Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Preceding Post Decoded

It is not a morbid thing to think of death. It makes for preparedness. It surfaces the destructive contradictions and creative tensions in our being, the profundities and trivialities of our existence. It is looking at oneself in a magnifying mirror under a fluorescent light. It is being prodded with a pointed stick.

It is naive for believers in a living God made incarnate to diminish the facticity of death and foolish to be incurious about how everything passes away.

Day slowly bleeds to death
Through the wound made
When the sharp horizon's edge
Ripped through the sky.
Into its now empty veins
Seeps the darkness.
The corpse stiffens,
Embraced by the chill of night.

Over the dead one are lit
Some silent stars.

Dag Hammarskjold, Oct. 12, 1958

Everything must pass away. To live is to let everything go. To die is to complete the giving away. And then God appears. For it is no longer us, but God in us.

Mark this well: nothing that is given away is lost. Jesus died in defiance of those who would have him be sacrificed. But everything we struggle with violence to hold, especially the things we hold most dear, is sunk and eternally abandoned.

Hell is not death. Hell is eternal oblivion.

Anything that prevents the ordinary (and holy) dying, the giving away, the living that leads to the fullness of God, this is the undying Death to be feared. This is the Death that is absolute Loss.

Let us live and die so that nothing we have been given is lost.

Gratitude and readiness. You got all for nothing. Do not hesitate, when it is asked for, to give your all, which, in fact, is nothing, for all.

Be grateful as your deeds become less and less associated with your name as your feet ever more lightly tread the earth.

Dag Hammarskjold, 1956

Re-reading my thanatological thoughts, I must confess that I have yet to live into the wisdom I brazenly profess.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Thanatological Thoughts

I have never seen a person die.

I am afraid of death by asphyxiation (e.g. drowning, suffocation).

If I die by natural causes, then I believe I will most likely die in the month of February, in the middle of the week, late in the evening.

The earliest memory I have is of being carried on my father's shoulders up the stairs from the basement to the upper stories of our house as it was being built in 1978. The memory is distant like a dream, but as I recall it hazily, I remember sensing that if my father let go of me, I would be badly hurt. Surrounded by strangers and dust and noise and potent odors, my life depended on hanging on to my father.

My most memorable birthday was my eighth, in 1985, when a hurricane devastated the Eastern Seaboard, drowned 16 persons, and left my family powerless for a week. My next most memorable birthday was my 24th, in 2001, because only when it arrived did I begin to stop being afraid after the terror of Sept. 11.

Somewhere in my childhood, around or before the age of ten, I became able to imagine nothingness, the end of my own existence, and eternal unconsciousness. Those imaginings worried me then, and they still do sometimes. This can be a good thing: "There are few things as convincing as death to remind us of the quality with which we live our life" (Robert Fripp).

Both of my grandfathers died in December, one in 1991 and the other in 1994.

Seeing my grandmother choke on a sandwich on the day after Thanksgiving in 1998, with none of us able to give her aid, waiting powerlessly for the paramedics, was one of the most frightening moments in my life.

I still worry about whether I was exposed to asbestos fibers when I was working ten years ago in an office building in midtown Manhattan.

When Timothy McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001, I cried, and on that day I stopped believing in the death penalty. "For everything that lives is holy" (William Blake).

One birthday I was given a dwarf cactus. I tended it poorly, and it died from overwatering. I felt great remorse over this.

The first wedding I ever attended was my sister's on July 29, 2006. She asked me to read Scripture and offer some homiletic reflections. She objected to my quotation of the Scripture that says love is stronger than death.

The last funeral I attended was for Fr. Ed Boyle, founder of the Massachusetts Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, in November 2007. The last wake I attended was for Norman McReynolds, a member of Common Cathedral, last spring. The last memorial I attended was for the Rev. Dr. James Nash, a former faculty member of Boston University School of Theology, in December.

Unlike some Catholics, I felt no distress upon hearing that when the plot of Cardinal John Henry Newman was excavated last October, no body was found in the grave, the only things recovered being the cloth of his biretta, and a brass coffin plate.

Walking through graveyards leaves me feeling strangely fatigued.

I wonder if I have it in me to be a martyr, to be like those of whom it is written that love for life did not deter them from death.

You must hear Led Zeppelin's take on "In My Time of Dying," a blues traditional pushed into postmodern times.

To my ears, hackneyed phrases like "to die for" and "I could just die" are not only indecent but also blasphemous. The same for cheap curses like "drop dead."

For me, the most colorful personification of Death is not the Grim Reaper but a much lesser known figure called the Supernatural Anaesthetist.

If given the opportunity to have a simulated near-death experience, whether induced chemically or by suggestion, I would decline.

I am not so much saddened by a loved one's death as saddened by the grief others show. It is a sympathy sadness.

I am going to find it very difficult to respect my mother's wish to be cremated.

My only monument will be dust and ashes, and it will commemorate the resurrection.

I do not know who will bury me. I know who will raise me.

"Not even death can end the process of our becoming" (Robert Fripp).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

On the Turning Away

The phrase presented itself to me, and I could have swept my mind for an age and not know where it came from or how it got there. The words felt older than lifetimes and as new as today. They seemed to tell an epic history, hint at deep loss, and foreshadow a restoration: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained. Or Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso.

"... on the turning away ..."

We live half-asleep, half-aware, half-full. Insensitive, inert. Full of holes, full of dirt, like cavities. Yet Someone, Something, is putting something there all the time. Mostly things seep out of us like waterdrops from a poorly tightened faucet. Sometimes something stays, bonding in the awful empty spaces.

" ... on the turning away ..."

I could not account for their presence, but they belonged there, firmly. It felt right for them to be there. My intuition told me they were an admonition. Reaching for the edge of my consciousness, I searched for the phrase. (God bless the Internet for externalizing our collective consciousness.)

This is what I found:

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won't understand
Don't accept that what's happening
Is just a case of others suffering
Or you'll find that youre joining in
The turning away

It's a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting its shroud
Over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we're all alone
In the dream of the proud

I found a song. No, the song found me. It has a haunting melody with well-matched words. It could have been sung four hundred years ago, born under gray skies in the distant green hills. I can hear it being sung today and many tomorrows from now, stirring streets and soaring in sanctuaries. With this song, I can pray.

On the wings of the night
As the daytime is stirring
Where the speechless unite
In a silent accord
Using words you will find are strange
And mesmerized as they light the flame
Feel the new wind of change
On the wings of the night

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It's not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there'll be
No more turning away?

David Gilmour and Anthony Moore


Scholars whom I trust say Paul was not "converted" but "called" to life in Christ. That's true enough; Paul had always believed in the one God of Israel. And through his experience of Jesus, Paul believed only that he had come more fully and more perfectly to live in the light of the Lord. But he did not always believe in others, in the "nations" or Gentiles. Before Paul experienced Jesus, the people beyond his own people were to be turned away if they could not be made to believe and live like his own people.

After Jesus, for Paul there was no more turning away. Only a radical turning toward.

So there is fundamentally a call, but the call is heard through a million little whispers, soft breezes that collect and turn your direction while you walk. The call is heard through numerous little conversions, increments of turning toward. It is not a negative motion; it is always a positive movement.

Conversion comes through the call. Turning away from sin, turning toward God and humanity. Paul was called to God's life in Christ. But he was converted, too: away from alienation, toward all peoples.

" ... on the turning away ..."

I was half-awake, half-thinking of conversion, when this phrase surfaced. Now I ponder with wider eyes. To what, to whom must I turn my face? Who have I turned away? To what, to whom does God bid me turn?

Can I do it, God? Will I do it? Can you make me feel the breezes? Will I go where you will? Even now, despite my desire to know you and serve all, have I turned very far away from you and all your loved ones?

I will turn again to you. Show me the pale and downtrodden, the weak and the weary. Show me the ones I will love. Show me just one, if one is all I can love.

Thank you, God, for calling me.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Irresistible Love

"The cost of such a radical response to Jesus is already in view when Mark prefaces the call of the first disciples with the notice that John has been arrested. But like impulsive lovers who commit themselves to one another while still wrapped in their initial mutual infatuation, a compelling love causes disciples to follow Jesus instantly. Just as a couple grows into love, and learns the costly self-surrender it takes to make that love continue to flourish, so too disciples learn the deeper conversion demanded as they grow in their radical love affair with the Holy One. It is then not so much the threat of destruction that moves us to convert our ways, but an irresistible love that turns our hearts."

Sr. Barbara E. Reid, O.P., America magazine, Jan. 19-26, 2009

Give me, oh God, irresistible love.
Seduce me, yes, let loose a heedless flush of the skin;
Make my hairs stand on their end from within,
Heating up and slowing down my breath
With every breath you blow upon my skin.

Make haste to make me less chaste.
Let me love you all the time.
Let me love you like there was no time to lose.
Let me love you like I had to lie about it.
The truth, come from my eyes, will never let them doubt it.

We won't have to fantasize or tantalize.
We'll grow down and get up with it.
Let us give the gossips a scandal to handle,
As you give me a bath and I loosen your thong
We will prove it is right when they say it is wrong,
How I warm you and need you and drink you -- feed from you,
As through me you think and you drink and you feed,
Together we'll take all the world to the top
As we bless and we bare and we bleed,
And complete in our death the way that we lived.
Give me, oh God, irresistible love.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


(by Robert Fripp, a guitarist)

Affirmation One

The benevolence of the creative impulse is inexpressible.

We cannot know this benevolence, while accepting that Benevolence knows us better than we know ourselves.

Affirmation Two

Love cannot bear that even one soul be denied its place in paradise.

Affirmation Three

In desperate times, a reasonable person might despair;
but hope is unreasonable, and love is greater even than this.

Affirmation Four

Music is our friend, if only we might listen; if only we can listen.

Affirmation Five

The poverty of our nature is no limit to our aspiration.

Affirmation Six

Although I stumble and fall, each time I will rise again.

Affirmation Seven

Not even death can end the process of our becoming.


We cannot know this benevolence, while accepting that Benevolence knows us better than we know ourselves. In such words I hear this and this. Goodness finds us, and then we find ourselves. The benevolence of the creative impulse is inexpressible. But it is perceivable. Our moments of self-discovery are indispensable to the continuation of creation.

Love cannot bear that even one soul be denied its place in paradise. How unfortunate, then, that we conspire individually and collectively to deny souls, and whole hosts of souls, their place in paradise, building nightmarish republics of invisible men, women, and children.

We do this, most curiously enough, in the name of justice. Is that justice? Is that what justice warrants?

Those who shrink the circle must beware lest they fall outside the circle themselves.

Must we persist in opposing, fruitlessly, the rights of truth to the rights of persons? One may concede that error has no rights, but to undo persons in order to undo error is the greatest error.

In desperate times, a reasonable person might despair; but hope is unreasonable, and love is greater even than this. In this, perhaps, shades of Kierkegaard, and his meditations on the sacrifice of Isaac. And a touch of Paul.

The poverty of our nature is no limit to our aspiration. We are, to borrow a pregnant phrase, beggars on a beach of gold. We are finite creatures who have the capacity to imagine the infinite. This capacity is the source of our great misery but also the means by which we glimpse and touch glory.

Although I stumble and fall, each time I will rise again. A theology professor of mine once said that she believes there are many resurrections, and they happen all the time. Were this not true, I could not believe in the Resurrection.

Not even death can end the process of our becoming. Amen.

Monday, January 19, 2009

While Waiting

Waiting: meanwhile, in the waiting,
Seeking to live.
When does waiting to live
Become ceasing to live?
Fear of death makes us ask.

We do not need to die in order to live.
We have already died.
We need to see how we have died
In order to live.

Fear of death makes us ask if we have ceased to live.
If we answer honestly,
We will put fear to death,
And then God will put our death to death.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


A proof of God: When I feel rejected, when no one can be my companion, when the most dearly sought affections are denied and no one can fill the void because they all have made the void -- then I am most mercifully embraced, then I am enveloped by warmth, then someone breathes into all my pores and heat courses through my body, throbbing at every extremity; and I am loved: at that moment of crushing absence, God appears and I am loved.

And with this love I can love.

The single person and the celibate, perhaps, know this love better than any contented couple, and maybe better, too, than the discontented couple. The love that appears when all others have gone -- or never arrived; the love that appears when life has gone, or never came to be; the love that appears when love is gone. This is the eternal love, the indivisible love, the love within which existing loves run their course, the love that grounds these loves, the love from which they spring forth and return.

There are two kinds of people: those who have a call to love this world to life, and those who have a call to love this world into the world to come. Each of us is a little of both kinds of people, but we are mainly one or the other person. Let no one diminish incarnational love, the love that shows us who we are, the love that shows the goodness of who we are: the love seen in life partners and friends. But some of us are destined mainly to model eschatological love, the love that shows us who we are becoming, the love that shows the absolute horizon of our destiny.

Love is both figure and ground. Incarnational and eschatological. In this world and not of this world.

God loves us, and God teaches us to love. God gives us the experiences of love by which we come to love in our distinctive and different ways.

Human nature is less fixed then we imagine. Sexual vocations may not be permanent. But I think married couples best model incarnational love, while the single person and the celibate best model eschatological love.

There is some doubt in my mind about this, but I believe I am called chiefly to model eschatological love. If that is so, then let me be a loner in a world of absent lovers.


I have learned from the homeless men and women of Boston. I have learned how to be at home without a house, how to discover my sense of place without claiming property. They have "house-broken" me. They have undomesticated me.

But I still need a personal, even a private, sacred space. Communal, or communitarian, space is of course personal, but a person needs an individual space, an intimate space for one's true becoming-self.

I don't know what that space is like. I've forgotten, if indeed I have ever known it. I've known houses of creaturely comfort and felt suffocated and numbed in them. I've known houses of hospitality and still felt lost in the city.

I feel at home without a home of my own. But my spirit knows that if all space is personal, then nothing is personal. And then my soul hazards hubris, daring to claim all space as sacred space when it actually condescends toward domesticity and the practices of consecrating the very places where it rests.


Religious liberty is a convenient cover for spiritual apathy.


Posing for photography makes my soul feel vulnerable. This feeling has nothing to do with superstition and everything to do with the diversion of energies. If I'm at a social function I'd rather not pause my activity or conversation to look at a camera. And I dislike putting on appearances even for the sake of helping others to preserve benign memories. (Trust your memory more!) So do not ask me to smile for the sightless lens. Better to catch me unaware, smiling at someone. But I won't smile for the camera. For the person behind the camera, maybe, and only rarely. My advice to the photographer is to kiss the joy as it flies.


Remember to pray for peace and for all good things. Remember to pray as your parents and elders taught you, as your friends in faith would have you pray.

Remember to pray for all the correct things for which we should pray. Even remember the formulas you have been given, for they are helpful when the words fail you.

But remember also to pray for Eleanor Rigby, and the Brothers Karamazov. Pray for the sun and moon, the earth and the water. Pray for the saints and the prophets. And for the love of God, pray for yourself.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

After the Transfiguration

Why don't I look into your gentle eyes?
I'd climb the mount to see the sun arise
Before us all, but that is not my call.
A man, but not a hero, longs with you.
I'm flinching, for the work I need to do
To see a face attends me in the place
I live or leave. There's nothing to be "found."
Do we forget that love is all around
And sin upon the Spirit long since come?
I need the spirit of a Blake or Beat,
The hip and punk, for all my sight to meet
The cuckoo clouds that shield the poor from proud
Right now. A mystery, a vision? Please!
When I can greet my neighbors, enemies
And demons with a kneel, it will reveal.
A humbler man than I would be less vexed,
Give smile for smile and laugh for laugh,
Then rest in peace because his sorrows find surcease.
Our ends have been foretold. To hear it once
Should strip us free of envy of the ones
So God-gone lucky, Peter, James, and John.
But what do you do when nothing's going on?


This is a poem I wrote on Aug. 8, 2002, three days before leaving New York for Baltimore, to begin a year of volunteer service with other young adults under the supervision of the Capuchin Franciscan friars. This poem, despite its flaws, remains a song of myself. It is, in uncanny ways, still a sharp statement of my personal identity, my religious aspiration, and my spiritual desire.