Month: June 2013



“I came from Latin America where intellectuals were always talking about political and social revolution and where a lot of bombs were thrown. But revolution hasn’t changed much. It takes little daring to bomb a building, but in order to give up cigarettes or stop being anxious or to stop internal chattering, you have to remake yourself. This is where real reform begins.”
Carlos Castaneda

“Contemplation is a way of being present to what is really inside our own experience.”
Fr. Ron Rolheiser




Every so often we discover a book to meditate upon, marvel at, and in the end, bow our heads in homage before. For me, one such book is The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (1976). The author, Terrence Des Pres (1939-1987), was an American writer, Holocaust scholar and professor at Colgate University.

The work took over four years, “years of reading through vast amounts of eyewitness testimony, of cutting through accepted notions of camp experience, of informal talk with survivors, and finally, before getting firmly underway, a time of search for a way to set myself in relation to them.” In chapters, among others, entitled “Excremental Assault,” “Nightmare and Waking,” and “Radical Nakedness,” Des Pres describes the horror endured by the inmates of Soviet and Nazi death camps.

The cattle cars in which prisoners were transported opened upon a living hell: bodies strung up on barbed wire, whips, guns, truncheons, smoke from the crematoriums. Upon arrival, every inmate underwent an almost complete disintegration of personality, followed by a one- to two-week walking nightmare state, very dangerous, during which the prisoners didn’t much care whether they lived or died.

Those who survived that period often experienced a slow rebuilding of personality, came to accept that their situation was real, that they were in fact awake and not dreaming, and adopted as their task—their mission—to figure out how to continue living for the next minute, hour, day. “With the return to consciousness came a feeling of intense decision.”

This “intense decision” was well-documented (many of the inmates were intellectuals, and a unique body of literature emerged from the camps). In Night of the Mist, survivor Eugene Heimler observed:

“There were things I had to do, words I had to speak, moments which I had to dissect in order to show the world what I had seen and lived through, on behalf of the millions who had seen it also—but could no longer speak. Of their dead, burnt, bodies I would be the voice.”

About his collection of camp sketches, Alfred Kantor wrote:

“My commitment to drawing came out of a deep instinct of self-preservation and undoubtedly helped me to deny the unimaginable horrors of life at that time. By taking on the role of an ‘observer’ I could at least for a few moments detach myself from what was going on in Auschwitz and was therefore better able to hold together the threads of sanity.”

And if one could not write, one could at least scream. Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam, noted in Hope Against Hope:

“This pitiful sound, which sometimes, goodness knows how, reaches into the remotest prison cell, is a concentrated expression of the last vestige of human dignity…If nothing else is left, one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.”

Lone wolves, just as in “real life,” didn’t make it. The inmates instinctively formed alliances, communities, friendships. They exchanged gifts—a piece of string, a bite of potato. They found creative ways to circumvent the system. Krystyna Zywulska, a survivor of Maidanek, was charged with “card-filing” the incoming prisoners.

In I Came Back, she wrote:

“I thought of my arrival and my first impressions of the camp. I knew that a person coming to a camp was afraid of everything and everybody, that she was distracted and terrified. The first word was so important. I decided to be patient, to answer all questions, to calm them and give them courage. My life began to hold meaning.”

On starvation rations, brutalized by beatings, lack of sleep, and cold, many of the inmates still made a conscious effort to help one another as best they could. A Treblinka survivor observed: “In our group we shared everything; and the moment one of the group ate something without sharing it we knew it was the beginning of the end for them.”

Many vicious, cold-hearted inmates survived as well: Des Pres never stoops to sentimentality. Self-pity had no place in the camps. Everyone had been brutalized. Everyone had watched at least one family member or friend go off to the crematorium or the gas chamber or the starvation bunker. Once people died, they were not spoken of again. Moral dilemmas that in the outside world would be unthinkable were the inmates’ daily lot. Almost every survivor did things in the camps that he or she was ashamed to speak of later.

Still, though, flamed that uncanny, unquenchable, almost perverse will to live.

In Twenty Months at Auschwitz, Pelagia Lewinska wrote:

“[F]rom the instant when I grasped the motivating principle…it was as if I had been awakened from a dream…I felt under orders to live…And if I did die in Auschwitz, it would be as a human being. I would hold on to my dignity. I was not going to become the contemptible, disgusting brute my enemy wished me to be…And a terrible struggle began which went on day and night.”

Again and again, Des Pres emphasizes that those who survived did so by the skin of their teeth, by a fragile web of connections, by the going right of a series of thousands of details, any one of which could at any second go wrong and mean instant death, or worse, death by torture or starvation. Personal hygiene was out of the question, but many inmates grasped that their very lives depended upon at least making the gesture. They tore a tiny swatch from their coarse striped uniform, dipped it in the filthy water, and went through the motions of grooming themselves—after which the “washcloth” was rinsed out and secreted away for the next day.

In Smoke Over Birkenau, survivor Seweryna Szmaglewska asks: “[W]hen there is no help, no care, no medicine—whence comes this magic will to live?”

In perhaps the most beautiful passage in the book, Des Pres responds:

“There is a power at the center of our being, at the heart of all things living. But only in man does it assume a spiritual character. And only through spirit does life continue by decision…But this answer only points to a deeper question. Perhaps we shall not fathom the wonder of life at its roots, or discern how strength can rest on such frail foundations. Only within the last hundred years have the biological sciences begun to formulate objectively what might be meant by ‘life in itself’…but already we can grasp some part, at least, of what the survivor’s experience reveals: that whether felt as a power, or observed as a system of activities, life is existence laboring to sustain itself, repairing, defending, healing.”

Like so many, and so understandably, Des Pres took it for granted that God, if there is a God, was absent from the camps. Where were you in the torture chamber, the crematoriums, Dr. Mengele’s clinic? he asks in so many words, as we all should, as we all must. Why did you not save us from ourselves?

A Treblinka survivor, quoted by journalist Gitta Sereny in Into that Darkness, provides one kind of answer:

“I have read more or less everything that has been written about this subject. But somehow no one appears to have understood: it wasn’t ruthlessness that enabled an individual to survive—it was an intangible quality, not particular to educated or sophisticated individuals. Anyone might have it. It is perhaps best described as an overriding thirst—perhaps, too, a talent for life, and a faith in life.”

I mulled over this deeply human work for weeks. I copied out excerpts. I reserved several books from the bibliography at the library.

One night I woke with a start and thought: “The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” [John 1:5]. I noticed the wording. Not, “The light has overcome the darkness.” Not even, “The darkness has diminished.” No, the darkness continues unabated but the light—a guttering match, a pinprick—shines, and the darkness has not overcome it. The light—a shared morsel of bread, a scream—shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Survivor could only have been written by a man of profound intelligence, conscience, and heart. Des Pres was also movie-star handsome. When I googled his name and learned that he had committed suicide several years after the book was published, I laid my head on my desk and wept.

The whole way through—the bruised reed that would not break, the unearthly courage, the uncanny, almost insane will to live, I’d thought: Christ. Des Pres, however, took the death camps as the death, among other things, of Christianity. He concluded:

“And as for an ethic based on selfless love, that dream cost two thousand years of misery, and like ‘faith in humanity,’ came to its end in Auschwitz, in Hiroshima, in the forest of Vorkuta…

One thinks of the statues of Classical Greece, the Periclean perfection of their grace and poise, their integral strength meant to symbolize the spirit of man. One thinks of the great painting and sculpture of the Renaissance, the incredible beauty of that faith in humanness “larger than life.” And one thinks now of the survivor, not as an emblem or a symbol, but as he is, in rags and dirt, his face the face of anyone, his eyes just barely bright. His soul lives in his flesh, and what his body says is that the human spirit can sink this low, can bear this torment, can suffer defilement and fear and unspeakable hardship and still exist.”

The notion that Christianity died in the camps is the one place Des Pres and I part ways. It seems to me that Christianity, far from dying, was lived out to its farthest reaches in the camps; was in fact with wrenching, anguished, tears of blood, re-born. For Christianity has never been based on success, the cataclysmic triumph, lording it over, the pumped fist, the boot on the neck. Christianity is based on the shared meal. What else is it but love—what can it mean but that life is synonymous with love?—when even one human being had the will, the drive, the urge, the passion to survive such unspeakable suffering, such systematically inhuman horror?

What can it mean that even one such person shared with another his or her last morsel of bread?

That emaciated human being in rags and dirt, that stricken, sunken face that is the face of anyone, is not proof that God was absent: that face is the light that shines in darkness.

The eyes that are not quite yet dead, that refuse to die, that are just barely, barely bright—that is not the proof that two thousand years have gone for nought.

That is the Resurrection.




From Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S. J. +1751

“I feel keenly…the painfulness of the ordeal to which God submits you, and the anguish your hearts must feel at the wounds you receive daily. It is true, I agree, that you would need to be a saint to let such things pass and feel no kind of rsentment. But if you cannot yet reach such perfection in such pin-pricking vexations, endeavor at least, first, to banish as far as may be every thought, reflection, and remark that may embitter your heart; secondly, when you cannot rid yourself of them, repeat interiorly in your most intimate soul: “Oh God, you have allowed this to be; may your adorable desires and decrees be accomplished in all things: I make you a sacrifice of this difficulty and all its consequences; it shall take whatever form it pleases you: you are the Master; may you be blessed for all things and in all things. Fiat!


Here I shall be, tooling gaily about the gridlocked freeways of L.A….




As you may know, I am house sitting. Katie from across the street came over the day I was gone  to feed the chickens and collect eggs.

Did I also say my friends have a beehive? It’s out back, at the top of a terraced hill. Now THAT place is like LAX, with bees constantly taking off with a whine and others constantly landing.

Here’s a creepy bee (hornet) video.




From the chapter entitled “BLESSED ARE THE MEEK”

“I would like to dip my pen in the tears and blood of all martyrs for peace, of all victims of violence and hatred, of all those who have confronted the sword of abused power with the weakness of their own flesh, after the shining example of the man who willed to offer himself as an unresisting lamb to the teeth of the wolves: Jesus.

First, then, a very brief preamble.

When God wanted to find images through which to convey something of himself to our minds and hearts, he chose two and two only: the dove and the lamb.

The dove indicates the vitality, the gentleness and the humility of Christ, the divine victim.

The man who prides himself on his shrewdness chooses instead the lion or some such animal, imagining, in his folly, that he will conquer the earth more quickly by the use of force and the abuse of power.

People have been trying to conquer the earth for many thousands of years and still no one has succeeded. The fact is that the lions, tigers or serpents emblazoned on the standards of the aggressor are confronted with other lions, other tigers, other serpents, all of whoch have the same significance and inevitably clash with the first. The story of what happens next is terribly simple and terribly monotonous: in the evening, when the battle is over, the two opposing armies lie in a lake of blood surrounded by heaps and ruins and incalculable evils.

There they rest a while, the worst of the wounds get bound up, the great fear is to some extent forgotten, the lion is sewn back in place on the standard with an even more ferocious grimace; then they begin all over again, thinking that this time things will go well and in the wake of victory will come true and lasting peace, our own peace. Tell me, is not the whole affair a tragic farce, to be explained by one single word: you are mad, all mad?

But then was this not the very conclusion Jesus himself came to as he was dying on the cross?

Was it not he who, at a time when people were not accustomed either to joke or to lie, said that ‘madman’ was the appropriate title for man? In fact, while he was dying a victim of man, he turned in his agony to his Father, and pronounced his own judgment on man: ‘Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.’ And that is the true definition of the madman.

But do you imagine that man, who is thus defined by Jesus as ‘mad,’ accepts the description, believes that he is mad? On the contrary; if anything, he applies the term to those who go before him, to those who failed to assess accurately the forces involved in earlier wars, who committed this or that error; but himself, mad? Oh no! and he will actually prove to you that he is not.

Indeed, speaking of madmen, who is the arch-madman of them all? There he is: the arch-madman, Jesus Christ, who during his trial was dressed in a white garment and silenced with derisive and mocking words.

You, too, are mad, you who want to conquer through non-violence, to win the earth with meekness.

You are mad, you who dreamed of beating down swords into ploughshares and spears into sickles (Is 2:4).

You are mad, you who wish to turn the defenceless other cheek to the hatred of the enemy (Mt 5:39).

We are not mad like you, and there are some follies that we do not commit: we do not even think of them.

So runs the argument, and echoes of this tremendous dialectic ring in our ears every time people discuss the problem of how to achieve some social advance or liberate a people; how to realize man’s personal dignity or bring the human race a step nearer to the attainment of justice. And it is when one picks up this echo, deep as the heart of man, that once comes to realize just how irreconcilable are the two spirits that produce it: the spirit of the world and the spirit of Jesus.

Each calls the other mad and is answered in the same terms.

History has shown, and will go on showing to the end, which of the two is right; which of the two, the meek or the violent, will more truly possess the earth; which of the two is happier, the man who destroys his enemy or the one who lives with him under the same roof.

The incompatibility between the world and Christ is total, and I will certainly not be the one to persuade the lion that the lamb is right. I only want, and in all humility, to offer a helping hand to those who have not yet chosen between the two camps and the two systems; those who, as Christians, have savoured the beauty of the Gospel message, and suffer when they feel compelled to side with the others, simply because they have the impression that violence is more decisive, or worse still, as is frequently argued nowadays, that it features as in inevitable element in the process of history.

‘If we do not fight, if we do not make use of guerilla warfare we will achieve precisely nothing, and in any case we are not fighting for ourselves, but for the poor we wish to liberate.’

This is the dilemma, and on the walls of so many Christian homes hang the virile photographs of the prophets of a liberating hope more persuasive than the liberating hope of the Gospel.

It is not that I do not appreciate the way in which they have paid and continue to pay personally for their beliefs. They are worthy indeed to take their place at the workbench to inspire us, to help us with their courage and their strength of purpose.

This I accept, but knowing Jesus as I do, I wonder whether such men might not have achieved far more in the revolution for justice had they taken up the cause of meekness and non-violence.

You say that one cannot do this without arms, and I answer in the name of Jesus that this is not true, that one can do without them, and obtain greater results. This is why we can be helped by the witness of those two great prophets of non-violence: Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

They believed in the beatitude of meekness, not only for themselves, but for all; not only as a subject of meditation and chosen by individuals, but as a subject for meditation and chosen by entire peoples; not only as an instrument of individual peace, but as an instrument of universal liberation.

And yet how hard it is to believe in meekness!

In no other situation more than in this one do Jesus’s words apply: ‘If your faith were the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move’ (Mt 17:2).”

Carlo Carretto, In Search of the Beyond

PAUL KLEE,  1924




I am house-sitting for my friends Donald and Alan in the L.A. neighborhood of Glassell Park. They have CHICKENS.

I am constantly running up to the coop to feed, water, give snacks to, chat with, and check the laying box. Twice already I have collected eggs that were still warm.



I think Werner is being a bit harsh here in saying chickens are stupid. Though I will say that in the laying box, lined with wood shavings, there is a wooden egg which apparently you put there so they’ll know that’s the place. There it stays.

And the chickens have been in the same coop for over two years. 



Do you all know of the Keiskamma altarpiece? I didn’t, until last week.

Above are a couple of youtubes telling its story.

Here’s more info from the Fowler Museum at UCLA, where the altarpiece visited.

Here’s a wonderful essay by Barbara Hinze, from the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics, entitled “Saint Anthony’s Fire and AIDS: Two Altarpieces and the Oft-Forgotten Goals of Medicine.”




From wikipedia: “In photography, the golden hour (sometimes known as magic hour, especially in cinematography) is the first and last hour of sunlight during the day when a specific photographic effect is achieved due to the quality of the light.”



to die for, right?

I was in Palm Springs for a week and left yesterday.

By the time I left, the baby hummingbirds (see a couple of posts back) had started to poke their minuscule heads, mouths agape, over the top of the nest.

Also it was quiet, quiet, blessedly quiet. Away from L.A., I feel how incredibly stressful my life is there. I don’t even commute, and though I live in a relatively quiet street, still the noise is almost incessant. The yard guys come every Tuesday with their leafblowers. Every other Wednesday Marta the cleaning lady arrives at noon and leaves at 7:30. The building next door is divided into fifteen or so studios, filled with mostly young-ish people who God love them just adore standing out on their balconies till about 1 shooting the breeze and smoking. Across the street are two, not one but two, houses with incessantly barking dogs. Plus did I say we’ve had a rat in our kitchen? That’s right. A freakin rat! A mouse isn’t four inches long with a long snaky black tail. Contrary to the assertions of my landlord-roommate, a mouse doesn’t sit on top of the stove by the tea kettle in the dark and leer when you turn on the light and shriek.

Louder than all that, though, is the noise in my head. How to carve out enough time to write? How to keep up with the steady stream of email? How to stay centered in Christ because without that, I have nothing to give, nothing to say. “I am the vine and you are the branches: without me, you can do nothing.” Nothing!

I hope to go out to Palm Springs again in July.

Meanwhile, I’m house-sitting from June 12 through July 1 at the house of my friends Donald and Alan. Who I may have mentioned HAVE CHICKENS that lay one to three fresh miraculous eggs each day!

Here’s a poem I read out there, from a book a friend gave me called Death


Joy fills me
When daylight breaks
And the sun
Glides silently forward.

But I lie choked with fear
Greedy maggot throngs
Eat into my collarbone cavity
And tear away my eyes.

Anxiously I lie and meditate.
How choked with fear I was
When they buried me
In a snow hut on a lake.

When they sealed the door
How my soul could escape.

Greater grew my fear
When the ice split
And the crack grew thunderously
Over the heavens.

Glorious was life
In winter
But did winter bring me joy?
Worries corroded
Worries for sole-skins and boot-skins.

Glorious was life
In summer
But did summer bring me joy?
Ever was I anxious
For sleeping furs.

Glorious was life
On the sea ice.
But did that bring me joy?
Ever was I anxious
For no salmon wished to bite.

Was it so beautiful
When I stood flushed, embarrassed,
In the swirl of the feasthouse,
And the choir ridiculed me,
Getting stuck with my song?

Tell me, now, was life so good on earth?
Here joy fills me
When daylight breaks
And the sun
Glides silently forward.

– Copper Inuit traditional song –


As the sun glides silently forward, I’m gliding from hummingbirds to poultry.

I pray not to be choked with fear.



A recent email from reader Alicia Rae Drost re responding peacefully to bad neighbors:


While you probably have more reading material than you know what to do with, I want to share with you these few pieces because your desire for justice, heart for the people, and interest in current events has become evident to me. I do not know if this particular story will interest you, but I was surprised by the passion this issue evoked within my spirit.

I’ve meant for quite some time now to share this with you, and I don’t believe I yet have done so…

The installment of an irresponsible Canadian oil pipeline in the States causes many discrepancies and produces many reactions. The response held by The Hermitage, a Mennonite-orchestrated retreat center in Southwestern Michigan seems most appropriate…

There’s this link which is an article about how the oil line will effect (or is it affect?) the land belonging to the retreat center and what the owners/directors intend to do about it (which I find to be a very wise response):

Then there’s this link which speaks more about the response given by the hermitage and surrounding community:

If you chose to peruse the second link you’d probably discover this poem written by the directors of the retreat center, but since I do not know if you have the time to do so I’ll include it here. What impacts me about this poem is that while it addresses the sorrow we may have over the destruction of land and trees and wildlife it also acknowledges our role in this destruction, and isn’t that recognition what will bring about healthy change, if anything will?”

The Earth Speaks 
by Naomi R. Wenger and David Wenger
(found at: Catapult Magazine)

Giving voice to the earth is a monumental task, but one that we feel keenly as we anticipate the loss of what is here and its replacement with a hidden harbinger of what is more dangerous than terrorism, more insidious than pollution, and almost as ubiquitous and purposed as the air we breathe.

How massive the equipment that bears down upon me, obliterating all that springs forth from within:

oaks, cherries, hickories, sumac, beech groves to come, sassafras for tea, apple trees, dogwood, broom sedge, bouncing bet, butterfly weed, wild asters, Queen Anne’s Lace, yarrow, goldenrod, black berries, black raspberries, wild grapes mushrooms and even poison ivy;

ensnaring, crushing and displacing all that finds a resting place upon me:

box turtles, snapping turtles, turkeys, wrens, evening grosbeaks, pileated woodpeckers, flickers, downy woodpeckers, dragonflies, dung beetles, butterflies, sow bugs, striped beetles, ground hogs, chipmunks, rabbits, gophers, squirrels, deer, raccoons, coyotes, hog snakes, black racers and garden snakes.

How violent the scoops that cut me open,

     deep wounds bleeding mound upon mound of soil,

     digging down, down, down;

     reversing infertile dirt and top soil so that I am left scarred and barren.

How repulsive the implant of metal veins

     coursing black tar from sandy deposits through me

     to be refined and then used against me to power more machines that ravish and kill.

Oh, to be caressed with soft footfalls and tender scratching,

     to be gentled into producing that which gives life to all,

     to be without the pain of more, bigger, faster.

How long ?

How deep?

How big?

How much is enough?