Wednesday, May 29, 2013


"I have too often been wounded by ‘intelligent’ people, disconcerted by unloving champions of orthodoxy or by self-advertising revolutionaries who are incapable of an act of humility.

Wishing to protect my poor soul from the babble of useless talk, I took up once more the simple rosary that my mother had wanted me to recite daily when I was a boy...I put more and more faith in the simplicity of the Gospel, and I can appreciate the concern of Christ when he said to his friends: ‘Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’

To become like little children is not easy for men as riddled with pride as we are; that is why Jesus warned us so uncompromisingly: ‘You will never enter!’

I realize that no one will believe me, but I have no hesitation about affirming that a serious beginning is made in the spiritual life the moment a man makes a genuine act of humility. So often for most men the early stages of faith, or, in the case of others its development, is blocked, poisoned, distorted, or relegated to an everlasting tomorrow by our inability to become like a little child and to cast ourselves, in the spirit of a child, into the enfolding arms of God’s mystery.

We try to show God how clever we are, when no class of men is so abhorrent to the Gospel; we want to lay down conditions to the Eternal and Infinite One, but the Infinite does not respond, and the Eternal allows time to destroy us."

--Carlo Carretto, In Search of the Beyond


Monday, May 27, 2013


Published on Apr 30, 2013
3-minute video of Frank Simmonds of Brooklyn, NY (who suffers from advanced-stage neuroendocrine cancer) speaking about the meaning of suffering. He asks not to be pitied, but to be accompanied.

Published on May 15, 2013
Frank's second video where he speaks frankly about his experience. "I am part of a community, a companionship of friends and loved ones who help me realize that God is with us right here, right now, and His humanity is the evidence."

I did an interview with Frank's wife Rita several months back on the sacrament of marriage. You can find it here.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


"American Legion Convention, Dallas, Texas" is a disorganized slice-of-life on a street corner. One elderly veteran has his arms crossed over his chest and looks up at the sky. Another stands looking out into space, his hands in his pockets. Other people wait to cross the street. A man slouches against the building. And an apparently legless man lies on the pavement, his forearms extended like paws.
The photograph was taken in 1964, but it comes across as neither a patriotic nor an anti-Vietnam War statement. (Winogrand abandoned his interest in politics during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis because, he said, of the feeling it gave him of his own powerlessness.) The power of the image comes from the vacuum that has formed around the legless man. But you can read into it whatever you wish, or nothing at all."
--From a June 28, 1989 art review by LA Time staff writer Cathy Curtis on the photographs of Garry Winogrand entitled "Winogrand's Camera Prowls the Street."

Saturday, May 25, 2013


I was going to go out the other night. But I was so enraptured by these peonies I bought at Trader Joe's that I stayed home just to be near them.

Thursday, May 23, 2013



Out in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania recently, I was kneeling in a grotto praying, and suddenly I had an overwhelming sense of not being able to contain myself! I wanted to burst out of myself, like a sprouting seed, or a bud exploding into bloom, or a chick cracking through its eggshell. We want to be more than ourselves! And then we come back to ourselves: meager, limited, broken...and then we get to laugh.

My mother died last fall and that is effecting a deep tectonic shift. When you're younger, you tend to think the childhood wounds will disappear with age; instead, I'm seeing ever more clearly how mine have driven me  all my life. As my friend Brian observed: "You've had challenges recently." That's Southern California-speak for near psychotic break.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa has a chapter entitled "Visitors to the Farm."

Lately, I have had some visitors to my own farm!

Last week, young (23) Austin Ashcraft was blowing through town to interview for teaching positions in Orange County. He bravely made the trip north to L.A. in rush hour, appearing at my door in time for a cup of strong coffee. We made our way to 7 p.m. Mass at Holy Trinity, to Indochine for Vietnamese noodles, and then to the Casbah Cafe where Austin enjoyed a carrot cupcake and I observed (it was close to 10), "You young folks surely have lots of energy!"

He is off to Africa with a friend, poised to light the world on fire, and I got a huge kick out of getting to spend time with him.

Then Monday afternoon I was returning from jury duty in downtown L.A. when I rec'd an email:

"Hi Heather,

You don't know me, and we've never met. But my family is passing through LA today (we are from the north country of Portland,Oregon) and after seeing your blog post about you walk through the neighborhood near St. Francis of Assisi Catholic church after your morning Mass, we decided to pull of the highway and see the neighborhood.

"Hello Jesus!" I just said to the kids (I have 5). We are parked outside of the church you wrote about and can hear the children playing in their schoolyard. It is a peaceful, welcome turnoff from the highway.

If this email happens to go to your phone, and you'd like to have a cup of coffee, or stand on the sidewalk in the sunshine to shake hands, shoot me a text. Number below. :)."

Part of me thought, Oh for the love of heaven, I need to catch up on some work. And the other part thought, You're going to go home and make a giant cup of coffee: why not invite these folks over? So I emailed back, and ten minutes later a van pulled up and out spilled, Sia (long i, who is pregnant), her husband Justin, and their four kids: Aidan, 7; Eli, 6; Micah, 4; and Hazel, 2. 

We settled in at the big long white table on the veranda.  Sia told me a bit about her background, which included being raised on a farm among the Alleghenies, several siblings, and a love for Appalachian music.

So I said, "Oh yes, I have spent some time in Appalachia. Why just a couple of months ago I was in Pittsburgh, and this lovely woman picked me up and brought me to her farm outside Steubenville. In fact you look a lot like her. Her name was Dru Hoyt."

Whereupon Sia and Justin looked at each other really hard, and Sia said--"Dru Hoyt is my mother." And we all shrieked "Oh my God!" "No!" "How weird is that?" for about five straight minutes.

Anyhoo, we had a grand old chat. This is just how I enjoy children: in hour-long stretches, with their parents present. Every so often, I'd feel a butterfly-like fluttering on my side or wrist, and would look down to see a little hand and a small face bestowing the MOST beatific smile.  The kids speared fountain algae with sticks, inquired as to the difference between goldfish and koi, and drew. We grownups talked about money, vocation, and the fact that Catholicism is all about enjoying good food, good beer, good coffee, good sunglasses, and in Justin's case, the music of Ryan Adams.

Thank you, visitors to the farm!

Sunday, May 19, 2013



In The New American Militarism, Andrew Bacevich writes:

“The marriage of military metaphysics with eschatological ambition is a misbegotten one, contrary to the long-term interests of either the American people or the world beyond our borders. It invites endless war and the ever-deepening militarization of U.S. policy. As it subordinates concern for the common good to the paramount value of military effectiveness, it promises not to perfect but to distort American ideals. As it concentrates ever more authority in the hands of a few more concerned with order abroad rather than with justice at home, it will accelerate the hollowing out of American democracy. As it alienates peoples and nations around the world, it will leave the United States increasingly isolated. If history is any guide, it will end in bankruptcy, moral as well as economic, and in abject failure.”

Bacevich is no aging peacenik toting a “What If They Gave a War and Nobody Came? sign: he’s a professor of international relations at BU and a retired career Army officer who lost a son in Iraq

One of the most terrifying and cold-blooded  weapons ever devised is the remotely-controlled military drone. In Drift, Rachel Maddow describes the anonymous ops who work from air-conditioned comfort in suburbia, picking off targets from  thousands of miles away. “The Air Force joystick operators show up at their virtual consoles in actual flight suits; they call the video feed there Death TV, and they have a name for the Pakistanis on the ground who make a run for it when they see the drone approach: ‘squirters.’”  

That by some accounts half the U.S. budget is given over to the military should give us profound pause. That the number one cause of death among U.S. soldiers is suicide should lead us to bow our heads in mourning. "If you think you know the one thing that causes people to commit suicide, please let us know," (now-retired) Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli told the Army Times in2010, "because we don't know what it is." 

Here's what it is: the human soul is neither formed for nor meant to commit systematic, institutionalized, state-sanctioned violence. Murder is murder and at some point the human soul breaks beneath its weight, as it should.

The violence we direct at others from behind closed doors, from classified compounds, from hidden torture chambers—and that is accepted without resistance from both political parties and largely, to our shame, in the Church—is not protecting our freedom. It is steadily diminishing our freedom. It is breeding ever more violence. It is turning us against ourselves from within.

In our arrogance, we think we can contain the violence we unleash upon the targets of our hatred. But we are deeply, willfully naïve if we think those U.S. military personnel playing "Death TV" are not splattering blood in all directions. We delude ourselves if we think that, from their air-conditioned consoles they are “only” picking off suspected terrorists in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Yemen. We are very much in error to refer to the civilian men, women and children who happen to be in harm's way as their collateral damage.   

They--we--are lining up the Amish schoolgirls.
We are shooting the children of Sandy Hook.
We are aiming at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Saturday, May 18, 2013



In the measure that a Christian professes his faith and tries to live it he becomes a “misfit” to both believers and non-believers alike. This happens because the Gospel will not cease until the end of time to be News (Good News) for both Jews and Gentiles alike.

The oddball character of the Christian stems purely and simply from his resemblance to Jesus Christ, the resemblance to Jesus that is infused into a person at baptism and which, passing through his heart, comes out right to the very nerve endings of his being.

Just as the human face is made up of features—the two eyes, the nose, the mouth—whatever the age, mentality, or color the person may be, so the resemblance that a Christian has to Jesus Christ consists in the very character traits of Christ. This is true whether the disciple is intelligent or unintelligent, whether he is called to suffer a little or a lot and whether he is in a high position or a low position in the world.

This character of being a “misfit” is not cause by his being a remarkable man and someone who is noticed nor is it this that entitles him to the name Christian; it is the rejection of and removal from his own life of everything that would destroy its resemblance to Jesus Christ. It is not the dazzling achievements of the Christian that make him different, it is the fact that Christ, always the same Christ, is showing his face through this human face.

Madeleine Delbrêl, The Joy of Believing


Friday, May 17, 2013


The other morning, after 8 o'clock Mass, I left the church and started walking home. I took the long way, up Micheltorena through the winding hills of Silver Lake and down through Descanso. I passed a couple, standing in their driveway by their respective cars, getting ready to go to work.

"Bye, baby," the gal said. "Bye, honey," the guy said.

I thought of the Eucharist: with me, in me.
I thought: That’s me and Christ.

Monday, May 13, 2013



I am back from leading a retreat for recovering women in Malvern, Pennsylvania, and I am reeling. From the strength and stories and laughs from these incredible women, the suffering they have endured, their flowering hearts. The atom bomb had nothing on the power of love that was palpable in that circle of women all weekend.

We had the working poor and socialites, the young and the old, women who'd been sober 30-plus years and women who hadn't quite, just yet, put down the drink. We had women whose children had died of ODs,  women with siblings born with fetal alcohol syndrome, women whose kids had been taken away from them because of their drinking and drugging and because they were sober, had gotten the kids back, and raised them, and gone back to college and graduated magna cum laude and the kids are in college now, too. We had mothers whose children were bipolar, or with abusive partners, or having panic attack, mothers with eating disorders, women, like me, who had never been and are never going to be mothers.We had women who had just lost their mothers, women who had just lost their husbands, women who were caring for their aging parents, alone. We had two sets of blood sisters, women who came with posses of their sober sisters,  a pair of ex-college roommates, women who had come to the retreat, in fear and trembling, alone, because they wanted to get better.

If you have never gotten that close to the beating heart of the world, you are missing out. If you have never looked into the eyes of a human being who has suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as a child that would have felled a lesser person--and who is telling you, "I have to get better. Because I'm worth something"--you have not entirely lived.

Early Sunday morning, I sat for awhile by the coffee machine with a woman who had come all the way from Washington, D.C., by train and chauffered car. I'd been there when she walked through the door Friday night,  eyes downcast, shaking with anxiety. "I'm so afraid," she'd whispered.

All weekend, we women had shared our brokenness, and out of that collective wound had arisen a strange, rejuvenating hope and strength and sense of purpose, as if we'd been infused with new blood. Now by the coffee machine Sunday morning, this gal said, "I have a great favor to ask of you--would you pray for me?" I said, "Of course I will. You've touched my heart and the heart of everyone here."

And then she said, "I'd like to do one more thing. May I pray for you? Is there something you'd like me to pray, for you?"

I gazed into that dear human face for a second, and then I put my head down on the table and wept. I had given everything I had. It was the first retreat I'd ever led and I'd given literally everything I had: my heart, my body, my sleep. But that this woman, who had suffered so much and come so far, would pray for me? 

I said, "Pray for my strength, if you would. Pray that I'm strong enough to endure the gifts that have been given to me."

Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest.

Healthy people don't need a doctor; sick people do.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.

The road of happy destiny.
Best overhead line of the weekend:
"Here's the difference between me and God.
God doesn't get up up in the morning and think He's me."
Thank you from my heart, girls.
Let's carry  it on.

Friday, May 10, 2013


I am at the beautiful Malvern Retreat House in Chester Cy. Pennsylvania, poised to lead a Matt Talbot weekend retreat for women.

Matt Talbot (1856-1925) was an Irish drunk who was struck sober, became deeply pious, died 40 years later on a Dublin street, and was found to have all manner of chains and cords tied about his body.

My way has been a lot easier and a lot softer but I am in deep solidarity the suffering of all alcoholics.

The 125-acre grounds have grottoes, woodland trails, and Stations of the Cross.



Tuesday, May 7, 2013


While in Pittsburgh last February, I spent a single memorable night, courtesy of Fr. Joe Sedley, at the St. Paul Monastery, Church and Retreat House in South Pittsburgh.

The men at St. Paul are Passionist priests. They serve the neighborhood as well as their retreatants. Their charism is hospitality.

Fr. Joe, who is 77, had e-mailed me when he read I was coming his way. “Love to meet up if you have time,” he said. He acted like I was doing him a favor instead of the other way around.

The Saturday afternoon we'd arranged for him to pick me up, he was leading a retreat and drove across town on his break.  His 2004 Ford Focus looked like it had made many such trips; I imagined him fetching anawim of various stripes from near and far as we made our way to St. Paul's.

At the monastery, Father helped me with my bags to the retreat house office, and introduced me to Dottie,  a volunteer with a slight limp who welcomed me warmly and allowed that she was scheduled for knee surgery in two days.

Then Father showed me around--the dining hall, the chapel, the sacristy to the old neighborhood church.  Here we came upon Loretta Diehl, a petite redhead who was bent over an ironing board with “just a stack of altar cloths!”

“Loretta about runs this place,” Fr. Joe chuckled.

“How long as she been here?” I asked as we toured the sanctuary. In a niche to the side, statues of St. Gemma Galgani. St. Gabriel, and St. Theresa of Avila were bathed in an otherworldly green light.

“Loretta?” Father mused. “Let’s see, she’s been volunteering her services now for over 40 years or so.”

Back in the residency area, Fr. Joe had managed to score me one of the coveted newly-refurbished rooms. I settled in and ambled down to dinner: killer spaghetti and meatballs.

I slept like a lamb.

Some of the women had taken shifts, or been up all night, before the Blessed Sacrament. Like the worker who came late to the vineyard, I appeared in the chapel at 6:30 a.m., half an hour before the Eucharist was to be reposed. The first person I saw, sitting quietly to the right, was a freshly-shaven Fr. Joe.

After morning prayer, he introduced me to Fr. Mike Salvagna, who promptly lent me to keys to the crypt. “Bring ‘em back to me at breakfast,” said Fr. Mike. Never seen me before. Total trust.

Mass for us retreatants was to be held in the chapel. But first, I wanted to see those statues again. So I walked through the sacristy toward the main church, where it turned out the 10 a.m. parish Mass was about to be celebrated.

A priest I hadn’t met was looking out the window and gathering himself. He probably could have done without a stranger traipsing through his sacristy before Mass, but if so, he didn’t betray that by the slightest sound or movement or body language. He neither acknowledged me nor ignored me. He included me. He incorporated me. His face is stamped on my memory. Not the features, but the quality of the gaze.

After Mass, I got to sit in on Fr. Joe’s last talk. He was a wonderful speaker: funny, deep, and with a delivery all his own. I was spellbound and could have listened to him for hours. Instead, true to form, he turned the podium over to me for 15 minutes. I got up and basically cried, after which several dear women, I’m sure inspired entirely by Fr. Joe’s home-spun holiness, bought my book.

It may not seem like much, that humble monastery. We left its walls and returned to the “real” world. But  back in L.A., assaulted by the usual news of abused children, torture victims, the bombs built by a pair of brothers, my mind has returned again and again to those homely scenes:

Fr. Joe, praying before the Blessed Sacrament.
Dottie, welcoming the stranger.
Fr. Mike, trusting the resident alien.
Loretta, head bent to the endless work of pressing and folding and stacking altar cloths.
An anonymous priest, his weary face raised to the light.

Upon this rock I will build my church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.


The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection is by an Episcopal priest, husband, and father named Robert Farrar Capon.

It's quirky, opinionated, and beautifully written. I highly recommend it.

Capon spends several chapters telling how to make a meal for 8 four different times out of a single leg of lamb: Main ingredient: "1 leg of lamb (The largest the market will provide. If you are no good with a kitchen saw, have the chops and the shank cut through. Do not, however, let the butcher cut it up. If he does, you will lose eight servings and half the fun.".

Like that.

There's an ode to baking soda, a jeremiad against electric serving knives, a reflection (generated by his wife's learning to make spaetzle) that we should either fast or eat to our heart's content, but on no account should be engage in the kind of angst-ridden persnickety calorie-counting that drives ourselves and everyone else crazy.

On being an amateur cook:

"There, then, is the role of the amateur: to look the world back to grace. There, too, is the necessity of his work: His tribe must be in short supply; his job has gone begging. The world looks as if it has been left in the custody of a pack of trolls. Indeed, the whole distinction between art and trash, between food and garbage, depends on the presence or absence of a loving eye. Turn a statue over to a boor, and his boredom would break it to bits—witness the ruined monuments of antiquity. On the other hand, turn a shack over to a lover; for all its poverty, its lights and shadows warm a little, and its numbed surfaces prickle with feeling."

At one point, he instructs the reader to set aside an hour and deconstruct an ordinary brown onion:

“Then look. The myth of sphericity is finally dead. The onion, as now displayed, is plainly all vectors, risers and thrusts. Tongues of fire. But the Pentecost they mark is that of nature, not grace: the Spirit’s first brooding on the face of the waters….:

For somehow, beneath this gorgeous paradigm of unnecessary being, lies the Act by which it exists. You have just now reduced it to its parts, shivered it into echoes, and pressed it to a memory, but you have also caught the hint that a thing is more than the sum of all the insubstantialities that comprise it. Hopefully, you will never again argue that the solidities of the world are mere matters of accident, creatures of air and darkness, temporary and meaningless shapes out of nothing. Perhaps now you have seen at least dimly that the uniquenesses of creation are the result of continuous creative support, of effective regard by no mean lover. He likes onions, therefore they are. The fit, the colors, the smell, the tensions, the tastes, the textures, the lines, the shapes are a response, not to some forgotten decree that there may as well be onions as turnips, but to His present delight—His intimate and immediate joy in all you have seen, and in the thousand other wonders you do not even suspect. With Peter, the onion says, Lord, it is good for us to be here. Yes, says God. Tov. Very good."

Monday, May 6, 2013


...[W]e, living and growing personalities, are required to become ever more spiritualized, ever more and more persuasive, more and more deeply real; in order that we may fulfil [our] Divine purpose.

This is not mere pious fluff. This is a terribly practical job; the only way in which we can contribute to the bringing of the Kingdom of God. Humanitarian politics will not do it. Theological restatement will not do it. Holiness will do  it. And for this growth towards holinesss, it seems that it is needful to practice, and practice together, both that genuine peaceful recollection in which the soul tastes, and really knows that the Lord is sweet, inwardly abiding in His stillness and peace; and also the suffering, effort and tension required of us unstable human creatures, if we are to maintain that interior state and use it for the good of other men. This ideal is so rich, that in its wholeness it has only been satisfied once. Yet it is so elastic, that within it every faithful personality can find a place of opportunity and development. It means the practice of both attachment and detachment; the most careful and loving fulfilment of all our varied this-world obligations, without any slackening of attachment to the other-worldly love.

And if we want a theoretical justification of such a scheme of life, surely we have it in the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation? For does not this mean the Eternal, Changeless God reaching out to win and eternalize his Creatures by contact through personality? that the direct action of Divine Love on man is through man; and that God requires our growth in personality, in full being, in order that through us His love and holiness can more and more fully be expressed? And our Lord's life of ministry supported by much lonely prayer gives us the classic pattern of human correspondence with this, our two-fold environment. The saints tried to imitate that pattern more and more closely; and as they did so, their personality expanded and shone with love and power. They show us in history a growth and transformation of character which we are not able to grasp; yet which surely ought to be the Christian norm? In many cases they were such ordinary, even unpromising people when they began; for the real saint is neither a special creation nor a spiritual freak. He is just a human being in whom has been fulfilled the great aspiration of St. Augustine--"My life shall be a real life, being wholly full of Thee."

--Evelyn Underhill, Concerning the Inner Life

Link to a PBS piece on Underhill.