Sunday, March 27, 2016


"Room Four [the “Death Row” hospital ward of the TB sanitarium/Soviet prison at Tirgul-Ocna, Romania] was the scene of great kindness and humanity. Prisoners from other wards often came to spend the night with us, helping the dying and offering comfort.

At Easter, a friend from his hometown brought a gift wrapped in a piece of paper for Gafencu, the former Iron Guard trooper. “It’s been smuggled in,” he said. “Open it.”

Gafuncu undid the paper to reveal two lumps of a glittering white substance—sugar. None of us had seen sugar for years. Our wasted bodies craved it. All eyes were on Gafencu, and the prize in his hand. Slowly he wrapped it up again.

“I won’t eat it just yet,” he said. “Someone might be worse off than I during the day. But thank you.” He put the present carefully beside his bed, and there it stayed.

A few days later, my fever increased and I became very weak. The sugar was passed from bed to bed until it came to rest on mine.

“It’s a gift,” said Gafencu. I thanked him, but left the sugar untouched in case the next day someone should need it more. When my crisis passed, I gave it to Soteris, the elder of two Greek Communists, whose condition was grave. For two years the sugar went from man to man in Room Four (and twice it returned to me). Each time the sufferer had the strength to resist it.

--Richard Wurmbrand, Christ in the Communist Prisons


Friday, March 25, 2016



Last night I went to the Holy Thursday service at St. Elizabeth of Hungary. As you  may know, the Mass commemorates the Last Supper at which Christ tied a towel around his waist, knelt, and washed the feet of his disciples All around the world, the event is commemorated in the annual ritual of foot-washing.

This can be done in slightly different ways. Sometimes the priest calls up pre-selected parishioners and washes their feet on the altar. Sometimes little benches and basins of water and towels have been positioned here and there around the sanctuary at the end of the pews.

At St. Elizabeth's, they did both things. First, the priests (there were several) called up some parishioners to the alter and washed their feet up there. Then several dear parishioners in red vests took up stations at the little benches and invited the members of the congregation to have their feet washed.

Well of course I was right at the end of the pew where a basin and bench happened to be located and along came a handsome young man, his face shining with the light and love of Christ, and first thing he came right up to me, smiled, and asked, "May I wash your feet?"

"Oh surely!" I whispered loudly, stripped off my boots and socks and clambered on to the bench. I happened to have nicked my right foot last week and had a Band-Aid on my big toe which somehow made it even nicer and also, living alone as I do, I'm not often touched.

So this lovely young man poured cool water over my feet and lovingly dried them and then he bent over and KISSED MY FOOT.

Of course tears welled. "Thank you, thank you," I wept, and took his shoulders, and we embraced. God bless. God bless, we exchanged Easter greetings.

I was so overcome I stumbled back to my seat, vision blurred, and sat there praying in gratitude for several minutes until I realized that in my swelling emotion, I had completely overlooked/forgotten that once your feet are washed, you're supposed to hang out and wash the feet of THE NEXT PERSON.

I awkwardly tried to interpose myself a couple of times but the folks who came after me had found their own rhythm so I just sat there feeling kind of incompetent and useless and as if I'd taken more than my share, but still deeply touched at the whole communal ritual and all it symbolizes. Which really pretty much emblemizes my whole life in the Church--in fact, my life in general.  Nobody seemed much to notice or hold it against me--ditto.

I always think of my late friend Maureen on Good Friday and this NPR's "All Things Considered" piece I wrote years ago.

Here it is. You can listen to it HERE.

The other day my friend Joan called me. “If I hear one more person say ‘It’s all good,’ I’m going to scream,” she said. “If it was all good I wouldn’t have to be in some 12-step meeting every other minute. If it was all good I wouldn’t have to be on my knees in the bathroom at work asking God to help me not throw a coffee pot at the cook. I’m a 58 year-old-waitress, I have frozen shoulder, my apartment’s a pigpen, I can’t find my teeth, my roots are showing, and I’ve never had a long-lasting, stable relationship in my life. It’s all good. Why, it’s EXCELLENT!”

I am not one of those sophisticated people who has to turn up their nose at every cliché, some of which happen to be true. In fact before Joan made me feel all self-conscious about it, I think I might have said “It’s all good” once or twice myself.

Still, I knew what she meant, and as soon as she mentioned it, I started hearing “It’s all good” all the time. As in “I got in a car crash but it made me realize how short life is and I now I’m going back to college. It’s all good.” Or “My father has Alzheimer’s but it’s teaching me patience. It’s all good.” Or “My son OD’d on heroin but now I’m closer to my daughter. It’s all good.” Maybe it’s all good for you, I started thinking, but what about the person who got maimed in the accident, the father wasting away from Alzheimer’s, the son cold in the ground?

And when my friend Maureen’s mouth cancer came back recently, and she started getting radiation, and she e-mailed me. “It’s best we communicate this way because it hurts to talk, I can’t eat, talk or sleep and I’m living on this horrible Ensure,” I couldn’t help thinking That’s not all good. That just across-the-board sucks.

I started thinking maybe it’s all good if you come through the suffering, and learn, and grow, and are enriched by the experience, but what if all you do is suffer and then die? What if your cancer keeps coming back no matter what you do and then you die? What if you die without ever having been truly loved? What’s so good about that?

And then I thought of how they call the day Christ was crucified Good Friday. I thought of how there’s good as in the power of positive thinking, and every cloud has its silver lining, and then maybe there is a kind of good we are not given on this earth to see, a good that subverts and transcends all our other ideas of good. I thought of the thief who, hanging on the cross beside him, turned to Christ and said Remember me when you come into your kingdom. I thought of Christ, who turned back in his agony and promised, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” Not later, when we’ve stopped stealing and become holy, or successfully “battled” cancer, or found the love we’ve been longing for our whole lives, but now--in keeping each other company, with all our imperfections and in all our incompleteness, as we suffer the consequences of our actions, or age, or die.

And if it isn’t all good, why does it make me long with all my heart to be… better?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016



"I believe in outside forces and influences, I believe in the personality of the elements. I believe in the aliveness of things seemingly inanimate.

You already know of my belief that certain objects have a soul: my top hat, my three juggling balls and my steel wire-rope. I also recognize the aliveness of certain other man-made structures (a cathedral, a skyscraper) as well as nature's creations (trees, mountains, waterfalls).

I am convinced that what surrounds us sometimes emits secret messages that beg to be deciphered, for our own good--to guide us, to help us, to protect us. This is why I wrote a chapter titled "Meeting the Gods" in the book on my WTC [World Trade Center] walk. In it, I recall how I summoned the air, the void, the towers, the wire, the balancing-pole, even my slippers, to lend their assertive presence to my journey. To add their godlike powers to the walk.

In my opinion, not all objects have life. But I am convinced that the ones that do, receive that life from us. The baton of a (possessed) orchestra conductor, the chisel of a (transcendental sculptor, the balancing-pole of an (illuminated) wire-walker...

Part of my faith is to acknowledge that the faith lent to me by these elements or objects is going to serve my pursuit rather than turn against it!

To protect that faith, I never insult these “sacred beings” by openly denying their aliveness. When a moment of doubt concerning their existence arises, I keep it a secret…

I believe in the unbelievable.

The natural flow of this discourse leads to this not-so-distant belief.

Consider (if only for an instant) believing in myth, miracles, and magic.

I have praised the virtues of simplicity, of elegance. I should add that I find a certain intellectual elegance in simply believing. In believing in simple things, and believing in them with a simplicity, with purity.

One of the creative forces that never fails to empower my endeavors is to allow myths, fairy tales, miracles, mythology, magic, mysteries, the wonders of legends, even old traditions or proverbs to enter my life and feed my creativity.

(Parentheses here to salute “impossible things”: things, objects—and, why not, animals or people—that carry within them a mystery that seems impossible to decode. I make sure my life is kept on a razor’s edge of excitement and intrigue by surrounding myself with such mysterious objects).”

--Philippe Petit, Creativity: The Perfect Crime


Sunday, March 20, 2016


California has a new poet laureate. Here's how this week's arts and culture piece begins:

Dana Gioia, California’s new poet laureate, was born to a working-class family and raised in L.A.’s South Bay. “I love California. It’s my place. I think writers are strongest when they are rooted in a specific place.”

He feels the same way about Catholicism. “The particular richness of the Catholic imagination is to be joyfully alert to the beauties of creation, while conscious of another level of reality behind it,” he said.

“I consider myself a pew-level Catholic. For me the connection I have to everyone in the parish is one of the essential gifts of the Church. It makes me remember that no one exists in isolation. The Catholic Church does not need their writers pretending that they’re members of the curia.”


Thursday, March 17, 2016


I've loved the first two podcasts of "Something Revealed": a new podcast from the lay movement Communion and Liberation "that delves into the everyday topics of art, politics, music, religion and history, with an eye on what they reveal to us about what it means to be a human in the 21st century."

The series is co-produced by Jonathan Fields, a composer, music teacher, and lecturer with whom I've had the pleasure of breaking bread and who in addition to his creativity, questing spirit and crazy musical accomplishments is LOTS OF FUN.

The first episode is a discussion/reflection re Chopin's "Raindrop Prelude."

The second is a book discussion about a work I'd never heard of: The Wisdom of the Poor One of Assisi, by Eloi Leclerc.

Check them out--good meat for Holy Week.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Father Stanley Rother, left,
 visits with Father Pedro Bocel in Guatemala in 1981.

As you may or may not know, I write a monthly column for Magnificat, the Catholic magazine of daily liturgy, reflection, and prayers.

The column is called "Credible Witnesses" The person has to have done something kind of sublime and noteworthy, can not yet have been canonized, and has to be dead.

For my (upcoming) April column, I got to write on Servant of God Fr. Stanley Rother.

Here's how the piece begins:

"Servant of God Fr. Stanley Rother (1935-1981), missionary to Guatemala during a brutal civil war, refused to leave his parishioners. A paramilitary death squad murdered him.

As a boy, Stanley tilled the fields of his father’s farm in Okarche, Oklahoma. He flunked a semester at the seminary, felled by Latin"...

That was one thing I loved about Fr. Stanley. He was an "ordinary" farmboy. He didn't develop some new, exciting strand of theology. Nothing about him, from the outside, seemed particularly to have marked him for greatness.

Which brings me to the real point of the post:

My friend María Ruiz Scaperlanda has written a whole book on the good Fr. Stanley. Just out last December from Our Sunday Visitor, it's called The Shepherd Who Didn't Run: Fr. Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma.

An Oklahoma daughter herself, María interviewed family members, friends, parish priests, bishops to piece together a full and vibrant picture of Fr. Stanley's life and death.

As María observes: "How a 46-year-old priest from a small German farming community came to live and die in [a] remote, ancient Guatemalan village is a story full of wonder and God's providence."

It's a gripping story that you should read for yourself: the story of how this Oklahoma farmboy, even after his name was put on several death lists, refused to leave the Guatemalan peasants he loved and served.

During this season of Lent, one detail grips me most.

At one point, in January, 1981, Fr. Stanley returned briefly to Oklahoma. He was listless, restless, despondent. Finally he asked permission of his bishop to return, knowing full well that he would probably be killed. During that time, he spoke to a friend, Fr. Don Moore. Fr. Don later related: "Stan said to me, 'Everybody's told me I shouldn't go back but you haven't told me.' I told him that I didn't want him to return, but that I would support what [he decided to do]."

"In response, Father Stanley said to his friend, "I promised the people I would be back for Holy Week and I'm going to be there.' "

I promised the people I would be back for Holy Week. 

He returned to Guatemala in April. That July he was assassinated.

Friday, March 11, 2016


This week's arts and culture piece begins like this:

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), was an Italian filmmaker, writer and poet.

Part intellectual, part peasant; part Marxist, part broken-hearted Catholic, as a youth, he sold his novels and poetry on the streets of Rome. He knew that power always tends to the right. He was gay without making a campaign out of it.

He was once arrested for lewd public acts, he was a constant target for the tabloid press, and his work became increasingly darker and controversial as he aged (“Salò,” his last film, is considered by many to be unwatchable).

He was murdered in 1975, brutally beaten and run over multiple times by his own Alfa Romeo in a late-night pick-up gone wrong.

And he made at least one movie for which alone he should be awarded the crown of stars: “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964).


Wednesday, March 9, 2016


“It’s a living human, it knows all of my life and gives me wonderful advice. I would like to be buried at its feet.”

-Paul Cézanne, of a “noble silver olive tree,” from The Artist In His Studiotext and photographs by Alexander Liberman

"Love is poetry, too...We are love, we are made of love. How can we live otherwise? That is why I now speak of color-love and no longer color-ight. Color-love without theories--it does not deceive."

--Marc Chagall, quoted in The Artist In His Studio, text and photographs by Alexander Liberman

Sunday, March 6, 2016


Man do I dig my arts and culture column! I love getting to write about the people who are my heroes!

One of them is noir novelist Raymond Chandler, to my mind one of the best writers Los Angeles has ever produced. Last year, Chandler was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The date for installation hasn't yet been set.

Here's the way this week's piece begins:

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) created the character of hard-boiled L.A. private eye Philip Marlowe. His novels — among them “The Big Sleep” (1939), “Farewell, My Lovely” (1940) and “The Lady in the Lake” (1943) — are widely considered masterpieces of noir crime fiction.

Marlowe knows the feel, the smell, the pulse, the dirty corners and the unconfessed sins of Los Angeles. “Red Wind” begins:

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”

Marlowe’s town is our town. He knows L.A.’s flowers, birds and trees: pepper, Italian cypress, eucalyptus. He drives the streets we drive: Franklin, Western, Wilshire, Highland. He knows what it’s like to move beneath perpetually sunny skies with a sense of impending doom."


Thursday, March 3, 2016






[Editor's note]

Brian Nelson, fifty, was born in Chicago and went to prison for murder in 1982 when he was sixteen years old. Nelson was later transferred to Tamms supermax prison after which he spent a total of twenty-three years in solitary confinement in various facilities. Although Nelson was never given a reason for the more than two decades he spent in isolation, he believes it was in retaliation for a lawsuit he won in 1989, Brian Nelson v. Ronald Haws, which forced the Department of Corrections to build law libraries in every segregation unit in Illinois. 

[As of 2016], Nelson has been out of prison for five years He currently works with the Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago and is known as a tireless advocate and organizer against the use of solitary confinement." 

"Nobody gets it. Every day I cry. I'm afraid of people, really scared of people. Twenty-three years with no TV, no radio. Touched hands once with my mother in court. I'm not a human being everybody wants to try drugs on me. I was in minimum security. I used to make guards' uniforms. I was the warden's fucking trustee. Then twenty-four hours later I'm at Tamms, two pairs of chains on my hands and feet. I can taste it. I can smell it. I can see it every single day. I like being away from people, I am so afraid of people. I used to love hangin' out, even my Mom--how do I tell my mother I'm afraid of her? The woman I love? How do I walk down the street with the prison mentality? No one knows what to do with me. What did they do to me? I went in at sixteen. I'll be fifty next month. I hate it out here. I'm afraid every fucking day.

I love going to work at 5:00 a.m. I'm the only one there and all I do is read letters from prisoners. I try to help them. My office is almost the exact same size of my cell. I need this space. I need a place to go where I can't see the fear in my mother's eyes, her terror at what's left of her son...

I tried to kill myself; the rope broke. I have so much survivor's guilt. I've never spent the night with a woman. I've been been involved with a woman, ever! I'm so screwed up, I don't think I can ever have a normal relationship. I'm your next door neighbor. I'm your next door neighbor! I didn't bomb anyone. I was a kid, a stupid kid that did a crime. I'm working my ass off, I'm fighting...What my brain did to me is not right. I flogged myself daily. I physically created pain in order to feel something They used to find my back ripped open.

One guy I knew at Tamms comes over and we sit in the dark together That's what we like to do. Just sit. There were years when I was the only person in the pod. If I lay down in my cell, I could see grass through the window at the end of the hall. When they found out I could see it, they put a plate over it."

--Brain Nelson, from an essay entitled "Weak as Motherfuckers" in Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway and Sarah Shroud