re membered ( and reassured)
Each day glimpses of fellow pilgrims lives
stories from Calcutta, Ghana, Ethiopia, 
Conversations which last for 10 minutes or continue for days
I met the Queen of Mars in a cafe in Pamplona, in her Earthly guise she is called Kiara and hails from Canada, studies space science in Belgium.
As the King of Potatoes I empathised with her in her Courtly responsibilities.
Now covering 20 plus kms daily without too much exertion
On the first night In St Juan the young man in the bunk overhead asked me within a minute of meeting "WHAT AGE are you" When I asked him to guess and he replied maybe 45 I told him how he had made my day and when I told him what age I am he exclimed in disbelief.
The following day which was the first and maybe the most difficult, 27 kms climing into the Pyrnees across passes of 1000 plus metres he blazed a trail and I was relieved and delighted that I was able to keep up with him,
When did this journey begin? Now I realise it had many beginnigs
I remember Mary Olivers poem " THe Journey" "ONe day you finally knew what you had to do,
and began, it was already late enough....
I read Mertons Raids on the Unspeakable.
Sometimes the question is posed among fellow pilgrims
"Whay are you on the Camino"?
A rich variety of responses, sense of a shared humanity.
Food for Body, soul, imagination and Spirit

I remember the song "Gracias a la Vida...Thanks be to life which has given me so much

With love


8th Sept 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011



Frontline transcript of an interview with Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete:

Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete is a professor of theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in New York, and formerly served as associate professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family. Here, he discusses the "two faces of God" -- the compassionate and the destructive -- and his ongoing quest to reconcile the two. He candidly acknowledges that he recognized the ruinous forces of religion in those first moments after the attacks on Sept. 11. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Helen Whitney in the winter of 2002

What was Sept. 11 like for you?

I saw death. I saw death. I am a priest; I've seen many kinds of deaths, many deaths -- death of young people, death of old people. Peaceful deaths -- people just fly off. Tragic deaths as a result of accidents, of violence even. I've seen death resisted 'til the last minute. Agonizing death. But this was different. This was death. Death. In each death, I have to be personally engaged, because as you know -- I don't want it to sound selfish, but you experience, you anticipate. I anticipate my own possibility of ceasing to exist. I hate it; I'm against it. Every fiber mentally, physically fights against it. Each death is a horror, but finally it's over. There is some kind of closure, some kind of sign that says, well, move on. This was absent on Sept. 11.

... Just to see the inevitable scene again and again of that plane. And was it because they showed it again and again? No, no, because I felt it the first time. Namely, there is no closure. This doesn't say to me, move on. It says, stay. Stay and look. Stare into this black hole. Don't go away because this is going to change you. And I knew it from the very first moment; this was not the same. This was death in all its nakedness. Death.

What is it you saw?

The first thing I saw was horror. The horror in the faces of the people outside the building, looking. I didn't see the buildings the first time, when I turned on the television set; it was the faces. I saw their faces disfigured by horror, by terror. And then I saw what was happening. I saw the explosion, the fire, the smoke. The people jumping, jumping from windows ... unbelievable. ... And how many times have I been up there? The mere idea, jumping, and hanging from the window. How is it possible to fear what lies inside more than the horror outside? This is incomprehensible. ... What could be going through their mind? Jumping. ... And then that second plane, the inevitability of what was going to happen to those inside the plane, to those outside. ... People running away. I saw the buildings crash, the weight, the sheer weight of them. Death, death everywhere. ...

I don't feel it's over even now. You see, there was no closure, as they say. In other deaths, I felt it was time to now affirm life and continue life. But here it is as if it all froze at the moment of death. It is a moment of death that remains. It remains to this day. I knew I had to stand before it as long as it takes to see where this was taking me, because it has changed me, and I know it will continue to change me.

As a priest, were you comforted by your faith?

As I looked at that scene of horror, the people jumping, the people running away, the building falling, the flames, the explosions, was I consoled in some way by my faith that I was here seeing the passage to another kind of life? No, no, a thousand times, no. I didn't even think of it. I had to see it. I was dominated, seized by the event, that's all. No interpretation. No consolation. Just the reality. Later, later, the question emerges and faith comes in. But not at that moment, no. 

The image of the man and woman who held hands as they jumped from the window. ... Do you think about where they might be?

I think they are in the hands of the love that is the ultimate reality about human life, the love of which those two hands held together as they jumped from the window. The love of which those two hands are a revelation, a sign, a brief insight. ... I think they are there. It doesn't matter how one imagines it. Imagine it the way you want. That's the great thing about it, the way you want, but they're holding hands. ...

To me, that image is an inescapable provocation. This gesture, this holding of hands in the midst of that horror, it embodies what Sept. 11 was all about. The image confronts us with the need to make a judgment, a choice. Does it show the ultimate hopelessness of human attempts to survive the power of hatred and death? Or is it an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself that somehow shines in the midst of that darkness and contains the hint of a possibility, a power greater than death itself? Which of the two? It's a choice. It's the choice of Sept. 11. ...

What did you learn about evil?

As a priest, I deal with good and evil all the time. Well, first of all, as a human being, I live good and evil all the time, within me. As a priest, it's my business. I hear confessions, I give spiritual advice. I deal with moral issues all the time. So each time I recognize myself in all sides of the problems that come to me ... in human situations. And as an intellectual, as a theologian, I study it. I have read the history of the great debates about what is good and what is evil, how are these related throughout the history of thought. Great issues, great problems, all that.

But 9/11 was different. There was a reality present, something about it that was different. And I thought, what can it be? Is it the magnitude of this? Or the number of people? The explosion, the drama of it? Was it the incessant looking at it on television? No, no, I tried all these things, but there was more. There was more I had to pay attention to. I thought, take the Holocaust for example, from the point of view of magnitude and of horror. In that sense, it's unimaginable. And yet, Hitler at least hated a concrete people. He hated the Jews. He wanted to destroy all Jews. In fact, in order to somehow make it possible, he had to deny their humanity so he could wipe them out.

"The salvation of man is in love and through love."
But here there were Jews present, there were Christians, there were Buddhists, there were atheists, there were Muslims. There were rich, there were poor. There were CEOs, there were waiters. There were newlyweds, there were widowers. It was humanity. The twin towers, the whole region is an affirmation of human dreams, of human ambition, of human desire, of the hope of human progress, of human struggle for survival.

It's humanity, and that had to be destroyed because this was hatred for humanity that inspired this deed. I don't know the people who did this, how they rationalized it or explain it away. It's beside the point. I was watching hatred for humanity. ... I am human too. I was in those buildings. We were all in those buildings being human beings. And this was the depth of it.

And I knew that there was one human way to respond: It was to stare at it, to face it, not to go away, above all, not to look for explanations. Certainly, no philosophical, theological, or religious explanations; even less, political, economic, foreign policy, the Palestinian problem, American foreign policy, conspiracies. Immediately the whole "Yes, but" brigade came out to explain it all away. And I knew that would be a betrayal of reality. ... The cause here is a passionate hatred of humanity. ...
It was not Jews, it was not Christians, it was not Westerners, it was not Easterners. There were all of these people at the World Trade Center. ... What did they have in common? Their humanity. That was their offense. That was the object of their hatred. This was hatred of the human.

What does that mean? It means a boundary has been broken that opens up the floodgates to unstoppable horror, because human is all we are, all we can be, all we can appeal to. It's our safety net. ... But here, the more you show your humanity, the more you're hated. I've never seen anything like this. And I saw it.

To me, to distract one from this, to look for explanations, is obscene. It's an offense against the reality of what happened -- an offense against our humanity -- to look for political explanations, economic explanations, diplomatic explanations. "Oh, it's American foreign policy. It is the arrival into our shores of the Palestinian-Israeli fight. It is globalization. It is the cultural wars. It is American imperialism." All of that is proposed by the "Yes, but" brigade who got to work immediately after the explosion. It is obscene and irresponsible, because we were facing an attack, a hatred of humanity which is what we all have in common. It's our line of defense, our only one. And now that was gone. ...

The people who did this, who planned it, who brought it about, I don't know what their theology or their ideology is. I take them at their word; they died with the name of God on their lips. People say they were sincere; well, yes, they were. They believed. This is an act for them that was a sincere act, the worship of their God. I take them at their word. Does that make them any less evil? Oh, but no, that precisely is the monstrosity. If they were not sincere, it would be a terrible thing, but ... it is the sincerity, it is the free will. I mean, they willed this to happen. They willed the destruction of humanity, of humanness, of everybody in that place on that day at the World Trade Center. This was a freely willed act, very sincere. And this sincerity is one of the horrible characteristics of the face of evil I saw that day. ...

Do you believe that evil is inside or outside us?

Well, for me, evil is certainly the worst we are capable of, but it is more. The deepest experience of it, and even in me, where else can I examine it but in the terrible, frightening possibilities I see within myself? There is a dimension at that depth of the worst that we can do, a dimension of being part of a larger reality, of being part of a rebellion that didn't start with you, or coincides with you, but that is more. It extends beyond your possibilities or even your existence. You can give it names, you can draw little horns on it; these are human attempts. The experience behind it is the experience of a kind of anti-solidarity, a force of nothingness. And it can only be expressed in that kind of language. Not in philosophical language, but in an experiential language, in stories, in poems. It's inside. ...

That is why in this case, for all the horror, for all the fear, you know what's the worst part? I can't separate myself totally from the people who did this. ... When I think or talk about evil, I of course refer to the worst that I could possibly imagine someone doing to me, or me doing to someone. The worst things that human beings can do, and I as a human being have that capacity. The worst things we could do, not only individually, but collectively as human beings. But I think there is more. ... I experience more.

I experience, beyond that, that there is a dimension of participating in a force, in a rebellion, in a hatred that goes beyond you and me as individuals and even beyond us collectively. That it is a rebellion against existence itself, not just humanity now, but existence that has preceded us. A force. Does it have a personality to it? Is it a personal force? ... Is it someone? I would rather save the word "person" for human beings. I don't want to use words beyond the necessary "force" to indicate "beyond us," because words belong to what exist. Words are supposed to carry existence, to carry something, to indicate something, to be a form of communication, of relationship. This force is the very heart of anti-relationship. Oh, yes, that too was the face of that day, that horrible day.

What have been the challenges to you as a priest?

From the first moment I looked into that horror on Sept. 11, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why. I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion. Look, I am a priest for over 30 years. Religion is my life, it's my vocation, it's my existence. I'd give my life for it; I hope to have the courage. Therefore, I know it.

And I know, and recognized that day, that the same force, energy, sense, instinct, whatever, passion -- because religion can be a passion -- the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction. When they said that the people who did it did it in the name of God, I wasn't the slightest bit surprised. It only confirmed what I knew. I recognized it.

I recognized this thirst, this demand for the absolute. Because if you don't hang on to the unchanging, to the absolute, to that which cannot disappear, you might disappear. I recognized that this thirst for the never-ending, the permanent, the wonders of all things, this intolerance or fear of diversity, that which is different -- these are characteristics of religion. And I knew that that force could take you to do great things. But I knew that there was no greater and more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion.

My friends in the business, religious leaders, we all took to the streets to try to salvage something of it. Funny, suddenly every government official became a religious leader, reassuring us that all religions are for peace. I understand. It was embarrassing. And now I think we have a religious duty to face this ambivalence about religion, and to do something about it. To promote that which makes it a constructive force and to protect us from that which makes it a destructive force. ...

If I thought what we saw on Sept. 11, the dreadful and horrible possibilities of religion, were the only face of religion, I assure you I'd take off this collar. There is another face -- maybe harder to see after Sept. 11 and what has followed it -- but it's there. I see it every Sunday. The parish where I work is not far from the World Trade Center. The Lower East Side, 90 percent Hispanic. Poor people, many affected by death in the World Trade Center. And yet they weren't asking the great difficult questions about why, or the nature of evil.

They don't have time for that. They have to struggle to live every day. And in that struggle, which somehow embraced even that terrible day, their religion, their church, their parish stands for life, stands for hope, stands for home. It's sustains them. It helps them. It's not their opium, as Marx would say. On the contrary, it encourages them to struggle, not to give up, not to surrender. They are poor, but they know, they experience, they feel that each one of them has a link with an infinite mystery. No need to worship any other source of power, economic power, political power -- that they have a dignity that cannot be taken away from them. ...

I mean, in Latin America, which is my ethnic background, the religion has been the force that has sustained the drive for justice and liberty of millions. I mean, their statues, Our Lady and so forth, it's because no matter how poor, no matter how weak, they have come to believe and experience it. Each one of them has a link with the infinite, with that very same mystery in the name of which people kill and hate. They experience that link, that mystery, as the source of their dignity and of the dignity of others. ... And when people disappear, their loved ones, when death occurs, they imagine them resting in the arms of that mystery of absolute love. That's my daily fare. I see that every day. I saw it within hours of the World Trade Center. Everybody saw something of it on TV ...

This is the other face of religion. It's the same religious passion. The same desire for infinity. How can this be? How can it be these two opposed things? I don't know, but then maybe human passion I guess is like that. But this one, this is the most powerful one. And so after Sept. 11, and much of what followed, it is very difficult to see this, the face of love in the face of religion. We cannot forget it. It alone, I believe, has the strength to face the other face of religion. ...

When I saw this other face of religion in my parishioners as a reality, with concrete names, I knew I had to hang onto it. I had to be with them. I needed my parishioners, because the other was so destructive that I felt it threatened my own life, the sincerity of everything I had said, or preached, or done. And then they were there, and telling me, ... because I would ask them difficult questions, and they would look at me and it was so beautiful. They were suddenly ministering to me. And it's an amazing thing and a beautiful thing and I knew that it was as much that reality to which I had devoted my life as that other horror.

And so I don't understand, but I know this, it is this power to sustain the poor that I want my religion to be. ...

Time has passed since Sept. 11, 2001, and life has returned to normal, only that the normal now contains, still as an open wound, an open window into mystery. What happened that day -- those bodies, fire, the airplanes crashing, relentlessly again and again. The people running away, the horror in the faces of those who were seeing this. All of that in the name of God, the very same God which, but a few blocks away, was sustaining the hope and the courage of my parishioners, the poor Hispanics of the Lower East Side. They too were appealing to God, appealing to God to console me. They were ministering to me. And since then until now, forever I'll be faced with those two faces of God. Two faces of the mystery. Two faces of religion. And I know, of course, what I have to choose. I hope I have the friends and support of people who would stop me if they see me ever moving into the direction that may open the slightest bit of the door to the God of destruction and hatred.

Which is the true face of religion? I keep asking myself. Which is the true face of God? I don't think there are two Gods, I think there is only one God. Which is the true face of God? Well, I don't know, I only know this: I will never worship a God that doesn't reveal itself as humility, as poor. That's how I have changed, and I hope I will be faithful to it until it's my turn to disappear into the mystery.

Read more here:

Also in case you want to participate in person or in spirit, Rita also tells me she'll be at a:
ROSARY TO REMEMBER;THE 10THANNIVERSARY OF 9/11 today, Sunday, September 11, 2011, at 3 p.m., American Veterans Memorial Pier, Shore Rd & Bay Ridge Ave., Brooklyn, NY


Friday, September 9, 2011


John 9: 1-41 
Recently I had a  talk with my writer friend Terry. Terry is wise, funny and profoundly insightful. I'm grateful to and for her.

At one point I was saying, sort of tearfully, "I just want to give glory to God!" 

And Terry was like, "Well you already are. Plus does God need any more glory?  He already HAS all glory, doesn’t he?"  

I started laughing so hard I had to sit down on the threadbare green velvet chair. Right away I saw there was something very deep here about the movement from striving to surrendering; from thinking I need to earn to realizing I get to receive.

I thought of the parable of the blind man, John 9:1-41: 

1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”   3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. [emphasis mine]

Later in the same passage, at John 9: 24:
"A second time [the Pharisees] summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man [Christ] is a sinner.”

In other words, the Pharisees are the ones with the notion of giving glory to God instead of having the glory revealed in them. By telling their version of the truth, which is based upon and motivated by hatred, enforcement, and rejoicing in the wrongdoing of the other.


The point being: Calm down. Regard the lilies of the field. God is in charge, not me.

Or as Christ said to another blind man: "Go thy way, thy faith hath made thee whole" [Mark 10:52].

Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala
dir. Ralph Nelson, 1963

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


“Everything that’s ripe wants to die,” Nietzsche said. Maybe, but if you stop there, you end up, as Nietzsche did, in a mental institution. One of the things the Resurrection seems to say is that beauty never goes unseen. Our holy longing bears fruit, though we almost never live to see it. Charity triumphs over hatred, good triumphs over evil, the light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

No love is lost, no love is ever wasted. We yearn to connect and after a long purification we see that we were already connected, we have always been connected, and we remain connected even if we are no longer physically with, say, the person we loved; even if we never see the person, or place, or thing again: even after death.

"I teach you the overman.
Man is something that shall be overcome."
NIETZSCHE, being cared for by his sister Elisabeth
during his final 10 years of mental/physical illness
Christianity takes everything that is paradoxical, absurd, harsh; sees it in the clearest possible light; and takes it one sublime, seemingly--but only seemingly--crazy step further. In my drinking years, I often thought contemptuously: You’d drink, too, if you saw the world with as clear an eye as I do. I used to think "believers" lived in a fairy-tale world, but belief, for me, has turned out to take a way clearer eye, way more courage, way more nerve than cynicism.

Now I see that the people I admire who believe--in beauty, in truth--have a kind of duende: a combination of grace, soul, wit, and class.

In The New Man, Thomas Merton observed:

"Religions do not, in fact, simply supply answers to questions. Or at least they do not confine themselves to this until they become degenerate. Salvation is more than the answer to a question. To emerge alive from a disaster is not just the answer to the question, `Shall I escape?'

Everything hinges on the final issue, in the battle of life and death. Nothing is assured beforehand. Nothing is definitely certain. The issue is left to our own choice. But that is what constitutes the dark terror of the agonia: we cannot be sure of our own choice. Are we strong enough to continue choosing life when to live means to go on and on with this absurd battle of entity and nonentity in our own inmost self?"

HE COMPOSED what is now the world-renowned QUARTET FOR THE END OF TIME.

"Curiously, the chiming of the hour seemed to have put new heart in him. He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth that nobody would ever hear. But so long as he uttered it, in some obscure way the continuity was not broken. It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage."

--George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four