Sunday, February 28, 2016



I came into the Church nineteen years ago. In the preceding years, working as a lawyer, I’d sought, wept, read widely.

But maybe the best thing I did was that I started ducking into churches to pray. If you are really seeking, and really conflicted, and really troubled by the emptiness of the world, a church with an open door is a very big deal.

It was the open door of St. Basil’s, in Koreatown, that beckoned me to my first real Mass, at noon on a weekday.

I tell the story in Redeemed:

“I remember a bronze statue of someone who appeared to be a robed lunatic looming in the foyer: this, I later learned, was St. Paul. I remember pushing open the doors to the sanctuary and being afraid “they’d” know I wasn’t Catholic and would kick me out. I remember the way the light shone like honey on the teakwood pews, not knowing whether or how to genuflect, not being able to follow along in the missallette. I remember instinctively understanding that here was consecrated time, consecrated space; that the people who had come to worship in the middle of the day, who were kneeling, standing, praying, were part of a parallel universe that intersected with eternity.

But mostly I remember seeing Christ on the cross above the altar.  I’d been seeing images of the crucified Christ all my life, but I’d never seen one in the context of Mass—of this mystery, this ritual. And I didn’t exactly have a burning bush experience, but it pretty much stopped me cold. St. Basil’s has a beautiful 4th-century Tuscan crucifix, and as I gazed up at Christ, his head drooping towards his breast, everything in me wanted to move towards him: to comfort him, to touch him, to be near. I saw he’d come to address the deepest mystery of humankind—the mystery of suffering. I saw that like us, he was in pain and he wasn’t sure why, whether it would ever end, or what it was for. I saw he wasn’t saying we were supposed to suffer extra; he was acknowledging the suffering we were already in.”

At the time I did not know a single practicing Catholic—another reason why those open doors were a Godsend. Now that I know lots of Catholics, I may need those open doors even more.  

In The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote of her time as a young girl at the local abbey school:

“I didn’t have, like the other former students, a teacher friend with whom I could go spend several hours. . . . Nobody paid attention to me, so I went up to the gallery of the chapel, and I remained before the Blessed Sacrament until the time when Papa would come to get me. This was my only comfort: Wasn’t Jesus my only Friend?

That Jesus is our Friend at all may be the central Christian mystery.

That God took on a human body, heart, voice, face, opens the way to an intimacy that, with our fear of vulnerability, is almost unbearable.

We could ponder for all of Lent a single passage from John’s Gospel:  “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father” [John 15: 12-15].

Jesus also tells us, But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you [Matthew 6:6]. If our “room” is sometimes a sanctuary, or a chapel, so much the better.

Shortly after moving to my new neighborhood in Pasadena, I came across St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church on North Lake Avenue in Altadena. I discovered that the side chapel where daily Mass is said, through a courtyard with roses and a beautiful old fountain, is generally open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. until 9 at night, and on weekends from 10 a.m. until 2:30.    

I often make my way on foot to that blessed space with its whitewashed walls and old-school Stations of the Cross, a red candle burning beside the tabernacle. I often say Evening Prayer there, alone.

In silence, I realize how tired I am and think: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

In solitude I realize all over again, Isn’t Jesus my only Friend?

I know that not every church, especially in the inner city, has the resources to leave its doors open all day. But what a blessed gift we receive from the churches that can. 

Thérèse of Lisieux was once asked what she said to Jesus when she prayed. She thought for a minute, then replied: “I don’t say much of anything. I just love Him.” 

Thursday, February 25, 2016


"If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need."

My vegetable and flower seeds are up! I go out many times a day to check on their progress.
I have no real idea what I'm doing, but gardening friends will help. Venturing into an area about which I know so little makes me feel quite vulnerable. What will happen if I "fail!" Will the plants think I'm lame and make fun of me?

Of course I've read up a bit, and I have purchased the Sunset Western Gardening Book, but my sense is that gardening is like cooking: you simply have to venture forth, and get a feel, and make mistakes and have triumphs and that is how you learn.

It's difficult to describe the rush of hope, exhilaration and excitement that comes from planting a seed and seeing a single green shoot poking its head above ground.

Dylan Thomas wrote:

"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower 
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees 
Is my destroyer"...

But it's spring and I'm going to choose at the moment to focus on the flower.

I bought this red kale as seedlings, which is they're so big compared to
the others. 

Our back yard has lemon, cherry, persimmon, pomegranate, olive, avocado and black walnut trees, plus a huge wild stand of rosemary.

The cherry trees are just coming into bloom.

Monday, February 22, 2016


Yesterday I got to sit on my balcony for an hour or two before walking to 5:00 Mass. Work of various kinds has kept me from the lying-fallow, idling time I long for and that, in its season, will inevitably (I FERVENTLY pray) come again. The succulents, agaves and geranium drank deeply of the sun--like me!--and together, we refreshed each other's spirits.  

I'm continually struck by how, just when I'm most in need,  a "word" comes from "out there": a thank you, a reflection from a fellow lover of St Therese of Lisieux, a link to a project by a guy named Thomas Kiefer who works for the Mexican border patrol and takes photos of the goods--wallets, toilet paper, backpacks--that are confiscated and thrown away. El Sueño Americano (The American Dream), the project's called.

Last night I received this quote from a reader and a friend. 

"No one in the world knows the reason for the conversions of pagans at the very ends of the earth, for the heroic endurance of Christians under persecution, for the heavenly joy of martyred missionaries. All this is invisibly bound up with the prayers of some humble cloistered nun [some weird blogger chick in LA.] Her fingers play upon the keyboard of divine forgiveness and of the eternal lights; her silent and lonely soul presides over the salvation of souls and the conquests of the Church."

--Jean-Baptiste Chautard, The Soul of the Apostolate

Saturday, February 20, 2016


This week's arts and culture piece is on the L.A. River.

It begins:

Many years ago I took a guided tour of the Los Angeles River, which runs from Canoga Park to Long Beach. At the time, the river cut a mostly unseen, mostly unremarked upon, largely under-utilized 52-mile swath through the city. At the time, the response to the mention of such a tour was likely to be, “L.A. has a river?”

All that has changed. As the website for the L.A. River Center and Gardens explains, “The Los Angeles River Center and Gardens is located at the former site of the Lawry’s California Center, near the confluence of the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco, close to Elysian Park and downtown Los Angeles. Its beautiful mission-style grounds and conference facilities serve as a focal point for the renewal of the L.A. River, and a prime location for community gatherings, educational conferences and special events.”

In fact, perhaps nothing illustrates the extent of the change more than the fact that the L.A. River Center seems to be soliciting clients to hold their weddings there.

For a more down-home, grass-roots activist approach, check out the Friends of the L.A. River (FoLAR), an organization founded over three decades ago by poet Lewis MacAdams.


Thursday, February 18, 2016



There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence.

The rush and pressures of modern life are a form of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,
to surrender to too many projects,
to want to help everyone in everything,
to succumb to violence...

The frenzy of the activist...destroys our own inner capacity for peace.

It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work,
because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

--Thomas Merton

Sunday, February 14, 2016


BRENDA UELAND (1891-1985)
"The point is not to live long...we live forever anyway. The point is while you are alive, be alive!"

This week's arts and culture features one of my all-time favorite texts: the Brenda Ueland classic If You Want to Write. [WHY do they give us writers such terrible book covers!!?]

Here's how it begins:

"I am tickled pink to be giving a talk at this year’s Religious Education Congress (Feb. 26-28) on “The Vocation of the Catholic Writer.”

As you may know, the Congress is a lollapalooza of an affair that takes place each early spring at the Anaheim Convention Center. The place is crawling with Catholic publishers, editors, priests, nuns and layfolk shopping for rosaries, Jesus tchotchkes and a chance to hear such luminaries as Father Ron Rolheiser, Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron and Sister Helen Prejean dispense their wisdom.

It is no place for an introvert and just navigating the parking structure makes me want to lie down for four or five hours.

It is also a huge honor. I’m devoting a certain amount of time to working up my remarks, and again and again I circle back to this column, which, if you must know, is kind of the joy of my life."


Thursday, February 11, 2016


Last Sunday, I made a visit to Nuccio's Nurseries in Altadena. They are world famous for their camellias--perhaps my favorite flower.

Forty or fifty blooms, each land-labelled, were laid out on tables, with names like "Frosted Star," "Angel Wings," "Sweet Emily Kate" and "Pagoda."

My own yard also has four or five old-growth camellia bushes, each a good two stories high. I can almost reach off my balcony and pick the blooms.

The bush closest to me has five different colors and types of camellias, all on one tree. I don't know whether grafting, or another phenomenon, is at play. I just know they're spectacular. One is snow white with a pale, pale pink stripe or "stain."

The Secret Life of Plants  is a book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, later apparently made into a 1979 documentary. For now, both must come under the heading of  What I Wouldn't Do for Two or Three More Hours in Each Day.

That is part of the Cross. Sometimes it seems we're either enduring life on the one hand, thinking, Man, life is long! Or on the other hand, we're so excited about life we can hardly stand that in our short span here on earth we're never going to be able to take in, learn about, and experience everything we wish we could.

I love taking pictures of flowers. My sense is they are shy about their beauty! If you admire them very much, and stay very quiet, and exercise great patience, sometimes they will yield up a secret or two.

The photos below are of the camellias in my yard at night, lit by the motion sensor lamps that come on along the outside stairwell.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


“In order to be free you simply have to be so, without asking permission of anybody. You have to have your own hypothesis about what you are called to do, and follow it, not giving in to circumstances or complying with them. But that sort of freedom demands powerful inner resources, a high degree of self-awareness, a consciousness of your responsibility to yourself and therefore to other people."

--Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time