Sunday, October 30, 2011


WALKER EVANS,  circa 1935-1936

… Here I must say, a little anyhow: what I can hardly hope to bear out in the record: that a house of simple people which stands empty and silent in the vast Southern country morning sunlight, and everything which on this morning in eternal space it by chance contains, all thus left open and defenseless to a reverent and cold-laboring spy, shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence, as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive, far less impart to another: that there can be more beauty and more deep wonder in the standings and spacings of mute furnishings on a bare floor between the squaring bourns of walls than in any music ever made: that this square home, as it stands in unshadowed earth between the winding years of heaven, is, not to me but of itself, one among the serene and final, uncapturable beauties of existence: that this beauty is made between hurt but invincible nature and the plainest cruelties and needs of human existence in this uncured time, and is inextricable among these, and as impossible without them as a saint born in paradise.

--From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee (text) and Walker Evans (photographs)
For more on the Gudger Mantel: Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, by Errol Morris

no object was removed, added, or arranged
on the right is a Baroque Madonna from The Cloisters, NY...

Thursday, October 27, 2011



I am reading Baron Friedrich von Hügel's Letters to A Niece (battered library copy)  The baron (1852-1927) loved the Church, TOTALLY got that the Church is a trial, that it is glorious and a cross, that it COSTS.

Because of which, he also says you should almost discourage people from converting because if you try to persuade them and they’re not ready it can be disastrous. They leave forever or become lukewarm.

I myself  have never entertained the slightest hope of converting, or even real desire to convert, anyone. Though at the same time I of course wish with all my heart that everyone would be converted. I just know beyond the shadow of a doubt it would not be through me. All I can do is say I love Christ, I love his Church, which has revealed himself to be the center of everything. I don’t have to justify or defend or promote, which is good because I wouldn’t know how to.

Anyway Baron von Hügel says, more or less, continue on as you are. Give everything you have to being the best Buddhist or Hindu or agnostic or whatever you can be...

Some excerpts from his letters:

"God has never left the world in complete and groping darkness; all religions contain some light from God. They are all from him. It is an awful idea that souls who cannot have known Our Lord should be debarred from God. None of the saints have believed that"…

"The most subtle enemy of religion is humanitarianism. If Christianity is true, there must be abiding consequences. We can’t get rid of it, it’s all in the Gospels. Our Lord speaks of it several times. His message is an immense warning to us here and now, a terrific alternative. You must see that. If you read the Gospels and give that up, I don’t know what you see."

"Sometimes I ask myself—the wisest, deepest men I have known—are they not all Roman Catholics? Yes, they are…You can’t be a Roman for nothing. There is a tension here, a heroism, an other-worldliness. If you don’t feel it, then it’s your fault. There must be some change in you."

"The touching, entrancing beauty of Christianity, my Niece, depends upon a subtle something which all this fastidiousness ignores. Its greatness, its special genius, consists, as much as in anything else, in that it is without this fastidiousness. A soul that is, I do not want to say tempted, but dominated, by such fastidiousness, is as yet only hovering round the precincts of Christianity, but it has not entered its sanctuary, where heroism is always homely, where the best always acts as a stimulus towards helping towards being (in a true sense) but one of the semi-articulate, bovine, childish, repulsively second-third-fourth-rate crowd. So it was with Jesus himself; so it is with Francis the Povorello; so it is with every soul that has fully realized the genius of the Christian paradox. When I told you of my choking emotion in reading, in St. John’s Gospel, that scene of Jesus, the Light of the World (that He is this, is an historic fact), as the menial servant at the feet of these little foolish fishermen and tax-gatherers, what do you think moved me but just that huge, life-and-love-bringing paradox, here in its fullest activity? The heathen philosophies, one and all, failed to get beyond your fastidiousness; only Christianity got beyond it; only Christianity. But I mean a deeply, costingly realized, Christianity—got beyond it: Gwen will, some day, get beyond it. It is, really, a very hideous thing; the full, truly free, beauty of Christ alone completely liberates us from this miserable bondage."

(the angels got him out!)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Years ago, my ex-husband and I were driving to Tucson on an especially desolate stretch of the 10 when suddenly this big old pale yellow Mercury shot off the freeway and landed upside down in the creosote. We pulled over and a bunch of other people did, too, and inside was this wizened wiry dude who looked like he'd spent his life in a honky-tonk and it turned out was coming back from Vegas. The guys inched him out: cowboy hat crushed, blood running down his hands and face. And he sat there on the ground in the blazing sun, took a sip of water, shook his head--we were all amazed he wasn't dead--looked up, half in wonder, half in exasperation--and asked, What next?"

The sky was horribly dark, but one could distinctly see tattered clouds, and between them fathomless black patches. Suddenly I noticed in one of these patches a star, and began watching it intently. That was because that star had given me an idea: I decided to kill myself that night.
--Dostoevsky, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Charles Warren Eaton: "Bruges Moonlight" (1910)

“We gaze with perplexity at the highest part of the spiral of force that governs the Universe. And we call it God.

We could give it any other name: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Total Light, Matter, Spirit, Supreme Hope, Supreme Despair, Silence.

But we call it God, because only this name – for some mysterious reason – is capable of making our heart tremble with vigor.

And let there be no doubt that this trembling is absolutely indispensable for us to be in contact with the basic emotions of the human being."

—Nikos Kazantzakis (1883 - 1957)
T. Samuel Palmer: "Cornfield by Moonlight with Evening Star"

The Moment
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.

No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.

—Margaret Atwood

Courtesy of

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Caryll Houselander (1901-1954) was a British mystic, poet and spiritual teacher who wore a pair of big round tortoiseshell glasses, and lived in London during the Blitz, and her whole life, till she died at 53 from breast cancer, apparently barely slept or ate. A friend observed: “She used to cover her face with some abominable chalky-white substance which gave it quite often a the tragic look one associates with clowns and great comedians.”

From the dustjacket of her 1951 book Guilt: “Caryll Houselander lives on the top floor of a high apartment building. Her rooms are color-washed, bare but for the essential furniture, many books, and two or three gleaming ikons: the windows look out on a view of the city. As well as writing, Miss Houselander’s interests include working with children, wood carving, drawing and painting, and the study of Jungian psychology, Hebrew, and Russian spirituality.”

How can you not want to meet this woman?

Guilt has several short (3-4 page) reflections, plus grainy black-and-white  pulsatingly weird head shots of, among others, Leopold and Loeb, Peter Kürten  (the Monster of Düsseldorf), Hans Christian Andersen, Rimbaud, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Rilke, who according to Caryll, did not fulfill his potential, neglected his wife and daughter, and turned into a mooch of rich dowager benefactresses to whom he could, eventually, no longer deign to speak, merits no photo at all. Kafka’s photo is heartbreaking. He’s probably 4, and has been dressed in a vaguely military velvet pantsuit. In his left hand he clutches a broad-brimmed hat many sizes too large for his head, in his right he carries a kind of plume-topped baton, and he has been made to stand before one of those dreadful aspidistra-draped Victorian backdrops. His little feet are smartly shod in pumps with grosgrain bows, one tiny elbow rests awkwardly on a plant stand,  his hair is neatly parted in the middle, exactly as it is in that photo on the front of Collected Letters where he looks uncannily like an insect, and the eyes—the eyes whose depths are already suffused with the pain of the ineffective mother and the father who all his life he would loathe, fear, resent and adore—plead mutely, desperately, without hope, for help.

Caryll swore, drank, had an affinity for wounded children (her own childhood was nightmarish), was a Catholic convert, and wrote many books on spirituality, among them The Reed of God, A Rocking-Horse Catholic, and The Risen Christ.

"[Christ] did not teach in terms of right and wrong, but of joy and sorrow. Blessed…joyful, are the poor in spirit; woe, sorrow, to you rich. The only answer to the mechanical masses [i.e. the attractive, healthy, energetic, let’s-get-things-done folks] is the saint, for the saint is the only true individual, and in him we see Christ, and see His values, not as something forced on us by school teachers, but as something to envy.
Take St. Francis of Assisi, whom the whole world, not Catholics only, thinks of in connection with poverty. He lived in an age as worldly as ours; times change, but human nature never. St. Francis changed the outlook and the lives of countless people, not by scolding them, but by showing them, not by being a reformer, but by being a poor little man in love with all created loveliness. The reason is so simple: he reflected on Christ, on whom his eyes were fixed; and when he lifted up his arms in ecstasy to receive his Lord’s wounds in his own body, the shadow that he cast on the white roads of Italy was the cruciform shadow of Christ."

--Caryll Houselander, from the novel The Dry Wood:

"[The grain of wheat] must be buried in earth, that is, in us, who are made from the earth. The seed of Christ is not buried in angels, but in men. It is to flower and bear fruit through human experience: through our loves, our work, our sorrows, our joys, our temptations. It is to be literally our living and our dying.
We are the soil of the divine seed; there is no other. The flowering of Christ in us does not depend upon pious exercises, on good works outside our daily life, on an amateur practice of religion in our leisure time. It is in the marrow of our bones, in the experience of our daily life.
The seed is in darkness: the darkness of sorrow, the darkness of faith."
--Caryll Houselander, from I don't know where


From That Divine Eccentric, Maisie Ward's autobiography of Houselander:*

"The sure cure for bitterness, Caryll comments, is to pray and do penance for the person: love will grow in proportion. “It is not according to how much penance I do or how many prayers I say, but how much love I put into it.”

In a little country church she heard a priest preach on the Eucharist—and his teaching seemed somehow the more memorable because he was hideously ugly—resembling, said Caryll, “a florid pig.” He died a few weeks later. “Between the sermon and his death I was one day talking to him. I was running someone down, saying beastly things of him. Suddenly I noticed that his eyes were shut. “You are not listening,’ I said. He replied, ‘I cannot—not to that; you see we are both present at the Mass. Whilst you were trying to make me think ill of X, Christ our Lord was offering Himself up to God to redeem them’”

“But we are not at Mass,” I said…and he said, “When your thoughts are hard or bitter or sad, let the sanctuary bell silence them. It is always ringing.”

“When you have done something really healing,” she wrote to a friend, “it happens so often that the only way you know it at first is by your own feeling of emptiness. Even Our Lord experienced this; when the woman who touched the hem of His garment was healed, He knew it by the sense of something having gone out of Him, an emptying ‘[power] has gone out of Me.’

It is the same for His followers—we know the moment of healing, not yet evident, not by exaltation and triumph but by emptiness and a sense of failure! That demands huge faith, but you have it!”

By the “huge faith” required of us she meant the faith that we can throw ourselves totally on Christ. But even He needed to pray to His Father in a desert place apart; to commune with His special friends, His Apostles; to leave the crowd that thronged and pressed around Him for their healing—and from curiosity. As members of Christ’s Mystical Body we owe to our fellows what help we can give them, but we do not owe to them neglect of our work, or our prayer, of others who may need us more. We do not owe our time to those who want merely to waste it. If Caryll had attempted to help everybody who came, she would have ended by helping nobody."

* Apparently That Divine Eccentric  is out of print. I first checked it out of the L.A. Public Library, then last year the very kind Tom Sullivan of NYC gave me a paperback, red cover, published by Sheed and Ward (London) (Maisie Ward was married to Frank Sheed; together, they formed Sheed and Ward), copyright 1962.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011



Word on Fire is running an excerpt today from my new book Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux.

Here's the link.

Here's another excerpt I recently ran myself.

And  here's a reflection on hope from Richard Rohr:


Christians indeed have a strange image of God: a naked, bleeding man, dying on a cross. It’s not what you would think the image of God could be or should be. Is God eccentric here, or is it we who have not diagnosed the human situation correctly?

Jesus receives our hatred and does not return it. He suffers and does not make the other suffer. He does not first look at changing others, but pays the price of change within himself. He absorbs the mystery of human sin rather than passing it on. He does not use his suffering and death as power over others to punish them, but as power for others to transform them. He includes and forgives the sinner instead of hating him, which would only continue the pattern of hate. Amazing that people cannot see that!

It’s interesting that Jesus identifies forgiveness with breathing (John 20: 22-23), the one thing that you have done constantly since you were born and will do until you die. He says God’s forgiveness is like breathing. Forgiveness is not apparently something God does; it is who God is. God can do no other.

Adapted from Hope Against Darkness:
The Transforming Vision of Saint Francis in an Age of Anxiety, pp. 27, 30-31, by Richard Rohr

Monday, October 17, 2011


Fr. Robert Barron has invited me to come to Chicago on November 14 and speak at a "Day of Recollection" for the Word on Fire Ministries staff.

Check out Fr. Barron's new book Catholicism (includes photos of Cologne Cathedral, the young Karl Wojtlya, Botticelli's "The Madonna of the Pomegranate" and more).

Also,  tomorrow, October 18, 2011, I'll be on the Ave Maria Radio show "Kresta in the Afternoon," from 4:20-4:50 EST.


Sunday, October 16, 2011


Photographer Norris Archer Harrington works in and around L.A..

You can see more of Norris's fine photos at his gallery here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


The other day I read that Mother Teresa had her daughter Missionaries of Charity wash each morning with a sliver of soap from a bar that had been divided six ways and brush their teeth with cold ashes from the stove. I am SO with her! Think of the yearly toothpaste savings (though realizing them would take awhile as I would first have to buy a stove, I guess wood to burn in it, and a house to put it in).

This in turn put me in mind of dental floss, the cost of which has long been a personal pet peeve. What is the stuff spun by eunuch silkworms? It's THREAD, for heaven's sake! Tell me three hundred yards doesn't cost about .00008 cents! Tell me the inventor of Glide isn't sitting in a Frank Lloyd Wright mansion with their own personal in-house dentist, laughing his or her way to the bank while we saw away with our overpriced length of cheap cotton down below...

But it was while trolling the aisles of Rite-Aid recently that an outrageous markup, an unconscionable profit margin, a staggering cost of daily life to which I had hitherto given scant thought was borne in upon me. I refer of course to toilet paper. $8.69 plus (almost10%) tax for 12 rolls of Simplify, the cheapest brand on the shelf. Are they hand-pressing the stuff from Egyptian papyrus?

There has got to be a cheaper way, I thought, and  came right home and googled "industrial toilet paper."  Maybe I could go with those gigantic rolls they have in airports and office buildings, I mused. Of course since your TP wouldn't fit in a regular holder you'd just have to let it sit there on the floor dripping water on it as you got out of the shower and also, if someone came to visit, reveal you're insane, but I've gone to greater lengths than that to save a buck.

Anyway, who knew there's a whole world out there of janitorial supplies? On Cleanit, for example, you can buy 60 rolls of Scott Extra Soft for $48.86, 10 4-packs of Charmin Ultra Soft for $36.94, or--this last really caught my eye--24 rolls of Windsoft 2-ply "Recycled" for $11.76.

I must say, though, the description gave me pause: "Premium wrapper adds an upscale touch to any facility. Brighter and whiter...Safe for sewer and septic systems. Individually wrapped...Softer and more absorbent toilet tissue provides 'at-home quality'. Meets EPA guidelines for post-consumer content. 40% post-consumer waste content"...

"Post-consumer waste content"? Is it made from other people's...? GROSS! Probably all TP is, and probably half our food, but if so I REALLY don't want to know. More to the point, 60 rolls of Scott weigh 16 pounds and cost $9.90 UPS ground to ship, thereby more or less offsetting any savings.

Again, Mother Teresa was ahead of the curve as apparently people in India often just use their hand.

I'm not quite ready for that. But I did happen upon the wikipedia entry for toilet paper which is highly entertaining and contains some atypical "personal opinion"; to wit: "Toilet paper is a soft paper product (tissue paper) used to maintain personal hygiene after human defecation or urination. However, it can also be used for other purposes such as blowing one's nose when one has a cold or absorbing common spills around the house, although paper towels are more used for this particular purpose."

What??! People don't use toilet paper to absorb common spills! They use their shirt sleeve or the hem of their hoodie!

Anyway, you can also learn on this wiki entry about hygiene during the Tang Dynasty; the use of wool, hemp, lace (!), sand, seaweed, and corncobs as TP substitutes; ply, pattern, dispensers, and the Whole World Toilet Paper Museum.

So there's my latest budget-tip foray. Writing it up was much more fun than looking for a job.

Here's a money-making idea: "Art" prints.
This one is called Two Desiccated Leaves on an Oil-Stained Sidewalk
Two Leaves and a Sneaker
Call the Ambulance 

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Jane Brox grew up in Massachusetts' Merrimac Valley, now lives in Maine and has written a number of wonderful books (Here and Nowhere Else; Five Thousand Days Like This One).

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, begins like this. 

"Although fire has blazed in hearths and flared from pine torches for half a million years, the earliest known stone lamps--fashioned by Ice Age humans during the Pleistocene--are no more than forty thousand years old...Often the lamps were merely unworked flat slabs of limestone, or limestone with natural cavities for the nubs of tallow--animal fat--that had to be replenished every hour...

Eighteen thousand years ago, while above [the cave painters at Lascaux] herds funneled through valleys on their way to the plains near the coast, people ventured far beyond the reach of day--working their way down through stone corridors and twisting through narrows--to draw from memory on the limestone walls and ceilings"...[In 1960, explorers discovered] "a spoon-shaped lamp carved of red sandstone...The lamp possesses a refined beauty: its maker created a perfectly symmetrical bowl, polished the sandstone smooth, and incised the handle with chevrons...Hold it again as it once was held, and the animals will emerge out of the darkness as you pass. Nothing stays still. Shadows nestle in the cavities; a flicker of light across pale protruding rock turns a hoof or raises a head. One shape recedes as another emerges, and everything lingers in the imagination."

She moves up through wicks (originally made of juniper twigs or moss), candles, lanterns ("Time of Dark Streets"), lighthouses, and gaslight.  

Back in the day, streets were perpetually dark, allowing thiefs, hustlers, and prostitutes to roam freely, and also affording cover for the private emotions that play over our faces and eyes when we know nobody's looking. Artificial light changed all that:

"Gaslight also transformed the crowds walking the streets: darting eyes, staring eyes, averted hooded eyes; myriad sounds and colors; confinement and freedom—all became illuminated. What was a walker but “a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness” [quoting Baudelaire], according the street a soul, according it the power to take one’s own away?"

From anthropologist Walter Hough: “The Eskimo have no phrase expressing a greater degree of misery than ‘a woman without a lamp.’ After the death of a woman her lamp is placed upon her grave.”

photo: National Film Board of Canada
Little-known fact:

"Historian A. Roger Ekirch discovered that medieval villagers slept in a different way than modern people. Each night, they experienced divided sleep. They would go to bed soon after sundown, sleep for four or five hours—this was called 'first sleep'—and then wake up an hour or two after midnight. Some people inevitably took advantage of the early-morning hours to get out of bed and work: students bent over their books; women did housework they couldn’t get to during the day. Some even visited neighbors or slipped out of the house to steal firewood or rob an orchard. It was a good time for sex. But frequently people would lie quietly in bed, resting or talking, before they fell back into a lighter, dream-filled sleep—called 'second sleep'—that lasted until sunrise. The quiet, free time in the small hours would have been dearly valued in a society where the days were filled with labor and obligation.
Divided sleep, Ekirch notes, began to slip away as artificial light increased"…

Perhaps nowhere does Brox get more at the "ecstatic truth" of light than in this passage about Van Gogh's The Café Terrace on the Place du ForumArles, at Night:

"The glow of gaslight washes the walls of the café and its canopy roof...[b]ut beyond the terrace, the dark increases quickly, and stars glitter in the gaps between buildings. Present-day astrophysicist Charles Whitney suggests that van Gogh 'has overpopulated the small patch of sky in view of the interference that might be expected from the café lights.' And van Gogh himself once insisted, 'I should be desperate if my figures were correct…I do not want them to be academically correct…My great longing is to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodelings, changes in reality, so that they may become yes, lies if you like –but truer than literal truth.' ”  

Oh! Those who don’t believe in the sun…are real infidels! 
The sun, light in the darkness, light that brightens nature and people, light that calls the dead from their graves. 
Those who have eyes to see will recognize that all light comes from the same sun.”
--Vincent van Gogh, Letters to Theo

Sunday, October 9, 2011


this is neither tuscan kale nor hmong rapini look-alike but some kind of
super bok choy type foodstuff....
The other morning I was in the shower when suddenly I thought: I bet people wonder what I eat. No? Well, I'm gonna tell ya anyway: Tuscan kale and pasta.

I don't mean every meal! That would leave no room for the spoon-size shredded wheat and raisins or single poached egg on toast for breakfast, nor the salad of 99-cent store spring mix and shaved carrots for lunch, nor the tonnage of dried sweetened mango, roasted almonds, Ak-Mak crackers, French Line plain yogurt, cheese and coffee that sustain me for the rest of the day.

I just mean four or five meals a week, if I get to the Silver Lake Farmer's Market on Saturday, that is, where I purchase a couple of bunches of greens: maybe that Hmong rapini-lookalike with yellow flowers ($1), maybe a Tuscan kale ($1.50). And then Monday (and Wednesday or Thursday) afternoon around 2, after I have feverishly written all morning, working myself into a state of catatonic excitement and/or despair, I proceed as follows--in a way you may or may not be moved to get on board with, too.

First you put on the water for the pasta and cut the greens, just three slashes with a big knife and throw them into a frying pan in which you've heated a generous amount of hot olive oil and saute them over fairly high heat till they start to almost burn a bit. Then you throw on a third or so of a blue, yellow, and white Talavera coffee cup of water and put your housemate's screen thing over the top cause it'll splatter. Meanwhile you mince up a couple of cloves of garlic and three or four anchovies. Now if you're one of those people who when you hear the word "anchovy," respond ECCCHHHH, I will still be your friend, but I really don't know what to say other than that I'll pray for you.

Then you throw in a third of a package or so of linguine or fettucine or penne and, after the water's all absorbed from the saute pan, shove the greens up aside against the far side, heat an additional small puddle of olive oil and saute the garlic and anchovies, mashing up the latter. (You can add some dried hot red pepper here as well. This is from one of the Chez Panisse cookbooks and I think their recipe incorporates red wine vinegar, too, but I don't).

Drain the pasta, put a giant serving in a big bowl, add a little butter, heap on some greens, salt, ground pepper,  if you're feeling flush, which I, for one, have definitely not as of late, grate over some real Parmigiana and if not, sprinkle over some of the vastly inferior but not entirely grotesque shaved Parm or Parmagiana-Romano mixture from Trader Joe's, and Bob's your uncle.

Afterward, I like to take a nice long walk around the hilly streets of Silver Lake, pondering God's infinite bounty and the unsolvable problems of life, heart, and writing that cropped up that day.

In this way, I keep my food bill down to approximately $23.87 a week, leaving lots of spare change for the Sunset Boulevard panhandlers, drunks and psychotics who brighten my existence.

Bon appetit!

You can buy the big can at Jon's (Armenian market) for 6.99!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


A climber "enjoying the superb glue-like ice
smeared over the Glen Nevis Mica Schist " [Scotland], 2/3/2010
Now HE needs a friend!
photo: Rob Jarvis

“New Atheist” Sam Harris tells the story of a scientist who, while hiking in the Cascade Mountains, came upon a frozen waterfall and was so overwhelmed that the next morning he fell “to his knees in the dewy grass” and gave himself to Jesus. “That’s psychotic,” was Harris’s response. My response was: Come on, Sam, bad poetry doesn’t make a person psychotic!

I've often maintained I became a Catholic because I was looking for the truth, but maybe the real reason I became a Catholic was that I needed a friend. When your ship is going down, you don’t need a person “engaged in the rational pursuit of evidence-based spiritual knowledge”: you need a friend. When your car has just crashed—and as a human being, my car has always just crashed, or is about to—you don’t need a “New Atheist”: you need a friend.

I wonder if the hunger to have a friend and to be a friend, in fact, is not the basis of all true religion. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends…I have called you friends,” Christ said. (John 15: 13-15).

As a Catholic, that’s really what I’m saying. I'm saying, Christ laid down his life for me, and I want to be willing to lay down mine back. I'm saying, Help me be willing to lay down mine back, because I’m so out for myself, so cowardly, so weak. I'm saying, Help me be a good friend, because I so easily forget that everyone else wants a friend, too.
Here’s the truly Good News of Jesus: I don’t hate myself anymore, and I don’t hate you. Every time I come across a rant by Christopher Hitchens, for example, I want to say, “Chris baby, put down the booze and come join the human race!” Harris is the same way, without even the booze as a redeeming factor: no sense of humor and a bully. That’s no life. Believe whatever you want, that goes without saying, but whatever you believe, it’s got to at least give you the balls to do work you love, and make you marginally happy to the point where, if nothing else, you can laugh at yourself.

Anybody can laugh at other people.

But to be able to laugh at yourself--that's "God."

"Even then my life was gloomy, untidy, and barbarously solitary. I had no friends, and even avoided
speaking to people, retreating further and further into my corner"...
--Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground 

Monday, October 3, 2011


FR. DAMIEN (1840-1889), CANONIZED 2009

Feel free to check out my new book--SHIRT OF FLAME-- wherein I "walk" with St. Therese for a year and discover all kinds of unsavory, I mean profoundly interesting things, about myself, the world, and you.

An excerpt:

Just as in the Gospels, in “real life” the Resurrection is patchy, ephemeral, incapable of being held onto. Just as in the Gospel of Luke—when on the road to Emmaus the disciples recognized Christ in the breaking of bread, and he immediately vanished from their sight—an authentic story, such as Thérèse’s, describes our moments of joy and our epiphanies on earth as fleeting. An authentic story imparts the sense that—just as Christ is described post-Resurrection in the Gospels—sometimes we “see” him, sometimes we don’t; sometimes we recognize him in the flesh; sometimes we experience him more as spirit. That’s another reason Christ instituted a church: so that the whole broken lot of us could gather around the table, throw our talents, gifts, stories, wounds—healed and unhealed—into the pot, and together create something unexpected, strange, and new.

If the Church was revealing to me my poverty, increasingly, the Church was also revealing to me the hidden, mysterious dimension in people and things. One night, walking from 24-Hour Fitness to the Pio-Pico Library, a familiar figure arose from the shadows: Gene, the homeless guy who hung around St. Basil’s; Gene, who smoked a pipe and thought the CIA had tapped into his brain; Gene, who wore a heavy down parka even on the hottest summer days, standing in the light of a street lamp.

“We’ve been friends for a long time,” he began.

“Yes we have, Gene,” I agreed.

“I was wondering if you might have a dollar and a quarter for the bus.”

My wallet was in my gym bag, so I set my books and purse on the ground and started rummaging through.

“I don’t want to put you out now,” Gene added gently. “I know you may be on a budget.”

“No, that’s okay, I have it.” I dug out a couple of bucks, handed them over, and bent to gather up my things.

“Take your time,” he offered gallantly. “I’m gonna stand right here and protect you.” I straightened and we stood for a moment: two fragile, weary human beings, face to face, in the shadowy light. I suddenly realized that Gene—teeth stained brown with nicotine, reeking of B.O.—was the first person I’d talked to all day. Gene—a beggar concerned about my budget—had shown me more tenderness than any male had in a long time.

“Oh Gene, that is so nice,” I said and, turning to leave, instinctively blew him a kiss. I kissed a leper, I thought wonderingly all the way home. That was like the conversion of St. Francis of Assisi when he kissed the leper.

To see the leper in someone else is of course to get deeply in touch with the leper in yourself. Will anyone see my writing? I sometimes thought. Is this the way to spend my life? Then I’d realize that Thérèse’s dryness must have made her, too, sometimes wonder whether she should have traveled about the world spreading the word of God; whether she should have been a doctor, a missionary, a social reformer; whether she’d made a mistake by cloistering herself in an undistinguished, obscure convent.

“Failure, then failure! so the world stamps us at every turn,” observed William James. “A process so ubiquitous and everlasting is evidently an integral part of life.” “There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert,” added Robert Louis Stevenson. “Whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted.”

So take heart: All ye losers of the world, unite! To fail is to participate in the richness and fullness of life; to fail in the short run is the way of Christ. We don’t want to fail; we don’t strive to fail. But to succeed all the time would lead to a different kind of hell. To feel constant consolation would derogate the need to seek God.

When a person dies whose existence has been all comfort and ease, we might be envious of the comfort, but we also sense that he or she has missed some essential point. When someone dies who has suffered, on the other hand, we might feel compassion, or pity, or even that the person brought the suffering upon him or herself. But we also think: Ah—that person lived.


Help me to refrain from lashing out at others when I’m feeling that everything I’ve worked for has come to naught.
Help me to remember that Christ himself died the most ignominious of deaths, his life’s work an apparent failure.
Help me to rejoice in the prosperity and success of those around me.
Help me not to be afraid of the leper in myself and others.
Help me to see that the only success lies in seeking Christ.
Help Gene.


Saturday, October 1, 2011


Yesterday I caught a 7:35 a.m. train at Union Station.


My voyage on the northbound Surfliner was lovely.

 I have made it to the little coastal town of Shell Beach where I am communing with the pelicans, seagulls and seals, and being treated like royalty by my friend/host Toni Quinn.

A weekend treat: Flannery O'Connor herself reading her iconic story: "A Good Man is Hard to Find."