Friday, May 17, 2019



Here's how this week's arts and culture column begins:

The first thing I turned to in the newspaper as a kid was Ann Landers’ advice column.

I couldn’t get enough — still can’t — of human dysfunction. The letters were longish but Ann’s advice was always succinct, practical, and to the point.

“You have every right to tell your in-laws that they cannot smoke in your home.”

“That child needs to be seen by a professional for evaluation.”

“Give Gloria notice — either she stops seeing that married man, or she will have to move out at the end of the month.”

My favorite was when Ann hit some prying busybody with the familiar zinger, MYOB: Mind Your Own Business.

Enter “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a book by mega-popular author Cheryl Strayed and now a play that was recently staged at the Pasadena Playhouse. Strayed wrote an anonymous advice column for a time under the pen name Sugar and, after revealing her identity, collected the letters into “Tiny Beautiful Things.”

Steve Almond, the writer who originally passed on the column to Strayed, calls her approach “radical empathy.”

That’s one way to put it: padding around her suburban kitchen in a hoodie and pajama bottoms, to my mind Sugar (played here by Nia Vardalos) makes every problem about herself: her grief over her mother’s death, her fling with heroin, the risks she’s so bravely taken (and that worked out, because look, here she is, the best-selling author of “Wild,” writing an advice column that will also be a bestseller!).



Tuesday, May 14, 2019



Further evidence of God's sense of humor: I am flying to Columbus, Ohio this coming Sunday to tape an episode of "The Journey Home" with EWTN's Marcus Grodi.

That's right. I'm going to hit the Eternal World Television Network Airwaves. (That's assuming the taping goes okay, which you never know).

I feel my own story would more aptly be titled "The Eternally Wandering Lost Sheep," but of course I'm honored to have been invited to tell it. I notice my mind this week has been mulling over potential ways to sound wise, deep, subtly subversive (whatever that might mean under the circumstances), and all kinds of other unsavory things best left to those who actually are wise, deep et cetera.

So my plan is to go to Confession Sat. night and let the chips fall where they way on Monday. I'm sure I'll be my usual semi-incoherent, weepy self, desperate to wedge in a funny line or two. And that will be fine. Let it be done unto me according to Thy word.

As much to the point, as soon as I learned I'd be flown into Columbus and back, I thought, Well what's Columbus like? Let me check it out. So I did a little research and found they have what sounds like a wonderful river walk, and the whole place is kind of wanderable, and the long and the short of it I will then be staying three days in a dear little airbnb near Schiller Park. (And yes, I will be visiting the Jubilee Museum).

"Greater love hath no man than to lay down one's life for one's friends." Being open, curious, participatory to me are part of laying down my life. Columbus resident Peg Matthews sent a beautiful note with tons of eating and cultural suggestions, and long-time reader the good Mary Beth Paul, also of the Columbus area, has pledged to pick me up and take me to Inniswood Gardens one day during my stay.

"He who loses his life shall find it." Because in the laying down, always we are met by those who are laying their lives down for us.

Saturday, May 11, 2019


Here's how this week's arts and culture column begins:

“Behind the Bullet” is a documentary, directed and produced by Heidi Yewman, with the tagline: “4 Shooters. 4 Stories. A New Perspective on Gun Violence.”

Yewman is a graduate of Columbine High School and lost her former basketball coach Dave Sanders in the 1999 mass shooting. She’s since written a book, also called “Beyond the Bullet,” subtitled “Personal Stories of Gun Violence Aftermath.”

Still, she intentionally tried to keep her own bias out of it. “I want to have a conversation with people, especially gun owners, and I can’t do that if they’re feeling judged or preached to.”

Thus, the film offers no statistics till the closing credits. And its focus is not on people who have been shot, but rather the impact on those who have pulled the trigger.

The first person we meet is Christen McGinnes, who is putting on makeup and has clearly undergone some kind of major physical trauma. “One of the hardest things I had to face was not having a face,” she says. “The two years I couldn’t eat, talk or drink were the most difficult.”

McGinnes had bought a gun in case someone broke into her room. In a moment of profound emotional pain, she picked it up, went out on her balcony, prayed for forgiveness, and shot herself in the head.

She now works with other gunshot trauma victims, and at the time had undergone 45 surgeries. I had to close my eyes during Operation No. 46 shown in the film, but the point was well taken: This is what a gunshot does to a human face.

Says Yewman: “It was hard to find someone who had survived a suicide by gun, and who could and would talk about it. We spend a lot of time talking about school shootings, but the fact is that 60 percent of gun deaths are from suicide. So I felt I really should include one such story.”


Wednesday, May 8, 2019


Following my column about Clare Kipps' Sold for a Farthing (the story of a domesticated sparrow), I learned of another memoir of a "house bird." The protagonist of That Quail, Robert lived in Orleans, Massachusetts during the 1960s with a couple named Tom and Mildred Kienzle. The author was a neighbor.

Displacement of very small objects did not escape his notice. He was intimately acquainted with the objects in Mildred's dressing table, since he was usually on it when she was sitting there. But let a bottle of nail polish be left where it did not belong, as on the stand in the bathroom, and Robert's world was disturbed. He would stalk and call, stalk and call, until the situation was remedied...

[A]t about the same time...Robert gave up sleeping in the carton. At bedtime, which for Robert was usually about seven o'clock unless there happened to be company whom he did not want to miss, he signified that he was ready to go to sleep by getting up in a philodendron plant, which was on an end table. There he would make his sleepy sounds, pull up one leg, settle himself on the other, and with eyes closed, his head would droop. He was unmistakably tired. Someone was always there to pick him up and put him in the carton under his lamp. But one night he disappeared. He was found later on a high shelf in the dressing room off the big bedroom, should asleep on a red velvet pillbox hat. He looked so cozy that they left him there, and from then on that was it...Since the crown of the hat was soft, just his head was visible. When the light went on, he would open one eye, give a little purr of recognition, and go back to sleep. 

--Margaret A. Stanger, That Quail, Robert


Monday, May 6, 2019


Last fall I gave a talk in New Orleans to a group of women from the organization Theresians International. One of them recently emailed me this litany she subsequently wrote, based at least in part on my observation that some of the worst violence is the violence we do ourselves. 

I liked it so much that I asked permission to post it--thank you, Rosemary! 


Leader 1: We are pausing now to reflect on how violence may be a part of our lives.
First we invite you to read the litany in silence. Second we will read the litany together.

Leader 2:      For the times I have compared myself to others:  
All:                Wonderful Creator, help me to accept myself just as I am.

Leader 1:      For the times I have tried to be perfect
All:                Gentle One, help me to accept my limitations.

Leader 2:      For the times I have tried to be all things to all people
All:                Mother of My Heart, help me be true to myself.

Leader 1:      For the times I have failed to say “No” When “yes” was too much for me
All:                Compassionate One, help me to honor my needs.

Leader 2:      For the times I thought others actions were a reflection on me.
All:                Gracious Spirit, help me release them to live their own lives.

Leader 1:      For the times I berated myself for not being in shape.
All:                God of Struggle, help me to care gently for myself.

Leader 2:      For the times I berated myself for not being more involved
All:                Liberator, help me to do everything with love.

Leader 1:      For the times I thought I was failing in spiritual progress
All:                Seeker of Silence, help me to trust in you.

Leader 2:      For the times I thought I was not holy enough
All:                Spirit Within, deepen my awareness of your presence.

Written by Rosemary Simek
Inspired by Heather King


Friday, May 3, 2019


Here's how this week's arts and culture column begins:

“Defiant Requiem” is both a documentary film and the name given to a multimedia concert drama, directed by Murry Sidlin, which was recently performed at UCLA’s Royce Hall.

The film features several former inmates of the Nazi concentration camp at Terezín, a concentration camp 30 miles north of Prague in the Czech Republic during World War II.

By September 1942, a town built for 6,000 held 60,000. There was never enough food. In a single year, half the population died from typhus.

Still, many of the inmates were intellectuals, artists, musicians.

Scholars began giving lectures on science, religion, psychology. Rabbis transformed a hidden room into a secret synagogue. The camp erupted into a thriving cultural center, “an academy of prisoners.”

When the transports east to an unknown fate began, inmate Rafael Schächter turned to one of his most precious possessions: a single score of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass. A conductor, he decided to teach the inmates to play and sing what is universally acknowledged as one of the world’s most demanding choral pieces.

An outcry went out around the camp. Why pick a Catholic Mass when there are works by, say, Handel, on Jewish themes?

Because, explained Schächter, the Requiem takes as its central theme the notion of holy judgment. The “Dies Irae” (“Wrath of God”) runs:

“A written book shall be brought forth

which contains everything

for which the world will be judged.

And so when the Judge takes his seat

Whatever is hidden shall be made manifest,

Nothing shall remain unavenged.”


Tuesday, April 30, 2019



Am I alone in this, or are there certain saints you just can't cotton to?

God forgive me and I'm sure she's praying for me in heaven, but I cannot for the life of me for example get the appeal of St. Faustina and that corny Divine Mercy painting. She's always telling some anecdote where one of her sisters FOOLISHLY  as it turns out underestimated her, and then humble-bragging that Jesus appeared and anointed he for some special mission, using words that do not sound remotely in any way like those used by Our Savior in the Gospels.

Such as "My love deceives no one," and "Get to know God by contemplating his attributes" and "You will go back to earth, and there you will suffer much, but not for long; you will accomplish my will and my desires, and a faithful servant of mine will help you do this."

Jesus for one thing is a man of few words. Like to Mary Magdalene, in the Garden after the Resurrection, he said simply, "Mary." To St. Francis, "Rebuild my Church." To Saul, "Why dost thou persecutest me?" To Mother Teresa, oh I don't know, that thing on the train, "Help me out" or something like that. Plus he was never gratuitously cryptic. "A faithful servant of mine will help you do this," instantly gives rise to the obsessive thought, "Well, who already?"

 On the cross, he said, to Mary, "Woman, behold your son," and to John, "Behold your mother." He didn't leave them guessing.

Then there's Catherine of Siena who--I mean did she really have to drink the pus from her mother superior's cancerous breast? It's not so much that it grosses me out, but isn't it enough that we have to try to find affordable health insurance. and live in a culture where schoolchildren are being massacred by fellow gun-owning citizens, and accept the fact that Trader Joe's no longer carries fat-free creamer?

When I was in Rome a few years ago, some very nice nuns the way I remember it took me through  St. Catherine's quite beautiful church and I'm pretty sure urged me to kneel in her crypt which was under an altar of some kind I think...I felt pretty guilty and I'm sure apologized down there for not being crazy about her. I'm sure she's praying for me, too. Still, I find I rarely groove to her reflections.

The point being 1) what do I know? and 2) the whole beauty of the treasury of the Church's saints is that there is someone in there to appeal to everyone. I adore the Virgin Martyrs for example who I'm sure aren't everyone's cup of tea. And Christ no doubt speaks, when he does speak, in the language and words that are bound to resonate with the particular  heart he's addressing.

Like to me he kind of says, Hon, could you please try not to be QUITE so much of a crab, jerk, showoff, whiner, etc, as the case may be on any given day.

Pray for us, Sts. Faustina and Catherine of Siena!


Friday, April 26, 2019


Here's how this week's arts and culture piece begins:

Kathryn Kuhlman (1907-1976), a Methodist faith healer and born-again Christian, had a weekly program in the 1960s and ’70s that I sorely regret having missed.

How can you not love an evangelist 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?

Plus I actually agree with everything she says: “I, too, beLIEVE in miracles! I, too believe that Jesus Chrrrist is the very Son of the living God. I, too, believe that love is something you … DO!”

Which brings me to “Faith Healer,” by Irish playwright Brian Friel, at the Odyssey Theater Ensemble in West LA through May 12.

Director Ron Sossi (also the Odyssey’s artistic director) describes the play as “at once a Rashomon type mystery, a delving into talent versus sham and, ultimately, a uniquely metaphysical view of life” — well, sign me up!

Brian Friel (1929-2015), perhaps best known for “Dancing at Lughnasa,” wrote prodigiously and is considered one of Ireland’s most prominent contemporary playwrights. “Faith Healer” premiered in 1979 and comprises four monologues.



Friday, April 19, 2019



I am eating a large slice of three-day-old bread, sitting in my room with the fan turned up in a feeble attempt to drown out the construction noise in the apt above mine, and thinking of
Christ, scourged, bloody, exhausted, thirsty, being nailed to a cross on Mt. Calvary.

I'm also contemplating how I can complete the cleanup I've committed to at one one of many meetings in ten minutes flat later today, then race to St. Andrew's for the Good Friday service at 1:30.

Wonderful reflections in Magnificat this Holy Week.

From the First Station of the Via Matris--The Way of Our Sorrowful Mother (modeled on the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross)--by Fr. Peter John Cameron. The First Station is The Prophecy of Simeon at the Presentation, when Christ as an infant was presented at the Temple to be consecrated to God, and Simeon, an elderly prophet, told Mary: "And you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed."

"What Mary is promised on this joyous day is sorrow. How many of us come to God with presuppositions, prejucides and presumptions about how life should be. We are cursed with the desire to bend destiny to our own way of  seeing things, our skewed expectations. Left to ourselves, we idolize our urge to establish meaning and value as we would like them to be. We wonder: How can humiliation, contradiction, persecution, privation, pain, betrayal, suffering, or loss in any way contribute to our happiness? There are the very thoughts that the pierced heart of Mary lays bare for us."

And from the First Station of the Via Crucis: Jesus is Condemned to Death, by Monsignor Charles Fink:

"Lord life seems very unfair at times, and we are apt to feel sorry for ourselves. Why do others get recognition when we do not? Why do the evil prosper while we, trying to be good, barely make ends meet? Why do things so often go not as we would like them to? Lord, when such questions arise to haunt us, let us find comfort in you--perfect innocence, unjustly condemned. Let us remember that ever since the Fall of Adam, life has been, and ever will be unfair; that we are called to be good not for immediate good but because you are good; that if we are treated unfairly, it is nothing compared to the unfairness with which you were treated; and that the response is not "Why me, Lord?" bur rather, "Lord, I know that you are with me in this trial."

It's true--I tend not to be terribly surprised when life treats others unjustly; but I'm always shocked when life treats me unjustly. I like to think my role is to comfort, console and support those who have been treated unjustly--seldom does it occur to me that my role is to cast my lot with the rest of humanity/the Mystical Body, and put up with being treated unjustly myself.

It's always a comfort to know I'm not doing anything "wrong." I haven't failed at being a good manager and controller. I've just one more time been shown that all the managing and controlling in the world doesn't prevail one iota against the human condition, against reality.

And this from last night, Holy Thursday:

"One day [Christ] said to Saint Catherine of Siena: "I take thy heart from thee and give thee mine."

Ponder THAT for a moment--as Christ commends his spirit to God and, in the final Agony, breathes his last.


Monday, April 15, 2019


Another reading tip: Christiane Ritter's A Woman in the Polar Night.

Here's the Kirkus Review:

The isolation of Arctic Spitsbergen which Mrs. Ritter faced with her husband for a long season brought unique trials and joys. In pensive prose she unfolds the fierce glory of the Arctic as she watched the waning of the light, walked through December no-man's-mist into the eerie splendor of perpetual, brilliant night, waited through storm in the solitary Gray Hook hut for the return of her husband. Pitting human strength against the forces of nature in a simple issue of survival, she acquired the ""polar mentality"" peculiar to the place, an immense calm and acceptance of life-rhythms. With the spring came the pack-ice and the bears, foxes and seals for food and pelt -- having seen a dead world, she rejoiced in the miracle of life. Unusual, thoughtful, this has beauty in the simple expression of immense interior experience.

The season in question occurred in the mid-1930s, on the island of Spitsbergen above Norway. Christiane arrived in July. After massive packing and preparation, the long boat journey from Austria, the trepidation and excitement, the entry into "unpeopled land...montains, glaciers, blue rocks, white ice," and the prospect of getting to see her husband who she hasn't seen in months, Hermann greets her with a "There you are then," and laughs quietly. They then travel by Norwegian steamer for another day and night toward the Gray Hook coast, though "I have not the least idea in what direction we are traveling or where we are."

"My husband then reveals that there is to be another man with us for the winter." In a teeny cabin, in the middle of literally nowhere!

Christiane is not one for whining nor self-pity and a good thing. She learns to cook and eat seal, ptarmigan, eider ducks whose severed heads are used for bait to catch foxes. Carcasses, skeletons and skins in varying states of decay litter the yard and are festooned over the roof.  At one point Hermann and Karl, the third guy, take off to hunt leaving her alone for thirteen days while an Arctic storm rages.

Having been advised that a daily walk is essential, she goes out in gale force winds, gets down on all fours and crawls around the cabin twenty times, ten times clockwise, ten times counterclockwise. When the men aren't out hunting (she learns to shoot, too), the three of them sew, mend, launder, knit, bake, and play patience with a deck of soot-blackened cards.

First, it's light all the time, then, slowly, it becomes dark all the time--for months. The beauty, ever-changing, is indescribable. But the Arctic is not for the faint of heart or psyche.

"Today the heavens are shining in the blue light of the vanished day. In the north a red-yellow moon stands out against a bank of fog. Like the reflection of a distant conflagration the northern lights, growing steadily more visible, drift in subdued reddish gleams across the sky. Moonlight and Arctic light are warm and glowing in contrast to the cold blue of the sky...[T]he spur of the mountain stretching in front of it is in shadow. It looks as though the jaws of hell had opened behind the shadowed mountain wall, outlining its massive bulk with a diabolical glare. 

These are scenes not made for human eyes. The drama of the polar world sinking slowly into shadow is played out in utter silence and remoteness. The scenes are charged with sorcery."

Then she learns of another danger: becoming moonstruck:

"It is full moon. No European can have any idea of what this means on the smooth frozen surface of the earth. It is as though we were dissolving in moonlight, as though the moonlight were eating us up. It makes no difference when we go back into the hut under the snow after a moonlight trip. The light seems to follow us everywhere. One's entire consciousness is penetrated by the brightness; it is as though we were being drawn into the moon itself...Neither the walls of the hut nor the roof of snow can dispel my fancy that I am moonlight myself, gliding along the glittering spines and ridges of the mountains, through the white valleys...

"Now Chrissie has got rar,"* says Karl, shaking his head.  "Ishavet kaller. ** You must be reasonable."

*Rar--the strangeness which overcomes many who spend the winter in polar regions.
** Ishavet kaller--the Arctic calls. This is what the Spitsbergen hunters say when one of their comrades, for mysterious reasons of his own, throws himself into the sea, an occurrence that is still authentically reported today (the book was published in 1938).

Weird, right?

I have a version of kar at home that consists of occasionally wanting to lie down, leave a note saying, "Wake me when it's over" and swallow a whole huge bunch of sleeping pills.

But no: of all weeks, no. Whatever our own suffering, we must stay awake for an hour with Christ as he undergoes the Agony in the Garden at Gethsemane.

Blessed Holy Week to all.