Tuesday, July 2, 2013


On Monday I posted Part I of some questions recently posed to me by George Goss, a NYC photographer who's discerning his vocation, possibly as a Dominican.

Here's Part II.

5. In “Shirt of Flame” I think I remember you mentioning how you stay away from politics. As a political science major I am all about reading up on the conflicts in the Middle East, etc. So, in matters of politics, it seems to me one of the paradoxes of the Catholic Church is its universality. Not in an abstract sense, but in the very real way of sitting a few pews away from Allan Colmes or belonging to the same parish as Nancy Pelosi’s daughter …. and as much as their “politics” annoy me to no end …. because we attend the same church community … it somehow doesn’t feel like a cop out…. It seems like in some very weird way we really are the body of Christ. Why does God work this way? He has a track record: Redemption through an instrument of brutal torture, Evangelization through one of his most adamant enemies (Saul/Paul) and yes a Church community built on people whose “politics” are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Is this God’s humor?

Oh, God totally has a sense of humor! A huge sense of paradox. A kind of “Good luck in trying to categorize, classify, manage, control and even up the jagged edges of THIS vale of tears”…

Of course we are called to participate in the world, and of course I’m interested in what’s going on in the world. But I see everything that goes on in the world through the lens of the Gospels. History to me simply bears out the prophecy of Christ. So what interests me is to see a super-power like the U.S. crumbling from within from spiritual corruption. The inevitability of violence turning in upon itself. The wages of our almost unimaginable hubris, arrogance, and lust for power. The way we tack the word God onto all manner of profoundly un-Godlike practices. As Catholics, we, too, have been so thoroughly imbued with the culture that we’re no longer able, if we ever were, to distinguish evangelization from rampant self-promotion. People whose houses are built on solid rock don’t have to go around foaming at the mouth, arguing, shouting, ridiculing their adversaries.

The problem is spiritual and the solution is spiritual, and that solution starts and ends in the individual human heart. Christ was both infinitely left and infinitely right, so bipartisan politics are never going to be the deepest measure and emblem of my faith. I can't abdicate my obligation to live out my life in  Christ to the U.S. government. I don't confuse our political system, any political system, with the Father of the Triune God.

The people who grab me are those who, under totalitarian dictatorships, repression, genocide, retained their faith, their humanity. Those are the people who were "last" here and in heaven will be front-and-center, meltingly first. I'm constantly reading memoirs of folks who survived death camps, labor camps, solitary confinement. In He Leadeth Me, Fr. Walter Ciszek describes the extraodinary lengths he and his fellow inmates would go to in order to celebrate the Eucharist in the Siberian labor camps. Already on starvation rations, they'd observe the Eucharistic fast from the night before till noon (or sometimes till six p.m.), find some dingy, freezing corner, lay out a purloined napkin and, under penalty of severe punishment if caught, celebrate Mass on a stump. It meant everything to them. They were literally sustained by the Body and Blood of Christ.

In bipartisan politics our identity can get tied up which party we belong to. Our “platform” becomes who we can bind together with and who, together, we can hate. The whole tenor of political discourse in our country is of bitterness, vitriol and hate, characteristics that in and of themselves are egregiously un-Christ-like. I mean I would be at Confession if I used the tone employed by some of even our most “notable” religious leaders/"media experts" when it comes to politics! (This may be the place to say I attribute about 80% of whatever small amount of sanity I may have to the fact that I don’t own a TV and seldom watch or listen to news).

A few years ago I quietly resigned from the California Bar (I'd already resigned from the Massachusetts and New Hampshire bars, of which I was also a member at one point). I no longer wanted to be bound by an oath that required me to uphold a Constitution that allows both abortion and torture, that spends more on the military than all the other nations of the world combined. Such a system is inherently, egregiously un-Christ-like. I did that not because I don’t love my country, but because I love my country so much.

So I guess you could call that political. In one way it was a gesture--I haven't turned in my passport, you'll notice--but it was also a gesture that closed the door on many years of study, the thousands of dollars I spent on law school, a whole segment of my life. "But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne(Matthew 5:34). “Let your message be 'Yes' for 'Yes' and 'No' for 'No.' Anything more than that comes from the evil one” Christ said (Matthew 5:37). In politics and the law, it is impossible to do so. Both systems are set up to, are based upon, “shading” the truth.

At the same time, I'm quite compliant and obedient, especially when it comes to Church, and have zero urge to defy authority for the sake of defying authority. I lived "off the grid" for so long, in all the wrong ways, as a drunk, I not only got that out of my system, ever after I've wanted nothing more than to participate in contribute to the world in as much integrity as I can.

We will be judged on how we treated the least of these. We will be judged on love. So yes, absolutely , we meet in the pews and this is the whole tragicomic beauty of it! We all have big ideals but can we be tolerant and generous and loving and kind to the darn person beside us at church? To our next-door neighbor, our friend, our kid, our employer or employee, our spouse? All the theology in the world stops short at the conflicted human heart. Put a suffering person in the midst of a bunch of theologians and they are stumped. We are all stumped. Fall in love and all the politics and theology in the world go out the window. Our hearts are pierced. What to do then? How to hold the tension of the mystery that there are no answers, no roadmap—only Christ…. I am way more concerned to see that my relationship with Him is right than I am to see the ‘right’ candidate elected.

On the other hand, thank the Lord there are people in the world, extroverts, who are drawn to public discourse, the marketplace, organizing large groups of people, governing. I am simply not one of them. I am always going to be off in the corner staring at the sky or minutely examining a flower.

6. You gave the example of how Saint Therese lived through a significant economic depression and yet she never mentioned any big political events. However, there is the conversion of Pranzini which seems capable of huge political significance. Any suggestions on how we as Catholics can authentically engage in the political life of our country? Pope Francis just warned us not to become an “ideological church.” That seems like a real challenge …

A conversion is not a political event; it’s a metaphyisical event; it’s a supernatural event. That something is “news” doesn’t mean its deepest significance is political. Politics is based on power, rights, domination, security, managing and controlling so we can get our way. The follower of Christ is not interested in power; the follower of Christ is interested, compelled, utterly absorbed by the desire to surrender.

As Simone Weil observed, “Can anyone imagine St. Francis of Assisi speaking of rights?” We have every right known to man in our culture and what do we do with our freedom? We watch television for four hours a day. We watch reality shows and listen to politicians without a glimmer of the light of Christ in them argue with each other.

Again, I don’t want to be anti-political or apolitical. But we engage in everything, politics included, through and by prayer, silence, solitude, discipline, and the Sacraments.

At the same time, I am constantly troubled by my hypocrisy, cowardice, and Phariseeism. There is a very deep fear of being cast out of the herd and the herd, as usual, is not on the side of Christ.

I don’t live among a huge Catholic community in L.A. and that perhaps intensifies the fear. So I am encouraged and humbled by all who so bravely speak out, participate in politics, man the abortion lines, protest at nuclear testing sites, are prisoners of conscience.

7. I have this conviction that you are the Flannery O’Connor of our time. This is coming from a poly sci major so I don’t have a whole lot of literary authority, but I feel like your writing “gets” the culture we live in. I would like to hear who you think are authors/filmmakers/etc. in contemporary American culture who should be on the Catholic radar.

I am not fit to untie Flannery O’Connor’s sandal, plus she was a genius writer of fiction and I can’t write fiction at all. I like to think that if I work really, really hard for the rest of my days, I may be fit to stand way, way at the back, and to hold up the last thread of her train as she processes to her place beside Christ’s throne on Resurrection Day.

To me, Catholic means to wrestle with the human condition. Just off the top of my head, and I know there are dozens more, Contemporary film-makers: Werner Herzog, Krzysztof Kieślowski, that Polish guy who did The Decalogue, Robert Bresson. Bresson died but he's way contemporary, to me. Contemporary writers: Flannery O'Connor, Kenzaburo Oe, Andre Dubus (not his son, Andre Dubus III), who wrote Meditations from a Movable Chair, etc.). George Saunders, Sherman Alexie. Magie Dominic’s The Queen of Peace Room is the best memoir I’ve ever read about childhood sexual abuse. I have a thing for ballet documentaries. I love people who are obsessed with art to the point of shedding blood.

I’ll tell you what does not strike me as great religious art, or great art, period, and that is The Passion of the Christ. Which I had absolutely no desire to see, and have not seen. I did watch some clips and the whole idea seemed tantamount to sitting a six-year-old boy down and saying, “Okay, sonny, you know what you’re going to watch now whether you want to or not? You’re going to watch a video of the agony your mother endured when you were born. You’re going to watch blood, and gore, and how you ripped your mother apart. That’s what your mother endured for you. Look at it. Look at it! And you talked back to her yesterday? Look at that blood. And you dare to think you deserve to be loved? Listen to her scream. You dare to think God could love someone as weak and bad and sinful as you?

That, to me, is a complete misreading of the Passion, and of Christ. That’s “faith” based on fear, and guilt, and shame, not love; on following the rules, not on vulnerability; on striving rather than surrendering. Any mother worth her salt, and obviously Christ himself, would say of their labor, “Oh, well, yes, that was a bit of pain, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat because I got YOU out of the deal!” For all the unimaginable physical agony of the Crucifixion, it seems to me that far worse must have been Christ’s emotional and spiritual agony. The operative point isn’t so much that we sin as that, in sinning, we fail to love him; we reject and abandon him.

The scandal of the Cross that we literally cannot bear is that we are loved in all our weakness and all our feebleness and all our fragility and all our humanity and all our sin. And the other part of the scandal is that in all our weakness and fragility and sin, we are called to follow Him: however stumblingly, however imperfectly however what often feels and looks ridiculously.

We can’t escape the Good Shepherd. No matter how far we stray, he calls us home.


  1. Heather that is so good - so well put - what else can be said. In the past in RCIA programmes I've tried to get candidates to divide their tv viewing by half and spend the other half reading the gospels. Jesus said "If you love me you will keep my commandments" He NEVER said 'if you know what's good for you you'll do as I say'. Our Father who ... states immediately that because we acknowledge God as our father it follows that every other human being is my sibling no matter how unlikely we may all ever meet in this world, so by what right do I ostracize, ignore or cause harm to come to any other person - and that applies to the horrible things being done by blood crazy people to young Christian women in places like Syria - yes those horrible people are my siblings. Thank you Heather.

  2. Your words about The Passion of the Christ reminded me of something I recently read by C. S. Lewis. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where, but it was something to the effect that in the first couple of centuries after Christ’s death the crucifixion didn’t figure in Christian iconography at all, and he surmised this may have been at least partly because those early Christians had actual memories of the horrors of crucifixion as a form of execution and didn’t want to dwell on it.

  3. Heather,

    you write "We all have big ideals but can we be tolerant and generous and loving and kind to the darn person beside us at church? To our next-door neighbor, our friend, our kid, our employer or employee, our spouse?" and that is so, so completely it.

    There's a quasi-homeless man who hangs out outside our church, I'll call him Fred. And for a long time I have thought that Fred is really Jesus, watching to see how people treat Him. Who ignores Him completely? Who throws some money His way but keeps moving? and who stops and looks Him in the eyes and has a human conversation, whether or not they give money that day? And of course, this is true, Jesus IS present in Fred. And since I am in the human-conversation camp, it is all too easy to pat myself on the back and say "whew, passed THAT test."

    But what I am coming to realize more and more is that Fred is just the pre-test, if it is a test at all: Christ in one of his easiest-to-recognize disguises. What Jesus calls me to, calls all of us to, is to see Him in the person right at hand in any given moment. Christ in my child or spouse when the house is clean and all are happy: easy. Christ in the cheerful store clerk: also easy. Christ in the woman whose perfume overwhelms my nose at Mass: a little tougher. Christ in the driver who cut me off yesterday: ouch. Christ in my child when he is fractious or my spouse when he has left dirty dishes in the sink AGAIN: now this is getting challenging. Christ in the colleague for whom I have such a vehement dislike that I cannot even hear a word he says: are you KIDDING me, Jesus?

    and of course, He is not kidding. and I better hope it is not a test, because I fail it every day, My only hope is in Him as I fall on my knees and beg "Let me see only You."

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  5. Heather,

    I thank you for this ...... and for your following your heart and becoming a writer. I have read all of your books and they have been a great help to my life. I have a son who is an alcoholic, and you have helped me. I cannot say you have helped me to understand him but you have helped me to be able to walk with him. You have helped me to see that he is like me. We are all very much alike, that is, attracted to things that we are convinced will fulfill us despite all the evidence. And we neglect the fact that our experience shows us that nothing satisfies …but only holds a promise. A promise that fulfillment will come through the One who has made everything and is calling us through these things…..calling us to Himself. Everything is good...... and yet ... not enough. He calls to us through them.

    And then there are those moments when He shows Himself in a human face...... this is Jesus.....
    His Coming …. is always a surprise!!

    I do not, however, understand your love for Flannery O'Connor ..... alongside your reaction to the movie "The Passion of the Christ." Flannery uses violent forms in her work to convey the way the Mystery works in a human life. She was not shy about it. And for that, many people find her writing "grotesque." I see her work as a depiction of Christ's words....."The Kingdom of Heaven shall be taken by storm, and the violent bear it away." (Matt 11:12)

    It is funny how God gives all of us preferences in life. I was struck by the beauty of the film......... even violence is beautiful when Christ is present. The violence is beautiful, in that, within it He is more readily seen……. He shines forth……..He chooses this as the necessary path of our salvation. We must not be afraid to look at it. I never saw the film as pushing our face in it…… simply as reminding us……of the Face of Love.

    I was deeply moved by the movie and saw it as beautiful…….. grotesque but beautiful.

    I am always challenged and helped in life by your work. I do not express things in writing so well……. but you do….. please…….keep at it.

    I hope some day to meet you……. I will watch to see if you are coming to Minnesota!


  6. How embarassing! I obviously have not posted before on a blog. I must have done my editing as I was posting. Hmmmmm......

  7. Oh Phil, bless you for your heartfelt insights/comments. This is wonderful The Passion of the Christ moved/inspired/encouraged you.

    I see a world of difference between Flannery O'Connor and Mel Gibson. O'Connor's violence is mostly off-screen, e.g. "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the homosexual rape scene in The Violent Bear It Away--and is all the more existentially terrifying for it. Even when we see, for example, Mrs. May being gored by a bull, the violence is never gratuitous, never graphic, never dwelt upon, and never fetishized. Plus her violence happens TO US, and her purpose in introducing it is to expose her character to a piercing moment of grace. It's to point us to the world beyond. It's to knock us off our self-constructed pedestals, realize we are proud, utterly blind Pharisees, and usher us into the terrible beauty of Christ's love...

    O'Connor's existence was ordered to her faith and to her art, as reflected by her personal life and the suffering she endured with grace, humor, and without an ounce of self-pity.

    Gibson, who we'd expect more than anyone to have been more deeply converted by making his movie, instead was later arrested for DUI (bless his heart), made a barrage of anti-Semitic remarks, and was taped raging at his girlfriend in the most profane, coarse, crude, violent, hatefully misogynistic language imaginable.

    No depiction of the Crucifixion could come close to conveying the actual horror. The Gospel writers themselves didn't dwell on it. I'm not sure that or what we could add to it by dwelling on the physical details of it ourselves, unless it would be to convert our hearts to the realization that the entire meaning of the Crucifixion was that human sacrifice stops here.

    But this is the beauty of art: some of us are moved by a particular piece of it, and some are not. I hope to be in Minnesota one of these days and if so, I would love to meet you, too!

  8. I 'liked'Gibson's Passion film; it is a very moving film to watch on Good Friday and helps to vividly recall the Passion of Christ. Probably the actors and Mel G. himself have to contemplate what happened more.

  9. Stephen, always good to hear from you and thanks so much to all who weighed in here.


I WELCOME your comments!!!