Month: June 2014



I have started my 30-day Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and wait’ll you get a load of the place I’m staying at in Gloucester, Mass., for the month of July. Truly, I have hit the jackpot.

Before leaving my beloved Rye Beach, NH, however, and at the risk of OD-ing on peonies, I feel moved to share these pix I took in the back yard of my cousin Richard’s. Many of the blooms were in the stages of early to mid-decay, which entranced me.

Spending six weeks in the approximate locale of my formative years, I hope to re-visit that gaping narcissistic childhood wound and heal the damn thing once and for all!

At the very least, I will get a good tan.




This week’s post from the Tidings is an interview with artist Zhi Lin, whose work about Chinese railway workers is currently part of an exhibit at L.A.’s Pacific Asia Museum called “The Other Side: Chinese and Mexican Immigration to America.”

Here’s how the piece begins:

“In 1862, Indiana State Representative William Holman observed that the Transcontinental Railroad “[c]ould never be constructed on terms applicable to ordinary roads…it is to be constructed through almost impassable mountains, deep ravines, canyons, gorges, and over arid and sandy plains.”

Much of that work was done by Chinese immigrants.”

Read the whole piece here



scenes from my grandmother’s garden, rye beach, nh

I once did a retreat near the Sonoran Desert.

“Each Friday is observed as ‘Hermit Day,’” read the laminated schedule in my room. “In complete silence and modified fasting, we commemorate the passion and death of Christ and do so in solidarity with workers for justice and peace and with victims of injustice.”

I was way behind the idea of Hermit Day: in fact, I wished every day were Hermit Day. Somewhere around the 48th hour of any retreat I realized that I don’t really want to be a guest, or a visitor, or a retreatant: I want you to go away and leave me your fully-stocked place that I can stay in alone. I will talk to you, and I will be gracious, interested, attentive, and sincerely, even abjectly grateful—but I’d still be happier alone. By happy I don’t mean free from pain. Was Christ “happy?” I sometimes wondered. Nietzsche said that Christ never laughed, but I refused to believe that the Son of Man hadn’t cracked up at a good black humor joke.

With my room nicely cooled down the second morning, I thought, These poor fussy nun folk want to be all shut up and safe: they would not know how to truly enjoy nature and the desert like a free spirit such as myself. So I will just turn off the A/C, open my windows, and the screens will let in the lovely desert air! Fifteen minutes later, almost perishing of heat stroke, I had to stagger over, slam shut the windows, draw the curtains, and re-blast the A/C to frigid for the remainder of the day.

Similarly, as I was leaving for a post-dinner hike that night, Sister Kathy suggested, “Best bring a flashlight. And be sure to wear good shoes!” Again I thought, How timid and lame. I will just march pluckily off and have a good tramp. So I set off down the trail she had pointed out, and easily made my way to the wash she had said to walk down for about a city block, and after I’d gone a way thought to retrace my steps and mark where the trail had come out, because trails through cactus and underbrush can be kind of sketchy, and paths can look like trails that aren’t.

So I went back, found what I thought was the right trail, decided I’d better follow in for a bit to make sure, and within minutes found myself surrounded by impenetrable stands of cholla and saguaro. With the sun sinking fast, I literally started sprinting, caught sight of the roof of the chapel, headed that way, lost sight of the roof, and might be floundering out there still, or dead, my skeleton stripped clean, if I hadn’t finally spotted, and sheepishly made my way toward, the stations from the outdoor Way of the Cross behind the retreat house, saved by “Jesus Falls the Third Time.”

With all that, I was deeply grateful to the folks at the retreat house, who showed the fruit of their lives of prayer by being welcoming, solicitous, helpful, kind, and best of all, leaving me to my own devices. Left to my own devices I read, and after I read, I ponder. One person who’d made a career of pondering was St. John of the Cross, the 16th century mystic who’d been kidnapped from his monastery, imprisoned, starved, tortured, and not so coincidentally, coined the phrase “dark night of the soul.”

I had tried to read St. John many times with meager results. I’d highlighted, underlined, and made margin notes in Ascent of Mount Carmel until I was blue in the face, but somewhere between the night of the senses and the night of the spirit, the passive night and the active night, the three virtues, the three faculties, and the fifth way the “desires harm the soul by making it lukewarm and weak, so that it has no strength to follow after virtue and to persevere therein,” I inevitably got sidetracked.

Luckily, I’d brought along Ron Rolheiser’s The Restless Heart. In it, he described the mystical journey in language even a theological naïf like me could understand. He observed:

John of the Cross offers no painless way to enter loneliness and to come to grips with it. He is very realistic here. The inward journey involves pain, intolerable pain. According to him, once we stop trying to run away from our loneliness and stop trying to fill our thirsty caverns with counterfeit and psuedosolutions, we enter, for a time into a terrible raging pain, the pain of purgatory, the pain that is felt when we cut ourselves off from psuedosupports and take the plunge inward, into the infinite mystery of ourselves, reality, and God. Eventually this journey leads to a deep peace, but in the early stages it causes intolerable pain….Like all births, it is a journey from the secure into the unknown; like all births, it involves a certain death; and like all births, too, it is very painful because it is with much groaning of the flesh that new life can be brought forth.

That retreat kicked off a seven-week cross-country road trip, during which I went to Mass every single day. Those seven weeks were but a single leg on what has proved to be a life-long, ongoing pilgrimage.

My blindness, pride, and character defects have been on full display. So, I hope, have my perseverance, generosity of spirit, and sense of humor.

Fr. Rolheiser is right. The pain is intolerable.

And—ever more—the joy cannot be contained.

look, the incoming tide formed the shape of a flower!

I have made it to the east coast. clearly…



 The Conservancy Garden in Central Park has got to be one of the most sanctuary-like spots (apart from the zillions of actual churches) in all of New York.

Since the moment I left my house in LA at 5:30 a.m. Wed. morning, I had been moving non-stop.

Sunday morning I had some blessed hours to myself, and made my way up the eastern edge of the park to re-unite with a garden I have visited several times before, and that greeted me with the warmth of an old friend.




I am back living out of a suitcase.

Charlotte, NC, and the Catholic Press Association Conference welcomed me warmly. I gave the keynote speech to a few hundred high-powered publishing execs at luncheon Thursday, opening with the observation that my pants were too short. I should be able to head up Toastmasters shortly.

From there I headed to NYC, where I am staying at the Dominican guest house on E. 65th, around the corner from St. Vincent Ferrer Church. Which is stunning.

Here are some photos I took after Saturday morning Mass.

I was back at 5:30 for the Vigil of Corpus Christi.



This week’s arts and culture column in The Tidings is a review of a book by an author I’ve long followed: Rosemary Mahoney.

The piece begins:

“Rosemary Mahoney goes where others fear to tread.

Her first book, “A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman,” chronicled her summer on Martha’s Vineyard as a live-in housekeeper for the prickly playwright. For “The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground,” she braved the icy waters at Lourdes, watched corpses floating down the Ganges in Varanasi, and completed the hellish St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Ireland.

“Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff” is the tale of the season she flew to Luxor, acquired a 7-foot rowboat, and set out down the crocodile-infested river, musing on fellow Egyptologists Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert.

Mahoney’s newest book, “For the Benefit of Those Who See,” is part travel memoir, part history, part science: a personal account of going halfway across the world to learn about and teach the blind.




One piece of common wisdom often heard in recovery circles is to “act as if.”

What does that mean?

One thing it doesn’t mean is being a phony. Acting as if doesn’t mean pretending everything’s “all right” and that we’re not in terrible pain; it means not transmitting our pain to, or blaming our pain on, others. Phoniness means claiming to understand God; “acting as if” means choosing to proceed in faith in spite of our weaknesses, uncertainty and doubt. Acting as if is trying to be civil and kind, often at great effort, to people we dislike; phoniness is being nice to people to their face, and badmouthing them behind their backs.

Not long ago, a friend who hopes to enter the religious life was badmouthing someone with whom she was forced to be in relative proximity and who grated dreadfully on her nerves. “She wants to be my friend,” my friend said of this other person. “She thinks she’s going to be my friend.”

I understood all too well. I’ve had similar thoughts, many times, about people in my own life. But Christ calls us to be a “friend”–not an intimate, but a friend–to everyone. The Gospels militate against picking and choosing the people with whom we’re going to walk the road, who are going to be our teachers, to whom we’re going to be kind.

We don’t waste our time with people who don’t want what we have to offer. But if they do, one form of martyrdom is to give a listening ear or an understanding smile to all comers: the borderline-personality alcoholic who’s trying to get sober; the co-worker with a broken heart that refuses to mend; the followers of Christ and resolute non-believers and everyone in between whose sensibility doesn’t remotely jibe with ours.

We’re called to speak to people to whom we often don’t feel like speaking; to refrain from surrounding ourselves with people “just like us,” whose thoughts, ideas, and actions we can more or less manage and control; to share not just with the poor, but with the rich, the mediocre, the irritating, the Republicans, the Democrats, because we never know who the poor are. We never know whose heart is hemorrhaging. We never know who needs a consoling word, a smile, a helping hand.

Thérèse is exactly right: such a life can only be lived on “naked trust, with the absolute minimum of feed-back.” There’s no cheering squad when we go beyond our comfort zone to welcome the stranger because as servants of Christ we’re only doing our job: we don’t get extra credit. No-one hits “like” when we refrain from rolling our eyes, sighing, or making the catty comment, because no-one knows. No-one writes us up in the paper when we silently ask God for help in forgiving the person who has hurt us, or wishing well the person of whom we’re jealous. Yet those are exactly the small, invisible actions that built up the Body of Christ: in us, in the Church.

Most of all, we are not recognized for our daily discipline of prayer, praise, purification of heart, and examination of conscience: all, in other words, that makes us truly Catholic. All that makes us able, ideally, to meet man, woman, or child, old or young, rich or poor, and to say: Tell me your story. In a speech to the Business Community, Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, has observed: “So we need places, laboratories, the creation of places which could be each one of our homes, where we invite people who are different, and we listen to each other, people of different class groups. Tell me your story. Where is your pain.”

To be open enough to receive another’s pain takes a lifetime of inner work. To be present enough to sit quietly and truly listen while another tells his or her story requires first allowing ourselves to “hear” our own story, to face our own brokenness, to forgive ourselves and each other. To consent to not know the answers and to abandon ourselves, instead, to the God of poverty and mystery is to know, like Christ, that our kingdom is not of this world.

Easier said than done—but that seems to be the road. To stumble forward “acting as if.” To sing what we will to believe.



Every so often I get to go visit with my friend Judy, who’s a landscape designer, and whose garden(s) have been a source of continuing surprise, delight and solace for most of my time in L.A.

Sunday afternoon I arrived in Beachwood Canyon to find a tray laid out, on a table in Judy’s front yard, of cheese, quince paste, fig paste, Marcona almonds, green olives, and pink limonata. She’D culled a sheaf of clippings for me of things to do in NYC (where I’ll be next weekend, holy God we praise Thy name, help me pack). We made a date for August 16th for bluegrass music at Huntington Gardens, and another for Rancho Los Alamitos October 19th to hear one of my heroes, food writer Jonathan Gold (and someone else) speak on “Urban Nature Isn’t What You Think.”

She told me about the Gardens of Alcatraz (Prison). (Who wants to fund a speaking trip to San Francisco sometime soon?).

After that she asked, “Now do you like seaweed?”
“Of of course!” I replied, and she whipped out another clipping entitled “The Forests of the Ocean,” by a writer who “finds a convergence of art and science” in “unsung and neglected seaweeds.”

But the best part of our visits is that they always wind up with a tour of Judy’s garden. I wasn’t planning on taking pictures, and these do not begin to do justice to the scope, variety, different sections, and genius design of Judith M. Horton. But the light was so beautiful I couldn’t resist snapping a few.

I’ll take more another time. But for now, these are some of the joys of Southern California, and of a friendship I treasure, in June.



1952, with my brother Allen and my sister Jeanne

My father, a bricklayer, grew up in the day when students were “made” to memorize poems in class.

“When I Was One-And-Twenty,” “Sea Fever,” and this, from William Herbert Carruth, were heard frequently around the King homestead.

by: William Herbert Carruth (1859-1924)

A crystal and a cell,–

    A jelly-fish and a saurian,
    And caves where the cave-men dwell;
    Then a sense of law and beauty,
    And a face turned from the clod,–
    Some call it Evolution,
    And others call it God.
    A haze on the far horizon,
    The infinite, tender sky,
    The ripe, rich tint of the cornfields,
    And the wild geese sailing high,–
    And all over the upland and lowland
    The charm of the goldenrod,–
    Some of us call it Autumn,
    And others call it God.
    Like tides on a crescent sea-beach,
    When the moon is new and thin,
    Into our hearts high yearnings
    Come welling and surging in,–
    Come from the mystic ocean
    Whose rim no foot has trod,–
    Some of us call it longing,
    And others call it God.
    A picket frozen on duty,–
    A mother starved for her brood,–
    Socrates drinking the hemlock,
    And Jesus on the rood;
    And millions who, humble and nameless,
    The straight, hard pathways plod,–
    Some call it Consecration,
    And others call it God.

Thank you, Daddy.



Here’s the beginning of this week’s arts and culture piece, a reflection on the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

 “America’s finest museum of medical history, the Mütter displays its beautifully preserved collections of anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments in a 19th century ‘cabinet museum’ setting.”

“I’m spellbound by the Incarnation: by our fragile, mortal bodies; by the thought of what happens to us after we die. So in Philadelphia recently, the first place I hit was the Mütter Museum.

‘In 1856,’ reads the brochure, ‘Thomas Dent Mütter (1811-1859), a professor of surgery retiring from Jefferson Medical College, offered his personal collection of more than 1,300 unique anatomic and pathological materials to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia…The museum opened in 1863…Today the Mütter Museum’s collection includes more than 25,000 fascinating objects’ ”…

Read the whole piece here