Greg

Communion of Saints

In my teens, I discovered a poet named Gregory Orr when my friend loaned me her copy of his New and Selected Poems.  I read constantly, usually books from the library, but this book wouldn’t accrue fines if I kept it for a while, and I really loved it.  It was the first book I ever loved by a living poet.  I loved the weird photograph on the front of wax candles in the shapes of a human heart and two arms, hanging outside of a candle shop.  I loved the poems between the red covers, in which a poet flies in a small aircraft and opens up an egg to find his grandmother’s jade ring inside.  I bought as many of Orr’s books as I could find.  My favorite used bookstore owner, a tough, smart man who was formerly a super in Manhattan, flipped one of his books to expose the author photo on the back cover.  “Doesn’t he look like the most romantic gypsy?” he asked admiringly.  I had to admit that he did.

Once at college, I took an Introduction to Poetry course, then applied to take an intermediate poetry class with The Romantic Gypsy.  I typed up my poems and put them in his mailbox as I’d been instructed to do.  I hoped I might be accepted to his course, but I wasn’t sure it would work out.  Several days later, I came home to a message on my answering machine.  “Hello, this is Professor Orr,” he began.  I was in.

I remember the first days of class well: how much we all wanted to impress him, how foolish people sometimes looked when we tried.   Fortunately, Greg never laughed at our pretensions.  He had thought a great deal about poetry–he’d written his own textbook for our class, which we bought at the copy shop and read dutifully every week.  We all knew his life was full of personal tragedy–the hunting accident when he killed his brother, the early death of his mother–and because he spoke slowly, it seemed more like he was thinking out loud than lecturing, most of the time.  But he had a delightful, delighted smile and a sideways way of writing on our poems–his comments sometimes snaked down the side of the page.  They were spare but powerful.  I treasured them in the way I might have treasured love letters–except these were more sacred.

I took his class several times, and it got even more fun as the years went on, especially when I took the adult education classes that city residents could attend.  There I was surrounded by law students and graduate students and even some hippie women who seemed to be part of our local Sufi community.  These folks really wanted to write, and Greg validated what we did every week.  He was clear and kind, thoughtful of what we were attempting to do.  He seemed to accept anything we brought to the table, even when Rahima brought in a terrifying poem about getting a cockroach stuck in her ear canal and practicing zikr to keep from freaking out as she drove to the doctor.

Fifteen years after I graduated, I went back to visit him.  I had been in touch with him intermittently, and had attended his readings in the city where I now lived, but going back to my hometown, I had always been too shy to meet up with him.  This time, though, I’d been invited back to campus, so I stopped by the department and left him a note.  He taped up a response to his door, directing me to meet him just after his class.

When we met, he looked the same, although his hair was grey now instead of the dark brown it used to be.  He still had his handlebar mustache and his beautiful, wry smile.  He remembered me, which I expected, but he also remembered my college poems, which I did not expect.  He asked me about my current work, suggested a few places which might publish my writing, and, when I told him I was writing about St. Francis, asked about the Giotto frescoes in the basilica in Assisi.  He had examined them carefully enough to know that Giotto had left out an important episode in Francis’s life, the moment when he embraced the leper.  Greg still took me seriously after so much time apart, and I remembered how supportive he had been fifteen years before, when I had showed up to this same office early in the morning after my overnight shift, bearing purple morning glories and asking him about graduate school.

Teachers don’t always know their impact on their students, and students don’t always reflect on the importance of their teachers, but I am certain that if I had never been Greg Orr’s student, my life would have gone in a completely different direction.  Even now, when I pull out his books from my bookshelf, I can still feel the excitement of being a teenager, reading those poems, and listening to that gentle voice on my answering machine, telling me that someone who could really write felt that I might have something important to say.

Portrait of Chayo as St. Jude Thaddeus

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I never set out to write a book about the saints.  I was a Catholic convert at 37, after a long struggle with discernment which began in my early twenties.  I had never been baptised, never belonged to groups, religious or otherwise—even my friends often didn’t know each other.  Over the years it seemed more and more important to be part of something bigger, and the Catholic church, as I grew to understand it, drew me in.  I traveled a fair amount—to Mexico, India, the Czech Republic, and then in a period of very few years, to Canada, Peru, Spain, Morocco, and repeatedly, back to Mexico, sometimes several times a year.  I usually began and ended my travels in Mexico City, the Districto Federal, which its citizens refer to as D.F.

I usually stayed with friends there, and these friends had a remarkable cook named Chayo.  During my first visit, when I was 28, Chayo was introduced to me by Clementina, the matriarch of the family.  She told me that Chayo had given her own kidney to her son when he was in dire medical condition.  When I met her, Chayo was a little reserved, but soon she opened up, usually with some surprising statement out of nowhere.  When I was growing up, I was taught that only criminals get tattoos, but I thought for a long time about getting a stem of flowers right here behind my ear.  Or Ugh.  That picture of me is terrible.  Give it to the robbers.  She’d tell me horrific cautionary stories about babies who got their toes chewed by rats in the slums of Mexico City, or she could repeat a gruesome joke about the earthquake, its punchline a phrase from a children’s song: A hand here, a foot there…

I can feel already that I’m giving you some of the wrong details.  Her toughness was real, but she wasn’t hardened—Chayo radiated gratitude.  She was always singing, with the radio, by herself, sweeping up the living room.  She wasn’t just cheerful; she seemed deeply contented.  It surprised me when she admitted that, as a girl, she had been very talented at drawing and drafting and had wanted to be an architect.  Instead, she had chosen a life of work in the homes of wealthier people.  She never appeared dissatisfied or regretful.  She had to work hard, coming to work from the North on the bus in the early morning chill, wrapped in a crocheted shawl, cooking and cleaning before most people had woken up.   She was good at her job, proud of her food, loved and respected by the people she worked for, and she always made time to teach me how to make one thing or another.  And she shared with me her devotion to Saint Jude Thaddeus, who had helped her when her son’s health was failing.

One day, near the end of my trip, Clementina announced that Chayo was to take the day off from cooking and spend it with me at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  She navigated our trip to the North of the city by communal van, subway, and a brief walk through one of the city markets that springs up at every corner in D.F.  She told me that I’d recognize the Basilica from a distance: it’s the one that looks like a big stupid circus tent, she said.  She was right—it wasn’t exactly an architectural triumph—but we rode the conveyer belt under the miraculous tilma of Juan Diego together, and visited the old cathedral, now sinking into the ground and filled with ex voto paintings by cured postulants.  It seemed silly, though somehow quaint, to get a photo taken on a donkey, as people were doing on the hillside leading up to the smallest chapel.  We walked up the hill to that chapel, and there both Chayo and I stopped to pray.

Praying can be such a private thing—and for each of us, it was—but somehow, I felt that the barriers between us, of language, nationality, religious upbringing, had somehow softened a little—that Chayo recognized in me the rootless quality that made some kind of home so important to me, and that I understood more about her solitary experience of belief.  I don’t know if that day affected her feelings about me, but by the end of the trip, she was referring to me as her “American daughter.” It  took another decade before I committed to my conversion, but I have always remembered her own example of faith as a model for me.

It was only later that I started to think of Chayo as a version of her favorite saint: the patron saint of impossible causes.

 

Portrait of Chayo as St. Jude Thaddeus

In a green apron, Chayo stirs chayote soup,
holding her palm taut so she can daub a taste there

to check the salt. Her skin doesn’t feel the heat
though if I try the same I blister myself. She sings

while she chops chives into tiny rings
that oat on the surface of the liquid.

When Clementina first told me about her, she taught me
in Spanish riñones, kidneys, because Chayo gave one

to her son, who almost died when his failed.
In Mexico City she pinned a bean-shaped charm

to the skirt of a statue. Priests, I don’t talk to much,
she says, but San Judas Tadeo, him I trust.

I prayed to him to intercede, to heal my son. She lifts a copper bowl
down from the cabinet and hugs it

against her chest with both arms. Now he works
as an engineer, and lives with his girlfriend. She sets the bowl

on the counter, lifts a stack of plates onto
the wheeled cart she uses to set the table.

She wraps warm tortillas in a cloth, spoons salsa
into a shallow dish, fills the serving bowl

with pale green soup I watched her form
from three chayotes, a potato, and bouillon.

Above her the stove-light burns in its hood,
illuminating each loose strand of hair on her head.

Nothing, she tells me, is a lost cause. This soup,
for example. If you cook it too long, add water and Norsuiza.

If green beans turn dark, a little baking soda keeps them bright.
She smooths her hair and straightens her apron,

ready to serve. And if you use a pressure cooker
for frijoles, they’ll be perfect inside of half an hour.

—from Communion of Saints by Susan L. Miller

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My friend Angela is an extraordinary person, and not just because she’s a consecrated virgin living in the world.  The year I met her, I wandered in the middle of my life into a church in Brooklyn, New York, and finally committed to convert to Catholicism.  Angela attended church without fail–it seemed that every single time I was there, she was there.  The priests often called her to come up and help, whether to serve communion or to read if our usual 12:30 lector, Eric, wasn’t there.  She always said yes, happily padding up to the altar in bare feet, a big smile on her face.  She was friendly, especially after she met me and found out that I was converting.  Every time I saw her, she’d say, “I love ya, kiddo.”  I didn’t know her that well, but I figured it was just because I was kind to her elderly mother, who sometimes appeared in church beside her, and sometimes didn’t, due to her advanced age and failing health.

My sponsor for baptism and confirmation was my old friend Charles, who lived a few miles across Brooklyn and had a tendency to lateness.  We had known each other for years; we became friends over disaster tacos when G.W. Bush was voted in for his second term.  Sometimes he was so late to things that they were over when he got there.  He’d come in to church to meet me, and I could hear him singing loudly, walking up the aisle during the final hymn.  Those were the lucky days.  Other days he just couldn’t make it at all, mostly because he was depressive.  I just knew that some days were good days for Charles and some were not so good.  I didn’t judge, though occasionally I’d be disappointed.  Mostly I didn’t count on his appearance, so that when he did show up, I’d be delighted.  Part of the reason I had asked him to sponsor my conversion was because I knew that church was important to him, but he needed a push to come.

Because Charles sometimes couldn’t make it, I appreciated Angela’s ever-present commitment to church.  I didn’t realize that she was extraordinary until lateCommunion-of-Saintsr.  At first, I just thought she was a nice woman.

The week of Easter the year I was baptized, my mother-in-law died, and then I got sick.  I don’t know if it was the flu, a terrible cold, or demons (though I still have my suspicions about that.)  I felt awful, though.  Aside from feeling like I had let my husband down in his moment of grief, I had an earache that turned into partial deafness for several weeks, as well as respiratory problems that you really don’t want me to describe in detail.  In addition, I was preparing for the full-body immersion in our baptismal font, which was designed like a tomb.  I was glad to know that there was a little bleach in the holy water, because I didn’t want to pass my germs to everyone else.  On top of everything else, my priest asked if he could wash my feet at Mass on Holy Thursday.  I was nervous about all of it, so when I went to attend Holy Thursday Mass, I asked my former student Kevin to come with me.  (I was afraid I might faint, due to being sick.)

Angela was there, so I introduced Kevin to her.  I half-expected that she might tell Kevin she loved him, too, but she didn’t.  Mass started, and I got my feet washed, and I came back and sat with Kevin and knelt and rose for prayers and did everything I was supposed to do for the first hour or so.  And suddenly, in the middle of kneeling, I started to feel very wrong.  “Are you okay, Susan?” Kevin whispered.

It turned out I did not faint.  But right in the middle of the consecration of the Host, with my newly clean feet, I had to sprint out of church and into the little bathroom in the entryway, because instead, I had to vomit.  Violently.

A few moments after, when I was washing the sink, I heard Angela’s voice.  “Are you okay? Kevin asked me to come and check on you,” she said.

“I threw up,” I said.  “I don’t know what happened.  Maybe it’s demons.”  I was joking, but only about half joking.

“I’m pretty sure it’s not demons,” Angela said, and laughed. She put her arm around me and helped me back to the pew, while everyone else was returning from the communion line to their seats.

Two days later, on Saturday morning, Angela came to the consecration ceremony for the catechumens.  Charles had come the day before to Good Friday service and scolded me for genuflecting, since the tabernacle was empty.  Charles would be coming, too, to my baptism at Midnight Mass that night, but that morning must have been a bad morning, because he didn’t make it.  It turned out that it didn’t matter.  Angela stood in for Charles at every moment, even helping my priest by holding the vials of holy oil, including the one that smelled like pine and incense, which he used to cross the palms of my hands, my forehead, and my chest.

That was when I realized that the source of Angela’s extraordinariness wasn’t just that she was a friendly woman from my neighborhood.  I knew a few permutations of love–the romantic kind, and the kind I had for friends, especially friends like Charles, whose wounds I recognized in myself.  There was the love I was developing for my priests, a special semi-parental kind which confused me at first until I could put a name to it.  And then there was Angela’s kind–the kind that showed up whether she knew you needed her or not, just in case you did.  And I did.

As I was packing up my things to go, Angela came up to me.  “How ya feelin’?” she asked.  I assured her that I was much better.  “I know.  You look alright,” she said.  “You’ll do fine tonight.  And don’t forget, I love ya, kiddo.”

“I love you, too, Angela,” I replied.

Portrait of Sister Carol as St. Cecilia

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In celebration of National Poetry Month, this blog will continue to feature guest posts by our published poets. This week we welcome Susan L. Miller with reflections, stories and poetry from her newly released book Communion of Saints: Poems.

My poem “Portrait of Sister Carol as St. Cecilia” was inspired by my friend Carol, the first nun I ever met.  I converted to Catholicism in my late thirties in a parish in Brooklyn, run by Franciscans.  Two of my priests, Santo and Timothy, were often referred to by our parishioners as “Mary and Martha,” partly because of Father Timothy’s extraordinary work efforts.  Along with Wellington, our handyman, and a number of young men in our parish, Father Timothy remodeled an apartment behind the church.  The apartment, he told me one day during a two-hour confession-turned-church-tour, would be for our sisters.  He had drawn up plans by hand, showing the built-in bookshelves he would create in the living room, and despite the disarray of the project at the time, I could tell he had planned something very special.  He was even using the original wood to recreate the floors.

When I saw Sister Carol’s grey veil in the side aisle of the church for the first time, I made a point of sitting close by.  She remembers me greeting her by saying, “It’ll be nice to have some women here!”  I didn’t realize at the time what good friends we would become–but I did have hopes.

It was also Father Timothy who suggested to me during confession one Saturday that Sister Carol needed help in the Religious Education office.  He knew I was a teacher too, and I think he had hopes that I would eventually teach, but I started (and ended) my work there just doing simple data entry, registering children into their classes.  Sister Carol spoke so quietly that I would have to listen closely to her–being a little hard of hearing due to garage band hours logged in my youthCommunion-of-Saints.  She listened to me patiently as I ranted, often, about parts of Church doctrine that I found difficult to understand.  I knew her family lived up North, that she had spent years in Assisi and Massachusetts, and that she cared deeply for Sister Mercedes, our eldest nun.  She told me other stories.  When I asked if she had ever had a boyfriend, she told me the one about how, in her teens, she had a crush on a friend of her brother.  He had apparently planned their future together, but after she went away to college, “he found another young rose.”  Sister Carol did things her own way: the office key was marked “U,” for “ufficio.”  We laughed a lot.  We spent many hours together.  We had tea in the office at Christmas, and in the summer, once, she asked me to give her a haircut.  I was a little terrified to do it, since I hadn’t cut anyone’s hair since college, when my friend Travis had traded a pack of cigarettes for a haircut.  I figured that under her veil, very few people would see it if I made a mess of it, so I went ahead and gave it to her.  The soul of charity, she thanked me, but she never asked me to do it again.

It also didn’t take long for each of us to admit to the other that we wrote poetry.  I immediately encouraged her to show me hers, and brought poems of mine for her.  Sister Carol was more reticent, but one day, she e-mailed me an attachment.  When I opened it, a tiny poem was there–no more than ten lines.  No one wrote this kind of poetry in my graduate school–this poem had taken a walk in the wintertime dark and distilled it into its essence.  It was a lyric poem in the best way–concise, with a precision of language and image, and a mystery at its center.  I’m not sure I even knew how to read a poem like that, though of course I had, many times.  I wrote her back asking a bone-headed question about it.  I think she was disappointed, though, as with the haircut, she was kind.

It was only later, when she posted it on Facebook the next winter, that I read the poem and finally absorbed it.  She had editedit only slightly, but suddenly, it shifted into focus for me, and I understood what she might have seen and heard on that winter walk.  Sister Carol may have been quiet, but I realized what power she had as a speaker, if only I could find the right way to listen.

Winter walks at night
Not under a scrutinizing glance
But under a benevolent sky;
Even if dark and cold surround,
Clear and calm ring out
And I listen and hear.

For a long time, I thought that friendship was challenging because we must learn to love people who make such different decisions than we do.  I still think that’s a challenge, but I’ve also come to think of it as a gift.  And poetry, like friendship, makes us listen, even if just for once, to the way the voice in someone else’s mind might sound.

(Poem reprinted with permission of Sister Carol Woods, S.F.M.A.)

Premonition on the Holy Mountain

Years ago, poet and literature professor Scott Cairns ran headlong into his midlife crisis. Cairns realized his spiritual life was advancing slowly and time was running out. For this this Baptist turned Eastern Orthodox, a desperate need to seek out prayer led him to Mount Athos—the Holy Mountain.

Originally published in 2007, Short Trip to the Edge is the narrative of Scott’s spiritual journey to the mystical peninsula of Mt. Athos. With twenty monasteries and thirteen sketes scattered across its sloping terrain, the Holy Mountain was the perfect place for seeking out and discovering the stillness of a true prayer life.

Scott revisits Mt. Athos in the poem Premonition on the Holy Mountain: Remembering Brett Foster. Enter the katholikon, embrace the “dark hours,” join the host of silent witnesses and bide your time in peace as we prepare our hearts for Holy Week.

Read an excerpt of Short Trip to the Edge

Premonition on the Holy Mountain—remembering Brett FosterIn Vatopaidi’s dark katholikon
the liturgy has just begun, though we
three pilgrims have stood propped in our stasidi
for, lo, three dark hours already. The Psalms,
the Midnight Hours, the Matins—all have filled
our drowsy heads with Greek as we have drifted
in and out of what seems very like a dream.
It seems a dance, it seems a slow, a ceaseless
prayer, and, when I close my eyes, I feel
that I am also dancing with a crowd
of silent witnesses. It is a taste—
one might suppose—of what one finds interred:
embraced, asleep, and biding time in peace.

Just now, three tall thin monks float into view
to set lit tapers to the oil lamps,
and we awaken to the call announcing
“Blesséd is the kingdom of the Father,
of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
I turn to see my friend. He has fully
wakened now, his face aglow, his face aflame,
his lovely spirit singing Blesséd is the name.

Other titles by Scott Cairns:

Slow-Pilgrim

Compass-of-Affection

 

“Is this what you were called to, Still Pilgrim?”

Listen as poet Angela Alaimo O’Donnell talks about the inspiration for her newest book, Still Pilgrim.

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“The Still Pilgrim’s history consists of flashes of joy and visitations of sorrow, engagement with saints and with artists (the Pilgrim’s personal patron saints), epiphanies sparked by words and songs and stories, revelations triggered by encounters with beauty and terror. The gentle reader who perseveres through these poems is no longer merely a reader—he or she is a partner in pilgrimage and a friend. These poems have become your poems, this story your story, bespeaking our (un)common beginnings and our equally (un)common end.” — Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, from the Afterword

Videographer: David De La Fuente

The Luminous Words of Rilke

Rilke
More than a century has passed since Rainer Maria Rilke wrote the poems in our volume, Prayers of a Young Poet. Rilke’s poetry chronicles a search for the divine: in the ordinary details of the everyday and the mystery of our inner life, and the courage to embrace whatever comes – whether darkness or light, despair or delight. With a distinctive blend of lyric vitality and spiritual authenticity, Rilke’s poems have found their way into the heart of readers today.

In celebration of National Poetry Month, we invite you to read an excerpt from Prayers of a Young Poet, translated by Mark S. Burrows.

We grasp You only in what we do,
illuminate You only with our hands;
our every sense is but a guest here,
yearning to reach beyond the world.

Every sense is conceived;
one feels its elegant hem,
and knows someone spun it —
but heaven surrenders itself
because it cannot choose.

I don’t want to know where You are;
speak to me from everyplace.
Your willing evangelist distorts
everything, and in his forgetting
neglects to look for the resonance.

But I’m always approaching You
with all my coming;
yet who am I and who are You
when neither of us understands the other?

NEW from Paraclete Press: The Prayers of the Reformers

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This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Paraclete’s newest release Prayers of the Reformers is an invitation to look into the hopes and concerns of the Reformers by reading their personal prayers. From Luther and Knox to Calvin, Cranmer and Lancelot Andrewes, their wisdom speaks across the centuries to our world today, torn by competing religious and political factions and challenges to the institutions of faith.

Below is an excerpt from the Introduction:Reformers

Some historical events have such a profound impact and such a multitude of consequences that the world is changed forever in their wake. The Protestant Reformation must certainly be counted among such events. Given the loud repercussions—social, theological, cultural, liturgical (among so many others)—that have continued to echo through the centuries, even to our own day, it might be easy to forget that behind the forces that brought about such change were devout people of faith, whose everyday lives were marked by times of prayer. The Protestant “reformers,” as they have come to be known, were also, and perhaps most importantly, “pray-ers.” Certainly we learn much from the writings they have left, as well as the many records of their lives. But they have also left us their prayers, like windows into their own souls, and in their prayers we can meet them and learn from them.

The prayers of the Protestant Reformers are filled with some of the central themes of their faith, perhaps first among them being an unshakable confidence in God’s supreme authority over all time and space. History is God’s workplace. He does not stand afar off, but actively and intimately participates in the lives of people in order to show his love and bring about his will. Many of the Reformers’ prayers reflect this conviction as, again and again, they seek for God’s will to be done on earth, and in themselves. Asking for the grace to be obedient to God is not so much an expression of servility as it is an expression of hope—the hope that my ordinary life can play a part in God’s extraordinary plan. The Reformers were convinced that we are all God’s instruments for the working of his purposes, and so we pray for what we need in order to serve him faithfully.

A second recurring theme follows directly: utter dependence on God for everything needed to live for God. Here are prayers for wisdom, guidance, perseverance, protection, and for daily bread in all its forms, offered in the certainty that God alone is the source of such gifts. Turning to God with confidence starts by acknowledging one’s own weakness and helplessness, beginning with the confession of one’s own sin. Our dependence on God is never more profoundly apparent than when we stand (or fall) in need of his grace, mercy, and forgiveness, all of which are generously given through the shed blood of his only Son. For the Reformers, every prayer we offer is built upon the foundation of Christ’s saving Cross and Resurrection.

You may also be interested in:

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New from Paraclete Press- The Suitcase: A Story about Giving

Just in time for Autism Awareness Month in April, Paraclete publishes a beautiful new children’s book: The Suitcase by Jane G. Meyer. Today we’d like to offer these additional helpful resources to accompany the book! Download an Activity Guide, and a Q&A with the Author.
Thomas was maybe a little bit different: “he loved to spin in wobbly circles for hours while reciting the alphabet.”

One day Thomas packs a suitcase to travel to the Kingdom of Heaven, with applesauce and a spoon to feed the hungry, an extra jacket for a kid with nothing to wear, extra coins, a prayer book and a mustard seed to grow into a bush full of faith! Thomas and his whole family embark on a journey to help others.

Click here for a free preview of the entire book!
Pre-order your copy at paracletepress.com.

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Gregorian Chant Collection for Lent & Easter

Pascal Candle
Gregorian chant offers the ancient voice of hope during the season of Lent. In looking at the Eucharistic chants for the first few weeks of Lent, one finds the Scripture texts to be full of hope and expectancy. Chant has the unique ability to draw the listener into the heart of the Scripture it is illumining, and a window into the ancient understanding of Lent.

Be enriched this Lent and Eastertide with this special collection of recordings from Gloriae Dei Schola and the Monks of Solesmes that will tune your ear to the heart of God, or gift them to someone who might need that gentle touch.

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Regular Price: $118.65
Special 7 Recordings Collection Price: $74.95