Month: October 2013



I keep a prayer list on my desk. A random sampling:

Fr. P. Lamb
CB and sister, upcoming trial
Lucy, Pakistan hospice
Ross and Allen
Christine L.s father-in-law, close to 100% dementia
Sr. Mary Fidelis
H, 12-year-old, Guelph, cancer
Patti and Pam
Caroline C.
Joyce M.
Karin E., mother
N.Davis’s mother–cancer
Lizzie–London, 8-day silent retreat
Lydia, Jean P’s friend, physical problem
BP: fidelity to vows.
R., marriage
Molly M.

I’ve never met most of the people who read and/or comment on my blog. The relationships aren’t “enfleshed.”

Prayer is a way of enfleshing them.

You can’t argue about how well you’re living out the teachings of Christ. You can only be crucified by them.




hallway to the underground theater…

In Phoenix for the weekend, Saturday I took myself over to Taliesen West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 500- acre compound winter digs.

St. Therese of Lisieux made it a policy never to complain but which is a pretty damn good policy.

Plus what ever would I have to complain about!  The longer I live, the more I see that, as Fr. Pat Dooling of Monterey says, Jesus spoils us…

one of the many reflecting pools at taliesen west



“Saying ‘No’ to death therefore starts much earlier than saying ‘No’ to physical violence, whether in war or entertainment. It requires a deep commitment to the words of Jesus: ‘Do not judge’ (Matt. 7:1). It requires a “No” to all the violence of heart and mind. I personally find it one of the most difficult disciplines to practice.”

“The central message of the Gospel is that God sent his beloved Son to forgive our sins and make us new people, able to live in this world without being paralyzed by self-rejection, remorse, and guilt. To accept that message in faith and truly believe that we are forgiven is probably one of the most challenging spiritual battles we have to face. Somehow we cannot let go of our self-rejections. Somehow we cling to our guilt, as if accepting forgiveness fully would call us to a new and ominous task we are afraid to accept. Resistance is an essential element of peacemaking, and the “No” of the resisters [peace activists] must go all the way to the inner reaches of their own hearts to confront the deadly powers of self-hate.”

“Real resistance requires the humble confession that we are partners in the evil that we seek to resist. This is a very hard and seemingly endless discipline. The more we say ‘No,’ the more we will discover all the pervasive presence of death.”

“[The people of Peru] certainly suffered from poverty, oppression, and exploitation, but what they asked of me more than anything was not to solve their many problems, but to become their friend, share my life with them, mourn with them in their sadness, and celebrate with them in their gladness.”

[On his participation in a Good Friday witness for peace in front of the administration building of Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut]:

“We prayed fervently with words and songs as well as in silence. We heard the story of Jesus suffering in a way we could not have heard it in any church. It was hard for me to know fully how I felt, but something new was happening to me that I had never experienced before. It was the deep awareness that prayer was no longer a neutral event without danger.”

“[T]hose who see violence as the only and necessary way to peace will not only consider nonviolent resisters unrealistic and naïve, but also treat them as cowards, conspirators with the enemy, and betrayers of the national cause. Nonviolent resisters are a great threat to those who wield power, since they suggest that there is another reality than the one they manipulate and try to force on others.

As a community of peacemakers it is our task first of all to recognize and affirm the great human gifts these people [those who believe that violence generates peace] too carry within themselves. We have to see them as caring, loving, concerned human beings who, like us, desire peace and freedom, even if preparation for war is their way to achieve it. Just as we have to confess our own dark forces to each other, so do we have to reveal the gifts of peace in those whose lives and works we hope to change.”

Henri Nouwen, Peacework



“One searches in vain for the execution of any member of the affluent strata of our society.”
William O. Douglas, Supreme Court Justice

At the start of this chapter, I raised the possibility that attorneys who put so much emphasis on their relationships with clients might be making themselves even more vulnerable to loss and grief when their clients are executed. Without question, the losses hit them hard–the loss of any client, as we have seen, but especially those to whom they have formed a close personal attachment

“I was with him all day until five minutes before he was executed,” says Adam, describing for me his last hours with a client who meant a great deal to him. The two men sat talking together on opposite sides of the cell bars for hours. Adam continues,

“The warden comes down and says it’s time for the execution, and they were going to take him through that door–“

Adam motions across the length of the small room where we are having our interview, to show me how close to the execution chamber he and his client had been having their final visist. “We get up, and the warden reads, ‘Having been found guilty of first-degree murder, the laws of [the state] and the jury have duly sentenced you to death,’ you know, blah blah blah, all this bullshit, and I say to the warden, ‘Can I give him a hug?’ He says, ‘No, we don’t want hi to get upset emotionally.’

Adam pauses. “It was a very, very painful no,” he says, his voice breaking. “To be told I couldn’t give him a hug. I’ll never forgive that man for saying no.”

–From Fighting for Their Lives: Inside the Experience of Capital Defense Attorneys, by Susannah Sheffer


And then there was my other friend, Connie Ray Evans. He and Earl, as he referred to [Edward] Johnson, had become friends. They had arrived on the row within a short time of each other. Connie believed in Johnsons’ innocence and spoke of it frequently. Did I think Johnson had killed a man, Connie asked me one afternoon shortly before [Johnson’s] execution. I tried to avoid the question, choosing the easy way out. The courts had found him guilty and had reviewed his appeals numerous times, I repeated matter-of-factly. It was not up to prison officials to debate a convict’s innocence or guilt. Connie pressed on, however. What if I, as a prison official, was convinced Johnson was innocent—knew he was innocent. What would I do? I protested that I would have no way of knowing that. I did not investigate the crime, prosecute the case, or sit as a juror. “Damn it, Mr. C., just answer the question straight and honest. If you had evidence in your hands that Earl was innocent, what would you do?” Connie was uncharacteristically agitated, frustrated with what he perceived as my attempts to avoid answering truthfully. Finally, I said I would probably present the matter to the governor; the final decision would be up to him. Connie sprang to his feet rattling his cell door in anger, and bitterly asserted, “Yeah, it’s good to have someone else to blame. Y’all always accuse us of blaming our parents, schoolteachers—anybody but ourselves for ending up in the joint. Hell, Warden, y’all do it to. You didn’t commit the crime, Earl did. You didn’t convict him, the jury did. You didn’t sentence him to die—the judge or the jury or some damn body else did. And when you kill him, it ain’t really you that’s doin’ that, either. It’s the state, the folks out there that’s doin’ it.”

–From Death at Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner, by Donald A. Cabana



From a reader named Bobby:

Dear Heather,
I have had an itching to begin writing for some time now but have never actually started due to many false starts and cowardice. However, I am certain now is the time, and I want to begin now! As an experienced blogger, can you give me three foundations to begin a blog on a foundation of rock? I really am clueless to how to begin (i.e. what is the best provider to start out with, how do you get the word out, etc.). You probably get a ton of emails like this, but if you could spare some advice, I would be very grateful! I love your writing, and, on a side note, I sent my sister (whose faith is a complicated thing) a copy of “Shirt of Flame” because she would identify with its honesty and down-to-earth tone. Although she is reading it slowly, she has only positive things to say about it! The book is fantastic because it is written by someone who is so relatable.
God bless you, Heather, and thank you for all you do in the literary world.

Hey there, Bobby–

I didn’t engage in a whole lot of forethought when I started my blog just over three years ago. I’d been out of town without ready internet access for six months. Up till then, I’d pretty much dismissed blogs as hack work. And when I got back to town, I was so thrilled to be back a desk and a laptop, and I had so much to say, and I was so tired of sending out essays and waiting six, eight, ten months for them to be rejected, I thought, seemingly out of the blue, I’m going to start a blog! I think I had some vague idea that blogspot indicated a blog or…I think I just googled blogger and the thing came up, pick out a name, and I had my Elvis Jesus photo I’d taken at Graceland that I put up for a header (since changed), and I just figured it out, bit by bit.

I’d never really read other people’s blogs, and I didn’t ask anyone to help me. I just figured it out–how to post and publish. I’ve never much promoted my blog, other than linking to the posts on my FB page. I’m lucky to have some small bit of an audience from Magnificat and my books and I’m sure some of those folks have found their way here.

I just wrote, and still do, about what interests me, what I’ve been thinking about or reading, my little day-to-day life in L.A. I don’t watch TV and I read a lot and take walks and that alone provides endless fodder. I was trained as a lawyer and I enjoy issue-spotting, and building a logical argument. I also often go about my day pondering a passage from the Gospels and seeing how it applies to my fallen self or some recent experience, and then I’ll get all excited and want to write about that.

It’s all about Christ. It’s wanting to get closer to Christ and to share that with people: the excitement, the weirdness.

You’re trying to model Christ. So–humble, charitable, long-suffering, fair. A lot of silence when everyone else is embroiled in the argument du jour. A ton of restraint of tongue and pen. A ton of not engaging, of letting the other person have the last word, of not having an opinion on some every pop culture happening or political scandal. The blog becomes a sacred honor and what goes into it takes place mostly in secret; in the hidden places of your heart.

I started out allowing folks to comment anonymously but I got a lot of spam and I also got some hate comments so I switched over to reviewing them before posting. I get very few hate comments because I simply won’t publish them, so people move on. I don’t pour my heart and soul into my blog to host hatred, nor bullying.

I love to take pictures and I often pair them with text that doesn’t at first glance have any connection. But beauty and strangeness and truth, which my photos I hope convey. You’ll find your own way of getting across the way you see. That’s the beauty of a blog. It’s unique unto you.

Your patience will be tried. You’ll get a lot of prayer requests. I try to write the person’s name down and keep it by my bed and at least say a Hail Mary.

You’re giving people something. You’re not trying to get something for yourself.

The giving is its own gift and then you’ll get gift upon gift in return. You’ll learn, stretch, morph, make mistakes, grow.

So just start. The less thought you give to it, the better. Don’t mind what other people think of you. Mind what Christ thinks of you.




From Falling Into the Fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis, by Christine Montross

“The third category of tourists afflicted by Jerusalem syndrome…is the most mind-boggling. This category is described as the “pure” form of the syndrome, because its sufferers have no history of mental illness. These tourists experience an acute psychotic event while in Jerusalem; they recover “fairly spontaneously, and then after leaving the country, apparently enjoy normality.” * As a result, they are considered to be mentally well, but for these isolated episodes. However, what episodes they are!

Tourists with the third subtype of Jerusalem syndrome succumb to a sequence of identifiable stages that are consistent, characteristic, and highly specific.

First, such sufferers exhibit “anxiety, agitation, nervousness and tension.” They then announce that they wish to split off from their tour group or family and explore Jerusalem on their own. They authors write, “Tourist guides aware of the Jerusalem syndrome and of the significance of such declarations may at this point [preemptively] refer the tourist…for psychiatric evaluation.” They add ominously, “If unattended, [the following] stages are usually unavoidable.”

People afflicted by Jerusalem syndrome will then demonstrate a “need to be clean and pure,” becoming obsessed with bathing or compulsively cutting their finger- and toenails. Next is my favorite step in the sequence: the “preparation, often with the aid of hotel bed-linen, of a long, ankle-length, toga-like gown, which is always white.”

Once appropriately clad, the person in question will proceed to “scream, shout, or sing out loud psalms, verses from the Bible, religious hymns or spirituals.” He or she will then proceed to a holy place within the city and deliver a sermon, which the authors describe as “usually very confused and based on an unrealistic plea to humankind to adopt a more wholesome, moral, simple way of life.”

The affected person typically returns to normal within five to seven days, feels ashamed about his behavior, and recovers completely.”

[Ref. A piece in the British Journal of Psychiatry by Yair Bar-El and colleagues entitled “Jerusalem Syndrome”].




Mental health is always an issue of interest.

I have never taken psych meds myself but totally sympathize with those who do/must, and also applaud the effort to look for alternatives.

Beyond Meds: Alternatives to Psychiatry is a blog to explore.

“Take me out to Cypress Hill in my car. And we’ll hear the dead people talk. They do talk there. They chatter like birds on Cypress Hill, but all they say is one word and that one word is “live,” they say “Live, live, live, live, live!’” It’s all they’ve learned, it’s the only advice they can give. Just live. Simple! A very simple instruction…”

– from ‘Orpheus Descending’, Tennessee Williams




“We must all be saved together! Reach God together! Appear before Him together! We must return to our Father’s house together…what would He think if we arrived without the others, without the others returning, too?”

–Charles Péguy

Recently  a reader sent a link to a piece by a disgruntled lapsed Catholic who was marching about fuming that no mere Pope Francis would induce him to re-join the Church. ” ‘God is love, God is love,'” he groused. That’s the namby-pamby message I hear. I want something challenging. I want to hear about sacrifice. He approvingly quoted Flannery O’Connor: “They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

This guy so does not get what Flannery, with her huge sense of humor, and profound love of Christ, got from Day One: the Church IS the Cross. If you want to be challenged (and ridiculed, and marginalized, and scorned), do major penance and sacrifice, and die to every idea you’ve ever had about who you are, who God is, and what religion is, become a member of the Catholic church.

“When you finally discover that you are just one of the little people, don’t conclude that this makes you special,” observed French eccentric/lay comic-mystic/lover of the poor Madeleine Delbrêl.

The idea isn’t to demand that the Church make herself worthy of us. The idea is to realize that in spite of our unworthiness, we–miracle upon grace upon wonder upon mystery–have been deemed worthy of the Church. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” we pray, just before receiving the Eucharist. The Eucharist! The Body and Blood of the Savior of the World. I mean this joker thinks Christ is not worthy of him?!

Here’s the Cross of the Church: It’s not just for us. It’s for everybody. Thus, we don’t get to have homilies tailor-made for us, although in another way a homily always is tailor-made, usually in the last way we would have chosen. The priest has to meet the tentative searcher; the elderly man who has tottered in, aching in every bone in his body, to give thanks; the pregnant teenager; the wife of the CEO whose son is a crackhead dying out on the streets; the crackhead; the guy who’s cheating on his wife; the wife; the vet suffering from PTSD; the general who’s ordered the killing; the nurse trying to figure out whether to quit her job because her hospital is performing abortions.

He has to meet the one who thinks the Church is too hard and the one who thinks the Church is too soft, the one who is rejoicing and the one who is mourning, the one who is pissed at God and the one who is falling madly in love with God. He has to meet the eight-year-old and the eighty-year-old. He also has to meet the blowhard, the Pharisee, the one who thinks only she is up to being challenged, only she suffers, only she gets it and for God’s sake can’t we get some decent music.All in six minutes.

The priest has to do that while performing baptisms, weddings, funerals; while overseeing the fundraising fall festival; while settling parish conflicts; while blessing homes, cars, and candles.  He has to do this, day after day, often many times a day, while exhausted, understaffed, impatient, critical and doubtful (i.e. human) himself. He doesn’t get to have it his way, all the time, any more than any of us do.

It is one of the glories and gifts of the Church that we don’t encourage priests who are “personalities.” We don’t encourage flamboyancy. We encourage humility, plodding perseverance, and service. So perhaps the priest can be forgiven for resorting to saying that God is love, not least of all because God IS love–just not the love, ever, that we think. Actually, in seventeen years in the Church, I have never once heard a priest say “God is love.” I’ve heard priests say our job is to serve the poor, examine our faults, love God. I’ve heard a steady stream of Gospel-based homilies that, if not individually wildly compelling, have consistently, slowly, quietly, inexorably led me closer to Christ.

In seventeen years, I can also count on one hand the number of times a priest, while celebrating Mass, has appeared surly, bored, condescending, or irreverent. This quiet, faithful carrying out of the duties of the office, no matter how disordered the priest may be personally, has set me free to ponder the great mystery and sacrifice of the Mass, to penetrate beneath the surface, to realize that, as Flannery O’Connor observed, the Mass could be celebrated out of a suitcase in a furnace room and it would still be the Mass: the most shocking, scandalous, cataclysmic, glorious, horrifying, sublime act the world ever has or ever could know. After awhile I realized, Let me bring my burning heart. Let me make up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. Instead of sitting around complaining and carping, maybe I could think about what I could contribute to the Church.

People erroneously think the Church is confining, but the Church gives us the framework of prayer, the Gospels, the Catechism, the community, and the Sacraments and then you are more or less on your own, man. You will be surprised to find that the Church trusts that–given your intelligence, good will, and humble, contrite heart–you will be able to connect the dots. And the dots are these: You don’t get to have someone hold your hand and guide you along the perilous, excruciatingly lonely path to Christ. You don’t get to have someone applaud or even notice your hidden life of sacrifice and penance. You don’t get to be understood, validated, and comforted every other minute. While you’re being nailed to your own Cross, you get to do those things for someone else.

You’ll find that if you truly want to be challenged, you will regard the abysmal ways you’ve fallen short in this vale of tears, and you will look at Baptism and the confessional and the Eucharist and Holy Orders and marriage and the last rites and you will see, in fear and trembling and dawning, crazy praise, This is the last thing I would have wanted and it is the only thing I have ever wanted. You will realize This is the only thing that could have pruned, in the gentlest possible way, my craving for attention, my impatience, my uber-criticism, my hyper-judgment, and that could simultaneously, while always calling me higher, have assuaged my guilt, bound up my narcissistic wounds, and invited me to overcome my seemingly bottomless cowardice and fear. Above all, this is the only thing that could fulfill my heart that, in spite of my myriad faults, overflows with love.

You will see that the Church is both the lightest yoke and the heaviest cross imaginable. You will begin to understand the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. You will see that the biggest electric blanket of all is the desire for spiritual excellence, an Ivy League college, a high-end gym with a personal trainer; for others to view our journey to God as interesting, as special, as just a bit of a cut above the ordinary.  

The follower of Christ doesn’t strive. The follower of Christ surrenders. Not to mediocrity, but to love–and if ever for one second we presume to think that the love of Christ isn’t sufficiently “challenging,” we have only to look above the altar: to Christ, lacerated, bleeding, alone, nailed to the Cross. That is the love the priest is pointing to when he says  “God is love.” That is the death Christ was facing when, over the Last Supper, he told the disciples,  “Love one another as I have loved you.” That is the love upon which Flannery O’Connor’s heart, mind, intellect and soul were focused, as she suffered from lupus, was conscripted into celibacy, wrote to a public that didn’t understand her, watched her beauty, ability to walk, and life ebb away, and died at the tragically young age of 39, all without a single word of complaint, anger, or self-pity.

If we want to repent of our sins, if we want to do penance, have at it. The Catholic church is certainly not going to stop us. But here’s the thing we will learn as we undergo our own Passion:  the theater of Catholicism is the Mass, not us. We’re not the star; Christ is. “He must increase, I must decrease.” He who loses his life for my sake will find it. Some who are first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Go to your room and pray in secret and your Father will see you in secret and reward you.

Christ isn’t kidding. Those are not metaphors. It is just in the putting up with the thousand day-to-day petty annoyances that sanctity consists. It is just in casting our lot with other extremely unpromising, lackluster, humdrum people that we come to see how terribly unpromising, lackluster and humdrum we are.It’s just in accepting that things are never the way we want them, that we will not get the spiritual validation or guidance or friends or adulation we’ve imagined that we start to be saints. It is in offering ourselves up for God to do with what He wills (as opposed to what we think will make us look good) that–with multiple psycho-spiritual crises and usually over a long, LONG period of time–we are transformed.

This is a nada, an emptiness, a via negativa that is not for the faint of heart. Ask St. John of the Cross. Ask Maximilian Kolbe. Ask Dorothy Day. Ask Franz Jägerstätter.

It’s worth reflecting upon that it wan’t “outsiders” who crucified Christ. Backed with the might and brutality of the State, he was killed by the members–or those whom, to the depths of his child-like heart he must have longed would become members–of his own church. As a sober drunk, I often reflect upon the way, nailed in agony to the Cross,Christ refused the sour wine mingled with myrrh, the crude narcotic offered by his executioners [Mark 15:23]. To the last drop, he suffered without anesthesia.

To the last drop of blood, he suffered us.

The reader thought I might want to plead with the guy to come back.

I replied, “No, I’m not interested in trying to change his mind. If you know yourself as a sinner, as I did and do, you will meet the Christ of the Gospels in the confessional and the Eucharist and you will repent, do penance, etc. with or without being told to. If he’s lucky, he’ll finally figure out there’s nowhere else to go but the Church and fall to his knees in gratitude that She let him in.”

Then I realized I’m at least the biggest Pharisee on earth.
So I wrote this.




Magnificat has put together a collection of the work I’ve done for them: Holy Days and Gospel Reflections.

Reflections on Lent, Advent, the Gospel of John, the Gospel of Luke, women of the Bible, Holy Days galore, all set against the backdrop of my humble little life wandering the streets of Silver Lake, going to Mass, and communing with my fellow drunks.

You can buy it HERE.

Here’s the Foreword:

“To write for Magnificat is an assignment I didn’t expect and an honor I couldn’t have imagined.

Re-reading these three years’ worth of reflections was an interesting exercise. Often the writing seemed entirely new, as if written by another. Often, though I remembered the passage well, I choked up at my own words—not because the writing was so wonderful, but because in their rough way, the words reflected Christ.

I saw where I could have done better, where the writing and thought were clumsy. Afterwards, I sat at my desk and wept. I thought, They are like a lumpy, misshapen cake made by a child!

That’s not why I wept, though. I wept because they are still a cake. They are a cake and they are a cake that perhaps no-one else could have made. They are the fruit of having lost twenty years of my life to alcoholism, of having come to and finding myself with a law degree, of working as an attorney in Beverly Hills, of realizing I was not born for this. In spite of all my wrong turns, I had not lost my child-like heart. That is the surest sign of the Resurrection I know, and when I met the Christ of the Gospels and quit my job to begin writing, I staked my life to it.

Magnificat took a chance on me and I am profoundly, forever, grateful. “But who am I, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth asked Mary, and that is very much how I feel: about Christ, about Mary, about the Church that has embraced me. Who am I that you should allow me to appear in your pages? Who am I that I should be given this incredible opportunity to spread the Gospels to the end of the earth.?

I have known for twenty-six year that my sobriety is an astonishing, miraculous gift. After seventeen years in the Church, it is just now beginning to dawn on me that everything is that miraculous, that astonishing, that unmerited. Everything—air, light, life—is that much of a gift.”




The other afternoon I had coffee with my friend Tanya Ward Goodman, author of the groovy memoir Leaving Tinkertown.

It was a beautiful day in Echo Park and afterwards I made my way on foot up N. Lemoyne to the 1600 block, there to observe a folk art installation, technically entitled “Phantasma Gloria” and colloquially known as Randy Land aka The Giant Glass Virgin of Guadalupe.

From the L.A. Times, by Ann Summa

“Randlett Lawrence’s frontyard sculpture, “Phantasma Gloria,” rises above the street in a glittering cobalt blue wave, swaying in the breeze in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Times reported on Lawrence’s installation in 2001, as he was starting it, and the artist has been adding to the work ever since. The piece now towers above the scarlet and gold bougainvillea bushes, the swirls of colored glass rising 24 feet high and spanning 50 feet in width.”