Tuesday, October 9, 2012


I have never claimed to be a scientist. But walking in the desert last week, gazing out over the horizon, I suddenly thought, Isn’t true north a couple of degrees off ‘actual’ north?

Christ is counter, but he’s never counter 180 degrees. He’s counter two degrees. He takes our desire for happiness; our notions of justice, mercy, finance, romance, politics, and he tweaks them two degrees and the result is infinitely more radical than if the turn were 180. He doesn’t take our desire for happiness and say, You need to make that into a desire for misery. He doesn’t take our desire for security and say, You need to be something other than human and no longer care in any way about security.
I thought of my friend Fr. Terry’s observation about the ever-receding promise, for the alcoholic, of booze: “Drinking never made me happy, but it made me feel like I was going to be happy in fifteen minutes.” Nothing wrong with shooting for happiness; it’s just that happiness is going to be found a hair right, or left, of center. Your gaze is going to be trained just slightly to the side, and upward.

Back from my walk, just before Mass Sr. Mary Fidelis stopped by my pew and whispered, “Holy Hour today is from 10 to 11.”

All during Mass, I thought about Happy Hour, and Holy Hour, and true north. I thought about how I once described a morning at the dive bar in Boston’s North Station where I used to drink, my companions washed-up cab drivers and broken-down racetrack touts:

It was like coming together each morning for the administration of a communal anaesthetic. Our fingers shook with the effort of lighting cigarettes. Our hands shook as we raised the glasses to our lips. Our heads shook when we lowered them to sip. We drank silently, methodically, the pace as steady as an IV drip. I was almost always the only woman at the bar, not that it mattered: we Sullivan’s regulars were way past sex. We were like monks or eunuchs, our lives stripped down to a single all-consuming, self-annihilating passion, our focus on the bartender mixing our morning drinks as pure as the gaze of the faithful as the priest raises the consecrated Host.
Gazing at the monstrance later—at the actual consecrated Host—I thought about how to miss by a hair is still to miss completely. I thought of how, for all my wounds, they have shaped me for Christ. Does that make me “happy?” I don’t know. Can you be happy as you weep? I don’t know. I only know that my focus was slightly off center and upward. I only know that my eyes were trained on True North. 

DONATELLO, c. 1453-55


  1. Dear Heather,
    No coincidence, I think, that signer song writer Bruce Cockburn has spent his entir 48 year and 30+ album career (not counting reissues or compilations) on the Truth North label.

  2. I seem to remember reading somewhere that it says in the Talmud that in the World to Come, everything will be just as it is now, only off-kilter by a degree or two.

    Much to ponder here.

  3. Your words make me weep with joy. Reflection serves you well.

    Happiness, in and of itself, is trite and shallow. You give meaning to the journey.

    Thank you, Heather.

  4. Yes, Heather, much to ponder. I really like this idea of truth, of Christ, being a few degrees different from what we had in mind, rather than the somehow more obvious idea of his being 180 degrees different. Not "opposite of" but crucially and subtly different, and in the end, more radically different than "opposite of". Looking at the desert sky really has yielded amazing connections! Thank you!

  5. Oh, and that face! Mary Magdalene by Donatello! How incredible - it cuts right into you, to see a face like that, with hands like that. Your pictures add so much to your words, blessed Heather.

  6. Heather, I found your blog thru the happiness interview you mentioned. That piece was a breath of fresh air, esp the
    point on joy v happiness. It was sad that only a few "got it". Well Christianity is counter-cultural, isn't it?
    Thank you Heather for your beautiful reflections.

  7. Exactly right. Evil is not the opposite of good the way South is the opposite of North. If it were, then evil could not exist because existence itself is a good. We are not sinners because we aim to be bad but because our aim to be good is just a little off. We miss the mark, fall short of the glory of God, not through open rebellion (at least, for the most part), but through insisting on surrender on our own terms. We walk away sad like the rich, young ruler because the promised treasure in heaven is too far off, the wealth we have - susceptible as it is to moth and rust - is more near and dear, and the demand of total surrender seems too high a price to obtain life that is life indeed.


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