Tag Archives: the Fire Trail

Why Walls

HADRIAN'S WALL

Hadrian’s Wall

The heatwave in the Bay Area is a dangerous one, for much of the golden grass covering our rolling hills has not yet been plowed under. It doesn’t take much to set it ablaze, and so I’m glad for firebreaks, those borders that protect us from the fires, those walls that keep us safe.

Much has been said about borders and building walls, tall walls, long walls, fortified walls, cyber walls, customs walls, checkpoint walls. Why have walls? Americans like people. We are friendly folk. Why do we need walls?

It goes against our grain to build walls around our country, concrete walls scarring our land. In spite of the media’s assertions to the contrary (and if a lie is repeated it somehow becomes true), Americans are not racists. We found ourselves in the twenty-first century scarred by our shameful history of segregation but accepting, even lauding, integration and equal rights for all. If anything, an inflammatory press keeps the uncivil Civil War alive. And we welcome immigrants of all races, as long as they desire to be Americans and respect our rule of law. And so we build walls, borders, fire trails, to ensure this happens.

We have an iron fence around our property to keep out wild animals, for we live near a state park. Turkeys fly over the fence (it’s a sight to see, a turkey flying) and do their considerably large business on our patio. That is merely annoying, not dangerous. But young bobcats and coyotes squeeze through the iron bars. They would make short work of our cats. They are not friendly, even if cute. I was sad when we fenced our olive trees with green wire to protect them from the deer. Every fall, these bucks rid their adolescent antlers by rubbing them against the trunks, so their adult antlers will grow. The practice reminded me of children and their baby teeth falling out to make room for the permanent ones. And at some point we all must leave childhood behind if we are to become adults.

There are places for fences and walls and I hold, as does the poet Robert Frost’s disagreeable neighbor, that “Good fences make good neighbors.” The narrator in his poem, “Mending Fences,” questions the mending of fences, the building of walls, as not encouraging the true “mending of fences” between people. Many question today. We want to be friendly. We are big-hearted good Americans.

But we need to keep our fences mended, not to keep us in but to keep the coyotes out. President Reagan cried, “Tear down this wall,” for it was a wall that kept people in, imprisoning them, not a wall that kept people out. The why, the purpose, is important. Pope Francis, according to the fiery press, has decried those who build walls. That’s not quite what he meant, but he could have been more specific, more careful in his choice of words with a predatory press at his heels.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution in his syndicated column this last week referred to Hadrian’s Wall that kept the Scots out of Roman Britain: “Rome worked when foreigners crossed through its borders to become Romans. It failed when newcomers fled into the empire and adhered to their own cultures.” Immigration is fine if assimilation is desired, but dangerous if assimilation is shunned. This latter case has been true, it appears to me, with many illegal immigrants crossing our southern border.

Assimilation has also been intentionally avoided by Muslim refugees transplanted by the United Nations, encouraged and supported by “humanitarian” foundations, both religious and secular. These refugees are flown over our borders, placed in rural communities throughout the U.S., towns unprepared for those who disapprove, hate, and fear American culture and freedom. Sharia law replaces American law. But we cannot have two sets of laws. We must be equal under the law. Lady Justice is blind.

Let’s rephrase Mr. Hanson’s excellent and succinct doctrine: “America works when foreigners cross its borders to become Americans. It fails when they cross its borders to adhere to their own culture.” We are a melting pot. We need to melt (at least to a degree).

This is a start, but I would add “when foreigners cross its borders legally.” We have much in common with our Catholic neighbors to the south in terms of faith and culture, for cult produces culture. I believe most Hispanics do assimilate into American life, stabilizing it. We welcome Western cultures who respect freedom. That there are so many immigrants here illegally, that children have been impacted by this national travesty, that there are sanctuary cities allowed, cities that encourage ongoing illegal activity, is a tragedy.

As we head for the California primary on Tuesday, it is gravely unfortunate how the press, both right and left, have misrepresented the desire, indeed the urgent need, to build a wall. They hype hyperbole and invite mob rule. They silence free speech.

We should not be afraid of walls. Walls define who we are. They are a tool. They protect us so that we can thrive, can love one another and live in peace. And America must thrive. She must be the light on the hill, the beacon of hope to a world of lawlessness. She must hold her lantern high, and welcome all who love her law.

I’ve been promoting my new release, The Fire Trail (eLectio Publishing), which is about the border between civilization and barbarism. Lady Liberty commands the cover, but the sun is setting in a fiery sky. Hope is in the lit lantern she holds up to the world. Hope flames in the candles at her feet.

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The Fire Trail is now being carried by Orinda Books and Rakestraw Books as well as online retailers.

I will be doing a reading of The Fire Trail at Curves Walnut Creek (a chapter is based here), Tuesday, June 14, Flag Day at 11 a.m., 1848 Tice Valley Rd., near Rossmoor. Some of the ladies are taking parts and it should be fun. Open to the public. Copies available with a $10 donation to Blue Star Moms East Bay. Come on by!

The Fire of Pentecost

pentecost-flame2Lake Como, Italy

The Fire Trail, my sixth novel, has now been released into the world to fly on its own, and so we have flown as well, to Lake Como for a time of rest and re-creation. Settling into our hotel, we are recovering from the 20-hour trip, flying San Francisco-Newark-Milan, and the challenge of today’s airports, especially for the frail and elderly.

This morning, from our balcony, I hear the buzz of a weed-cutter clearing the hillside. Swallows chirp in the garden next door where visitors wander neat paths and beyond our terrace steep green-forested mountains descend to the long blue lake. I know, but cannot see from here, snow-capped Alps anchor the northern tip of the finger of water like winter queens on their thrones. Now, in the peace of a northern May morning, I consider yesterday’s Festival of Pentecost, a wondrous holy-day, and all that it means.

The images of Pentecost are powerful, a great distance from the gentle Jesus of mainline Protestantism. As the disciples await their Lord’s Holy Spirit promised at His ascension, they must have been fearful, wondering, and even doubtful. Their human limitations, just like ours, must have shadowed them, as they waited in hiding in Jerusalem.

And then it happened:

And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2)

They were transformed. No longer fearful, they left the safety of their Jerusalem room and entered the danger of the Jerusalem streets, no longer in hiding, speaking in other languages of the “wonderful works of God.” Soon they found they had other powers, powers to heal, to endure, to inspire, to give others the power of the Holy Spirit, in a long succession through years and centuries to this day, to this moment, our moment in time, through Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination.

The Feast of Pentecost is the fiat (meaning let it be done) moment for us all, a time we as children of God, say “yes” to Him, let it be done as He wills. For Mary said “yes” and was filled with the Holy Ghost, to nurture and give birth to God’s Son. We too, can say “yes.” We too, can be filled with His fire.

Lately I have been editing the sermons of our dear Bishop Morse, and reflecting from time to time on my last year with him, his last words. When we talked about the turmoil of our world, our church, even our local parishes, I often waited for an answer to why, some explanation for it all, and most of the time he would say, “He (or she) said yes to God. He (or she) didn’t say yes to God. That’s why. They didn’t open the door.” He would raise his brows, shake his head in wonderment, and his eyes would search mine to see if I saw too, if I understood. I did, for when you say yes, you ask that His will become yours. Let it be done. Fiat.

I have often thought of those words and their simplicity, as truth often is, right in front of us, staring at us, waiting for our response.

It is not always easy to say yes, and we often forget once we have said it. The Baptized forget who they are. The Confirmed do not remember. The Ordained look away. But if we have said yes, God will not forsake us. Then swords shall pierce our hearts, and nails shall wound our flesh. We shall know the despair of darkness, rimmed by the hope of light. In those times of terrible twilight and deepest dawn we must remember to breathe “Jesus” in and out, refilling our souls. We must remember to pray the Our Father, holding onto the words that will pull us to shore, that will give us life, that will save us.

Pentecost. They gathered on this Jewish festival day to remember the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai and were given a different kind of knowledge, commandment, and power. The English Church in time came to call Pentecost “Whitsunday,” White Sunday, for it was a traditional day of Confirmation, when the Confirmands wore white. Confirmation, of course, is a renewal, a confirming, of our Baptismal vows (vows of our godparents for us or our own vows) and is another Holy Spirit descent upon us. In Baptism and Confirmation, we say yes to God. We open the door to His will becoming ours. Let it be done. Fiat.

The disciples said yes, and on that day in Jerusalem two thousand years ago they received the Holy Spirit. And so we call this the Birthday of the Church. The Church – the descendants of those disciples – has been saying yes ever since, or at least trying to.

Last night, the evening of Pentecost Sunday, we stood on our balcony overlooking Lake Como. As a half moon rose in a chilly dark sky, fireworks boomed from a barge on the lake. Brilliant light rose and shattered over the waters, drifting down and disappearing like falling stars. The bright diamonds flashed so near I thought I might take them in my hands. But of course it was an illusion, a dream, a longing desire.

But Pentecost fulfills that desire. The Holy Spirit does indeed descend upon us and we can truly open our palms, our hearts, and welcome Him. We can say yes. We can have that desire fulfilled.

Sometimes we say no, even after we said yes, and we must repent. We must turn around, recall our yearning and renew our yes. This chance, a repeated loving chance, is the glorious heart of the Gospel, the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

My little novel, The Fire Trail, draws that crooked line that runs between saying yes and saying no, or even saying maybe. The way of yes is the way of love, of self-sacrifice for our brothers and sisters. The way of no is the way of unlove, of self-gratification. The way of yes is the way of civilization, be it Western, Eastern, Southern, Northern. The way of no is the way of the jungle, barbarism, darkness. Nihilism. Nothing.

I pray, as I watch the clouds gather over the snowy mountains, that I will keep saying yes and that God’s tongues of fire will continue to rebirth His Holy Church, to inflame us all with His will. Let it be done. Fiat.

Uncovering a Cover

Cover Art v2 (Flattened).jpgThis last week I received (and approved) the cover for my new novel, The Fire Trail, to be released by eLectio Publishing May 10. It always astonishes me when I open that email attachment. I am filled with anticipation, then wonder.

Covers cover things, in this case, the interior pages, the real book. I had signed off on the interior galley earlier, having changed a word here and there, having caught some inconsistencies. They say one never finishes writing a book; one merely abandons it. How true. I usually have a sinking feeling when I sign off on a book, for it is like sending one’s child into the great wide world. Twinges of regret will shadow my exuberance over the release, and I shall be nervous to open a copy once published. Like many authors, I am my most demanding critic and shall always see errors to be corrected and changes to be made.

And so as I gazed at the cover of The Fire Trail I asked myself if it was a good representation of the story and its themes, its characters and their arcs, the burning passion that I had seared onto the pages with my words and phrases. The cover shows the sun setting in the west beyond the Statue of Liberty, the orb of fire falling into a dark horizon, with votive candles flaming below.

I suppose it is a truth (possibly trite) universally acknowledged that humans have their own covers hiding their true selves. Does my outward manner reflect my soul or hide it? Is my book to be judged by its cover? Am I am open book, disingenuous, integrated, whole?

Our flesh, our clothing, and our behavior cover and protect us. We are born with bodies and live within them a lifetime. Body and soul are at once separate and united. And yet we have a yearning to reach out, to experience something other, transcendence beyond ourselves. Some of us make this journey with drugs. Some travel into prayer. Some are absorbed by the beauty and truth of music and art, some lost in work and some in play. In fact, being absorbed in anything, be it work, books, movies, or love of another, pulls us out of ourselves. The movement away from self is a relief, a rest, a relaxation. Self absorption is exhausting. This is why, I am told, that a good sleep is more about the rest of the mind than the body. We need a break from ourselves.

As I peer at these words through the windows of my eyes I know that I desire such escape from self. I am blessed to have found rest in God, in worship, in prayer and praise and sacrament. I’m also re-created through beauty, in music, and in nature when it is friendly not deadly. I have found rest too in books and movies that pull me into another world.

As I gaze at my new cover for The Fire Trail, I ask myself, do the images invite me inside? Just so, our outward demeanors sometimes belie rather than reflect our inward states. Sometimes they protect the inner person with layers of sophistication, sophistry, fads, political-correctness, the zeitgeist of today. Sometimes it is frightening to drop the mask, the public persona, to be open, honest, and loving.

The Fire Trail referenced in the title of my new novel is a firebreak in the Berkeley hills that many walkers and runners enjoy for the panoramic views of San Francisco, the bay and its bridges. It’s a path that safeguards civilization from the wilderness, that protects Berkeley and its university from the firestorms that rage through the dry brown grass of the East Bay hills in late summer.

The Fire Trail considers whether the sun is indeed setting over Western civilization, ushering in a new dark age. But the fire of the setting sun is also the fire of burning votives, those prayers that lighten the dark. And the fire of prayer is lit by the burning love of God.

And so today, this last Sunday in Eastertide, Rogation Sunday, we pray for our world. Rogation comes from the Latin rogare, to ask, and we petition God for peace in the world, and the freedom to pray. In prayer, we unite with God’s sacred heart of burning love.

One of the appearances of Christ after his resurrection was on the road to the town of Emmaus. The two disciples who walked with him did not recognize him as Jesus who was crucified and risen from the dead. It was only when Christ breaks bread (recalling the last supper and the Eucharistic body broken) and vanished from them that they knew who he was. They wondered at their own blindness, saying: “Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?”

It has been said that when we face the last judgment, we shall either burn with the love of God or be burned by it, for mankind cannot bear too much reality. He must cover himself with anything that will distance himself from real life, from truth and even beauty. C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, a story about the irreconcilable distance between Heaven and Hell, describes the blades of grass in Heaven that will cut our tender feet if we are not made more real in our earthly journey, more full of the love of God.

And so we uncover our hearts and minds and souls, open them wide to God’s love – in history and in the present – so that we may infuse our culture with his law and liberty, peace and transcendence. Such experience of truth and beauty will make us more real, faith warriors able to protect our culture from the barbaric and deadly, so that that fiery setting sun will rise again, revealing a new day.

Advent Editing

writingSince signing a contract with eLectio Publishing earlier this week for the publication of my novel, The Fire Trail, to be released May 10, I have been rereading the manuscript, polishing, fine-tuning. Words and phrases are deleted and replaced, sentences are shaved and reshaped, paragraphs and pages and chapters judged as honestly as possible.

It would seem an appropriate work to tackle during Advent, a season of penitence and preparation as we wait for the celebration of Christ’s advent at Christmas. For like the examination of my words, Advent is also a time to examine my heart, to see what should be deleted from my life and replaced, discouraged or encouraged, torn down or shored up, what should be shaved and reshaped, what should be confessed, judged, and absolved. It is a time when we ask that God’s law be written on our hearts.

For Advent is about change, about the editing of our lives.

When I edit a manuscript I measure it against certain standards. I’ve learned and hopefully continue to learn the craft of writing fiction, the structure of the novel, the way words, story, plot, and character weave together. I try to fill my ears and eyes and mind with good writing, to absorb vocabulary and symbols and images, to improve my own attempts to hold my manuscript up to a standard. I listen to language, the rhythm and syntax and flow of dialog and description, attending to the music of words and their dance, be it a minuet or a waltz.

Editing is about choice, choice based on a standard. And for mankind those standards were given to us when God wrote his law on tablets of stone, and Moses carried them down the mountain to God’s chosen ones. That law was fulfilled, filled with fullness, made perfect, when Jesus the Christ was born in a hillside cave outside Bethlehem. That law was fulfilled with his life, his death, and his resurrection from death into life, his shattering of the veil between man and God, his making them at-one, in his Atonement.

In the season of Advent we look to Christmas, to the celebration of the birth of Our Lord. We do this by editing our lives using his standards, his rule of law, his law of love. We want to be ready to receive him into the words and pages of our days, weeks, years, to welcome him to live in our chapters and breathe life into our own stories. To be ready we need to edit ourselves.

Some of us think we have nothing to delete or add to our lives. We are fine the way we are. The problem of sin is for others, not us. It is time then to begin with beginnings: the Ten Commandments. Curiously, they are difficult to keep in today’s culture of distraction. The first four are considered sins against God; the last six are sins against one another. Today we’ll look at the sins against God. These will be challenging enough to suggest a robust humility:

  1. God spake these words: I am the LORD thy God; Thou shalt have none other gods but me.
  1. Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them; for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and show mercy unto thousands in them that love me and keep my commandments.

Do I worship false gods? Do I spend too much time, talent, or treasure on anything that is not to God’s glory, not a part of his plan for me? Has my own selfishness hurt my children, and taught them how to be selfish too, to in turn hurt their children, my grandchildren?

  1. Thou shalt not take the Name of the LORD thy God in vain. 

The everyday use of “OMG” today is astounding. The commandment not to use God’s in vain would seem the easiest of all, and yet saying the name of God frivolously, without meaning or reverence, that is, in vain, is a common transgression. We say it. We hear it. We read it. Bestsellers and mainstream movies use this language liberally without thought to the power of words, whether spoken or written. I can edit my tongue, and edit my reading list, but it is more difficult to edit what I hear. A friend’s solution to this oral pollution was powerful: when someone says “God!” or “Christ!” my friend offers up her own prayer by adding “be praised!” The addition, I’ve found, invites holiness into the moment, making each word spoken precious.

  1. Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath-day.

For Christians, Sunday is the Sabbath, celebrating Christ’s Resurrection. I must confess I don’t always feel like going to church on Sunday, but I’m always glad I went. I’ve found that regular worship edits my soul, fine-tuning it, regulating its rhythms and guiding its dance. What happens in that simple hour of song and Scripture and sacrament is mystifying, miraculous. I am changed. Words do not fully explain it but I’ll try a few: I enter disordered and leave re-ordered, I enter guilty and leave absolved, I enter sorrowful and leave joyful, I enter depressed and leave enlightened, I enter dying and leave reborn. Keeping Sunday holy by uniting with Christ’s Body is crucial to the editing of the soul.

And so the manuscripts of Me and You are works-in-progress, to be published in Heaven, on our personal release dates, our new birth-days. There is, for me, much to work on, many areas to refashion and rebuild. The editing is ongoing, with the help of sacrament and song and Scripture, with the advent of Christ in history in Bethlehem, the advent of Christ today in the Eucharist and his Spirit in daily prayer, and the advent of Christ at the end of time.

Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.

Thanksgiving for America

flagI’m pleased to announce that I have been offered a contract to publish my sixth novel, The Fire Trail. So I am particularly thankful to God as we approach this national day of Thanksgiving.

But I am also thankful for Thanksgiving itself. It is a time to be reminded to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in spite of a culture of pouting grievance. Once a year the nation recalls, with thanks, the exceptionalism of America. We look back to our history of religious liberty and the many streams of faith mapping our great land. We celebrate our history of free speech and the vitality of civil debate that built our great academic institutions. We are grateful for the remarkable centuries of relative peace ensured by the rule of law, its enforcement, and the courts that judge blindly without regard to race, gender, class, religion. No other nation can boast these things in this way.

But as we celebrate this Thanksgiving, it seems that our national and cultural firebreak, that border between civilization and the wilderness, has been breached as never before. The flames have jumped the path and are threatening our towns and very way of life.

Can we change course in time? I’m not sure. Can we put out the fires of intolerance and terror? Can we ensure those liberties we have enjoyed, for our children and our grandchildren and their children?

In many ways we have arrived at this point through our own success in creating a civilized world. Freedom carries within it its own seed of destruction. We have not worried about invasion and tyranny and submission to sharia law. In this sense we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, for America has created a culture of ease, believing the nation would live forever. So we have become frivolous in our worries: the use of fossil fuels or windmills, offense over a slur from an officer or a teacher, academic courses that challenge rather than validate our self-esteem. The delicacy of our concerns reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.” We continue with our lives, walking on the beach, not paying attention to the tyrants who wish to conquer our shores.

Nine-eleven caused us to sit up and pay attention, as did other shootings and bombings since, and now we watch as Paris burns. We mourn, we light a candle. But Paris is far away and surely we will manage here as we always have. So we think.

Historian Niall Ferguson quoted Bryan Ward-Perkins in the London Times: “Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.” Mr. Ferguson concludes, “Poor poor Paris. Killed by complacency.”

Indeed. But we like complacency. We are not used to having to pay attention. We have others do that for us – our elected officials, our military, our great minds. After all, we don’t have to pay attention much to vote, do we? Or do we?

Eva Moskowitz, founder and chief executive officer of Success Academy Charter Schools, claims in the Journal that her astounding success in raising test scores in poor communities has been mainly due to a single principle: the students must pay attention. She gives educator Paul Fucaloro all the credit for inspiration and teacher training, explaining how “Every child had to sit up straight and show he was paying attention…students had to sit with hands clasped and look at whomever was speaking…” The teacher called on the students rather than asking for volunteers. If the student couldn’t focus, the teacher moved the student to the front of the class. “As Paul repeatedly preached to me,” Ms. Moskowitz writes, “it’s morally wrong to let a child choose whether to pay attention, because many will make the wrong choice and we can’t let them slip through the cracks…. it’s our job to teach them to focus.”

I recall my own public school years in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. These expectations and procedures were firmly in place. We were expected to listen and be prepared to answer. We didn’t sit in circles but in rows so that some students were brought to the front for closer supervision. Our attitude was graded and was the first grade my parents looked at. I could get away with B’s and C’s in academic subjects, but if there was the slightest question as to my attitude, or my “citizenship,” there would be a serious discussion about the report card.

It appears today you must send your children to a charter or private school to ensure this kind of discipline, which means that the average public school graduate has not always learned to focus, to pay attention, to have a positive attitude toward learning, to become a good citizen. It may be that many of the teachers were products themselves of such schooling and find it harsh and lowering of self-esteem to establish such behavior boundaries.

So, like the bored student gazing out the classroom window or secretly playing a digital game on a cell phone, Americans gaze out the window into the clouds, wondering whether weather is too cold or too hot, too wet or too dry. We campaign for slow-food and decry genetically modified food. We chase Twitter trends and indulge in bestseller porn.

The Fire Trail pays attention to these themes and so I’m especially thankful this Thanksgiving. I’m thankful, for I love America. I want America to be around for my grandchildren and their children, a free America, a peaceful America, and a grateful America. I want an America that holds up the ideal of a civilized world. I want a world that pays attention to goodness, truth, beauty, and most of all, love.

The Fire Trail calls attention to these things, where these ideals came from, and how we can best preserve them. It calls on the students in the back row with the dazed bored look and moves them to the front row. It asks them questions and listens to the answers. It encourages civil debate.

I’m thankful to God most especially this Thanksgiving for the astounding joyous privilege of living in this country for another year. I give thanks for those brave men and women on the battlefields of culture or combat who have paid attention and continue to watch out for us. They rebuild our fire trail daily. They keep America safe.

Thomas Sowell recently quoted Winston Churchill, appointed prime minister during World War II: “All I hope is that it is not too late. I am very much afraid it is. We can only do our best.”

We can only do our best: Another ideal to be thankful for.

 

Civilizing Civilization

booksThis last week I packaged my latest version of The Fire Trail, my sixth novel, and put it in the mail to one of several publishers. It felt like sending a child out into the great wide world. 

Much of my work has revolved around the idea of truth, how we find it, how we recognize it, how we know it’s opposite, falsity. And so the search for what is real and true is a theme of The Fire Trail. It is a search that many have made before me, explorations recorded in the literature of mankind, going back to the first scrolls. 

The mind of man has long journeyed into and through the great questions: What is right and what is wrong? What is love? What is goodness and beauty? How do we live together peaceably, respecting one another’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? We call the result, our effort at creating a civilized culture, a civilization. We have come to realize that man is not born civil or civilized, but must be taught and trained and encouraged in the art of selfless love for his neighbor. He must proffer this hope to his world, offer a way forward. 

With the ebbing of religious faith and thus the ebbing of hope in a future, a tsunami of despair has flooded our culture. We are doomed, many say. So it was with great satisfaction that I noticed this last week several optimists, those hope-sayers, who countered the pessimists, those doomsayers. 

Lord Lawson, Chairman of the Global Warming Foundation, writes encouragingly in his recent review in the Wall Street Journal of Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century. He describes Mr. Bailey’s list of current scares: overpopulation, the end of natural resources, global warming, genetic modification. Mr. Bailey challenges such scares by pointing out that global living standards are higher than ever and population trends will actually be reversing; genetically modified grain (a GMO), produced by a better breeding technique, feeds the hungry worldwide; fossil fuels are far better for the poor than wood fires, and the contribution to climate change minimal. These visions of hope have triumphed, he notes, because of free market capitalism. 

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, weighs in with “The Green Scare Problem” (Wall Street Journal): “Making dire predictions is what environmental groups do for a living… they exaggerate… Pesticides were not causing a cancer epidemic…, acid rain was not devastating German forests…, the ozone hole was not making rabbits and salmon blind.” Remedies for scares can be costly and lethal, particularly in regards to GMOs, climate change, and nuclear power, the current fears. 

The truth is that mankind throughout the Western tradition has been inspired and driven to solve problems as they arise. We have used our minds to help one another live better lives, to survive poverty and cure disease. The fears of doomsayers Paul Ehrlich (over-population) and Al Gore (global warming) are without substance and even harmful with their necessary policies, especially hurting the world’s poor. We have every reason to believe that we may be hopeful about the future, not only of the planet, but of human survival. 

That is, if we continue to be inspired and driven to solve problems, if we continue to search for truth and recognize it when we see and hear it, if we continue to teach the rich tapestry of the history of the Western world to the next generation, that tradition of civilizing inquiry. But with the loss of this “civil” education in high schools and colleges, we may have every reason for unease. With the loss of religious faith – and mystery and wonder – we may have reason to lose faith in mankind. We must equip the next generation with what works and what doesn’t (history) and with inspiration to create (the arts). 

John Agresto writes in the Journal about “The Suicide of the Liberal Arts.” While he recognizes the value of an education that will train the student for the workplace, he believes the student must also be trained to think, to ponder the meaning of life, the pursuit of truth, the definitions of beauty and goodness. The classic liberal arts curricula aimed to do this, to inspire us and “teach us how to marvel.” And when we marvel, we admit we are less than marvel-ous, we are not gods, that we have something to reach for outside ourselves. We become creative. We use our minds to help others. Mr. Agresto writes: 

“Some (literature) holds up mirrors labeled ‘courage’ or ‘friendship’ or ‘smallness of soul’ to see if we can see ourselves there… books… can show us and lead us to examine creativity and desire, love and treachery, giddiness and joy, hope and fear, and facing death… (we) ponder law and justice, the nature of innocence and causes of moral culpability, forms of government and the ordering of societies that can preserve and refine our civilization.”

And so as I handed my weighty manuscript, sleeping in its slick Priority envelope, to the postal clerk, I said goodbye and wished it well. I prayed it would find a home, that it would be midwifed into the world of readers, birthed onto white pages or tablet screens. I prayed that my little novel, a (suspenseful) love story set in Berkeley in September 2014, would be my small offering to our culture of despair, a way forward on a path to a more civilized society, one of truth, beauty, and goodness, and one of safety and sanity.

I prayed that we keep well tended that fire trail protecting civilization from the wilderness.

The Fire Trail in Our Hearts

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My good friend Bishop Morse often said, “God wins in the end.” As I age, my years and my tears tell me the same thing, for I see darkness exposed by light more and more often. 

Each of us has a border that runs though our hearts, dividing the dark and the light, the evil and the good. Only when we illuminate that dark side can we become whole as we are meant to be. It takes courage to shine light on the cancer growing in those corners, the red raw wounds of deeds and misdeeds, that done and that left undone. It takes God’s spirit to embolden us to confess our sins. 

And so as I write and rewrite The Fire Trail, a novel in many ways about that line running through each of us, between the uncivil and the civil, I am reminded that I am not immune to the dark encroaching on the light, to the barbaric crossing that border in my heart. None of us are. 

Our culture does not encourage us to be humble, since humility lowers self-esteem. But true humility allows God to wash our hearts clean, and even if the soap stings, only then can we begin to heal. C.S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” And what a relief it is to think of others and not oneself, to turn outward and not inward, to dwell on the miracle of each of us, of all creation, and not just the miracle of me. Such turning toward the light strengthens us, doesn’t weaken us, as our culture claims mistakenly. Turning toward the light, toward the commands of God and the demands of true sacrificial love, makes us larger and more real, pulls us toward certainty and sanity. 

And so when I repeat the forceful and almost-embarrassing words of the General Confession in our Book of Common Prayer each Sunday, I am encouraged to admit I have not loved enough this last week. I have withdrawn my heart when I should have opened it wide. I have forgotten my prayers, and particularly my intercessory prayers. I have squandered time, that precious gift on loan to each of us, the gift of life itself: 

“We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.”

Is the burden truly intolerable? Must I bewail my wickedness? The dark part of me says no, I didn’t really do anything wicked this week. The light part, on the other side of that fire trail through my heart, says that because I know God and have the benefit of scripture and sacraments and the Church I am held to a closer accounting, a higher mark. To whom much is given, much is required. God is, indeed, wrathful and indignant because I did not say my prayers, because I squandered my time and treasure, because I know better. They may be venial and not mortal sins (no murder involved), but even these “little” sins allow festering in the dark corners of my heart. And one sin leads to another, like cancer. 

A terrible crime is committed in my novel, The Fire Trail, near the Berkeley hills Fire Trail, the wide break that protects the town from wildfires. Other crimes cross the trail and hurt the townspeople, destroying the peace and setting fires in neighborhoods once safe. And we hear of worldwide breaches, of wars and rumors of wars, of beheadings and bombings and massacres, of eruptions of lava and ash spilling into our communities. 

Humanity will always carry that scar, that jagged line running through its heart; it will always need to tend the firebreak so that the wild will not devour the tame, so that the fires do not breach the lines, do not leap into our towns, countries, and world. 

I suppose my little novel is merely a reminder that this is true, that we must not fall asleep on this crucial watch. The guards in our towers must be awake and alert so that they can spot the first flames coming over the hill, before our people are engulfed. 

And so it is with the making of laws, good law that builds upon good law, laws that our children may in turn build upon. We in the present carry this great burden, responsibility, and honor, to watch – even demand – that this happens. We must weave the good and the true of the past into the present, so that our children may one day do the same with their inheritance. What we do, how we vote (each one of us), matters. History matters. Liberty matters. The Constitution, the rule of law, our three branches of government, all matter. Who we are as a free people in a world of unfree peoples matters. 

We will be answerable for our inheritance, whether we have squandered it, whether we have hidden it, or whether we have increased it with goodness and wisdom. 

One of my characters seeks goodness, beauty, truth, and transcendence. A reader of my manuscript, The Fire Trail, an Anglican priest, explained this week to me (forgive my paraphrasing, Father) that goodness (virtue) can only come from truth (veritas), truth being God, that without God goodness denies itself, for it becomes self-serving and proud, no longer good. It is union with God that allows the fruits of virtue to grow and flourish. St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) wrote about this. 

This is the question of our time. Can we be good, virtuous, civilized, without God? Or if all of us cannot manage belief in God, can those who do not believe see the need to respect those who do, support those institutions that will bear virtuous fruit through the building of schools, hospitals, and other endeavors devoted to the common good? 

In the early 1980’s Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book called The Naked Public Square, pointing out this great need in our nation’s public conversation. Os Guinness has written The Global Public Square, pointing out the need for such conversation in the world, the need for the Judeo-Christian perspective on culture creation.

But it begins with and in our own hearts. It starts with that line dividing the dark and the light. It begins with Sunday worship and confession and union with God. Only then can we turn to our communities and countries and world and shine the light in the dark corners. 

And, as Bishop Morse reminded me, God wins in the end. We need merely be faith-ful.

Gathering at the River

gathering at the riverMy good friend, wise counselor, and sacrificial priest, is dying of terminal cancer. He is ninety-one. He will be leaving us soon. 

I owe him my life, at least my reborn life, after returning from Canada to the Bay Area where I grew up. I was twenty-nine, wounded from a disintegrating marriage. On the third Sunday of January 1977, I climbed the broad steps of St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Oakland, holding firmly the hand of my towheaded, bouncing, four-year-old son. 

I was already an Anglo-Catholic, having come from Vancouver’s St. James, so I had high expectations as I entered the hushed nave, but my expectations were surpassed on that Sunday morning. The beauty of the liturgy with its fragrant incense, flaming candles, chanting responses, poetically profound hymns, pulled me into the heart of God. The sixteenth-century language – Shakespearean and Elizabethan words and phrasing – restored my soul and renewed my heart. I had come home to beauty, truth, and goodness, to the family of God, the Body of Christ. I had entered Love incarnate. 

The rector, a simple priest of large frame and thick hair, who preached earnestly about the love of God from the central aisle, welcomed us. The families of the parish adopted us. Over the years I traveled in the faith, learning its language, the necessary art and parts of prayer. I began to glimpse heaven, in the daily faithfulness of an Our Father and Glory Be, and in the increased faithfulness of Morning and Evening Prayer, in the joy of receiving the Eucharist into my body and soul, in the “parting of the veil” at the altar. 

I remarried at St. Peter’s, before that same altar. My son served as an acolyte and was confirmed before that altar. In the course of time, my priest and his wife traveled with me and my husband to Western Europe, to the Christian foundations of Western Civilization in Italy, France, and England. We visited monasteries, memorials, great basilicas and humble hermitages. We journeyed from abbeys to cathedrals to healing waters to shrines of the saints. My priest was a wise mentor, showing me how God worked in and through history. 

My first three novels were born of those travels. They explore our history through the journeys of Madeleine and Jack Seymour, a present-day couple who climb a ladder of Christian challenges – healing of body and soul, penitence and forgiveness, redemption and salvation, sacrificial love versus narcissistic lust. These stories comprise Pilgrimage, Offerings, and Inheritance, set in Italy, France, and England. My priest is the genius behind these stories; where they sing in key they do so because of him; where they sing off-key they do so because of me. They are given depth with his words, his beliefs, his ways of seeing and understanding that settled into my soul. 

The stories in turn gifted me with the joy of writing, and for this gift I must be ever in my friend’s debt. As he lay dying he turned to me with half closed eyes, my novel-in-progress on his mind. “The new book – don’t forget the changes,” he barely breathed. “I won’t,” I said. “They’ve already been made.” It was true, I had rewritten portions as he suggested after his reading an early draft, making The Fire Trail richer and more powerful in its consideration of barbarism and civilization. He won’t be able to read the new version until later, at the river. 

Christians never really say goodbye. They say God be with you (the origin of goodbye) or Till we meet again. My priest says he is leaving us, not that he is dying. He often said that we will “gather at the river.” I asked him one afternoon as he lay dying, “Which river? I need to know where we are gathering when we meet in heaven.” His eyes opened wide and locked on mine. “Why, the one that flows by the throne of God.” I laughed. “Of course,” I said. “Now I know where to gather.” I later looked up the lyrics, and sure enough, the refrain was just as he said: 

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.        (Robert Lowry, 1864)

When I left him that day, I kissed his forehead and said, “Till we meet again.” He barely nodded and smiled as he drifted off to sleep. 

We worked together on many projects, my saintly priest and I. I always considered it an honor to do what I could, as best I could, with the time given. I prayed about what to do next, listened to Holy Spirit nudges, trusting that the Holy Spirit, that Breath of God, would breathe me along the right path. When I made wrong turns, I prayed I would return to the crossroads and choose again. 

Sacramental Christianity, the faith taught me by my priest, is woven with these wonderful truths – the turning, the changing, the leading, the following the star. Life is a dance, a sacramental dance between heaven and earth, and through Christ, in Christ, the two – the invisible and the visible, God’s world and man’s world –  waltz with one another. Without the Incarnation, that first dance two thousand years ago, we would not be dancing with the angels. We would not know how. 

All this and much more I learned from my prayerful and penitential priest. I sing with gratitude for his life, so thankful that I could share a small part of it, and now, as he leaves us, he is teaching us how to make a “good death.” For one day I will follow him. I will leave; I will die. The best way, it seems to me, is to have made a “good life.” Then, leave that goodness in the hands of those you love and who love you. For love unites us all – the love of God, the love of Christ, the love of the Holy Spirit binding us together. And my priest loves each one of us, as we love him, binding us together in this God of infinite love.

In my freshman year in college in 1965 one of the final exam questions in my Western Civilization class was: “What is the good life?” It was of course a reference to the classical philosophers, but today I know the true answer. The good life is to know God, to be redeemed by Christ, and to live the life of a sacramental Christian. There is nothing better than that. Such goodness defines everything else.

And I owe the answer to my priest, who, in time, became bishop and then archbishop. At this writing, on Ascension Sunday 2015 celebrating the ascension of Christ to heaven, this earthly shepherd of souls lingers in his love for us, even after last rites. In my ongoing prayers for him, the river is never far from my thoughts, beckoning us, calling us to gather by the throne of God. And I realize now it is the river of life, eternal life and eternal love.

Deo Gratias…  Safe travels, dear friend.

Running the Race

Ash WednesdayToday is Septuagesima Sunday. I have read many confusing explanations for the term Septuagesima Sunday. The simplest one I have found comes from the classic work, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Eds. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1957, 1997):

“Septuagesima (Latin for ‘the seventieth [day before Easter]”). The third Sunday before Lent and hence the ninth before Easter. The name, which first occurs in the Gelasian Sacramentary [mid-8th century], seems not very appropriate, as the Sunday indicated is in fact only 64, and not 70, days before Easter; but perhaps it was coined by reckoning back the series ‘septuagesima’, ‘sexagesima’, ‘quinquagesima’, from Quinquagesima Sunday, which is exactly 50 days from Easter.”

Simple? One way or another, I find the three weeks preceding the beginning of Lent a fascinating tradition. I’m grateful that a few Anglicans still observe this little season, at least those that follow the traditional 1928 Book of Common Prayer, dating to 1662, which in turn translates missals dating to the eleventh-century Sarum (Salisbury) rite and even earlier monastic hours.

Often called Pre-Lent, these three weeks bridge Epiphanytide and Lent. They help us focus on what is coming, to consider how we might observe Lent in this year of 2015. And of course Lent prepares us for Easter. So we enter the deep heart of Christianity in these weeks. We travel from Christmas to Easter, from birth to death to resurrection, mirroring our own journeys of birth to death to resurrection.

I have been focusing intensely this last week on finishing up my early draft of The Fire Trail. And I did indeed finish it. I printed it and boxed it and put it in the mail to a local editor who will help me improve the story from many perspectives, using many writers’ tools. We will sculpt the manuscript, adding and deleting, journeying to final submission to my publisher. I have been running a race to the finish, ignoring phone calls and putting off the dentist (that one was easy).

The Epistle assigned to Septuagesima is St. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Paul says to run a race to receive the price by striving for mastery of the body. Every athlete knows this prescription to be true, that the mind must train and direct the body to do its will, must educate the “muscle memory.” The Super Bowl athletes running down the field at this moment know this to be true. Concentration and subjection of the flesh lead to winning the crown.

Corinth was known for the Olympic games; Paul uses an apt metaphor. But he is speaking of Heaven of course, not so much a competition as a preparation for seeing God face-to-face. Will we be ready at the end of the course assigned to each of us? 

C. S. Lewis writes of the divide between Heaven and Hell in his brilliant fantasy-parable, The Great Divorce. He describes Heaven as being painfully real to the wraiths visiting from Hell on their tour bus. They have little substance to them. The blades of grass in Heaven cut into their ghostly feet. Most want to return to Hell. They do not choose to stay in Heaven.

At the end of our earthly race, we want to be so real that we can see in Heaven’s light, walk on the so-real grass, join in the joyous songs of praise. But how do we run this race? Septuagesima helps us, by calling us to train our minds to discipline our bodies, to order our wills. In such discipline lies freedom to do more, love more, to live the life that God intends each one of us to live.

I’m a little winded from my own race this week. But then The Fire Trail is about such discipline, about what defines our humanity as opposed to our bestiality, about the jungle versus the civilized, about the wild versus the tame. It is about the place for custom and tradition in a free society, and the vital role that history plays in the conscience of a nation. It is about the sexual revolution and its destruction of marriage and family. It is, in the end, about what makes a civilization civil, and how we choose to live with one another, charitably and safely, freely and respectfully.

The course to Easter is set before us. We begin to consider considering our own hearts and minds and bodies. What to add, what to take away. What to permit, what to deny. In this way one day we will become strong enough to walk on real grass in blinding light with glorious song. In this way we will learn how to love.

Thanksgiving for Hana

HANA-LANIThis Thanksgiving weekend we spent giving thanks for Hana, Maui. We arrived in the dusk of Tuesday evening, flying low along the coast from Kahului to Hana. Darkness was descending quickly and a thick fog enshrouded our small nine-seater plane. I knew that Hana Airport had no radar, and if we could not land due to poor visibility we would turn around and return to Kahului Airport, where we would need to rent a car for the two hour winding trip to Hana.

Suspended in the fog, it seemed we were floating. I began to pray. Then I sensed the plane had curved out to sea searching for visibility pockets, but it was actually making a different approach, coming in from the south. Soon we saw the coastline of land and sea, the gentle green shape of Ka’uiki Head reaching out from Hana Bay, with its lighthouse alight and welcoming, and soon we heard the wheels touch the landing strip. We rolled between the lights flaring along the sides of the runway. Safe. With bowed heads we maneuvered through the exit door and climbed down the rope ladder to terra firma.

The pilot explained he used GPS (I suppose I should not have worried) but when he said that he missed the “twilight cutoff” by one minute I asked what he meant. “I’m not allowed to land at the Hana Airport after twilight.” “Oh,” I said. One minute? My prayers were needed after all.

The temps have been on the cool side even for this rain forest on the eastern shore of Maui in the middle of winter, but in spite of winds and gray skies, rain has been mostly at night and we have been able to walk a bit. But the loveliness of Hana isn’t just the tropical temperatures, the palms, the roaring surf, the little drinks with umbrellas, but rather the people. Over the years we have come to appreciate this village that nestles under the volcano Haleakala, that is protected by Fagan’s Cross standing like a beacon on one of the green foothills.

And so I wrote Hana-lani, a love story set here, and in the dreaming and the courtship of words and phrases and sentences, as I married language that reflected the many colors, sounds, and fragrances, with the family and faith of Hana, I’ve been blessed by the warm hospitality of the folks that live here. We return to Hana, it is true, to rest, relax, and listen to the surf (and sip a few Mai Tais) but also to enjoy the people.

We are in our gentle years and not quite as active as we once were, but the paths that meander over the lawns of our hotel are kind and beckoning, with views of the sea and the spewing white foam. And from our veranda we can see Ka’uiki Head, the same scene that’s on the cover of my novel. At night, surf pounds and rain rattles the roof. In the day, we read and rest, and I create my next scene in The Fire Trail. And all the while, I say my prayers of thanksgiving as we slip into Advent and the marking of a new Church Year.

St. Mary's Hana compOur time in Hana has been appropriately bracketed by Eucharists celebrated on Thanksgiving and today, Advent I. We climbed the white stairs to St. Mary’s and entered through an arched portal into the airy space where prayers mingle with breezes wafting through open windows. It is a white church, set on a green hillside, Fagan’s Cross higher up, and the volcano behind that, and today the chancel was splashed with purple hangings for Advent. Four Advent candles nested in their greens and the Lady altar had been lovingly decorated with flowers (we joined in a Rosary before Mass). The polished wooden pews have comfortable kneelers, and for this I am grateful, because I like to kneel when I pray.

They say that gratitude is a good cure for depression (and drug-free), forcing one to turn outward and less inward, becoming a bit more selfless and a little less self-centered. I think there is truth in this, and it is also true that it is a good preparation for penitence, a cleaning out of the heart. For when I am thankful for the blessings of each day, beginning with the blessing of waking to the day itself, I am humbled. And in the humbling I see places in my heart that need cleaning out… dark corners where envy, pride, idolatry, sloth, gluttony, wrath, and all their many many relatives, have hidden. It is good to give my soul a good sweeping, to let the fresh air in, just as the breezes blow through the windows of St. Mary’s.

In this holy season I will re-learn the Advent collect in the Book of Common Prayer

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

I will re-memorize these words and place them in my newly swept heart. I shall hold them close, so that I may retrieve them at any moment in any place during this holy season. They are words that sum up our hopeful faith and faithful hope, these sixteenth-century phrases of Bishop Cranmer. I would like to have that armor of light. I would like to rise to that life immortal. 

Advent St. JSo we trundled up the stairs to St. Mary’s and worshiped God with the lovely people of Hana. Many ages formed the congregation, and while I was pleased to see so many children, I was equally pleased to see the respect paid to the elderly. No one was left out, and we visitors were greeted with vine leis, a sweet kindness.

Sometimes we sang together in Hawaiian, sometimes in English, as we accomplished the “work of the people,” the Holy Liturgy, joining together in the great action of the Mass, with Scripture, sermon, creed, confession, consecration of the bread and wine, communion. In this huge prayer we took part in a drama enacted throughout the world and throughout time, and we sang with the angels and saints in Heaven. I think God was pleased with the offering of his children in Hana. 

We have entered Advent, the season of the coming of Christ Jesus among us, humbly as a child who donned our flesh and shared our sufferings, so that he could unite with us and carry us to Heaven. We now look to Christ’s coming again, his second advent, in glory to judge the living and the dead. Will we be ready? We are told it could happen now, tomorrow, the next day. So we practice penitence, as we wait for that glorious advent; we cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light.