Naked and Unashamed— Undressing one another’s history

Jerry and Claudia Root and Jeremy Rios give so many wise and practical suggestions on how to prepare for marriage — here’s a great one for how couples can really get to know each other better in the months leading up to marriage, or even if the years afterward!

A SOLID FOUNDATION IN STORY— UNDRESSING ONE ANOTHER’S HISTORY

What we suggest next is a project and exercise for couples to perform together—and this is meant to be fun! Procure for each of you a notebook or journal in which you can write down significant things about your beloved. Set aside some time and get away to a nice, quiet, cozy place and there take turns sharing and listening to one another, writing down what you hear. This activity—of investing time to discover your partner’s life history—is a project that not only can be sustained throughout your engagement, but sets a foundation for conversation that will carry you throughout your marriage. Make it so that the sharing of your life story with your partner is a priority, especially in the months preceding your marriage. Each of you, after all, has a life that was lived before you met, and learning about that life can be an interesting and ongoing part of your relationship.

There are any number of ways to go about this project together. One possibility would be to organize it according to the periods of your life, going through each era and sharing the most significant events and how they affected you. As you cover this historical ground, makes sure that you are getting to know the person’s hurts and sorrows, dreams, disappointments, and defining moments. You can begin small with things like where you were born, why you were born there, how your parents happened to live there at that time, and what extended family was there at the time. If you don’t know the answers, call up your beloved’s mother or father—they will likely be more than happy to fill in the details. Continue to ask further questions: What were your family dynamics? Who were your best family friends growing up? How did your family change when other people were around? What was your school experience like? Who were teachers that impacted your life? Where did your family go on vacations? What were these vacations like? How were the family interactions? Where were you in the birth order and how did that define you as a person? The questions can be endless, and together you can chase them with the delight of children opening packages on Christmas morning.

In an exercise such as this one, follow-up questions are just as important as the initial information—not only because they reveal the interest of your partner, but because they invite further and deeper reflection into our own histories. Each partner should practice listening attentively, asking questions that get to the deeper matters. “What did that feel like?” “Do you remember that often?” “Was that move hard for you?” “How did your parent’s divorce affect you?” Asking questions about our emotions surrounding these memories is a powerful way to re-access the memories themselves, and learning to ask such questions that encourage a person to go deeper will help the relationship grow.

In addition to talking about these experiences, you may even want to visit the historical places relevant to your partner’s life if you grew up in different locations. It is always interesting to see where they lived, played as children, went to school, and even meet old friends and relatives. If you can’t do all this while engaged, you can plan it in the future years and include it in your notebooks, snapping photos along the way and collecting other memorabilia. Such a project could in time become something special to pass down to your children.

All of these recommendations, of course, are simply guidelines—as a couple you are free to be as creative as you want to be. We have seen couples who have expanded this project much further. The key is to establish an attitude of abiding interest in the wholeness and complexity of the person you plan to marry. As Wordsworth wrote in the poem quoted at the beginning of this chapter, “The child is the father of the man.” When we spread the table of our memories before one another we are bearing witness to the child, the adolescent, and young adult who gives shape to your personalities today.

Developing historical intimacy in this way lays a foundation for all the other forms of intimacy, not only because it invites a fully orbed knowledge of your spouse, but because the way that we engage this kind of conversation also shapes how we communicate. There are some very important factors that shape this historical conversation and can with intentionality extend to all your conversations.

The dominant factor is vulnerability. The willingness to open up and speak to your partner about the significant events that have shaped your life requires a kind of risk. These are memories that you may never have spoken to another soul in your life. The choice to be vulnerable in that moment is a choice, profoundly, to trust. For many people, it would be much easier to take off their actual clothes than the emotional clothes that cover their life stories! But the work must not be avoided, and the man or woman who refuses to be vulnerable also refuses to trust. In such an environment intimacy can never truly grow.

Vulnerability is also powerful as a door to your own self-knowledge. As your partner asks questions about your life, following the trail of the conversation wherever it goes, insights and revelations about your own story can emerge. Vulnerability means not only sharing what has been private, but also permitting someone else to offer perspective on your story. The person who refuses to be vulnerable not only fails to be intimate with someone else, but he also fails to truly know himself.

When these conversations range into vulnerable matters, it is very important that the listening partner honor the vulnerability of the sharer. Imagine what it would feel like to stand naked in front of your partner, and then to have that person point at some part of your body, and laugh, or to ignore you while looking at a phone or television screen. Would you feel valued in that tender moment? If the answer is no, then consider how you can strive to give value to the memories shared with you. This, fundamentally, is an activity of listening and accepting; you are not listening in order to pass judgment. For the sharing partner, it is an opportunity to be accepted for things that you alone know about your life. Ensure that you honor one another in the sharing of these often-precious memories.

These moments of undressing offer an unprecedented opportunity to share our deepest secrets, and secrets we cannot talk about control us. If there are places in your life you cannot reveal to the person you are going to marry, not only are you implicitly saying that it’s okay to have secrets in this relationship, but to that same degree you are implying that you do not trust your partner. This might indicate either that your partner is untrustworthy, or in fact that you yourself are untrusting. But if you are willing to take the risk you might discover levels of trust that you never before anticipated.

There are times when individuals have experienced past events that they would rather forget, and they might because of this have a difficult time sharing. A block to sharing like this informs you that there are some deep issues that may need to be addressed. Nevertheless, we must recognize that becoming intimate involves sharing your whole self—the good, the bad, and the ugly. If your partner cannot handle hearing about the past things in your life that were difficult for you, that person may not be the one for you. Jerry once knew a woman who confided in her fiancé that when she was a teenager she had an abortion. Unable to cope with this information, her fiancé broke off the engagement, breaking her heart in the process. Several years later she met another man and again confided in him. This time, when she had shared her story, he took her in his arms and said, “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I love you even more for sharing such a deep hurt with me.” They went on to have four children of their own, and she even became involved in a prolife organization. Sharing these hurts before marriage establishes a clear foundation for your relationship and can also provide unprecedented and unexpected opportunities for healing.

If you find that you cannot share your past with the person you love, you should probably find out why that is the case. Secrets kept early in the relationship typically erupt later, and quite possibly in a destructive manner. We have found that often when couples share these deep parts of themselves, the other person sincerely makes an effort to show acceptance and tell the person they love how much closer they feel. Love multiplies where vulnerability is sincere. And the truth of the matter is that we each have things in our past we are ashamed of, from acts we did or were done to us, to thoughts we had or have. True intimacy develops where couples embrace the risk and take the courage to share their lives with one another.

There is one more thing to be kept in mind. Historical undressing demands that we guard the secrets that are shared with us. Inasmuch as we hear these stories without judgment—accepting that the story is simply part of the person sitting beside us—we must also be good stewards of that which is shared with us. In marriage, your secrets are mine, and my secrets are yours, and together we hold them in trust for one another. And by building such a foundation on the basis of openness, honesty, and acceptance, you establish a great trajectory for your future family.

Greetings from Pink Floyd

In this excerpt from Aging Starts in Your Mind: You’re Only As Old As You Feel Chapter 3, author Notker Wolf, shares how rock and baroque music do go together after all. http://bit.ly/2LLxkYi

Chapter 3: Greetings from Pink Floyd

This summer I had a two-week holiday in a monastery on Lake Wolfgang. (My annual leave is usually shorter and sometimes canceled altogether.) While I was there, I received an invitation to the Tollwood Festival in Munich, and I must admit I didn’t know exactly what it would be like: a kind of Woodstock but lasting for weeks and without the mud? It didn’t matter, the offer to perform with my band in the Andechser tent was appealing.

Well, I said to myself, if Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and others from the glorious age of rock music, with their lined faces, still dare to perform, you can do it too—in any case they won’t have to get you off any drugs first. I accepted the invitation.

Someone drove me from Austria to Munich. “Oh yes, you’re the father from the mountain,” said the security guard at the entrance to the Tollwood grounds with a glance into our car. Apparently, he’d seen the television interview I did on the summit of the Dürrnbachhorn with Werner Schmidbauer. “Tell you what, I’ll let you through here, then you won’t have so far to walk to the tent.”

I already felt at home, even though I’d never been here before. The guard signaled his colleagues, so the way was open all the way to the Andechser tent, and after a short sound check (the other band members had arrived earlier) we were ready for our concert, two hours of rock music in the tent from 7:30 to 9:30. Although I have to admit I sometimes left the stage. A concert that long is too much for me these days, plus I don’t have the time to rehearse enough songs to fill an evening program. I’m lucky if I find two or three hours at Sant’Anselmo a few days before our performance to put on our CD and rehearse my parts on guitar flute. So I played in two of the four sets, and my band did the rest on their own.

Apart from the singer, our band always has the same members it did in the good old days when I was Archabbot of St. Ottilien and the others were students at our school. That’s a long time ago now; my fellow musicians have also grown older, but unlike me, they aren’t aware of it yet.

And it’s still tremendous fun for everyone. For example, we did a performance under the southern sky in front of a large audience at an arena in Pescara, Italy, dubbed “Pink Floyd Sends Greetings from Pompeii,” that was unforgettable. As was as our show soon afterward in Seeon, a magnificent monastery on a lake island in Bavaria. Seeon has made a name for itself as an event location, and I was invited to give a lecture there to the managers of the Ingolstadt hospital. “Bring your band along,” they said. After the talk at dinner in the magnificent, colorful refectory, I still had my doubts about playing in this setting, wondering if rock and Baroque really went together. But a little later the set got going and I enjoyed playing as usual, and the experience was a real miracle.

That’s what the head of trauma called it anyway—it was absolutely unbelievable how all differences disappeared immediately, all formalities forgotten, all inhibitions gone. Everyone danced until they were ready to drop: consultants, lawyers, administrative staff, the whole management team, men and women, all mixed up together. Rock and baroque do go together after all.

This was followed the next evening with a performance in Carinthia, Austria, inside the venerable walls of St. Paul, where on the following morning I would be saying the celebratory Mass and preaching, before flying back to Rome in the evening.

–

Let’s catch our breath. I know the whispers that are going around. From one direction I hear the heavy sigh, “He’ll never fit in with the rest of us.” From another the warning, “Be careful, you’re the abbot primate, please behave accordingly.” And then there are my primary school classmates, who to this very day visit me in Rome from time to time and exclaim with amazement, “Werner, [my birth name] you haven’t changed a bit!” What can I say?

Yes, it’s probably true—no one who’s known me for a long time will notice any big difference today. I’ve never been antisocial; my constant activity isn’t a gift of old age. And, while it’s true I’m the abbot primate, the expression “befitting one’s social status” has never meant anything to me.

How I go about my work, how I define my role and how I shape it, is my decision, and anything that could possibly qualify as “unseemly” I clarify with the Lord Jesus Christ: he’s my model.

Of course I’m going to make mistakes, but I don’t lose sleep over it because I know nobody’s perfect, and I don’t need to be either. Christ himself appointed the far-from-perfect Peter as the leader of his followers, a person who even disowned him when it came to the crunch. So we can go wrong, but we shouldn’t let ourselves be influenced by the worriers. I’m reminded of a grave inscription in the Campo Verano, a cemetery in northern Rome, which says, Non flectar, “I will not bend.”

“Slow down a bit,” some say; “Please tone it down,” say others. And I say, “Come with me.” Come, for example, to Altenburg Abbey close to Vienna for the interreligious song event. The first benefit concert was held there in 2012 to restore the nearby Jewish cemetery that was devastated in 1938. The abbot of Altenburg had urgently asked me to participate. “We need you, and don’t forget your flute!” Oh no, another appointment. But miraculously I found a gap in my schedule, and I traveled there without knowing what awaited me.

With four hundred visitors, every seat in the monastery’s library was filled. I was in good company. The singer was the chief rabbi of Vienna, a man with a sense of humor and a powerful voice; another rabbi played the keyboard, the Protestant bishop of Vienna was drummer, and a gentleman from the local finance ministry was saxophonist—completing the spectrum, as he had left the church.

Behind us was the boys choir of Altenburg, and we gave it all we’d got, playing Yiddish songs and gospel songs, and receiving enthusiastic applause at the end of every number. Afterward, when everyone was standing around in the richly decorated, brightly lit library, still suffused with the music, a high-ranking politician from Lower Austria came up to me and said, “You know, Abbot Primate, our church in Austria is at such a low ebb. If it wasn’t for you Benedictines. . . . You’re the enlivening element.”

The enlivening element? I am grateful to hear that. It’s exactly what I want to be. It’s exactly what I wish for my order as a whole—to have a stimulating effect on society, in all the places in the world where we’re represented: this is one of the three great visions that guides me.

To achieve this goal we must of course be alive ourselves, and this requires abandoning well-worn tracks. I can’t determine the pace of the world, I have no influence on the great upheavals of the time, but we mustn’t isolate ourselves from these changes, and lose contact with the world, with life, with other people. After all, what are we here for? For the world, life, and other people.

I think my continuous connection with the world of rock music has had very positive consequences. First of course, for myself, because I love rock music, and after all these years it still epitomizes vitality and zest for life. Second, however, because I reach many people through this music.

For example, in Barcelona, where I was to give a lecture to the executives of an international corporation. In the introductory session the moderator told them about our band’s performance supporting the legendary Deep Purple, and when they didn’t quite believe him he referred to the YouTube entry “Deep Purple mit Abtprimas Notker Wolf—Smoke on the Water.” (Yes, we played the song together.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjJI8zBG0yQ

As if on cue all the participants took out their smartphones and were too busy tapping and swiping away to listen to my words of welcome, but with this I had won them over. Abbot Primate Notker Wolf supporting Deep Purple? On stage with Ian Gillan and Steve Morse? An introduction like this greatly increases receptiveness. It breaks with convention, makes it easier to talk to people, and spares me the usual small talk.

Sometimes the rock music even merges informally with the Christian message. During our Tollwood performance in the Andechser tent a banner with the words “Highway to Heaven” hung above the stage, a combination of the AC/DC title “Highway to Hell” and the Led Zeppelin classic “Stairway to Heaven”; I would never have worked it out myself, but of course it fit superbly. And many of the songs we play are original compositions and reflect our origins at the St. Ottilien mission monastery.

My favorite song is “My Best Friend,” and if you listen carefully, you’ll realize that we’re singing about Jesus Christ, the only one who doesn’t abandon you if all your other friends let you down. To play it safe, I introduce such songs myself, also so no one in the audience thinks my black Benedictine habit is just a particularly crass stage outfit.

–

Travels abroad, stage performances, meetings, conferences, lectures, interviews, TV appearances, magazine columns, books, and building projects: admittedly some things in the repertoire traditionally belong neither to the responsibilities of an abbot primate nor to the role of an almost-seventy-five-year-old.

One side effect is the challenge of managing my schedule. This involves never-ending tinkering: appointments constantly have to be changed, inserted, or added. Because of special requests and spontaneous inquiries, half of it ends up being improvisation, so no one else could possibly be expected to get their head around it? That’s why I take my schedule into my own hands.

Another side effect is amateur psychologists having reasons to whisper about me. “He needs it,” they say. “He can’t do without it. He’s determined to make a difference and leave his mark on the history of the order. He can’t stop for fear of losing his importance.” Or, “He’s running away from himself.”

It’s true that I have a duty as abbot primate. It’s also true that I see it as my greatest and finest duty to open as many doors to the future as possible for my order. That would scarcely be possible if I didn’t keep on the move, respond to contemporary trends, try out new and perhaps even unheard of things, while at the same time giving an example of the vitality I wish for my order. We’ve both reached a certain age, my order and myself—in the case of the former it’s 1,500 years. Wear and tear are not alien to us.

But that shouldn’t be a reason for either the order or me to slacken. Of course no one is irreplaceable. But as long as we live we’re needed. That is a possible answer to the questions confronting anyone in the third phase of life. We may be unimportant as individuals, but the ideas we promote, the efforts we make out of love or conscientiousness, are not.

We’re needed. And it’s wonderful to be needed. It may be quite strenuous, as in my case. But when people ask me, “How do you manage it? How can you stand it?” the answer is simple: Joy is my lifeblood—joy in my work, joy of meeting people, joy in music. Also joy in nature, the different shades of green of the oaks, pines, cypresses, and olive trees in the southern sunlight. Joy in the sea I like to sit by and swim in; joy in the warm golden tone of the evening light flooding into my study.

It’s Tomato Season!

It’s Tomato season!

In this excerpt from Bead by Bead: The Ancient Way of Praying Made New Chapter 6, author Suzanne Henley, shares how the first tomato of the season is like a prayer. http://bit.ly/2ux2n3m

Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon

Unsolicited prayers often sneak up and startle me in mid-activity.

The summer we spent in North Carolina, Jim and I stopped at one of the ubiquitous fresh-produce buildings that line the stretch of two-lane Highway 64 we traveled daily between Hendersonville and Brevard. We asked the two proprietors, North Carolina versions of PBS’s Two Fat Ladies, for their best tomatoes. One of the women laughed as she pointed to a basketful of unappealingly warped and bruise- colored tomatoes. We looked back at her, querulous. “Yep,” she said, as she chose two of those scary-looking, over-heavy growths and plopped them into our hands. “They’re Cherokee Purples, Honey. Take ’em home and try ’em. You’ll be back.”

Fixing dinner that night, I washed the tomatoes and, feeling like Abraham approaching Isaac, raised the knife rather high. They looked tough. But as the richly deep-red slices slowly fell apart from the knife, I was swept in a sensual rush to more than sixty years earlier in my grandmother’s kitchen. I remembered the sun splashing through her kitchen window on the still life of tomatoes lined up fresh from the garden, the smell of the vine still clinging, the fierceness of the reds, the beads of salt releasing the musty scent of fecund earth. Eve, still naked, bit into that forbidden fruit, its burst of juice sliding down her chin and neck. I was nine years old again.

I was even aware of the phenomenon I think we’ve all experienced, of thinking in childhood that a grandparent’s home seemed large and grand and then, years later, realizing it was only a normal-sized house. In that moment, though, my grandmother’s kitchen was a palace of linoleum, and that parted tomato contained all the assumed magic of my childhood. I think I gasped a little, trying to stop time, understanding after several years David Craig’s poem “Pentecost”:

What is this Holy Spirit?
And what is it doing in the eggplant?

Jim and I made daily visits to the Fat Ladies. Each night for the next two weeks after dinner, I cleaned up while he hunkered in the cabin’s basement methodically scraping each tomato seed from our plates onto laid-out, yellowing newspaper. We were familiar, too, having heard her in concert the year before, with Kate Campbell’s ironically joyous song “Jesus and Tomatoes Coming Soon,” based on a sign she’d seen one day near Asheville. We sang its refrain every day on the way to or from the Fat Ladies.

I didn’t know that Jim had funneled all those dried seeds into a ziplock and carefully driven them home to his freezer, where they waited, silent and patient, or, two years later when we married, that he’d brought the ziplock of seeds from his old refrigerator to our new home. Because our own yard was torn up by construction and we had no garden, Jim presented my daughter with a handful of those seeds to plant without much expectation. She nurtured them for months like a firstborn. Her cut into that first tomato, which she presented to us with ceremony, was once again a moment of childhood magic. The Holy Spirit had been patient for three years.

And now I, and Abraham, and Eve, and my nine-year-old self wait each summer for that first Cherokee Purple from our garden, and I say, slicing into that first bite, Oh, thank you, Holy Spirit. Each year that first tomato is a prayer.

Poverty: Responding Like Jesus

Take a moment to take this quiz on poverty found in Chapter 9 of Poverty: Responding Like Jesus. http://bit.ly/2KdDS5f

Paraclete Press announces the launch of San Damiano Books

 

 

 

Paraclete Press announces the launch of San Damiano Books: a new series/imprint focused exclusively on Franciscan spirituality. It will publish books for children as well as adults, fiction and nonfiction, spirituality and practical theology, books by vowed Franciscans and laypeople/writers—all with a passion for the spirit of Saints Francis and Clare.

Two books will be published in Fall 2018:

St. Francis and the Animals: A Mother Bird’s Story by Phil Gallery, illustrated by Sibyl MacKenzie

Format: 8.5 x 11, 32 pp., Hardcover with jacket
ISBN: 978-1-61261-973-6
Retail: $16.99
Ship Date: 8/14/2018
On-sale Date: 9/4/2018

 

 

Francis of Assisi In His Own Words: The Essential Writings, 2nd edition by Jon M. Sweeney

Format: 5 x 7.5, 160 pp., French flaps paperback
ISBN: 978-1-64060-019-5
Retail: $16.99
Ship Date: 10/2/18
On-sale Date: 10/23/18

 

Authors under contract for 2019 include two more books for children; Wendy Murray with a new biography of St. Clare; and multi-platinum recording artist John Michael Talbot reflecting on Francis of Assisi’s “Sermon on the Mount” by looking at one of the saint’s lesser-known writings called “The Admonitions.”

For more information contact Director of Marketing Laura McKendree at lauram@paracletepress.com.

 

Kentucky author Laurie Brock reveals how her love of horses led her to a deeper love of God

April 30, 2018 —Just in time for Derby Day, Episcopal priest Laurie Brock of Lexington, Kentucky releases Horses Speak of God: How Horses Can Teach Us to Listen and Be Transformed (Paraclete Press • ISBN 978-1-61261-929-3 • 146 pp • Trade paper • $16.99).

Horses Speak of God speaks to the struggles many people have today with the institutional church. An unusual message coming from a clergy-author, this book will likely appeal most to those who feel they have connected with God on a deep level outside of church, through everyday pastimes, or in emotional moments. For Brock, this happened through her experiences with horses.

With edgy honesty and humor, Brock invites all who have longed for a deeper encounter with God to join her in the saddle (and occasionally on the ground) to discover how horses’ ways of knowing can help humans discover God speaking to us.

“This is a beautifully written meditation on belief, the holy, and the healing power of horses. This profound book not only helped me to see the magic of animals in our everyday lives but also allowed me a better understanding of my own faith journey.”
Silas House, author of Southernmost

Laurie M. Brock, a former attorney, is an Episcopal priest serving St. Michael the Archangel in Lexington, Kentucky. She volunteers as a crisis chaplain with the Lexington Police Department, blogs at revlauriebrock.com, and frequently leads retreats for ecumenical and interfaith gatherings.

 

Billy Graham, “America’s Pastor,” to Be Honored in New Book by Lon Allison

For Immediate Release
February 21, 2018 

On April 4, 2018 Paraclete Press will release Billy Graham: An Ordinary Man and His Extraordinary God (ISBN 978-1640600874 / Hardcover / $21.99) by Lon Allison, with a foreword by Dr. Leighton Ford and Jean Graham Ford (Billy’s youngest sister).

“You have no idea how sick I get of the name Billy Graham, and how wonderful and thrilling the name Christ sounds to my ears,” Billy once said. So, why another book about him? Lon Allison, evangelist, pastor, and former director of The Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, has learned much from Billy. Allison retells the highlights of a fascinating life, and in a way that resonates with Graham’s desire to always be sharing the Good News. Every stage of Graham’s life is included, even the rough spots, with appreciation and a desire to answer the question: What can we learn from the life and ministry of Billy Graham? What is his legacy? What was his message and how might it still be relevant for today?

Lon Allison has a gift for explaining how everyday people can connect personally with the God who loves them—Lon worked for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for years, and served as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College before becoming pastor at Wheaton Bible Church in Illinois in 2013. Lon has taught masters and doctoral evangelism courses at North Park Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Northern Seminary, and is a visiting professor at Wheaton College Graduate School. He maintains an active speaking schedule at churches and conferences around the world, and is the author of Going Public with the Gospel and That the World May Believe. He and his wife, Marie, have three grown children and live in West Chicago, Illinois.

Originally planned for release in September, in anticipation of Graham’s 100th birthday, Paraclete is responding to Graham’s recent passing and the urgent need for Graham’s message of salvation for the nation and the world by moving publication up six months—to the first week of Easter. We believe Billy would be pleased with the timing!

To interview Lon Allison or to receive an Advance Review Copy, please contact Director of Marketing Laura McKendree at 800-451-5006 ext 316 or lauram@paracletepress.com

Pastor Lon Allison at Wheaton Bible Church. | Jon Langham~for Wheaton Bible Church

 

“The Pope’s Cat” New Release Date Announced!

Paraclete Press announced Tuesday, January 23, that we are accelerating the publication date of The Pope’s Cat by Jon M. Sweeney, illustrated by Roy DeLeon. Originally announced to publish on March 13, the on-sale date is now March 1.

“We are seeing great demand for this book,” said Laura McKendree, Paraclete’s marketing director. “We have retailers, parishes, and schools anxious to receive copies, so we’re moving it up to make everyone happy.”

The Pope’s Cat,
ISBN 978-1612619354,
Fiction, for ages 6-12, $9.99.

Running Alongside a “Woman Catching Fire:” Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Still Pilgrim: Poems

This review for Still Pilgrim was published in  Adanna, Issue 7, 2017.
Maryanne Hannan

To a world where stillness is elusive, the notion of pilgrimage quaint, and paradox an intellectual stretch, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell serves up her latest collection, Still Pilgrim: Poems (Paraclete Press, 2017). In truth, I have been a fan of O’Donnell’s work for many years, her seven poetry collections, three non-fiction books, her numerous insightful reviews and essays. But I’d hazard a guess that Still Pilgrim will become a classic, one that readers will turn to for many years to come.

An author Afterword describes the genesis of the project, a visit to Herman Melville’s grave near her home. In the poem she wrote about that experience, she addressed him as “still pilgrim,” and was thereafter struck by the many ways it is conceivable and necessary to be both still and “simultaneously on pilgrimage toward one’s destiny” (Afterword, 70) in life and, in Melville’s case as a writer, after death. In this collection, O’Donnell takes up the challenge of probing the tensions and insights in the oxymoronic persona of a “still pilgrim,” using the stuff of her own life.

Despite the many particulars of time, space, event and personal proclivities, the book never seems autobiographical. Carefully constructed, yes; as described in the Afterword, it contains a prologue and an epilogue, four sections of poems, fourteen poems per section all of them (fourteen line) sonnets. The gloss on the book and its further suggestion that the sections correspond to seasons of the year and the seasons of life, as well as the liturgical calendar can be read as an added bonus, or as a belated surprise. The poems themselves, sonnets of great skill and diversity, speak for themselves, or in the words of the Still Pilgrim, “Every pilgrim is a truthteller. / Every pilgrim is a liar.” (“Prologue: To Be a Pilgrim, xiii) In this spirit, all is made new again.

Unlike the traditional Pilgrim’s Progress, O’Donnell’s contemporary pilgrim need not advance under the rubric of steady improvement, yet develops in her own way from one section to the next. Rather than negotiating a larger universality as the allegorical hero Christian does, this pilgrim, clothed in particulars, manages the same. Many of O’Donnell’s poems play off Catholic-Christian references, as well as familiarity with literary figures, Keats, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Frost and, of course, Flannery. To enjoy the subtleties, the poignancy and even the humor of this book, readers need to share the pillars of O’Donnell’s spiritual-cultural-intellectual world, but not her dogma.

Each section offers a, shall we call it?, cosmologically chronological development: “The Still Pilgrim Invents Dawn,” “The Still Pilgrim Recreates Creation,” “The Still Pilgrim Considers a Hard Teaching,” and “The Still Pilgrim Recalls the Beatitudes.” Each section ends with an assessment of where the poet might be in her personal chronology: “The Still Pilgrim Runs,” “The Still Pilgrim Gives Herself Driving Directions,” “The Still Pilgrim Addresses Father Solstice,” and “The Still Pilgrim’s Refrain.” The poem titles themselves further the tensions and paradoxes of the central “still pilgrim” metaphor.

If, as O’Donnell suggests, the sections correspond to the seasons of life, then no surprise to discover poems of youth and childhood in the first section: “The Still Pilgrim Recollects Her Childhood,” “The Still Pilgrim Honors Her Mother,” “The Still Pilgrim Learns to Write,” to name a few. But, as a group, they are not typecast or expected. My favorite “The Still Pilgrim Tells a Fish Story” evoking Melville goes against the grain. From “Find the fish you need to kill and kill it,” the first line challenge, the poem concludes: “Did you really believe there’d come a day / when you would be the one that got away?” (13). A nice set-up for the last poem, mentioned above: “She ran like rage. She ran like desire. / She ran like a woman catching fire” (“The Still Pilgrim Runs,” 16).

The second section sees more gain than loss, the prime of life: “The Still Pilgrim Becomes a Mother,” “The Still Pilgrim Sings to Her Child,” “The Still Pilgrim Hears a Diagnosis,” “The Still Pilgrim Discovers Botero’s Adam & Eve.” Hovering over all is the realization: “Summer comes once and never stays” (“The Still Pilgrim’s Love Song to Lost Summer,” 31).

In the third section, (can it be autumn already?) are “The Still Pilgrim’s Displacement,” “The Still Pilgrim’s Insomnia,” “The Still Pilgrim Talks to Her Body,” “The Still Pilgrim Faces the Wall,” the final couplet of “The Still Pilgrim Considers the Eye:” “The truth the wise eye grieves and knows, / that one day it must close” (43). But a radical acceptance of mortality undergirds it all: “You sing with me even when / I sing the same old song again” (“The Still Pilgrim Talks to Her Body,” 42)

The fourth section opens with another dawn, slightly reminiscent of Eliot: “of how we bear the miracle / and find ourselves where we belong” (“The Still Pilgrim’s Thoughts Upon Rising,” 51). Other poems attest to a joyful resiliency, even a recognition that each season contains them every other one: “The Still Pilgrim Recounts Another Annunciation,” “The Still Pilgrim’s Easter Morning Song,” “The Still Pilgrim Imagines the Eucharist,” “The Still Pilgrim Welcomes Pentecost” and “The Still Pilgrim’s Penance.” Perhaps a time paradox underlies the space through which the still pilgrim traverses. Or to share the final couplet of “The Still Pilgrim Celebrates Spring:” “All that leaves returns. It’s fact. / The light we thought we lost comes back” (60).

Angela O’Donnell’s Still Pilgrim: Poems can be enjoyed as a whole and in parts, not once, but many times over. I highly recommend this book to all readers interested in a woman’s journey, expressed in the context of her faith, and also to those no longer excited by the sonnet form. They will be surprised.