Midwest Book Review: A Short Trip to the Edge

Here’s a review from for newest book from Scott Cairns, courtesy of the Midwest Book Review.

Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer
Scott Cairns

Synopsis: Poet and literature professor Scott Cairns ran headlong into his midlife crisis (a fairly common experience among men nearing the age of fifty) while walking on the beach with his Labrador. His was not a desperate attempt to recapture youth, filled with Short Tripsports cars and younger women. Instead, Cairns realized his spiritual life was advancing at a snail’s pace and time was running out. Midlife crisis for this Baptist turned Eastern Orthodox Christian manifested as a desperate need to seek out prayer.

Originally published in 2007, this new edition of “Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer” from Paraclete Press includes photos, maps and an expanded 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 Scott to seek out a prayer father and discover the stillness of the true prayer life. Told with wit and exquisite prose, his narrative takes the reader from a beach in Virginia to the most holy Orthodox monasteries in the world to a monastery in Arizona and back again as Scott struggles to find his prayer path. Along the way, Cairns forged relationships with monks, priests, and fellow pilgrims.

Critique: Impressively well written, organized and presented, this new edition of “Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer” with its photographic illustrations is an inherently fascinating and consistently compelling read from first page to last. Informative, thoughtful, written with insight and inspiration, “Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer” is unreservedly recommended reading for all members of the Christian community regardless of their denominational affiliation.

Short Trip to the Edge: A Pilgrimage to Prayer
Scott Cairns
Paraclete Press
PO Box 1568, Orleans, MA 02653
9781612617329, $16.99, PB, 256pp, www.amazon.com



Portrait of Chayo as Saint Jude Thaddeus

by Susan Miller
Look for her upcoming book Communion of Saints from Paraclete Press

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 seemedMexican Lunch 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 Saint 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 float 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 dont 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 smoothes her hair and straightens her apron,

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

This poem was originally published in Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion, and Spirituality, edited by Kevin Simmonds (Sibling Rivalry Press).

June 21 Echoes of Eternity

weinberg merzhausenOut of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined.
Psalm 50:2

I take pleasure in providing blessings for My children. The beauty you see and enjoy is a gift of My love. You have a super abundance of it where I have placed and kept you. To enjoy it fully you must accept it as My gift of love. To reap all the benefits I intend, you must surrender your fretting. The earth is Mine and the fullness thereof. Do not lust after what I have denied you, but embrace what I have given so freely. I take pleasure in providing blessings for you, but I am saddened and grieved when you despise them and fail to recognize My fatherly care.


Echoes of Eternity by Hal M. Helms

Beautiful Words

by Sister Bridget Haase

A beautiful word, for me as an author and storyteller, sprouts from life’s garden.

A worWatermelond can inspire hope life daffodils dancing after winter. It can be as fragrant as a bunch of lilacs brought home to a crystal vase or as bold as a dandelion pushing its way through a rock. An engaging word feeds like a plump sun-ripened tomato or satisfies like a chunk of summer watermelon.

“Just the right word” can lift one to prayer, soften an email, enhance a social media post, or charm a website. In a word, or through many, wherever we are, in whatever we do, may we know that beautiful words matter for they form and transform a world, creating hope, fragrance. courage, and nourishment.

Sister Bridget Haase Author of Doors to the Sacred: Everyday Events as Hints of the Holy and Generous Faith: Stories to Inspire Abundant Living


Who is the Holy Spirit?

by Jack Levison
Posted on the Presbyterian Outlook, May 17, 2016

Holy Spirit free doveThe year before men landed on the moon, I learned about the Holy Spirit in a small white church, sandwiched between a TV repair shop and a doughnut store on a busy Long Island thoroughfare. We were a church of immigrants. One day, local barber Xavier Munisteri burst out in the middle of worship in words I couldn’t understand. I figured he was speaking Italian. Turns out, he wasn’t speaking Italian — he was speaking in tongues.

No one had prepared me for that moment. I hadn’t yet studied 1 Corinthians 12-14, where Paul discusses glossolalia (speaking in tongues) at length.

I hadn’t yet heard of the Montanists, a second century movement of enthusiasts, who championed what they called “the new prophecy,” and over whom an early Christian theologian Tertullian ran roughshod.

I’d never heard of the filioque, a belief that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the father and the son (and not just the father). I had no notion that in 1054, a monumental disagreement about this teaching contributed to the Great Schism between Rome and Constantinople.

I’d missed out altogether on the powerful prayer of the renowned 12-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen:

Holy Spirit, making life alive,
Moving in all things, root of all creative being,
Cleansing the cosmos of every impurity,
Effacing guilt, anointing sounds.
You are lustrous and praiseworthy life,
You waken and re-awaken everything that is.

I didn’t even know the simple prayer, Veni Sancte Spiritus (“Come, Holy Spirit”) thought to be written by Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury in the 1300s.

I certainly hadn’t been around to read the front page of the Los Angeles Daily Times from April 18, 1906, with the heading, “Weird Babel of Tongues,” followed, in italics, by New Sect of Fanatics Is Breaking Loose, Wild Scene Last Night on Azusa Street, and Gurgle of Wordless Talk by a Sister. I missed it: the birth of Pentecostalism, which has spread like wildfire throughout the world for more than a century, especially in the global South and in ever-bulging pockets of the West.

That’s right. I’d missed an entire history of the Holy Spirit. For years after Xavier burst into tongues, I knew almost nothing about the Holy Spirit. It’s surprising — astonishing, really — that a Christian should know so little about one of the persons of the Trinity. Yet others tell me that they, too, know almost nothing about the Holy Spirit.

So where do we start to encounter the Holy Spirit? With what you’ve been doing for the last minute or two while you’ve read this column: breathing.

The Hebrew word, ruach (pronounce the ch as if you’re clearing your throat, and not as in the cha chadance), can be a breath, a breeze, a rush of wind, an angel, a demon, the heart and soul of a human being, the waxing and waning of life, a disposition like lust or jealousy (a spirit of jealousy, for instance) and the divine presence. English speakers should remember wind, breath or spirit to be like branches that grow from the thick trunk of an aged tree — ruach. At the baseline of life, ruach is breath, or better yet, spirit-breath — the pulse of life within us.

Lesson one, then, takes us to an infamous ash heap, where bone-weary Job plunks himself down on the ash heap and protests, “As long as my breath is in me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils, my lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit” (Job 27:3). Compare Job, who has little of this spirit-breath left — he talks only as long as he has spirit-breath within him — with his young companion, Elihu, who is weary, not from the stench of death, but from waiting for the old guys around him to stop talking: “For I am full of words; the spirit within me constrains me. My heart is indeed like wine that has no vent; like new wineskins, it is ready to burst” (Job 32:17-19). If Job’s spirit-breath ekes its way into the void of the ash heap in truthful words, spirit-breath (ruach) in Elihu rolls over his tongue to form angry words, long fermenting, which he supposes (wrongly, as it turns out) are full of wisdom.

It is tempting to tidy up this section on ruach as spirit-breath by urging you to meditate, to sense the breath within you, to slow down — and breathe. This would be an apt exhortation for busy believers in a buzzing era.

To end here would also be naïve, even cowardly, because a storm brews in the distance if we acknowledge the spirit-breath of God in all people. Here is the rub: Everyone, not just a Christian, receives God’s spirit-breath. The theological issue this observation raises is the relationship between the Spirit of creation and the Spirit of salvation. A horde of 20th-century theologians, such as Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann and Karl Rahner, has addressed this issue. For instance, in “The Spirit of Life,” Moltmann notes:

In both Protestant and Catholic theology and devotion, there is a tendency to view the Holy Spirit solely as the Spirit of Redemption. Its place is in the church, and it gives men and women the assurance of the eternal blessedness of their souls. This redemptive Spirit is cut off both from bodily life and from the life of nature. It makes people turn away from “this world” and hope for a better world beyond. They then seek and experience in the Spirit of Christ a power that is different from the divine energy of life, which according to the Old Testament ideas interpenetrates all the living.

The bottom line is that belief in the presence of the life-giving Spirit of creation in all people is biblical if we take the Hebrew Scriptures seriously. To acknowledge the presence of God’s spirit-breath in all people does not do away with the need for the resplendent Spirit of salvation, which is poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5) so that we can love God fully, but it does complicate the matter when we peer over the cusp of church borders and acknowledge the presence of God’s spirit-breath in the lives of men and women who practice virtue and faith without naming the name of Jesus.

Lesson two takes us to a valley of dry bones, to Ezekiel’s vision, where Spirit, wind and breath — all the same Hebrew word, ruach — enter bleached bones, causing them to clink and clank into a fresh community, raised to new life (Ezekiel 37:1-14). The Spirit here is communal, not individual.

Now fast forward 500 years, and travel to another desert, with a small settlement — not much larger than a football field — that left behind the Dead Sea Scrolls. The community at Qumran described itself as a “house of truth in Israel,” a “holy of holies for Aaron” and a “precious cornerstone.” They existed, they believed, because they possessed “the holy spirit of the community.” What’s profound about these ancient Jewish snippets? The Spirit is communal, just like in Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones come to life. The Spirit exists in community — a spiritual temple — in a way that transcends individual believers.

The apostle Paul, too, pictured the church as a Spirit-filled temple, when he railed against schisms at Corinth. His language is measured, his logic calculated:

Do you not know
that you are God’s temple and
that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.
For God’s temple is holy,
and you are that temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

Note the legal form, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person,” which looks like Old Testament laws: “If someone leaves a pit open … and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution” (Exodus 21:33-34a). The Corinthians have dug a pit of schism, into which they’ve fallen, and they will pay the penalty. Cliques at Corinth are not casual but criminal.

Paul urges the Corinthians, therefore, to understand that creating spiritual provinces (we call them denominations), with one sanctified subdivision reckoned superior to the others, tears the church into shreds. For Paul, a parcelling of the Spirit is an utterly inconceivable state of affairs.

Paul returns to this point later when he pictures the church, not as a living temple, but as a body with all sorts of different parts. He bookends a list of spiritual gifts with affirmations about the Holy Spirit:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (12:4).
“For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body  — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13).

At the heart of the Spirit’s presence in the church lies this realization: unity is not homogeneity. People of different ethnicities and different social classes, as well as differently gifted people in the church, drink of one Spirit.

Drinking the Spirit. Odd idea — yet the point is clear. If there is a sign of the Spirit, it is unity-through-diversity. There is no challenge in uniformity, no need for the Spirit in homogeneity. There is no greaterchallenge, no greater need for the Spirit, than when people who live and look fundamentally different are baptized into one body.

Lesson three leads to a small Baptist church, somewhere in Oklahoma, that was happy staying small, Baptist and American. My friend once told me about 50 Ghanaian immigrants who visited them and announced, “We’re Baptists. We want to worship with you.” Imagine that.

The earliest Jewish church experienced a flood of Gentiles that was a lot like the experience of that small Baptist church. A very Jewish apostle Peter travelled to the home of Cornelius in Caesarea, where he saw the Spirit outpoured on — get this! — Gentiles, while Paul and Barnabas dipped their toes in the Mediterranean and saw Gentiles flock to faith in Jesus.

In the earliest days of the church, just decades after Jesus died, a flood of Gentile believers into a Jewish church changed everything. In “The Open Secret,” Lesslie Newbigin, a 20th-century missionary in India, wrote about this episode: “It is not as though the church opened its gates to admit a new person into its company, and then closed them again, remaining unchanged except for the addition of a name to its roll of members. Mission is not just church extension. It is something more costly and more revolutionary.”

Mission isn’t just church extension. Mission prompts a revolution. And where there’s revolution —transformation — there’s almost always opposition. While some people are lunging ahead, others are digging in their heels. This is the nub of lesson three — and where the Holy Spirit surfaces.

For some early Jewish followers of Jesus who dug in their heels, the change was just too much. They demanded, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Peter fired back, “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to [the Gentiles] by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.”

How did the early church find a way out of this? How’d they escape the inevitable — and all too familiar — “I’m right, you’re wrong” prelude to a split?

Well, to be honest, they argued. Fiercely. “And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with [the believers who championed circumcision], Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders.” The word,dissension (stasis), elsewhere in the book of Acts describes Ephesian riots (19:40) and a rigid division between Pharisees and Sadducees that turned so violent, Roman soldiers had to intervene (23:7, 10). “No small dissension,” which pitted Peter and Paul against the Pharisaic followers of Jesus was not civil debate. It was aggressive, vicious, even violent.

That’s only half the story. This dissension joined with debate (Acts 15:2, 7). This word, debate, tells us that the church was committed, even with explosive arguments, to intelligent investigation. Later in Acts, Roman procurator Festus tells King Agrippa about Paul’s case: “Since I was at a loss about the investigation [zetesis] of these questions, I asked whether he [Paul] wished to go to Jerusalem and be tried there on these charges” (25:20). Debate, zetesis in Greek, is not argument for argument’s sake, but the intense investigation of a particular issue, like the intractable question: Are Gentiles who follow Jesus obligated to observe the commands of Torah?

Where does the Holy Spirit fit into this violent argument? In the path to compromise.

The head honcho in Jerusalem, James, appeals to the Holy Spirit — it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us — when he sends word of a compromise: no circumcision for Gentiles but the need to follow a few Jewish rules nonetheless (Acts 15:28-29).

The decision, James notes, seems good both to the Holy Spirit and to us. The Holy Spirit and us. The Holy Spirit, James claims, is enmeshed in our brutal, bruising path to compromise.

Where does the Holy Spirit fit into all of this? In the tough, gritty work of conflict and compromise. Not in the revelation of a nifty solution. Not by zapping the church with a miraculous absence of malice. Certainly not in schisms and splits.

In this gritty process, we discover a rich vein of the Holy Spirit. Compromise — the battle-scarred road that leads to it, too — can seem good both to the Holy Spirit and to us.

Jack LevisonJACK LEVISON is the W.J.A. Power professor of Old Testament interpretation and biblical Hebrew at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Beauty and the Hidden Things Before Us

by Mark Burrows

Beauty? It seems a word that many among us don’t know quite what to do with. We know what it is until someone asks us to explain it, and then things get difficult. And beautiful words? Now, this magnifies the challenge. The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas explained beauty quite simply in this way: It is that which, when seen, pleases us (id quod visum placet). But what pleases us, and how? He went on to speak of three aspects necessary for this: unity, proportion, and claritas, the latter best rendered as “radiance.” And here we have a marvelously succinct approach to the question: When words have a certain radiance, they please us. Sometimes, this has to do with how they sound—with their musicality, as it were. We delight in words that rhyme, particularly when the rhyming startles us. We find ourselves smiling when reading or hearing a particular metaphor that awakens a kind of deep knowing in us. We relish words that seem to dance on our tongues.

Radiance is the theme of many poems found in Adam Zagajewski’s most recent collection, Unseen Hand (2011). Consider this one, a long poem entitled “Improvisation.” In it he speaks of “rapture,” a word too easily abandoned to religious fanatics with their unimaginative reading of exquisitely poetic texts like The Book of Revelation, and describes how it “lives only in the imagination and quickly vanishes,” going on to describe improvisation as the heart of our lives in the ways it gives us room to create amid the predictable and often dull expectations of our lives. How do we do this? Here’s Zagajewski’s suggestion in lines that are breathtakingly beautiful—both in their “sense” and in the sound through which his translator has rendered his Polish into English. Upon suggesting how life finds its spark and sparkle through the needed work of improvisation, he closes the poem with these lines:

Grayness and monotony remain; mourning
that the finest elegy can’t heal.
Perhaps, though, there are hidden things before us
and in them sorrow blends with enthusiasm,
always, daily, like the birth of dawn
on the seashore, or no, hold on,
like the happy laughter of the two little altar boys
in white surplices, on the corner of Jan and Mark,

And, even if we can’t remember this scene because, obviously, we were not there, we can imagine it, and smile in our re-membering. Yes, the poet is right: there are “hidden things” before us that touch us with joy, even amid our sorrow, and lighten our heavy load with a laugh or a sigh or a knowing glance. When does this happen? “Always, daily.” And here, the trick is not knowing what to look at, but knowing how to see. Like when we notice the sun creasing the farthest edge of the horizon above the morning sea. Or hear the trill of birdsong just before the first light breaks the hold of the long silent dark. Joy happens in the hidden things. Radiance cannot be stopped. Remember?

Mark S. Burrows Professor of Religion and Literature, the University of Applied Sciences, Bochum (Germany). Scholar, poet, and translator, most recently, of two volumes of German poetry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet (2015, revised edition) and SAID’s 99 psalms (2013), both by Paraclete Press, and series editor of Paraclete Poetry and Mt. Tabor Books in the Arts.

Silent Land

by Julie Cadwallader Staub

A battered windmill still stands at Silent Land, a cemetery in southwestern Kansas, where some of my late husband’s family is buried. Nearby, a modest stone structure that used to house bathrooms has settled into the ground, its painted signs “women” and “men” still visible above the splintered doors—reminding us of an era when tending graves and visiting the dead was a regular, perhaps treasured, part of life.

peoniesWe gather under a few stunted trees at the center of the cemetery for the interment of beloved Auntie Cleone, who died at 99, just a few days ago. Even under the trees, I have to shade my eyes against the unrelenting sun to gaze at the short rows of headstones. I’m remembering the way she harvested dozens of peonies still tight in their buds, wrapped each one in wax paper, twisted the top to slow the blossom, and tucked them into Ball jars. Then she stored the captive peonies in the ice box until the night before Memorial Day. I’m picturing the Country Squire loaded for the drive to Silent Land with crates of empty orange juice cans, the released peonies bobbing in five gallon buckets, and sprigs of mock orange, their lavish fragrance permeating the station wagon. Her three children scraped through the sun-baked earth, scooping out holes for the orange juice cans next to the headstones of great aunts and great uncles, grandparents, and the great grandparents who homesteaded the farm. And they carried bouquet after bouquet to these makeshift vases, filling them with scarlet and crimson and cream—and water, precious water, drawn bucketful by bucketful from the well beneath the windmill.

Now as we move to sit under the shade of a sheltering tent at her graveside, my gaze shifts from the cemetery to the fields of dry-land wheat, rippling in the wind, on every side, on every side, of Silent Land.


If you have a grief as big as mine–
and if you love in this world
I’ll bet you do–
come to southwestern Kansas
stand in the wheat fields
near a town aptly named Plains.

Feel the way that vast Kansas sky
changes solitude into loneliness
in a heartbeat
the way loneliness morphs into sorrow

a sorrow as heavy as it is invisible
a sorrow with no room for anything but itself.

Ah — you can build a house out of this kind of sorrow.
You can line its walls with resentment.
Paper over its doors and windows with bitterness.
You can live in this sturdy, narrow house
a long, long time.

Or—you can let your eyes travel
over the bounty of the wheat fields.

You can notice the way
they stretch for miles to the horizon the horizon
so far away
the sky has to bend down to reach it.

And it does.
See how decisively, definitively
it reaches for the earth.

by Julie Cadwallader Staub

Comfort was published in ARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies 26.3 (2015)


Your Angel Questions

An Interview with Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle
May 9, 2016

Watch as Paraclete author Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, author of Angels for Kids, was recently interviewed on EWTN’s Sunday Night Prime, hosted by Fr. Andrew Apostoli:

Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle is an award-winning and best-selling author and journalist, speaker, pilgrimage host, and the EWTN television host of “Everyday Blessings for Catholic Moms” and “Catholic Mom’s Cafe,” which she created. She is a frequent guest on national Catholic radio and television, and has received awards for her work including the American Cancer Society’s Media award for her column on cancer patients.


By Tania Runyan, author of four poetry collections, including Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature.


Can any real art come from the suburbs?
This question popped up on my Facebook feed a few weeks ago. I immediately came to the defense of the writers, musicians, painters, and dancers who create their work on these leafy avenues.

Because if anyone should receive an embossed certificate for living a fully committed suburban life, it’s me.

I grew up in southern California–first in Lakewood, the town D.J. Waldie made famous in Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, then Rossmoor, one of our nation’s first walled towns. After spending adulthood bouncing around the Chicago area with my husband, we now live in a far-flung burb near the Wisconsin border. Our town adjoins a major amusement park and outlet mall.

Suburbs have changed over the years. They’re more diverse in their populations and often easier to afford than the cities they surround. But they are still the suburbs.

Communities planned by developers lack the heritage and charm of historical cities or rural towns. I know this. I see the Nails/Subway/Fro-yo/Walgreens strip malls flanking the boulevards overrun with Disney-stickered minivans. I don’t pretend that the mass-market watercolor prints in my kid’s orthodontist office are on par with the paintings hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago.

But still, I take issue with the assumption that good art can’t come from these places. Suburbs have their flaws, most notably their legacies of conformity and exclusion. “White flight” is an all-too-common dark spot on many families’ timelines.

But these legacies on their own don’t remove the potential for creative expression. For a few generations, now, the suburbs haven’t symbolized escape. They’ve meant home, as real as a city storefront or rural dirt road.

Where there is no art, we’ve come to understand, there is no spirit. And even up in these dull parts the Spirit whips through me, batters me like a picket fence in a storm.

In my forthcoming poetry collection What Will Soon Take Place, I journey through the book of Revelation as a 40-something suburban mother of three. If I am to believe that God speaks through scripture through all time, I must trust that even someone like me, far removed from wild-eyed John in the cave on Patmos two thousand years ago, has a way to respond.

What is real to me? Fast Food. Chain clothing stores. Dogs roaming the sidewalks. In these mundane patterns of suburbia, the voice of God still speaks.

The Things That Must Soon Take Place
Will not rush through your heart like ball lightning.
They will smolder under your skin as you wait
for your chalupa in the drive-through
or latch the dressing room door at Old Navy,
wanting nothing more than to pull a preshrunk T
over your head in peace. But you must steady yourself
on the purse hook, nauseated by the spirit
burying inside you like a tick. Soon you will see
seraphim wings in the price tags,
hear trumpets in the vents. You will awaken
to asphalt poking your soles like swords of fire,
to the grocery bagger’s billowing breath.
These things will not horse through you
but nudge you like a dog in the street,
a matted earthbound begging for your touch,
wet nose you’ll never wipe off.

Tania Runyan

Tania Runyan, author of four poetry collections, including Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature. Her forthcoming volume will appear with Paraclete Press, What Will Soon Take Place, an imaginative exploration of the final biblical book, The Revelation to John. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, Willow Springs, Nimrod, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare.  She lives and writes in suburban Chicago.








Up in the Air: Faith

It was a long flight from St. Louis to San Francisco. For me it was not just a question of the four-plus hours of travel but also managing the fear I have of flying and the constant anticipation of turbulence.

Seated next to me was a minister from rural Kentucky, Reverend Silas Wildes, both a southern gentleman and a man of God, who was headed to an evangelical conference in the San Francisco Bay area. Quickly discovering our common bond, we passed most of the time sharing about Gods’ daily providential care for us, the unwavering faith that we need to permeate our life, and the call to deepen our relationship with Jesus beyond the laws of our particular religious affiliations. Although we revealed pieces of our heart, I kept my fear of flying to myself.


Breathing with relief at the relatively smooth flight and checking my watch for the time left until we landed, I cringed when I heard the pilot’s voice. In a somber tone he asked the flight attendants to take their seats and the passengers to fasten their seat belts. He added that the control tower had indicated a “very bumpy” descent. In reality, I knew that really meant significant turbulence. My heart began to pound and sweat rolled down my face. Reverend Wildes just gazed peacefully out the window as the roller coaster ride began.

After about ten minutes of choppiness, Reverend Wildes leaned over and whispered, “Well, I see the water and wonder if we are landing just a bit too close to it because I can see fish jumping and splashing.” Panicked, I reached under my seat to check for my life vest and then, boldy and humbly, asked the reverend if I might hold his hand.
With a gentle smile and elegant courtesy, he extended his hand and then asked me a question I have never forgotten; “Sister, you seem to be living with so much unfaltering faith on the ground. Why then do you lose it when you are up in the air?”

Owning the Story, Opening to Grace
When my life seems up in the air, I can strengthen my faith by…
The times I need the outstretched, comforting hand of another are…
I can renew my trust during turbulent times by …

“But when Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out: Lord, save me! Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Matt: 14:30-31

Excerpt from Doors to the Sacred: Everyday Events as Hints of the Holy
by Sr. Bridget Haase; Paraclete Press

A Pentecost Book for Adults and Groups

Alexis Kruza, buildfaith.org

Whoosh! Crackle! The Holy Spirit comes in both quiet whispers and blazing fire, sparking our faith and inviting us onward. As we look ahead to celebrating Pentecost, Paraclete Press’ new editions are sure to awaken spirits, young and old.

40 Days with the Holy Spirit by Jack Levison
If you think that the Holy Spirit’s only “big day” was Pentecost, think again. In 40 Days with the Holy Spirit, Jack Levison artfully and intelligently unpacks the Holy Spirit’s works throughout the entire 40 days spirit bookBible (and today) in a 40 day devotional format. Adults and church groups alike will be inspired along a journey of knowing the Holy Spirit better. Framing the book are seven verbs that Levison uses for the devotions:
Breathe… Pray … Practice … Learn … Lead … Build … Blossom

As one moves through the book, each day has a short Scripture passage (pre-printed so you don’t have to look it up) and devotional content, ranging from Levison’s personal stories to insights for real-life application. After each devotional passage, there is an empty half page in which to reflect and journal in the book itself. (Levison urges readers to have a cup of coffee/tea and a pen with them each day!) Next is a reminder to Breathe which is appropriately accompanied by a swirl symbolizing the Holy Spirit’s presence. Lastly, a poetic prayer closes each devotional time.

Levison chooses passages that are both well-known for the presence of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost, for example), as well as passages in which it can be inferred that the Holy Spirit is at work. He dutifully researches and backs up his insights by explaining Hebrew words in the original text.

For me, this balance of passages was one of the most interesting aspects of the book: I came to faith in a more charismatic community and now worship in a more meditative community. I was encouraged to find a Holy Spirit book that deals with both the wind whispers and the dramatic fire of the Spirit’s presence in different situations. This balance also provides an inspiring growth edge for people of either worship style.

Make sure to get your hands on these two excellent books before Pentecost to add wind and fire to your journey with the Holy Spirit!

Alexis Kruza is a Christian educator who specializes in designing arts-integrated curriculum that gives students the opportunity to meaningfully connect their real lives and God’s word. She partners with churches to create interactive children’s programs and can be reached at alexiskruza.wordpress.com.

Two New Books for Pentecost

Alexis Kruza, buildfaith.org

Whoosh! Crackle! The Holy Spirit comes in both quiet whispers and blazing fire, sparking our faith and inviting us onward. As we look ahead to celebrating Pentecost, Paraclete Press’ new editions are sure to awaken spirits, young and old.

A Children’s Book for Pentecost
The Day When God Made Church: A Child’s First Book about Pentecost by Rebekah McLeod Hutto, Illustrated by Stephanie Haig

The Day When God Made Day God Made Church BookChurch immediately draws readers of all ages into the Acts 2 story of Pentecost. Haig’s illustrations give deep meaning to Hutto’s child-like words that tell how the disciples wait…wait…WAIT in the Upper Room. At first, the reader sees men, women, children, and animals portrayed plainly in solid colors. The first inkling of the Holy Spirit comes visually with a bright blue spark, and the patterned orange flame of an ancient lamp. One turn of the page makes the reader gasp in awe at the Holy Spirit’s presence: joyful patterns of bright colors fill the pages, swirling around the people, dog, cow, and dove!


The story continues as colors visually represent the Holy Spirit’s wind and fire, warming the disciples’ hearts. Blue swirls turn into drops of rain filled with words from a host of different languages, eliciting sounds like drumbeats and whispers. Young readers will love to interact with these pages as their imaginations, curiosity, and enthusiasm are engaged by a sense of wonder.

The story draws readers into the disciples’ questions: Who is the Holy Spirit? …  What is happening? … Why do we feel so different? … Why do we hear so many languages?

These questions beautifully set the scene for remembering Jesus, as well as for Peter’s definition of the church: We are a family that shares, eats, and worships together. The story ends with a jubilant “Alleluia!” and a visual invitation to the Lord’s table, evoking the famous Holy Trinity icon.

Bonus Material for Teaching
Parents, educators, and pastors will appreciate the Author’s Note providing historical information, as well as spiritual formation ideas for celebrating Pentecost with all ages:
• Bake a birthday cake to celebrate the day God made Church!
• Make streamers and hang banners filled with red, the symbolic color of the Holy Spirit’s fire and Pentecost.
• Scatter red rose petals down church aisles.
• Light candles.
• Create windsocks or pinwheels.
• All in all, celebrate the day God made Church!

Alexis Kruza is a Christian educator who specializes in designing arts-integrated curriculum that gives students the opportunity to meaningfully connect their real lives and God’s word. She partners with churches to create interactive children’s programs and can be reached at alexiskruza.wordpress.com.

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).


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.

The Heart-Work of Poems

by Mark S. Burrows

In her marvelous recent collection of essays on poetry, Jane Hirshfield suggests that “the desire of monks and mystics is not unlike that of artists: to perceive the extraordinary in the ordinary by changing not the world but the eyes that look.” She goes on to describe how, in strong poems, “the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees” (Ten Windows. How Great Poems Transform the World [New York: Knopf, 2015]). Poems carry the magic of transformation, bending the imagination in both directions—from inner to outer to inner, and back again. They change the way we learn to look, and thereby shape what we see. In turn, the “outer” world, by means of the leadings voiced in a good poem, reach into our inner being and change us, in large or subtle ways.

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in a style that exemplifies this, his use of often startling and unexpected metaphors shifting something in the way we see, as if offering us glimpses of a world that alters the ways we look—and, thus, what it is we come to see in this world and in ourselves. One of these poems offers glimpses of God through a peculiar gathering of images, ones few of us might have imagined if left to ourselves but which, once we encounter them, might come to feel as intimate to us as our breathing. It begins this way:


The poem goes on to speak of how God stirs within us as we grow and change, “ripening” us in our journey, and above all in the struggles that will and do come, which Rilke alludes to with the pointed image of our “wrestling.” We find our lives deepened through feelings that might be discomforting, perhaps even a struggle, for us: viz., the experience of “homesickness”; wandering into a deep, dark forest; facing the silences that somehow, he suggests, might still invite us to song.

How is this to happen? Rilke refuses to say. His work as poet is not to tell us something, but rather to lure us: in this case, by awakening our vision with images that might initially strike us as strange and marvelous, as these surely are. Ours is the work of taking such metaphors into our musings, letting them come to work slowly on our inner way of seeing, inviting them to stir our imagination—which is the heart of what it means to “come to faith.” How a poem like this ignites our inner eye, and thereby alters how we look if not also how we live: this is the work of experiencing a good poem, taking us on a slow, meditative journey of coming to know. In engaging this “heart-work” (Herz-Werk), as he elsewhere calls it, we learn to take such images into the “deep” of our mind, coming to inhabit the outer world more perceptively and the inner world more knowingly. Through such images as these, as Ms. Hirshfield reminds us, “the inner reaches out to transform the outer, and the outer reaches back to transform the one who sees.”

God as the “great homesickness we’d not mastered”? An unsettling, even unorthodox image, at least at first glance. But no less a figure than the great theologian of Late Antiquity, Augustine of Hippo, said as much: “To praise You is what we desire, we who are but a fragment of your creation. You stir us to delight in praising You, because You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You” (Confessions I.1; my translation). Rilke, of course, carries Augustine’s thought further, suggesting that what we experience in our unrest is the very presence of the divine within us—a remarkable insight, to be sure. And what a provocative and liberating invitation it offers, pointing to our struggles, our troubles and confusions, not as our problem but rather as the very hope of our “ripening.” Here, the poet suggests how we might claim our struggle as the root of our ripening—and how this might become for us a path into song, the kind we might learn to sing “in every silence.” Perhaps, along this inner path of the heart, we might even begin to attune ourselves to God the “net” who is wide enough to snare our “fleeing feelings.” To be caught in this net is to be freed into the deep of peace.


Kids and Prayer with Brother Mickey McGrath

Kids and PrayerOne of the most recent DVD releases from Paraclete Press, “Kids and Prayer” will introduce your kids to prayer with this lively new video presentation in four sessions, each asking a basic question. These four segments include explanations from Br. Mickey, interviews with kids, onscreen storyboard Bible teaching featuring Br. Mickey’s illustrations, and “on the road” field trips to look at each question from a different angle.

Here is a snippet from a review by Jane Korvemaker on CatholicMom.com:
“…Br. Mickey McGrath takes kids into an easy and fun journey to learn more about prayer in this well-made video for kids. It features a variety of kids’ answers to different questions about prayer, highlights ways we can look at prayer in our lives, and connects it to one or more Bible stories about prayer (like Moses and the burning bush and Jesus talking about the vine and branches).

I have three young children (ages 1, 3, and 6) and after watching this DVD, the first response of my 6-year old son was, “Mommy, can you put it on again?” I think that accurately summarizes how my children enjoyed this video!”

Click here to read the full article, and click here to watch a short clip!

Longing as the Way

Mark S. Burrows

It is a strange and lovely word, ”longing,” one hard to say quickly because of the arc of the soft “o” followed by the gentle “ng” sound—doubled in this word—which we must give shape to in the back roof of the mouth. Its physiological origin, within the range of our speech, makes it one of the deepest-back and innermost sounds we produce. How fitting for this word, of all words! Its sound reflects the experience it suggests, for it takes time to say it and is delicious in the saying: “longing.” Even as you read these lines, you sense the quiet wandering the word stirs within your heart.

“Longing” describes the spiritual texture of many of the poems found in SAID’s collection, 99 Psalms. Reflecting the experience the word speaks of, his poems approach this theme in ways that startle us, sometimes bending our expectations back on themselves, sometimes puzzling us deeply enough to draw us into new comprehensions, always calling us to look at our own lives more carefully, more honestly, and above all more generously. Consider this one:

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 10.31.51 AM

Strange to imagine telling God to “keep silent” in order to hear us. Peculiar to suggest that our voices, or the voices of others, become “quieter” in God’s absence. But such sentiments are close to our experience, wondering as we sometimes do if God is attending to us, notices our needs and those of others in the pain, the worry, the confusions that bind us. And, in our wondering, we often fall silent in our pondering, whether in doubt or in hope.

Perhaps, as SAID seems to be suggesting, our longing itself is a kind of belief, one that takes us further—or deeper—than mere knowing. Perhaps our longings are the truest way in which we seek communion with the “other” we sometimes name “God.” Perhaps longing itself is the surest way we learn to believe, especially when our lives are abruptly interrupted, our hopes shattered, our confidence chilled. For longing, more than knowing, is what guides us in the ways we seek the God who is “steadfast” in the midst of our commotions and confusions.

As the poem reaches its final pause, what a marvelous moment of courage we find: namely, the chutzpa involved in asking the Lord, who “know[s] everything about [us],” to believe—in us. But what else is this than mercy? The poem unsettles the thin conventions of our piety, and yet insists on speaking to a place deep in our soul—where our heart longs for the God whom, we pray, will still turn to us even though knowing everything about us, with the shadows and debris alongside the bursts of clarity and moments of goodness that mark our lives.

We often speak about God as “word” and imagine the Lord as One who is still speaking with us, but we know what it means to face the long silences when this does not seem so. In such times, longing can be our guide as we desire communion with One who is silent and steadfast enough to give us room to be, space to grow, time to listen. Our longings are not the goal, but in this long journey of faith, they are often the way.

Mark Burrows is a poet, theologian, and teacher. He currently serves as professor of theology and literature at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences in Bochum, Germany. His recent publications in English include an essay in the forthcoming issue of Weavings, “Listening into the Heart’s Silences” (Vol. 31.3), and, as editor, Breaking the Silences. Poetry and the Kenotic Word (Peter Lang, 2015). His translation of Rilke’s Book of Hours, entitled Prayers of a Young Poet, was just published in a newly revised paperback version (Paraclete, 2015), and his translation of SAID’s 99 psalms is also available as a volume of Paraclete Poetry (2013).