Friday, November 27, 2015




Fr. Frank Sabatté is a Paulist Fathers priest and a random-stitch portrait embroiderer who heads up an arts collective in NYC called Openings.

In fostering the nexus between spirituality and creativity, “Openings believes that the connections between creativity and transcendence foster critical conversations that have the potential to unite individuals across cultural divides.”

What could be more “Catholic” than fostering  conversation around and about creativity?

Fr. Sabatté grew up in San Jose and studied art at the College of Fine Arts, UCLA. That was when he got to know the Paulist Fathers at the Newman Center.

What struck me about them was how human they were. They were real, and they were amazing preachers. One priest in particular, Fr. Ken McGuire, became my spiritual director and eventually, a dear friend. He had an amazingly brilliant mind. We formed a community, a bunch of us. I’m 64. So I went through the old church.

He  joined the Paulist Fathers,  was ordained in 1980, and spent 26 years at  various assignments: Connecticut, Berkeley,  UC San Diego, Tucson.

That was when the Paulist Fathers said, "Why don’t you go to our mother hosue in NY and try to get something together with artists?" I didn’t like the idea of living in New York at all! I’m a Californian. But in 2006 I went.  

He started by meeting with a young parishioner, a convert who wanted to start something for artists. They “kind of brainstormed.” He also started to visit artists, particularly young-adult open studios at the major NYC schools. He’d simply go out, chat, meet people. As a devout introvert, that was a challenge.

I deliberately did not wear a collar because I believe that what a priest wears is not for him but for the people he serves. Fr. Isaac Hecker, our founder, said a Paulist should dress like a gentleman of the time.

My intention at the beginning was basically, “I’ve got to get this program going.” Then, I had this experience with a young artist. We were talking, and in the back of my mind I was thinking “Maybe I could get her to join my group.” And after I left, it hit me like a thunderbolt. I thought “She knew that I had an agenda. She knew that my program was what mattered.” So I dropped it. From then on the program didn’t matter. What mattered was the person standing in front of me.

Now I say, “Tell me about your work.” I don’t ask, “What does it mean?” I say, “What’s pulling you? What’s sparking inside of you? What’s nudging you?” And then we get to talking. And then I introduce myself. I say, "My name is Frank. I’m an artist and a Catholic priest. And then the conversation can continue. 

Eventually he and four or five other people formed a team and started a discussion group at St. Paul the Apostle, the third largest church in Manhattan. That first group went up and down and then died. Fr. Sabatté had expected as much. But they’d already built up a network. And in spite of the fact that most of the young adults he’d met were very nervous about the institutional church, they’d already had three very successful exhibits.

 St. Paul the Apostle is like a cathedral. It’s huge. We put the art in the side chapels.  The first event, in 2006, was with eight artists. At the second reception the following year we had sixteen artists. In 2011, we had twenty-four artists and 800 at the reception. Young artists, hipster types, parishioners, Catholics, ex-Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists. And we all hung out. Food, wine.

The root of the word “conversation” is conversion, which is different from proselytizing. In a conversation, the Spirit will change both of us.

About ten years ago Fr. Sabatté was going through some major life changes. On sabbatical in L.A., he went with a friend to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Inside he saw the tapestries of the saints by John Nava.

I was stunned. I said, I’ve got to do something like this. I did some research, and discovered a form of Chinese embroidery, developed in the ‘20’s, called random-stitch embroidery. The layered stitches, all painstakingly done by hand, are often used for portraiture.   

Later he discovered free motion embroidery, thought to combine the two methods, and acquired a machine with an adjustable stitch. He begins by tracing the design from a photograph, then drawing it free-hand on canvas.

I did some faces, the old priests I lived with. But I didn’t want to just do “religious” art. “Cambodia, 1975,” is a young girl based on a photograph taken by the Khmer Rouge. They used to photograph their victims before they tortured and killed them. This maybe thirteen-year-old girl seems to look right through you.

“The Magdalene” depicts an exhausted, strong, sensitive young woman you might spot riding home on a city bus. He’s done Bathsheba, an interracial couple named Joey and Lisa, and “Sweat Shop Girl.” He’s done Fr. Isaac Hecker and his own wry, bow-tied father.

Every artist lives in the constant tension between solitude and community. “Openings” begins to bridge the gap.  

For more, visit


Wednesday, November 25, 2015


The morning before Thanksgiving morning is always special: the last hush before "the holidays" begin in earnest.

I read a passage from Caryll Houselander this week about the Parable of the Sower and of how one way the seed can be choked out is by overfocusing on our worries, our "cares."

I'll be moving into a new apartment over the weekend and I thought of all the things that have been occupying me as of late: Will Carlos and his friend show up with the truck at Public Storage as planned at 9 on Saturday? I have a backup plan but my friend Ellen is coming to help and WHAT IF I INCONVENIENCE HER? How to get the best deal on AT&T wifi? (I've already called three different numbers and received three different answers). Where (and freakin when) should I shop for a dining room table, a bed, possibly a new desk as the old one may have been damaged in the last transit? I'll have a longer commute to certain things: where will I find the time? Whoops, don't forget to stock up on cleaning supplies!

Those tiny details have at times choked out the overarching glory of the fact that I HAVE AN APARTMENT. I have money to pay for it, a car, good health, a life that is so rich and full the only real "problem" is that I can barely take it all in.

I am seeing many people I love over the next few days.

This afternoon I'm going with my friend Joe, with whom I've shared many holidays, to his favorite spot: the lunch buffet at The Sizzler.

Tomorrow I'll go to the clubhouse where I hang out and enjoy some fellowship with my sister and brother on-the-mend alcoholics.

Then I'll join my friend Donald and his extended family and my dear friend Tensie and her son Thomas and many others for a feast at his place in Glassell Park. I have all the ingredients for the persimmon and pomegranate salad I'll bring (talk about cares!).

All the while I'll be reflecting on a year that's been full of two of my least favorite things: asking for help and receiving.

How much easier, safer, and more secure to "give." But the truth is I'm not a very good giver either! I'm not a natural sharer, I'm not naturally generous: definitely not of money, not of heart. I want to give, if at all, my way: on my time, in the way that, given my temperament, energy level, doesn't overly tax.

That's how I want to receive, too.

But if we're very lucky, we're called to give and to receive in ways that stretch us into deep discomfort.

For me, the discomfort often means exercising superhuman effort (and often failing miserably) to be gracious and patient when everything in me wants to scream, If you're going to give to me, just give and then leave me alone! Or on the other end, For God's sake, haven't I given you ENOUGH of my time, my energy, my heart? I'M BUSY. I'm overwhelmed. I've already given you my widows' last two mites while I'm trying to write a weekly column, ghost-write a book, change over every account/contact I have to a new address, have my gas and electricity turned on, respond to your request for time, money, love. And now YOU WANT MORE!

You want me to look at and comment upon MORE photos, youtubes, links; to pray for your alcoholic brother, your mother-in-law with Alzheimer's, your wayward priest; to plug your charity, attend your fundraiser, blurb your book, listen to your story.

Oh. You want me to visit the prisoner, to give a drop of water to the thirsty, to sit by the bed of the sick.

Oh. Just as the world from the day I was born has done for me.

I thought especially this past week of the people who have supported my blog--in every way, but I want to particularly thank those who have done so financially. I have three readers who give each month and how incredibly beautiful and generous and kind is that?

I have a few who a couple or three times a year donate generously. I have many and you know who you are and so do I who have given and continue to give over the years. Many of you correspond with me from time to time. Of course more deeply than and/or way apart from the money are the goodwill, the silent support, the prayers, the Eucharistic flow--for as St. Ignatius of Loyala said, "Love is an exchange of gifts."

Still, money is good and when folks donate cash one of the things I get to do is pass on a bit of it.

To that end, I rec'd an email this morning from Elizabeth Alex, Community Outreach and Media Relations Director of Unbound, asking me for a plug ("I was hungry and you fed me...).

So here you go.

Unbound is an organization that connects sponsors with kids, young adults and the elderly in areas of the world that you think things are bad here have NOTHING. Thirty bucks a month, which makes a huge difference: a new roof, an indoor toilet.

Unbound hooks you up with an actual person whose name, age, face, and daily life you can know and "see." They make it super easy to donate each month, write letters or emails to your sponsee, send a birthday card and photos.

I took a media trip to Honduras with Unbound earlier in the year. You can read about it herehere, here, and here.

One upshot of the trip was that I now sponsor 9-year-old Brenda Valasquez.

Recently I received a letter from Brenda.

"Thank you so much," she wrote.

"Last week we bought some pots."


Monday, November 23, 2015



Happy Thanksgiving Week!

Here's a link to an interview I did with CNA for my latest book, Stripped.

And here's a piece I was invited to write on the book, and spent several hours working up, and that the guy didn't like.

He could be right that the piece doesn't work. I really labored over it and sometimes that can be a good sign and sometimes that can be a bad sign.

I would have earned 25 cents a word (that's after 20 years of toiling at my craft) and of course now "earn" nothing.

Except that yesterday I rec'd a link (thank you, John Tallman) to a book called The Beethoven Factor: The New Positive Psychology of Hardiness, Happiness, Healing, and Hope  by Paul Pearsall. The blurb runs:

Conventional wisdom insists that the statement is false, that stress is a thief robbing us of our ability to relax and enjoy life to its fullest. But for centuries, poets and philosophers have celebrated the ups and downs of life as the very essence of living, the spice that enables us to taste life fully.

So who's right? The new, fast-emerging positive psychology movement is affirming the timeless wisdom of the philosophers by showing that it is not stress itself preventing us from enjoying life, but our negative reaction to stress that does the damage. Positive psychology confirms that rather than shrinking from adversity, we must become engaged by it-and thrive through it-before we can savor all the sweetness life has to offer.

This is something I've pondered a lot lately, the equating of "spirituality" with "equanimity": a kind of preternatural calm. As I ask in one of my books, was Van Gogh "sane"? Was Beethoven "calm"? No! The follower of Christ consents to live in ongoing TENSION. It's no feat to sit in a cave and shut the world out. The feat is to be kind to one another and to give everything we have and are to our work even when we're in terrible anxiety, fear, irritability etc. 

The feat is to be true to our inner compass--our faith, if you like--when we can't know how that being true will pan out. And when the stakes are life and death.

For the artist--for all of us if we're tuned in to drama of creation--the stakes are life and death for everything. 

I was reaching for something in the piece below that I maybe didn't quite reach. But I will stake my life on the reaching. The reaching--as apparently Pearsall's book corroborates--is beyond all price. 

So here you go!

Recently I attended a memorial service for a friend who had died of a heroin overdose. The intro was given by a meditation teacher. “There is no birth and no death,” she informed us.

That’s an attitude that strikes me as strangely hostile to life. It’s a stance that says I’m just going to block my ears and go lalalalalalalala and that way you can’t hurt me and wake me up when it’s over. Nothing matters because nothing ever really happens.

How very different from Catholicism that says, Birth is real, death is all, all too real.

How very different from Christ, who says: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come” [Mt. 24:42].

Staying awake means consenting to participate, minute by minute, in the almost unendurable tension of a drama the end of which we can’t know and can’t foresee.

That’s the story I tell in my latest memoir: Stripped: At the Intersection of Culture, Cancer, and Christ.

People see “cancer” and they tend to picture a story about chemo and radiation.

But my own story is this. In 2000, I was diagnosed with Stage 1, Grade 1 breast cancer. I weighed the risk of recurrence against the “benefits” of the proposed treatments—and after weeks of research, spiritual guidance and prayer I went against medical advice.  I had outpatient surgery and then I declined the recommended treatment: chemo, radiation, and a five year round of a heavy-duty estrogen drug called Tamoxifen.

At the time, the doctors told me in so many words that I was crazy. Fifteen years later, the medical community is now endorsing this same “wait and see” stance for early stage breast cancer.

But Stripped is no anti-medicine screed. Nor is it even a book about cancer, or only cancer. It’s a book about the contemplative life. It’s an invitation to ask ourselves what Master we serve.

Hearing the world “malignant” instantly stripped me down: emotionally, spiritually. Coming face to face so suddenly with my mortality pruned me, in a way I wouldn’t have asked for, from many old ideas and worldly attachments.

One phenomenon I pondered deeply in the weeks after my diagnosis was our cultural grounding in the paradigm of war: the war against poverty, the war against drugs, the war against cancer, the war against terror.

I didn’t notice us winning in any of those areas.

In fact, with over fifty percent of our discretionary national budget going to the military, with our manic insistence on gun ownership, with our craving for and fascination with violence, we were clearly only generating more violence, more massacres.

To be diagnosed with cancer is to be expected, like a good military-minded citizen, to fight a battle. I found I wasn’t much interested.

The opposite of fighting a battle doesn’t mean accepting the “unacceptable,” being a doormat, or lapsing into weary resignation: it means staying awake to reality. “Resist not evil,” Christ said, and I think he meant let’s not waste our energy fighting; let’s use our energy to live in alert, creative, love. Let’s direct our energy toward what we’re for, not what we’re against.

Far less does creative love mean the choice is between Jesus and the doctors. No, no, no. The question is whether we’re going to serve the master of fear or the Master of love.

The master of fear told me to go along with the harsh treatments even though, given my low risk of recurrence, my intuition and heart told me they’d do more harm than good. The Master of love said: Do the research, run your decision by people you trust and love, and continue to go out and spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

In the temple, Christ spoke “with authority.” In the end, that authority allowed me to go a different way than a culture that is increasingly based on the commodification of the human body, the human person.

One form that took was declining the proferred medical treatments.

But the deeper form was that, in the wake of my cancer diagnosis, I lost—let go of—my fourteen-year marriage.

In “Letter to a Young Poet,” Rainer Maria Rilke advised, Ask yourself in your deepest hour, Must I write? If the answer is yes, “then build your life according to this necessity.”

The answer was yes. That yes led me to face the fact that some women are able of two vocations: a marriage/family, and writing.

I wasn’t one of them.

Letting go of the worldly emotional and financial security, social status, and companionship of a marriage was a way harder decision than how to treat my cancer. But I wouldn’t trade the perpetual creative tension, the minute-by-minute adventure of the writing life, the terrible fear, as I age, of being cast out of the herd, for anything on earth.

Because the battle I HAVE been willing to fight is the battle St. Paul referred to in 2 Timothy 4:6-7:

For I am already being poured out like a libation, and the time of my departure is at hand.

I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015



I have been right out straight looking for an apartment, meeting various deadlines, dealing as we all do with the steady stream of daily obligations, interruptions, requests for help ET CETERA.

Yesterday morning I thought I had a clear few hours and my fondest wish with a few clear hours is always to write.  Instead, as usual, a variety of items demanding my immediate attention came up (a nun looking for some poetry suggestions, a woman from Vermont who's coming to LA for heart surgery and wondered if she could stay with me (NO! But I will come visit you while you're here), a personal (right) letter from the founder of wikipedia asking for (more) money.

In the midst of all that came the following, from my young San Antonio, TX, friend: the amazing Mr. Greg Camacho.


How are you? I've got some good news!

Three weeks ago I went to El Paso for my cousin's wedding. You may recall that last year I reported to you a reflection on a short trip to the famed Whoopee Bowl Antique Mall, on the way back from Albuquerque, cut shorter by their not being open on Sundays.

Wellllllllll. It turns out the Whoopee Bowl was only ten minutes from our hotel in EP, and my parents and I arrived Friday evening. So Saturday morning, mere hours before my cousin tied the knot, we went.

The nice looking giraffe greeted us with a smile. Chrome Mary stood watch over her ramshackle children. For about an hour it was pure, at-least-seven-kinds-of-weird bliss. One of those weird ways was entirely due to the stone tower aquarium with fish swimming inside, and a slightly portentous leak sprouting a sizable offshoot of lichen. Elsewhere, two Santas, a gorilla, and a Calavera Catrina overlooked a crèche. All this eccentricity would seem simply gauche if it weren't for the tender zebra nuzzling up to the Christ child.

As we walked through the aisles of old and interesting, often zany miscellany, I remembered your comment that all of this could only be part of the Good News, and I thanked God that a place like this exists.

Attached are some pictures. I've left out others in case you happen to stop by the Whoopee Bowl on your own - I don't want to give away all the surprises!

All the best and more,


One more time, I remembered life IS the "interruptions," and laughed out loud with delight, and gave thanks.

Let's all hold out our hands over the dear head of Greg C. and give him a blessing!

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Ishiuchi Miyako’s “Postwar Shadows,” now at the Getty, features photographs reflecting on the reality of life after nuclear war. The show culminates with photographs of personal effects, including garments, which had been in direct contact with their owners’ bodies at the time of the bombing. (Ishiuchi Miyako)
Ishiuchi Miyako (Japanese, born 1947)
Title/Date: Hiroshima #9 (Ritsu Ogawa), 2007
Medium: Chromogenic print
Dimensions: Framed (approx.): 187 x 120 x 3 cm (73 5/8 x 47 1/4 x 1 3/16 in.)
Copyright: © Ishiuchi Miyako
Object Credit: Ishiuchi Miyako

This week's arts and culture piece features a profoundly moving exhibit currently at the Getty: "Postwar Shadows" by the Japanese photographer Isuichi Miyako.

It begins like this:

Aug. 6 of this year marked the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. on Japan, at Hiroshima. Nagasaki followed on Aug. 9.

General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, testified before the U.S. Senate shortly afterwards that death from radiation is “without undue suffering” and “a very pleasant way to die.”

Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich, this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, paints a somewhat different picture. In “Voices from Chernobyl,” she writes of a woman who cared at home for her husband who was dying of radiation poisoning:

“[Tumors] crawled upward, along the body, to the face. Something black grew on him. His chin went somewhere, his neck disappeared, his tongue fell out. His veins popped, he began to bleed. From his neck, his cheeks, his ears … I’d bring a washbowl from the bathroom, and the streams would hit it, like into a milk pail. That sound, it was so peaceful and rural. Even now I hear it at night.”


Monday, November 9, 2015


"Before my bed
there is bright moonlight
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground:

Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon,
Lowering my head
I dream that I'm home."

--Li Po, via MASQUES by Stefany Anne Golberg"

Thursday, November 5, 2015


It's that time of the year when my daily walk, often around 5 or 6 p.m., turns nocturnal.

I'm back for the month in Angelino Heights, an historic section of L.A. just east of downtown.

Traffic rushes by on the 101 just south but up here on the hill, the big old Victorians and four-plexes are quiet in the late dusk.

I went to the Twin Towers jail last night with some others to talk to the addict/alcoholic inmates.

My search for a more permanent home continues. But as each night falls, wonder of wonders, I am fine.

Monday, November 2, 2015


the little island in the middle of the Tiber on which San Bartolomeo is located
I've had a number of pieces lately in Mind + Spirit.

Here's the link to a piece I recently wrote for Aleteia: "Among the Modern-Day Martyrs of San Bartolomeo."