Just a Day

Sometimes, too rarely, I walk at an urban nature area near my Baltimore home. There’s nothing pristine about Lake Roland. The water is a little bit rancid; the well-loved dog park smells—well—like dogs. Commuter train tracks cut the tails in half. The trees are vine-choked. And the place is an “island” amidst the surrounding sprawl, an oasis for fox, coyotes, deer, migrating birds and for humans who need a little R & R.

This recent poem, “Just a Day,” birthed itself at the end of a late-winter walk around the lake. It emerged from a resonance, a sensation…my mind gently turned for me, tuning me, toward what I am meant to notice: confluences, textures, connections, nodes, notes and chords. I am reminded of Paul Éluard’s oft-quoted notion: There is another world but it is in this one.

Since writing this poem, my experience of witness on that ‘normal’ day has become complicated by Pope Francis’ exhortation very early on in his encyclical letter Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home:

“Nothing in this world is indifferent to us.”

I am struck by how this idea transforms my poem. What I had thought of as an outward- facing documentary record now takes on a different register. Instead of—as the poem asks—remembering “…what we saw or how it felt to us,” the focus becomes more relational, more dynamic. I am not the only one looking. What happens if I consider that the world(s) I saw on that “normal” day are looking at me, thinking of me? Are caring for and questioning me?

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about “in-seeing,” to let ourselves go into the center of things, the point from which they begin to be themselves. In his famous poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” he allows himself to be seen by what he is seeing. And he recognizes the life-changing impact of that. But Pope Francis takes it further. By engaging with the idea of indifference, we are asked with more urgency to consider reciprocity and the consequences of ignorance.

It is exciting to see my poem—an art object I thought I understood—become something else once it encounters and is encountered by the world. It is equally exciting, and somewhat daunting, to realize that I, too, have become—and must become—something new as a result of this encounter. The next time I take a walk at Lake Roland (or anywhere, for that matter), I will try to remember how it feels to be looked at without indifference, how it feels to be looked at by the rancid lake. By the vine-choked trees. By too many smelly dogs. By the lake’s waters spilling feelingless over the dam. And even by all of what I cannot see.

Jennifer Wallace
Her new poetry collection is due to be published Spring 2017 by Paraclete Press.

Jennifer Wallace (3)

The Complete Francis of Assisi: His Life, the Complete Writings, and The Little Flowers

Sweeney, Jon M. (editor).
Translated by Jon M. Sweeney.

St Francis Book coverSaint Francis of Assisi is easily one of the most recognized saints, right up there in popularity and appealing warmth with Santa Claus. The Complete Francis of Assisi seeks to create a loving, inspiring portrait of the man who abandoned his father’s riches to wander the Italian countryside, ministering to lepers and preaching to birds. The book is actually three books in one: a gentle biography, a selection of writings by the saint himself, and a collection of medieval tales meant to popularize his legacy. Readers won’t find anything that drastically changes their perceptions of the lover of Lady Poverty, who nicknamed his own body Brother Ass, and the inclusion of three separate books means that some anecdotes are repeated. But the editor-translator’s clear love for his subject shines through, and the readers are left feeling they have spent some quality time with the man who continues to inspire us to contemplate abandoning our worldly possessions. In the company of a man like Francis, it seems like a good.

Christine Engel

The Complete Francis of Assisi: His Life, the
Complete Writings, and The Little Flowers
Sweeney, Jon M. (editor).
Translated by Jon M. Sweeney.
Sept. 2015. 420p. Paraclete, hardcover, $24.99
(9781612616889). 271.302.

REVIEW. First published February 12, 2016 (Booklist Online)

To Scott Cairns: A Confession

Traci Rhodes,

I recently finished my first Scott Cairns’ book, A Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer.This book’s first edition told the story of his pilgrimage to “Agion Oros, the Holy Mountain, a monastic peninsula in northern Greece that is perhaps more widely known as Mount Athos.” The revised version includes stories of subsequent visits. According to Cairns, “I have, at this writing, made an additional seventeen pilgrimages.


I was particularly excited to read this revised edition before mid-April because I had plans to hear Scott Cairns speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

What I did not anticipate was the need I would develop to confess a few things to the author. Cairns talks a bit about the actual act of “Confession” in his book.

Confession is an element of the ancient church that has remained difficult for me to embrace, despite my developing awareness of its necessity.

The kind of confessing I have to do is of a different sort however. So, here goes.

Mr. Cairns, I picked up this book when I saw you were going to be speaking at the Festival of Faith and Writing. I like to read as many authors as I can beforehand and this book was on a site I go to for books to review. While the subject matter certainly enticed me, I wasn’t sure I’d like the book.

  • I went to Missouri State University. I have such fond memories of my college years, which left me with a bad taste for the University of Missouri. We were always the “other” school and I may have resented that a little. When I read you teach at Mizzou, I was skeptical.
  • You’re a professor and I can have some hangups about being a writer because I don’t hold a degree in English. Actually, one of the handful of B’s I ever received was from an honors English class my freshman year in college. I wondered if your writing would be too academic in nature?
  • You write a lot of poetry. I do like poetry, truly, but so often it goes deeper than my mind travels. Some poems use symbolisms and metaphors I struggle to comprehend and I wasn’t sure if I’d like your particular poetry. Would it appeal to the common reader or again, be more scholarly?
  • Finally, I don’t know anything about the Eastern Orthodox Church. What if your book made me feel even more ignorant than I already do about what I don’t know? Could I learn something of this ancient faith that would enrich my understanding? It’s what I hoped for most of all but I wasn’t certain.

Mr. Cairns, I enjoyed your book very much! Further, it was a delight to meet you in person. I’m going to muster up the courage to read some of your poetry next.

You taught me about the Jesus Prayer, which I found beautiful and calming and enough. My mom leaves soon for her first trip to Greece and she has explicit instructions to bring me home a prayer rope. For those of my readers who don’t know:

They are, commonly, black wool, tied in strings of thirty-three, or fifty, or a hundred or more hard, square knots (sometimes wooden beads), usually held together in a loop by a cross-shaped gathering of knots and tassels. The knots or beads are for focusing on repetitions of the prayer. The cross is kissed reverently at the beginning and the end of each cycle through the rope. The tassel is for wiping your tears, which, if you’re lucky, will eventually accompany your prayer.

I learned so much about the beauty of Greece, the holiness of venerating the icons, the dedication in choosing a monastic life, the wonder of Antidoron. Thank you. I realize now my misgivings about reading your works had more to with my own insecurities. I can see why Mount Athos has become a regular pilgrimage for you.

One paragraph, though, touched me the most. It has not let me go. For I too left behind my Southern Baptist roots.

Even now, on occasion, I wonder if the better choice wouldn’t have been to stay put. It certainly would have been the more aggravating choice, but I wonder if the braver choice would have been to remain in that besieged community where I was first taught the love of God, where I might have taken part in that community’s recovery of a fullness that’s been more or less left behind – as it were – by historical aberration and unfortunate, reactionary choice.


I received a copy of “Short Trip to the Edge,” written by Scott Cairns, from NetGalley for the purpose of generating a review. Italicized quotes are the from the book. The opinions expressed here are my own.

– See more at: http://www.tracesoffaith.com/blog/2016/04/to-scott-cairns-a-confession.html#sthash.g7AvEzt3.dpuf

October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World

Booklist Review

1517The date that entitles this brief quincentennial prologue may not be immediately recognizable, but it was momentous. On it, Martin Luther posted 95 theses about Christian faith on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Saxony, and launched the Protestant Reformation. While directly prompted by the selling of indulgences, whereby the buyer reduced suffering for sins, the document was fundamentally about salvation through Christ. Luther asserted that salvation was effected by God’s grace alone, approached by faith alone. Faith was manifested by repentance: “the whole life of believers should be penitence,” says the first thesis. Marty, the dean of American Lutheran church historians, argues that, eventually, Luther’s stance, from the beginning acknowledged by the Catholic Church as essentially correct (disagreement’s in the details), became the means of reunifying Christianity through ecumenism, a movement that became explicit and official with the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65. This volume is small but weighty and a solid addition for all modern Christianity collections.

Ray Olson

Marty, Martin E. (author).
May 2016. 128p. Paraclete, hardcover, $19.99
(9781612616568). 284.109.
REVIEW. First published April 15, 2016 (Booklist).


“I Am the True Vine”

By Sr. Fidelis
This Week 5 Communion is almost an extension of last week’s, “I am the Good Shepherd.” The opening motive is the same, and again we see the energizing “salicus” no less than 4 times in the first line of the chant!  Last week’s piece was in Mode 2, and this one is Mode 8, but the relationship of the half step is the same in the opening motive.  Here we see it as Ti-Do.
The most “florid” word in the entire chant occurs on the word vera – “true”, almost as if it is “growing”.   The climax is reached at the culmination of the text, “he is the one who produces much fruit” – hic fert fructum multum.  The last two alleluias are unique in that the first one outlines an upward triad belonging to Mode 7 – SOL-TI-RE, then the final one gently descends from DO to LA, to the Hometone SOL.  The “salicus” is again evident in these final alleluias, giving a sense of energy and “growth”.

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Pray and Color: A Coloring Book and Guide to Prayer

I figured if even I could doodle, anyone could. After leading more than 150 workshops and retreats, I have met people who are uncomfortable even doodling. But many of them like to color. So I drew some coloring pages with ideas about how to pray using the pages and posted them on this blog. They are in the Handouts section. In the past six months I drew 32 coloring pages/templates with about 30 pages of prayer instructions and the result is a “praying in color” coloring book called Pray and Color: A Coloring Book and Guide to Prayer. It will be available mid-May for purchase but can be pre-ordered on the amazon or Paraclete Press websites.

Here is the cover. I’ll post some examples of the templates in the next few weeks. Please Share this post with others. Thanks.

Coloring Book

Note: I noticed there is another coloring book also called Pray and Color, so check the author before ordering. 🙂

Sybil MacBeth
http://prayingincolor.com/blog, p
osted on

Good Letters

Charles of the Desert

charles-of-the-desert-a-life-in-verse-5One early June, traveling to a wedding in San Diego, I’d taken the long way from Dallas by train. I wanted to see the Southwestern deserts. Two days later Amtrak’sSunset Limited broke down in the Mojave Desert.

Pretty quickly it became clear: We are not so great. Nature is. God is.

Perhaps this is one reason why Charles de Foucauld went to live in the Sahara: not only to offer the people there hospitality and love as Jesus had, but also as a way to empty himself of the temptations of civilized life, allowing himself to be humbled by the vast universe.

The Christian hermit and martyr Charles of the Desert (1858-1916) is a complex, puzzling character. William Kelley Woolfitt’s new book of poems Charles of the Desert develops a full portrait of this mystifying cleric from childhood in 1863 to his last day in Algeria’s Hoggar Mountains. The poems, written in first person, proceed on a timeline, zigzagging geographically from France to the Holy Land to Algeria.

For over a decade, Père Charles lived a stringent life in the Sahara, a life that would kill most of us. He lived and worked among the Tuaregs, who saw him at best as an eccentric, at worst as an enemy. In 1916, he was assassinated by rebels attempting to rob and kidnap him. He left to the world a four-volume dictionary of the Tuareg language, a new order—the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus—and a public fascination for his austere life among the Muslims, whom he hadn’t been able to convert.

How hard his life must have been. Yet by some firsthand accounts, he was “luminous,” “peaceful,” and “pure.”

Charles’s young life, marked by the early loss of his parents, makes me wonder if his initial impulses toward the holy life were to satisfy not only a need to glorify God and do God’s work, but also to seek parents in the Mother Superior and the Abbot.

In Woolfitt’s poems I find a child who couldn’t know or understand his father. That man is described as “whip-like” and “half-lizard,” someone whose “whims enslave him.” He appears more like a “Weather Formation” in the young boy’s mind.

Charles’s mother seems to have languished and died, after a miscarriage and postpartum depression. Charles sees her as “Harp Seal, as Sacristan.” With his mother, Charles has an early memory of compassion for Jesus, “the man who hung on the church wall,” “the pale, poor eggshell man.” The child wishes to bring a blanket for him, but forgets to carry out this kindness.

Woolfitt’s formal poems are intriguing for the ways they develop Charles and those around him. Besides the innocent child, we also see the mischievous Charles asking a fictionalized sister Beatrix to “steal for me,” not just any small thing but “the gilded china baby” at grandfather’s house. For this, the boy is sent into the yard, shivering as he waits for his grandfather’s “lashes to mark me, while [grandfather] quakes // like a man waiting for grief to pass.” The older man’s grief at having lost his daughter, Charles’s mother, doesn’t extend to compassion for Charles and his sister.

Woolfitt adeptly draws the children’s hard life with their grandfather, so that when Charles declares, “We are not safe, sister,” in “The House of Bones,” I believe him. Charles grows to despise the old man.

The poems show us Charles’s lifelong allies, his sister and an older cousin, Marthe (also fictionalized)—beautiful and devoted to her faith. In her presence, Charles’s faith “rose like a tongue of flame,” but he “had nothing to feed it.” “Summer in Giverny,” a prose poem, defines an important moment in the boy’s development. This is the second time we see Charles’s wonder of God and adoration of Christ.

Yet his conversion is drawn out. After grueling trials at a Jesuit boarding school, Charles is sent on to military training and soldiering. On his own time, Charles becomes a “Gold Eater” who takes and takes—keeping a prostitute, eating and drinking to excess, and gambling.

Three years later, after he’s published a travelogue and “rooster-struts” the streets of Paris, Charles feels trapped by the excesses of his life. So that in “The Pangs of Wanting,” he longs to have faith. This poem marks the beginning of Charles’s conversion. At communion, Charles declares, “I almost vomit; I almost sing.”

Woolfitt’s poems are marked by a physicality of diction, the blunt words juddering next to the softer expressions. The poems also connect strong metaphors to intense moments in Charles’s life.  He makes a trek to Jerusalem “At the Ruins of Pilate’s Palace,” and seeing where Pilate “gave Christ to the throngs,” Charles presses his hand down “and, groove[s] / my skin with the grains of the paving stones.”

Back in France, living as a monk, he studies the breviary and learns to love the natural world; yet he cannot love himself, acutely declaring “I am foul matter.”

The poems also unveil the many iterations of Charles, as he searches for an authentic identity: Charles the profligate, the soldier, the injured child, the peasant. We also encounter Charles the escapee, the refugee, and the wanderer, before he finally becomes the devoted priest.

In a startling late moment, Charles cleanses himself with sand (“Desert Bath at Sunset”) and resolves not to despise what God has given him: “Your bruise-red sun / embers the tamarind tree.” He considers Teresa of Avila’s metaphors for the soul and finds them wanting. In his desert ministry, he finds the earth is “a malicious father.”

Late in life, Charles becomes despondent: “The ground is iron that I cannot sow,” while the Tuareg’s language continues to evade him. He can still admire God’s world, however, in “Pied Crow,” the crow’s “glossy black wings” and “snowy vestments,” even in “the goodness of this hand / rubbing my weary neck.” He declares, “All things made for our use, our conversion, / our wonderment.”

Woolfitt’s collection evokes our holy connection to the astonishing and sometimes terrifying forces around us and beyond us.

From Image. The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

More Than Cliché

By Sr. Nun Other

I wish that I could learn to “leave well enough alone.” It’s a beautiful thing for those who can do it. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. I’m the type that must add one more, adjust just a little, and pull the thread that unravels the sleeve. Let’s just say I’ve ruined more than I’ve improved. What to do with me? How do I transform my compulsion to make everything okay?

The Apostle Paul put it this way: Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.  Philippians 4:6-7

And may I add, if you’re like me, say to thyself, “DON’T TOUCH THE CROOKED PICTURE.”


Image courtesy of cityexile dot wordpress dot com

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More Than Cliché

By Sr. Nun Other

I wish that I could learn to “leave well enough alone.” It’s a beautiful thing for those who can do it. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them. I’m the type that must add one more, adjust just a little, and pull the thread that unravels the sleeve. Let’s just say I’ve ruined more than I’ve improved. What to do with me? How do I transform my compulsion to make everything okay?

The Apostle Paul put it this way: Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.  Philippians 4:6-7

And may I add, if you’re like me, say to thyself, “DON’T TOUCH THE CROOKED PICTURE.”


Image courtesy of cityexile dot wordpress dot com

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I Am the Good Shepherd

By Sr. Fidelis

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Eastertide. This theme was found in the Gospel Reading, in the Canticle antiphons for the day, and in the Communion for Eucharist, Ego sum pastor bonus.   
This Mode 2 Chant is simple and energetic— basically two phrases, again punctuated by Alleluias. “I am the good shepherd, and I know my sheep, and mine know me”.

The opening motive is a 3-note neum called the “salicus.” It is an “energy” neum — 3 notes rising to the top one, and in this case the 1st and 2nd notes are on the same pitch, starting on the half-step below the reciting note of FA. This motive is repeated on the word pastor, and on the word bonus as well. The melody rises to its peak on the phrase et cognosco oves meas (“and I know my sheep”), giving a sense of his intimate care and love for each of us, his sheep.

Communion – Ego Sum Pastor


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