Archive for May, 2014


The First Nicene Council

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – On his return from Jerusalem , where he met with Pope Francis at the Holy Sepulchre, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, has revealed an important appointment for unity between Catholics and Orthodox: a gathering at Nicaea in 2025, where the first real ecumenical council of the undivided Church was celebrated.

Whether this is a formal Council of the Church or a commemoration, this is unprecedented. And the timing – a little over ten years to prepare – seems providential; there will be plenty of time for all sides of the incredibly diverse Orthodox and Catholic worlds to hash it out beforehand. You can read the whole article here: 


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As May Passes



Ready or Not

You know as soon as the leaves begin to emerge on the trees that the end is near. You can no longer see the cardinals singing in the trees, let alone the warblers, generally duller in color, soon to appear. Spring, so slow in coming, is gone too fast. February, allegedly the shortest month, seemed eternal. May, allegedly among the longest, flies by in a rush.

And now here comes summer…

Keep it Simple

Sometimes one must grasp the enormity of the situation to understand the simplicity of the solution. Wendell Berry, back in 1990, said that the goal was to make a world  ‘fit and pleasant for little children.’ Think for a minute how different the world would look if that was the criterion that inspired politicians and hierarchs and well, all of us, when we make decisions, especially those that affect the common good.

John the Quixotic

My friend John Cavanaugh O’Keefe is one of those who grasps such simple truths. He has recently written a book, Straight Guilt, which he sent me to review, which attempts to build bridges between prolifers, immigration advocates, gay people, and other presumed natural enemies. I am probably the last person qualified to review his book, as I have known John since 1979 and I cannot read it without hearing his voice and seeing his face, earnest and honest. John is a pacifist and was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. When war’s end coincided, roughly, with Roe V Wade it seemed a logical next step to try to stop the killing of yet more innocents. For John is one of a handful of people I know who is not delusional: moral truth is simple and every life is sacred.

That is not to say that he is always right, when he goes beyond these truths, or that he is realistic in his aspirations, only that to John, Love is commanded, no exceptions, and people are presumed to be reasonable. Of course reality carries no such guarantees, and a book that begins with a treatise on the Latin Catholic concept of the Trinity might just be off-putting to everyone from secularists to Orthodox Christians to Muslims to Jews.

But if John’s history of honest dialogue is any indication, it will be worth it for the handful of those who can grasp the value of honesty and charity, those few who can find in their common humanity a grounds for respect, a motivation to listen.

Painting by Paul Bailey


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Memorial Day 2014



This is Memorial Day, and the land is full of high talk of the sacrifice of the mostly young men and women whose lives have been lost in war, of their heroism and selflessness.

And that is fine insofar as it goes: there is nobility in giving one’s life for something greater than the self. But such talk also can be employed by those with a vested interest in glorifying their own ignoble pursuit of empire and profit at the expense of young lives, and in silencing those who would criticize their policies. ‘Support the Troops’ easily become a mantra to silence dissent. That an uncanny number of those most eager for war in fact did their best when they were young to avoid military service only adds to the sin.

Let us remember the fallen troops, certainly.

But let us remember as well that most of their lives were wasted in the service of power and money, not in defense of freedom or any of the other pretty words that are thrown about. And let us remember the multitudes of lives in other lands that have been taken in our imperialistic misadventures.

And let us vow to work for peace.


Beyond Perfect

We have been blessed by a string of absolutely perfect May days: clear blue skies, white cumulous clouds, a soft breeze. These days remind me of my wedding day, and of my Michigan boyhood. Michigan, surrounded by water, is a very cloudy place. This is not good in November and February, which are dark and sunless, with grey clouds hovering low overhead. But all summer there are a lot of days with fluffy white clouds floating in an azure sky. Like the other day;  I was carrying mail and at the moment the words “could this be more perfect?” formed in my mind a pretty young woman pushing a stroller entered my field of vision, walking down the cross street in front of me, maybe two hundred feet away.

May, feminine beauty, babies: beyond perfect.


The old white oak, the biggest between Massillon and Wooster, which has stood as a dismembered stump for two weeks, came down the other day. Driving home I saw a towing company hauling away the trunk, which had been cut into huge pieces. Even in parts it was impressive. The next day all that remained was sawdust. Personally if I had to take down a tree that majestic I would leave the stump as a memorial…

But it did put the beech tree into focus. If you recall I wrote last summer about a large beech on my route which swept the ground. It was one of my favorite sights of the day, and the owner mutilated it, cutting all branches to about ten feet off the ground. I grieved, until the loss of three huge trees that were dear to me made me grateful that the beech at least still lived.

And the other day, walking under the beech, I acknowledged that it is still beautiful; the translucence of beech leaves in the spring is unmatched.

Yes, it is not as whole as it was, but what remains is still stunning.


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When I can, which is most of the time in the warmer months, I drive the back roads to work, around 25 miles each way. This takes me through the fertile farmland of western Stark and eastern Wayne counties: rolling hills, cropland and meadows, with some woods, and lots of dairy farms.

And lots of Mennonites.

I pass five Mennonite churches on the way to Wooster; two of them are fairly ‘liberal’, ie, they do not wear distinctive dress, and are generally moderate on questions of discipline and doctrine. The others are what I call Black Vehicle Mennonites. I do not know the formal name of the group, but they are on the plain end of the Mennonite tradition. The women look like Amish women, covering their heads and wearing long solid colored dresses (a slightly more relaxed group wears floral patterns). The men look like ordinary farmers when at work, jeans and ball caps and work boots, clean-shaven. But on Sundays the men don wide-brimmed hats and wear a collarless suit, sans tie, of course. But they get their nickname because of their custom of driving only black cars, which is considered less worldly.


Church in Black Car Mennonite country

That appears to be the only limit on the use of technology for the community, and they go for big, industrial style farms. Most of the farms are dairy farms, and the cattle spend their days in feedlots much of the year, standing shin deep in their own shit. Monstrous tractors and combines do the hard work and the farms are, by their Amish cousins’ standards, huge.

A couple of years ago religious signs began appearing in the yards of the farms. They are painted, made of wood, and carry simple religious messages: “Abide in the doctrine of Christ”, “Behold God is mighty”, “My soul thirsteth for God”; that sort of thing. Every few weeks or so the signs are retired, and new messages appear. I realize that to the people putting the signs in their yards they are meant to be messages from God, and sometimes it seems like they are. But all of the time they are messages about this small community, its values, and its understanding of who God is and what is important.

There is one farm on the road that stands out, not least because of the odor. It is a huge enterprise, with big barns and feedlots and many feeder pens for veal calves. Across the road from the farmhouse is a giant manure tank, and that is the source of the stench. This is not like the healthy smell of composted manure, or even fresh manure being spread on the fields. It is manure that has been stored, liquified and aged, maybe fermented.

It is foul.

I don’t want to be too harsh on the people who own the farm. I have stopped there to buy mums in the fall, when they have a flower stand, and they are very nice, with the straightforward and guileless air that seems to mark the Plain Peoples as outliers of pre-modernity, if not always technologically. They are not, however, as disconcerting as their Old Order Amish neighbors, who will stare like children if something or someone interests them.

And they are Mennonites; however finite their version of the Infinite, at least their God does not countenance killing or empire. And their lives are marked by intact organic human community. Divorce is rare, unwed motherhood unheard of. Faith, for any plain community, is not just a Sunday thing but an all-encompassing reality. That this often can mean dysfunction does not negate its value; that just comes with the human territory.

A couple of weeks ago a new sign appeared in front of the stinky farm. It says “Jehovah: the Most High over all the earth.”

I found myself embarrassed. I don’t know how many organic or sustainable farmers pass that way, or if anyone else noted the discrepancy of one of the more unsustainable farms in the area boasting such a sign.

But all I could think was that the image of “Jehovah” as lording it over the earth was a fitting image for such a place, which appears indifferent to the lives of its animals.

About 99% of religion, even revealed religion, is human construct. This is not bad; “human construct” is inevitable. Humans need their propositions and ordered worldviews and cannot do otherwise. We need frameworks to approach reality, and when inspired, human co-creation and cooperation with the creation can bring it to perfection and reveal the divine order and beauty at the heart of the world. At its highest, it is sacramental.

But even the best of these templates for navigating reality can become a hindrance, a distraction, especially when the human model, always by its nature contingent and incomplete, becomes, in the minds of its adherents, identified with the Absolute. The ephemeral squeezes out the eternal; image is replaced by idol. That is true whether we are talking about the width of hat brims, the exact form of Lenten fasting, the Latin Mass, or the minutia of forms and customs that eats at a certain type of religious person.

So this agribusiness farm touts the transcendent monarch with the misnomer “Jehovah”.

For “Jehovah” is not the name of God, but a pure human construct, a Latin mistranslation of the Hebrew “name of God”, the Y word, the one Catholics used to throw around with aplomb at Mass: “For our closing hymn let us sing song 176 in the missalette: ‘Have a Nice Day, Y_____.'”. Eventually the Vatican got around to instructing the faithful to not utter the alleged name, to emulate the Jews in their reverent aversion to pronouncing it aloud.

I say “alleged name” because if you read the narrative it is not a name at all. Moses asks, in Exodus 3 “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”

“I Am” is not a name, it is a koan, a mystery, the very mystery of noncontingent being. It is a playful answer, an evasion, meant to inspire wonder.

Instead, true to human form, it gets tamed and corralled, becoming the “Sacred Name” which cannot be uttered (and note my hesitance to write it). In Hebrew it is written without vowels, and how the consonants YHWH came to be rendered as “Jehovah” is a convoluted tale, one not without controversy to this day.

The “I AM” of Genesis is clearly not a personal name. When someone asks “Who are you?” and the response is “I AM” no nomenclature has been offered, only an invitation to Mystery.

“Jehovah”, though, certainly is a personal name, and one that has come to symbolize a certain take on western monotheism, heavily anthropomorphized. It invokes the wrathful “Old Testament God”, bent on justice, easily pissed. It is pure human construct, a Hebrew version of Zeus, and in this instance symbolizes in an almost cartoonish way the blindness of certain visions of the divine order. If “Jehovah” is “over” all the earth, above it as a sort of autocrat then humans, created in his image, may lord it over the land and the beasts. Whether one’s cattle are living satisfying lives is a matter of little consequence rather than a test of whether the covenant of domestication is in fact working out for both partners in the deal.

My bride suggested some time ago that I should paste another sign over the ones the Black Vehicle Mennonites display, something from Proverbs: “The just man considers his beasts.”

I don’t know if I will ever coordinate that, but I was tempted by a sign in the yard of one of the neighbors to the farm with the manure tank. It is a smaller version of that farm, with no tank but a feedlot and lots of cowshit. Their sign currently says “Buy the truth and sell it not.”

I was thinking “Buy the poop and sell it not” might be pretty funny.

And I’d only have to change one word.

Painting by Megan Lightell, of Coshocton, Ohio

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My son Patric Nichols, (not “Patrick Nicols”) and his friend Marquis, both 17, are “Burning Trees”, a nascent rock band. They are working with an erstwhile drummer and looking for a bass player. In the meantime they are playing open mic nights and busking on the streets of Massillon, Ohio, where this video was filmed:

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I have written before about the inherent injustice of leveling fines and fees in criminal cases, which is painless for the rich and devastating to the poor. Driving home last night I heard an NPR report on the matter, which went into this outrage with some depth. I muttered “God damn” many times listening to the program. From the transcript:

A yearlong NPR investigation found that the costs of the criminal justice system in the United States are paid increasingly by the defendants and offenders. It’s a practice that causes the poor to face harsher treatment than others who commit identical crimes and can afford to pay. Some judges and politicians fear the trend has gone too far.

A state-by-state survey conducted by NPR found that defendants are charged for many government services that were once free, including those that are constitutionally required. For example:

*In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender.
*In at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays.
*In at least 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision.
*And in all states except Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, there’s a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.

This was part of a series. You can read/listen to the whole thing here:


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