Monday, February 26, 2018



Here's how this week's arts and culture column begins:

“The root of all disturbance, if one will go to its source, is that no one will blame himself.” — Dorotheus of Gaza, sixth-century monk

Through April 8, the Getty Center is featuring an exhibit of illuminated manuscripts titled “Outcasts: Prejudice and Persecution in the Medieval World.”

To prepare, I read Christopher de Hamel’s “Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts,” a delightful entrée to the millennia of history, obsessive scholarship and arcane world of palace intrigues that characterize these splendid worship aids and works of art. (“Illuminated” refers to the frequent use of gold leaf).

The Getty is an L.A. treasure. I am grateful to it. I really wanted to like “Outcasts.”

But within seconds I felt the spikes of contemporary “identity politics” being driven into my hands and feet.

The opening commentary set the tone.

“Life provided significant obstacles for those who were not fully-abled, white, wealthy, Christian, heterosexual, cisgender males. For today’s viewer, the vivid images and pervasive subtexts in illuminated manuscripts can serve as stark reminders of the power of rhetoric and the danger of prejudice.”

Cisgender? A term invented and that came into usage in the 1990s? Oh those hateful bigots of the Middle Ages, with their backward insistence upon a sense of personal identity and gender that actually corresponded with their birth sex!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


I have felt kind of quiet as of late. Not moved much, in this culture of VERY LOUD voices, to speak.

That is not because I don't have opinions. Oh do I have opinions! The quietness is partly because first, who can fathom the seasons and shifts and alternate storms and calms of the human heart.

It's also partly because I figured out my "stand" toward existence, my mission on earth, the "issues" of the day, and how I want to move and have my being in the midst of all of that, many years ago. As horrible as things seem, and often are, they have more or less always been that way. Read the Psalms.

Of course I'm always called to grow. I'm always called to examine my hardness of heart, cowardice, self-righteousness and all kinds of other unsavory traits with which I'm saturated from top to bottom, and to do better.

But lately I seem to have come to grips maybe a teeny bit more with what has actually always been one of my central conflicts: the desire to be holy and my utter inability, under my own steam, to move one iota in that direction.

It's true: I have always wanted to be a saint. I don't think that's pathetic or melodramatic. I think it's a very legitimate desire. In fact, it may be the only truly sane desire, given the human condition, the battle of good against evil, and of course Christ.

I'm sure it's in one sense why I became a Catholic--because I'm drawn to extremes and the saint is an extreme practitioner of love. i think I've always known this about myself. Never have I been drawn to 'normal' life. Always, even as a child, I have felt myself to be and to some extent have been an outsider.

I heard the other day from Alma, a friend at Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario. She had seen my Servant of God Adele Dirsyte piece in the March Magnificat and wanted to tell me that she'd lived for a time at  Magadan, site of one of the Russian gulag camps where Adele was imprisoned.  Adele's story is ghastly and harsh. The Communists caught her taking the Eucharist and marked her out for “slow extermination.”

To follow Christ I reflected later is, in some way, always to be marked for slow extermination. Or I guess sometimes fast. But for most of us it's slow, and constant. There are no two ways around it. Death is death. In a worldly way, there is no way to undergo a crucifixion looking like or coming off as a winner.

The other day I was at a gathering where several people around the room vented the usual virulent slurs against Catholicism. One woman who had been to Catholic school and surprise, hated and despised the nuns, had been forced to go to (said in a sing-songy, condescending baby tone) “cha-pel, or whatever they called it.”

I grieve over the fact that so many people had such a gruesome time at Catholic school.

Later that day I went to five o’clock Mass at St. Andrew. What with Lent, and Sunday afternoon existential sorrow, and the fact that no man, ever, has truly loved me or ever will, I was feeling kind of weepy anyway.

And halfway through the Creed, along to the pew in front of me comes this poor, poor burn victim guy whose face had just been decimated. Decimated. White bandage over nose hole and the rest…of course I could hardly wait for the Kiss of Peace so I could touch him. 

But the point is—again, the slow extermination. The leper. How Christ came for all that is disfigured in us and among us. At one point, the guy knelt and prayed and hid his face in his hands and tears were simply pouring down my face. This suffering, suffering man in the cha-pel. How could anyone deny him that? Thank God for churches: for many of us who are more or less unfit for family, our one, our only, true home. I wondered what his prayer might be. My brother.

(For all I know, it occurs to me now, the guy was totally in acceptance and gratitude). 

Anyway, such have been some of my thoughts. In the middle of all this--and by "this, I of course  include threats of nuclear war, the raping of the environment, an entire working class that increasingly cannot afford a decent education, basic health care, or to buy a home, and a government that resembles an especially vicious alcoholic parent--I've been working in my garden.

Hours and hours and hours, in the garden. Digging holes, weeding (TONS of), sorting stones, clipping, staking, fertilizing, grooming, speaking in hushed tones to, praying. Sitting in the faded green metal chair with a pair of binoculars. So far I have spotted a pair of band-tailed pigeons, three acorn woodpeckers, a large group of cedar waxwings, several scrub jays and goldfinches (the latter at the birdbath), Anna's hummingbirds galore, and one red-shafted flicker.   

Always, always, I feel I should be doing more. All my life I've felt I should be doing more, or other. Should be "speaking out," should be an "activist," should be committing acts of civil disobedience and going to prison. Should be feeding the poor in a soup line, should be a special ed teacher,  a hospice nurse, a mother. At the very least a wife. A girlfriend anyway... "Popular," then. A companion to all!...


Should at any rate, for sure, be writing more. Working on another book, or promoting the books I have. Should be explaining why MY WORK IS IMPORTANT. MY WORK IS ESSENTIAL. MY WORK...

Underneath it all throbs my central wound, and maybe it is everyone's central wound: the inability to form a true partnership with another human being. Whether I push everyone away ultimately because of my wounds, or whether I’ve been somehow weirdly marked out for the cell, the cloister, the inner mental ward, the effect is the same. Celibacy, coupled with a prickly personality, a giant dose of narcissism, and an ocean of self-centered fear, is a lot of tension to carry--and sometimes I carry it better than other times.

Lately, though, the thought has come to me: What if I really were doing enough--even to be a saint? (Which I'm sure I read somewhere actually means "friend of Jesus"--so all right then!) I do so want to help out. But what if it were enough to write a weekly arts and culture column for my archdiocesan newspaper and a monthly column in Magnificat and to put up an occasional post that maybe a hundred people read?

What if it were enough to lift my soul to the birds and work in the garden? (Aside: Seriously, I have got to write a book about this garden and its daily adventures--for there are NEIGHBORS, wouldn't you know--that bring to the fore my worst and most weaselly character defects).

What if it were enough to pray every morning and carry my little cross and give thanks at the end of the day?

“As illness wears out the covering of the body, the soul shines forth. As this woman came to trust me, I discovered that she had not really talked to anyone in thirty years. Early on in her marriage, something had broken down irreparably between herself and her husband. She simply lost what she had with him and could not get it back. There she was inside this home, the mother and the heart of it. She learned to go through all the external motions and she became an utterly convincing domestic actress. But inside she was lost. Gradually she began to accept that there was no path outwards. Then she made the decision to live her intimate life inwardly. She undertook the journey. She went inwards as far as she could and over the years she managed to build some kind of hermit cell within her own heart. And that was really where she dwelt. When she began to talk about herself, it was clear that she spoke from a refined interiority. In a sense, she was not a mother living in a suburban house with husband and children. She was someone who had long since departed to an interior monastery that nobody had discovered. And when death began to focus more clearly around her, she was not afraid. Death was no stranger to her. Having had to build a sanctuary where no-one ever visited, she had come to know the mind of death. She was not thrown by the cold clarity of death’s stare or the unravelling force of its singular eye. Nor was there any bitterness in her. She had allowed as much transfiguration as she could. Against the hidden pathos of her life’s distance, she had no resistance. She had garnered a fragile beauty from isolation.”

--John O’Donohue, Beauty, from the chapter “The Beauty of the Flaw”


Saturday, February 17, 2018


While Kim Jong-un's sister gets her photo snapped at the Olympics, the people of North Korea, as they have for decades, suffer unimaginable isolation, suffering, and oppression.

This week's arts and culture column starts like this:

Suki Kim was born in South Korea to parents whose family had been separated by the Korean War. In the early 1980s her father, a successful businessman, suffered a sudden financial reverse and went bankrupt, a “crime” that could have drawn prison time.

She was woken in the middle of the night, shuttled off to a relative’s house in a faraway city, and did not see her parents for a year.

They were reunited at New York’s JFK Airport. The family was now poor, and the 13-year-old girl knew not a word of English.

These events make her memoir, “Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite” (Penguin Random House, $15), of her time undercover in North Korea, teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to 270 young males at a Christian evangelical school, all the more astounding. For in addition to being a gripping “insider” story, her work is a literary tour de force: lyrical, nuanced and haunting.


Thursday, February 15, 2018


Is the silence which transience brings a vacant silence? Does everything vanish into emptiness? Like the patterns which birdflight makes in the air, is there nothing left? Where does the flame go when the candle is blown out? Is there a place where the past can gather? I believe there is. That place is memory. That which holds out against transience is memoria.

It is crucial to understand that experience itself is not merely an empirical process of appropriating or digesting blocks of life. Experience is rather a journey of transfiguration. Both that which is lived and the one who lives it are transfigured. Experience is not about the consumption of life, rather it is about the interflow of creation into the self and of the self into creation. This brings about subtle and consistently new configurations in both. That is the activity of growth and creativity.

Viewed against this perspective, the concealed nature of memoria is easier to understand. Memoria is the harvester and harvest of transfigured experience. Deep in the silent layers of selfhood, the coagulations of memoria are at work. It is because of this subtle integration of self and life that there is the possibility of any continuity in experience.

-John O’Donohue, Four Elements: Reflections on Nature


Friday, February 9, 2018



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

For all you ink aficionados, through April 15 the Natural History Museum is featuring a special exhibit: “Tattoo.”

Tattoo culture has been 5,000 years in the making. Since the 20th century, L.A. has formed a significant part of it.

“Before it becomes a mark,” the museum notes, “a tattoo is process. Its results can be a sign of identity, a rite of passage, a type of protection, a form of medicine, a memory made visible, or a piece of art to be collected and worn on that most intimate of canvases, the human skin.”

The exhibit, which costs 11 bucks in addition to the entrance fee, features commentary on the wide and varied history of tattoo, vintage photos, flash sheets of pinup girls, dragons and Catholic iconography, and videos.

Silicone arms, tattooed in various styles and backlit like medieval manuscripts, are displayed throughout in glass vitrines. There are tribal designs; a giant, writhing octopus by Kari Barba (b. 1960), whose Long Beach shop occupies the site of the legendary Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo; and my own personal favorite, a style honed by Montreal tattoo artist Yann Black (b. 1973) that he describes as “somewhere between German Expressionism and Russian Constructivism.”


Saturday, February 3, 2018


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

Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Self-Portrait at the Age of 34,” on loan from the National Gallery in London, is on view at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena through March 5. The appearance marks the painting’s U.S. debut.

A little background: Rembrandt (1606-1669), Dutch painter, printmaker and draughtsman, was born in Leiden to prosperous parents. His mother was Catholic and his father a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. Though as an adult he seemed to have practiced no religion himself, this Christian influence of his childhood clearly marked and helped form him.

In 1932 he moved to Amsterdam, and in 1934 he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, the cousin of his art dealer.

Prodigiously talented, and prolific in a wide range of styles and subjects, his oeuvre includes landscapes, mythological and religious works, and portraits.

Though now widely considered one of the greatest artists the world has known, and certainly the most important in Dutch art history, Rembrandt’s later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial catastrophe.