Sunday, April 29, 2012


Recently I had occasion to drive through downtown L.A. on the 110 South during rush hour. Traffic was at a standstill, a thick layer of smog shrouded us hapless motorists, and just as I was starting to sink into despair I thought to get out my camera.

There were many items along the left shoulder: lots of clothing (are people having sex while driving?), an aluminum extension ladder, a drawer pull.


with ghostly hand.
I was on my way to the Century Regional Detention Center in Watts where I go from time to time to talk to the gals who are incarcerated there.

The next week I drove to another jail: Twin Towers in downtown L.A. Having arrived early, I  took a stroll around the adjacent streets (Vignes, Alameda, several cul de sacs), again checking out the bridges and tunnels that may not look like much, but if you were in a fetid windowless lock-down communal "pod" for a day or month or years, would probably appear pretty damn sweet.



Saturday, April 28, 2012


photo: Man Walking Across Como Bridge
Scott Maxworthy, 2008
Fom a new friend and a previously unpublished poet.

A little background:

I wrote this a week after my friend Brinsley died. It turned out that Brinsley was his middle name but he liked having the name of a [well-known Irish] playwright. He always wanted to be a writer and found his niche in performance poetry in the last few years before he was diagnosed with cancer.

He had a tough time at boarding school, he told me once. He was an on again off again smoker and was cremated in South London in West Norwood. He was a friend who I got closest to towards the end of his life.

He had mild tremors that persisted through almost two decades of sobriety. Cuchulain, the Irish equivalent of Hercules, was wounded in battle and tied himself to wooden post so that he could fight on to his last breath, the way you would. The jagged man is a reference to the hunger strikers who were from that same part of Northern Ireland as Brinsley was.

Philip McGrade has written one poem, one short story, one movie, for one TV show, and is wrestling with one memoir.

Poem for Brinsley Sheridan

I resented
your occasional criticism
and mistook your
quest for safety
for weakness.

We stopped teasing you
about feeling left out
when you got ill.

These last few years
 you loved your life
 in a way given to few.

You had triumphed then
over boarding school
and a start rich in disappointment
and that sense of unfairness
that dogs us all.

Not even the promise
of a cancer death
at fifty three
could dull the
you’d found.

In the end
you returned
to your Irish roots
facing death
like Cuchulain
and leaving the jagged
corpse of a man who would not eat.

On a sunny April Wednesday
in West Norwood
you finally stopped shaking
and smoked your last.

In a photo that shows
one of the endless
permutations of facial hair
you favoured,
you look down from my wall.

As I struggle
to write a new poem
for a dead poet,
you’re down by the river
a hint of a smile
from the other side of the bridge.

-- by Philip McGrade

Thursday, April 26, 2012


From my friend Christine in Palm Springs:

"Girls, I just made a great salad. You chop up fresh pineapple, avocado and jicama. Add some red or green onions and chopped cilantro. Make a lime vinaigrette and toss it. You could probably add peppers, too, to spice it up. It's really a refreshing salad for summer. xoxo Christine"

From Fr. Bob Cook, OFM Conv.,

"Regarding Flannery and her view of dogma, I think you will find a lot of similarities between her thought and that of Benedict XVI-- primarily because they are both heavily influenced by the theology of Romano Guardini. Some call him B16's favorite theologian.... Regarding Flannery, her library had more of Guardini's books than any other theologian/philosopher and he was second only to Francois Mauriac in number of volumes. My MA thesis was an attempt to prove that "The Enduring Chill" was a literary application of Guardini's theology of dogma...

"The Enduring Chill" is the one with Asbury-- Dogma shows up when Father Finn verbally bludgeons him with the Baltimore Catechism, screaming "you are an ignorant conceited boy!"...  classic!  The interesting thing is that dogma has the precise effect on Asbury that Guardini says it should-- and she was reading and recommending Guardini on dogma at the time that she is writing the story. Too cool!

There has been a lot written on the mother/daughter dynamic in her stories ("Everything That Rises Must Converge" is one of the most painful stories I've ever read).  The magnum opus of Flannery lit crit is R. Neil Scott's compilation "Flannery O'Connor:  An Annotated Reference Guide to Criticism", which has a whole bunch of stuff on mother-child relationships in her fiction."

From my friend Ben, father of one of my god-daughters:

"Potty time is still a work in progress. They pee great but they save up their poops for nap time and bed time.

Lately Lydia thinks everything is boring. I put her in her booster seat for her snack yesterday and she said "Not this room, I don't like this room." I said "What room?" and she said "This house. It's BORING!

She has also become a big fan of Dora the Explorer. And she has taken to singing/chanting "Bubbles, bubbles in the sink" when she washes her hands."

From Andrew Matt of Magnificat, whose remarks on Flannery O'Connor, the Pope, and dogma I posted Wednesday:

You’re one-of-a-kind, kiddo, so full of surprises, so full of penetrating insights, unfurling such a cornucopia of glory on your blog all the time (I just can’t WAIT to watch the Forugh Farrokhzād video you posted a couple days ago!), that it’s really TOO MUCH in the best possible meaning of the phrase, namely, a real Catholic universality of human experience (I love that the word Catholic means reflecting the whole [kata + holos = about the whole]).

In other words, (and please pardon that last pendantic little etymological foray; I just go nuts sometimes over the beauty of roots and rhizomes and such), what I love about you is that you are so open to the infinite Wholeness of the faith and God and the whacky world he created. For you reflect what is most attractive about Catholicism’s heart, body, and soul. You’re akin to little Therese, who said (I think; or something to this effect): “I desire EVERYTHING!”

I won't gild the lily on this last:

"hi heather.

that was a really strange phone call. i felt sick afterward."


Tuesday, April 24, 2012


From an e-mail from Andrew Matt, editor extraordinaire at Magnificat:

I’ve been meaning to send you a few things that I came across that relate back to your Therese Part I post, and some of the ensuing debate in the combox about the relationship between doctrine/dogma and love. In my view, the two need not be opposed but should rather mutually reinforce one another, all the while maintaining, with Saint Paul, the priority on love: “if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2). This also relates to the topic in your same post about prayer, and how one doesn’t even need to believe in God to pray, which dovetails with the very complex topic of membership in the Church and what that means.

Anyway, without further ado, I’ve assembled a ramshackle assortment of snippets, mainly from Flannery O’Connor, that spring from your Therese Part 1 post, and that I just wanted to share finally:

Flannery: “For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind.” (The Habit of Being)

Flannery: “There is no reason why fixed dogma should fix anything that the writer sees in the world. On the contrary, dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality. Christian dogma is about the only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery… The Catholic fiction writer is entirely free to observe. He feels no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe. He feels no need to apologize for the ways of God to man or to avoid looking at the ways of man to God. For him, to 'tidy up reality' is certainly to succumb to the sin of pride. Open and free observation is founded on our ultimate faith that the universe is meaningful, as the Church teaches.” (Mystery and Manners)

“Among those 1.2 billion Catholics are many who inwardly are not there. Saint Augustine said there are many outside who seem to be inside, and there are many inside who seem to be outside. In a matter like faith – like membership in the Catholic Church – inside and outside are mysteriously intertwined with each other.” (From Light of the World, a recent book-length interview with Benedict XVI)

Flannery: “This is a peculiar thing - I have the one fold, one Shepherd instinct as strong as any, and to see someone I know out of the Church is grief to me, it's to want him in with great urgency. At the same time, the 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. (Maybe you ain't observed this reticence in me.)” (The Habit of Being)


Sunday, April 22, 2012


(1935-1967, died in car crash at age of 32)
This astonishing 1963 documentary short by the iconoclastic Iranian poet, journalist and film-maker Forugh Farrokhzād captures the lives, suffering, beauty and humanity of the members of a leper colony. Reviewer Eric Henderson described the film as follows: "One of the prototypal essay films, The House is Black paved the way for the Iranian New Wave."

Netflix synopsis:

"Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad's documentary bravely delves into the world of people suffering from leprosy. Farrokhzad composed the poetic narration for her highly stylized and moving film, which depicts the realities of living with the disease, from daily routines to physical challenges and societal stigma. Extras include an interview with poet Pooran Farrokhzad (Forough's sister) and two short films by Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf."

There is no shortness of ugliness in the world
If man closed his eyes to it,
there would be even more...

Who is this in hell?
Who is this in hell,
praising you, O Lord?...

I will sing your name, O Lord.
I will sing your name with the ten-stringed lute
For I have been made in a strange and frightening shape...

Like doves we cry for justice--
and there is none.
We wait for light
and darkness reigns...

O overrunning river driven
by the touch of love,
flow to us, flow to us...


Yesterday I heard someone say "A miracle is a shift in consciousness"...

And last night I watched some of Louis Malle's 1971 7-episode documentary series Phantom India. This sequence is of a classical dance called Kalakshetra for which the performers typically train for 15-20 years before making their debut...

Thursday, April 19, 2012


GIOTTO, 1304-06
The other morning I was lying in bed in the dark, early, checked my phone, and found a message from my brother Ross:

Top 'o the Morning Heather,

On Sunday, as Edilia [Ross's wife], Allen [Ross's son], and I headed toward Keene for lunch, we stopped on the way at the church in the tiny town of Dublin. I'm glad we did-- as the sermon was outstanding. Here is the sermon for the previous Sunday--Easter, to start your day.

Blessings of Peace and Joy,


I jumped up and emailed the good Rev. Michael Scott who graciously gave permission to run:

“Don’t Be Amazed”
A Sermon by Rev. Michael Scott
The Dublin Community Church

April 8, 2012 Mark 16:1-8

“Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome . . . went to the tomb when the sun had risen . . . And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back . . . [and] they saw a young man...[who] said to them, ‘Do not be amazed . . . .’”

I like Franco Zeffirelli’s production, Jesus of Nazareth. Particularly his depiction of the resurrection story. He adds no angel choirs, no trumpets, no dazzling special effects. He simply offers the image that is foremost in our gospel reading this morning: a few women walking through a garden on a quiet morning to the sound of chirping birds, and finding nothing; finding an empty tomb.

We’ve been conditioned over the years, not only by Hollywood but by Renaissance art, to visualize the resurrection in great other worldly images: angel wings fluttering all about and a 120 piece orchestra accompanying the Mormon Tabernacle choir. Medieval paintings provide us with an angelic-looking Jesus floating up in the air with the clouds parting, soldiers falling to the ground in shock, and a blinding light emanating from the tomb. Our individual images of the first Easter are surely cluttered with people, noises, lights, angels, and most certainly wouldn’t be complete without trumpets.

We are unprepared for the stillness of the morning, the soft sound of footsteps on the garden path, the chirping of the birds, and the silence of the empty tomb. To imagine it all in that way makes it seem like ordinary experience – much less amazing. But why not? After all, that was the advice of the “young man” who greeted those women at the tomb on that quiet morning. He simply said, “Don’t be amazed.”

We have as hard a time hearing and heading that word as did those three women in the graveyard. We expect that if new life were to burst forth from our deadening experience, it would have to be something amazing! If something is truly going to happen to resurrect our hope and send our spirits soaring out of the darkness of our stone-covered cynicism, it would need to be earth-shaking, with trumpets and choirs, no less.

In our own experience, we look for the old and ugly, the pesky and pernicious, the deadly and destructive of our lives to be somehow blasted away by religious ritual or proper penance. And then, when we don’t hear the trumpets, when we look at our broken promises, our selfish tendencies, our superficial commitments, we find despair moving into our souls like a cloud, to darken the joy of hope for new life. Then, Easter seems unrelated to our experience; the resurrection becomes just another church story. Amazing things don’t seem to happen anymore – at least not to us. So, if unable to find satisfaction, we at least find a little distraction in the family dinners, the painted eggs, and the chocolate bunnies.

But my message this morning is: Don’t give up on Easter. Don’t leave it to the righteous believers and the exemplary holy ones. The distance from Jesus’ surprisingly empty crypt to your unremarkably full life is not as great as you might believe.

The resurrection, you see, is not amazing. It’s a prototypical experience. It’s the miraculous nature of things woven into the very fabric of life. People who have been dwelling among the breathless tombs of alcoholism have been raised from that creeping demise into sobriety. Every day, someone caught in the death grip of an abusive relationship finds help and rises up to new life. Even hour by hour, the power of resurrection breathes through your experience. When you find yourself facing the dead-end of the same argument with your spouse, the same challenging relationship with a parent, the same incorrigibility of a child, the same humiliating experience with a colleague that you’ve dealt with over and over, and you feel the hope for any better outcome draining out of your soul, sometimes all it takes is a touch, a look, a laugh, a brief conversation, to feel the breath of possibility coming back into your lungs. Resurrection is not amazing; it’s the way things are. That’s what the young man at the tomb said: “Don’t be amazed. Jesus is raised from the dead, and he is going on ahead to meet you – as he said he would.”

Jesus, you see, was one of those remarkable oddities: he was a man of his word. And his words were always about new life and possibility. He spoke of new wine in new wineskins, and being born anew. He told parables about people finding something of great value, of growing into something grand, of turning for home and discovering joyous living. He said that the whole purpose of his ministry, of everything he was about, was that we might have life, and have it abundantly! And he was a man of his word. Scripture even portrays him as a man who could defeat death itself to keep his word. But don’t be amazed. That’s just the way things are. Jesus is gone from the tomb as naturally as a bird on the wing. He is not there as a matter of course. He is risen, as he said. No trumpets; no choirs. Life always comes out of death for the children of God because we are people of life, not death. It’s the way things are.

You may not see the skies open up, or hear fanfares, or the flutter of angel wings. But you are likely, on some quiet morning, to be walking through a garden (or sitting in your kitchen with your coffee cup), and quite unexpectedly stumble upon the empty tomb of that within you which you thought was hopelessly dead, and yet lives, abounding in hope! Even now, as you sit in this room there is some divine principle of quantum physics that’s working away in you to peel off the layers of cynicism that build up in the course of each day’s disappointments. Even now, there’s some incomprehensible army of natural properties hammering away at the shackles of defeatism that you take up every time someone you love lets you down. Even now, there is some ancient and unknowable impulse urging the song of life from deep within your throat, a song that something within you knows already, a song you are able to sing, even in the shadow of death.

Loren Eiseley knew about that. He saw it all right before his eyes one day. He had leaned up against a stump at the edge of a small glade and fallen asleep. He described the scene upon awakening:

“When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was lit like some vast cathedral. I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak.

“The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling’s parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing. The sleek black monster was indifferent to them. He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still. Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern. But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.

“No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery. The bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death.

“And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.

“The sighing died. It was then that I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in the clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.”1

There is an irrepressible force in the universe. And it’s not amazing. It’s the message of the empty tomb, and it’s as common as the birds in the glade. It’s this: amidst the jungle of values in conflict, lives in torment, hopes and dreams in pieces, the un-amazing empty tomb is God’s tenacious declaration that, no matter what, love wins!

And that’s just the way it works. So don’t be amazed.

1 Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, pp. 33-34


Rev. Scott generally makes his sermons available in pdf form the Friday after the Sunday they're delivered--you can find them on the Dublin Community Church website:

Thank you for this "word" from my beloved native state!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Every morning at 6, my friend Mark gets up, has his coffee, puts a leash on his dog Gaza, steps out the door of his apartment in the Little Armenia section of Hollywood, and pursues his vocation: walking the streets and picking up trash.

Mark: This man leaves his cup here every morning…the Armenian cab drivers with their Capri cigarettes; the American junkies who throw their Heineken bottles up in the tree…before I’m at the end of my street, I’ve filled one grocery bag and deposited in the dumpster on the corner.

So in 2005, I was just out of prison (after 9 months) and trying to be fully present to my experience for the first time in what seemed like forever. I suppose “fully present” overshoots the mark; I was fairly riven with anxiety. So many feelings--I hadn’t a clue, all those years, that I’d been medicating so much discomfort (I thought I just liked to get high.) Anyway, one of the tools it was suggested I use was prayer, and the only one I could manage to remember I repeated feverishly, the one that starts: “God grant me the serenity...”
At first it was a catch-all attempt to align my thoughts in a way that would produce the calm I found so elusive. But then I started to apply the prayer to specific situations--one in particular--and something life-changing occurred.

I had moved to a small studio just near Sunset and Western in L.A., an eclectic enclave of hipsters and immigrants. After I got my dog back from the brother (who had so graciously taken him in during my stay with the state) I discovered while walking him that I lived in one of the most litter-strewn neighborhoods of the city. And it drove me nuts.

Litter is ugly. Litter is unnecessary. Litter is lazy. But what could I be more powerless over? So I prayed. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...”

People litter. I must accept that... “to change the things that I can”....what am I going to do, pick it up? “...and the wisdom to know the difference...” yeah, yeah, yeah, go back to that last part.

There it was. Like a pebble in my shoe, the thought I couldn’t get rid of. Why, in fact, couldn’t I pick it up?
Oh the internal huffiness that ensued. Why should I? What kind of message does that send? Did you ever hear about something called “accountability?” Blah,blah, blah. Can you imagine if mothers had that attitude about changing their baby’s diapers? No, the real roadblock was much simpler. What would people think?
The non-litterers, I assumed, would be delighted. The litterers, perhaps shamed, perhaps contemptuous. More importantly, what did it matter? What if people thought I was--horrors--eccentric? What if they thought it was humiliating myself? What if …? Realizing I didn’t have to care at all proved as valuable as a decade of psychotherapy. I had wasted enough of my life trying to manage how others perceived me. What if I stopped giving my power away like that, and just went about being the best Mark I could be?
So I went down to OSH, got an E-Z Reacher, and stuffed my cargo pants pockets with Ralph’s plastic grocery bags. I identified strategically-located dumpsters, and begin to pick up trash. And I never looked back.

Almost very day for seven years I have cleaned the four blocks along my dog walking route. The effect on the environment is minimal--in essence, I move refuse from the street to the landfill. But the effect on me has been incalculable.

Every morning I when I start on my walk I am angry that new litter has replaced what I just picked up yesterday. And every morning I get to choose to stay in the problem or to step into the solution. Anger or joy. My choice.

I get to watch my dog live in the present and imitate him. He never gets impatient with all of our stops, and I get to be patient with all of his sniffs. He doesn’t understand what I’m doing and he doesn’t even understand that he doesn’t understand. He just accepts, and never once for any reason withholds his all-encompassing unconditional love from me. And so I imitate him in my relationship with God. I accept that I can no more understand God with a human brain than my dog can understand me with a dog brain. I don’t need to understand. I need only to love.

So what do people say? At first they are suspicious. I don’t have an orange vest on, and I look “normal.” And people who work for the city don’t walk their dog at the same time. In fact, when a neighborhood denizen finally talks to me, it usually goes like this:

“Excuse me, can I ask you something?”


“What kind of dog is that?’

A few of them are genuinely curious, (he’s a gorgeous Pointer/mix) but most of them don’t know how to talk about what I’m doing. It’s almost as if they wonder if I realize that I’m picking up trash, and don’t want to embarrass me by pointing it out.

And then there are those who smile, who wave, who say really wonderful things. This delights me, for sure. But it is not why I do it.

Picking up trash has allowed me to understand that you don’t start with serenity, you end with it. You have to really examine your life, and ask yourself what you are accepting that you can change; and what you are trying to change that you need to accept. You would be surprised at how much misfiling is going on -- with all of us.
I realized that if I can be kind to an inanimate object--the street--I can certainly to be kinder to real live people. There’s Louise, from the Congo, to whom I give all of the cans and bottles I collect. She practically supports a household back in Brazzaville. There was Chris Z., a heroin addict who lived on a mattress on the corner. I helped him get a license and find his long-lost half-brother. I make an effort to say hello to all the homeless, and often ask their names, because its’ a terribly thing to be invisible. Everyone needs to be seen.
It would be nice to go back to Europe, to travel the world. But it’s amazing how far you can go within a mile of your house, just by paying attention.

I love picking up trash because it’s taught me that living along spiritual lines doesn’t have to happen in a church or a synagogue or a monastery. I don’t have to be in the lotus position or on my knees. There needn’t be any daylight between having a relationship with God and all the day-to-day practical choices we make.

God isn’t over there, God is right here. God is now."

Mark blogs at The Trash Whisperer.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


My '96 Celica, which has ferried me among other places cross-country and back twice, is slowly dying. Jimmy at Pacific Auto tells me I'm looking at a 900-dollar replace-the-oil-seal job. So at almost 157,000 miles,  it may be time to move on.

This has necessitated many many hours trolling,,, and, followed by more hours talking to Shawn, Geremy, and Akbar.

I have been variously drawn to the Mitsubishi Eclipse, the Toyota Solara, the Nissan Altima, and the Honda Accord. I have learned about leasing vs. buying. I have considered sunroofs, leather, Bose speakers, and highway vs. city miles. I have been saddened to discover that unless you buy a sports car, it's practically impossible these days to find a manual transmission (my beloved Celica's a 5-speed).

I think Jesus would enjoy a little sports car. Jesus would enjoy feeling the wind on his face and whipping through his dear hair. I'm thinking of that scene in Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest where the (unnamed) priest, dying of stomach cancer, accepts a ride on a motorcycle....

Saturday, April 14, 2012


like a drunk in a midnight choir
i have tried
in my way
to be free
I have had a schedule change these past couple of weeks thaat has taken me far, far away from my usual many hours a day of "me time."

I have barely had a chance to take a vesper walk, for instance, and descend into the mystery of grass, twigs, leaves, sky, and discarded candy wrappers.

So when I finally did get a chance last night, even the telephone wires seemed especially poetic.

Thursday, April 12, 2012


Here's a series of  Airplane Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish style, via Laughing Squid, by Nina Katchadourian. "While in the lavatory on a domestic flight in March 2010, I spontaneously put a tissue paper toilet cover seat cover over my head and took a picture in the mirror"... Click here for the whole post.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


In the Garden at Gethsemane, Christ was stripped of even his privacy.

While before he had gone to a lonely place to pray, now in his naked need “fell on the ground” and prayed before his disciples. He who had always spoken to God in secret now begged, within their hearing, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” [Mt. 26: 39].

He had been given to know that he would have to go up to Jerusalem, and be killed, and that he would rise on the third day. But could knowing he would rise have diminished his agony? We, too, “know” we will rise. But unlike us, he did not have the image of the stone rolled away, the empty tomb, the risen Christ. He had not gone before himself. Unlike us, he had no companion, no forerunner, no Gospel story of Mary Magdalene meeting him in the garden: "Mary!" "Rabboni" [John 20: 11-18].

Noli me tangere. Don’t touch me. I haven’t yet ascended to the Father, and perhaps he also told Mary not to touch him because the wounds were still fresh and to put pressure on them would have hurt.

To over-focus on the violence of the Crucifixion, however, is to miss its essential point. No violence we could re-enact could come close to the Passion of Christ—not because we can’t imagine the violence, but because we can’t imagine Christ’s heart.  The Crucifixion was Christ’s labor, and just as no loving mother would show her child a gory video of her labor—“Look what I endured for you!”—the writers of the Gospels sketch in the outline and leave the details to our imagination.

Christ doesn’t keep score, count the cost, or hold the Crucifixion against us. That is neither to diminish, nor to fail to take full account of, its unspeakable violence. But we don’t honor the Crucifixion by feeling guilty that Christ died for our sins. We honor the Crucifixion by consenting to be stripped down and to die for love ourselves.

Still, what if we could see that when we are cruel to people, we are pressing against the wounds of Christ? What if we could picture each other as survivors of some botched crucifixion: picking our way among the ruins of Golgotha, foraging for a crust of bread and a drop of wine? What if we could realize that everyone is walking around naked with a battered crutch, a dingy bandage over one eye, an arm in a makeshift sling?

In “You Whose Name,” Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz imagines the final defeat of death. “A retinue advances in the sunlight by the lakes./ From white villages Easter bells resound.”

photo: Kino Koszyk via

Thursday, April 5, 2012


Wednesday night I attended a screening and panel discussion of THE LABYRINTH, a 37-minute award-winning documentary about Marian Kolodziej by Ron, Jason, Gregory and Arthur Schmidt. (Fr. Ron Schmidt, S.J., was married before he became a priest; his three sons by his late wife collaborated with him on the film).

The program was entitled Blood and Ink.

Kołodziej was a well-known theater artist an Polish resistance fighter during WWII who was arrested by the Nazis and arrived in the first transport of prisoners to Auschwitz. There he lived, as No. 432 (the inmates were stripped of even their names), for 4 1/2 years. For almost fifty years afterward he kept silence, telling no-one besides his beloved wife Halina that he had even been in the camp. "I did not speak about Auschwitz," he observed. But nevertheless throughout that whole time Auschwitz was present in everything I did." Then, in 1993, he had a stroke and, as part of his rehabilitation, began drawing. A "mysterious presence" pushed him to continue. He found himself in dialogue with "living memory."

The result was a stupendous outpouring of drawings, filling many rooms, that he called "The Labyrinth." "...This is not an exhibit, nor art, nor images, but words contained in designs," he said of his work. They are housed in the basement of St. Maximilian Kolbe Franciscan Church in Harmeze, Poland, located near Auschwitz.

From The Labyrinth website:

"Marian was in the same roll call and cell block as Fr.Maximilian Kolbe, who voluntarily took the place of a prisoner condemned to death and was subsequently executed. This self-less act became legendary in Auschwitz and inspired the entire camp---somehow an act of love and courage stood as a testament to good in the face of overwhelming evil. Marian’s numerous drawings of Kolbe are stark and iconographic. Kolbe is now a saint in the Catholic Church.

This is eyewitness testimony that is unique in the annals of documenting the Holocaust. Marian is a Polish Catholic, who has used his drawings to give testimony to the horrors of Auschwitz and of the world today, and whose body of work provides a testament to suffering and ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’"

"Of my own free will, I shut myself up in the camp once more," I thought of Christ, going into the tomb after three days to raise Lazarus from the dead; of the tremendous courage, heart, and focus required to embark on a similar journey.  Kołodziej himself died on October 13, 2009 at the age of 86.

Strangely, the film is not without hope. Many of the drawings depict small acts of kindness. In the camps, your bowl--a kind of terrible chalice--was everything: the receptacle for watery soup; a pillow; in the freezing-cold nights, a toilet. Once, forced to climb trees to escape the jaws of the snarling guard dogs below (this was apparently a kind of sport for the SS; many of the men, stranded on branches that could not bear their weight, fell to their deaths), Kołodziej climbed so high that for a moment, he could see the gaily painted houses in the village below. The glimpse of a world outside the barbed wire sustained him for years.

"These are my most deeply carved-in wounds. This is my nakedness and shame."

EMIL NOLDE,  1912, oil on canvas

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Sunday I attended a memorial for a friend, Ann-Kristin, who was an important part of my journey. For a period of eight or so years, she gave me unstinting, generous, personal help. For many more years than that,  she was a presence and a comfort in a recovery fellowship hat is one of my lifelines.

It was a beautiful memorial, packed with folks whose lives Ann-Kristin had touched. Many people gave eulogies: funny, poignant and true. "Boy was she stubborn." "Ann-Kristin could be difficult." "Ann-Kristin could be volatile." "Ann-Kristin could be brusque."

And also "Ann Kristin had a way with emotionally damaged people like no-one I've ever seen." "Ann Kristin was a stunning speaker." "Ann-Kristin loved to dance; Ann-Kristin loved nature, Ann-Kristin was an accomplished writer. Ann-Kristin never gave up hope." "Ann-Kristin was of unbelievable service."

Two things about Ann Kristin stand out.

One was that her telling me that her mother had been in a mental institution for most if not all of A-K's life. Along with many other equally horrific circumstances, this had made for a difficult, if not traumatic childhood. The way I remember her telling it, Ann-Kristin had given up  trying to make contact with her mother. She had self-pity, anger, and resentment around her mother.

And one day, with the help of her own spiritual guides, she realized: Call your mother once a week and tell her everything that's going on your life just as you wish she could tell you. Give to her what you wish she could give you herself. Give her the news, tell her the flower you saw on your walk, the triumph at work, the little argument you had with your friend.

Over time, the resentment and self-pity disappeared. What was left was compassion. What was left was love.

The other thing I especially remember was calling Ann Kristin one night, many years ago, for guidance. I can't remember what the problem was, but I know I went on for slightly longer than someone who wasn't quite so self-obsessed might have. I remember that Ann-Kristin listened patiently. I remember that she gave me her usual common-sense, warm but firm guidance. I remember that I felt consoled and encouraged, as I always did after I spoke with her. I remember that at the end of the conversation, I asked, "So how are YOU?"

"Fine, really, thanks," she replied. "I have my surgery in the morning but everyone has been so kind and supportive and I'll go with God."

The surgery was a double mastectomy.

She died of breast cancer.


Sunday, April 1, 2012


I recently came across an article in The Word Among Us about Jacqueline de Decker, Mother Teresa's "Spiritual Powerhouse."

The piece, by Kathryn Spink, begins "When I met Jacqueline de Decker, the Belgian woman whom Mother Teresa called her 'sick and suffering self,' she had her torso encased in a corset and wore a surgical collar round her neck."

The story tells how de Decker made her way from Belgium to India, hoping to work with Mother Teresa, but instead was forced by a chronic, debilitating illness back to Antwerp.

"By 1980, Jacqueline had undergone thirty-four operations for her illness, which was never given an official medical label. She called it GGD, or 'God-Given Disease'--her recognition that emptiness, 'failure,' and weakness were the means by which God used her."

From a site dedicated to canonizing Mother Teresa for her work with the missionaries of charity:  

From the beginning of her work, Mother Teresa welcomed and sought the help of lay persons. Eventually those attracted to her and her work formed a group called the Co-Workers of Mother Teresa. Coming from all religions, nations and walks of life, these men and women share in Mother Teresa’s aim to quench the thirst of God for love and souls by seeking to give Him their love and to bring His love to every person with whom they have contact, especially the poorest of the poor, and, above all, those most needy in their own families.

Jacqueline de Decker was a young Belgian social worker who in 1948, while on a “working” visit to India, was introduced to Mother Teresa. At the time, Mother Teresa was learning the rudiments of medical care from the Medical Mission Sisters in Patna, Bihar. The two were drawn to each other by a common love for Jesus and a desire to help the poor. Miss De Decker wanted to join Mother Teresa, but serious health problems prevented her. When Jacqueline returned to Belgium, Mother Teresa asked her to become her “second self,” that is, to be united with Mother Teresa as her spiritual sister, offering her sufferings to God for the sake of the poor. Jacqueline took up the task of promoting this apostolate of prayer and self-offering among the sick, linking each person who became a “Sick and Suffering Co-Worker” with an individual Missionary of Charity. Jacqueline De Decker died on Friday, April 3, 2009.

For information, contact:
Sick and Suffering Co-Workers
c/o Missionaries of Charity
Elisenstrasse 15
45139 Essen, Germany
Tel.: 49-201-235-641


Let's make our GGDs work for us--and others!