Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have a piano that is new to us. It is, strangely enough, about the same age as the one we used to have, but it’s much better, and after some drama, it lives upstairs, rather than in the basement.

Having it upstairs means it gets played more often, including by me, which is one of the reasons I wanted it up instead of down and mostly out of sight. I thought that I might play it more, and that seemed to me to be a good thing, even though I didn’t know why. I have enough to do, I have interests and work. On paper, I don’t need to play the piano more, and it wasn’t a conscious burning desire, but nonetheless, it nudged and became a reason.

It’s been about three weeks, and in that time, I have realized something: I had forgotten how much I enjoy playing the piano.


— 2 —


I think what happened was that as decades passed and I got rusty, I checked “piano” off the list. That’s over. I was never very good anyway. My personality is not that of the perfectionist. When it seems good enough, I move on to something else, and combined with the fact that I lead life mostly on intuition and response, that means everything I do only goes so far until I decide something else is more worth my time.

For most of my adult life – well, since my 30’s, I guess – I’ve had a piano in the house, but it was that old Storey and Clark, it wasn’t fun to play, I was busy, and every time I did sit down, I fumbled on those unresponsive keys, it was a strain to see the music and reading glasses didn’t help, so yes, that’s what I figured. That’s over.

— 3 —

Here’s my piano history.

When I was in second grade, we lived in an apartment in Arlington, Virginia. My father was doing some sort of year-long commitment with the Department of the Interior. They rented a piano, and started me on group lessons at the public school. In 1967, long before electronic keyboards, group piano lessons in a public school meant a classroom full of children, each with a wood board painted like a keyboard in front of us. I don’t recall anything about it, except the recital, in which I played this, from this book.


I don’t keep a lot of things, but music, I keep. But I didn’t know until I just now found it and opened it up that – gulp – almost fifty years later, I could read the kind words of congratulations from that first piano teacher right there.

The next year, we moved to Lawrence, Kansas. During third and fourth grade, we lived in an apartment, but moved into a house, where we were through seventh grade. At some point during that time, my parents convinced my paternal grandmother to buy a piano for me, and so that Storey and Clark entered our lives (used you can get one for a couple hundred bucks now – that’s why I didn’t even bother to put ours on Craigslist, and let the piano delivery guy take it away instead) and private lessons began.

There was a catch, though. The catch was that my parents were frugal and my mother didn’t drive, so when they looked for at teacher, they looked only as far as the KU music department, and a student who could drive to our house. I don’t remember much of anything about my teachers – I think I had a young woman one year and a man the next. I don’t think there were recitals (which was fine with me), just these music students showing up at our house to give me lessons.

 — 4 —


When eighth grade came around, we had moved again – to Knoxville. That first year, of course, we lived in an apartment, but then for high school, we settled into a house in an area called Holston Hills, in east Knoxville. It’s that kind of hilly neighborhood with no sidewalks, full of 1950’s ranches and some Tudors built on half-acres, set well back from the road. A few months after we moved, we figured out that the woman who lived across the road and two houses down taught piano out of her home. So I started. Again.

At the time, I intuited that it was an odd situation, but didn’t know how odd until later. She wasn’t the most rigorous teacher in the world, but she wasn’t terrible. She had me play Bach and such, but she also let me play things I wanted – like Summertime. I was never really comfortable in her home, and I reached a tipping point when, for a winter “recital,” she insisted I play a duet of Rudolph with her daughter at their Baptist church’s Christmas program. I didn’t like recitals anyway, I was a senior in high school playing Rudolph in the basement of the Macedonia Baptist Church, so I was done.

Oh, and why was it odd? As we learned a few years later, both the woman and her husband were serious alcoholics. They both ended being hospitalized, the kids did nothing with the house, the parents died from their alcoholism, and last time I was there – probably four years ago to see to the sale of my parents’ home – the house was in complete collapse and disrepair, overgrown, a notice of condemnation on the door.

— 5 

And that was it. Maybe five years of instruction all together, spread out over ten years?

Over the years, when passing the keyboard, I might sit down and pound out a few measures of Maple Leaf Rag or Alla Turca. I remember those. Probably about twenty years ago, I went through a stage when I thought I would try to get serious again, took out the Gershwin, and worked at it. Not too bad, but then we probably moved again and life took over again.

Now we have this new-old piano, it’s in the dining room, and since it cost a lot of money and it’s sitting there, I might as well play it, I think. So I do. And I’m not bad. And I’m getting better.

And as I said at the beginning, what has come back to me in a startling rush is how much I like it, and how much I actually don’t mind practicing. I don’t think I ever did, either. I don’t remember practicing being an agony. I say I’m not a perfectionist, and I’m not, but I do want to get it basically right, and for some reason, even though in most things I have the attention span of a gnat, when I play piano, I can play the same few measures over and over again and not tire of it.

Perhaps it’s just a new way to procrastinate and put off work. I think it’s going to be helpful in keeping mentally sharp as I age: my version of my father and his crossword puzzles, taken up with intense commitment in his 60’s. Who knows.



I have goals, and they are the same goals I’ve had during every other return to the instrument. Right now, it’s The Maple Leaf Rag – the first page has been in my memory for forty years, but I never really went beyond that, and now I am, and I want to learn the whole thing. And then there’s the Gershwin.

Gershwin’s piano music – his variations on his songs, and his stand-alone pieces like the Preludes – have always been favorites of mine. As a teen, I played the William Bolcom recordings over and over, and tried my hand at several, but could never get beyond a certain point: too many accidentals, I felt my hands weren’t big enough. Again: not a perfectionist.

Somewhere along the way, my book went missing – I suspect it’s either in a sorority house in Williamsburg, Virginia or a resort in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. So I bought a new one, and am working hard. I started with Rialto Ripples, have almost got ‘S Wonderful down and really really want to conquer Prelude 1. I think I can do it.

So I play. I play during the day when the boys are gone, and I play in the evening, after Michael has his time. I enjoy it, but it’s also part of my determination for them to see me doing and reading real books and making real things instead of scrolling through one more damn screen. And it works. An adult doing this in a household is an invitation for interaction and community in a way that an adult staring at a screen is not. It might be a joke, right? The minute I get interested in doing something…there they are, all around me.  But I don’t mind. I sit down to play, and before I know it, one’s on the futon behind me, flipping through a magazine or drawing, and the other is standing at my side, leafing through music, wanting his turn again.

I also think it’s good for them to watch me take on something I’m not so great at, then work and improve. We lecture them all the time on how that’s what you have to do, but how often do they actual see us at this task, making mistakes, learning and growing and having to resist the temptation to give up?

— 7 —

My experience with piano explains why I am torn about children’s activities. On the one hand, I’m mostly against them. I am famous among my friends for asserting “I won’t be held hostage by my children’s activities,” by which I mean that there’s more to life than weekends at soccer fields allows many of us with children to experience. My kids do activities when they have an interest. My daughter was intensely involved with forensics and drama – but in high school. My youngest son has exhibited some musical talent and likes it, so I am investing in some pretty high level instruction for him. They know that if they are interested and serious, I’ll support them. But I do draw a line, and in the end, a weekend just hanging out, relaxing around home or taking a day trip is, I think, more valuable than most activities.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine posted an impassioned Facebook post after her family had spent a Saturday morning doing some really good volunteer work. She wondered why they didn’t do this kind of thing more? And then she answered her own question: because of sports, dance and homework projects that absorbed every second of their family’s free time and energy. Then she asked another question: what would the world be like if everyone made more time to help others instead of spending so much time watching 4 year olds play soccer?

But yet.

I only had five years of haphazard instruction, and..I’m not bad and I like it. I think I can get a lot better.

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if my parents had seen my moderate level of talent and interest and made the effort to get me more consistent instruction – even as we moved about – at a higher level. Why didn’t they? They had their own problems which dominated the home, that’s true, and I would imagine that’s a big part of why as long as I didn’t present problems – and I didn’t – I was left to myself. Perhaps back in the 70’s people didn’t pursue Excellence in Extra-Curriculars as they do now. That’s certainly true. And it also never occurred to me to ask for something different, or even that there might be the possibility. Who knows. And who knows what would have happened if they had done anything different. I might have had intense music instruction, excelled, and then grown to hate it and never take it up again, even here in middle age, when I am hankering for it and appreciating it again.

We parents do what we can do with the information we have. I won’t say “we do our best,” because we don’t. We just do what we do. It’s what I have done, it’s what my parents did. So I’m not resentful. I just wonder.

And then I sit down to play.

"amy welborn"


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It was a three-day weekend in these parts, and amazingly enough, no other activities to interrupt it – no serving scheduled, no scouts, no piano recital, and no huge school project due (although both had homework over the 3-day weekend. Stop.) – so we hit the road.

We had been to New Orleans a couple of times, but not for perhaps four years or so. The first time was probably seven years ago when my daughter visited Tulane, and I honestly can’t remember the reason for the next visit. I suppose it was to just..go…and I definitely recall some of our activities: we took a tour specifically geared to children, we went to the New Orleans Museum of Art and I left my camera there…but other than that…I’m drawing a blank. I cannot for the life of me even remember where we stayed.

Anyway, enough dwelling on the (distant) past!

I had wanted to leave Friday evening, but there was a @%^& high school football game and since both of them really enjoy that ritual (I usually don’t go…just drop them off)…Saturday morning it was. And I mean Saturday morning.  We pulled out of here at 6:20 AM, both of them fell back to sleep immediately, I drove in peace for most of the time, and we arrived in New Orleans a bit after 11. I don’t stop, in case you’re wondering. I mean… I don’t stop. 

I had obtained the hotel room via Hotwire, and although it was well before check-in time, I wanted to ease my mind and get the proper kind of room – the Hotwire reservation just gave me one with one King. So we pulled up to the Hilton Garden Inn ($70/night), I took care of that, we parked in the garage across the street, and we were off.

We walked up to the French Quarter, and their memories of it slowly started returning. I had no real plan for the weekend, but had tossed around some ideas. The afternoon was really just wandering, with an unfortunate beginning – an absolutely wretched experience at the Decatur Street Cafe du Monde.

We had been before, and knew the drill – I was ready with cash, we were prepared to be dusty with powdered sugar. The line was sort of long, but it moved quickly, and we were seated within about five minutes.

And then we waited. And waited. And waited. The short version is: we waited at one table for about fifteen minutes  – not one of the servers stopped. Two guys who had been ahead img_20161008_124836.jpgof us in line were seated at a table next to us. They were served, ate, got up and left. We scooted to their table. Waited ten more minutes. Finally, a woman took our order…and we waited probably twenty more minutes. For two orders of beignets, a cafe au lait and a milk. What it looked like to me was that there were about three tables in a row that were having problems – when we finally were able to order, it was the same woman who worked all three tables.  I can get irritated at restaurants, but this was the worst.

But, ah well..shake it and the powdered sugar off and move on, right?

As I said, we wandered, poked in shops, nibbled on praline samples, listened to street performers.  I had thought we’d go into the Ursuline Convent museum, but it’s closed at the moment.  We ended up returning to the hotel around 4 for a rest, while I researched dinner. I kept thinking as I did so, “Oh that’s too far to walk..” and “Hmmm…we could take the streetcar there..” and then I kept remembering you have a car, idiot. 

So we ended up at the Parkway Bakery for Po Boys – which were excellent. I had beef because honestly, the idea of battered fried stuff piled on bread is pretty unappealing to me, but I did taste the shrimp and it was a revelation. I guess that’s what really fresh shrimp tastes like?

We then drove down toward Audubon Park and discovered a few homes with pretty crazy Halloween decorations – I guess it is a tradition of sorts in the Garden District, and as the weeks pass, even more homes will go all out. This place was a prime destination:


Evening: Swimming, then I went out and walked around by myself for a while – on very safe routes, never fear.


9:30 Mass at St. Patrick’s, which was just a few blocks from the hotel. We had been to Mass there last time, and I remembered it as a very normal, lovely experience of the Extraordinary Form, and I wanted to see if my recollections were correct – they were.


From an outsider’s perspective, it’s a model. It’s just a regular parish, the celebration of Mass was reverent, but not fussy, the music was lovely, the preaching solid and not boring, and the congregation was diverse, as one finds at any urban parish. A good number of women in veils, but more not, women wearing dresses of all lengths, and many in slacks, many men in suits, others in the southern-shorts-and-polo uniform and one fellow in a football jersey. Didn’t see any of the famed cold-EF-goer judging happening, but did see lots of squealing babies and many welcoming smiles.

(As for the first item in that list – I kid. I hate to have to interrupt the flow by pointing that out, but if I don’t..well.)

Then a walk over to get beignets at the Cafe du Monde at the Riverwalk Mall across the road – a much better experience than we’d had downtown. Bought socks for someone who’d forgotten to pack any. Then we headed to the Audubon Zoo, which we had visited before, but Someone really wanted to see again. So why not? Then out to the Honey Island Swamp for a 4:30 Swamp Tour – it was..okay. It was interesting to poke around in the swamp and to speed down the river, but the wildlife was not bountiful. A few small gators, some racoons, a couple of pileated woodpeckers, which I’d never seen, and a kingfisher, same.

My dream for tours like this is that companies would offer two options: WITH LAME JOKES and WITHOUT LAME JOKES.  Boy, I can barely tolerate the Joking Tour Guide. Cave tours, boat tours, whatever, it is always so awkward. I blame Disney, as I do for many things. My theory is that it all started with the Jungle Cruise, which is actually okay and not stupid because it’s an entertainment experience in which you’re immersed, and the Joking Guide is an actual actor who can, well, act. But when I go on a tour of an actual place that exists and has a character and history I want to hear about that  – and I’ve spent good money to hear all about it and not sit as joke after joke told by a well-meaning employee about how that stalagmite over there looks like Elvis, doesn’t it or look at those fashionable vacation condos (fishing shacks) are met with awkward silence.dscn0846


It did, however, provide a good lesson for the boys in How Your Loud Conversations in the Midst of a Group are Super Irritating and Rude and Really,  No One Cares About Your Life That Much. I mean, we learned all about  the employment woes and wedding plans of the two twenty-somethings also on the tour, and we were, surprisingly, not interested in a bit of it.


The most gorgeous sky on the way back to New Orleans. 

Dinner was at the Redfish Grill. If I had planned better we would have done something different – maybe Mr. B’s Bistro – but at that point, I wanted something sort of/almost/fancy, and there was plenty of room there, it was 8pm, and it was just time to eat. It was fine, and a good experience, but we could have done better elsewhere.

It is at the very edge of Bourbon Street – and before we got there I was explaining to them that Bourbon Street is really famous, but we’re not going to walk down it, and they were sort of asking why, I was hemming and hawing, but really, just walking a few feet in – past two cops on horses – they picked up the vibe immediately, my younger son said, “This reminds me of Las Vegas,” and they got it.

This morning, we packed up. I had presented on option – to go back via I-10 along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and check out Biloxi and environs – I have never been. But after beignets (here), and checking out the cathedral and going to the St. Roch Cemetery (which was locked up) another thought occurred to me: “Why don’t we just go to City Park, rent bikes, ride for a while, and then call it a weekend?”

That was met with approval.

Two more points on the morning – first, J was intent on going to the Cathedral – we were going anyway, but he had another reason. He had remembered that Servant of God Henriette DeLille might – just might be a distant relation  – one of her grandmothers was a Dubreuil (what’s a couple of flipped vowels?) –  and he wanted to revisit the small shrine in her honor that’s in the baptistry. It’s pretty amazing that he remembered that.

Secondly, I had wanted to visit the St. Roch Cemetery because of its ex voto chapel, but alas, despite the sign saying it was open at 8:30, it was locked up tight at 11.

On to the park. A good, 90 minute ride, all around the huge park, with just a few stops, including the Sculpture Garden of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Lunch at Cafe Navarre – red beans and rice to finish off the weekend – and back home by 7.


And now back to work on all fronts. I had one observation at the Cathedral that fits nicely into a ranty post I’ve been tooling with for a couple of months now. Perhaps this will give me the push I need to finish it up. But I do have an article due on Friday that takes precedence, so we will see….

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Seven Quick Takes

— 1 —


It is the best time of the year in this part of the world. Daytime highs in the 80’s and low 90’s , evening temperatures in the 60’s. No mosquitoes – perhaps because it hasn’t rained in a month, it seems. I don’t mourn their absence. It makes sitting outside under that crescent moon, finding Venus and Saturn, the only way you want to spend your evening.

— 2 —

Our Charleston people have evacuated. They were going to come here, but they both work for companies with offices in another, inland city, so they’re going to be put up in that spot for the duration by the company, waiting with millions of others to return, dreading what they’ll find.

Returning from travel, that last mile or so before getting home always has my insides in knots. I dread pulling up to the house. What will greet me? Will we have been broken into? Will a tree be on my roof? A flood in the kitchen?

(Nothing like that has ever happened, by the way. And having good neighbors who would communicate with you if, well, a tree fell on your house, takes away the worry, if you’re rational about it. Which is not always easy to be.)

Anyway, imagine how that dread is multiplied by coming home after a hurricane has moved through.


— 3 —


We got a new piano. Finally. I had the slightest twinge of sentiment as the old one was loaded up and carted away..but really only a twinge of a twinge, if there is such a thing. It was not that I didn’t want to replace it. Of course I did. It was terrible, and my son, who is quite talented and promised that indeed, he is all in with the piano stuff – deserved something better to play. It was just that feeling of letting go of something that had been in my life for decades. My grandmother had given it to me probably around 1970, I imagine because my parents convinced her to fund it. It was a Storey and Clark spinet, which is not even made any more and which, experts agree, was not a good piano.

Honestly, why I had hauled that thing around the country for thirty years, I don’t even know. For what it cost to move it, I probably could have just bought a new/used piano at every stop, and sold it again when it was time to move on.

But now…we have a decent one. We also have it upstairs, and not in the basement. When we first moved into this house three years ago, it was just the path of least resistance to put the piano in the basement, which, because the house is built on a slope, is actually ground level. It just slipped right in.

In piano shopping, I had been apologizing for this, not that any of the salesmen were demanding explanations, much less apologies, but one did tell me that if there is no moisture problem, a basement is not the worst place for a piano. After moisture, temperature variation is the enemy of good piano health, and since the temperature in basements tends to be more consistent than other areas of a home..it can work.

But we just wanted the piano up out of the Lego Emporium and up where we spend most of our time. (Yes, I think Lego Days might be approaching twilight…can it be true?) I had explained the front door situation to the guy at the piano store and he assured me it would be fine. In retrospect, I see that I probably should have taken a photograph and shown him. For when the delivery men arrived, they took one look at the slope of those measly five steps and the angles up past them and said…Nope.


What aboimg_20161006_231003.jpgut the back patio? I had mentioned this to the piano salesmen and he said that no, since there was a large patch of yard that would have to be navigated, that wouldn’t work. The piano would have to be brought over a paved surface – it would sink in the ground.

The delivery guys said he was wrong. They had an all-terrain dolly that would do the job, no problem. But they didn’t have it with them, and would have to go get it. Which they did, and an hour later, there it was.

It’s so much better. My son is really enjoying it, and guess who else is playing again? Yeah, me. It’s such a better instrument, plus it’s upstairs…I’m back in business, and even re-ordered that book of Gershwin piano music that was waylaid either in Williamsburg or Germany – where ever my daughter took it that time she took it.

 — 4 —

Well, I couldn’t put it off any longer, so we have embarked on Orthodontic Adventure #4 for my family. It’s been a while – ten years, I guess. I was going to let #4 Kid take care of it on his own when he became an adult, since the issues seemed cosmetic to me, and not that serious. But then this summer, a couple of teeth started trying to come in…unsuccessfully…and it became clear that this wasn’t just cosmetic. And that I am not qualified to diagnose teeth.

But man, I hate orthodontic practices. I hate the buzz of profiteering cheerfulness, I hate the matching polo shirts, I hate the little fountains and beige tones.

So when I heard that an acquaintance of mine was a huge fan of the local university’s dental school clinic, which includes an orthodontic section, I was intrigued.

And, after two appointments, I’m a fan, too.

First, it’s about half the cost of private treatment. That cost must be paid up front, but I’m telling you – when I walked away from that desk, knowing that the next couple of years or so were paid for, from records to retainers..it was a great feeling.

Secondly, the whole process is very interesting. You have a resident assigned to you, and he or she works under a supervising orthodontist. In the initial assessment, the resident worked alone at first, and sketched out a treatment plan. Then the supervisor came in. He asked, “So what’s your treatment plan?” But then he stopped and continued, “No, don’t tell me. Let me look, then I’ll sketch out a plan, and we’ll compare.” Which is what they did, and it was fascinating to observe the teaching that was going on – and good for my son to see it to, to see that this is not magic, nor is it cut-and dried and always obvious. Medical treatment of any kind is not just a matter of matching items from different columns, and it’s good for him to observe that process.

— 5 

I read two novels over the past week. I enjoyed both as light reading that’s a little though-provoking.

I’ll begin with the one I enjoyed less – The Leftovers by Tom Perotta. Perotta is the author of Election and Little Children, both of which are very good and have been made into great movies. The Leftovers has been adapted by HBO as a series – two seasons have aired (I haven’t watched it.).

The novel is about the aftermath of a Rapture-like event,in which about 2% of the world’s population just…disappeared. There’s never any explanation given of the event, and since we enter the story three years after it occurred, we don’t see the characters wondering about it themselves – when we meet them, they are simply trying to cope, to deal, to move on.

So what the book is about is grief and loss. Really, that’s it. It’s about how human beings live with the reality of loss. What the characters of this novel live with in a very focused way is what all of us live with: this or that person was here one day, and then gone the next. What does that mean for my life? Do I dishoner that person by “moving on?” What about if I discover that person wasn’t who I thought he or she was? Where can I find meaning? How is respectful or even possible to live a “normal” life, knowing that people – including yourself – will someday be gone?

It was okay. The choice to not make the “why” or “where did they go” an issue is intended, I suppose, to put the emphasis on the responses of the leftovers. This makes a sort of sense, but the ultimate effect, I felt, was a flattening of the events of the book. It really was just about a bunch of people responding to the losses of loved ones in various ways, but because the peculiar circumstances are not an issue, there seems to be no reason why the loss couldn’t have been via a flu epidemic or chemical leak.

It was an interesting device to explore grief, but done in, I fear, by a kind of spiritual and intellectual reserve.


Much- much –  better was the quirky novel Amp’d. I won’t say, “I recommend it,” because I don’t say that – people have different tastes, and recommending books usually gets the recommender in trouble from someone who imagines they will be getting one thing because they have an image in their mind of what kind of person they believe the recommender to be, but of course they actually have no idea, and the book is in fact quite different from what they expected, and possibly has swears and drugs in it, and maybe sex. Surprised and disappointed email to follow.

So. Don’t read this book.

It’s the story of a guy – Aaron – who has lost his arm in an car accident and returned to his father’s house to recuperate and figure out what to do with his life. It was funny – often hilarious, and just page after page of succinct, on-point observations. Making frequent appearances are a pet alligator, Cancer Boy and various lost and seeking friends and family members, as well as the fish Aaron is hired to count as part of a ..fish counting project. Also a presenter of short radio bits on scientific trivia, and the content of these bits is simply perfect. You can hear the voice as you read.

I think the best way to communicate what the book is about is to tell you that it begins and ends with lists. It begins with a list called “Things you can’t do with one arm” and ends with “Things I never did with two arms.” The second list is far more intriguing , and there’s the point, right there.

You know what? Everything is better with humor in it. Even life-affirming lessons. Especially life-affirming lessons.

— 7 —

Melanie Bettinelli recommends a children’s books…and it looks great!

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Today’s her feastday!

She’s in The Loyola KIds’ Book of Saints under “Saints are people who love their families.”  Here are the first two pages of the entry:


Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on today’s saint, Therese of Lisieux.  From the General Audience of 4/6/11:

"therese of lisieux"

Dear friends, we too, with St Thérèse of the Child Jesus must be able to repeat to the Lord every day that we want to live of love for him and for others, to learn at the school of the saints to love authentically and totally. Thérèse is one of the “little” ones of the Gospel who let themselves be led by God to the depths of his Mystery. A guide for all, especially those who, in the People of God, carry out their ministry as theologians. With humility and charity, faith and hope, Thérèse continually entered the heart of Sacred Scripture which contains the Mystery of Christ. And this interpretation of the Bible, nourished by the science of love, is not in opposition to academic knowledge. Thescience of the saints, in fact, of which she herself speaks on the last page of her The Story of a Soul, is the loftiest science.

“All the saints have understood and in a special way perhaps those who fill the universe with the radiance of the evangelical doctrine. Was it not from prayer that St Paul, St Augustine, St John of the Cross, St Thomas Aquinas, Francis, Dominic, and so many other friends of God drew thatwonderful science which has enthralled the loftiest minds?” (cf. Ms C 36r). Inseparable from the Gospel, for Thérèse the Eucharist was the sacrament of Divine Love that stoops to the extreme to raise us to him. In her last Letter, on an image that represents Jesus the Child in the consecrated Host, the Saint wrote these simple words: “I cannot fear a God who made himself so small for me! […] I love him! In fact, he is nothing but Love and Mercy!” (LT 266).

In the Gospel Thérèse discovered above all the Mercy of Jesus, to the point that she said: “To me, He has given his Infinite Mercy, and it is in this ineffable mirror that I contemplate his other divine attributes. Therein all appear to me radiant with Love. His Justice, even more perhaps than the rest, seems to me to be clothed with Love” (Ms A, 84r).

In these words she expresses herself in the last lines of The Story of a Soul: “I have only to open the Holy Gospels and at once I breathe the perfume of Jesus’ life, and then I know which way to run; and it is not to the first place, but to the last, that I hasten…. I feel that even had I on my conscience every crime one could commit… my heart broken with sorrow, I would throw myself into the arms of my Saviour Jesus, because I know that he loves the Prodigal Son” who returns to him. (Ms C, 36v-37r).

“Trust and Love” are therefore the final point of the account of her life, two words, like beacons, that illumined the whole of her journey to holiness, to be able to guide others on the same “little way of trust and love”, of spiritual childhood (cf. Ms C, 2v-3r; LT 226).

Trust, like that of the child who abandons himself in God’s hands, inseparable from the strong, radical commitment of true love, which is the total gift of self for ever, as the Saint says, contemplating Mary: “Loving is giving all, and giving oneself” (Why I love thee, Mary, P 54/22). Thus Thérèse points out to us all that Christian life consists in living to the full the grace of Baptism in the total gift of self to the Love of the Father, in order to live like Christ, in the fire of the Holy Spirit, his same love for all the others.

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I had a friend – a saintly friend who died seven years ago next week – who, as I said, was saintly and much holier than I.

I have written about her before, mostly about the time I visited her a couple of months before she died of the cancer she had been fighting for years, and that was finally winning. She talked about how she felt about what was coming, and one of the things she talked about was Purgatory.

I can’t wait to go to Purgatory, she said. To have everything but love burned away. Nothing but love left.

Anyway, this is not about that.

One of the things Mollie used to mention was how watching people receive Communion was a spiritual act for her. To watch women, men and children each receive the Lord and walk away, Christ dwelling within, was something profound.

I get it. But at the same time, I want to say:

Stop staring at me.

For me, that moment of Communion is, indeed strong. Taking in the congregation as a whole, all of us, present in the moment of sacrificial Love, bound in and by Him, I know I’m living in what is most really Real and it’s a glimpse of Heaven. But still. Come on.

Stop staring!

The demise of the hand missal is what did it, and it was no accident. Many of you weren’t there, but in those post-Vatican II years of “renewal,” the anti-private prayer at Mass game was strong. THIS IS NOT PRIVATE PRAYER, they said. THIS IS LITURGY, WHICH MEANS WORK OF THE PEOPLE. YOUR PRIVATE PRAYER TIME COMES LATER.

Stop praying privately!

How that was supposed to work, I never really understood. I mean, even if I’m praying with others, I’m still here and I’m still praying out of my own self, which is not obliterated in the Community Borg..but anyway.

To this end, congregations were told to pay attention.  They were encouraged to be social before and after Mass in the sanctuaries. Missalettes were removed from pews so you could not follow along with the readings privately. The Proclamation of the Word was originally and primally an oral activity, and so two thousand years later, You Must Just Listen as a Community and May Not  Follow Along with Your Own Set of Private Eyes, despite the useful invention of moveable type and widespread literacy. Hand missals, full, not only of the prayers of the Mass, but prayers for Mass and other occasions, once ubiquitous, stuffed with holy cards that marked the owner’s journey from First Communion through marriage and parenthood, through prayers for lost keys and lost jobs and lost children, through sickness, through the inevitability of suffering, decline and death…pray for us! 


 Mass is not the time for private prayer.

Post-Communion time was the prime battlefront. Kneeling was discouraged in some locations, with Standing as a Community, at the Ready to Welcome the Lord became the normal posture. Standing, yes, and singing. This is what expresses our identity as the Body of Christ. This moment is for visibly witnessing to this community and is not….NOT for private prayer.


And so we did. Yup. But most of us don’t sing, we don’t have anything to help us pray, so we stare instead.

Good job!

I’m sure more than a few of us come to that moment with Mollie’s spiritual vision and indeed, witnessing our brothers and sisters encounter the Lord is part of our own post-Communion prayer.

But I think most of us would welcome a little help, too.

Magnificat certainly fills a gap here. But why not revive that hand missal? They do still exist, you know. Or include a variety of private (yes, I said it) pre- and post-Communion prayers in missalettes?

There are, of course, quite a few small, hand-held Catholic prayer books out there that include these types of prayers. There are some good ones (recommend your favorites), but they tend to have a dated, crowded aspect about them – I think the market is there for a prayer book of this type that does not feel like it was printed from plates last used in 1950 and found in the church basement. Not  – let me repeat NOT with “contemporary” prayers penned by a committee, either.

Further, even if the current selection out there were to remain static, it seems to me that parishes would be doing a real service -an act of mercy, shall we say – by encouraging their use and making them available at low cost.

It is not a matter of going all fascist in the opposite direction now. It is about recognizing that people, in those moments after Communion, are seeking to deepen that encounter with the Lord. Many would welcome the use of prayers to do so, and it is the parish’s job to provide them with the opportunity and the means. Buy a bunch and sell them! Why not?

Let me interject another point here. I said that it’s not about being authoritarian in the “private prayer” direction either. What I mean by this plays off of one of my observations about this post-V2 era: how the liturgical changes, intended to bring the congregation more into the action of the Mass, did so by taking away the congregation’s freedom.

In the pre-Vatican II liturgy, all the burden was on the priest and the other ministers. It was their visible actions that defined the Mass and they were to be performed in specific ways, under pain of sin.

If you think about it, what the congregation did was almost irrelevant, as long as they didn’t touch the  Host and were present from one specific point to another.

Which, of course, in the eyes of liturgical reformers was part of the problem: the promotion of a minimalist, spectator role for the congregation.

Swing, pendulum!

….to the point at which the priest can do whatever the heck he wants, but the congregation’s incorrect actions are given the side-eye and finger-shake.

Members of the congregation are told that they must stand, sit and kneel as a group at these points, and they must sing and pray aloud…with gusto! (has anyone ever been in a congregation in which the celebrant orders the congregation to do a Do Over of a response with more vigor? I have) and they will not receive Communion if they dare to kneel and the children must march out for their own Liturgy of the Word, you must stand and march to Communion when the usher directs you to and you should not privately pray because…this is the liturgy, not your private prayer time

Now, in my limited experience, this is a Middle-Class Caucasian American Catholic problem.

When I have gone to Mass in Europe, when I have gone to Hispanic Masses in the US, when I have attended Easter Catholic liturgies…I don’t feel this. People come and go. Their postures are all over the place most of the time. A good portion of the congregation might be doing the same thing at any given time, but those that are doing something different…are fine.

And then Communion?


Which I like. It takes the pressure off.

So where was I in this blog post I was going to dash off in twenty minutes?

The post-Vatican II emphasis on the Participation of the People in the Mass has come, in many places, to somehow mean The Controlled Movement of the People in the Mass.  As we sit in churches  barren of décor, with nothing to read to help us focus and pray, we watch others walk up in the line when the usher greeter welcoming committee member tells them to, we watch the priest clean the vessels, and we wait for it all to be over.

But at least we’re all doing the same thing in community by God.

Prayer happens. It does. But I do think it’s time to get over that reflexive fear of Private Prayer! During Mass! and consider the possibility that some people’s experience of the reality of our Communion with the Lord and with each other, so profound at the moment, might be helped along by the provision of books with appropriate pre- and post-Communion prayers, and the encouragement to use them.

My true, real and deep pet peeve related to this involves school Masses. Catholic schools are about formation. About helping children draw closer to the Lord by giving them every resource we possibly can to help them focus on Him in this stage of life in which they are open and seeking, and in a culture that encourages them to focus on themselves instead of anything solid and real outside of themselves.

Magnifikid is good, but is a disposable and for Sunday Mass.

I would love to see a publisher produce an inexpensive, attractive, but not twee or childish Mass book especially for groups of CatmAGholic children. It would include the main parts of the Mass in English and Latin, the rite for Benediction, and a few pre and post Communion prayers. That’s it. Nothing more fancy than that. Sell it in bulk, teach schools how to teach their kids to use them, and boom. More choices, more active participation than just sitting and watching the first grade trail up the aisle, hands folded over chests for their blessing while not singing “Our God is Here.” Yes, there are children’s missals, but I am thinking about something that falls between that kind of vinyl-bound actual book and a flimsy pamphlet and that is not as picture heavy as a typical “Mass for Children” book. Something that a school or parish can publish in bulk and pull out for Masses and encourage children to use. Perhaps it exists? If so..tell me!

Note that this is not a screed against “how people act in Mass,” even though it may sound like it. Some bloggers do that. I don’t. I stand (or kneel or sit..whatever) in awe of every congregation of which I am a part and indeed, contemplating the diversity of people there and praying for their needs, whatever they might bed, forms a bedrock of my own experience at Mass.

But still, it  bothers me to see all of us – us – just..staring at the Communion line as it creeps up that aisle.

Because it is a struggle to focus, isn’t it? You are curious to see who’s there. You’re starting to think about what you have to do and where you have to go later. Your kids are poking at each other. You know you should be praying, and indeed you want to, for Jesus is here, right now, but you are not a Spiritual Master, it’s hard to concentrate, it’s hard to know what you want to say, what you could say, what you should say, and it’s really hard to know, simply, how to listen, since you know that’s what you should be doing right now, above anything else.

Different people are helped in this moment by different things: contemplating the congregation, the priest’s actions, the crucifix, the art in the church, listening to the music, singing the music, smelling the remaining scent of incense, fingering beads, closing one’s eyes and listening, opening one’s eyes and seeing.

And one of those things that can help are words printed on a page in a small book you’ve slipped in your purse or pocket, words that reflect what others – hundreds, thousands and millions – have found in this moment, in this Presence. It is good to have that book, to open it up right now in this place, present with your own quiet, noisy, still, moving, wandering crowd – to open it up in this Presence, see those words, and join them.

Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from Christ’s side, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me
Suffer me not to be separated from Thee
From the malicious enemy defend me
In the hour of my death call me
And bid me come unto Thee
That I may praise Thee with Thy saints

and with Thy angels
Forever and ever


Dorothy Day at Mass. Source.

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A Birmingham-based writer and acquaintance of mine had a piece about mental illness and faith published in the Washington Post today. It’s very good, and I’d recommend anyone in any kind of pastoral ministry read it:

The Scripture for this morning was John 16:16-24. The pastor read the verses aloud and said a short prayer. As soon as he began talking through his main points, I braced myself for the disappointment I knew was coming. I suspected he wouldn’t take this opportunity to discuss things such as depression and anxiety in the Christian life.

I was right.

Although much of what he said was good and biblical, he didn’t mention mental illness. Instead, he said if you aren’t experiencing joy, you should examine your life and repent of any sin that might be blocking it.

I don’t want to hijack Charlotte’s excellent piece for my own purposes – but, well, old habits are hard to break. My tangent is to observe how this attitude reflects the dangers of superficial religious practice in which definitions of things like “joy” and “peace” have been untethered from hundreds of years of tradition – which means, basically, “human experience” – and come to mean not much more than what the culture-of-the-moment says they mean.

For indeed, traditional, historic Christian spirituality may not have understood the nature of mental illness the way we do today, but it did embody an understanding of the complexities of the human person, accept a mystery of how our particular personalities interact with the transcendent, and provide understanding pathways of how to navigate that.

It also points out to me, once again, why emotion-based religious events are so terrible. Usually I say something like “inadequate” or “flawed” when I talk about this, but I think I’ll just move on and say that gatherings in which individuals are manipulated into a certain emotional state by music, environment, rhetorical tricks, guilt and even personal witness are terrible.  Defining “great worship today” by the tears shed or emotions felt by the hundreds swaying along to your music makes me think, Fascist! 

Back to Charlotte’s point. This is an important one, and I think her treatment is balanced and fair. It’s not, she says, that every word spoken should revolve around the reality of mental illness, but neither should it be ignored, especially when speaking of the practice of spirituality.

Therese Borchard has been writing about the issue of spirituality and depression for many years.

I know someone who read this book – A Catholic Guide to Depression –   and found it very helpful.


This brings another, somewhat related point to mind.

I was talking to someone who knew a younger teen who was experiencing some faith questions. In fact, this young person had reluctantly determined that he must be an agnostic. Why? Because he didn’t and couldn’t seem to feel anything. 

When I heard this, my heart cracked a little and then I experienced a moment of clarity, in which my sometimes inchoate skepticism about youth ministry all pulled together and made sense.

I thought about all of the youth ministry programs that I see and am somewhat familiar with, that my kids are invited to participate in. They’re all emotionally-based. One one level, they’re about the emotion of enjoyment and fun, based on the assumption that this is necessary in order to just get them in the door. Moving to another level, they tend to emphasize other emotions – joy, remorse, connectedness, excitement –  from retreats to Adoration events that feature praise music and personal witness.

What if you’re a kid who searches for evidence of truth mostly through your head and not through your emotions? 

Adults can look at all of this with some perspective. We can separate the emotion from the core of faith. We can understand that for a lot of us, that emotionally-based stage – the affective stage  – is important and maybe even necessary. It was for me, when I was a senior in high school, and was deeply moved and felt an individual, very emotional encounter with Christ at a class retreat at the Jesuit Retreat House in Atlanta. But that was one moment, and perspective taught me that there was more to faith. The holistic nature of Catholic spirituality taught me that this type of intensity was rare, and didn’t define faith – my faith.

But teens?

Most of them probably don’t understand this. I’d say that the vast majority don’t. They just haven’t lived long enough. And so picture a kid whose personality and character is not oriented towards truth-seeking via emotion. Perhaps this stuff even makes them feel uncomfortable. They’re in all of these youth ministry events in which they’re constantly preached at about feelings of joy and happiness as the definition of faith, in which other kids are crying because Jesus is so real to them…

…and they’re not feeling it. They’re not crying. It’s not intense for them.

Does that mean I maybe don’t have faith? At all?


(What helps? Correctly defining faith, to begin with. Start here.)

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A few St. Matthew links for you.

From B16,back in 2006:

On the basis of these simple observations that result from the Gospel, we can advance a pair of thoughts.

The first is that Jesus welcomes into the group of his close friends a man who, according to the concepts in vogue in Israel at that time, was regarded as a public sinner.

Matthew, in fact, not only handled money deemed impure because of its provenance from people foreign to the"amy welborn"People of God, but he also collaborated with an alien and despicably greedy authority whose tributes moreover, could be arbitrarily determined.

This is why the Gospels several times link “tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 9: 10; Lk 15: 1), as well as “tax collectors and prostitutes” (Mt 21: 31).

Furthermore, they see publicans as an example of miserliness (cf. Mt 5: 46: they only like those who like them), and mention one of them, Zacchaeus, as “a chief tax collector, and rich” (Lk 19: 2), whereas popular opinion associated them with “extortioners, the unjust, adulterers” (Lk 18: 11).

A first fact strikes one based on these references: Jesus does not exclude anyone from his friendship. Indeed, precisely while he is at table in the home of Matthew-Levi, in response to those who expressed shock at the fact that he associated with people who had so little to recommend them, he made the important statement: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2: 17).

The good news of the Gospel consists precisely in this: offering God’s grace to the sinner!

Elsewhere, with the famous words of the Pharisee and the publican who went up to the Temple to pray, Jesus actually indicates an anonymous tax collector as an appreciated example of humble trust in divine mercy: while the Pharisee is boasting of his own moral perfection, the “tax collector… would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”.

And Jesus comments: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18: 13-14).

Thus, in the figure of Matthew, the Gospels present to us a true and proper paradox: those who seem to be the farthest from holiness can even become a model of the acceptance of God’s mercy and offer a glimpse of its marvellous effects in their own lives.

This, of course, is from one of his GA talks on the apostles and which were collected in book form by various publishers, including OSV. Back in the day, I wrote a study guide for these collected talks to be used either by individuals or groups in parish discussion settings. Here’s the section on Matthew. Feel free to use!



Speaking of St. Matthew and speaking of parish adult religious education, maybe consider this Loyola Press Six Weeks with the Bible book on the Passion accounts in Matthew:

From today’s Office of Readings:

There is no reason for surprise that the tax collector abandoned earthly wealth as soon as the Lord commanded him. Nor should one be amazed that neglecting his wealth, he joined a band of men whose leader had, on Matthew’s assessment, no riches at all. Our Lord summoned Matthew by speaking to him in words. By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace, he instructed him to walk in his footsteps. In this way Matthew could understand that Christ, who was summoning him away from earthly possessions, had incorruptible treasures of heaven in his gift.

What strikes us about the story of Matthew is the immediacy of his response. Invited by Jesus, he simply leaves his sinful life behind. No ambiguity, no parsing of matters of subjectivity and objectivity. This perhaps is not something we are all capable of at every moment, but it is certainly a response we recognize as the ideal one, articulated by Jesus himself (Mark 10:29) and lived out by people like Matthew.

The spiritual life is a never-ending, fascinating and mysterious dynamic, it seems to me, between finding God in all things and if anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother…cannot be my disciple. 


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