Month: January 2013

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NEXT STOP PGH

pgh looks just like l.a.!
photo credit

I’ll soon be giving a talk for the Newman Center at Duquesne University, as follows:

March 2, 2013, Saturday 10:30 a.m.
Lenten speaker, Newman Lecture Series 

Gailliot Center for Newman Studies
211 N. Dithridge Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15213 
Street parking! 

Refreshments and coffee starting at 10 a.m.
Free and open to the public.

My contact person there, Ph. D. Kevin Mongrain, is an Associate Professor at the McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts, a scholar of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and an author. I was so excited about the prospect of coming to Pittsburgh (where I’ve never been before), that somehow we got to talking and next thing I knew he was offering me a suite at the Gailliot Center for a bit longer than the planned three days.

I am quite taken with the whole notion of a “suite,” and post-haste got on kayak.com and booked a ticket for a week. So I’ll be in Pittsburgh from Feb. 25 through March 3 and before I’d even told anyone I coincidentally heard from a lovely priest at St. Paul of the Cross Monastery and Retreat House across the river  who ended up sending me all kinds of maps and brochures and offering to show me around Pittsburgh or “Pgh” as the people from there seem to spell it.

I love the idea of getting to wander around the arts district of a new city: going to Mass, drinking coffee and listening to the accents. It will be Lent so I will probably be abstaining from sugar and thus in a low, desolate, self-pitying mood but I’m sure the good folks from Pgh will cheer me right up.

So thank you in advance for having me!

Then there’s my recent post,  “The Existential Nostalgia of TV,” in which I copped to the fact that I haven’t much watched TV since the days of Mister Ed. A few days later I  received a little package in the mail. No card, no indication of the sender–but instantly I discerned the hand of my beloved little brother joe…

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THE CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL

THE CONVERSION OF ST. PAUL
CARAVAGGIO, 1600-1601
The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul is celebrated on January 25th. Some of you saw this reflection in Magnificat yesterday but for those who didn’t, here ya go….

******

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” [Acts 9:4] Authentic conversion always comes from realizing that we have been “persecuting” Christ.
In the fall of 1986, I spent thirty days at an addiction treatment center in rural Minnesota. Hiking trails meandered through the woods. The trees were turning color. One morning I crept out for a walk just past dawn. Not another soul stirred. I came upon a pond and, through the mist, saw a blue heron, standing stock still, noble head erect. I saw the heron and the heron saw me.
It was a moment from the Song of Songs, a moment of liminal space and time, an instant of such heart-stopping beauty that in my memory it has attained the level of myth. All those years while I’d been in the bars, this heron, or one like him, had been coming to the pond. All those years while I’d been drinking morning Sea Breezes at Boston’s Sullivan’s Tap, another parallel world had been breathing, suffering, praising God. Many years passed before I discovered Christ, and more years after that before I came into the Church. But in a way I can mark my conversion from that moment. In a way that heron was Christ, saying, “Heather, Heather, why are you persecuting me?”
St. Paul fell off his horse, but Christ comes in the form of a lamb, a dove, a heron. That’s not to say he’s always gentle. But he’s often gentlest when we’ve been doing terrible violence to ourselves and others. Christ never cuts us down with a gun or a sword. He looks at us with love. He says, Look at these blue-gray feathers. He says, Isn’t it lovely to be still and listen to the frogs? He looks us in the eye with love and says, “Why are you persecuting me?”
To be forgiven when we know we don’t “deserve” to be forgiven is radically transformative in a way violence can never be. To be forgiven does another kind of violence: to our whole tit-for-tat notion of crime and punishment. To be forgiven makes us realize that, unbelievable as it may seem, God needs us for something. We have a mission.  
My experience with the heron wasn’t a white-light experience. It was a door opening onto what has proved to be a long and very slow spiritual awakening of, as William James put it, “the educational variety.” How often I’ve forgotten the heron. How often I’ve been harsh, rageful, importunate, intolerant, unfaithful, unkind, and just plain wrong.
When that happens I’m struck blind for a few hours or days or even months. Often a long time passes before I see that once again, I’ve been persecuting Christ.
Our offense doesn’t lie in breaking a rule. It lies in offending against love, against truth,
against beauty. What’s remarkable about St. Paul isn’t that he had a white light experience. What’s remarkable is that he retained his fervor for all the remaining years of his life.  
LONELY HERON
L.A.RIVER
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NO IDEAS BUT IN THINGS

furniture store, sunset blvd., silver lake

i have a new glazed coffee cup from provence!

one of two pillows i recently fashioned from a thrift-store pair of drapes

knitting project–lap rug. this represents four james bond movies.

my friend ann sent me an orchid!

“No ideas but in things.”
William Carlos Williams

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THE EXISTENTIAL NOSTALGIA OF TV

me, dad and joe

From a recent email from my little brother Joe of the punk band The Queers:

“Hey aged relative-do you have [our brother] Ross’s address? I bought Allen [our nephew] a signed 8×10 glossy of Martin Milner from 1-Adam 12. I know he likes the show.”

Me: “Who’s Martin Milner?”

Joe: “Martin Milner? Are you tripping? Pete Malloy from One Adam 12? The greatest cop show in the history of tv? Late 60’s-early 70’s? It was produced by Jack Webb so there’s all sorts of killer episodes of stoned hippy parents who beat their children to death or let them drown while they’re smoking marijuana cigarettes. Funny as hell.”

TV watching for me came to a screeching halt right around the time ‘Mr. Ed’ completed its run. I held on for a while but once John-Boy read Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Wind-Hover” to Mama on “The Waltons,” there was no real point in continuing.

Before that, though, were such New England staples as Rex Trailer’s “Boomtown,” “Candlepins for Cash,” and “Community Auditions,” which was on Sunday morning and featured kids from Boston suburbs like Brockton and Malden (Mawlden, the people from Mass. pronounced it) massacreing “Climb Every Mountain,” mangling “Für Elise” on the piano, and banging out “When the Saints Come Marching In” on cheesy drum sets.

“Star of the day, who will it be?” went the theme song. “Your vote will hold the key. It’s up to you, tell us who, will be star of the day.” Gene Burns was the host for years, followed by “radio personality” Dave Maynard. We’d all hoot and jeer and double over laughing, secretly thinking, in my case at least, I bet I could do that…

All eight of us were weaned on “Leave It to Beaver,” “Andy of Mayberry,” “Green Acres,” “I Love Lucy,” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” (Joe sometimes still calls me Ellie Mae, or if he’s feeling ornery, Granny). The launching of the ipad had nothing on the furor surrounding the day UHF, the “cable” equivalent of the ‘60s, came to town, and from our living room at 108 Post Road in North Hampton, NH, we were able to get channels 38 and 56: “Creature Feature,” “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits.” 
One of the first things I bought after getting sober was a Sony Trinitron (which I held onto for 20 years), but I never quite caught up. TV for me is forever the weeks of excitement leading up to the annual screening of The Wizard of Oz.  TV is sitting in the dark as the phosphorescent glow lit our poor dear little faces, and logs from the fireplace Dad built with his own hands sending out sparks, and the smell of pine pitch. TV for me is still a tangle of warm little bodies kicking, squirming, wisecracking, that back then seemed annoying (why couldn’t I be an only child? I thought bitterly) and that now I’d give my right arm for one more night of.
Call me old school, but I haven’t felt the same about TV since.

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MY FRIEND ANN LEARY’S NEW NOVEL

THE LEARY FAMILY–
BEFORE THE KIDS WENT OFF TO COLLEGE!

Check out my interview in The Fix this week with my dear long-time friend Ann Leary. Her new novel, The Good House, was published to rave reviews this week and is selling like hotcakes.

INSIDE THE MIND OF AN ALCOHOLIC

Ann Leary and I met 25 years ago in Boston, before we thought ourselves capable of writing a coherent grocery list, let alone an entire book. We were just getting sober. We each went on to write books—several, in fact—as I move to Los Angeles and “got religion” and Ann got a husband, actor and comic Denis Leary (before he was famous!).

Now they have two children and live in rural Connecticut. Happily, Ann and I have remained close friends who can always make each other laugh. We sat down recently to talk about her new novel, The Good House, out January 15 from St. Martin’s Press. It’s set in a small New England town and is told from the point of view of a woman named Hildy Good, who just might have a problem with alcohol.

Heather King: Ann, you and I got sober together in Boston and the North Shore. A small town on the North Shore is the setting for your new novel, which captures the feel of the place, the zeitgeist of old money, flinty and eccentric New Englanders, lobster fishermen—and the repressed emotion, alcoholism, driving the back roads wasted.

Ann Leary: I love New Englanders. I moved to Marblehead from Wisconsin when I was 14 and I have been fascinated by the New England personality ever since. I felt like such an outsider when we moved there. Many of my classmates had lived in Marblehead all their lives. Some were descendants of Marblehead’s earliest settlers. My classmates had a shared history that I envied. I also was very aware of the way this town had its own personality. The neighboring towns had slightly different personalities, each formed by the collective quirkiness of the characters who had founded them and whose descendants still inhabited them…

READ THE REST HERE! THANKS, ANN…..

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INFANTILIZATION-BY-TERROR: THE PERSONALITY CULTS OF NORTH KOREA

Recently I posted on Shin Dong-hyuk‘s 2005 escape from a North Korean death camp. My friend Bill and I had dinner the other night and I was thrilled to learn that he’s somewhat of an expert on North Korean history. We marveled at the almost hysterical devotion to Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il, in spite of the harsh repression, widespread famine, and hundreds of thousands of brutal killings committed under their watch.

Afterward he sent me the three featured youtubes. I wrote back:

“It’s as if the identities of the North Koreans have all been subsumed to “The Great Leader”–exactly the opposite of the follower of Christ where (ideally) we ‘obey’ out of love and thus are revealed in Him…maybe that’s why I like stories of the survivors–to be reminded that each of those people is a human being with a heart, mind, soul”…

To which Bill replied:

There is a radical difference between the lessons of Matthew 18:3 [“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven] and Mark 10:15, and the infantilization-by-terror of the people of North Korea. And it’s far too easy to imagine these people as robots when they’re quite the opposite. The darkness we see in nighttime images from space of North Korea is like a pall of suffering.

From B.R. Myers, the author of The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters:

“In this book . . . I aim to explain North Korea’s dominant ideology or worldview — I use the words interchangeably— and to show how far removed it is from communism, Confucianism and the show-window doctrine of Juche Thought. Far from complex, it can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.”

From the book:

“Many in the West, of course, continue to doubt that the North Koreans really believe in their personality cult. This skepticism derives in part from recollections of the double lives led in the old East Bloc, where the average educated citizen feigned fervent support for his country’s leader in formal settings only to joke about him behind closed doors. But this only goes to show how little the East Bloc and North Korea ever had in common, for the masses’ adoration of Kim Il Sung has always been very real. Even among the few North Koreans who have left the country and stayed out, a heartfelt admiration for the Great Leader is mainstream (I personally know migrants who still cannot talk of him without tearing up). This has much to do with the far greater psychological appeal of nationalism itself, but Kim Il Sung’s peculiarly androgynous or hermaphroditic image also seems to exert a far more emotional attraction than any of the unambiguously paternal leaders of Eastern Europe were able to. I am not qualified to analyze the cult (of anything else) from a psychological viewpoint, but just enough should be written here to counter the reader’s skepticism that sane people could give themselves over to the adoration of a male mother figure. Sigmund Freud wrote of every child’s yearning for a phallic mother, a truly omnipotent parent who is both sexes in one, and Ernest Becker agreed that the hermaphroditic image answers a striving for ontological wholeness that is inherent to man. This may explain why Jesus and Buddha are far more feminine and maternal figures in the popular imagination than in the original scriptures of Christianity and Buddhism. The North Koreans’ race theory gives them extra reason to want a leader who is both mother enough to indulge their unique childlikeness and father enough to protect them from the evil world.”


NORTH KOREANS MOURNING THE DEATH OF KIM IL SUNG (1912-1994).
1 MILLION PEOPLE ARE PURPORTED TO HAVE DIED THROUGH CONCENTRATION CAMPS, FORCED LABOR, AND EXECUTIONS UNDER HIS REGIME.

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A HUNDRED SMALL ANNOYANCES

St. Claude de la Colombière, 17th-century priest and confessor, observed:

There is no one who does not experience a hundred small annoyances every day, caused either by our own carelessness or inattention, or by the inconsideration or spite of other people, or by pure accident. Our whole lives are made up on incidents of this kind, occurring ceaselessly from one minute to another, and producing a host of involuntary feelings of dislike and aversion, envy, fear, and impatience to trouble the serenity of our minds…If we were careful to offer all these petty annoyances to God and accept them as being ordered by his providence, we would soon be in a position to support the greatest misfortunes that can happen to us, besides at the same time insensibly drawing close to intimate union with God.

Well isn’t that the truth? The other day, driving around L.A. on a series of pesky errands, I started thinking about Thomas Merton’s famous “moment” on a street corner in Louisville where, suffused with love, he realized “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” I thought, a bit churlishly to be sure, Yeah, I’d think people were shining like the sun as well,  if I didn’t have to wade through them every day. I see the monks “shining like the sun” when I visit a monastery, too–mostly because I don’t have to live with them…

That’s not to detract in any way from Merton’s truly beautiful epiphany; it’s only to observe that the real feat for me would be to see Christ in the people who are in my way 24/7, as I jostle for a parking spot, a place in line, my earplugs at night to block out the sound of their obnoxiously yipping dogs….

Recently I heard a guy tell of a spiritual practice he’s discovered. He says thank you to God not only for the things that make life easier, but for the things that make it harder, scarier, more painful. He lost his wallet at the movie theater: he got home, gritted his teeth, thanked God, and the theater called the next day and said they’d found it. He lost the wallet again, this time at a bowling alley–again, he thanked God; again, the wallet miraculously turned up. A third time he lost the wallet, on a visit to his aunt in Arizona. Again, he said, “Thank you, God;” a third time the wallet was returned.

I thought, My God man, put the wallet in a different pocket!

Still, I think the guy’s onto something. Because what happens with a hundred (at LEAST!) small annoyances a day is that I, for one, can start going around with a low-grade hostility. I can fritter away my energy in a kind of constant self-defense, self-justification, scheming, planning, pre-emptive damage control mode…

Thanking God when your mother’s just gone up in a Nazi crematorium, or when you’ve been called into the torture chamber, or when you’re watching through the glass as your kid is executed might be a bit much to ask, but maybe I, who have never known such trauma, can give thanks to be alive, even in a world where God has given man free will and we so often use it to kill each other.

Again and again during the course of my day, I have to return to: How important is it? Would I rather be right or would I rather be happy?

Again and again, I have to pray, Let me come from a place of love. Then, with a whole lot of luck and a whole lot of grace, I can get back to Oh God bless her, with her three dogs; I’m just jealous cause she’s young and beautiful. I can think, How amazing that a city of ten million works at all, never mind as well as it does. I can think,  Look! There’s a red-hot poker–one of the first signs of spring…

Kniphofia northiae
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THE YEAR OF THE PERSON HAS ARRIVED

An excerpt from a reflection by the great Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete.:


I was once accused of heresy, which made me very happy because I thought my books would sell more. And the heresy that I apparently had given birth to, and I kept hoping, again, that it would be known by the name “Albacetism,” was that I was told to have said at a priest’s retreat, not here, someplace else, that I did not believe God was everywhere. Now, I don’t know very much about that. Never mind. I said to the inquisition, to the judges, “No, if you want I will sign any statement that affirms that I believe that God is everywhere.” I have no problem with that. My problem is that everybody that I know, everybody that I care about, I have found is always somewhere in some place at some time. I can say, “Here.” If they are everywhere, I don’t know how to handle it. If you know exactly where they are and at what time…I used to carry two watches; one was a time someplace else, one was the current time here in New York because there are times at which I don’t even know how to add or subtract, but it doesn’t matter. Whenever I wanted to know where so-and-so was at that moment, what they were doing, (I would sometimes think about Fr. Giussani himself), I didn’t have to calculate anything—not that this was a major calculation, okay? But I would just look, and my watch would have the same time as his watch. And that made me happy. Little things like that make you happy. When you’re in love with someone, the same thing. So these people have always been someplace, and that’s the way I like it. I don’t like people who are everywhere!…

We read again and again the manifestation of Jesus’ reality to his disciples even before His death and resurrection. What kind of effect did His Presence have? His look? His gestures? Amazement. Amazement that such a thing is possible. Profound curiosity begins to appear: “Tell me more”…or… “I don’t understand, but this is interesting.”

You see, part of the success of the dominant secularist culture is to try to succeed in hiding how interesting the Christian claim is, how beautiful, but above all, how interesting. And how does it do it? By killing anything that’s interesting, by deciding itself what is interesting, by diminishing the reality of interesting, especially in our youth…

[T]his is our redemption, salvation. This is what Christ has come to do—to revive, to give life to our interest so that we can recognize His victory, and therefore our victory, over those forces that diminish us, that reduce the experience of our dignity, that reduce even the range of our reason and of our desires. The only thing that can break through that shell constructed around our inner selves, our heart, by this culture of death, the only way to break through is with the power of the interesting…


Check out the rest! And thank you, Monsignor…

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WHAT SEXISM?

KARL HOFER
GIRL WITH AMARYLLIS, 1936

A reader recently e-mailed expressing interest in learning about confession so as to bring it into her (non-Catholic) circles. She had only one question: did the sexism in the Church ever bother me?

I replied, “What sexism?”
She thought I was kidding, but I was serious. I’m with Flannery O’Connor who said, “On the subject of this feminist business, I just never…think of qualities which are specifically feminine or masculine. I suppose I [divide] people into two classes: the Irksome and the Non-Irksome without regard to sex.”

St. Thérèse of Lisieux observed: “I have found my vocation at last: in the heart of my mother the Church I will be love….like that I will be everything…and so my dream will be fulfilled.”

That is my dream, too. I can only witness to my own experience. The Church has never done anything but support that, encourage that, and help to make that possible.

VERMEER
GIRL READING A LETTER AT AN OPEN WINDOW, 1657-59

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THE GREAT GIFT OF CONFESSION

ANTONIO CAVALLUCCI (1752-1795)
THE PENITENT MAGDALENE

Last post I mentioned a reader who expressed interest in bringing the gift of confession into her own (non-Catholic) circles. In its way, this is  lovely. But Confession the way I understand it–and there’s a world of difference between that small “c” and a capital “C”–is a Sacrament, the only possible two authentic participants being a Catholic priest and a penitent.

Now I find it very interesting that left to our own devices we do have a moral compass, a conscience, for it very much goes toward the idea that deep inside every man, woman and child is the fundamental idea of God. For years, in fact, I’ve availed myself of fellow sober alcoholics with whom to do general moral inventories on resentments, fears and sex. On that level—one broken human being to another; one sinner if you like to another—this works beautifully. In fact, this kind of being heard by (and in turn, listening to) a fellow alcoholic in large part led me to Christ and the Church. But the personal conscience, formed by nothing higher than its own lights, has limits. It’s one thing to tell another human being, for example, that you’ve had an abortion, if for no other reason than to get it off your chest, to say This is who I am and what I’ve done; to get in the habit of rigorous honesty; to cultivate the discipline of examining one’s conscience. It’s wonderful to find no judgment—in fact, maybe the other person’s had an abortion, too—to find, There, I said it out loud and I haven’t been ejected from the human race.
But it’s another thing entirely to know that abortion is an egregious wrong and to want to be clean with God, to be absolved from it. That’s not going to happen in telling another person who may or may not see abortion as any kind of wrong. So early in my sobriety I saw there’s a general moral order and then there’s a specific moral order in which I was willing to be guided, to be instructed, to be obedient. Because once I got sober, I became very very interested in the truth: the deepest truth about myself, the world, the human condition. And I saw you can’t just make up the moral order as you go along. You can’t just go on your intentions, on what at first glance “makes sense.” Oh let’s just be free, we tell ourselves. Let’s do what we want as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Well, what does “hurt” mean? If there’s no objective moral order, there’s no objective measure of what it means to hurt someone. One person is going to think promiscuity is fine and another person isn’t. One person’s going to encourage cheating on your taxes; another’s going to call that stealing. One person’s going to think guns are the anti-Christ and another’s going to want to arm every student and every teacher in the name of loving protection.
Those questions are one reason I went into the law, but the law, being man-made, similarly has limits. In civil law we try to make people whole with money and in criminal law we try to make people whole by locking up the criminal and my experience, in the mercifully short time I practiced, was that nobody was ever much made whole at all.

So you have to have a specific moral order and you’ll want to consecrate that order in time and space and thus we have the Sacraments. And we need people to administer the Sacraments and in the Catholic church those people are priests. The Sacrament of Holy Orders, in the case of Confession, protects the confessor from thinking he’s an oracle with some extraordinary or supernatural power of his own, and it protects the penitent from a priest who might otherwise interpose a moral code of his own personal devising.


Which means, and here’s another interesting thing, that the worst sinning ordained priest could validly hear  Confession and offer absolution while the most high-minded layperson, male or female, could not. Because the operative fact isn’t that the priest is sinning; it’s that he’s pledged himself to an authority greater than himself; to dogma that plumbs to the depths of the human soul and that was devised not by him alone, that does not change from one minute to the next with fashions, moods, and/or political movements. Dogma safeguards mystery. Dogma is the Church’s way of saying, This is what love looks like: per Christ, via Christ, for two thousand unbroken centuries built on the Real Body and the Real Blood of Christ. We might waver but our True North is constant.  
I have many times sat across from, and told some of my darkest secrets to, gay ex-methheads, convicted felons, functional illiterates, and all sorts of other unpromising folks like myself, to truly great effect. I have become friends with many of these people; they have been deeply loyal and generous friends to me. But I’m not going to kneel before that person. That I want to kneel; that  the Church is built, in a sense, upon that very desire, makes me know that  my house is built on solid rock.


I continue to fail and  fall, but my house is built on solid rock.  
DO I LOOK DOWNTRODDEN?