Saturday, December 28, 2019

Loving the Person, not the Pattern

As I thought about each group of friends who helped us celebrate Christmas, I initially thought, I don't really like their company all that much.  In fact, I was glad to see them leave. I found myself criticizing their lack of listening skills, their self-preoccupation and lack of thoughtfulness.

Then, upon reflection, I realized that each is a good, caring person and that what I object to is the behavior pattern that gets in the way of seeing who the real person is, deep down.

Love, as Flannery O'Connor wrote, is the effort to understand.  And it takes real effort to understand who a person really is. It is mainly by listening patiently, and putting my own agenda on hold, that I can see glimmers of the real man or woman that I think I know.  In one sense, I will never know them fully.  Presumably, God does.

To love another is to forgive their nervous habits, their thoughtless comments, their failure to carry on a real conversation, even their lack of social graces.  It is very easy to hate the person who turns us off by his or her loudly voiced opinions or argumentative style. It is very hard to forgive.

I recall the wisdom of Nancy Pelosi's comment about Donald Trump when she was asked if she hated him.  Many people do.  It is a real challenge not to.

But she said she hated no one. It is against her Catholic faith. Instead she prays for him. This is a spiritually wise response because it reflects her awareness that beneath Trump's lies and insults and obnoxious behavior is a real person, perhaps insecure and immature.  Maybe prayer is the only way to reach that inner person so easily disguised by the public persona and immature behavior.

So Speaker Pelosi, who showed the world that she has carefully reflected on the challenge of dealing with Trump, showed discernment.  She  reminded me of an important lesson about loving and forgiving, of not judging too harshly or quickly. Above all, of not hating.  There is far too much hate in the world, and it takes great effort to overcome it.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Season of Light

As my Jewish friends, with whom I will spend Christmas day, prepare for Hanukkah, I am thinking about the importance of light in a dark time.  Not just this time of year but the cultural and political climate of hate and rancor.

Christmas should be a bright time, filled with hope, a time to look ahead and also to remember, and to be grateful.

Gratitude and joy are interrelated, writes Vinita Hampton Wright: "you rarely experience one without the other."  Well, to me, joy is a rare commodity. I would settle for contentment, or at least optimism.  And certainly love.

This brings me to an arresting reflection by Richard Rohr, who wrote that "Loving people are always conscious people." He means attentive to others and to the world, with a sense of caring, of loving others.  Awareness, attention, and being conscious are equivalent terms spiritually; and, interestingly, they involve love.

Whenever, he goes on, we do anything evil or cruel to ourselves or others, we are "at that moment unconscious, unconscious of our identity."  He means our identity as children of God, ones who are loved and who know they are loved, even if they are alone.  If we were fully conscious, Rohr says, we would never be violent toward anyone.

So being conscious or fully aware is to love oneself and others since such love is rooted in a self-awareness of our connection to others, to the world, and to God.

This is the time of year when we stop for a minute and consider that "peace on earth and good will to men" means that we see that love, the energy that moves the universe, also dwells in each of us. We have much to be hopeful about.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Cats and Popes are Trending

With a new movie opening called "The Two Popes," and a new version of the musical "Cats" being reviewed this week,  Simon Goodfellow is very happy.

Who is Simon Goodfellow, you ask? He's the main character in my book THE CAT WHO CONVERTED THE POPE, a wise, well-spoken cat who speaks perfect English and reads; he even advises the fictional American pope in the story, then offers advice on being calm, taking time to meditate, and staying in the present moment.

So if anyone out there is looking for a gift, Simon would agree with me that cat books make great gifts. The book is available on Amazon.     He joins me in wishing my readers a Merry Christmas and good new year.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

A Painful Beauty

I found myself this week wrapping a few Christmas gifts while listening to news of the impeachment of Donald Trump. I was struck by the incongruity involved and also aware of the absurdity of those defending the indefensible corruption of the president.  Several Republicans referred to his actions as "inappropriate," an absurdly euphemistic term that obscures what should be called wrong, immoral, illegal, and unconstitutional.

The larger issue is how to balance the horrors of reality, and history, with the joy promised by the coming season of light and hope. Or, on a daily basis, how to find meaning in what to many writers seems a bleak existence.

As a former student wrote to me, the serious literature we read (and much of our escapist fiction and film) remind us of human greed, selfishness, and violence. It so easy for readers to be as pessimistic about life as so many writers are. How do we find what music and art often give us (but literature often does not): a sense of being lifted up, a sense that life is worth living?  It seems to me we must place the mind's bleak view of life as empty and meaningless in a much larger package.

As a Christian, I must be optimistic; I must remind myself that God is present in me, in those I encounter, and in the natural world. I must make an effort, even amid my pain and fatigue, to find something to be grateful for, even a simple thing like a blue sky on a beautiful, crisp winter day.  I must make an effort of the will to counter what I know to be the lot of many of my friends: pain, despair, suffering, and loneliness.   And in the wider world, violence and corruption.

I must turn inward to prayer.  I ask for the wisdom to accept my fate, without blaming myself or God or anyone else for my age and physical weakness. I picture others in their suffering and connect myself with them.  And I remind myself that the light of love and compassion invariably comes after we journey through the valley of darkness and pain. Life is a balance between light and dark, and it is a very delicate balance.

I think of the words of Pascal:  "Man is equally capable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed."

Happiness is the product of going beyond the mind into the soul and the heart.

As Richard Rohr has said, peace of mind is a contradiction in terms.  We can never find peace by analyzing, judging, and criticizing ourselves and others; we have to move beyond thinking into the realm of feeling and believing in something greater than our own selves.

It is a great challenge to be in awe of nature, to experience wonder and joy while the world around you seems to be pursuing self-serving ends. It is a challenge to be grateful when you feel sick or alone.  It is hard to be patient with the painful beauty that life is--to see amid the pain the light of beauty.

I would like to think that everyone who says Happy Holidays at this time of year truly wishes each other inner peace and a contentment that comes from accepting both the pain and the beauty of life.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Gratitude and Thanksgiving

It's Thanksgiving in the U.S. tomorrow, a day of eating, connecting with family and friends, and, presumably, being grateful. I suspect that, at least among the people I know, gratitude is mostly a vague, generalized awareness, mainly that the busy holiday season is upon us.  This holiday for many people means an annual ritual of travel, cooking, watching football, overeating and shopping--and nothing more. 

I wish everyone could be silent for a while on this day, savor the moment, and truly feel thankful, especially for the things we take for granted.  Isn't happiness found in being mindful of the present?

Being grateful is essential to my life because, amid personal struggles, political turmoil, and world-wide violence and corruption, I need to stop and think positive thoughts.  I need to remind myself of simple things--the intense blue of the sky between two pine trees as I look out my window, or the light as it comes into the house in the afternoon...I am grateful for the beautiful lakes that dot my area of Florida and the touches of autumn in colored leaves on cool days.

I am grateful for the friends and family who write or call us at this time of year.  I am grateful for those times in the day when I don't feel the pain of arthritis and become irritable or sad about my health.  Of course, I am grateful for a rich store of memories--of students going back 50-plus years, of trips, of family gatherings by many who are no longer around.  Above all, I am grateful for my wife, Lynn, and her brilliance, her hard work, her constant support and boundless love.

I am grateful to have had a retirement from university teaching that has allowed me to write and speak and keep learning new things, thanks to the internet and related technology.  And I am grateful for so much more....

Gratitude is for me the essence of prayer, and I like to think that in each moment when I recollect something to be thankful for, at any time of the year, I am talking to God, connecting myself to my inner life as well as to the community of people I know and remember. It's hard to imagine real gratitude without a belief in God.

And it's hard to imagine happiness without gratitude.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Solitude vs. Loneliness

Social commentators are right to be concerned about people sitting in isolation in front of computers, a prey to nasty stuff. Such isolation can lead some young people to encounter extremist views and conspiracy theories and other right-wing propaganda.

But being alone is not necessarily a source of loneliness.  "A man alone is always in bad company," Paul Valery is quoted as saying, but I disagree with this as an absolute principle.  A person left alone, adrift with ties to family or faith or any other community, can be in bad company--unless he or she seeks the kind of solitude that nourishes the spirit.

Creative people need solitude, which is not at all akin to loneliness.  Most of us need a few hours alone, especially in this noisy, busy culture; we need to be alone with ourselves.  Solitude implies a time apart that is enjoyable.  My time writing requires solitude; my wife, a poet and fiction writer, goes so far as to disconnect the telephone for what she calls "cloistered time."  Both of us are happy being on our own for a few hours reading, writing, or just thinking.
Anyone who has read Thomas Merton (Thoughts in Solitude, e.g.) or May Sarton or many other more recent writers knows that one can be happy, or at least contented, with a good bit of solitude.  I thought of this in my research into feline behavior. Cats are solitary creatures, but they also crave company and seek our attention. So it is with people, especially creative ones.  We need to interact with another living being, yet we also need time apart for ourselves.

Solitude is a precious commodity of the self, something the poet Rilke has in mind when he wrote, "I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other."  So the kind of love he envisions, as a poet, requires respecting the other's private domain, allowing the partner the creative freedom to be alone.

And yet being alone in contemplative prayer or meditation, as Merton and other can attest, is also to be connected to the vast web of others who are praying or meditating.  In being part of a community of silence, we are never really alone even while being on our own.  And we are certainly not lonely or in bad company.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

National Cat Day

Today is National Cat Day, an American reminder to adopt a cat.

If you can't do so, the next best thing would be to get a book about cats, such as my newly published THE CAT WHO CONVERTED THE POPE, a comic tale of a snobbish English cat who finds himself in Rome and has to adjust to life in he Vatican. The real subject is mindfulness and the spiritual lessons cats can teach us. 

The book is available at Amazon for $15.00.  So far, it has received rave reviews.

Monday, October 28, 2019


Iris Murdoch is quoted (in the current issue of "Brain Pickings" by Maria Popova) as stating that beauty in art or nature is a crucial means of unselfing, a word she coined to mean "taken out of herself."

She recounts looking out her window, worried and preoccupied, until a bird appeared on the window sill. Suddenly, she was so totally absorbed in the wonder of looking at the bird that her worries vanished. And after the bird flew away and she returned to her writing, her mood had lightened. She had been transformed by the experience.

Haven't we all had such moments when a sunset or dazzling photograph stops us in the usual train of thinking, analyzing, and worrying?  We may not call it "unselfing," but maybe we sense that our ego is set aside so we can participate fully in the present moment and feel connected with something larger than ourselves.

Such moments are special.  They bring us into instant mindfulness, attentive to the now.

Whether you go to a museum and sit before a favorite painting and look at it, or go to a lake or beach and become absorbed in nature, the effect is the same: you are transformed, transported out of ordinary time and into a timeless present, with all the wonder you had in childhood when you were unaware of being subject to the demands of time.

When we are totally absorbed in ourselves, in that unhealthy act of worrying, we are not in communion with others and with the life (and beauty) around us.  Meditation, in which we empty our minds of self-preoccupation, takes a lot of disciplined practice to master, but encountering beauty is easy.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Hitchcock and Halloween

I have never really liked outdoor decorations celebrating Halloween, but one display in my neighborhood recently caught my eye because it was clever:  Three skeletons with hard hats and shovels in their hands were digging, so to speak; and the display said to me "Skeleton Crew."

This visual pun would have amused Alfred Hitchcock, about whom I've been reading lately.  He was a complicated man with a controversial reputation despite his stellar career as one of our greatest filmmakers.

I have always been attracted to Hitch, as he was called, because of his wry, deadpan, often irreverent humor.  Watching again his TV shows from the 1955-65 period, I am struck by his understated wit and gift for silliness.   His comic introductions to these often masterful short tales of murder and mayhem turn them into original entertainments. It's as if he winds us up with a bit of suspense, then releases us from the tension.

When asked why he never made comedies, he replied, "Why, all of my movies are comedies."

Hitch's best movies--which for me include Psycho, Notorious, North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, and Rear Window (but not Vertigo)--show his talent for combining the macabre with a Halloween-like trick, as if to tell the viewer that the crime and madness is, after all, a bit of a joke--sadistic perhaps but nonetheless an experience akin to riding on a roller coaster, where people enjoy screaming in terror because at some level they know they're at an amusement park.

Hitchcock's combination of romantic comedy with the thriller is a hallmark of his 50-plus movies, or at least the best of them, and highlight his delight in ambivalence, that sense of uncertainty that he instills in his audiences. The worst of his films, like "The Paradine Case," lack the quality that makes his 1946 classic "Notorious" such a pleasure to watch as Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant carry on under the watchful gaze of ex-Nazis in Argentina--and of the viewer, who is, as always, turned into a voyeur of sorts.

But if you want to celebrate Halloween with Hitchcock, why not see "Psycho" again and enjoy being tricked? Or at least watch Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca."

Monday, September 16, 2019

Understanding Hitchcock

Much of this month has been an enjoyable return for me to the world of Alfred Hitchcock.

What began this phase was seeing the 1946 classic "Notorious" again and listening to a commentary that explained the director's unique style, the way he turns an ordinary thing like a key into a bit of poetic cinema.   Here the combination of Cary Grant--elusive, attractive yet ambivalent--and the sensuous Ingrid Bergman and the way they interact is nothing short of perfection.  These two actors capture much of Hitchcock's own ambivalence toward women and sexuality.

I then ordered from Netflix the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" TV series from the 1950s, which I dimly remember as weird and droll; I now find them little gems of writing, casting and acting, full of irony and that dash of black comedy that makes the work of Hitch so memorable.

I then found the 850-page biography by Patrick McGilligan a treasure of information on the way each film was made and, here and there, insights into the complex character of the Master of Suspense, who, the author notes, is much more than this: he is a master of style and of romantic comedy who deftly handled the censorship in effect in those days with great panache and a clear sense of control.

I admire Hitchcock the filmmaker for his thorough, detailed preparation of each script, his attention to details, including the hairstyle and costume of his female stars, his tact in dealing with actors and his overall wit and charm, even though his practical jokes could be bizarre and off-putting. 

I remain fascinated by how this shy, fat boy who always considered himself ugly made the most of his outsider status: he became the master observer, obsessed with visual space and film as an art form, even though his mind was on entertaining an audience.  Fear, of course, is what he has projected onto his millions of viewers, a fear that was heightened by a World War I bombing of London when he was 15 (more significant, apparently, than his Jesuit teachers or being sent to jail for a short time as a boy, a story he changed and exaggerated over the years).   Always shy, he came to love gossip and parties, and developed a comic persona that transcended the real loner and outsider.

McGilligan gives a detailed look at the preparation for the filming of "Psycho," which, along with the TV show, made Hitch a world-wide celebrity; he also gives attention to the other classics I love to watch again and again: especially "Rear Window," "Strangers on a Train," and "Rebecca" (because of Mrs. Danvers). I am still not as impressed with "Vertigo" as most critics seem to be, mainly because Kim Novak's character is not convincing.  She had trouble with Hitch, who adored Grace Kelly and never got over her marriage to the prince. He mistreated Tippi Hedren but in general behaved well with women, remaining faithful in his strange way to his beloved partner, Alma.

His psycho-sexual fantasy life, however, is another story, and the films that reflect his inner life are intriguing; maybe that's why "Psycho" remains at the top of my list of Hitchcock favorites.  Of his fifty major motion pictures, none won major awards, but a half-dozen are now recognized as major achievements in style.  I will always be grateful that he was able to overcome his shyness and become a great director, in part by his clever handling of producers and by his insistence on displaying his droll, understated wit while dealing with murder and mayhem.

The more I appreciate his films, the more I doubt if I will ever understand the man who made them. No doubt that would have pleased him.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Reaching Out

At least three times in the past few months, I've heard someone in business say, "I will reach out to X" to get the information needed.  In one case, the reference was to an official at Amazon.  Is this a new idiom promulgated by social media?

I would have said "contact," since I couldn't imagine wanting to reach out and touch someone at the IRS or FBI.  "Reaching out to" sounds too warm and fuzzy in the hard-edged context in which I've heard it used.  I have yet to see it in print.

I am always curious about how our language changes and why we say what we do.  I wonder about the origin of this new expression, if indeed it is new and not regional.  Maybe a reader will enlighten me.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Keeping bookstores alive

As part of our campaign to keep traditional bookstores alive, we go, my wife and I, to our local Barnes & Noble once a month at least, enjoy a cup of coffee, and peruse a selection of books, some of which we buy.

Today, I was happy to spot two new novels by authors I have long admired: Pat Barker, whose Regeneration trilogy about World War I and shell shock, is a fine writer from England.  In her latest work of fiction, "The Silence of the Girls," she looks at the Trojan War through feminist eyes, specifically, and with graphic detail, at what a woman sees and thinks of the male world of war and violence.  Barker has kept her literary focus on the effects of war, this time seeing Achilles not as a god-like hero but a butcher. Innovative and written with her great intelligence and sensitivity.

The other book is by Richard Russo, whose American novels of the middle class and academia combine great humor with memorable characters. His latest, "Chances Are," chronicles the lives of three men in their sixties as they remember their college years and all that followed.  I recall laughing out loud at "Straight Man" and admiring "Nobody's Fool," and now, having read the opening of Russo's latest, I look forward to savoring every page.

As we left the bookstore, we couldn't help wondering how many more years it would be still standing, given the online sale of books by and to people like me.  Do I feel guilty keeping Amazon profitable?  No since the convenience of home delivery for dozens of items is unbeatable; but when I buy books, I want to see and feel and hold a book in a bricks and mortar store in a cozy cafĂ© with coffee and other readers. . . .Wait a minute: isn't my new cat book* available chiefly on Amazon?  Where else?

*The Cat Who Converted the Pope, a comic tale with a moral about mindfulness, by Gerald J. Schiffhorst, just published this month.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Visiting my new home

When my wife, Lynn, who has a wicked sense of humor, refers to our cemetery lot, she usually refers to it as  "our future home."  So when the monument maker called this week to say that the granite marker we had ordered in the spring was ready to be installed, I asked her, "should we invite people to a wine and cheese--like a housewarming party?"

Laughter is certainly helpful in dealing with matters of mortality, the topic we Americans tend to avoid (except when we indulge our love of guns and watch our fellow citizens being shot nearly every day).

It was a positive approach to death and dying that led me last year to give a talk at our church on "Making Friends with Death."  The resulting essay is now almost ready for publication on Kindle.  And then this year to order a "pre-need" monument for the graves where one day our remains will lie.

I found that writing about my deepest fear was the only way to deal with it, and that talking about it with others was essential. I am not, as they say, getting any younger.  It was also useful to find quotations from wise men and women over the centuries who have, without being morbid, reflected on the fact that, as Shakespeare wrote, "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity."

Now, having made some basic funeral plans and preparations, I feel a bit less anxious. I try to see death as an inevitable part of life and a great transition--to what? To that unknown realm where so many people dear to me now dwell.

To talk about death is to talk about the meaning of life and the need for faith in coping with the darkness. I want to feel comfortable with the darkness, even with the fact that my identity, memory and consciousness will be forever erased when my body dies.  What remains will be, I hope, happy, at least free from the "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" (Hamlet again, sorry).

As the great 16th century poet and mystic St. John of the Cross wrote, "I don't know what lies on the other side, when everything for me is turned into eternity; I only know that a great love awaits me."

I thought of this when Lynn and I went alone this week to look at our new monument, carefully carved with our names (spelled correctly, to my relief). There was no need for a party.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Brilliant Writing

When would-be authors ask me what great writing is, I usually ask them what they've read and am invariably distressed to see how little reading they do.

A better response might be to ask them, "Do you read Anthony Lane in the New Yorker? You should. You will learn what great writing is."

Lane is the main reason I maintain a subscription to that magazine since his witty and literate film reviews are gems. Not long ago I found on sale his book of reviews (book as well as movie reviews) called "Nobody's Perfect."   As I skim through these brilliant essays on everything from The Godfather to obituaries in the New York Times to T. S. Eliot, whose work he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, I delight in the wide range of his interests and tastes, from high to low-brow. He puts just as much attention on the latest Hollywood non-starter as on Nabokov or Shakespeare on film (the topic of one of his longer essays).  And it is obvious that he has honed and polished his sentences to a high gloss, a great gift to any reader.

I read Anthony Lane with (I must admit) a bit of envy at not being a Brit, the kind of highly literate guy who seems to have read everything and seen nearly everything else and who expresses himself with panache.  American critics and actors rarely seem to have the range and depth that make writers like Lane sparkle without being snobbish.

In his most recent review (August 26, 2019), Lane makes a memorable comment about the importance of listening, about how it is the most "delicate of the dramatic arts."  He cites an anecdote from the life of Alec Guinness, who was told by a senior actor doing Shakespeare, "Don't just look at me. Listen. Listen."   What applies to intelligent actors also applies to everyday life. I spent several hours at a dinner party recently across from a couple who were interesting to talk to but whose faces registered no feeling, no interest in who I was; they were not really paying attention to who I was. We shared opinions and experiences but went away as strangers.  They never asked me any questions in an effort to know me. They heard  what I said but never really listened.

That evening, I watched Ingrid Bergman, in close up shots, in Hitchcock's "Notorious" and I saw a woman I could know, a face that registered fear and love and regret and so much more.  She was really listening.

I am grateful to Anthony Lane for mentioning this topic in his typically thoughtful review, and I am grateful to writers like him who make the ordinary (movie review) into something special, a work of art in itself.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Home Movies: A Manifesto about Subtitles

Like many of our friends, we are fans of Netflix and enjoy watching recent and not-so-recent films at home.

The only problem I have has nothing to do with Netflix but with the DVD producers, who provide subtitles so small that they are mostly useless.

Last night, we watched "The Aftermath," set in post-war (1945) Germany. Though an English-language movie, it of course contains dialogue in German, some of it important but none of it intelligible to us since the small white subtitles were of no use.  The week before, we had an foreign film with white subtitles against snowy scenes and white backgrounds: we had to return the video, unwatched.  This is a common problem with a simple remedy.

There should be an industry standard requiring that all subtitles be done in yellow, in sizeable type. For some reason, most of the credits in contemporary movies are done in what I call an elegantly minimalist style: small and narrow, perhaps fine on the big screen but certainly not created with the home viewer in mind.

I hope that, in putting this issue "out there," someone will know whom to contact to make proper subtitles on DVD movies a reality.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Cats, books, and editing

The sequel, of sorts, to my 2003 book, "Writing with Cats," will at last be published this week.  After six weeks of editing and formatting and working with my designer, and interfacing with the printer and doing technical things I didn't know existed, at last the process is complete.

Writing THE CAT WHO CONVERTED THE POPE was great fun (and those who've seen the  cover love it), but fussing with the details of online publication is not for sissies. I was amazed that, after reading the final text six or seven times, my wife and editor, Lynn, found three typos; after I made those changes, but after the printing began, I found another error (word missing).  @#!!  Howl, howl.....

Now I am asking friends to spread the word via social media and look forward to local book signings in Oct. and Nov. before I order a second (corrected yet again) edition.

Taking a break from producing this book, I turned to some internet reading and at once encountered the kind of recurring error that boggles my mind: educated people who think the plural of life is LIFE'S....Why is it that even writers with college degrees can 't master the apostrophe? They can deal with algorithms and ibuprofen and countless other scientific names, but the humble mark of punctuation that shows possession (Jack's book) is beyond reckoning.

Today on the internet I saw the word "shes": the writer meant she's or she is. Here the apostrophe is used for a contraction, to signal a missing word. But it is NEVER used to form the plural--except (there is always an exception) in those rare cases when we have the option of pluralizing initials: "know your ABC's" or "three M.D.'s"

My plea to the world: do not add -s to words to indicate plural; just add an -s (or -es, if needed) to most words: Book, books; box, boxes.

But having learned in completing my new book that having three sets of eyes is often not enough to detect errors, I vow to be more tolerant of bad editing (and the speedy writing that leads to it) and smile and carry on.

My other request is that anyone who wants a laugh, even if they don't like cats, or anyone who wants a reminder abut the need for mindfulness and calming silence should rush to and look for THE CAT WHO CONVERTED THE POPE.  You don't have to be Cat-lick to love it.  To dog lovers, I say: cat books make great gifts.

Now  I will give you an idea of the back of the book:

The great thing about cats is that they combine dignity with comicality”—T. S. Eliot

           The great thing about Gerald Schiffhorst’s new book--


      --is that it is both amusing and spiritual, with lessons about mindfulness for today’s busy readers, whether they’re “Cat-licks” or not.


          In this book by the author of Writing with Cats, Professor Gerald Schiffhorst shows why cats are models of mindfulness.  The story of a fictional Pope and his unlikely feline adviser, Simon Goodfellow, reveals what “Cat-licks” can teach us, and the Guide to Feline Spirituality explains why silence and meditation are important in an overly busy, noisy, stressful world.                                                                                                                                 

“I loved Simon Goodfellow’s wanderings, but his ponderings about being quiet and calm are the best part of this enjoyable book.” --Kurt Navratil, Roanoke, VA

“The author of this delightful book certainly knows how a cat’s mind works.”—Cynthia Gerken, Winter Park, FL

2019              $15                        ISBN 978-0-9745531-1-15

Tuesday, July 16, 2019


My new book is an amusing story about a cat at the Vatican, but it is also a guide to what we can learn from cats about mindfulness and meditation in a busy, noisy world.   More details to follow.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Fed up with the Church

I capitalize Church partly out of habit, partly to signify that I refer to Holy Mother the Church, as Catholics once referred to their often unholy community of believers. Today, as bishops are found guilty either of predatory crimes and coverups or worldliness or moral blindness, it is inevitable that many within the church should be critics. Richard Rohr in his current series on prophets ("Daily Meditations")reminds us that criticizing the church is "being faithful to the very clear pattern set by the prophets and Jesus" himself. We criticize what we love and want to improve; this is very different from hateful attacks. What I've read lately about the hierarchy are honest and helpful critiques. Elizabeth Scalia in America (8 May) calls herself a "mad, fed-up Catholic." She refers to the presence of too many spoiled princes and too few true servants, in other words, an institution crippled by clericalism, in which laypeople still have a tiny role. She writes, I think, as a prophet. So does Margaret Renkl in the New York Times (1 July), who reminds us of the primacy of the informed conscience. When a bishop (as recently in Indianapolis) demands that all teachers in Catholic schools be considered "ministers" and therefore forbidden to marry those they choose (such as same-sex partners) and when such a bishop fires these well-qualified gay teachers, many thinking faithful might well object. Obedience to bad morality is not required. Renkl reminds us what is often overlooked: the principle that says Catholics should be informed of church teachings, study them, listen to the arguments and pray for discernment goes back to Thomas Aquinas and has been re-affirmed by Pope Francis. This process might well result in our respectful disagreement with the official teaching, which is often the case in sexual matters about which the celibate clergy are often unenlightened. She does not say this principle of the "primacy of the informed conscience" was also re-affirmed by the Second Vatican Council, which conservatives in the church tend to minimize. Do these and many, many other upset and angry Catholics belong outside the church? No! Our tradition has always thrived on conflict and respectful dissent. To leave the church and go it alone is to cater to the cult of individualism. We need to be part of something larger than ourselves. Again, Rohr comes to our aid: We got the idea of church, he says, from the Jews who taught us that we need a kind of collective good that unites us, strengthens us, transforms us. Because "there is no way that we as individuals can stand alone against corporate evil or systemic sin." So for individuals to say that the church is guilty of corporate evil and systemic sin is a duty, based on fact, not a heresy; it is part of the prophetic tradition and is a sign of health, the first step, perhaps, in healing. Now others must join these individuals and demand change.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Call Me by My Name

Perhaps because I have a difficult last name as well as an academic title, many people I know say 'Hello' but don't call me by name. For some, it might be a habit, a sign of shyness, or an indication of carelessness. In most doctors' offices, which are places of some intimacy where my private life is revealed, I am very rarely called anything. I call it impersonal personal care and try to laugh it off. How different the personal greeting given to dogs and cats when they go to the vet. When I am called 'Jerry,' I am pleased because it is a sign of affection; it is the name my parents gave me. It is my identity. When someone calls me by name, I am grateful that they have remembered who I am; they are saying, 'You matter.' Not to call me by any name, first or last, with or without a prefix (such as Professor, Mr., Dr.) denies me a certain basic dignity. I try my best always to remember the names of those I meet and, if I have forgotten them, to ask the person to remind me. It's important.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Cats, books and forgiveness

I have neglected my blog lately, mainly because of I am finishing a new book about cats, specifically, a sequel to my "Writing with Cats" (2003). I am picking up the theme of feline spirituality from that earlier production--of the cat as a model of mindfulness--and going a bit further, having fun creating a fictional story as well as an essay that I hope will be entertaining as well as enlightening.

So, as I watched the 2018 movie last night, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" I was glad to see that the main character, an unhappy New York writer down on her luck, has a cat.

What interested me in this film was the way a totally repellent, anti-social character, whose anger, sloppiness and alcoholism make her a totally unpleasant person, nevertheless comes across as a believable, almost sympathetic character.  We can't feel sorry for the abrasive Lee Israel, on whose life the story is based, but because of the intelligent screenplay and the memorable performance by Melissa McCarthy, we tend to care about this lonely woman, who turns to literary forgery to make ends meet. She doesn't turn us off the way she turns most people off. We sense the cause of her grouchiness.

Can we forgive this crooked, abrasive woman?  Well, we can forgive the character McCarthy plays so well: she is lonely and very human and worth our attention.  This is a book lover's movie, a New York movie, a cat lover's movie and a very original piece of work.

Friday, March 1, 2019

When pain becomes suffering

In recent years, after feeling strong and healthy for much of my life, I find myself beset with daily head and neck pains (arthritic) as well as the new and unwelcome thing called vertigo, which I hope will pass. It is very easy for me to worry about these ailments, to dread a future that limits me in various ways, and to feel sorry for myself.

Of course, I know others, both young and old, have greater physical burdens, but it's easy to feel uniquely singled out for suffering and want to cry out, "Why me, O God?"  In being angry and irritable, I become emotionally like a child and mentally convinced that no one can understand, or care about, how I feel--not even my dear, devoted wife and my many friends.

As I think about the old saying, "pain is inevitable, suffering optional,"  I find myself with the daily challenge not to feel isolated with my  problems. I think of a line from a Rilke poem, "no feeling is final; just keep going." To be aware of others I know with similar issues and to keep them mentally in mind, in prayer, helps me feel less alone and thus able to keep suffering at bay.  I also make an effort to be grateful for the good things I find in each day: the blue skies, the flowering trees, the music I hear, the voices that comfort or amuse or inform me.  And I look for creative ways to distract myself from self-pity and loneliness.

I will continue to have pain, but I don't need to suffer, which has to do with feeling alone, abandoned. Even Jesus on the cross cried out, "Father, why have you abandoned me?"  This is a universal cry of a heart that feels unloved. The challenge for a person of faith is to be mindful of connectedness.  Faith is essentially a matter of the heart, of feelings, which always trump theology and rational thought.

Richard Rohr, in his Daily Meditations, is my chief spiritual guide, reminding me that we are never truly alone but connected to the Great Vine (Christ): we are the branches (John 15:1-5). In his book THINGS HIDDEN, he goes so far as to say, "Your life is not about you; you are about Life!" He means we are not isolated individuals but part of creation, with its dark and light aspects,  and we are linked both to the natural world and to the human community.  "Someone else is living in and through us. We are part of a much Bigger Mystery."  This someone else is the Christ mystery, the presence of God in all of creation, a reality, he says, that's not limited to Christians.

We are never truly alone, except in our minds. Negative thoughts can destroy us, as we see in the rise in depression and suicide. Too many young people feel disconnected from their families, isolated, unloved.

Echoing what Tolstoi says in his great novella, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," Rohr says suffering comes from our denial of and resistance to pain, our sense that it is unjust and wrong.  We have to see our physical problems as part of the great cycle of life and death and rebirth.  We have to see pain as natural, as inevitable, as something that might lead to healing or transformation, the kind Ivan experiences in the final moments of his life. What redeems pain and suffering, we see in that story, is being loved.

I find the sharing with my friends who are undergoing various health challenges a comfort akin to love. In talking about our mutual problems, we are aware of being linked in a loving understanding, and we feel less alone.

To my agnostic/atheistic friends, who approach life through reason and say that life makes no sense, I want to scream, "It's all about feelings!"  Faith comes from within the heart, not the head.

Rabbi Harold Kushner has written, "Suffering in itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way we respond to it."  The great spiritual challenge of my life is to respond to pain and suffering with courage, with patience, always aware that I am not alone.  I imagine myself falling back into the arms of a loving God; in this way, I feel that, even amid pain, I am not choosing to suffer.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Getting it Right: Catholic Sexuality

I don't expect a major breakthrough from the upcoming Vatican summit on sexual abuse.  The issues are too serious and complex, the time too short, the expectations too high.

Clearly, major changes in the priesthood and its culture are needed to prevent the recurring scandals of priests raping women and boys, of fathering children, of hiding their gay lives, of covering up abuses under the convenient cloak of clerical secrecy. It's impossible to read about the private lives of clergy without feeling great sadness for the loneliness many experience.

If married priests were allowed to serve, if men were ordained with an option for the celibate life, if women were ordained as deacons and given more authority in decision making at every level, if more decisions were made by locally elected bishops, if gay people and couples in the church were welcomed openly, if seminaries were longer hothouses of emotionally immature and sexually inexperienced young men, then real change might happen.

But this is asking a whole lot. It assumes an openness to sexuality that often eludes people in many areas of life. It assumes tackling the rigid doctrines defended by the Vatican hierarchy. It assumes a strength and wisdom to reform the church at its core that few people, not even Francis for all his strengths, can muster. 

The late Gary Gutting, in a 2013 article on being a Catholic, while noting that Catholicism has been a great source of good and love in the world, writes: "I do not see how the hierarchy's rigid strictures on sex and marriage follow from the ethics of love."  As to how traditional doctrine can change, I am reminded of what Richard Rohr often says: Jesus did not teach doctrine but practice; love is not about belief but practice.

A total revolution is needed to reform what Pope Francis has often criticized: the clerical culture with its hypocrisies daily apparent in the media. I pray that, very soon, meaningful changes in keeping with the spirit of Vatican II will finally prevail.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Looking at little things

My reading, mostly online, recently turned up some revealing, often highly amusing examples of the dictum that truth is often found buried in details, that little things reveal a lot.

1.   In today's New York Times, the Opinion writer Gail Collins, who is gifted at finding an amusing perspective on the daily news, writes about guns and gun control.  At one point, she wonders why people "leave [guns] laying around the house."   The use of laying instead of lying here seems to reflect either the fact that the editor of the Times was careless, or, more likely, that the accepted standard for this often confused word has shifted:  "to lay" used to mean "to put something down" (it was followed by an object) whereas to lie meant to recline, to rest (oneself). Standards are set mainly by writers and editors of major publications like the Times, not by grammarians.

I often used to say to my doctor when he told me to "lay down" to be examined, that I will "lie down, thank you," and thereby lighten the mood with a distracting bit of English professorism.   I've now abandoned noting this distinction; even the most educated people seem to ignore the difference between lie and lay; I often find people laying down on the sofa in books and articles, especially when the tone is conversational, indicating a grammatical change akin to the shift from shall (still used in England) to will or to the rare use of whom, which now sounds very formal. All of this shows, of course, that language is constantly in flux, that there are no fixed rules, only conventional standards.

2.   Who knew that George Washington, father of our country, was an early cultivator of hemp (cannabis) who advised farmers in 1794 (long before it was outlawed), "make the most you can of the hemp and sow it everywhere."  This comes courtesy of Jeff Kacirk's "Forgotten English," a daily compilation of arcane historical lore.  His source is an 1844 Farmer's Encyclopedia, which recommends that the "fine oil" from hemp seeds is effective in expelling vermin from cabbage patches and discouraging caterpillars.   I'm glad that cannabis is now legal, more or less, and that its uses are so many and varied.