Sunday, June 7, 2009


I have something important in common with a motley assortment of people, including Alfred Hitchcock, Fidel Castro, James Joyce, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Donne, Bing Crosby, Joe Paterno, Tim Russert, Garry Wills, Voltaire, Diderot, Descartes, various popes and crowned heads of Europe as well as numerous U.S. members of Congress.

All of us are beneficiaries of a Jesuit education, not that all of those named seem to have been helped by such instruction or were especially grateful for it. I like to think it taught them to think and, as Hitchcock was quoted as saying, to believe that good will triumph over evil.

For me, as I state in a forthcoming article in the Jesuit magazine AMERICA, I learned to ask impossible questions about God, evil, and other mysteries and, more important, to see life from the eternal perspective. This, from my Jesuit instructors in St. Louis, has given me a respect for mystery and for the use of reason in matters of faith.

I remain grateful to have been part of a tradition of learning, now 450 years old, that is today more and more being taken over by laymen. As fewer men enter the Jesuit order, the classically-trained, metaphysically-schooled Jesuits of my youth are, sadly, becoming almost extinct.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Fraud and identity

Yesterday I learned that part of my identity was stolen. Because of my own error, I was victimized by a "phishing" emailer who, using broken English and chaotic punctuation, wrote in my name that I was penniless in England and asking desperately for money.

If the thief had been smart, he would have found someone to correct his spelling and grammar rather than write so execrably about this supposed emergency. As it happens, most of the recipients of the bogus emails knew at once that I could not have written the message sent in my name, and so we had a little laugh.

But the issue is serious. The great convenience of the new communication technology can easily blind us to the many new and unknown ways in which our inventions can hurt ourselves or be misused to hurt others because of a timeless reality that transcends all human inventions: selfish greed.

Dante would have understood this. I would like to think he would put my London thief in the lowest (ninth) circle of Hell with the traitors, but it's more in keeping with poetitc justice that they would fit in the eighth circle with those thieves who are punished for all eternity by losing their identity: they are turned into snakes.

As for me, my punishment for being taken in was at best a bit Purgatorial or at least humbling: two mornings spent sorting out email accounts and messages from puzzled recipients of the bogus request.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mindless or Mindful?

Washing dishes, brushing my teeth, feeding the cat, clipping the hedges--all these and so many more mindless, mundane details of daily living can be mind-numbing, even dispiriting, because of the sheer monotony of doing them, especially when we do them hurriedly to get them behind us.

Yet I find that all such tasks, however routine, can be opportunities for mindfulness, for entering fully into the present moment. And when we lose ourselves and a sense of time while performing a "mindless" task, we are (however briefly) stepping outside time and into the timeless present of eternity.

So it is not surprising to find spiritual writers like Thomas Merton referring to prayer as attention to the daily unfolding of ordinary life. Openness to the present moment, he says, and trusting in its sacred value, will bring us in contact with our true selves and thus into union with God.

So when I hear people talk about the weather, or mention seemingly trivial details about their daily lives, I try to see these comments as signs of mindfulness. They reveal the need we all have to acknowledge the reality of the present moment.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Advice to Writers

After more than 40 years of teaching students to write, I should have some valuable insights to impart, especially to my upcoming summer workshop on style.

I should be able to do better than Barbara Kingsolver, who reportedly told a writers' group that the only advice she could think of was to stop smoking and obey traffic laws so that they would live to see their work published.

Well,at least this is more practical than some of my customary advice, which I suspect the majority of my students have not really heard. It's based on my conviction that I cannot really teach them to write; all I can teach them is to revise.

This means I hope they learn to respect each sentence and to take time to polish it or condense it or expand it, as the need may be. I hope my students have read so much quality writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, that they have learned to pick up an unconscious sense of what a good sentence is. This means that they must read their drafts aloud to hear how they sound.

These two imperatives are inseparable: reading and listening. We listen to how we sound on the page in relation to all the printed voices we have read and remembered.

So to be a good writer means, above all, being a good reader. All the other advice is secondary.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Man Knitting

Yesterday I saw a man knitting in the public library. He seemed to be a man in his fifties, fit as a runner, and totally unfazed by the possibility that he might be observed.

I am always fascinated by the varieties of masculinity. Most of the men I know are like me: acutely sensitive to any failure to live up to the masculine stereotype, crippling though it can be, and aware of the invisible chorus of male critics, to use a term by Dr. Frank Pittman.

Pittman wrote a valuable book about men, "Man Enough," which I assigned to my students when I taught a course in the Literature of Masculinity. Actually, we called it "masculinities," to recognize the various manifestations of the cultural patterns that men learn in various ways to adopt.

I admired that man in the library, publicly doing something counter-cultural and being at peace with who he was. What a shame that I could not say something directly to him. . . .

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Silent Films

I am greatly attracted to quiet movies that speak mainly in silent images. "Death in Venice" comes to mind as a film in which the dialogue is for the most part unimportant compared to the mood.

Just recently we watched another Italian film "A Tree of Wooden Clogs," which has no real plot or story in the usual sense. Rather,the viewer, for three hours, watches the passage of time during a year in rural Lombardy as three families deal with the complex process of living. They are poor but seem unaware of it; there is no complaining or bitterness or hysteria,and the parents are seldom cross with their children. At night, the families tell stories and pray the rosary, as one season unfolds into another.

This is pure cinema. And, like "Into Great Silence," the documentary about the monks at the Grande Chartreuse, it takes the viewer into the calm center of lives lived with simple beauty.

Like some music, film, too, can be a welcome invitation to silence.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Talking to Myself

Who am I talking to when I talk to myself? I don't mean talk out loud, but that running monologue--or is it dialogue?--I have with myself in which I seem to be explaining things, as if to unseen students, or rehearsing what I will say to someone. We all do it, I suppose.

The answser has something to do with the true self, the secret self that no one knows, not even ourselves. That is a mystery to be explored elsewhere.

Maybe the question is, Why do I talk to myself? Am I having an ongoing conversation with God, who alone knows my true self? As I strive for more and more silence, I struggle to quiet that inner voice down, to turn off the tape player in my head which, like Newscrawl on CNN, never stops until I force myself to focus on just one thing and thereby hope for peace of mind.

All of this occurred to me last night as I was trying to fall asleep, and I realized again how difficult, and important, meditation is in the evening before bedtime. I wonder how many other minds are overly busy at night, reviewing and rehearsing things that do not exist since they are either in the past or in the future and so utterly useless and unreal.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


When the novelist Anthony Burgess was a young man, he was told he had a brain tumor and would die in a year. Did he despair?

No, he plunged into a frenzy of writing that resulted in nine books, a heroic effort to outrun death and make a name for himself. Fortunately for this multi-talented writer and musician, the doctor was wrong, but the diagnosis prompted a creative outburst. Is there a lesson here for writers, one I can share in an upcoming seminar I am planning? Perhaps.

I have always valued deadlines, although in the case of Burgess, the connection between "dead" and "deadline" is too grim. Writers don't need death sentences to motivate them. Still, I know that the more time I have, the less I do and that having a time limit is essential in getting a project underway and completed.

Although I doubt I would act as Burgess did, I know how fear can be a useful means of motivation. Yet too much fear, in the form of worry, can produce writer's block (a topic I address in some of my workshops). As always, the middle way has to be the goal.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

My feline side

I seem to have several identities. Some people know me as a writer on spirituality, others see me as an editor and grammarian and former English professor, and many others recall my 2003 book, "Writing with Cats," and think of me as a cat fancier.

To our Lizzie, the cat who inspired the book, I will always be exclusively a cat man. I am the one she mainly plays with each evening. As I do so, I recall the words of one of the many authors who were inspired by their feline companions, Colette: "Time spent with cats is never wasted."

Cats, who seem to be born to do nothing, are generally peaceful creatures who spend their few waking hours in what I call a contemplative trance. As such, they inspire meditation and so are ideal companions on the spiritual journey, as well as on the literary journey, as all the writers who have kept cats would testify.

Writers and cats seem to go together; cats naturally fit in bookstores and libraries. They exude calm and add to the atmosphere we writers need to produce good work. And when we read books, we often turn to books about cats.

One of the most recent is CATSCAPADES: Tales of Ordinary and Extraordinary Cats by Patricia L. Fry, a prolific California writer (Matilija Press, 2009). In this delightful collection of anecdotes, Fry uses her fifty-plus years as a cat fancier to assemble stories of all sorts of cats--traveling cats, adventuring cats, heroic cats, spiritual cats, clever cats, and of course all sorts of amusing ones. She includes the story of a working cat, which would seem to be a contradiction in terms; and there is Gus, the amazing, if reluctant, baby-sitting cat. Although there are no contemplative cats specifically mentioned, they are there by implication in this collection.

Fry,like Mark Twain and many others, melts at the sight of a kitten and simply can't resist stories of special cats she has known and heard about. Especially moving are stories of throwaway cats who made new lives for themselves.

Anyone who loves cats will enjoy Fry's book. Most of my cat-owning friends (that is, friends who serve as staff to their cats) will enjoy these charming and amusing stories of real cats. My only quibble is with the "ordinary" in the subtitle since, as Colette herself declared, "there are no ordinary cats." But, of course, this book (which might inspire me to return to writing more about cats) proves the validity of this dicitum.

Monday, January 26, 2009

a new beginning

Along with the cold air this January, we have fresh air coming out of Washington, in what appears to be fresh thinking about society and government by the new administration after eight years of brutality and incompetence.

Much of the world seems to share my enthusiasm for Obama and my hopes that he will do what we know is impossible--a complete overhaul of the way public business is done. As we pray for his success and safety, we must also pray for patience to prepare ourselves for some inevitable disappointments when the idealism, evident at last week's inauguration, gives way to the ugly aspects of political reality.

It so happens that I have been reading about the symbolism of light and how inseparable it is from darkness. Brilliant light casts shadows and, undiluted, is unbearable without some darkness. Human experience is never unalloyed.