Wednesday, November 26, 2014



This week's piece from The Tidings:

Werner Herzog is the German film-maker whose notion of “ecstatic truth” has brought him, among other places, to the Peruvian rainforest (Aguirre, The Wrath of God), Death Row (Into the Abyss), Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World), and the Alaskan wilderness (Grizzly Man).

But to me his finest film is Land of Silence and Darkness, a 1971 documentary about a 56-year-old German woman named Fini Straubinger. Fini suffered a fall down the stairs when she was 9. Several years later she went blind. Then she went deaf. Then her mother confined her to bed for three decades.

Though we never quite learn how she recovered, Fini now devotes her life to helping others who are deaf-blind, folks who communicate by spelling out words on each other’s palms by a series of taps and strokes. Fini is magnificent with her regal bulk, heavy wool coat, and deerstalker hat. “Noble friend George,” she greets one of the guests at a birthday part. At an asylum she holds out her arms to a deaf-blind woman who could communicate only with her mother—and whose mother has recently died—and addresses her simply as, “Sister in destiny.”

Over and over, she takes people’s hands compassionately into her own and spells out on their palms: “I’m like you”… “I, too, can neither see nor hear”… “We are just alike…”

To the interviewer she observes:

“I always jump when touched.”

“Years go by in waiting.”

“If I were a painter I’d represent our condition like this; blindness like a black river flowing slowly like a melody towards great falls. On its banks, trees and flowers and birds singing sweetly. The other river, coming from the other side is as clear as the purest crystal. This one also flows slowly but also without any sound. Deep down there is a lake very dark and deep where the two rivers meet. Where they join, there are rocks making the waters foam afterwards to let them flow silently and slowly into that sombre reservoir which lies in a deadly calm only troubled by an occasional ripple representing the struggle of the deaf-blind. I don’t know if you can understand this. The rocks who tear the waters stand for the depression the blind and the deaf feel.”

But the scene that comes back to me again and again is the one with Vladimir Kokol: 22 years old, born deaf-blind.

“It was never tried to awaken him,” Herzog observes in voice-over. “Only his father cared for him.”

“He never learned to walk.”

Vladimir is chubby, neatly dressed in a button-down shirt, blue V-neck sweater and pants with suspenders. He’s sitting on the floor staring into space, hitting himself on the head with a polka-dot ball, and blowing spit bubbles—Brrrrr, Brrrrrr, BRRRRRRR—the way you understand he has been for years.

Fini sits down beside him, takes his hand into her own, tries to make contact.

“I can’t hear anything. I’m just like you.”

No response.

“Poor dear.”

No response.

At some point, a pair of hands sets a portable radio, playing a bouncy 70’s “jazz” tune, in Fini’s lap. And here a remarkable transformation occurs. Vladimir places his hand over the speaker, leans his forehead against its side, and grimaces in mingled ecstasy and pain as if trying to communicate with this "something living."

Fini hands the radio over to Vladimir to hold. He sits quietly for a moment and then a beatific look lights his face. He smiles; he “understands.” And then he very slowly brings the radio to his breast, rests his cheek across the top, and with infinite tenderness, places his hands  protectively along the front. He can’t hear; it’s not the music he connects to. He’s responding with such delicacy, such profound gentleness, to the vibration, the rhythm, the small pulse, perhaps, of heat. He might have been the Virgin Mary cradling the infant Christ.

I wondered what had happened to Vladimir Kokol who, had he lived, would have been in his sixties by now. I googled his name but the only references were to Land of Silence and Darkness.

Was his appearance in Herzog’s film his one “moment in the sun?”
What treasured place did he have—do any of us have—in the universal plan?
 Did he fade back into obscurity? Did he ever hold a radio again?

In this season on the cusp of Advent, I like to think that Vladimir has entered another realm: where the blind can see and the deaf can her: of light, of sound, of warmth.

I like to think that the Virgin Mother—at last—is holding him.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Just fyi, I've been plunged into a pre-holiday depression! I was thinking yesterday about how, in a way Christmas and Easter are reverse images of each other. Easter is about darkness giving way to a burst, however temporary of pure light--while Christmas is about a tiny light shining in the midst of a universe of darkness.

Christmas is all about the family and it's interesting--and no accident--that Christmas, way more than Easter, tends to bring those of us who were not, for lack of a better phrase "securely attached' in childhood, to a bone-dry desert. Bone scraping against psychic bone, with no consolation and no end in sight. The place where Christ called out, "Lord, Lord, why have you forsaken me?" Though Easter's the season that's ostensibly about spiritual thirst, deserts, and the Crucifixion, Christmas is the time when many of us realize all over again that our hearts have been calling out in forsakenness our whole lives.

H.A.L.T.--Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired--is an acronym known to many of us former active drunks: as in don't let yourself get too any of those things. Lately I've been all four.  Hungry as in realizing at 3 p.m., stuck in freeway traffic, that the only thing I've eaten all day is a bowl of raisin bran. Lonely as in don't even get me started. Angry as in could people shut up, turn off their cell phones, learn how to drive, stop iairing their moronic opinions, curb their obnoxious dogs, pay what they owe, and leave me alone?

But especially tired. Literal tired as in my circadian rhythm stubbornly refuses to adjust to PST after my travels so I wake every morning around 3. Tired from trying to juggle and complete many projects, obligations, and plans. Tired of people who want to debate/win points I've never argued with in the first place.

And on a deeper level, tired of the limitations of being human.

Well get out the violins. Nothing a good night's sleep, a Banquet chicken pot pie and a giant cup of hot chocolate, and DEATH won't fix!

Just kidding. Better to feel the holiday blues sooner rather than later.

And the tiny light shining in darkness is this. You'd never know it from the above but my sense is I really am undergoing yet another small death, as we all are, all the time, if we allow ourselves to.

And death hurts! Death can make the weaker among us ever so slightly fearful, exhausted, and testy!

"Discrimination regarding who or what we allow to have room in our minds, to preoccupy us, can only be achieved if we regularly empty our minds of our preoccupations. Emptiness, stillness, silence, each of these words is an attempt to pin-point the condition in which God is known. In a daring passage the author of the letter to the Philippians proposes Jesus as the model from whom we have to learn this self-emptying: 'Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus who, though he was God, did not cling on to his equality with God but emptied himself and took upon himself teh form of a servant.' "

--Donald Nicholls, Holiness, p. 70

I will have it all worked out by Thursday at the latest.
Happy Thanksgiving Week to all.


Saturday, November 22, 2014


Why doesn't everyone see from earliest childhood the passes, portals and crevices down in the earth and up in the sky? If everyone saw them history would continue without killing and war.

--from the film Wings of Desiredir. Wim Wenders

Aren't these great? Here's how you do it. Set your camera to Sunset Mode, creep out at dusk, frame a shot, and then shoot it WHILE WALKING.

Of course it helps to move to Southern California first, where we are blessed with strange and mysterious happenings, landscape and light.

Thursday, November 20, 2014


I don't pay much attention to what's going on in the Vatican but I'm a huge Pope Francis fan. And I did note with approval when a couple of months ago he made the mild and eminently common-sense observation that if we are calling folks of same-sex attraction (along with all us single Catholics), out of ardent love for Christ) to celibacy, we will of course want to embrace them with open arms, invite all to the table, and recognize  generosity, creativity, and nobility of spirit wherEVER it appears in the human heart!

Well that is beautiful I thought. Then, by chance, I glanced at my FB newsfeed one night and saw the appalling reaction of several folks who you would have thought had just been ordered to round up their first-borns and slay them.

How OLD are you? I thought. And when was the last time you left your gated compound?

Anyway soon afterward I somehow got wind of the fact that next October the Church is going to hold a synod on the family in Rome. I was in Rome once: probably forty years ago, when I was still drinking.

And suddenly the thought arose: Maybe it's time to go again

Just sort of mosey on over, wander (but with a purpose) about to churches, mingle, eat, fast, pray. Pray for the Church, our Mother, and all of us in it, and all people everywhere. Our hearts, our wounds, Pray for the reconciliation of the wound between men and women that I am ever more convinced is at the heart of all poverty, all war, the degradation of the earth's resources

That includes of course my own wound.

I am perfectly capable of and willing to go the airbnb route, or just rent a little room somewhere. I am always happiest and most comfortable creeping about incognito and alone.

But then I thought well maybe I could participate a bit in some way not of my own choosing. For that is one very sure way to get out of my own "gated community"--and we are always but always called to leave our gated communities.

I'm also continually astonished at the "magic" of my blog. Folks emerge from the woodwork to say they've been following it for years.

So I'm going to throw it out there, just on the off chance anyone knows of or has a suggestion of a spot--a room in some tucked-way convent, a horse stall--I might make headquarters for a week. Wifi, a coffee machine, and within walking distance of St Paul's Church on the Via Napoli and/or St. Andrew's, Via XX Settembre 7 and I'd be good to go.

Totally able and willing to pay the going rate or make a donation.
Probably easiest to email:
Thank you!


Monday, November 17, 2014


All week, I've been drinking in the big skies and long views of northern Missouri.

A mile or so from Conception Abbey, at the end of a trail that winds through fields and vale, lies the Mary Grotto: dedicated to a seminarian who died here several years ago. One of the dear young men here SHOUT-OUT TO CHAD walked me out early in the week.

Another day I went out at dusk, just before Evening Prayer, and walked the perimeter of the pond. The clouds, while benevolent, seemed a force of nature: bearing down, enveloping, incorporating,shifting,  incarnating.

The next afternoon it snowed, the first fall of the season..

I didn't have the right foot gear, but I bundled up and tramped off anyway, noticing the way the trees, and grasses, and native plants receive and provide a nest for the snow.

Me and the birds--back to the grotto.

And now, after Monday Night Compline, I prepare to head home tomorrow.
Sunday night at the Clyde Apple House rocked.
Thank you, one and all truly beautiful seminarians for the deep, rich time I had here.
May the all powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.
Let's all keep one another in prayer.
And if the spirit ever moves, come on out to Los Angeles!

Sunday, November 16, 2014


For The Tidings, I worked up a little piece on Senior Lead Officer Deon Joseph whose beat is L.A.'s Skid Row. It begins:

"When you drive into downtown L.A.’s Skid Row, you feel suddenly and violently cut adrift from all the markers that signal civilization.

I learned of Senior Lead Office Deon Joseph through an article he wrote last August for Downtown News. He sounded human. He responded quickly to my request to talk. I’d come down to the station, we agreed. Always nicer in person.

Joseph is 41, with the stocky build and huge arms of a guy who likes to keep order.

“I was raised in a rough part of Long Beach. My father grew up in the Jim Crow South. He saw his great-grandfather murdered by a 16-year-old who wanted my great-grandfather to walk in the street because he was walking on the sidewalk,” Joseph said.

“He and my mother loved children. They raised four, adopted three, and took in 41 foster children: crack babies, sexual abuse, homeless. My father hired ex-felons. My mother fed the homeless.”

He never wanted to be a cop. “Like many African-American males, I was indoctrinated to hate the police.” But then his father’s contracting business crashed after the Rodney King riots."


Friday, November 14, 2014



I would like to report that here at Conception Abbey, in Conception, Missouri, the age of chivalry is not dead!

I can't say how touched I have been at the courtly manners of the young men who have called me Miss King (Madame! I want to say), patiently guided me from building to building, kindly handed me a hymnal open to the correct page, discreetly slipped me a copy of the Lord's Prayer in Spanish, fetched me a napkin, appeared at my elbow as if by magic with a laminated prayer card of the Salve Regina, walked me to the Mary grotto, forbearingly repeated the schedule for the following day, refrained from shooting me for inadvertently taking their seat in the oratory, and overlooked my many daily faux pas.

Even better, many of the seminarians have shared some of their stories, struggles, and holy longing.

It can't be easy to welcome a stranger into their midst and they have done so graciously, tactfully and with a wth a kind of wholesome mid-Western heart that has warmed my own.

Meanwhile it is freezing, penetratingly, cold outside so much of my photo-taking has been accomplished from indoors. My room faces east making for spectacular mornings, always my favorite time of day.

I'm sure something deep is happening here. As usual, I have no idea what it might be. Not that something deep has to happen, but the older I get, the more I feel that every second, the world, and all us frail human beings in it,  is dying and being being made new.

And I feel sure the solid presence of these possible priests-in-training is fortifying and guiding me in some way I can't know. Just hearing their voices raised together in song is steadying and a gift.

“Hear my prayer, O Lord,
And give ear to my cry;
Do not be silent at my tears;
For I am a stranger with You,
A sojourner, as all my fathers were

Remove Your gaze from me, that I may regain strength,
Before I go away and am no more.”

--Psalm 39