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.

In the mid-1980’s, I chaperoned a Fourth of July picnic in Griffith Park for my church’s largely immigrant / first generation youth group. I served for four years as a volunteer youth minister, details another time. The students were Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadorian, and Honduran and to have any credibility with them, I had to learn to make these distinctions or listen to the kids say dismissively, “You gringos think we’re all just Mexicans.”

After that picnic, I had about 45 minutes to drive to Beverly Hills to attend a second picnic at Rod Stewart’s estate. The difference between the two environments is as pronounced as those of Kansas and Oz.

Stewart was absent; his estranged wife, Alana, hosted the festivities. Alana was a client of the talent management company I worked for or I never would have been on the guest list.

I arrived to find Jack Nicholson, Angelica Huston, the Collins sisters—actress Joan and author Jackie, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas, Sean Penn, Dyan Cannon, Farrah Fawcett, and my client, Melanie Griffith, among others, variously chatting in the living room, hanging out on the terrace, lounging around the pool, or ordering drinks at the downstairs bar.

The Stewart estate has a formal ballroom, decorated with stunning pre-Raphaelite paintings which would look at home in London’s Tate Museum; there is also an “informal” discotheque downstairs where we celebrated our country’s independence that afternoon. Alana explained to me, in her distinctive Texas drawl, that the disco had a more “picnic feel” to it and, “Didn’t I think so, too?”

Early in the evening (outdoor fireworks had not begun), Huston and Griffith could be observed dancing beneath the colored lights in the center of the disco floor, not so much together as adjacent to one another, each woman apparently caught up in her own reverie, although, from time to time one would amiably acknowledge the presence of the other. Without warning, a strap on Angelica’s dress broke briefly exposing one of her breasts. As she quickly covered the bare breast with her arms—without, by the way, losing her cool for even a millisecond —Melanie, swooped down in perfect time with the music, recovered the dangling strap and handed it to Ms. Huston who, with casual aplomb, wrapped the strap behind her neck. The two enchantresses danced until the music ended and then retreated, giggling, to repair the dress. Maybe mermaids and sylphs really do exist.

I visited Alana’s home one other time for a New Year’s Eve party which was held in the formal ballroom. I’ll limit my description of the evening to one indelible image: as the clock struck twelve, there was infamous LSD advocate, Dr. Timothy Leary dancing with Vanna White, the Wheel of Fortune letter turner, as the band struck up “Auld Lang Syne,” and balloons floated down from on high.

People ask me, “How do you remember these things?” I respond, “How, in God’s name could I ever forget?”

During that same period I represented Willem Dafoe—the nicest, most down-to-earth actor I ever worked with.

Willem’s performance as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Niko Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ is wrenching and extraordinary; if you haven’t seen it, please do. The film is raw and gritty unlike the pious 1950’s and 60’s biblical epics like King of Kings where someone thought it a good idea to shave Jesus’s armpits before nailing him to the cross and the film’s uncredited narrator, unmistakably the voice of Orson Welles, made the curious artistic decision to pronounce the heretofore silent “t” in the word “apostle”.

Christian church groups were scandalized by The Last Temptation of Christ before they saw it—if they ever did. Both Willem and Scorsese endured threats and condemnation. The controversy centered on the revelation that the  Messiah had genitals—I have no doubt that there are believers to whom it has never occurred that Jesus had them—and is thereby tempted by ordinary (not evil) human desires.

Christ’s last temptation, as imagined by Kazantzakis, takes place on the cross. Christ experiences an alternative reality where he weds Mary Magdalene, and lives out his life comfortably as an ordinary man. He learns on his deathbed that he was deceived by Satan and begs God to let him be His (God’s) son. The dream ends and Jesus awakens still on the cross.

I’ve brooded a lot over the years about the temptation to live a comfortable life (God knows my life is not, by any stretch of the imagination, ordinary) and the unsettling call to abandon it.

One of the scriptures that has always spoken most deeply to me is the story of the rich young man which is reported in all three synoptic gospels— Matthew 19: 16-23, Mark 10: 17-22, Luke 18: 18-23.

Mark’s gospel, the earliest narrative, has a detail not present in the other two and that detail haunts me.

As he (Jesus) was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good. No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall no bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.” He replied and said to him, “All of these I have observed since my youth.” Jesus looking at him, loving him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; come then, follow me.” At that statement his face fell and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Mark’s gospel alone says that Jesus, “looking at the man, loved him.” This always gives me chills.

The man not only turns away from the invitation to follow Jesus but from Jesus’s proffered love. There are few passages in the gospels that speak explicitly of Jesus loving an individual.

A few evenings prior to the retreat, I attended a screening of the film “Ignatio de Loyola,” the story of the founder of the Jesuits (Society of Jesus). I was delighted by how good it was—with the exception of the sequence where Ignatius defends his Spiritual Exercises before the Inquisition (if condemned he will be judged a heretic and burned at the stake); it seemed to go on forever. But it probably felt like that to Ignatius, too.

Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Ignatius of Loyola did not “turn away sad”; they literally obeyed Jesus’s invitation to, as Father Horan remarked at the retreat, “embrace risk, vulnerability and a precarious life.”

To Catholic school boys of my generation, Ignatius and Francis of Assisi were akin to Marvel superheroes. There were even comic books about them; apparently, there still are (although now they are called graphic novels).

A romantic sense of these saints still whirls away in the adolescent recesses of my psyche, not too far a distance from Superman and the Lone Ranger. Hero-worship might not be too strong a term to apply to the projections adolescent Catholic boys (at least this one) placed on these saints.

Mark’s gospel was very much on my mind when I attended the Saturday retreat.


Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Father Horan—he refers to himself as “the millennial Franciscan”—focused the day on Francis’s and Merton’s approach to privilege, racism, violence, poverty and xenophobia (which I had not realized literally means “fear of foreigners” or in a broader sense, “fear of the other.”) That’s a lot for one day.

It’s sobering to spend a day reflecting on how much of the world’s suffering and violence is rooted in the “fear of the other.”

Father Horan, God bless him, wasted no time in debunking some of the romantic myths about St. Francis that have been with me since childhood.

Francis, I discovered, never said, “Preach the gospel at all times and, if absolutely necessary use words.” What he did say was, “Let the brothers teach with their deeds,” which is pretty much the gist of Reza Aslan’s sermon on the Epistle of James at the same venue a few weeks earlier.

I had not known that Francis said, “God sent me brothers; I didn’t ask for them.” I’ve often wondered if one of the reasons Jesus went off so often to be alone (sometimes the scriptures say he “escaped”) was that he needed respite from the company of his disciples.

Most helpful to me was Father Horan’s reminder of Saint Francis’s exhortation to the brethren in his community, “Don’t imitate me and what I do; that’s mine to do! Rather, each of you ask God every day, “What is yours to do.”

Writing in his journal, March 16, 1968, which I happened upon just days before the retreat, Thomas Merton says,

“Almost every day I have to write a letter to someone refusing an invitation to attend a conference, or a workshop, or give a talk on contemplative life, or poetry, etc. I can see more and more clearly how for me this would be a sheer waste . . .  participation in a common delusion. (For others, no: they have the grace and mission to go around talking.)”

Here is a “God shot.” Merton names and affirms my vocation: “the grace and mission to go around talking.” That’s mine to do!

Father Horan devoted the afternoon to Thomas Merton. As he quoted from Merton’s writings on racism and civil rights, I was struck by the similarity of Merton’s writings to those of James Baldwin.

I asked Father Horan if Merton and Baldwin had met and he referred me to Merton’s book, “Seeds of Destruction.”

I found the book on a shelf in my office. As I thumbed through the book, I discovered that Merton had included a letter to Baldwin. This may not thrill everybody, but it thrills me.

Both Baldwin and Merton write with the immediacy and urgency of prophets. There is no past tense. Everything they write about is happening now; the names, dates, and locations may have changed, but truth is truth and it doesn’t change or adapt to fashion.


When I got home from the retreat I found a gift in my mailbox that put the day and, most important, my concerns about God’s relationship with me in perfect perspective. One of my dearest friends on earth recently discovered that I had never read the children’s classic, The Runaway Bunny, and sent it to me. As I read this piece of sacred literature (I’m not joking; it’s inspired!), I was reminded of the 12-Step acronym, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”


I had an appointment with my barber a few days after the retreat. Felix, his name means “joy” and it suits him perfectly, is a Mexican-American in his early 30’s. His grandfather taught him to cut hair when he was a teenager in Tijuana. He has a green card, in case any of you were wondering, and is due to be sworn in as a citizen the first week in June. I hope I can attend. He and his wife have a four month old daughter, Olive Maria. Felix shows me new pictures of her whenever I visit his shop. This little girl will never want for love.

While he was cutting my hair, Felix got unusually serious, put down his scissors, and said,

“Jim can I ask you a question?  It’s about my mother. You know she has cancer, right?”

“You’ve told me.”

“She’s had over 22 chemotherapy treatments.”

I had never asked what kind of cancer his mother has.

“She was diagnosed with Stage 4C ovarian cancer two and a half years ago.” I thought to myself, that’s not possible.

“She has little tumors—the doctor said they look like little chocolate chip cookies. They’re all around, but so far they are staying calm.”

I’ve been being treated for prostate cancer for nearly 20 years and no doctor has ever described tumors as looking like little chocolate chip cookies.

“The problem is my mother keeps making friends with other patients during chemotherapy. She stays in touch with them after they finish treatment. Jim, do you think this is good for her?”

Before I could answer Felix continued.

“She even visits them at home and in hospice. She’s always asking me or my brother or my sister to drive her. Five of her friends have passed over, but then she makes friends with new people in chemotherapy and visits them. Is this healthy?”

“Does she enjoy doing it?” I asked.

“I think it’s too much! Her doctor called her and asked her if she could talk to a group of chemotherapy patients because they’re so depressed and she’s so positive. She told him she could come ‘right now.’ He said, ‘No, no, Maria, it will take a few days to arrange.’”

“Jim,” Felix said, “She would have dropped everything and gone that minute.”

“Does she enjoy doing it?” I asked again.

“She loves it. Why do you think that is?”

Felix and his family are devout Christians in the healthiest sense of the word—“they teach with their deeds.”

“Maybe, being of service makes her happy.”

“It does,” Felix beamed. “It always does.”

“Then why should she stop?”

“You think it’s all right.”

“I think your mother is a saint.”

Ask every day, “What is mine to do.”

SKISS! (Saints Keep It Simple, Stupid.)

“For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”  ~Thomas Merton

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


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 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!