Sunday, May 29, 2016


Not for nothing does my new-ish home town of Pasadena host the annual Tournament of Roses Parade. These shots were taken late afternoon in and around St. Elizabeth of Hungary in the adjacent town to the north, Altadena.


Friday, May 27, 2016


This week's arts and culture piece is on Beatrice Wood, a master potter who lived to 105 and a true Southern California eccentric.

The piece begins like this:

Beatrice Wood (1893-1998) was a Southern California-based artist and studio potter. As a young woman, she broke with her wealthy San Francisco family to live as a bohemian in Paris, becoming close friends with Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and others in the avant-garde Dada movement. She took her first ceramics class at Hollywood High.

In 1947, she moved to Ojai where she largely lived and worked for the next 50 years.

Wood’s autobiography, published when she was 82, features a front-cover photo of the author as a smoky-eyed seductress of 16. “I Shock Myself” the book is called. I was shocked, too — mainly to discover another woman whose romantic debacles rivaled even mine.


Sunday, May 22, 2016



This week's arts and culture piece is on the wonderful self-taught French scientist and insect lover: Jean-Henri Fabre.

Here's how it begins:

Jean-Henri Fabre’s “Book of Insects” is a 1921 classic, with beautiful, tissue-paper-protected color plates by E. J. Detmold.

If you can get your hands on a copy (I checked mine out from the L.A. Public Library), you’ll discover a whole wondrous world. The glow worm, the grub, the locust, the mason-wasp — all your favorite insect pals are here.

Fabre (1823-1915) was an ardent Catholic with a deep sense of God’s design. In the opening chapter, he tells of coming upon the nest as a boy of a “lovely bird” that held six eggs of a “magnificent azure blue, very bright.” Thinking to carry one home as a trophy, he “walked carefully home, carrying my blue egg on a bed of moss.”

He met a priest.

“Ah,” said he. “A Saxicola’s egg. Where did you get it?”

I told him the whole story. “I shall go back for the others,” I said, “when the young birds have got their quill-feathers.”

“Oh, but you mustn’t do that!” cried the priest. “You mustn’t be so cruel as to rob the poor mother of all her little birds. Be a good boy, now, and promise not to touch the nest.”


Thursday, May 19, 2016


REMBRANDT, c. 1648-1656

Last week I posted a piece about my joy at the Vatican's recent rejection of the just war theory. In the light of our capacity to build nuclear weapons, such a theory in light of the Gospels, no longer has a place, if it ever did.

I went on to write of a friend, Dennis Apel of the Guadalupe Catholic Worker, who is serving 120 days in MDC, the federal prison in downtown LA, for peaceful vigil against war and nuclear weapons at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

One lovely reader commented:

"I want to pray for Dennis too and his family. I agree how the just war theory is not interpreted correctly in so many circumstances. But I do think we needed to step in when Hitler was in power- and when we see evil in such a way to oppress helpless people then I do think we are called to act. But I can't say I agree with many of the modern "just" use of violence in our culture.

I hate to say this but I am kind of angry when I hear good people like Dennis who disobey some stupid rule be punished and his family. Is it worth it? If he knew he could go to prison? I guess I'm curious to understand more about that. There is a lot of injustices in our current court system and in so many right here in America. Maybe I am a but pessimistic but I've come to believe certain things won't really change when it comes to this big systems we have in place and we can only do something small to show our love in our daily lives. God bless Dennis and his family- they are added to my prayers!"

I think we are all "curious to understand more of that." I think all people of good will and who love the world grapple with these very challenging, very difficult questions. So for whatever it's worth, here is the response I worked up.

The way I understand nonviolence is that it's not limited to pacifism in the face of war. It's not an ideology in response to any one given situation. It's the Way, the Truth and the Life of Christ. Creative nonviolence is how we carry out Christ's commandment to love one another as he loved us in every situation, every area of our lives.  

I think it's safe to assume that every reasonably intelligent person who espouses creative nonviolence has considered Hitler. One such person was Blessed Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943), an Austrian peasant, husband and father, and a Catholic, who was conscripted by the Nazi army. As a follower of Christ, his conscience was deeply troubled. The priests and bishops he consulted said, as many would today, “Going up against them isn’t worth it.” Like many would today, they said, “Certain things can't change when it comes to these big systems so just go along.” 

Franz did what I venture to say about .00001 percent of us would do--he said no. He was severely criticized, including by his fellow Catholics, for "deserting" his wife and children. He was guillotined by the Nazis. 

So you could say that Franz's lone little stand wasn't "worth it."  But the Church later apologized for its silence during the Nazi regime. And Franz has been declared a martyr and beatified.

The Church has always been built on the blood of the martyrs. So we can't both exalt the little act, and dismiss it as useless. The “little act” is all we’ll ever have. Going to prison, unseen, unremarked-upon, has got to be one of the ultimate "little acts." Nobody is patting Dennis on the back and holding him up as a champion of human rights in federal prison. He’s 65 years old.  He was stripped of his garments and assigned to a cellmate who was kicking heroin. The first thing the other inmates ask is, "You're not chomo, [a child molester], are you?" Chomos by unspoken inmate law must sit at a separate table at meals and go directly back to their cells or be beaten if not killed.  As he cheerfully says, “I'm the scrawniest guy on the cell block by a long shot.”

The thing about the little act--or any act grounded in Christ--is that it's almost by definition inefficient in worldly terms. Christ, too, was up against systems that seemed unimaginably powerful and intransigent: the Roman government, the chief priests, the Pharisees, wealth, military might, religious self-righteousness and ridigity. What was his response of creative nonviolence? He said When a man asks for your tunic, give him your cloak as well. He said take the last place. He said wash  one another’s feet. Love one another as I have loved you. He emptied himself and took the form of a slave.

Nothing could have been seemingly smaller, more ineffective, more of a cataclysmic, humiliating, final, worldly failure than the Crucifixion. No act will ever bear more eternal fruit.

What’s really ineffective to bear eternal fruit--to bring the Gospel values into being--is committing violence  (as opposed to consenting to allow violence to be committed upon you, as Christ did). Violence never ever bears eternal fruit. Violence always leads to more violence. Christ’s life, death, and teachings were precisely to deliver us from the "system" of tit-for-tat, ever-escalating violence that now threatens to destroy our planet.

And while I think it’s safe to assume that any reasonably intelligent person who abhors  war and our culture of death has considered Hitler, I hope it’s also reasonable to assume that every reasonably intelligent person recognizes that the United States is not a humanitarian aid station; it’s a military power whose principal aim is to consolidate and enlarge its power.

The U.S. hardly went to war against Germany in WWII, for example, to save the poor Jewish people. Germany declared war on us first, plus we wanted vengeance for Pearl Harbor. Our primary aim, as always, was to protect, consolidate and enlarge our economic and military interests.

“History is written by the victors,” as Churchill observed. And you don’t need to be a history buff to see what the United States is, what it values, what it stands for, and what its version of victory costs. Just study some photos of the victims of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Just read up a little or watch some documentaries about the suicide rate of our returning soldiers, about the hideous devastation wreaked  on our young people who we send off to wage our modern warfare. Just do a quick google pie-chart of our national budget. The United States spends more on “defense and security,” i.e. protecting and consolidating our power, than every other nation of the world combined. From the Washington Post: “Since 2001, the base defense budget has soared from $287 billion to $530 billion — and that's before accounting for the primary costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.”

“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” as Patton said. “Americans play to win all the time.” Instead of recognizing that Christ cared absolutely nothing for such worldly power, worldly triumph, we have conflated him with the nation-state, armed him to the teeth, and tried to make him into our version of a “winner.”  

One reader, for example, wrote to ask, “If Christ came to deliver us from violence, greed, and was, just how has he succeeded?” Succeeded!? Christ succeeded, absolutely, in the Crucifixion. That so few of us follow his teachings is our failure, not his. That so few of us acknowledge that it is unthinkable to imagine Christ carrying a gun, dropping an atomic bomb, or approving of a 530 billion dollar expenditure for war, when our children go hungry and uneducated, our infrastructure deteriorates, our poor go without health care,  our prison industry flourishes, and we ravage the planet is what we will have to answer for, not him.

The thing about the Nazis is that they roamed the earth seeking the ruin of souls 70 years ago. We may have “won” WWII but  Naziism--as evil always does in response to more evil--simply took on other, myriad forms: Mao Ze-Dong, Pol Pot, Kim Il-Sung, the 2nd Amendment enthusiasts in our own country who have committed civilian massacre after massacre with the guns we provide them in the name of freedom, bravery, honor and justice for all.

Nuclear weapons are the logical and inevitable conclusion to a system based, as our system is, on power for power’s sake.  In 2016, nuclear weapons are our Hitler. Except this Hitler threatens to destroy not just one race, but the entire human race.  We have finally reached the point where the only response to another country’s nuclear weapons—which could destroy the planet—are more nuclear weapons—which could destroy the planet. To espouse such a system is insanity. To shrug our shoulders and say the systems are bigger than us is unworthy of the follower of Christ.

As St. Paul says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long;   we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[Romans 8:35-39].

So, like Franz Jägerstätter, Dennis is fighting "Hitler." While it may be hard to imagine a smaller act of resistance than a lone man crossing the trespass line at Vandenberg Air Force Base and spending 120 days in prison shut away from family, friends and the poor he serves, it would also be hard to imagine a greater act of courage, or of love.

He is joined by Jeff Dietrich of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, who is also serving 120 days in MDC, Michael David Omondi, who is serving 60 days, and all prisoners of conscience, former, present, and future.

So whatever our way, whatever our station, let’s all continue to participate in  Christ’s triumph of love over death and fear. Let's continue to pray for them. 

If you would like to write, their addresses are as follows:

John Dennis Apel
Register Number 26142-112
MDC Los Angeles
Metropolitan Detention Center
P.O. Box 1500
Los Angeles, CA 90053

Robert J. Dietrich
Register Numeer 81196-02

Michael David Omondi
Register Number 94638-020

And let me pray for my own continuing conversion.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016




A friend just sent on this link to an article with which I couldn't agree more:
Vatican PR aide warns Catholic blogs create ‘cesspool of hatred.’

Personally I would like to create a fountain of love! 

That is no namby-pamby, hippy-dippy task. To exercise restraint of tongue and pen, to refrain from "setting the other straight," to live from the ground of what we are for rather than what we're against--to  be motivated, in other words, by love rather than fear--requires a life of almost military discipline: physically, mentally, spiritually. 

The reward is that instead of ferreting out enemies, we seek friends. Instead of ugliness, we seek beauty.  Our goal becomes to live in truth ourselves, not to make sure everyone else does. 

"From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the forms of things. By the time I was fifty I had published an infinity of designs; but all I produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes, and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty I shall have made still more progress; at ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at a hundred I shall certainly have reached a marvelous stage; and when I am a hundred and ten everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive. I beg those who live as long as I do to see if I do not keep my word."

--Kathsushika Hokusai, Japanese artist


Friday, May 13, 2016



This week's arts and culture piece is about  St. Dymphna, the 7th century patron saint of those suffering from nervous, emotional and mental afflictions.

Here's how it begins:

May 15 is the feast day of St. Dymphna, patron saint of those suffering from emotional or nervous disorders.

Dymphna was the only child of a seventh century Irish pagan king and his beautiful Christian wife. The child was a dead ringer for her mother.

When the mother died young, the king was inconsolable. He wanted to marry someone who looked just like his wife. His courtiers came up with the bright idea: why not marry your daughter?

Dymphna, who had consecrated herself and made a vow of chastity, was appalled. “Think of the riches, the security, the prestige!” the king urged.

No way, said Dymphna, who seemed more horrified at the prospect of losing her virginity than of becoming an incest victim. She fled to the village of Geel, in what is now Belgium, with her confessor, the court jester and his wife.

Inadvertently betrayed by the innkeeper to the king’s envoys, Dymphna’s whereabouts were revealed. Inevitably, the king came to claim her.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Last Sunday, just after returning home from Mass, I read a piece in the National Catholic Reporter entitled "Landmark Vatican Conference Rejects Just War Theory, Asks for Encyclical on Nonviolence." 

The piece begins: 

"The participants of a first-of-its-kind Vatican conference have bluntly rejected the Catholic church's long-held teachings on just war theory, saying they have too often been used to justify violent conflicts and the global church must reconsider Jesus' teachings on nonviolence.

Members of a three-day event co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi have also strongly called on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter, or some other "major teaching document," reorienting the church's teachings on violence.

"There is no 'just war,'" the some 80 participants of the conference state in an appeal they released Thursday morning.

"Too often the 'just war theory' has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war," they continue. "Suggesting that a 'just war' is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict."

"We need a new framework that is consistent with Gospel nonviolence," say the participants, noting that Francis and his four predecessors have all spoken out against war often. "We propose that the Catholic Church develop and consider shifting to a Just Peace approach based on Gospel nonviolence."

I could hardly breathe. Finally, an expression of the simple, radical teachings of Christ. Finally, a statement of the Way, the Truth and the Life, from the personal to the global, that had led me to become a member of the Church in the first place.

As Pope Francis has observed, "War is the mother of poverty." And as Dorothy Day, co-founder of the lay Catholic Worker movement, noted, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

That filthy,  rotten system, where wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few; where power is used to oppress, punish, and humiliate; where profiteers and politicians feed off an ever-escalating cycle of violence, war and death is precisely what Christ came to deliver us from.

For the solution to all that darkness is love: to love one another the way he loved us.

Monday morning I had the honor of being in downtown LA to help send off a friend from the Guadalupe Catholic Worker, Dennis Apel, to the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison. He's 65, with a wife and two teenage children, and was sentenced to 120 days for vigiling against nuclear weapons and our culture of death at Vandenberg Air Force Base. 

As Scott Fina explained in his piece today in the Santa Barbara Independent--"Swords Over Plowshares"--"Dennis Apel left the side of Highway 1 to carry his peaceful protest down the entrance road of Vandenberg Air Force Base. There he was arrested for trespass, although he was standing on ground that is open to the public. Apel knew he was violating a base regulation and expected to be charged and penalized."

Dennis, his wife Tensie, and their fellow community member Jorge Manly-Gil serve the poor of the Santa Maria, CA area. The three of them had driven the three hours down to Los Angeles. Dennis was to self-surrender before noon. This would not be his first time in prison. He was cheerful and strong.  

Ten or twelve of us gathered in a nearby plaza, including Catherine Morris, long-time member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, who is in her 80s. Her husband Jeff Dietrich was also sentenced to 120 days and had entered MDC the week before.

We laid hands on Dennis, and then on Tensie and Jorge, and prayed. Our friend Donald anointed them with holy oil. We sang "Carry It On."

Then Donald, Jorge and I walked Dennis over to the prison. We hugged Dennis goodbye one last time, he and Tensie had one last kiss and then a short, stocky guard who clearly loved his job just a little too much took Dennis outside, turned him head-first against the outside wall, patted him down, and snapped handcuffs on him. On Dennis, this gentle, compassionate husband and father who loves birds, who  as his vocation distributes food and runs health care interference and does errands and goes the extra mile for the poor, and that includes you and me.

Above us loomed the MDC, a 272,000-square-foot prison that opened in December 1988 with a cost of $36 million. The windows are narrow slits. 738 inmates are incarcerated there.

As Dennis entered its maw, Tensie called out, "We love you!"  "You can leave now," the guard barked. "Get out of here. Get moving."

"Nothing changes," the federal prosecutor had jeered at the sentencing hearing for Dennis and two others with similar trespassing charges a couple of weeks before--as if a lack of worldly results were a crime. "Over and over again they get arrested, and nothing changes."

Of course the same could be said of her job.

And then again--there was that conference at the Vatican.

Friday, May 6, 2016


This week's arts and culture piece is on the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and an upcoming LA Phil series.

Here's how the piece begins:

I once spent a month at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in Temecula, California. At the time, the cabins had no electricity. We rose and slept by the sun, wrote on rickety manual typewriters and read by kerosene lamps. Three weeks in, steeped in solitude and silence, I finally turned on the battery-powered radio to the local classical station.

The piece of music that came through was so sublime — a moment now enshrined in memory — that I simply lay in the dark and wept, whether in sorrow or joy I couldn’t quite tell. The piece was “Berliner Messe” [Berlin Mass] by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) — our most performed contemporary composer.

The Guardian observes, “Arvo Pärt is one of those composers you might think you know: a reclusive, extravagantly bearded Estonian who’s ensconced in a world of so-called “holy minimalism” — a reverie of simplicity that luxuriates in the pure sounds of ‘tintinnabulatory’ tonality, which sounds a corrective (for some) and sentimental (for others) note of archaism in a world of chaotic modernity.

“[W]hat he wants his music to express is ‘love for every note.’”


Tuesday, May 3, 2016


this charming spray of oleander caught my eye the other day
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I have been working my tail off these past months! Who hasn't, I know. And now I'm firming up my plans for a five-week visit to New England and New York.

June 9th I'll fly out from LA to Providence, RI, there to be met by the distinguished Dr. Timothy Flanigan. Tim is a husband, father and an infectious disease doctor who volunteered to go to to Liberia at the height of the Ebola epidemic. We met last year when he was in town to visit a sister who'd just had if memory serves a knee replacement. Would you like to have coffee? he'd asked, so we met for a noon Mass at the downtown cathedral and then broke bread at Grand Central Market. Anyway, Dr. Tim is an alumnus of the Portsmouth Abbey School and has invited me as his guest for a weekend conference called Christian Courage in a Secular Age.

Having just attended the sentencing hearing for my Catholic Worker peace activist friends Dennis Apel and Jeff Dietrich, who each got four-month sentences for vigiling at Vandenberg Air Force Base against nuclear weapon and our culture of death, I've been thinking deeply on Christian courage.



From Providence, I'll go to Northampton, Mass. to celebrate the birthday of/visit with my youngest sibling, aka "Little Meddy." We have a field trip to the Montague Bookmill ("Books you don't need in a place you can't find") planned and then there are the Smith greenhouses, Mass MoCA possibly, gossiping about the rest of the family, et cetera.

After Northampton, I'll head up to the Portsmouth NH Seacoast area, land of my birth and formative years. Here I'll visit with some more of my siblings and other fam members and friends. Gardens, walks along the ocean, the salt air, and maybe a fried clam or two. Then I'll visit with a treasured chum Ellen Mugar, ESL teacher extraordinaire, bibliophile, world-class traveler, lover of connecting people, and woman of many other talents. Then Marjorie Sa'adah, an incredible writer, also an old friend, who I met in LA and who made her way back East to the Dartmouth/Hanover/southwestern Vermont area. When learning I was to be in the area, Marjorie in a flash offered me the full use of what sounds like her amazing house where I'll stay for five nights. A lady in the 'hood named Muriel makes donuts and sells them from her kitchen. I mean that alone is worth a coast-to-coast journey.

June 30 I head down to NYC and will spend 10 nights at the Dominican Guest House on E. 63rd. The Cloisters...the Met...walks, walks, walks...several friends with whom to visit: some I've known for many years, some I've not yet met in the flesh.  July 10th up I go to an artist's retreat, courtesy of my sainted Paulist Fathers friend Fr. Tom Hall, at Lake George's St. Mary's on the Lake. It ends at 12:30 July 15 and I hope to catch an 8:30 pm flight that night out of JFK back to LA

I'm working on a proposal for a book on prayer.  And I was thinking the other day that though the life of the seeker has an underlying sense of fun, he or she never does anything just for fun: idly, randomly to kill time. In a rare flash of humor, Thomas Merton once observed, "The man of solitude is happy, but he never has a good time."

They're small, and not yet ripe, but so pretty.
I spotted them on a tree near Catalina and Lake in Pasadena Sunday.