Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent Week 3: Newtown, CT

This weekend I drove to northern California. I was on the I5, about as barren a road as you can imagine, lifeless hills followed by endless grey ribbons of road.  And I was listening to Christmas music. I've been doing a lot of that this Advent.  Some nice religious stuff like "Silent Night" mixed in with many of the great standards.

It's the sadness of them that's been helping me, oddly.  I don't know if you've ever noticed, but so many Christmas songs are either overtly about longing or have an undertow of something much more wistful than what the words seem to be saying.

And today all I could think about was the parents of the children killed in Newtown, what it all must be like for them these days. I think there are a lot of us all over the world who are doing that, and praying for them and letting our own hearts be broken, too.

I listen to the President and the talking heads respond, and I've heard it all so many times before. In the last two years we've had a Congresswoman shot in the head, we've had at least 4 different mass shootings that I can remember, almost all of them involving the death of children, and still we've gotten no closer to gun control.  There's something almost fundamentalist about the American devotion to our Constitution, as though the fact that there is a second amendment somehow denies us access to common sense. Common sense, which tells us that there is no good and legitimate reason to have an automatic weapon in a peaceful society. That there is no good and legitimate reason to have a concealed weapon. And that the argument that gun violence proves the need for guns is circular reasoning, the snake eating its tail.

So much of the the current debate has collapsed into sides shouting crazy at one another. And so little of it seems grounded in actual people, the ones who have lost their lives, the ones who have had their lives permanently altered as a result of gun violence.

Like Olivia Engel, 6. 

Noah Posner, 6.

Principal Dawn Hochsprung, 47, who died trying to stop the shooter.  

The superior of the community I've come to visit presided at Mass for his community of Jesuits today. He said to them, the problem with being a Jesuit is that we're so terribly insulated from the day to day hardships that families face. We don't know the first thing about having to make ends meet, worrying about kids, and on and on and on. It's an enormous gulf of experience.  Our lives are in some ways terribly, terribly comfortable.

He told his community, I want you to pray that God will help us overcome that gulf with the families in Newtown, and help us to be deeply and profoundly affected by their grief, their irresolvable, unassuageable loss.

Maybe that's what we should all pray for -- that we all, as a country, may be profoundly and permanently wrenched, traumatized, devastated by what's gone on in Newtown.  That our lives, too, may never be the same, that we can feel that hole that is now a part of their lives and that we will ache, too, now and forever.

I leave you with Saturday Night Live's cold open, a memorial to the victims.



Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent, Week 2: How to Pray

Found on Facebook: 

A nonbeliever pal asks how to pray, I say imagine in one bright spot all the love you've ever given or received; the luck you've had; talents you inherited (straight teeth, height, great smile, smartness, smart-assness); the french fries, the fried oysters, the chocolate; the moments on wonder, i.e. dancing to "Twist and Shout".... Eliminate (for the sake of this moment) all the bad shit, all doubt, blame, fury, self loathing. Then look at the good stuff and say, simply, Dammit that's good stuff. And acknowledge your fortune. And try to hold your mind on only those parts. As my friend Bob Hass said once, "I think I shall praise it." It's an exercise. I try to do this with what washes over me every day, and it flips my head from dark to light. It's a decent psychological exer ise for the dark minded.

-- Mary Karr, writer

Friday, December 7, 2012

Advent Reflection: Grief and Loss (and Comic Books and Jimmy Fallon)

Seems like most Christians I know love the Advent and Christmas seasons more than any other time of the year.  And between the stories and the liturgies and the symbols, there's a lot to love.

The funny thing is, this is also one of the hardest seasons for a lot of folks. When I was a dorm counselor in college, we were told to expect more students to suffer family tragedies between Thanksgiving and Christmas than at any other time of the year.  And it's really true, isn't it? Deaths, divorces, catastrophic accidents or illness -- you name it, and 'tis the season.

Some people try to explain that stuff away -- it was God's plan or whatnot. I understand the impulse.  If we can explain our pain in some way, it's as though we have some control over it. But when you're sitting at Christmas and somebody's not there, I don't know, I think all those sorts of explanations melt away and leave you to be savaged by the sense of loss.

And you know what, maybe that's how it should be.  I was reading a great comic book not too long ago in which a main character realizes he is about to be killed, and there's no avoiding it. And he stands there seeing it coming and he tells himself "Don't run.  Be present to this.  Let yourself experience this moment in full."

Maybe we're meant to experience loss like that, to let it run us over like a train and shred our hearts. Really, how could it go any way other than that when it comes to those we love?

At Christmas we imagine the 3 Kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. It might sound odd to suggest it, but if what we carry with us this year is loss, then maybe that's what we're invited to lay down before him, our shredded razor hearts.  If God can turn water into wine and death into new life, surely he can bless us in our pain, as well.

I don't want to end on that note.  I know we're still weeks away from Christmas, but Jimmy Fallon, Mariah Carey and the Roots did this great Christmas song.  I know you're going to love it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Room Tones and Tuning Forks

Last weekend I had the great fortune to be a helper on the set of a friend's web series.  As screenwriters we spend most of our time buried in our rooms or coffee shops (or Facebook), dreaming up (or avoiding dreaming up) these complex worlds.  But we don't often get our hands dirty lugging the C-stands and lights and watching as the same scene gets shot again and again.

I was especially struck by a moment called "room tone".  Everyone in the room would be asked to completely still for 30 seconds, and the sound guy recorded that silence.  When you shoot a scene from different angles, the ambient sound can change, which makes the edited piece sound poppy and weird.  To combat that, you lay in underneath the room tone, and it makes the problem go away.

The thing is, normally on this set there was lots of energy and chatter and activity. To switch from that to absolute silence -- it was like discovering a whole other layer of existence all around us, a spiritually deeper, more profound place present in our midst.

We talk about Advent as a time of waiting, of hope. But maybe it's also a season of presence, a tuning fork season in which we allow ourselves to get in sync with the quietly nourishing presence of God all around us.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

One of the constant refrains of Advent is Come, Lord, Come.  And last year I discovered a fantastic cover of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" by Sufjan Stevens. You can listen to the original here. Or I've posted a great live cover of it below.

If you're looking for some inspiration or just a few moment's peace and connection, a song to carry you.

Advent Week 1: The Waiting of Francis Xavier

Today is the feast of St. Francis Xavier, one of the 10 men who helped formed the Jesuits in the 16th century, and the one who in many ways inspired the Society's missionary activity with his decades of work in Asia.

If you ever go to the Gesu Church in Rome, and you happen to wander back into the sacristy, which sometimes functions as a daily mass chapel, you can find this painting:

It's Francis Xavier on his death bed on an island, just 14 kilometers off the coast of China. It had long been a dream of Francis' to do missionary work in China.  But when he finally got the chance, he only got as far as this island. He was to meet a boatman to take him to the mainland, but the man stalled, and Xavier fell ill from the cold and a lack of proper nourishment.

He actually died close enough that he could see China.  From the painting I can imagine him looking out on that distant shore, as his life gave out, the dream he had sought never to be achieved.

It wasn't the first moment of powerlessness in Xavier's life.  At age 10, he watched his father get pushed out of his job as President of the Royal College of Navarre by none other than Ignatius of Loyola's future employer The Duke of Najera, who was systematically replacing all the Navaresse in his operation with Castillians.  Supposedly, Xavier Sr. died of heartbreak.

At age 12, the year before Ignatius arrived in Navarre, Xavier watched his castle home bulldozed by Najera to make way for a fortress to protect the Castillians against the French and other foes (aka the Navaresse).  The very beams of the Xavier castle were used in the construction of the fortress.

Xavier's brothers fought in 2 rebellions against Najera and the Castillians, including the rebellion that would lead to Ignatius' cannonball wound (and conversion).  The brothers were imprisoned at various times, threatened with death.  Xavier's mother would sign her letters to him, "Dona Maria, the sorrowful." (Best signature ever.)

Xavier consequently went to school in Paris with much to prove. When he decides to do Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises (a decision that took him quite some time), as a mortification he bound his limbs so tight he cut off the circulation, and almost got gangrene.  As a Jesuit he accepted the call to leave Europe and go to India within days of receiving it.  He worked in difficult situations in Asia, in the midst of conflicts, and yet he never stopped pushing, moving, looking forward.  And yet there he was at the end of his life, alone on an island, the thing he wanted most of all just out of reach.

As Christians we often hear ourselves called in the Scripture to build the Kingdom, to be restless in the best sense, never satisfied, always seeking to do more.

But the Kingdom is also God's project, ultimately. It involves a surrender to a big, broader concept of time and success. I always thought the Xavier painting involved Xavier looking out at the coast of China.  But if you look close you discover he's looking not out but up toward God. He's given up the hunt and placed this dream, his whole life in God's hands.

As we enter into Advent, we talk about waiting in hope. When I hear such readings it usually triggers some concrete sense of waiting, that is a waiting for something -- a better world (or a better me).

But waiting can also mean a surrender to that bigger sense of time, to a God who is mysterious as well as loving, and to a sense of self as being small, weak, not in control. Which might sound awful. But if you've ever gazed up into a nighttime sky full of stars, you also know the sense of wonder and dare I say relief that comes with realizing our place in the scheme of things.   We are small, and yet we are also a part of the gorgeous, mysterious whole of creation.

And to wait is to let yourself be taught how to become at home in that mystery.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

For Anyone Who's Missing Someone Today

A poem for Thanksgiving

The Fall Almost Nobody Sees

Everybody's gone away.
They think there's nothing left to seee.
The garish colors' flashy show is over.
Now those of us who stay
hunker down in sweet silence,
blessed emptiness among

red-orange shadblow
purple-red blueberry
copper-brown beech
gold tamarack, a few
remaining pale yellow
popple leaves,
sedge and fern in shades
from beige to darkening red
to brown to almost black,
and all this in front of, below,
among blue-green spruce and fir
and white pine,

all of it under gray skies,
chill air, all of us waiting
in the somber dank and rain,
waiting here in quiet, chill
waiting for the snow.

David Budbill

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Change Change Change

In his speech last night, Barack Obama noted that "America has never been about what can be done for us but what can be done by us."

We live in a country where gun control is a dirty term, where drone strikes are being launched over Pakistan with impunity, where voters are forced to stand in line for hours and in some cases are made victims of malicious attempts to take away their right to vote.

It's our country. And over the next 4 years, maybe we're the change we need to believe in.  

Monday, November 5, 2012

One Day More

Hope you all get a chance to vote today.  And if you're interested in ridiculous banter and more of my silliness, I'll be tweeting at @popculturpriest a good part of the day (and night).  (Here's one I wrote last night: "Great job to all on a hard fought campaign. Now that it's all over, I hope we can all get along and vote for Barack Obama."  I know, I know, I am a font of wit.)

I remember four years ago very well.  After Obama won Times Square was a mob scene; taxis drove the streets honking, the cabbies waving.  It was like the whole country exhaled, finally. Like we'd all managed to enter the fairy tale we'd been promised.

I can't imagine it'll be like that today, no matter who wins.  I suspect instead it'll feel more like when you've spent months preparing for a huge test, and then it's over. You don't care what happens next, you don't care how you did, you're just glad it's over. Maybe we'll take a long collective nap.

There are worse things...

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Making an Election

Is it me or did the readings this weekend seemed so apropos of the country right now? In the first reading and the Gospel, we've got someone standing up and telling us what we need to do to have eternal life.

And seriously, haven't we been getting an inbox full of that for the last, I don't know, 6 months?  Maybe more if we live in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania. Honestly, it's been one long barrage of people standing up and telling us this is what you have to do.  And I'm not just talking about the candidates, or the pundits.  If you have Facebook, tell me your newsfeed hasn't been crawling with political stuff.  I know mine has -- some of it on dark days from me!

And it's all sort of pseudo-apocalyptic: the fate of the country/future/free world depends on this election.    Some have even taken it right to the question of our salvation: the Archbishop of Green Bay, for instance, wrote his diocese a letter last week, saying that voting Democrat "could put your soul in jeopardy." Yikes!

The whole thing can make you feel like this kid:

In the readings, though, it's not about particular issues. Jesus does not connect salvation to any pet policies; he has no stated position on Wall Street, health care or the Democrats.  No, what's required of us? To love.  To be in relationship.  To be open to the needs of others.  To be vulnerable and willing to be surprised. And not just with regard to people, but God.  It's interesting, we're not told to fear God or worship God or reverence God but to love God.  That is, to be in relationship with him. To have him as a friend.

When I look at the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, and how people are responding to it and to each other, I see what Jesus is talking about. Not condemnations but power outlets.  Not doomsday oracles to heed but couches to lie on. Not an abandonment to one's fears, but a trust and a love so radical it allows a whole hospital to mobilize to save 20 babies in the neonatal ward. (If you don't know the story of the NYU NICU unit, and the staff that carried those very fragile children down 9 flights of dark stairs, their way guided by med students and volunteers with flashlights, look it up.  It's amazing.)

I know who I'm voting for, and I bet you do, too, but today I'm also reminded that there's a lot more important and more meaningful than that.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Where Are We Without Original Sin?

My friend Andy Hamilton just published a really great piece in Eureka Street, the online magazine of the Australian Jesuits, about notions of original sin and the abuse crisis.  The original piece, and so much other great stuff, can be found here.  But I've also pasted it below.

If you're skeptical about reading ANOTHER article about sexual abuse, or original sin for that matter, try to give it a shot anyway.  Andy's got a unique and interesting take on the problem that our societies face in light of not only the sexual abuse crisis but other social ills as a result of our current images (or lack thereof) of sin.  I really cannot recommend it highly enough.

Original sin and clergy sex abuse


Original sin - bitten appleBeing a Catholic priest during public enquiries into sexual abuse within the Church is a bracing experience. Infinitely less hurtful than being the victim of abuse, of course. But it prompts musing about the ways in which evil actions work out in a group and affect the individual members of the group and its perception by others.
In many cultures these questions run so deep they can be caught only through symbol. In Greek myths and tragedies they are explored through what happens in a family, or house, in which monstrous deeds are fated. They taint the house and work their way destructively through later generations. In the stories connected with Oedipus, for example, the consequences are fated and individuals are passive before them. Their best efforts to escape only create the circumstances of the doom that awaits them and those associated with them.
The proper response to such events when embodied in drama is one of terror and pity. This is how we would respond to a natural disaster when allowed to enter the human experience of those caught in it.
The Christian teaching about original sin can helpfully be seen through the lens of this myth. It understands the whole of humanity to be affected by a taint which goes back to Adam's sin. Its consequences are death. The curse that in the Greek tragedies affected particular families or groups is now universal.
This view of the world also appears to be quite pessimistic in assuming that the disastrous human condition cannot be remedied by human activity. Indeed it is more pessimistic than the earlier myths, because the doom does not attach only to particular groups but to the whole human race. All human beings and the groups to which they belong are equally flawed. 
But in its Christian context the universality of original sin is a cause for optimism because we are healed from it by Christ. Neither individuals nor groups are doomed by fate. We are never helpless victims or collaborators of groups tainted by the evil that has been done by them. The evil that's been done can be repented of, apologised for, its causes addressed and reconciliation sought by attending justly and compassionately to its victims.
Within the Christian framework those watching this drama can respond with outrage at what has been done, encouragement for what is being done to address it, and analysis of what needs to be done. They are not passive spectators. But neither can they separate themselves from the group. They are aware of their own shared flaw and their shared good fortune at being rescued from original sin.
As a Christian understanding of the human condition this account has its limitations. And in any case it no longer has a strong claim on the public imagination. What has replaced it in public attitudes to the ways in which wrongdoing and guilt affect groups is also unhelpful in many ways.
When the canopy of universal sin and forgiveness is taken down, wrongdoing is commonly seen as marking a person for life. The proper response is harsh punishment and subsequent ostracism. Similarly, groups in which wrongdoing has occurred, like the Catholic Church, are seen to be corrupt. Apologies are not heartfelt; tears shed for the victims of abuse are crocodile tears;  steps to ensure accountability of ministers or the protection of children are window dressing. Those associated with the Church are automatically and lastingly suspect. They can wash away their taint only by renouncing their membership.
At one level attitudes like this do not matter. Indeed at a personal level they can be salutary. In Christian tradition to be regarded as rubbish and to be beaten up are a privileged way of following Christ, not to mention a way of sharing some of what victims have suffered in the Catholic Church.
The real loss from such attitudes is incurred by society. The groups and individuals that are seen in this way will find it harder, not easier, to make up for what they have been part of and to contribute to healing in society. They risk being distracted from what really matters in all this - the welfare of the victims of abuse. Making boxers punch drunk in training is no way to prepare them for the big fight.  

Monday, October 22, 2012

What's It Like to Be a Bishop

I got to do an interview over the summer with Bishop Greg O'Kelly, a Jesuit bishop in Australia.  Fantastic guy working in a very hard part of the country, one of the poorest and largest dioceses there.

The interview just got posted on The Jesuit Post.  Here's the link.   I hope you like it.  He has some really interesting things to say about the experience of being a bishop.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Que Sera Sera (Or, It's Not All About Me, Part 3)

Found this on YouTube this afternoon. It's a group of Thai children singing "Que Sera Sera."  You might want to have some Kleenex handy. It's pretty strong stuff.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

It's Not All About You, Part 2

SNL had an amazing skit on Saturday night about the iPhone 5.  A real eye opener for those in the West whining about its features... Talk about perspective -- wow.

The first minute and a half is a little slow.  Wait it out and you'll see what I mean...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Great 30 Second Spot on Jesuit Education: It's Not All About You

A Request

A Request

Should my tongue be tied by stroke
listen to me as if I spoke

and said to you, "My dear, my friend,
stay here a while and take my hand;

my voice is hindered by this clot,
but silence says what I cannot,

and you can answer as you please
such undemanding words as these.

Or let our conversation be
a mute and patient amity,

sitting, all the words bygone,
like a stone beside a stone.

it takes a while to learn to talk
the long language of the rock."

Ursula Le Guin

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Church Mouse Mulls

I was at a Mass last month where a very well liked church leader had this to say as his homily: instead of dismissing the Church's teaching as unreasonable, maybe it's us that are being unreasonable.

And I get that, I really do, especially when it comes to social justice, our treatment of others. I always remember a moral theology prof who said to us, The things you confess all the time, those are not your big sins.  It's the stuff you're not paying attention to where you're really causing trouble.  Seriously, think on that a bit and then try sleeping through the night...

But as I'm listening to this otherwise very affable guy, I'm also thinking to myself, boy, wouldn't it be great if he also said, sometimes the Church needs to be challenged, it's a human institution, and as a result sometimes it is unreasonable?  But no, the entirety of his message was, the problem is ours.  

I don't know, it was like watching someone who had circled the wagons so much he couldn't see out anymore, or was afraid to pop his head up. It was all defense.

Which I guess is an interesting way of thinking about what's been going on in the Church the last 10 years or so, at least in the States. Our leaders have grown more and more outspoken, but generally it's more and more Thou Shalt Nots and fewer Thou Shalts.  You'd be hard pressed to stitch together much of what's been said into a positive vision of the kingdom, of what we're aiming for.

That same moral theology prof taught us that ethics is about striving.  But people strive for tangible, positive things. Striving to not think or do things, I don't know, that's important, too, but it's not enough. You can spend your whole avoiding evil and still not doing any good!

The pro life cause is often framed in terms of you can't do this or that.  But a couple years ago I'm at Timothy Dolan's installation as Archbishop of New York City, and his approach is, "Everybody is somebody".  Much broader, more positive; not an attack line, but a way of living your life. That's what people hunger for, I think; nuanced, intelligent spiritual meat to chew on for their lives. "Don't do or be X" -- it's clear, but it doesn't penetrate, because there's nothing there to hold onto.

Maybe it's all defense now because our leaders feel more under siege than ever before.  But to me that's a real paradox, because in many ways they set the tone of the conversation. I'm not being naive, there's definitely lobbying groups, etc., that try to control the story, spin things negative. But our leaders have these mighty pulpits to speak from. And when they lead with negative, they get the same back.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  And we're stuck in the middle as the missiles fly. (Lordy Lordy, if we have to go through one more round of changes in the liturgy anytime soon, I am going to fall entirely off the rocker!)

I don't have kids (obviously).  But ever since my nephews and nieces have been born, I worry a lot more about the world we're leaving for them, the way we're forming them. And I don't know, a lot of days I'm worried about the kind of people some in the Church want them to grow up to be.  It's a vision so totally disconnected from Jesus.

I'm sure I'm just as guilty. Always easier to blame someone else. I had a great opportunity to interview a bishop a couple weeks ago. The article's going to be posted on another website this week, but when it is I'll attach a link here.  I thought it was a really eye opening look at the challenges of being a leader in the Church today.



Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Also: Nashville

Tonight is the debut of the new ABC show NASHVILLE, about an older country singer and her up and coming competition.  The trailers have been great.  And what's even greater is that one of the writers is Jason George, who graduated from UCLA a year ago.  Jason is a really good guy and obviously incredibly talented. (Before coming to UCLA he was writing for the New York Times, among other places.)

It's extremely difficult, especially right out of school, to get a job writing on a writing staff -- almost impossible. It's usually 2, 3 years at least, if it happens at all.  So, come, support this great guy on what looks to be a fantastic show.  (It's on at 10pm/9pm central.) Plus, the pilot was written by Callie Khouri, who wrote THELMA & LOUISE.  What's not to like?

Mrs. Coach needs to watch TV tonight.

The Archbishop's Last Day

Read this great little essay in Eureka Street today.  Had to pass it along to you.

The archbishop's last day


Archbishop's garbThe archbishop awakes at 6am on his 75th birthday. He makes a cup of coffee and dresses for his daily walk. He used to run ten kilometres every morning through the city, wearing his sweatpants and a sweatshirt from one of the Catholic high schools in the city, but mostly now he walks, although here and there, if the sun is out, and he feels limber, he runs. Some people know him and wave and a couple of people bow and say Your Excellency but most of the people he sees just see an old man running, which is not something you see much.
By 8am he has showered and had a second cup of coffee and prayed quietly for a while in his room. By 9am he is at the chancery. At noon he says Mass in the chapel in the chancery. Usually there are maybe 20 people at the noon Mass in the chancery but today there are 60 or 70. Ten or 20 of the people at Mass cross their arms over their chests when they come up for Communion and he blesses them and they say amen and several say thank you and one says happy birthday.
After Mass he skips lunch and goes back to his office.
You know we have to get the letter into the mail today, he says to his secretary.
Yes, Archbishop.
She has worked with him for 14 years, since the very first day he walked cheerfully into the office and soon discovered the horrors boiling under the placid surface of the archdiocese, and she admires him more than any other man she ever met, she thinks, not because of his position but because of the way he handled the rapes and lies and bankruptcy hearings, he never shirked a moment, he never was anything but flat-out honest and blunt about sin and responsibility, and even in the darkest hours he managed some thorny flinty tough cheerfulness and humour that more than once, truth be told, pulled her out of a dark place; if he could keep a smile on his face through all that, then so could she, damn it; a remark she had once made to him in an unguarded moment, which provoked his famous roaring laugh.
He has a laugh like a country, enormous and welcoming and infectious; you can hear him all the way down in the mail room, and supposedly you can hear him in the street outside, even though it is a busy street, always choked with traffic.
In his office he reaches for his dictaphone and dictates the letter. The letter is two paragraphs long. He doesn't hesitate over the language; he knows what he is supposed to say, what he is not averse to saying, but which he does not want to actually finally irredeemably say; but he says it, beginning with Your Holiness and ending with Yours in Christ's love and mercy.
He was melancholy that whole day, says his secretary later.
He turns the dictaphone off and pops out the cassette and walks out his open door and hands the cassette to his secretary. He doesn't say anything and she doesn't say anything either and he goes back in his office.
At 2pm the archbishop comes out of his office and says to his secretary you need to do the letter, remember. The mail comes early and it needs to go out today.
Yes Archbishop, she says, but I put it off and put it off, she says later. I put it off as long as I could. But that was a Wednesday, and the mail does come early on Wednesday, so I finally did it. I printed it out on letterhead and gave it to him. We have a system. He likes to see letters the way they'll look for the recipient. Sometimes he makes little changes and I print out a second copy. I don't mind. We have a system. In this case he did make a couple of small edits. He signed the second copy and I put it in the envelope and walked it down to the mail room. The letter goes to the papal nuncio in Washington, D.C., and then into his diplomatic pouch for delivery to HiHoliness. I don't know who opens the diplomatic pouch at the Vatican, no. Perhaps His Holiness' secretary.
The archbishop also celebrates Mass in the Cathedral at 5pm, and this second Mass is packed.
A lot of people who can't get to Mass in the morning or at noon catch the evening Mass at the Cathedral anyway, partly because it's smack downtown and a lot of people can get to it on their way home, but it is also crowded this day because, I think, because it is the archbishop's birthday, and a lot of people have stopped by to convey their regards. I think a lot of people know it was the day he had to write his letter, also, because I hear a lot of people say thank you to him after Mass, so many people that he is almost late for a dinner he has to attend.
He's so friendly and unassuming that this happens to him all the time, where he's almost late for things because everyone wants to talk to him and shake hands and ask for blessings, and he never rushes anyone but he's never late for anything either. We don't know how he does it. I think it comes from him being a parish priest so long. He knows how to be completely accessible and friendly but not get bogged down.
He almost gets bogged down on his birthday, though. I bet a hundred people say thank you for what you have done for us and bless you for your honesty and thank you for saving the children and thank you for your service and bless you for your humor. One man says to him thank you for being a beacon of light in such darkness, it is so pithy and what so many of us think about the archbishop.
But he does finally make it to his car and to the dinner, with about a minute to spare, I think. I don't know how he does it, but he's never late. If he says he will be there, he'll be there. That's why so many of us admire him so much, I think. You can trust that man.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

And Now For Some Real Mystics

Speaking of Australian blogs (most awkward transition ever), I really want to recommend "The King's Blog".  It's written by Geoff King, SJ, (another one) of the great Australian Jesuits, who has welcomed me into his community twice in the last four years. 

Geoff is one of the smartest people I know, and "grounded smart".  A canon lawyer -- a category of people I must say I was always afraid of growing up in the Society, but am discovering is often a gold mine of wisdom and kindness. In the last few years Geoff has been diagnosed with a form of degenerative muscle disorder that's left him wheelchair bound and in need of help to do some of the basic things of life, and he's taken to writing about it and about his life in general.  I see most recently he wrote some reflections on different parishes he has worked at.  It's lovely, a great glimpse into the meaningful stuff in the life of a priest. Highly recommend it.   

Say some prayers for him and a couple other Australian friends of mine, too, would you -- Adrian Lyons, SJ, and Paula Potter. Adrian and Potter have both been struggling with serious, life-threatening medical issues, and they're just the best people. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Mystics or Nothing

Eureka Street has an interesting article today from a great Australian Jesuit, Michael Kelly, on the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II. "As my recently deceased spiritual guide, Peter Steele, would never tire of saying: 'There are only two conditions in the spiritual life — you're either growing or you're dying,'" he begins, and goes on to consider how the Church has grown (or died) in the last 50 years. 

I'm not sure I agree with all of it, particularly the at-this-point standard interpretation of Benedict as happy with just a "faithful remnant" for the Church.  It's true, he made a comment like that before becoming Pope. But I haven't seen much evidence of him pursuing that idea as Pope. If anything, he's welcomed back some groups that people have had a hard time accepting

But it's a great article to think about.  

Something it provokes in me: could it be possible on some level that the diminishment of people in the pews is not a bad thing? That it's a signpost of something changing in the way people want to experience God, or of how they understand Eucharist? I don't want to say it's not a loss -- the Eucharist is our primary in our faith and our sense of our community.  I'm just  trying to play the sociologist and understand what people are saying with the choices they're making, particularly those who would continue to self-identify as Catholics.  I might not like the choice they're making, but can I learn from it?  As a great poet once wrote "Christ plays in ten thousand places..." I'd like to know about as many of them as I can. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cringing and Gliding

I haven't had much to say the last few days.  Not sure why.  Maybe it's the reality of school, which begins tomorrow, looming.  This will be my last year at UCLA, finishing up my MFA in Screenwriting. And I'm entering into it with a certain, perhaps naive sense of peace.

The thing about this work -- at least for me -- is that there's lots of opportunities for fear and the self-crazy. I hate to admit it, but here's how things work, at least inside me:  you struggle to get somewhere -- an internship, a manager, work, whatever. And maybe you do get it, maybe you don't.  Then you hear about friends who win an award or get a great job.  And part of you cringes.  Even if you've gotten some great things going yourself, part of you instinctively goes into a panic.  It's a strange inverse to having a friend die and as a result thinking about your own mortality.  Seeing other people succeed makes you afraid that you're getting left behind, and you won't.  It's ridiculous, it's horrible, but that's the way it often is.

So, normally at this point -- especially entering my 3rd and final year -- I should be panicked and crazy.  What's going to happen, is it going to all work out, blah blah blah. And it's not like I have any more real certainty than I did a year ago, though I do have a little more experience, and some friends now in the business who have been amazingly encouraging and helpful.  I really couldn't ask for more -- though again, let's be clear, if I hear about a friend getting ahead of me, I will instinctively think I should be asking for more. (Again: welcome to the crazy.)

And yet here I am, looking out upon the coming quarter with a spooky ease. Maybe it's sort of like the older Jesuit who, when asked if he ever thought of leaving the Jesuits, answered, "Leave? Oh God no, it'd be too exhausting."  Maybe at this point I'm just too tired to worry!

Whatever it is, I'm not complaining.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Stormy Weather

In Melbourne they say if you're not happy with the weather, just wait a few minutes.  They have 4 seasons in every day. 

That's the thing about weather -- it passes through. 

It reminds me of my emotional life at times.  You can get so angry, or upset, or distressed about something -- and then a few hours later it's all blown over, like it was never there.  

When you're in the storm, it's like driving onto a packed highway --  you have absolutely no indication that anything is going to clear up. It could be this nightmare forever.  And then, all of a sudden you turn a corner and it's smooth sailing.

In the thick of it, I don't know about you, but I immediately go into a sort of primal mode, hunting for some solution that will make me feel better --- venting, raging, fighting, eating (O Lord, please, may I fill this hole with chocolate?).  And that's understandable, but often not necessarily helpful (though if it's Cadbury Old Gold dark chocolate, it's pretty much always going to help at least a little).  Someone over the summer said to me, the damage I do in sending a raging response email is directly proportional to how good I feel in sending it.  The sweeter I feel, the more the damage.  Totally true, isn't it?

Maybe pain, discomfort are meant to be "savored" just like all the good things -- that is, experienced without running away, even wallowed in.  Not that that attempt at acceptance is going to make it any easier, but it renders us more grounded, and less able to blown and buffeted by our need to overcome the discomfort, like the damned before strong winds in Dante's Inferno.

The safe haven we look for -- a lot of the time, it comes to us, rather than us to it.

And speaking of Stormy Weather --  ladies and gentlemen, Miss Ella Fitzgerald.

4 new minutes of the West Wing!

If you missed the West Wing -- well, you might still after you watch this, but it is a great little reunion moment, and one that talks about a voting issue that I for one had never heard of.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Getting Out, Pt. 2

Getting Out

The last two days I've had the air conditioning on, for only the 2nd and 3rd times since I moved to California 2 years ago.  At LMU we live very close to the coast, so even if it's 100 degrees downtown or in the Valley, it's generally going to be about 75 here.

But it's been hot the last week or so, and humid, too.

So yesterday I was basking in the artificial cool of my room.  And I continued to bask all day, only to discover when I (finally, ahem) went outside, that it was actually really nice out.  Locked in my refrigerator, I had missed out.

There's a parable in there...

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Real Work

The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
~ Wendell Berry ~

Sunday, September 16, 2012

What Do You Want in a Homily?

One of the things I'm finding after being a priest for a while, is when it comes to the homily you really have to ask yourself, what am I trying to do here?   Because it's pretty easy to get sidetracked.

What do I mean by sidetracked? Well, for instance, the homily that's about providing a solution to a problem.  You see a problem in the world or in our lives or in the Scriptures and your homily is your attempt to tell us how to (re)solve it.

There's nothing wrong with this as an approach from time to time.  Except, I don't know, do people really come to Mass for answers?

I can see that one line getting excerpted and taken around the internet for a spin.  Ah, the love it will spawn.

But I'd say one of the problems in our church today is too many of those holding the mike thinking they've got all the answers. Or that they're supposed to.  It's true, a lot of graces come with the holy oils, but that ain't one of them.

And confusion, mystery -- these are biblical things. The sort of moments that break through the great ongoing data stimulation/monologue of our lives and make us stop and say, wait, what now?

Of all the evangelists, it's Mark that knew that better than anyone.  His is the gospel that ends without a resurrection. The women go to the tomb the morning after the Resurrection, and the stone's been pushed away, and they're told by a person in white that Jesus has gone. And the women are so freaked out, they run away and don't tell anyone.

I think that's a part of what a homily is for: not to smooth it all out for us, but to name, uncover, provoke, wonder.  They probably shouldn't run away screaming, but if they leave wondering what the heck was that all about, well, they may be a little bit closer to God than they were when they got there.

Or maybe I just had a bad Sunday.  You tell me.

Friday, September 14, 2012


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky 
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on the stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and the fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

W.S. Merwin

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

No More Waiting for Gun Control

Over the summer, I was deeply affected by the gun related deaths in Aurora, Colorado and Wisconsin.  In many parts of the world, including Australia, they simply can't comprehend our resistance to gun control of any kind.  In fact, in 2001 an incident similar to the recurring American story of "armed person walks through a building/town killing people" led Australia, under a conservative leader, to institute strong gun control measures.

I don't know what to do to help the situation. But I do know that I want to help. So, I've started a Facebook group called "No More Waiting for Gun Control" where people can post the stories of people who have been injured or killed by gun related violence.  It's not a place for debate or a place to talk about the perpetrators of violent crime.  I think of it more as an ongoing vigil that tries to let the dead speak a word to us about the way our world should be.

If you're interested, look it up on Facebook.  I also tweet under "popculturpriest" and try to post gun-related stories with the hashtag #nomorewaiting or #nomorewaiting4gc. We also try to go to the Twitter and Facebook accounts of politicians and post stories of gun-related violence from their part of the world.

I have no idea if doing something like this will ever make a difference. It's a work in progress.  If you feel frustrated with the state of things in our country, think about joining us.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Obama: What I Want, What I Have...

This is the President I want...

Some days, it feels like this is the President I have...

Monday, September 10, 2012

...To Live in this World...

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Mary Oliver
 (from American Primitive)

A Boy Can Dream

 I'd be happy for just one of those, thank you?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

An Article about the Conventions

After my weekend rant (sorry if I lost you there, had to get it out of me), I wrote an article for an Australia magazine called Eureka Street about our conventions. Here's a link.  I swear, it's more tempered than my blog. Also, a little humor.  Speaking of which:

Real picture. Look at the bikers on either side.  Joe Biden, what are you doing?

Jesus, Leave Sponge Bob Alone

Went to an evening Mass this weekend. The priest talked for over 20 minutes -- mate, what are you thinking? You're a nice guy, but stop already.

When we walked in, there was a sponge, like this, in the holy water font:

Have you seen this? I've seen it at a couple places, and honestly, I can't figure out the rationale for the life of me. Is it supposed to be hygenic? Because pressing your fingers into a sponge that is brown with the dirt of a thousand fingers is much healthier than a little container of standing water?

When it comes to sacraments and sacramentals (things that are not sacraments themselves, but are nonetheless understood as ways we come to experience God's grace -- holy water being exhibit A), you want people to be exposed in as immediate and full a fashion as is possible. You don't want a middle man. You want to get out of the way and let God work his mojo.

No, the other mojo.  (But extra points if you get the reference. Yeah, baby!)

Liturgists and pastors, you really can't get much more diluted (also filthy) a sacramental than to actually dissolve holy water in a ratty sponge! Put it back in the storage closet or store it in a pineapple (again, extra points...) and let us have our moment with God!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Barack, Stop Talking and Fight

I don't know that I've ever written about politics on this blog. It's definitely not my general interest.  I find American politics by and large debilitating, and I find when you start talking about it it only makes people crazy.

But I was frustrated with what I watched last night, and I want to rant and rave a bit.  I'm going to be pretty equal opportunity in who I criticize, so if that's going to frustrate you, you might want to turn away...

I've been stewing after the President's speech last night. And I say this as a Democrat. I have no time for the politics of hate and fear that the leaders of the Republican party have been dishing out of late (and by late I mean the last 12 years, more or less). I think their basic strategy of opposing everything has completely demoralized the country and while I support the Tea Party as a way for people to express their frustration, politically I think it's been taken over by some pretty destructive forces.

But I listen to the President speak and I'm struck by on the one hand, yes, I want a world guided by the principles of fairness, of helping the underdog, and above all of we're all in this together.  I believe in that as the good.  

And on the other hand, I'm not sure he's making that happen.  He said over and over last night that we have this choice to make, and the choice is basically between fear and hope, between community and individualism, between progress and stagnation. But does he really represent the first half of those equations? It's quite an astonishing claim for anyone to make, if you think about it, let alone a President whose country remains mired in recession; who hesitates to push through basic gun control legislation even after one of his own Congresspeople has been shot; and at a fundamental level lets himself get pushed around by not just the Republicans, but the business community, the gun lobby, Israel, you name it.  

Yes, he saved the auto industry, as I heard over and over last night. Of course, no one was saying the other half -- the auto industry needed saving not just because of the financial crisis but because of incredibly poor management that had gone on for a long time.  Much like the financial community, which he also saved and has since continued by and large in its shockingly rapacious ways.

More importantly, he got through health care. (Why didn't he mention that?)  He's also been great on the international stage, and given back to the United States its moral authority. Which is huge.  So don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the man hasn't done good things.  When you put him alongside Bush, there is no comparison.

But I have to say, on the issue of the economy and unemployment, which for me is the fundamental issue in this election, I don't see him offering any solutions. From a practical level his speech last night amounted to "Stick with me, because we have great things planned." And that's just not good enough.  What are those things? And how are you going to get them through Congress?

He's entered into almost all the major issues -- unemployment, the debt ceiling, bonuses for billionaires, health care -- far too late.  He relies on some pretty pat tropes -- how many times have we heard him say "It's going to be hard"?  -- without ever digging deeper.  When has he shown an appreciation for just how hard it has been, for example? Certainly not last night.  

To me it has long appeared like he really needs to have his back against the wall before he really digs in and starts fighting. And that is such a terrible way of proceeding. Because even if you are as incredibly talented as he is, it means a lot of anxiety for us and probably a higher rate of failure than would otherwise be true.

Again, I'm a Democrat. I think anyone who is thinking of voting Republican has to answer some hard questions about to what degree the Republicans' style of opposition has been responsible for how slow the recovery has been, and whether they're ready for the extremists in that party to have a hand at the wheel. Because as moderate as Romney may seem, if he gets into office those guys are going to be running the show. That's what he signaled in picking Ryan.

But -- and this is probably the first time I've felt this way -- weaving words is not enough. I want to be reminded of who we are as America, but that narrative has to be grounded in a day to day willingness to fight for its realization. I see that pursuit within individuals in our country, people sacrificing for their families or their communities, people sacrificing for strangers. I'm just not sure I see it in our President.




I must say, I have never loathed my own accent more than when in Australia.  That flat, nasal twang alongside the playful kineticism of the Australian dialect is like listening to a cat yowling in heat. When Paul talked about clanging cymbals, I think he had us in mind.  (I would be willing to bet he visited the Midwest. And then he wept.)

And some of the differences you don't even notice until you're back. I went to Mass last night at our community, and over and over again I heard "Ay-men," and accent on that "Ay".

Australians don't pronounce the word that way.  For them, it's the dentist's bit, open your mouth and say Ahh-men. And whether it's because the vowel is short rather than long, or the accent is on the last syllable rather than the first, or something else, the word presents quieter somehow, not in volume but in intensity. When you say "Ay-men", you're taking a stand, you're making a public commitment.  When you say "Ah-men", you're more accepting something that's being offered, you're acquiescing.  It's the difference between "Yes" and "Let it be so."

It would be dangerous to use that one word to draw any conclusions about the differences between Australian and American culture. Ridiculous.  And yet, as I watched bits of the Democratic National Convention last night, the President's evangelical style, the audience's hunger to leap up in adulation -- all of which is pretty puzzling for Australians -- I couldn't help but think that perhaps there is more to this than pronunciation.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


I got back from Australia today. I was intrigued to find, after a few hours, that it felt as though I was sitting on a floating dock.  The floor rocked back and forth. Gently, mind you. In fact I even thought, maybe this is an earthquake? Just, you know, the long and gentle kind. A My Pretty Pony earthquake.

But it's the jet lag, I'm guessing, combined with not much sleep in the last 2 days. And, perhaps, the fact that I've spent a lot of the last week on ferries traveling Sydney Harbour.  The inner ear is a funny thing, and mine tends to remember water very well, and very long.

Whatever the reason, it's not a bad metaphor for the feeling of dislocation that comes with returning to the States. I've been gone long enough that I had forgotten my room, if that makes any sense. That even as I could never quite figure out which side of the car to get into (much to the amusement of my friends), that the idea of the steering wheel on the left just seems wrong. Wrong and dangerous.

And I can't help but think, as I sit here at 10pm writing this, wasn't it moments ago just noon in Sydney? Truly, moments ago. How did I get here? And actually, where am I exactly?

And the table on which this computer rests rocks gently.  And the floor curls up and down. And my body feels like at any moment it might float away.

Monday, July 9, 2012

You Think Getting Hit with Bird Poop Is Bad...

So today I got hit in the eye by a pigeon.

Yes, you read that right. It's my first real day in Melbourne, and I was on a day long amble, soaking in all the little sights and sounds of this city I dearly love.  I spent a wonderful morning in Fitzroy Gardens, not far from the parish where I'm staying, sitting on a bench that had this placard: "Sit quietly. For in quiet we grow."

I wandered through Collins St., part of the Central Business Area and for some reason that I can't explain one of my favorite places in the universe. There are these trees there, a peely sort of tree but not a eucalyptus that just looks lovely in the winter, naked and seemingly dead.

And as I walked, devouring every sense particle that I could, a flying pigeon hit me in the face.

What, the whole freaking sky isn't a big enough lane for you? Come on!

I could not tell you where it came from.  Above, that's for certain, but beyond that, there was just a glimpse, then a smack.  And then it was gone, and me standing there, rubbing my eye and vacantly  worrying about whether I had just been infected with some sort of pigeon disease until two guys walked by, laughing, and then I realized, it had really happened. I really did just get hit by a pigeon.

At my community this evening someone said, "Ah, it's a perfect image of the Holy Spirit, it comes out of nowhere and BAM!"  There's something to be said for that; definitely a homily in that.

But I must say, in that moment what was more present to me was how much more random everything is than I perceive it to be.  I wasn't hurt, but the (damn) bird did smack right into my eye.  And as ridiculous as that would have been -- priest blinded by pigeon;  story at 11 -- it wouldn't have been any less true for being so.  If you'll forgive a popular turn of phrase, $#!+ really does happen.

This is not news, is it? Not to you, and not to me. Every parent reading is probably thinking, I deal with this 25 times a day, thanks very much.

But it's funny how much we forget as our day to day lives amble on. One wonders if in the end we forget more than we remember, when all is said and done. And there's nothing to be done but keep living the way we do, more or less.  There's nothing worse than someone who spends their lives preparing for the possibility of something awful maybe occurring. (See: The United States from 9/12/2001-11/2008, more or less -- and if you've been in an airport since 2008, perhaps you'd insist (as I would) that these patterns remain very much in effect.)

"No, no, that's not degrading at all.  In fact, I'd love to send a copy home to my kids."

I could try to draw out some moral to this aviary anomaly, but really, I'm not sure that there is one. Life is surprising.  Sometimes there are clear paths. And sometimes there are falling birds.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Here's that Article About Peter Steele!

A Man of Restless Delight

The poet Peter Steele's territory of joy
the cover of America, the Catholic magazine
On vacation in spring 2008, I happened upon a short collection of poems, “A Mass for Anglesea,” by Peter Steele, S.J., a longtime professor of literature at the University of Melbourne in Australia. There are 11 poems, each taking as a subject a different moment in the liturgy (the Gloria, the Creed, Communion…), and all of them set at Anglesea, a small community on the Southern Ocean.
Opening at random, I read this, the first stanza of Father Steele’s “Kyrie Eleison”:
Father of each, as of all, remember those
Who are folded between our hills, in a little town
Stiller, so far (we are grateful) than Bethlehem:
As, Mr. Stabb the butcher; and the tousled boy
Who sees you into and out of the video store;
And keepers and pilers of cans in the supermarket;
And the ancient sweetheart who sold me nineteen volumes

Of knowledge pruned and compacted, for a song;
And the moulder of surfboards; the framer of estates
As things sublime and beautiful; and the girl
Refreshed in her uncertainty by the boasts
In gleaming journals; the tugger at lolloping dogs;
The blethering wiseacre making his point at the pub—
Same point, same pub, same audience once more;
And the watchers, reluctant, absorbed, of white nights
To no imaginable good; and the fishers.
Be as you must the Lord of living and dead,
And school us afresh, afresh, in the ways of mercy,
Who remember a little, and confess that we forget.
It was the list of Anglesea’s inhabitants that caught my attention—the “tousled boy” at the video store, the girl with her diary, the “blethering wiseacre” at the pub. Iwas struck by the way Father Steele, with just a few words, could conjure and relish each one. I could see them all immediately and the place, too, a New England-like ocean town on a chilly, overcast, fall afternoon.
This poem went on for two more stanzas, one addressed to the Son and one to the Spirit, “Firebird, flambeau, haunter of all that is.” Each poem was crafted with a loving eye for detail and a wise humanity. And the set as a whole was like a walk through the streets of Rome, every turn offering something new to savor, no alley ever a dead end. One could wander the same passages over and over with delight for many days.
At some point I began to wonder, who is this Peter Steele?

The Child the Books Made

By December 2008, when I meet Father Steele in Washington, D.C., “A Mass for Anglesea” has been published as part of his latest book, a collection of new and selected poems entitled White Knight With Beebox: New and Selected Poems. In a Melbourne newspaper, The Age, the poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe writes of Father Steele’s “hopscotch mind…the poems have as much dazzle as the strange title might hint at.” Martin Duwell, in The Australian Poetry Review, calls it “wonderful poetry.”
Father Steele, now Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Georgetown University, is working on another book. Four cold, gray days before Christmas we meet. Father Steele wears a dark turtleneck; he has thick white hair and a soft-spoken affability. He grew up on the western coast of Australia in Perth, the oldest of three boys. As a child he was a good student, a “greedy, hungry reader” with an early desire to be a priest. In 1957 at age 17 he entered the Society of Jesus, moved to Melbourne and has remained there for most of his life.
At the back of a nondescript two-story building, Father Steele’s office at Georgetown is a small space with a desk, some bookshelves and a couple of chairs. An enormous picture of Pope John Paul II hangs on one wall; photos of other popes around it form a giant cross—a remnant of some former tenant. Other than the few books on one shelf and a small stack of his latest poems, there are no signs that Father Steele has been working here each day for the last six months, nor any touchstones that one might imagine a writer uses to help inspire his work. His office has less the feeling of a writer’s den than of a storage closet.
That is instructive, because as we speak it quickly becomes obvious that Father Steele’s mind is itself the treasure trove to which he turns for sustenance and stimulation. Stories, quotations, theories and references pour out of him on everything ranging from Anglo-Saxon language or the latest work by Seamus Heaney to the identity of Jimmy Durante’s Mrs. Calabash, the extraordinary number of first five moves possible in chess, the image of the fool in Scripture and literature, the challenge posed by the presence of the cross in every Christian celebration and the extraordinary pathos of Marcel Marceau. Father Steele moves from Ogden Nash to literary critic William Empson to Billy Collins to the Mona Lisa within minutes of one another; from the American bank robber Willie Sutton to Daniel Berrigan, S.J., to Samuel Coleridge to the poet Amy Clampitt; from Miss Piggy to Bernard Lonergan, S.J., to Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., to Paul Muldoon.
He summons the image of a boy eager to take you to see all of his favorite places and best friends. There is that same restless delight.

God’s Fool

Father Steele was not much of a poet when he arrived at the University of Melbourne in the early 1960s to begin his humanities studies. As a Jesuit he had written some humorous verses, but nothing serious. The university, though, brought him into contact with Prof. Vincent Buckley, a scholar of literature and a poet himself. He was a short man, Father Steele remembers, “with a slightly excessive dignity,” “big, swept-back hair” and a strong sense for the dramatic. In a lecture he could hold the attention of hundreds. Part of a group of Catholics at the university who met to imagine their apostolate to the university, Buckley became a model for Father Steele, a mentor and a friend.
Verse, Father Steele believes, is often understood by society at large “in the mode of nonseriousness”; it is a playful, circus-like act, he says, in which elements like meter and rhyme constitute one’s “jugglery.” The reader pays attention to see what amusing feats might be attempted, how close to defeat the poet comes, whether in the end he or she succeeds (or surprises).
In his own work Father Steele embraces such playfulness, but with an eye toward uncovering the foolishness inherent in being human. We “boast a repertoire of finesse,” he writes in “Phantom Pleasures,” “but know that it peters out miles this side/ of omnicompetence, leaving/ a paper-chase of good intentions, a drizzle/ instead of Danaean showers.” Time and again for Father Steele, what makes us so delightful and also so damaging is our fundamental inadequacy. We are essentially “double,” he says; as creatures we ultimately cannot survive on our own, yet we run desperately from this reality. So, hearing of the discovery of ancient Scandinavian molds that allowed silversmiths to make either a Christian cross or an image of the hammer of Thor, or both, Father Steele posits, “It’s not hard to imagine him selling one of each to the same chap…just in case….” He laughs. “We’re all like that, all partly Christian believers and partly atheists. We all have double hearts.”
The sometime terrible consequences of that doubleness demand attention. In our conversations, it strikes me how often Father Steele returns to the topics of gulags, prison camps, the Holocaust (for him the starkest revelations of the horrors humanity is capable of) and demands that we not be na├»ve. “In the end one can never be too grateful about or too rejoicing in life,” he says. He calls himself “an applauder,” a “yes man”; he believes in the possibility of a heaven where “everyone will be saved, including the monsters.” But he reminds me, “You’ve got to make room for heartbreak in poetry that matters.” “Ice and snow/ bless the Lord,’” he writes in “Eschewals”; “but how give over/ the daily glazing of anger, the drifts of fear?”

A Rich Menagerie

But to read Father Steele is less to be haunted by inhumanity, though, than to be dazzled by his delight with the English language. Unusual, often melodious words abound—ascopia, lolloping, melaleuca, messmate, trunnions, faience. Father Steele likes to read science books for new words, and when he finds one, he speaks of trying to “give it a home” in his work.
Often the richest menageries occur amid lists, as at the end of “Snowballs”:
Wide-eyed he dreams
Groats, the bollard, an oubliette, brioche,
Sedan chairs, kir, the stirrup, farthingales.
Hot on the trail, and chilled in all that fall,
He grows more wieldy in the darkened years,
Visited now by the zenith, now by polo,
Toothpaste, soires, guitars, the subjunctive mood,
Batik, a mazurka, pretzels. In the end,
Old and childish, he lobs a perfect sphere.
A list like this is “taking the animals on parade,” Father Steele tells me. “It’s not so much I know all these words (although it’s a bit of that), but look at all the interesting words that there are.”
At other times, Father Steele seems intrigued by the zany momentum that can be built out of widely disparate sounds and ideas placed beside one another. “Blessed are you who fit us all for naming” he writes in “Offerings,” “telling the arrow’s nock, the gladdie’s/ corm, the Bellarmine jug, the Milky Way,/ spinnaker, follicle, Nome, Alaska:/ catfish, deckchairs, the age to fall in love,/ gaspers and megrims and the Taj Mahal,/ derricks, and El Dorado, and peach Melba.” Always what underlies is delight. “Making lists,” he says, “is as often as not an act of love. It is a love of the items, it’s a love of the words, and I flatter myself to think it’s a part of a love of God. I make lists because I’m in love with the plentifulness of things.”

On the Road

Father Steele has spent most of his priestly life teaching literature at the University of Melbourne, where he is now an emeritus professor with his own chair. But he has also held visiting chairs at Georgetown, the University of Alberta in Canada and Loyola University in Chicago; has given the Martin D’Arcy Lectures in Arts and Sciences at the University of Oxford; and has become a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
White Knight has brought him more attention than any of his previous books. He laughingly acknowledges that when he first began to write seriously, “publication” meant photocopying his poems. “I’d give copies to about 20 friends, and sort of psychologically I’d feel, well, they’ve been published now, you know?” Today the University of Melbourne hails him as “one of the most remarkable figures in Australian writing,” a man of “darting imagination.”
Currently Father Steele is working on a set of short poetic studies of scriptural characters. Many take place in a still point before dramatic change: the rich man Lazarus near death; St. Paul moments before his ship is destroyed at sea; St. Joseph contemplating the flight to Egypt and seeing ahead not possibility but “long nights of exile,” where “stand/ the palms of yearning for a promised land” (“Flight”).
Yet for Father Steele himself, being intellectually “on the road” is a natural and welcome state. On our last day together I ask him, having accomplished so much, what more did he wants to do. “I want to go somewhere I haven’t gone before, at least as a poet,” he tells me. “Bad books,” he says, quoting Carlos Fuentes, “are about things the writer already knew before he wrote them.” Good poets write to take a journey, “to see what will happen.” Father Steele has spent most of his life in one place, yet the sojourns of his mind have been numerous and the discoveries rewarding—“glimpses of the spacious,” he calls them, “the territory of joy.” And his readers are the richer for it.