Sunday, November 30, 2014


"The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of [the Christmas] story on human nature...It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush us and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that is there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary and softening that is in some strange fashion become a strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity."

--G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, pp. 151-52.

A few people have asked for Advent reading suggestions. I'm all about read what moves you and you'll be led to the next thing that moves you. But one book I can't recommend highly enough is The Prison Meditations of Father [Alfred] Delp, written in large part during Advent, his wrists manacled, while awaiting execution by the Nazis.

My favorite passage: "One thinks of all the meaningless attitudes and gestures--in the name of God? No, in the name of habit, of tradition, custom, convenience, safety and even--let us be honest--in the name of middle-class respectability which is perhaps the very least suitable vehicle for the coming of the Holy Spirit."

Other books on my bedside table:

Holiness, by Donald Nicholl: "As Tolstoy once said, it is easier to write ten volumes of philosophy than to fulfil one of the commandments." p. 88.

Urgent Longings: Reflections on the Experience of Infatuation, Human Intimacy, and Contemplative Love (I see you!), by Thomas J. Tyrrell.

Clarence Jordan: Essential WritingsJordan, a visionary Baptist, established an ecumenical community called the Koinonia Farm during the civil rights struggle of the 1960's. He wrote:

“The thing that just burns my heart out is that the Supreme Court is making pagans more Christian than the Bible is making Christians Christians. The whole integration struggle is being fought not in the household of God but in the buses, depots and around the Woolworth tables in arguments about whether or not we can sit down and eat hamburgers and drink cokes together. We ought to be sitting around Jesus' table drinking wine and eating bread together...The sit-ins never would have been necessary if Christians had been sitting down together in church and at Christ's table all these many years.” p. 153.
You may notice I've (uncharacteristically) included the page number from whatever version of the book I have. This is in large part because, after Loyola Press purchased STRIPPED, I had to go through and find the source for every single quote I'd used. And I tend to use a LOT of quotes.

I thought I'd done that already when I self-published but it turned out I'd been desultory at best. I have a huge file of quotes that I simply copy down when and as the spirit moves. I'll usually at least write down the name of the book if the quote came from a book, and many of them half-commit themselves to memory. But other than that, the Lord only knows. It would never but never occur to me to copy down the page number, city of publication, publisher and copyright year. Not because I'm lazy but because I'm excited. So I had to order many books from the library, use the amazon "Look Inside" feature, and endlessly google.

And I'll probably temporarily try to be more conscientious and then go back to the way I've always done things.

It's been several weeks of travel and other editorial/administrative tasks. I've been going over the galleys of STUMBLE: Virtue, Vice and the Space Between (I could be the only author on earth with the word "stumble," or a derivative thereof, in the title of not one but two books), out from Franciscan Media in March, 2015.

I'm also reading Desert America: A Journey Through Our Most Divided Landscape by Ruben Martinez. Something fun.

And I'm as excited as a child about Advent. Which, more later, promises to be a period of various kinds of violent upheaval.

Friday, November 28, 2014


In addition to these every-day costumes, the great lords of the Old Empire possessed one intended only for festivals. As is usual in such cases, this festive costume does no resemble the fashionable dress of the time, but follows the more ancient style. It is in fact merely a more elegant from of the old, narrow, short skirt; the front is rounded off so that it falls in little folds, and the belt is fastened by a pretty metal clasp. In spite of numerous representations, it is difficult to see how this clasp was made; the narrow ornamented piece, which is nearly always raised above it, is perhaps the end of the girdle; it is certainly not the handle of a dagger, as has been generally supposed. Finally, the fore-part from the middle of the back was often further adorned by a pleated piece of gold material, thus forming a very smart costume. To complete this festive garb a panther skin was necessary, which was thrown over the shoulders by the great lords when they appeared in "full dress." The right way of wearing this skin was with the small head and fore paws of the animal hanging down, and the hind paws tied together with long ribbons over the shoulder. It was the fashion, when sitting idle, to pay with these ribbons with the left hand.

--Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, from the chapter "Dress," pp. 204-205.

Shop for THAT outfit on Black Friday!

Or better yet, don't shop at all. Stay home,  put up the Christmas lights, and read.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014



This week's piece from The Tidings:

Werner Herzog is the German film-maker whose notion of “ecstatic truth” has brought him, among other places, to the Peruvian rainforest (Aguirre, The Wrath of God), Death Row (Into the Abyss), Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), and the Alaskan wilderness (Grizzly Man).

But to me his finest film is Land of Silence and Darkness, a 1971 documentary about a 56-year-old German woman named Fini Straubinger. Fini suffered a fall down the stairs when she was 9. Several years later she went blind. Then she went deaf. Then her mother confined her to bed for three decades.

Though we never quite learn how she recovered, Fini now devotes her life to helping others who are deaf-blind, folks who communicate by spelling out words on each other’s palms by a series of taps and strokes. Fini is magnificent with her regal bulk, heavy wool coat, and deerstalker hat. “Noble friend George,” she greets one of the guests at a birthday part. At an asylum she holds out her arms to a deaf-blind woman who could communicate only with her mother—and whose mother has recently died—and addresses her simply as, “Sister in destiny.”

Over and over, she takes people’s hands compassionately into her own and spells out on their palms: “I’m like you”… “I, too, can neither see nor hear”… “We are just alike…”

To the interviewer she observes:

“I always jump when touched.”

“Years go by in waiting.”

“If I were a painter I’d represent our condition like this; blindness like a black river flowing slowly like a melody towards great falls. On its banks, trees and flowers and birds singing sweetly. The other river, coming from the other side is as clear as the purest crystal. This one also flows slowly but also without any sound. Deep down there is a lake very dark and deep where the two rivers meet. Where they join, there are rocks making the waters foam afterwards to let them flow silently and slowly into that sombre reservoir which lies in a deadly calm only troubled by an occasional ripple representing the struggle of the deaf-blind. I don’t know if you can understand this. The rocks who tear the waters stand for the depression the blind and the deaf feel.”

But the scene that comes back to me again and again is the one with Vladimir Kokol: 22 years old, born deaf-blind.

“It was never tried to awaken him,” Herzog observes in voice-over. “Only his father cared for him.”

“He never learned to walk.”

Vladimir is chubby, neatly dressed in a button-down shirt, blue V-neck sweater and pants with suspenders. He’s sitting on the floor staring into space, hitting himself on the head with a polka-dot ball, and blowing spit bubbles—Brrrrr, Brrrrrr, BRRRRRRR—the way you understand he has been for years.

Fini sits down beside him, takes his hand into her own, tries to make contact.

“I can’t hear anything. I’m just like you.”

No response.

“Poor dear.”

No response.

At some point, a pair of hands sets a portable radio, playing a bouncy 70’s “jazz” tune, in Fini’s lap. And here a remarkable transformation occurs. Vladimir places his hand over the speaker, leans his forehead against its side, and grimaces in mingled ecstasy and pain as if trying to communicate with this "something living."

Fini hands the radio over to Vladimir to hold. He sits quietly for a moment and then a beatific look lights his face. He smiles; he “understands.” And then he very slowly brings the radio to his breast, rests his cheek across the top, and with infinite tenderness, places his hands  protectively along the front. He can’t hear; it’s not the music he connects to. He’s responding with such delicacy, such profound gentleness, to the vibration, the rhythm, the small pulse, perhaps, of heat. He might have been the Virgin Mary cradling the infant Christ.

I wondered what had happened to Vladimir Kokol who, had he lived, would have been in his sixties by now. I googled his name but the only references were to Land of Silence and Darkness.

Was his appearance in Herzog’s film his one “moment in the sun?”
What treasured place did he have—do any of us have—in the universal plan?
 Did he fade back into obscurity? Did he ever hold a radio again?

In this season on the cusp of Advent, I like to think that Vladimir has entered another realm: where the blind can see and the deaf can her: of light, of sound, of warmth.

I like to think that the Virgin Mother—at last—is holding him.

Monday, November 24, 2014


In a way Christmas and Easter are reverse images of each other. Easter is about darkness giving way to a burst, however temporary of pure light--while Christmas is about a tiny light shining in the midst of a universe of darkness.

Christmas is all about the family and it's interesting--and no accident--that Christmas, way more than Easter, tends to bring those of us who were not, for lack of a better phrase "securely attached' in childhood, to a bone-dry desert. Bone scraping against psychic bone, with no consolation and no end in sight. The place where Christ called out, "Lord, Lord, why have you forsaken me?" Though Easter's the season that's ostensibly about spiritual thirst, deserts, and the Crucifixion, Christmas is the time when many of us realize all over again that our hearts have been calling out in forsakenness our whole lives.

H.A.L.T.--Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired--is an acronym known to many of us former active drunks: as in don't let yourself get too any of those things. Lately I've been all four.  Hungry as in realizing at 3 p.m., stuck in freeway traffic, that the only thing I've eaten all day is a bowl of raisin bran. Lonely as in don't even get me started. Angry as in could people shut up, turn off their cell phones, learn how to drive, stop airing their moronic opinions, curb their obnoxious dogs, pay what they owe, and leave me alone?

But especially tired. Literal tired as in my circadian rhythm stubbornly refuses to adjust to PST after my travels so I wake every morning around 3. Tired from trying to juggle and complete many projects, obligations, and plans. Tired of people who want to debate/win points I've never argued with in the first place.

And on a deeper level, tired of the limitations of being human.

"Discrimination regarding who or what we allow to have room in our minds, to preoccupy us, can only be achieved if we regularly empty our minds of our preoccupations. Emptiness, stillness, silence, each of these words is an attempt to pin-point the condition in which God is known. In a daring passage the author of the letter to the Philippians proposes Jesus as the model from whom we have to learn this self-emptying: 'Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus who, though he was God, did not cling on to his equality with God but emptied himself and took upon himself teh form of a servant.' "

--Donald Nicholls, Holiness, p. 70


Saturday, November 22, 2014


Why doesn't everyone see from earliest childhood the passes, portals and crevices down in the earth and up in the sky? If everyone saw them history would continue without killing and war.

--from the film Wings of Desiredir. Wim Wenders


Thursday, November 20, 2014


I don't pay much attention to what's going on in the Vatican but I'm a huge Pope Francis fan. And I did note with approval when a couple of months ago he made the mild and eminently common-sense observation that if we are calling folks of same-sex attraction (along with all us single Catholics), out of ardent love for Christ) to celibacy, we will of course want to embrace them with open arms, invite all to the table, and recognize  generosity, creativity, and nobility of spirit wherEVER it appears in the human heart!

Well that is beautiful I thought. Then, by chance, I glanced at my FB newsfeed one night and saw the appalling reaction of several folks who you would have thought had just been ordered to round up their first-borns and slay them.

How OLD are you? I thought. And when was the last time you left your gated compound?

Anyway soon afterward I somehow got wind of the fact that next October the Church is going to hold a synod on the family in Rome. I was in Rome once: probably forty years ago, when I was still drinking.

And suddenly the thought arose: Maybe it's time to go again

Mosey on over, wander (but with a purpose) about to churches, mingle, eat, fast, pray.

Pray for the Church, our Mother, and all of us in it, and all people everywhere. Our hearts, our wounds, Pray for the reconciliation of the wound between men and women that I am ever more convinced is at the heart of all poverty, all war, the degradation of the earth's resources

That includes of course my own wound.

I am perfectly capable of and willing to go the airbnb route, or just rent a little room somewhere. I am always happiest and most comfortable creeping about incognito and alone.

But then I thought well maybe I could participate a bit in some way not of my own choosing. For that is one very sure way to get out of my own "gated community"--and we are always but always called to leave our gated communities.

I'm also continually astonished at the "magic" of my blog. Folks emerge from the woodwork to say they've been following it for years.

So I'm going to throw it out there, just on the off chance anyone knows of or has a suggestion of a spot--a room in some tucked-way convent, a horse stall--I might make headquarters for a week. Wifi, a coffee machine, and within walking distance of St Paul's Church on the Via Napoli and/or St. Andrew's, Via XX Settembre 7 and I'd be good to go.

Thank you!


Monday, November 17, 2014


All week, I've been drinking in the big skies and long views of northern Missouri.

A mile or so from Conception Abbey, at the end of a trail that winds through fields and vale, lies the Mary Grotto: dedicated to a seminarian who died here several years ago. One of the dear young men here walked me out early in the week.

Another day I went out at dusk, just before Evening Prayer, and walked the perimeter of the pond. The clouds, while benevolent, seemed a force of nature: bearing down, enveloping, incorporating,shifting,  incarnating.

The next afternoon it snowed, the first fall of the season..

I didn't have the right foot gear, but I bundled up and tramped off anyway, noticing the way the trees, and grasses, and native plants receive and provide a nest for the snow.

Me and the birds--back to the grotto.