Sunday, November 22, 2015


No, it wasn't the building.

It wasn't the flowers arranged and opening before the altar table. It wasn't the blue wall behind the Virgin's statue in a niche high up above the sanctuary. It wasn't the gesture, one hand raised with fingers gently curled, by which Christ, his mother and the saints communicate some message, some authority out of mosaic and stained glass and marble statue.

It wasn't the sound swelling out of organ pipes. It wasn't the procession, cross first, candles flanking, book of readings held aloft. It wasn't the words of the hymn, my voice joined by other voices from fellow singers I could not see, all of us bent over songbooks, eyes moving over the musical notations, dipping down into words separated into syllables, all of us guided by some familiarity gained by months and years of Sundays.

It probably wasn't even the celebrant, homilist, pastor, presider.

The injury, though, needed a building as tall as this, a ritual as old as this, a city congregation just this various and motley, or the injury threatened to pull me down, back into a pattern too old to recognize before it had started its weighing in, weighing down, almost blinding, nearly depleting.

I am at an age, though, and a stage of inner work to be able to rouse myself at the signs, the insinuating words of judgment, the ache of a deprivation so close to the bone that it sometimes passes for me.

Without all this building and ritual and congregation, where would I be? Without the host pressed into my hands each week by communion ministers whose faces I recognize, whose names I know, whose presence before me depends on nothing I ever do, where would I be?

I emerge, though, each Sunday face wet with tears. I am able to claim all this, own all this, move toward another week, await another Sunday.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Walking Authors Ridge

When I travel to Concord, Massachusetts, I end up wondering why I visit so infrequently.

Much that is familiar inevitably rises up around me. Much that is familiar rises up within me.

It is a storied landscape into which I drive, even if the goal is a restaurant bar where a friend from high school will stand me a beer in early celebration of my birthday. He and I determined long ago that Concord was close to the midpoint for us journeying from our homes. The ease of finding Concord and finding parking and finding places to walk and talk and eat can partially account for its appeal.

As well, it suits our age. We are among those growing up in the Sixties for whom there was no holier name than Thoreau and no prober of the troubled psyche better than the grim Hawthorne.

Rob and I retreat to Concord as to a place where ideas and the lives lived in accordance with them have enjoyed a venerable arena.

We listen to one another describe what our own lives have become – things that neither of us would once have predicted. We look at our divorces but from different angles. Our certainties have been tempered; our verities are tentative and hard-won.

We are men in our middle sixties, over-educated and literary and religious in a Walker Percy kind of way.

Putting down my brown ale last Sunday afternoon, I looked up from a bar plate of monkfish and asparagus as Rob finished a surprising admission. Against the increasingly solitary thing that his own life has become as children move away, he commented with admiration on how I have repeatedly put myself out there.

However I remember recent birthdays – flowers that one suitor sent me, the driftwood fire that a South Shore gentleman had built on the beach, a gray plaid flannel shirt from a Mainer loyal to LL Bean – Rob was serious in his respect. He did not suspect that I could look over his shoulder and see where I had sat with still another friend just a day or two earlier, immersed in nuanced confidences and a familiar wonder.

When Rob had driven away, I did not yet get into my car. I walked to nearby Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. It was four o’clock on a November afternoon, cold enough for a jacket and hands in the pockets. I knew where I was heading under gray skies, along empty paths, sometimes just below crests topped with weathered gravestones. No one else needed to be there.

I made my way, recognizing as I did a long-ago longing. I think I had always hoped to be just such a solitary man at this time of day. I think I had always dreamed of walking Authors Ridge at this time in my life.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Pierre Charles and Belgium in the 1920s

A writer like May Sarton can propose to take us back to Belgium in the 1920s and we are ready to think it a place and a time we could well visit. The opening lines of A Single Hound, Sarton’s first novel from 1938, create a scene like something from an old black-and-white post card.

Early in the morning between winter and spring, when the grass is frosty, when there is no scent and no sound but a heavy white stillness, and yet you know the blackbird may speak at any moment, a sharp sweet waterfall of sound fall down, and the earth wake – on such a morning the milkman whistles “Auprès ma blonde” as he drives down the little alley behind the houses on Boulevard Léopold.

The poet at the narrative heart of the novel is based on a mentor of Sarton’s, someone who taught her in the mid 1920’s when Sarton was twelve years old and a student at the Institut Belge de Culture Française in a suburb outside Brussels.

When a writer knows where she is going, when she uses sentence structures that show an awareness of the complexity of situations, when she employs words that are not the simple or obvious ones – doing so in the service of something that is not simple or obvious – I am snared. I follow her.

Many readers of May Sarton do. We become a following. We are linked by a feeling of shared allegiance to that solitary life and the words that got written when no one else was around. In a way, we own ourselves heirs of her quiet hours.

Recently in my own quiet hours I have turned to a Belgian author whose books would have been available in specialized bookstores in Brussels in the mid-1920s. Pierre Charles, S.J., and his writings are familiar from my seminary days. I do not imagine either the twelve-year-old Sarton or her poet/teacher Marie Closset being drawn to a book of meditations by a young professor of theology who then lived an hour away in the university town of Louvain.

In time La Prière de toutes les heures (1923) would be translated into nine languages. The custom of collecting a series of short meditations – each three or four pages long – and publishing them was not new when Pierre Charles was ordained a priest in 1910. A number of such collections would have been available in the seminary library in Tronchiennes where Pierre Charles had completed his two-year novitiate in 1901 and where he had spent a final year of spiritual formation after ordination.

Perhaps the skill of creatively inviting a listener into a Gospel text was one that Pierre Charles early recognized as his own. An individual making a retreat led by the young priest or attending a Sunday Mass where he had preached may have asked for copies of his words. What evidently had the power of helping people think about their lives might have seemed worth sharing with a larger audience.

When a writer knows where he is going, when he uses sentence structures that show an awareness of the complexity of situations, when he employs words that are not the simple or obvious ones – doing so in the service of something that is not simple or obvious – I am snared. I follow him.

I do not know that many other readers do. A hundred years after their publication, I do not realistically expect that there is a following for his writings. I look at old black-and-white postcards of the seminary at Tronchiennes and imagine a young Pierre Charles along its paths and in its chapels, wondering to himself what his life will be like, wondering what the rest of the twentieth century will be like. My allegiance to that solitary life and the words that got written when no one else was around may have to remain itself a fairly solitary thing.

I do not regret owning myself the heir of another man’s quiet hours.