The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met

In the entry hall of my home, in a place of honor, is a lovely, framed, hand-tinted photograph of my paternal great-aunt, Jeanetta (Jean) Hermione Shea. I found it rolled up and bound with a rubber band in the bottom drawer of her dresser when I flew to San Francisco to settle her affairs and clear out her apartment after her death at the age of 99 on Thursday May 28, 1997, the day before my 56th birthday. Written on the back of the rolled-up photograph, lightly, in pencil, were the words, “high school graduation.”  The portrait blesses my home.

Jean died while I was on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco to visit her, which I had been doing every other week for months since she had been moved from her apartment to a hospice. We had said our goodbyes—several times, in fact. At the end of each visit, I would remind her that I loved her and knew that she loved me and that I would return to visit again in a couple of weeks. I also told her that if she felt like leaving before I returned, that was okay, too.

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Communion through a candy bar!

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet Act I, Scene 5

One of the rich rewards of my work as a spiritual director is the discovery of how many of my directees have an on-going, rich and intimate connection with the communion of saints and the communion of ancestors.

Over the years of doing this work, I’ve lost all doubt about the truth of these events and experiences of communion these directees share with me.

I’ve wanted to write about Communion for a while and then today happened.

I was at Staples picking up office supplies and as I waited in the check-out line which is filled with displays of chips and candy, I saw a Toblerone bar and instantly I was filled with the presence of the late Phillip Blake, S. J. who, in June of 1982, guided me through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Communion through a candy bar!

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Meditation Contemplation and Facebook

Fr. John McNeil S.J.

Father John McNeil, S. J. saved my life in the early 1970s and, nearly four decades later, blessed it. He was unaware of our first encounter, but not of the second.

In the late 1960’s—1968 to be exact—my bride Georgia and I moved to New York with visions of Broadway dancing in our heads. Were it not for Georgia I would never have had the courage to leave home (Denver) and pursue my dreams—dreams that I assumed were our dreams. I am indebted to her forever.

In 1973, Georgia asked for a divorce (in our therapist’s office), which completely blindsided me, as I had spent months planning a celebration of our fifth wedding anniversary.

I was left alone in the room with the elephant of my thus far unexpressed homosexual desires. Good Catholic boy that I was, I had never acted on them. Georgia and I lived in the West Village blocks from the Stonewall Inn and adjacent to Greenwich Avenue, at the time, the biggest cruising street in Manhattan. With my hand on a bible I can swear that it never occurred to me that those men were looking at me.

Without the vows I had made to God and Georgia, I was defenseless against my desires and, in no time at all, I was behaving like a kid in a candy store—and Manhattan, in those days before AIDs, was some candy store!

I went to confession and told a priest that I had had intimate relations with another man and I didn’t know what to do.

“It’s too late to do anything,” was his less than compassionate reply, “You’ve already done it!”

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Dreams of Glory

The Lenten season led me to an uncomfortable examination of my life. Not that anyone’s examination of their life is meant to be comfortable. I’ve poured over the classic texts of a number of wisdom traditions and have never found any that proclaimed, “Blessed are the comfortable,” or “Thou shalt be comfortable.” Quite the contrary.

In the spirit of the season, I attended a day-long retreat entitled Responding to Fear and the Crises of our Time with the Spirituality of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton, led by Franciscan friar, Father Daniel P. Horan, OFM—more about that a little further on.

By the end of the retreat, my mind was going a hundred miles an hour (when I open my eyes in the morning, it’s usually idling somewhere between 35 and 40 MPH—ask anyone who has been in my vicinity when I awaken). I had just a few hours to calm down before going to the theatre with friends

I’m not entirely unused to such leaps of culture and consciousness.

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Sparrows in the Windmills of my Mind

On more than one occasion, in fact on many occasions, people have remarked, not always kindly, on the way my mind works.

Several years ago, two close and treasured friends, Penny and James, both experts in language and linguistics, and I were engaged in conversation. Penny said, “Jim, James is able to connect the dots in the conversational leaps your mind makes; I’m having trouble following you. Would you mind pausing, when you make one of these leaps, and tell me what the connection is between the two thoughts so I can follow? I happily agreed and, for the next half hour or so, I would pause and explain the connections, until Penny said, Okay, you don’t need to make the connections for me anymore, I’m following you.

Here, then is, to the best of my ability, a day in the life of my mind: a beginner’s guide to how my mind works.

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Collateral Damage

Some of my Facebook friends may recognize the name Audrey Lockwood. Audrey, a self-proclaimed “male bashing lesbian avenger” and radical feminist, frequently responds to my posts with calls for the destruction of the patriarchy, the absolute rule of women, and the necessity for every woman to know how to efficiently and effectively place a man in a foolproof choke hold. But that’s not all there is to Audrey.

My good friend Audrey Lockwood (she gave me permission to share her photo)

My good friend Audrey Lockwood (she gave me permission to share her photo)

Audrey is a truly gifted poet, a tireless champion to young lesbians and a dedicated patron of the visual arts. She has an unerring eye for beauty—natural and created. She is sentimental about holidays and often wears outfits appropriate to the occasion. Aside from her rants, she posts pictures of octopuses, suffragettes, butterflies, mermaids, exotic birds, female pirates, turtles, and the 18th Century.

Audrey and her spouse, Kittredge Cherry, have been together for 41 years; they met Labor Day weekend freshman year. And that, as they say, was that. They were legally married in 2016. Kitt is an ordained priest and the accomplished author of several books, including Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ and More as well as the editor of the blog, Jesus in Love, which has just moved to qspirit.net.

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Nostalgia Really Isn’t What it Used To Be

My cousin, Michael, and I don’t have occasion to interact very often—weddings and funerals, mostly.  I saw him last summer for the first time in several years at a mini family reunion that my sister hosted in honor of my 75th birthday and in honor of Michael’s older brother, Pat, an Oblate missionary priest in Africa, who was home on vacation.

Michael is a really good man. He and sister, Jane, have been, and continue to be, pillars of strength for their immediate and extended families throughout many heartbreaks, losses and tragedies that would have broken people of frailer character.

Michael and I are casual FB friends. His FB posts mostly tend toward nostalgic pictures from websites like the Good Old Days and Do You Remember the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s? My sister Mary posts pictures from these websites, too. They are occasionally funny, but in no way give me any desire to re-live those decades. Or the 50’s either!

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Cognitive Dissonance and Conversion

st-teresa

In my last year of college (1963), Father Edward L. Maginnis S. J., the chairman of the theology department offered a seminar for seniors only. I don’t remember how the seminar was listed in the catalogue, but it was popularly known as “Can a Thinking Christian Be a Goldwater Republican.” This class had little to do with Barry Goldwater and everything to do with tweaking Edwin J. Feulner, the student body president who was a zealot and evangelist for the Goldwater brand of Republican conservatism. This was a somewhat quixotic endeavor to undertake on the campus of a Catholic men’s college during the Camelot years of John F. Kennedy’s presidency; the majority of students were resonating with Kennedy’s call to selfless service which aligned so perfectly with the principal raison d’etre of Jesuit education and formation: “to be a man for others.”

The key word in Father Magnnis’s course title is not, Christian, or Republican or even Goldwater; it is “Thinking”! Jesuits take some justified pride in teaching their students how to think thus abdicating forever the power to tell them what to think. Evidence of the Jesuits’ success and, perhaps, the mixed results can be found in the footnote.*

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Hightlights For Children, Melania Trump and my Sister Judie

highlightsThe magazine, Highlights for Children was ever-present in the doctors’ and dentists’ offices of my childhood. The magazine was filled with games and puzzles. One of my favorites was a puzzle called “What doesn’t belong?” There would be, for example, pictures of a car, a boat, a giraffe, a train and a plane. Which one doesn’t belong? Easy, the giraffe! This wasn’t a condemnation about the giraffe, simply recognition that a giraffe wasn’t a suitable vehicle for long-distance travel.

Shortly after the election, I re-posted another puzzle I saw on Facebook: Who doesn’t belong?” which showed pictures of three previous First Ladies—Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan, a picture of the current First Lady, Michelle Obama, and the next First Lady, Melania Trump. The photo of Mrs. Trump was a nude photo. This was a judgment of Mrs. Trump, meant to ridicule and shame her and her husband and call attention to her unsuitability for the responsibilities of First Lady.

Almost immediately, I received this FB message from my middle sister, Judie. Judie, like Mary Poppins, is practically perfect in every way. (That’s neither a joke nor sarcasm, Judie really is practically perfect in every way; anyone who is lucky enough to know her will vouch for this.) Among her talents is an uncanny ability to channel our late mother. She wrote:

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The Year of the Survivor: from Katniss to Jasmine

In the magnificent new document, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis exhorts “all the communities to an ever watchful scrutiny of the signs of the times.” This, he says, “is a grave responsibility, since certain present realities, unless effectively dealt with, are capable of setting off processes of dehumanization which would then be hard to reverse.” Later in the document, the Pope says, “When we attempt to read signs of the times it is helpful to listen to young people and the elderly.”

St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, of which Pope Francis is a member, placed great emphasis on scrutinizing the signs of the times as a vital tool of spiritual discernment. As the product of eight years of Jesuit education, I have long been in the habit of paying attention to the signs of the time.

Here are some signs that caught my attention during the December 3rd broadcast of NPR’s Morning Edition.

  1. The median rent for an apartment in San Francisco has risen to $3400 per month. Evictions have risen 175% in the last three years as landlords and real estate speculators evict long time tenants to convert apartment buildings into condos. Many of these evictees are disabled or seniors on fixed incomes. The inner Mission District, home to a mix of working-class Latinos, artists and activists, has been particularly hard hit.  Former Mayor Art Agnos says the city is struggling to keep families who make $60,000 to S100,000 per year in the city and “It’s all but over for the poor.”
  2. Every three years since 2000, 15 year-olds from around the world take a test to evaluate their skills in reading, math and science. Scores for U. S. students have been flat since 2003.
  3. Close to 2,000,000 new jobs have been added to the work force this year, however many new hires are working fragmented unpredictable hours. They are asked to commit to 5 days of availability for last-minute scheduling with no guarantee of work. Instead the employee waits on call while a computer program calculates the need for more or less staff to be called in during the day.
  4. Conservative columnist, Yuval Levin was interviewed about his new book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left. He spoke about the distinction between governments run on principles and governments run on theories. The interview left little doubt that leaders in all three branches of our government have lost sight of the principles on which our nation is founded and have brought us to near-paralysis in a never-ending debate about theories—a debate which fails to serve or support the people.
  5. All of this good news was followed by the Marketplace Morning Report’s discussion of the 17% unemployment rate among young people 16-24. Harper’s Magazine Columnist, Jeff Madrick, a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute noted that while corporations and special interest groups like seniors have full-time lobbyists representing their interests, young people who are “rapidly becoming the most disadvantaged group in America” have no voice or representation at all. College graduates who can’t find better jobs and seniors who can’t afford to retire are filling jobs that used to provide entry-level employment for the young. Madrick suggests that the popularity of movies like The Hunger Games and movements like Occupy Wall Street reflect young people’s growing dissatisfaction with the establishment. He ends the interview wondering, “Is rebellion the only way you’re going to get some justice out of the nation?”  . . . “It would not be unprecedented.”
Jennifer-Lawrence-as-Katniss-in-Catching-FIre_gallery_primary

Jennifer Lawrence as 17 yr old Katniss Everdeen in Catching Fire (2013)

Another way of reading the signs of the times is by paying close attention to popular culture, movies and television.  And this has, no doubt, been the year of the survivor. Dystopian societies abound in which the privileged and cynical 1% hoard food, medicine and resources while the 99% live in fear and misery as they do in Catching FireElysium and most especially, 12 Years A Slave.  Entrenched and inefficient bureaucracies, self- righteous in their superiority strangle others with their out-of-date often arbitrary rules, threatening the lives of AIDS patients in The Dallas Buyers Club and at-risk teenagers in both Short Term 12 and Fruitvale Station. The heroine of Gravity and the hero of All is Lost fight for life alone in the incomprehensible and unforgiving vastness of space and sea. The kidnapped hero of Captain Phillips discovers that captors are as desperate to survive as he is. When Captain Phiilips asks the hijackers if there isn’t something else they could do as an alternative to being pirates, their leader says, “Maybe in America.”  Today some Americans might reply, “Maybe not.”

Although not all of the characters survive, their will to survive is a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

Cate Blanchett as Jasmine in Blue Jasmine (2013)

Cate Blanchett as Jasmine in Blue Jasmine (2013)

The only character in a major film that lacks the character and skills to survive is Jasmine, the privileged and entitled central character of Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine. Unlike the characters in the rest of this year’s films, all of whom nature and the times have made into unsentimental realists, Jasmine clings to the groundless expectation that she will be magically restored to the station she unwaveringly believes she deserves.

Reflecting on the signs of the times, Joshua Cooper Ramo, in his book, The Age of the Unthinkable, says

“In a time of change and perpetual surprise we’ve arrived at a moment of peril that not long ago would have seemed unimaginable. . . . All around us the ideas and institutions that we once relied upon for our safety and security are failing.”

“In a revolutionary era of surprise and innovation,” he continues,” you need to learn to think and act like a revolutionary. People at revolutions who didn=t act that way have a particular name: victims.”

Jasmine and her larcenous, con-artist husband represent the culture of high finance, hedge funds and fraudulent mortgages—the fabled “1%” who manipulate markets, news media and the nation’s pay-to-play political system. Pushed to the wall, they are revealed to have neither courage, nor character, nor endurance. They are rigid and unable to adapt, to imagine a world other than the one they’ve lost. They are victims.

The younger generation of the 1% has no buy-in to the market. They get their news from John Stewart and Stephen Colbert who mercilessly expose the hypocrisies and folly of the elite. They are more likely to read the rigorous investigative reporting of Matt Taibbi and heisenberg-chocolateothers in Rolling Stone than to scan the pages of The Wall Street Journal. They organize through the social media. They don’t watch television: they download entertainment from the internet. Walter White (Breaking Bad), the straight arrow high-school chemistry teacher who, screwed over by the system when he needs health care, becomes a ruthless drug lord is a folk hero. Heisenberg T-shirts abound.

Katniss, the heroine of “The Hunger Games”, along with the protagonists of Dallas Buyer’s Club, Short Term 12, Fruitvale Station, Elysium, Captain Phillips, and even 12 Years a Slave represent the “99%”. What unites these characters is their refusal to be victims; they inspire us with their refusal to submit passively or helplessly to the circumstances they find themselves in regardless of how hopeless and impossible they might be. They are rebels and revolutionaries.

Asked if he was an optimist, Pope Francis said,

“I do not like to use the word optimism because that is about a psychological attitude. I like to use the word hope. Hope is a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.”

In these chaotic times, these movies, most of which are based on true life events, speak to me like signs. They give me hope.

Happy New Year!

Love,
Jim