Sunday, December 30, 2012


The subject is Shin Dong-hyuk (b. 1982), the only known person to have been born in a North Korean death camp and escaped. (I've become somewhat obsessed and will post about his story again later in the week). The passage below is in reference to a friendship Shin formed inside the camp with Park Yong Chul, a fellow inmate who had been born and raised in the outside world.

Their relationship echoed, in many ways, the bonds of trust and mutual protection that kept prisoners alive and sane in Nazi concentration camps. In those camps, researchers found, the “basic unit of survival” was the pair, not the individual.

“[I]t was in the pairs that the prisoners kept alive in the semblance of humanity,” concluded Elmer Luchterhand, a sociologist at Yale who interviewed fifty-two concentration camp survivors shortly after liberation.

Pairs stole food and clothing for each other, exchanged small gifts, and planned for the future. If one member of a pair fainted from hunger in front of an SS officer, the other would prop him up.

“Survival...could only be a social achievement, not an individual accident,” wrote Eugene Weinstock, a Belgian resistance fighter and Hungarian-born Jew who was sent to Buchenwald in 1943.

The death of one member of a pair often doomed the other. Women who knew Anne Frank in the Bergen-Belsen camp said that neither hunger nor typhus killed the young girl who world become the most famous diarist of the Nazi era. Rather, they said, she lost the will to live after the death of her sister, Margot.

On January 2, 2005, Shin and Park tried to escape together. Park was instantly electrocuted trying to climb between the two lowest wires of the barbed wire fence. His dead body served as a makeshift “ground” over which Shin walked, badly burning his legs in the process, to eventual freedom.


Friday, December 28, 2012



"Christmas to New Year’s is our great moment, and the loveliest of all Christmas customs was Menin Jesu, the little Jesus, brought by the Portuguese from the Western Islands. The older Portuguese people once kept open house from Christmas to New Year’s. Every window in their house had a candle behind it. A home ablaze with lights meant that everyone was welcome, whether or not he knew the host. Indeed, the most welcome and honored guests were the strangers.

In the front room was a pyramid of graduated shelves. One candle on top, on the next shelf two saucers of sprouted wheat; on the next, two candles; on the next, four saucers of sprouted wheat, and so on. These represented the Resurrection and the Light. At the bottom was a crèche of little figures brought from the Western Islands. To everyone who came was given a tiny cordial glass of homemade wine—beach plum, elderberry, or dandelion—and a tiny cake.

The Avellars and ourselves used to go at Christmas through the western part of town, seeing down a dark lane, under willow trees, houses brilliant with light. In the distance there was the sound of music and singing. The ships’ bands of Portuguese instruments, from the great vessels, went from house to house, saluting the Menin Jesu. In some houses they would have both the Menin Jesu and a Christmas tree---the Christmas tree, with its presents, looking materialistic and Teutonic beside the sprouted wheat and the lights. Little by little the custom of Menin Jesu has vanished. Only a few very old people still celebrate it."

--Time and the Town: A Provincetown Chronicle, by Mary Heaton Vorse, © 1942


Wednesday, December 26, 2012


I Christmas at St. Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo, CA. .

I'm used to going places by myself and finding a way to feel at home and was all excited by the time I got there December 24, thinking, Well I will just be friendly and I'm sure things will be fine. So I alit from my car, breathed deeply of the bracing high desert air, and stuck my head into the Guestmaster's Office. The guestmaster was behind her desk and another gal in a large pink sweatshirt was sitting in a nearby chair.

Thinking to befriend the very first person I met, I gazed lovingly into this woman's face, smiled warmly, and was quite taken aback when her eyes drilled back at me with a look of pure unadulterated hatred! She didn't even know me yet! "Merry Christmas!" I tried again, and again she boldly stared me down without a trace of a smile.  I am such a terrible people-pleaser that, if pressed, I will smile even at people I hate but this gal was not going to give one inch. "The rooms will be ready at 1:30," the guestmaster dismissed me primly (it was 11) so I set out for a lovely pre-Mass walk, refraining, as I left, from snarling over my shoulder to the lady in the sweatshirt, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog," like Mary Grace in "Revelation."

I used to spend hours brooding over such "injustices"  and feeling dramatically sorry for myself and misunderstood. Having slightly matured, however, almost instantly I realized Oh this is priceless, this lady is going to be my special, secret "charge" while I'm here; I am going to pray for her.

So I did and really, it was fine listening in as people talked about their RVs, guard dogs, and jobs at Edwards Air Force Base. There was a huge common room with a fireplace with real logs in it and a Christmas tree and many snacks and every few hours it seemed a generous meal, lovingly prepared and served by the monks.

I hung around on the fringes with a look meant to telegraph, Hi, I'm a 60-year old divorcee alone in the world and my mother just died, but nobody much noticed--most of the folks seemed to have made coming to St. Andrew's a yearly ritual and knew (if not were related to and/or lived with) each other, But as my friend Tensie had reminded me a few days earlier (after the Richard Rohr book of the same name), Everything Belongs.

My difficulty in fitting into a crowd unless the crowd is specifically about me belonged. The lifelong gap between my expectations and reality belonged. The lady with the pink sweatshirt belonged, the geese in the pond belonged, the instant coffee I got to start swilling when I woke at 3:30 (my circadian rhythm is wacked at the moment) belonged.

Plus there was tons of candy. And I got to read all of Blaine Harden's Escape from Camp 14, about Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known person to have been born into a North Korean death camp and escaped (I'm not so sure Camp 14 "belongs"); and a good part of Ralph C. Wood's Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.

I also got to spend many hours of solitude and silence gazing out the window at the snow-draped mountains and formulating my 'Life Plan' (right) for 2013

Of course the real heart of the place was the chapel, with Morning Prayer, Vespers, and Christmas Mass.

"Life is a night spent at an uncomfortable inn," Teresa of Avila observed.

And then there was the mother of God, who had no inn.


I left at sun-up December 26 and drove back through the mountains in the rain and fog with a big sign every two feet saying "ICY" and every other two feet a black and yellow pictogram of a gigantic load of rocks falling on a hapless car and the road strewn with actual rocks of a size that could handily break an axle and the mist billowing over the mountains and up from the valleys, listening to Coltrane's Ballads and hoping to God a tire didn't blow.

I'd gone away so as to not to feel sad for Christmas and yet coming back into town, a huge wave of sadness washed over me anyway.

Just as an alcoholic spends ten, twenty, thirty years trying to re-create the transcendent sense of well-being that comes with that first drunk, some of us spend our whole lives hoping Christmas will feel, just once, the way it did when we were kids. It never happens. That's okay, and the hills were washed clean by rain and everything looked extra green and fresh and gilded by a new morning sun at 8 a.m. when I rolled into Silver Lake.

I cried as I unpacked. Christmas never feels the same as when we were kids, and yet we're still sad when it's over.


"It's Easy to Remember" (Richard Rodgers), John Coltrane Quartet, Ballads, 1963

Monday, December 24, 2012


Friday evening I arrived home to find a surprise gift on my doorstep: wrapped in Christmas paper, no ribbon, no card, just a little piece of paper taped on marked "Heather."

It's a lovely book (I opened it right away) called Flannery O'Connor: The Cartoons. I hadn't known but, before becoming a writer, Flannery was well-known at her girls' college (Georgia State College for Women, now Georgia College and State University) as a visual artist and cartoonist.

The cartoons, though interesting, aren't exceptional. But the foreward by Barry Moser and the commentary by O'Connor scholar Kelly Gerald are excellent and added much to my knowledge and understanding of O'Connor's work.

Gerald's afterword ends like this:

In a 1959 interview, O'Connor explained, "Mine is a comic art, but that does not detract from its seriousness"...For O'Connor, the deeper nature of mankind that she sounded became an expression of her faith. The anagogical vision she promoted, one that searched human experience for a more mysterious and profound spiritual meaning, applied as well to fiction. She advised other writers that "this enlarged view of the human scene" was what the writer had to cultivate "if he is ever going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature."

The work of the artist, as she came to regard it, encompassed two of the most essential theological questions: What is the nature of the Divine? What is our relationship to it? Though the jokes still kept coming, the light-hearted and whimsical humor seen in her cartoons was often, in her fiction, drawn in more sinister tones. The journey grew darker and violent, evidence of the fallen state of humanity and the presence of evil in the world, as well as expressive of the mysteries of the Holy Spirit. The highly visual orientation of her prose took on other meanings, transforming into a language of signs and wonders. O'Connor was fond of telling people that anything that helps the writer to see helps his writing. A significant part of the experience she creates through her stories is also visual, with every reader, like the author herself, becoming a witness to the stranger truths her art reveals.

"For the writer of fiction" O'Connor observed, "everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it."

That's true for the authentic human being as well. We get to develop the eye that can occasionally spy the dawn breaking over our frightened, hardened hearts; that can see God coming into the world as an exiled baby; that likes to imagine that the stranger who, in the longest night of the year, stole onto our doorstep and left an anonymous gift was perhaps Christ himself.

In fact, I never noticed before, but the root word of imagine is "magi."


Sunday, December 23, 2012


From reader Sue Hayes. Sue lives in Northern California and has been married for thirty-three years to a Catholic Worker:

"In regard to the canonization of Dorothy Day, it amuses me that both the Catholic Left AND the Right are trying to CLAIM her, when she is NOT claimable... she was incapable of being drawn into petty squabbles of either stripe...she spoke Truth to power, strove to conform herself to the Living, Dying, Rising of true discipleship in Christ, and lived the Gospel with no interest in carving out some niche for herself as "special or admirable," nor did she like it when people called her "a living saint" because then it was " too easy to dismiss her."

There's a story (you can't be married to a quintessential Catholic Worker for 33 years, as I have been, and not know STORIES) that Dorothy, in her seventies, was arrested after a peace protest and they put her in a holding cell. After a bit, they opened the door and shoved in a young woman who was a prostitute and drunk. She cried and swore and said vile things to Dorothy and then fell on the floor at Dorothy's feet and threw up all over Dorothy's feet and legs...without a second's hesitation, Dorothy sank down on the floor and took the young woman's head gently into her lap and just held her, as a mother would hold her child.

THAT'S why Dorothy is a saint... because she was incapable of marginalizing or being without respect for EVERY human being, regardless of how badly they may have "blotted their copybook"... When Dorothy spoke of "a harsh and dreadful love" [the quote is from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov] it kind of blew all that sky-blue-pink-bejeezely-stuff right out of the water. It was LOVE which Dorothy clung to and was not afraid to offer to ANYONE, a love so God-partaking in its authority, so steely determined in delivery that "even the gates of Hell could not prevail against it!"

THAT's why Dorothy is a saint; not because she championed the cause of the poor, (kudos from the Left) nor because she obeyed all The Rules (high-fives from the Right) but because she was true to her vocation, as each of us should be, to become the person God called her to be. How many people were immeasurably blessed that Dorothy Day came their way?"


Thursday, December 20, 2012


Last night I retired at 10:20, woke at 4: 10, prayed part of a Rosary and went back to sleep again till ten of 7! (That is LATE for me). I woke to a pulsing realization of the unbelievable sadness, the it-can’t-be-ness of abortion. Oh! A tiny being that God in his infinite love has seen fit to create out of nothing, or almost nothing—and just now, I’m thinking—the miracle of the loaves and the fishes!

We offer up an egg and a spermatozoa (which He gave us in the first place) and He gives us a human being. A rare, rare uniquely precious…a being! A human being

This is the kind of thing we feel, if we’re lucky, when we get really quiet.

I wake early and sit in the dark with my breviary, incense and Lux Perpetua candle and listen to the fountain in the courtyard, and the birds. I’ve taken my daily walk almost always toward dusk or even in full-on dark and the lights of the city have been especially vivid in the cool, sharp black night. I have slept with my Christmas lights on each night, and had a huge vase of pepper tree branches with their red berries in my room since December 1st, and have missed Mass only once (St.  John of the Cross, December 14, which pained me, especially because I allowed the fact that I couldn’t get online with my new laptop to suck my day dry…).

I’m surrounded by paintings, icons, old calendars and cards of the Virgin and Child, and of course the Gospel readings this week are all about the coming of Jesus.

I can hardly remember a more beautiful Advent, though they are all beautiful, and though this one, as always, has had its share of snafus, challenges, and conflicts.

How fragile we are.

How easily we rely on things that can’t much help us.

How alone we often feel.

With the Christmases of my native New Hampshire in my heart, Christmas in L.A. has always felt like a particular kind of poverty and exile. This year, with my mother gone (the three-month anniversary of her death is Christmas Day), I feel the exile especially keenly. But all that means is I get to look extra hard for a stab of beauty, for a moment of connection, for the light that shines in the darkness.

And when I do—gold, frankincense and myrrh [cf. Matthew 2:11] is my life.
How grateful I am for all of you. My work requires a constant process of discernment: to want to give and to know my limitations;, to be accessible and to make appropriate boundaries; to have the courage to speak and to know silence is often the better part of obedience and humility. Maybe the most difficult thing of all is to receive.

As St. John of the Cross said, "Where there is no love, put love--and you will find love."
Love to you all this Christmas, and beyond--

Tuesday, December 18, 2012



In a recent Magnificat reflection, Fr. Vincent Nagle wrote of his work accompanying the sick and dying:

"[I]n those situations very often people would, finally, speak the truth. I do not mean that before peeple were intentionally deceitful. I simply mean that the final things are difficult to face. Of ourselves we have not the courage to do so. Our failures, resentments, humiliations, terrors, sins, and unspoken longings are bigger than we are. The terrible mystery of life itself can seem to threaten us with annihilation."

In Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton writes:

"Gerald Heard's saying 'he must go unprotected that he may be constantly change' always comes to mind when I am speaking of what it is to be a poet and to go on writing poetry beyond the meridian of life."

Later, she quotes from a New Yorker piece by Robert Coles on Erik Erikson re Erikson's work with young , underprivileged boys:

" 'Now and again, however, an individual is called upon (called by whom, only the theologians claim to know, and by what, only bad psychologists) to lift his individual patienthood to the level of a universal one add to try to solve for all what he could not solve for himself alone.' The key word for me, of course, is 'patienthood,' for this is exactly what is involved for the poet or artist of either sex. Coles himself says elsewhere in the piece, 'Not everyone can or will do that--give his specific fears and desires a chance to be of universal significance.' To do this takes a curious combination of humility, excruciating honesty, and (there's the rub) a sense of destiny or of identity. One must believe that private dilemmas are, if deeply examined, universal, and so, if expressed, have a human value beyond the private, and one must also believe in the vehicle for expressing them, in the talent."

Or as someone else said--"Well people don't need a doctor; sick people do" [Mt. 9:12].

Monday, December 17, 2012



I once read an article about a Marine Corps boot camp and found myself rooting not for the red-blooded all-American boys who were all too willing to turn themselves into killing machines, but by the “weak, uninspired recruit”—apparently one materializes in every platoon—who just couldn’t make the grade: a laggard, always falling behind, who sat staring listlessly at the dirt while the others completed the three-day ordeal known as “The Crucible.”

“FTA”—Failure to Adapt—they gave as the reason for eventually kicking this misfit out. To me, he was the sanest person in the group.

Failure to adapt has always been a theme dear to my heart: the prison guard at Huntsville, Texas, who snapped after witnessing one too many executions; Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian conscientious objector, husband, father of three, and sole inhabitant of his village who refused to join up with Nazis, for which he was guillotined; and now whistleblower Bradley Manning, caught in the crossfires of a military whose credo re homosexuality—Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—could as well be applied to its entire secretive,  doublespeak raison d’être; to a political, economic and judicial system that is based on so many layers and dimensions of contradicting lies that the only sane response may be to crack; to a culture that has honed mean-spirited ridicule to a high art but has no room for the anguished human heart that asks, Who am I? What was I made for? Who can I trust?

In 2010, Manning was a PFC serving in Iraq. [from wikipedia]: “He said the incident that had affected him the most was when 15 detainees had been arrested by the Iraqi Federal Police for printing anti-Iraqi literature. He was asked by the army to find out who the ‘bad guys’ were, and discovered that the detainees had followed what Manning said was a corruption trail within the Iraqi cabinet. He reported this to his commanding officer, but said ‘he didn't want to hear any of it’; he said the officer told him to help the Iraqi police find more detainees. Manning said it made him realize, ‘i was actively involved in something that i was completely against ...’

Manning, who is gay, confided to a man named Adrian Lamo that he felt isolated and fragile, and was reaching out to someone he hoped might understand. " im not a source for you," he emphasized. "im talking to you as someone who needs moral and emotional f____support." Naturally the guy, a fellow hacker, betrayed him.

Manning is certainly no “believer”: in his isolation cell, he thinks it would be interesting to read Richard Dawkins. Just as the crack mother (or crack baby) is never the poster child for the pro-life movement—we’re for life, but not that kind of life; not real life—a scrawny 5-foot tall, 100-pounder in gender identity crisis has yet to be adopted as a poster child for the gay rights movement. Not nearly sexy enough, plus crazy, skulking around at night in a wig and spilling government secrets!

But the great thing about Manning is he’s not a poster child for anything. He’s a human being. And in his out-of-the-mouths-of-babes, emperor-with-no-clothes way, he has managed to present evidence of something very simple, very deep, and very true—namely, that much as most of us love our country, that it is "the land of the free and the home of the brave" is possibly the biggest PR scam ever devised.

When Lamo asked what kind of material he was dealing with, Manning emailed back: "uhm ... crazy, almost criminal political backdealings ... the non-PR-versions of world events and crises ..." “say… database of half a million events during the iraq war ... from 2004 to 2009 ... with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures ...? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective? [...]”

He wrestled with his conscience, asking Lamo:

(12:15:11 PM) bradass87: hypothetical question: if you had free reign [sic] over classified networks for long periods of time ... say, 8–9 months ... and you saw incredible things, awful things ... things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC ... what would you do? [...]

He continued, almost apologetically: "i cant separate myself from others. i feel connected to everybody ... like they were distant family."

You could say Manning betrayed the entire U.S. Army. But isn't "I can't separate myself from others" exactly what the authentic human being should feel, down to the marrow of his or her bones? Isn’t that exactly what a person can’t think and still pick up a gun or a grenade-launcher or the controls of a drone? Isn’t that what a person can’t feel and lie down on the table in an abortion clinic, or inject lethal chemicals into the veins of a convicted prisoner, or take up his own personal Bushmaster .223 M4 carbine, an assault-type rifle similar to a weapon used widely by troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, walk into an elementary school, and start firing?

Isn't “I feel connected to everybody” the essence of the “Love thine enemies” command that forever gnaws at our own consciences; the life-and-death dilemma at the intersection of the Cross?

(1:11:54 PM) bradass87: and ... its important that it gets out ... i feel, for some bizarre reason
(1:12:02 PM) bradass87: it might actually change something
(1:13:10 PM) bradass87: i just ... dont wish to be a part of it ... at least not now ... im not ready ... i wouldn't mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn't for the possibility of having pictures of me ... plastered all over the world press ... as [a] boy ...[Manning had posted photos of himself incarnated as "Breanna" on Youtube and Twitter].
(1:14:11 PM) bradass87: i've totally lost my mind ... i make no sense ... the CPU is not made for this motherboard ... [...]
(1:39:03 PM) bradass87: i cant believe what im confessing to you :’

Interesting that Manning uses the word "confessing,” another concept for which politics and the legal system have no room. Interesting that a country that spends 900 billion dollars a year on “defense” is so terrified of one of its own 100-lb. PFCs that it locked him in a solitary confinement cage for the better part of a year.  Interesting that in a country presided over by a godlike “Supreme Court,” Manning’s lawyer, himself a member of the military, has consistently complained about the Kafkaesque obfuscation of the prosecution.

Just as statisticians estimate a person has driven hundreds of times drunk for every one DUI arrest,  can anyone possibly believe that the video Manning released of U.S. troops laughingly gunning down two Reuters reporters, several children, and other civilians on a Baghdad street depicted an isolated incident? Can anyone possibly believe that draping the stars and stripes over, say, the School of Americas in Georgia where the U.S. government trains military from around the world to torture, maim, and kill imparts the imprimatur of the God who said, “Love one another as I have loved you?” Can anyone look at the jubilation over hunting bin Laden down and killing him like a dog and be shocked—horrified, yes, devastated yes, brought to our knees, yes, but perhaps the biggest scandal of all, not shocked—at the shootings in Connecticut?

That is not to derogate from the soldiers, chaplains, generals, and families back home who  faithfully serve, which constitutes its own kind of nobility: it's to state the simple, non-negotiable truth that violence always, always, always leads to more violence. To be for all of life and to want no guns requires a complete conversion of heart, mind, and being. If our government ever began to move in that direction, it would change the world.

In the meantime, I think of my own failure to adapt. I think of the violence of all kinds I've perpetrated in my life. I think of how even those of us who profess to hate guns have our own version of target practice. I get to a place where, as if I were a child, tears spring to my eyes and I whisper, Lord, help us to stop hurting each other.

Manning’s crime, for which he’ll probably spend the rest of his life in military custody, wasn’t endangering national security. It was telling the truth. That was Jesus's crime as well. He, too, told the “non-PR-versions of world events and crises.” We crucified him for it.

"What is called into," observed novelist Walker Percy, "is the very enterprise of human life itself. Instead of writing about this or that social evil from a posture of consensus from which we agree to deplore social evils, it is now the consensus itself and the posture which are called into question."

"i cant separate myself from others ... i feel connected to everybody ... like they were distant family."

That's the real Crucible. That’s as good a definition as I’ve ever heard for the Mystical Body of Christ.


Saturday, December 15, 2012


DOWNTOWN LA., before 7 a.m. MASS 





Thursday, December 13, 2012


We have "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens. We have O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." We have  Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales."

And now we have THE ART OF STEALING BIKES,  by Horace Martin. Alert readers may remember Horace from several weeks back. If not, just as a little intro recently he told me, "My God doesn't mind if I swear. In fact, my God encourages me to swear."

This is his first published story and I am honored to present it.

by Horace Martin

I was watching my brother play football with his friends outside our house. We lived in the middle of a row of terraced houses just outside Luton, a working class neighborhood near London, the terraced houses were two rooms up and two down, a kitchenette in the back room downstairs, we had running water but no hot water, and an indoor bathroom and toilet, it was home, we were playing in the street the goalposts were a jacket on one side, and a jumper on the other, there were several bikes laying on the path where they had been unceremoniously dropped, beside the bikes were several javelins we had made out of saplings that morning sharpening one end of the spear to a fine point. We had been out in the fields nearby throwing them at each other that morning. We would split into two groups and stand a hundred feet or so apart and hurl the spears at each other, but you had to get height on the spear and watch as it made its arc down, careful not to lose track, if you lost the flight of the spear, well that ended up with casualties, one of the McCaffery boys that morning had a javelin go straight through his foot, so no football for him, now the football game had started, of course I was not interested in the football game. No I was after my brother's bike, you see I did not have a bike and he did (which I thought was really unfair), of course it had never crossed my mind that my Dad was working night and day in a car factory and only just managing to put food on the table.

Now to steal your brother's bike you had to be sly, sly as a fox, you couldn’t just run up and jump on the bike and make your escape, not at all, because Johnny my brother would be on me like a flash and I would get a good crack around the head, no what you have to do is look like the last thing you were going to do is make off with your brother's bike. So I pretended I was watching the football, to anyone looking at me they would have said,  'God look at that kid he is really watching that game of football,' Ha it was all part of the plan because even though I looked like I was watching the football I was secretly inching my way towards the bikes, every now and then my brother would look up sharply to see what I was up to, as I had nicked his bike several times before, but today he would see me not about to steal a bike.

Now was the next part of my very clever, very sly plan, I walked over to the javelins and picked one up and was really interested in its sharp tip even going as far as touching the point and making a face, Ouch that’s sharp.

Then my moment was here, the moment I had been waiting for, "Lost ball" the cry went up. The ball had been kicked into someone’s front garden now when the "Lost ball" cry is shouted the rule is everyone is to stand still, and whoever kicked the ball has to go and get it, and my brother had kicked the ball so he had to get it, with a quick glance at me to see if I was in bike-stealing mode, nope Horace was studying a javelin's sharp point, and of course nobody ever stood still like they were supposed to, everyone jockeying for position, and lots of shouting.

Get back where you’re supposed to be O'Brien, you big fat cheat, fuck off Mills I didn’t move an inch, by this time Johnny had reached the gate with another quick glance at me he went into the garden.

As soon as he was out of sight I made my move. I dropped the javelin and ran for Johnny’s bike and I was up and away running beside the bike, then threw my leg up and over the cross bar and started peddling like the devil himself, now I couldn’t reach the pedals if I sat down so I was standing up one foot on each pedal, my heart was banging like a drum and my hands were shaking on the handle bars, and a big smile on my face, Ha Ha I think I’ve made it, you’ll not see this bike for the rest of the day Johnny Martin, of course the cry had already gone up, JOHNNY JOHNNY HE'S GOT YOUR BIKE, I looked back over my shoulder to see if Johnny was gaining on me, and was surprised to see he was just standing there with a javelin in his hand, no he was actually getting ready to throw it, Ha you’ll never reach me from there Johnny, then he ran a few steps toward me and launched the javelin, straight away I could see it was a great throw and was headed straight at me, I turned my head to the front to make sure I would get away, ahggahhh, Johnny got me right in the back of my thigh, I fell off the bike and lay there crying with a spear sticking out of the back of my leg.

Mick O'Brien was clearly delighted Johnny had scored a hit, Jesus Johnny what a throw that was brilliant, best throw I’ve seen all week, you were like a fucking Zulu warrior when you threw that, Jesus that was great, Will you shut the fuck up O'Brien, said Jim Mills, you’re the biggest gobshite that ever walked, little Horace has a spear in his leg.

Johnny was kneeling down beside me, are you alright Horace? How am I alright Johnny there’s a spear sticking out the back of my leg, I said.

And I’m telling Mum, you’ll see I’m telling, I said, and with that I got to my feet and started for our house, dragging the spear stuck in my leg behind me, and working up a good sobbing cry to make sure my brother got in real trouble. It was at this point the spear fell out of my leg, Ha Ha said Johnny Mum won’t believe you now you don’t even have the spear sticking in your leg. Well that got me thinking, that’s for sure, Johnny was right my Mum would take one look at me and Johnny standing on the front step and tell us, "Will you boys just get the hell out of here and stop bothering me." No it was no good if the spear wasn’t stuck in my leg Mum would never go for it, so I stopped, picked up the spear, and pushed it firmly back into the hole it had come out of, oh Jesus, said Jim Mills, fucking tornados, your brother is off his rocker, said Mick O'Brien, did ya see that, did ya see that, he stuck the spear back into the hole in his leg.

Will you shut up O'Brien, we have eyes for God sake, of course we saw it, this was said by Jim Mills, by this time I was walking again, but just as I got to or garden gate the fecking spear fell out again.

So I walked up to the front door, knocked,  and quickly stuck the spear back into my leg. I then turned to Johnny and made my best, “You're in big trouble now Mister" face, and to my delight Johnny was looking very worried indeed. Just then Mum opened the door, she had been doing the washing and her hands were all soapy, washing machines did not exist back then and Mum had four kids and a husband to wash for so she was always frazzled. What now she asked, so I started to tell Mum the evil my brother had done to me.

Trouble was every time I opened my mouth to say something Johnny started talking really loud behind me, "He stole me bike Mum, he stole me bike Mum, Mum he stole me bike," he keep saying this every time I would try to talk. At this point Mum was looking back and forth between us, in the end she got fed up with our antics an said SHUT UP THE PAIR OF YOU, and as I was the closest I got a crack around my head, Now get the hell out of here the both of you, and she shut the door, leaving me mad as mad can be, and Johnny rubbing his hands together and smiling from ear to ear.

Well that night there was a big hullabaloo at home. Dad was mad at Johnny for stabbing me with the spear, You boys are supposed to be brothers and helping each other not beating the tar out of each other every five minutes. Dad unlike our Mum never raised his voice and in all our childhoods never once hit any of us. He had this trick of if he was speaking to us and we weren’t listening, he would stop and look at us, that was all, just look, so that in the end you would be near begging him to talk to you. He then started talking to me; Horace and what are you thinking stealing your brother's bike every chance you get. That was my cue to have my tantrum, Dad that’s not fair how come he gets to have a bike and I don’t, all the other lads go off for a ride and I have to stay at home, and on and on I went, when I finally stopped.

Dad said Are you done now.

I nodded.

Good he said, here sit on my knee.

So I sat on his knee, You know son you don’t have a bike right now, but it isn’t always going to be like this, right.

Right Dad.

Good, now shall we go to bed?

I nodded, and off to bed I went.

A week or so later I was walking in the rain on my way home from school and I heard, Hey Horace.

I turned around and there was Johnny on his bike.

Would you like a ride home, he said, I nodded and jumped onto the cross bar. Johnny was eating a bag of crisps, Here he said finish this for me will you, so on the way home eating a bag of crisps riding on the cross bar of Johnny’s bike, all I could think of was I had the best brother in the world.

Now not long after that Johnny was looking after me as Mum and Dad had gone out for the night. Johnny had his friend over Noel Whelan, and wouldn’t you know it the talk soon got around to Johnny’s amazing throw with the javelin. In fact some of the lads, Jim O'Brien for one, had started calling my brother, ZULU JOHNNY, a title Johnny didn’t seem to mind, and a title I hated.

So its true then Noel was saying, the spear was hanging out of his leg, the spear that Johnny Zulu threw, then the spear fell out and the big ejeet stuck the spear back into his leg, then Whelan the big actor, rolled around on the floor as if it was the funniest thing he had ever heard, meanwhile I sat at the table with my arms crossed and a very grim look on my face.

What really made me do what I did was when Noel started singing that stupid song, and before you knew it Johnny was singing with Noel, then they both started dancing around the room doing some sort of war dance, like they were carrying spears,


Well that’s when I went completely off me trolley, I went out in the back yard to the coal shed as I knew Johnny was hiding a bow and arrow set in there, this was because Dad did not let us have BB guns, or bow and arrows, on account that he was sure one of us would be dead before we were twenty, and he said” I am not going to give you ammunition to hasten your demise.” So there was the bow and arrow set hanging on the back if the coal shed door, a great hiding place to be sure, I mean who looks at the back of the door when you’re out getting coal. And the arrows were beautiful things altogether, big long things with feather flights and steel tip points, and I loaded an arrow onto the bow and walked back in the room, where everyone was dancing and singing at my expense, Hey I’m looking to kill me a Zulu warrior do you know where I can find one?

When Noel Whelan saw the bow and arrow he said, Jesus Christ, and disappeared out the front door, leaving me and Johnny in the big showdown. Hey you, I said, is your name Zulu Johnny? Johnny looked at me and said Horace for the love of God stop pointing that thing at me, and then he did the exact wrong thing, he let out a little nervous giggle. Up until that point I wasn’t going to fire the thing, but that made me mad all over again, I closed my eyes and let the arrow go, as soon as I did, I thought, I shouldn’t have done that. When I opened my eyes Johnny was pinned to the kitchen door, it looked as if the arrow had gone through his shoulder, we later found out it had just cut a two-inch groove in his skin and what was really pinning him to the door was the sweater that he was wearing. Take it out, take it out, said Johnny.

Well now I was in a dilemma, if I took the arrow out I was going to get a clatter, so I said No. What are you talking about Horace take it out, Ehh no, you’ll tell Dad. I won’t Horace, I promise, this went on for a few minutes back and forth until I finally took out the arrow, and I took the clatter around the head like a man.

And Johnny was good to his word and never told Dad.

A few months later it was Christmas and Johnny woke me up on Christmas morning. Horace quick come look, you have a cracker of a present downstairs, so I bolted down the stairs as fast as I could go. On the way down it occurred to me that Johnny might be having a grand old laugh at my expense, but I burst through the living room door and there was Mum and Dad standing side by side with an arm each around the other, both smiling ear to ear, both with glassy eyes like they had been standing in the wind .

And there by the Christmas tree was the most beautiful bike you have ever seen in your life, brand new, never been ridden, fire engine red, with drop handle bars, the word "Triumph" was written on the frame, with five gears, Jesus five gears like them fellas who ride across mountains and such, and a great big bow sitting on the saddle. Lost for words I stood and cried.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012


As you may remember, in the summer of 2011 I did a retreat with Br. Joseph F. Schmidt, FSC, a devotee and scholar of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I was already quite taken with his book, Everything is Grace, and posted--some might say OVER-posted--on his insights. (The first of a series of four ran on 7.28.11 and the next three directly follow).

Now Br. Joe has a new book: Walking the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux,

I identify strongly with Thérèse's over-sensitivity, the wrong kind of people-pleasing, the violence of our intense reactions against others and against ourselves, the way our efforts to whip ourselves into shape are utterly, fatally doomed...In fact, I can't imagine that a human being who has deeply examined his or heart could do anything but identify with St. Thérèse, as described in this book.  Her confluence of the psychological and the spiritual is very much of, and deeply relevant to, our times.

Br. Joseph breaks every incident of Thérèse's life down: the early death of her mother; the Christmas eve "second conversion" when, at the age of 14, and in the space of a few seconds, Therese transformed from a neurotically self-centered adolescent to a mature young woman who would achieve almost unparalleled spiritual genius; the loving way she dealt with her borderline personality Superior, Mother Marie de Gonzague; the crotchety old nun Thérèse took it upon herself to accompany each night after Vespers to the refectory; her slow, agonizing death, at the age of 24, from TB. He shows how, guided by little other than fervent prayer, the Sacraments, an intelligent, tender heart, and a close reading of the Gospels, her actions and thought evolved.

Here's an excerpt called "A Way That is New."

In her maturity Thérèse came to refer to her path of love as a little way, a way that is . . . totally new (SS 207)*. Her little way is, of course, not new in the sense that it really is “the fundamental mystery, the reality of the Gospel that the Spirit of God allowed her heart to reveal directly to the people of our time,” as Pope John Paul II said in proclaiming her a Doctor of the Church (DAS 10).**

However, Thérèse’s little way can be considered“new,”since it is a way of spirituality that had been lost to the common religious teaching. By rediscovering Jesus’ spirituality of love, Thérèse has rediscovered the treasure hidden in a field; she has grasped the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46). Her little way is the newly unearthed cache of gold, the treasure of apostolic faith that had been hidden beneath the misunderstandings of the prevailing spirituality, buried in the field of the common sense of the conventional wisdom, the culture of violence and death of our times.

Thérèse’s “intimate sense of spiritual realities” provides through the vision and life of a contemporary young woman a new, fresh, creative expression of Jesus’ teaching of love without violence. Thérèse’s little way offers a new emphasis in the developing understanding of the apostolic faith as that understanding“makes progress in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit” (DAS 7). Thérèse’s little way, therefore, contributes to the Church’s development of doctrine in our time by proclaiming a spirituality that negates any violence that might linger in a mistaken understanding of the Church’s authentic teaching.

As we noted, Thérèse’s spirituality in particular shines the Gospel light on the violence hidden in Jansenism, perfectionism, and Pelagianism. These errors poisoned the spirituality of Thérèse’s day and continue in various forms to contaminate religion in our own time. Among other errors,  there is a mistaken belief that a so-called “good” or “sacred” violence can be used to end the perceived evil in oneself or others. This “good” violence is often thought to be pleasing to a vengeful, punitive God. Thérèse simply rejected all aspects of these notions.

Specifically, she rejected violence, not violently but by being more and more available to the source of love. She resisted violence and subverted it, serenely bearing its pain, resisting its contamination, opening herself more fully to God’s love, and quietly living and teaching her little way of love.

In her maturity she managed relationships without the codependency of her youth, setting appropriate boundaries of detachment and self-protection. She avoided violence to herself, fleeing situations that she could not cope with but returning without resentment or revenge. The inevitable violence that she encountered in her life of love, violence that she could not end, she diminished with patience and kindness but without masochism or self-pity. She resisted being violent to others through faith and prayer, not engaging in rivalry or gossip. When in a position of authority, she acted responsibly but without compulsion or arrogance, requiring obedience but without overpowering. She made judgments without condemning and corrected without retaliation. She avoided the violence of striving for perfectionism and resisted the violence of excessive fear or guilt in failing. Her spiritual discipline was not self-punitive but consisted in maintaining awareness and faith as she established her identity, security, and self-worth in her union with God. In all of this she combated evil but without using evil’s means.

By living a life of love and revealing what loving might feel like and look like, Thérèse has become a “living icon of God,” as Pope John Paul II called her. She manifests the feminine face of God, “who shows his almighty power in his mercy and forgiveness” (DAS 8). Her understanding that God desires love without violence is a “new” modern lens through which to read the signs of our time and a light of hope in the darkness of contemporary confusion and conflict.

* Story of a Soul, Thérèse's autobiography
** Divini Amoris Scientia, Apostolic Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II

Br. Joe's insight that the heart of Therese's spirituality is the utterly nonviolent nature of God's love can hardly be overemphasized. How incredible, how glorious, how difficult, what an ongoing scandal that the way to end abortion, war and violence of all kinds is to be kind to the crabby person beside us at home, at work, at school, in the line at the Post Office...It is somehow the last thing we want to hear--because to be kind to people toward whom we do not feel a natural affection or preference seems to be the hardest, least glamorous, least glittery, least outwardly interesting, attractive, or compelling thing imaginable.

And it is exactly what Christ taught

Inwardly, of course, the call to love is the pilgrim's journey: the most interesting, the most compelling, the most perilous, the most radical undertaking.

But read Br. Joseph's book. It will give you a whole new appreciation of the crazy paradox that this bourgeois French schoolgirl became one of the most important spiritual figures of our time. It will give you a whole new sense that your own outwardly meager, mostly unseen, often seemingly pathetic hero's journey will somehow, someday, bear fruit. It will make you really, really, grateful for central heating and morphine.

"Like You, my Adorable Spouse, I would be scourged
and crucified. I would die flayed like St. Bartholomew. I would be
plunged into boiling oil like St. John; I would undergo all the tortures
inflicted upon the martyrs."

Monday, December 10, 2012


Wassily Kandinsky described his paints as:

“jubilant, sumptuous, reflective, dreamy, absorbed in themselves, with deep seriousness or a mischievous sparkle…those strange beings we call colors came out one after another, living in and for themselves, autonomous, endowed with all the qualities need for their future autonomous life….At times it seemed to me that whenever the paintbrush…tore away part of that living being which is a color, it gave birth to a musical sound.”


Recently I read a magazine piece about an evangelical mega-pastor who was involved in a much-ado-about-nothing theological controversy, wore out his welcome in the mid-West, washed up on the shores of Southern California, and is trying to raise the funds to found his own church here.

The piece described a men's retreat he hosted at a tony Orange County beach. The guys surfed (rented wetsuits and boards were available), they ate, they publicly prayed for each other. The emotional finale consisted of the men coming up one by one and the would-be pastor holding each person’s left shoulder with his right hand, making eye contact, placing a piece of bread in their hands, and saying, "The Body of Christ, broken for you."

I kept thinking of Hazel Motes, the protagonist of the Flannery O'Connor novel, Wise Blood, and his Church without Christ.

Because there’s a world of difference between the Eucharist and a loaf of bread.   There’s a world of difference between devoting your life to the Church Christ built upon Peter and working to build your own personal church. There’s a world of difference between a priest with two thousand years of history, tradition, experience, and the Sacrament of Holy Orders behind him, and a lone wolf/ lost sheep who purports to "think outside the box."

There is no bigger box than Christ. There is no, nor could there ever be, any higher intimacy than eating the Body and drinking the Real Blood of Christ: bread and wine that has been knelt before, prayed over, consecrated,and placed into the mouth or hands of the faithful by a priest who is in direct apostolic succession to the first Apostles and with Christ himself; bread and wine that has been transubstantiated into what we believe to be the Real Body and the Real Blood and that when we become Catholics, we in effect pledge to die for.

To try to heighten the intimacy through the cult of personality and a fund-raising church of one is not to serve, to adore, to worship Christ's Body and Blood but somehow, horrifyingly (if however unintentionally), to traffic in it.

We don't have cults of personality in the Church; we have martyrs and saints. We have priests who, however individually imperfect, undergo long, arduous training and who pledge obedience to an authority infinitely higher than themselves.  We don't have feel-good fests, we have the Mass, the Sacrament of Sacraments, which can look outwardly unremarkable, uninspired, even dull, and at the heart of which is the incoherently sacred mystery, the sacrifice of an incarnate God, upon which we believe the salvation of the world hangs.

Fellowship, bonding, publicly praying for one another is wonderful, but there’s a world of difference between fellowship generated by following a mere human being and Communion in the Mystical Body of Christ. “Something within you has a longing," the pastor counsels an uncertain retreatant. "You have a bucket--I call that a God-bucket. And I wouldn't go much further than that.”

We’re seekers all. But can anyone imagine going to the Pope for direction and having him respond, "I wouldn't go much further than a God-bucket?" What sets the disciple of Christ apart is this. Feel good, feel bad: you’re in for life. A sword’s pierced your heart. You're no longer on your own. You’ve staked your life.

Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes
in John Huston's 1979 adaptation of "Wise Blood".