Saturday, May 28, 2011


Jacques Fesch,1930-1957, was a murderer who spent three years and eight months in solitary confinement and experienced a profound conversion before his execution,by guillotine, in a French prison.

“The cross I carry, so shameful in men’s eyes, is no less glorious than that of monk or missionary. But those who live in the world find all this very difficult to comprehend…There is no coherence in it to the eye of the mere spectator.
            It’s only a short time since I really understood what the cross is. It is simultaneously miraculous and horrifying. Miraculous, because it gives us life, horrifying because if we do not bring about our own crucifixion, we have no access to life. This is great and blessed mystery for those who are persecuted." 

"I am sad indeed. Is it a lack of humility that is making me insensitive? I could easily become violent, and at the least contradiction my hackles go up. Pride: the worst of evils and the one that most separates us from the Lord. I have plenty of reasons to be humble, but I’m not. The more I’m knocked down, the more I stiffen my neck and cling to the pride that is my form of courage. 'Brother Leo,' said St. Francis, 'do you know what perfect joy is? Suppose that on our return to the monastery the brother porter receives us like shameless rogues, insults and strikes us, tosses us into the snow and leaves us outside there without shelter and food. If we find the strength to think that this brother has treated us as we deserve, and if we praise the Lord for it, that is perfect joy!'”

"You have to be here to understand what a deadly effect imprisonment can have on a person. He may succeed in submitting outwardly, but interiorly he festers in a frightful way. Wild beasts wait for the beast-tamer to make a false move, and then they leap on him. But do not be alarmed, dear brother; I've been through similar crises and survived."

"Here is where the cross and its mystery of suffering make their appearance. The whole of life has this piece of wood as its center…Don’t you think that, whatever you set out to do in the short time that is yours on earth, everything worthwhile is marked with this seal of suffering? There are no more illusions: you know with certainty that all this world has to offer is as false and deceptive as the most fantastic dreams of a six-year-old girl. Then despair invades you, and you try to avoid the suffering that dogs your heels and licks at you with its flames, but every means of doing so is only a rejection of the cross. We can have no genuine hope of peace and salvation apart from Christ crucified! Happy the man who understands this…” 

--all from Light Upon the Scaffold: The Prison Letters of Jacques Fesch, ed. by Augustin-Michel Lemonnier, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell

People too often confuse morality and law. I did evil and I know it, but I also know how and way I acted as I did. I am perfectly aware that I was not free. My real guilt is not in this area, and it is not the actions for which I am now in prison that are the most serious ones. The real issue is not actions as such--which are indeed atrocious and irreparable--but the deeper responsibility of the man named Fesch. He knows that his responsibility lies elsewhere than where the law puts it. The people before whom I feel guilty are not the civil authorities, but others; and if the day ever comes when true judgment is passed upon it, it is these others who will weigh in the balance against me: Pierrette and Veronica [his wife and daughter]. It is for them that I must give an account.

Our real sins, in other words--which is why we are all criminals--are failures of love.


Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.

Friday, May 27, 2011


A sampling of the gifts, high art, and marvels that came within my purview this week:

1. Au Hasard Balthazar, sublime 1966 film by Robert Bresson about a farm girl and her saint-like donkey.

"Everyone who sees this film will be absolutely astonished, because this film is really the world in an hour and a half."
--Jean-Luc Godard

2. Swiss Trio: Swissmar Classic Peelers, gift from Marjorie S'addah, writer extraordinaire, dear friend, and recent visitor from upstate New York:

3. God's Word: Blues Musician J. B. Lenoir:

4. Sacred Heart prayer card (...or...what is this, cradle Catholics? Is it a scapular or what? approx. 1" x 2," tucks nicely into back jeans pocket) (breaking news: it's a BADGE, see comment below) in laminated plastic case, given to me by my beloved Jewish friend, Lisa G.:

5. Windom (Minnesota) Peewees:

Timmy J. Smith, lately of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, hails from the small town of Windom, Minnesota, and for years has been putting out a zine called The Fellowship of Tim. I am the proud owner of many back copies, which features such subjects as the groddy sink in the restroom of the garage where he worked as a third-generation gas station attendant, dwarf wrestlers,  and his stint as a clerk at a record/porn movie shop.

This week he sent me two more Fellowships of Tim: one about his foray into the world of stand-up comedy, and one about his career as a Windom PeeWee tee-baller.

An excerpt:

I am going to pick one defining moment in PeeWee's History that until right now has remained a secret for over 25 years. And here it is; I told Heath Raverty to pick my little sister for his 2nd pick to be on our team, which he then did. Then when everyone started making fun of our pick I lied and said that what I really said was "don't pick my sister." My best intentions on taking care of my scared little sister had now turned to the exact opposite of making my friend look stupid and leaving my sister's feelings hurt. I couldn't let Mr. Jaacks and all the other Peewees think that I would actually want my little sister on my team. Don't get me wrong, I don't think I'm a horrible brother and I wasn't, I was 8 and a PeeWee. My intentions were good and pure, but in that ten seconds, ten quick seconds, I got a harsh lesson in PeeWees baseball. A lesson that after 25 years I just might understand....

Timmy writes from Sioux Falls: "Here is a link if anyone is interested on how to get a copy [of the newest issue of Fellowship of Tim]: A lot of it is inspired from my Lectio reading of Matthew 6:26, although its written subtly to touch the hearts and minds of my secular friends who are trying to make sense of my conversion and way of life with Christ today, which many of my old friends see as some sort of psychological disorder. HA! Know of my prayers. I am hitting the road." *

7.  If we look at the history of the world and its civilisations, imaginative sympathy for the victim is in fact a very rare quality. In most cultures, the exact opposite applies, because the weak and vanquished have no rights at all. If and when this sympathy comes a out, it does so as the result of a titanic struggle within a person and within a society. The struggle is nothing less than what de Stogumber describes as a kind of 'conversion.' And it is not just for the dull and unimaginative; it is a conversion which even some of the most sensitive and creative spirits known to humanity have had to undergo.

--Michael Kirwan, Discovering [René] Girard [a gift from faithful and generous correspondent-photographer Bill MacIver]

* Tim J. Smith is currently studying to become a Catholic priest.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Recently a correspondent wrote:

What do you think about E-books and readers (Kindle, I-pad, Nooks, etc?) Have you tried any? And what, if any, effect do you think they have on the experience and impact of reading? I would love to read your thoughts on the subject.

So far, I pretty much regard kindle and e-books as the anti-Christ but I regarded answering machines, computers, and cell phones as the anti-Christ, too, until I started using them.

I don't know if I will ever come around to reading a book on a screen though. I know you can highlight, search, and save, but the whole tactile experience is so incarnational and I would hate to lose that. Also, I generally can't afford to buy books and books are therefore inextricably connected for me with the library, which is a whole other beautiful link to humanity. The excitement of putting a book on reserve and having it delivered to my local branch, the small sense of civic pride at knowing I am trusted and wanting to live up to that trust by taking good care of the book and returning it on time, the knowledge that the book has passed through many hands before mine and will pass through many hence.

Reading for me is a whole kinetic mind-body experience. If the book is mine, I turn down pages, underline, scrawl notes, arguments, insults. I spill coffee and crumbs. When I finish a book I like, it’s often bristling with little neon Post-Its, at which point I sit down and copy out (i.e. type) the quotes and passages that have struck me. That alone is a rudimentary form of “communication” with the author, a kind of paying homage by way of the effort required to copy out his or her words, to re-experience and more deeply absorb and imprint them upon my memory/soul.

You can’t rest an ipad in a comforting little tent on your chest as you lean back and muse. You can’t use an ipad as a makeshift pillow when you’re lying on the grass and decide to take a nap in the sun. You can’t prop up the leg of a desk, or hold down the corner of your beach towel when you run in to take a dip, or press leaves or ferns or wild violets between the pages of a kindle. You can’t surround yourself with e-books and thereby help make a cozy den redolent of civilization, the wisdom of the ages, God. And how are we to size up a potential friend if we can’t scan his or her bookshelves?

When I moved out of my apartment of 17 years last year, I put an ad on craigslist for free books and in a single day gave away 90% of the books that I’d been accumulating and carrying around since childhood. I felt like my head had been shorn, and yet, just as people say, books multiply. People give you books, you pick up books. I kept two or three boxes and now I have a glass-fronted three-shelf bookcase filled with books, and then there are the reference books, the cookbooks, the books of sheet music, the three or four or five teetering piles of books on the Chinese chest, the books on my bedside table, the books on the bed. All the better, I say. Books are friends. Books are companions. To those who say “We need to save the trees” I say, “We need to publish not fewer books, but less dreck.”

But the argument for e-books and against real books that leaves me truly cold is the one that says: You don’t have to lug books around any more! You don’t have to actually carry books or magazines. You don’t have to pack them, move them, feel the burden of their pesky, undesirable weight.

This to me is emblematic of a very unfortunate cultural idea that the goal is to free ourselves from what are actually the right kind of burdens.

We have old people who don’t want to be a “burden” to their children, children who don’t want to be a burden to their work-obsessed parents, a government that sees the sick, the poor, the mentally ill as burdens. We bypass the “burden” of peeling and chopping the beautiful root vegetable known as a carrot in favor of a bag of fake, uniformly-sized, tasteless, faux carrot nubs.  We have the “burden” of walking instead of driving. We have the burden of buying actual flowers instead of sending, I can hardly bear to type the word, an “e-flower.”

We should burden each other. That is what we’re here for. We should be willing to sweat and bleed a little for what we love, and for the writers who have laid down their lives in order to leave us their work.

Some of the happiest moments of my life have consisted in checking out books from the library, putting them in my little bag or pack, and walking them, rejoicing, home. The heavier the load, the more the prospective enjoyment, nourishment, delight, stimulation, companionship, connection with humanity, growth.

I remember reading James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late in my brother’s sweltering bedroom in Bangkok. I remember reading War and Peace in a wretched little pensione on the island of Syros, Greece. I remember reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer in my room at a writer’s residency in Woodside, California. I remember because the books were great literature, and I had gone to some trouble to bring and/or find them, and because they awoke something in me that can never quite be similarly awakened by anything I read on a screen.

The weight of the books I have carried, toted, lugged, moved in my life would come to the tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds.  But no way, not now and I pray not ever, am I ready for a “kindle.” 

Because I have never carried the books. The books have carried me. 

Monday, May 23, 2011


A word today about Magnificat, which has been my constant companion for many years. Magnificat is a handy little pocket-sized monthly magazine with the daily liturgy, an abbreviated form of Morning and Evening Prayer, two versions of Night Prayer, profiles of the saints, consistently gorgeous art work, a daily reflection, culled from far and wide, that I, for one, find invaluable, and much, much more.

Yesterday, I discovered to my surprise, that reflection was from me!

At the behest of a mutual friend, Father Peter Cameron, O.P., editor-in-chief., has signed me on to do several Lenten reflections, Advent reflections, and now a series of reflections on Luke.

Thank you, Fr. Cameron, for your beautifully-selected reflections that have enriched my life and for your whole great magazine. And thank you as well for crackerjack editor Andrew Matt!


Sunday, May 22, 2011


A few years ago a friend gave me a book called The Life of Christ in Woodcuts by James Reid--one of  "a host of maverick artists" from the early twentieth century" who "introduced the idea of the graphic novel, a story told exclusively with wood engravings." (from the back jacket).

Originally brought out in 1930, the book was republished in 2009 by Dover Press. Without using a single word, Reid manages to convey the whole story of Christ's birth, life, death, and resurrection.

One of my favorite cuts is when Christ was a young man and the other young people are pairing up, walking arm in arm around town, and he is watching from afar, and you can see the idea forming in his head...Oh that looks like so much fun. That looks really, really great! And somehow...that is not going to be for me....

Fellow wood engraver/graphic novelist Lynd Ward (1905-1985) apparently did a book called Vertigo--a subject that, if you have any feel for either, seems very much connected to the life of Christ....

Saturday, May 21, 2011


Here in Southern California, it's jacaranda, or apparently more accurately jacaranda mimosifolia, time.

A gentle veil of soft, deep purple has settled all up and down the residential streets. In the morning, you find your car covered in a thin shroud of purple. It laughs purple, weeps purple, wakes and sleeps purple.

Back in the early '90s, I worked for three years at a law office on the corner of Wilshire and Doheny in Beverly Hills. My principal emotion during those years was despair. One spring day I was in my boss's sixth floor office and as he nattered on about the motion for relief from default I was to write one more time because, one more time, he'd ignored a deadline, I glanced out his windows and saw that all the streets north of Wilshire were blanketed in purple. It was jacaranda time! There was poetry, beyond the prison walls there was life! It was perhaps the one truly happy moment of my career as an attorney.

Looking back, that may have been the first moment I  knew I had to leave.

Friday, May 20, 2011


"I feel that what people call by the word ‘scavenger’ is really a resurrection."
There are two kinds of people: those who think using other people's castoff belongings and wearing other people's old clothes is disgusting, and people like me: a die-hard, back-alley-rooting rag picker.

Scavenging isn't an isolated activity; it's a way of seeing and experiencing the world that is, or can be, basically ordered toward community. It springs from the idea that the more you're willing to step outside the lines, the more interesting things often appear. And the lower you're willing to go toward the bottom, the more layers of existence seem to open. fine, fine pickings, even in the midst of economic collapse. Last night, for example, I set out out for a nice jaunt to Vons for toilet paper when I came upon a big brown grocery bag of clothes on the curb by Parkman and Sunset. I dug right through, emerging with a cashmere Banana Republic hoodie in a fetching shade of orange, two T-shirts, a V-neck brown Gap jersey and two perfectly good pair of heavy socks.

Then I didn't have anything to carry them in the mile or two to the store so I walked down to the Tropical Café and started rooting around in the outside trash can for a plastic bag. "Just found some free clothes," I explained to the guy who was standing nearby, sucking on a cigarette. "Ask at the liquor store. He'll give ya a bag," he reported, so I went to the corner liquor store where a bunch of fellows who looked like they might have been "between jobs" for about a decade were hanging around watching a soccer game and scraping scratch cards, and sure enough the guy behind the counter gave me a plastic bag and off I happily went, marveling at the kindness of strangers.

On the way to Vons I nabbed a sprig of pink lantana from in front of the Jiffy Lube, and stopped to admire the tulip trees on the overpass above Myra, and then up near where Circuit City used to be fell in with a guy named John who collects plastic bottles and lives in an alley near Fountain and reported that there was a whole community of homeless folk there who play cards till midnight and when they have a particularly good week buy bus tickets and go to Vegas.

Collecting bottles so you can eat is of course a whole other deal than ferreting a Banana Republic hoodie back to your warm, safe room on the hill. But where the two worlds may intersect is in a sense of existential nostalgia and a deep fear of abandonment. For those of us solitary types to whom every moment of connection is extra precious, or who are so in touch with our loneliness that inanimate objects not only keep us company but often seem way safer and more predictable than humans, pieces of wire, pebbles, cardboard, stickers, castoff sweaters and small flowers can take on almost unimaginable significance.

In Raw Creation: Outsider Art and Beyond, John Maizels profiles many such folks and their amazing works of art.

Take John Mikovisch, a retired employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad who built the Beer Can House in Houston.


"At the hospital [Münsingen psychiatric clinic in Bern, Switzerland], [Heinrich Anton] Müller spent much time in a deep hole he had dug in the grounds, possibly in an effort to find solitude or privacy, but he was also active and inventive. He constructed a series of complex machines which were concerned with perpetual motion or simply with reducing gear ratios or creating energy for no apparent purpose.”


“Later in life [Willem] van Genk drifted away from painting. In the mid-1990s he remained reclusive, finding it difficult to leave his house for fear of hairdressers. Within his home he has constructed an imposing model of a tram station out of paper and cardboard, but it is strictly not for exhibition. He now concentrates on his large collection of plastic raincoats, replacing their buttons with a more imposing kind, and says he likes to feel that when he wears them he is protected by the different personalities he can adopt.” 


"When you put together things that other people have thrown out, you’re really bringing them to life – a spiritual life that surpasses the life for which they were originally created."

--Louise Nevelson

All you who are thirsty, come to the water! 
You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat;
Come, without paying and without cost,
drink wine and milk!

--Isaiah 55: 1

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


In God at the Ritz, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, priest, theologian, and physicist, shares a personal story about the spiritual peril that he calls “the reduction of desire:”

A student was driving him to a university building, a residence for priests, where he was to spend the night. They arrived and he spotted a parking space in front of the residence with a sign “Reserved for Residents,” which to his mind meant priest residents, however temporary. “Ah, parking right up front,” he observed. But to his surprise and consternation, she drove right by and proceeded to a public parking lot that seemed to a person of his bulk to be several miles away!

Clearly the distance was not a problem for her—she was thin and small and could easily cover that distance—but it was for me.

I said, “Look, did you see that parking place back there?” She replied, “Yes, but that’s for priest residents.” And I said, “Wait a minute! Number one, we’re just dropping off the luggage. Number two, I am a priest resident of this building tonight, so I have a right to it as a priest resident.” I continued, “So I think we have a right to park there.”

Monsignor Albacete acknowledged that his argument might have stretched the point.

“But what shocked me was that she wasn’t even attracted by it! She had no desire to park nearby. I told her, “You suffer from the reduction of desire.” Now my desire to park up front would be so great that I would look for the smallest justification in order to be able to do that. But she didn’t even struggle with this. She didn’t mind going miles away to park in the student lot.

My driver’s response to the parking situation is emblematic to me of the problem of the reduction of desire. She didn’t park up front because the educational system, with its laws and punishments for breaking the law, had drilled into her that she should accept her spot as a student and not have ambition that might be beyond her rightful place in society. That is how power remains in power—by reducing our desire.”
Human beings always trump ideals, ideas, theories, and abstractions. Friendship always trumps politics. The spirit of the law always trumps the letter of the law.

And the Eucharist always, always, always, trumps everything. 


Tuesday, May 17, 2011


"The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star."
--Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du Gout, 1825

I am headed back to L.A. tomorrow.

I find myself craving, rather badly, a beef roll from the 101 Noodle Express.

The first time I went to the 101, with my friend Ron, we each grabbed a beef roll, gnawed off a huge bite, chewed, and then our eyes glazed over, a hush descended upon the table, and neither of us spoke for a full minute. Then finally, one of us breathed, "Oh my God." And the other said, "You are kidding me, right?" and then we both said together, "That is the most delicious thing I have ever tasted. "

Here's how L.A.'s own über food writer, the great Jonathan Gold, describes the beef roll: "a steroidal composition of fried Chinese pancakes, cilantro and great fistfuls of thinly sliced meat wetted with sweet bean sauce and formed into something like a Chinese burrito the size of your arm. A specialty of Shandong, half a day’s drive north of Beijing, a proper beef roll may be big enough to feed a family of four but is also oddly delicate; it may taste of crisped pastry and clean oil but also projects the muscular minerality of the braised meat. The San Gabriel Valley boasts many good beef rolls, but the best are generally acknowledged to come from 101 Noodle Express, a cramped, narrow storefront adjoining a shuttered bowling alley, a place whose general dinginess tends to keep away a lot of the people who might enjoy the beef rolls, the pumpkin-shrimp dumplings, and the cold noodles with cucumber and bean sauce."

Dingy, shuttered bowling alley, oil...If that doesn't send you scurrying at the soonest possible opportunity to 1408 E. Valley Blvd. Alhambra 91801, I throw up my hands.

First you get yourself a tasty order of pumpkin and shrimp dumplings. Then you get the beef roll (one order comprises two rolls, each of which unless you are a COMPLETE hog, easily makes a meal).

Then you find some hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, order a Vietnamese coffee, and talk about movies, books, the next great meal, death, and life in glorious, maddening Los Angeles.  

Monday, May 16, 2011


One of my favorite places here at the Marianist novitiate in Dayton is the garden mere steps from my door. One of the brothers created a magical place with enclosures and benches made of twigs and hung with derelict chandeliers, rusty crosses, wire birdcages, chimes, and long strands of beads, marbles, and glass balls that he calls "lightcatchers."

"Education can help us only if it produces “whole men.” The truly educated man is not a man who knows a bit of everything, not even the man who knows all the details of all the subjects (if such a thing were possible): the “whole man,” in fact, may have little detailed knowledge of facts and theories but he will be truly in touch with the centre. He will not be in doubt about his basic convictions, about his view on the meaning and purpose of his life. He may not be able to explain these matters in words, but the conduct of his life will show a sureness of touch which stems from his inner clarity."

--E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful