Archive for October, 2014

Synchronicity, ie, Grace



Okay. I go through a three year religious crisis.

Not that I could never recite the Nicene Creed without flinching. Or pray the Hail Mary without tenderness.

The sort of crisis where in the end you realize that you have been stripped down to the heart, losing the human construct of your neat little religion but with faith intact and intensified.

And what remains is the essence:



The Ten Commandments (naked, without all the interpretations), which can be summed up in seven words: ‘Love God and don’t be an asshole’.

The Sermon on the Mount, an instruction manual for how to bring Heaven into Earth.

All accompanied by a greater understanding of the evils of capitalism and all its works and pomps, a realization of how everything is stacked against the poor and the new proletariat.

As I am in the midst of this clarification a new pope is chosen. He takes the name of Francis, my favorite western saint, and you know the rest. Jesuit, with the incarnational love of the poor that marks the best of that tradition. Taking traditional social teaching to its radical conclusion instead of politely stated, a disregard over rules and laws and human tradition.

He is saying what I am thinking, which is very weird.

Catholic loyalists, many in fear and others in love with one particular form of Beauty, are increasingly distressed at this pope. An open rebellion is brewing, with a certain foppish cardinal taking the role as the Anti-Francis.

Me, I think this pope is the right man in the right place at the right time.

And he is not backing off.

The other day he delivered an address to a global movement I had never heard of. And it is remarkable.

Here is the link to the pope’s latest salvo:


Read Full Post »

megan lightell aaa

I have really come a long way from the days when I edited the print journal, Caelum et Terra, the remote predecessor to this blog. Back then, and even for most of the blog’s history, I wrote with a fountain pen in a spiral notebook and sent the pages to Maclin and Karen Horton, who typed them into the computer that they used to produce the magazine, or entered it onto the blog. I did not get onto a computer until 2002, when I did some genealogical research at the library. Eventually Maclin stopped posting here and I had to learn how to work a blog. Not too hard, even for a technological moron like me. And fortunately, I  knew how to type, as a friend and I at around fourteen years of age realized that by taking a typing class we would be surrounded by girls.

In the days of the print journal I was something of a luddite. We ran articles espousing farming with horses and organic agriculture and pieces critical of the automobile, and I wrote articles against the use of technology in worship- microphones, electric light, polyester vestments, etc – and published the musings of a young Catholic man who was living primitively on the outskirts of a very strict Old Order Mennonite community.

The reason I favored limited technology was simple: I had in the past lived very close to the natural world, had done hard work with hand tools, drawn water from a well, lived without electricity, pooped in an outhouse.

And it was beautiful, profoundly satisfying.

This was particularly true when it came to manual labor. There is a direct relationship between how simple the tool is and how pleasurable the work is. And understand that by ‘pleasurable’ I mean a particular sort of pleasure, one that is not incompatible with sore limbs.

I have put up hay using a horse drawn wagon, forming haystacks with pitchforks, which is something of an art.

First the sweet-smelling hay is raked into rows, and the horses and men walk along, loading as much hay onto the fork as they can, then swinging the heavy forkful over their heads in a circular motion into the wagon. Then it is unloaded, the growing stack being thatched in such a way that when it is finished it will shed water, so the hay will not rot. It is quiet and clean labor, and the motion graceful, the whole thing an act of good work.

And I have put up hay using a tractor and a baling machine. It is loud and the cut hay from the machine is scratchy. The air smells like tractor fuel fumes and the movement of lifting the heavy bales and tossing them into the wagon, while not without its satisfactions, hardly rivals the graceful arc of the forkful of hay, a movement accompanied by the sound of  horses and pitchforks digging into grass.

I could cite other instances: trimming bushes with long-bladed clippers vs using electric trimmers, driving nails with a hammer into two by fours vs using a nail gun, splitting wood with an ax vs using a splitting machine.

Hand work with simple tools is contemplative and graceful. There is a deep satisfaction in simple things well done. Loud machines spewing noxious odors militate against mindfulness.

They are also, alas, very often so much more efficient and less time consuming that it is hard to argue against the technological ‘improvement’. Cutting wood with a bow saw may be a sweeter experience than using a chain saw, but the time and effort saved are certainly hard to argue with.

I may concede, even if I mourn the passing of beauty.

But not always.

I can think of no stupider tool than the leaf blower.

It is loud. It is stinky. It consumes finite resources. It is not one whit faster than using a rake. The person wielding the blower does not get much in the way of exercise at all, and this in an age of concern over obesity .

And what is lost: the graceful sweep of the rake, the lovely sound of the leaves, like the sound of waves, the health benefits of the dance of raking, the conversation and camaraderie .

Sometimes technology makes sense, at least in terms of time and effort saved.

And sometimes it is just stupid. .


Painting by Ohio artist Megan Lightell.

Read Full Post »

It has been one thing after another here. The baby’s burn ordeal, another emergency room trip for a kid with a spider bite, the plumbing apocalypse, expensive car repairs. Oh yeah, and teenagers, of whom I have three if you count the eleventeen year old. Four if you count the twenty year old.

How I handle all this, when I do handle it, besides a daily walk in the woods, is by breathing deeply, stretching much, and listening to soothing music for the drive to and from work.

These days I do not listen to blues or jazz or rock. I listen mostly to Russian Orthodox choral music. Or at least the sweet parts, with all the drama edited. I do this because I own several CDs from the Sacred Treasures albums:

I also have been listening to Nick Drake.

I wouldn’t say that I ever get sick of Nick Drake, but I do get sated from time to time. I will set his music aside for six months or a year or so and then come back to it. I really think his best work is of lasting value, that in the end he will be seen as the final flowering of the English romantic temperament.

I have been listening to Bryter Layter and Five Leaves Left. I can’t find Pink Moon, which everyone but me finds too dark. Well, ‘Black Dog’ is a raw wound of a song, but the rest of the album is beautiful. And spiritual and soothing.

This one song, from Five Leaves, is a constant:

A walk in the woods, calming, sometimes melancholy music, deep breathing, stretching, the rolling Ohio countryside. It’s kept me mostly sane, so far.


Read Full Post »

Apophatia V


The Church of the Poor and Changing Discipline

I did not see anyone mention that Pope Francis’ apparent openness to a change of discipline regarding communion for the divorced and civilly remarried might just have something to do with his repeated call for the Church to be a Church of and for the poor.

Capitalism is hostile to family and community life, and poverty makes marital stability highly problematic. The poor tend to have messy personal lives. And of course they cannot afford the annulment process, which almost everywhere costs money. Their lives would not be easy to untangle at any rate.

If we really are to be a Church of the poor it seems evident that traditional discipline works against that. Seeing the good in other kinds of human unions and trying to integrate people into sacramental life seems a step in the right direction.


Doctrinal disputations are really about who misunderstands ‘God’ the most.

The Apophats

The better sort of atheist is really an apophatic mystic, one who refuses to name or explain the Great Mystery.

One of these is my friend Mary, who was a sixteen year old stoned runaway when I met her and is now a professor of economics. She would say she is an atheist, as she finds any explanation of the Absolute too puny. She is a mountain climber and is so in awe of even the beauty and majesty of what she can sense that she cannot understand trying to label mysteries beyond perception. She said that the reason for my baby’s burn was ‘gravity’, and I have been meditating on the wisdom of this observation ever since.

The Other Kind…

… of atheist, though, is more like a fourteen year old, full of their foolish wisdom, popping the easy balloons of primitive faith and superstition. At their best, even they serve a purpose in taking down the tiny idols and human constructs that too many believers present as ‘God’.

Such As…

… the sadistic monster that Jean Calvin called ‘God’.

Besides that evil, Calvin also perpetuated the notion that human nature is ‘totally depraved’, incapable of any good or any love until touched by ‘God’s’ (irresistible) grace. Apparently he never held a baby, or if he did he viewed the child with corrupt eyes. A baby is human nature in its pure state, before it has been tainted with all the trauma and imperfection of the world into which it is born.

And babies are sweet, every one of them. Utterly needy, to be sure, but sweet.

And that is what human nature is: sweet but needy.


Painting by Andy Hahn

Read Full Post »

After the Fire



I love spring and fall, the times when the world is being transfigured, when every day brings something new. Of course there is change in the summer. New flowers bloom, the green leaves gradually loose their bright freshness. But most of the late summer flowers, aside from the sunflowers and the hibiscus, seem unenthused compared to the riotous and urgent burst of life that is spring.

But the fall is its own beauty, this transformation in jeweled leaf and golden field.

I only wish it lasted longer. Even now, barely approaching peak color, I mourn the undressing of trees, the coming winter.

Soon it will be after the fire, when the colors change from the reds and golds and oranges to blue and grey and black.

And white.

Though I am ready. I am ready.

Who is Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig?

She came out of nowhere and suddenly is everywhere: print magazines, websites, Facebook, and though I do not twit or whatever, Twitter.

I mean there is a Bruderhof family on my mail route and they gave me a copy of that Anabaptist community’s recently revived journal Plough. Pretty obscure, right? But I open it up to a book review by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig.

Who is Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig?

elizabethShe is all of 23, diminutive in height but not in spirit. Master’s Degree in Christian Theology from Cambridge, studying for a doctorate at Brown. Texan, descended from Confederates and Kluxers. She is really really smart and a damn good writer.

And an unapologetic Catholic leftist.

But this is not your mother’s Catholic Leftism. I doubt one would find Ms Stoker Bruenig banging the tambourine at a hootenanny Mass or agitating for women priests. She is comfortable in her faith, which includes the radical implications of Catholic social doctrine.

And she hates Capitalism.

In every photo of her she is wearing a mischievous smile. She really does enjoy tormenting libertarians and Actonites. And she is so good at it.

I have long been heartened by the realization that younger Catholics – and I am old enough that ‘younger’ means fortyish and younger- seem more open to a radical reading of Church social teaching, and are way more critical of the Acton/Novak narrative.

There are a lot of new voices, but Ms Liz is one to watch. I expect great things from this young woman.

Though how she finds time for all she does is a mystery.

If you do not, for some odd reason, know her, begin at her blog:


Speaking of Plough


When I edited the print journal Caelum et Terra, the remote ancestor of this blog, I had subscription swaps with various other journals. These were mostly Catholic, but also included the late tradtionalist Quaker journal Plain, as well as Plough, the journal of the Bruderhof Community.

The Bruderhof are descended from a remarkable group of German anabaptists, a sort of outgrowth of the German youth movement of the post-World War I age. Persecuted by the Nazis, they fled to Paraguay, then North America, for a while joining the Hutterians, another German anabaptist communal group.

That did not go so well. Think the dynamics of the influx of zealous evangelicals into Orthodoxy.

Or if a bunch of hippies joined the Amish.

What drew me to them is their intense belief that Jesus gave us clear instructions for living in Heaven, right now, in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. Their founder Eberhardt Arnold’s remarkable reflections and actions built a community that has survived many disasters and continues to prosper and thrive.

Exceptional, especially when you realize that the Apostolic experiment in communism did not last all that long. And while I am not an Anabaptist and am a firm believer in baptizing, chrismating, and communing babies, in these days any witness for living a life that takes Jesus at his word is part of the broad ecumenism of Love that is emerging beyond confessional boundaries.

Plough was not in print for many years, but the community is again publishing a print journal. It is lovely to look at and full of substantive reflections on life in Christ. And it is affordable at $14 a year.

Check it out here:http://www.plough.com/en/quarterly

Read Full Post »

The Ironic Synod


I call it The Ironic Synod.

The main question before the Synod of Bishops is whether to admit the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion, when in fact this is already allowed, so long as the fees are paid and the right hoops all jumped through. It is called ‘annulment’.

Right now in this country anyone can get an annulment.  Everyone knows this. The ‘new’ psychological criteria for judging one’s ability to contract marriage are so flexible as to be meaningless. It appears that if one is not completely psychologically integrated, at least in the illuminative way spiritually, and a love god or goddess in bed, his or her marriage is disposable.

Which is not to say that annulments are not sometimes entirely valid. I know of a marriage where the groom slept with a bridesmaid the night before the wedding. Clearly his vows were meaningless. And I know many other instances of invalid ‘marriages’.

But I also know too many cases of scandalous, if canonically correct, annulments.

To the point that no marriage feels safe. My own marriage, like many, had very rough spots early on. It would be an open and shut case, an easy annulment. I would not, could not do it, could not live with myself if I did, but if I chose to abandon the whole nearly two decades of growing and struggling and loving and enduring with my bride, of lovemaking and fighting and childbirth and pain and joy to embark on some new romantic adventure the Catholic Church would give me no grief.

Oh yeah, they have the convoluted theology, but in the end would give me no grief.

So a Church which has so undermined, maybe not Marriage as an abstract thing, but actual marriages, which will allow a church wedding for a couple even though they were adulterous lovers, which will celebrate a third church wedding so long as all the documents have been approved, which will wed two people who had previously been married to two other people in their small parish, is going to save marriage and the family?

It is a whole new world, and the Church needs to find a way of approaching it. The Christian sexual ethos has been widely rejected, and it is not hard to understand why. It has not done what it said it was going to do. Serious Christians are at least as confused about sexuality as anyone else, arguably more so, or at least confused in really strange ways. Their marriages are at least as prone to divorce. Which is not to say that they do not intuit some very central truths which evade the merely sensual.

In this changed world there are many people who are innocent victims of divorce. Sometimes they are denied communion because they, in keeping with the first thing revealed about human nature, that it ‘is not good for Man to be alone’,  have sought the singular solace of human love. Meanwhile, a scheming moral weasel can get hitched to his new sweetie in a big Catholic wedding while abandoning his family with full Church approval.

If you are a famous millionaire politician, a bishop will say the Mass.

And annulments, which cost money, are by definition out of reach for the poor, whose numbers are growing.

But I have an idea.

Pope Francis is about nothing if not recalling us all to the encounter with Jesus, with embracing the simple gospel of Love. Francis is someone who believes that the Sermon on the Mount is not just beautiful poetry but marching orders, instructions for bringing Heaven into our hearts and our world.

So if we judge no one, love everyone, forgive everyone, have mercy on everyone, assume in charity the best of everyone, if we live as if Jesus meant what he said, how do we approach the new state of things?

I think there is a model for a response.

Since 1968 every poll has shown that most Catholics ignore the Church’s teaching on birth control. Very few observe it, and those few who do have formed a subculture that is not any less screwed up about sex and has no better record on divorce than the general population. As a hick philosopher, a non-academic, I don’t have to supply documentation for this claim. Actually, I do not think the studies have been done. What I do know is what I have seen and experienced with 35 years of pretty intensive living in the heart and at the margins of that subculture.

But faced with evidence of widespread disregard for its teaching, how has the Church responded?

With non-judgmental silence.

I am not saying that clerics did this to imitate Christ. Often it was just embarrassment at the situation, or the heartbreaking stories they hear in the confessional, or maybe concern about the collection plate. But I have never ever heard from the pulpit that married people who were not acting in accord with Church precepts about sex should refrain from receiving communion.

Shit, most bishops will not refuse the Eucharist to a politician who promotes abortion, or torture, or a belligerent foreign policy, or what amounts to war on the poor.

No one stops the couple who has been married fifteen years with two kids in the communion line to interrogate them. It is, in practice, left to the individual conscience and the confessional.

Why not adopt the same attitude toward couples whose first marriage failed? The Church need not revise its doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage to extend mercy to those in irregular situations. God has always condescended to human weakness. Look at the Old Testament, which allowed easy divorce, polygamy, and concubines. Yes, as Christ said, it was because of their hardness of heart. But those whose marriages have failed do not always, in fact rarely,  have hard hearts. They have broken hearts. Unless they are provoking scandal there is no need to intervene.

In fact marriage is so intimate, so incomprehensible to anyone outside the circle of two, that it is hard to see how anyone can ‘objectively’ discern much about the reality of that mystery or unravel why it fails when it does. Any conclusions must be tentative.

This same nonjudgmental silence should apply to same sex companions. Just as one may not assume that any given wedded couple is contracepting, regardless of the polls, no one should assume that companions of the same gender are doing anything immoral unless they are calling attention to it. Recognizing that isolation causes great pain and temptation, persons with same sex attraction ought to be encouraged to be in affective and committed companionship. And treated with mercy if that companionship and affection leads to physically intimacy, surely the least of sins.

Let the annulment process remain for those clear instances of bad intent, impotence, rejection of children and the like. You know, the more ancient criteria for annulment. Ditch the psychological criteria. Adherence to the psychology establishment has a lot to do with the abuse scandal: men were returned to ministry time and again, with the assurance of the psychologist that they were healed. Not that it explains it all; there is plenty of just plain old clericalism to blame as well. But many well-meaning bishops put aside their reservations in light of ‘expert’ opinion. And many of us have seen bizarre instances of zealous Catholic couples, near thirty when married, begetting umpteem kids, involved in various apostolates and intentional communities, suddenly declared incompetent at the time of their wedding, free to start over.

Perhaps the Church should examine whether, as in Orthodox praxis, second, non-sacramental unions could be approved for those shipwrecked by failed unions. After all, the Church has never said that non-sacramental unions are evil. They are good things, even if lacking a certain higher dimension.

And in the infinite Mercy of God, who knows where nature ends and grace begins?


Read Full Post »


jaison cianelli




after the baby was burned


hot tea

scalding fresh flesh

the call from the hospital

the panic

the deep breathing

trying to calm the fears

the breaking voice


twelve days

in the burn unit


my happy baby

who has suffered so much

in his one year


the big baby turning purple

unable to pass my bride’s

small hips


the nurses panicking


the baby two weeks old

burning up

the poke and prod

the iv

the spinal tap


and now

still smiling weakly


when he comes home

there is the sudden leak

in the bathroom pipes

which is going to cost

more than we have

or can cough up

our cards maxed

plus it’s the weekend

so even if we can find a plumber

who has a plan

or a high interest loan

from the bankers

we have two more days

with no running water

and people who need to drink

and poop

and shower


and i

the father


the father


once again

torn between

despair and rage

and love


i leave


to drop my maria

who is eleventeen

at the tribal rites

because she

is part of a mob flash

or something

at halftime


she talks

all the way to the game


but so preoccupied with grief

over the baby

and the plumbing apocalypse

and the fight with the eldest son

i do not make plans

for picking her up


she is so happy

and alive

and beautiful


i just forgot


i watch her walk off

into the crowd

of strangers

me basking in her fire


not thinking


driving away i realize

i am

the stupidest father ever


i figure she is with her friends

she will use their phones

to call

or she will see her brother

and he will take her home


at ten thirty

when the phone does not ring and does not ring

fighting the angst

the stupidest father ever

drives to the stadium

big enough to hold the whole town

in this football crazy place

there are thousands of people

heading out


hundreds remain


he parks his car


feels her presence

by the main gate

ignores it

and begins

a more systematic search

past the marching band

and milling sports writers

and old guys in high school colors

orange and black

into the stadium

all but deserted

then out and back

to the main gate


and there she is


talking to kids


her face smudged

with tiger stripes

this girl with eyes

of nameless colors


this girl who finishes my sentences

and knows my thoughts

and says the same word

at the same time i do

the girl with seven brothers


the stupidest father ever

hugs his girl

teary eyed

though she

does not see

in the half light


we turn to

head home



my bride


whose eyes say we must talk


tells me we need to fill the five gallon jug

because we don’t want to turn the water on

and make the leak worse

the wood already wet

and ready to rot


near midnight


to the 24 hour laundromat

to get change for the water machine


there is one soul

in the florescent light

and the hum


a company  truck



he is playing pinball

in the corner


in the steel ball

and the motion

nudging the machine


he never sees me

even when the coins

come clinking down


home again

after the shuffle

of reentry


always jarring







when everyone is sleeping



to the capitalist paradise


i mean the paradise for capitalists


thirty years working

nothing to show

financial plan

eventual bankruptcy

punch in the nose

after punch in the soul

while maintaining





earlier today

driving home from work

heavy sky


but low sun shining

horizontal rays

drenching ohio

with golden light

a transfiguration

in soy

and corn

and leaf

beneath the brooding sky


breathing deep


taking it in

with russian hymnody


in the air





not ready for the chaos

but prepared


for the utter incomprehensibility of god


and all things



Painting by Jaison Cianelli


Read Full Post »

Burnt Straw III



Every time I hike in the local wood everything is more golden. I wonder if there is anything more beautiful than watching a leaf dancing its one dance earthward, or even sweeter, into a still pond. I have always loved Fall, second only to Spring, with the beauty of transfiguration shining through, even in death and decay.

Fr Benedict

Fr Benedict Groeschel died on the eve of the feast of St Francis, October 3. To some he is best remembered for some clumsy statements he made about abusive priests well into his dotage. While some cynics suggest that he was allowed to speak publicly when he was clearly, and painfully, in decline because his order saw him as a cash cow, anyone who knew Father understands that no friar wanted to approach him with such a suggestion. And anyone who knows the friars knows how foolish such an explanation is. Like you choose to sleep on the floor with a thin mat and live on alms and you are a religious materialist?

Benedict was ornery, and a lot more interesting than most of the hagiographical eulogies floating around suggest. He was a great man and a holy man.

But not a holy card man. He could be an asshole.

While I have long thought that I should write about Fr Benedict when he died, now that he has I cannot.

In time I will tell my tales.

We’re Number One

There is a woman on my route, a retired professor at the local college. She is a Republican of an almost vanished kind: prochoice (she gives money to Planned Parenthood), an environmentalist and birdwatcher, anti-union, concerned about illegal immigrants, scared of ISIS and Ebola, and a Unitarian.

Just about my political and religious opposite, aside from the Green stuff.

I like her very much. She is vibrant, and of an indeterminate age. She works hard, gardening, mowing her lawn in the summer, shoveling her long driveway in the winter. She is a lively conversationalist and great fun to talk to, though we agree about hardly anything.

She has a sister and brother in law who have lived in Switzerland for many years. She was telling me about their son, a musician who became addicted to opiates. He was sent to a rehabilitation center for three months, where he kicked his habit. The cost was the equivalent of $50,000, which was covered by the State.

We talked about the contrast with the American approach, which would have been to spend far more money incarcerating the young man, which would have done him, and his community, little good. Or more accurately, would have brutalized him.

That is how insane America is: we imprison people who are in pain and seeking relief. We have the largest incarceration rate in the world, mostly because of the ‘War on Drugs’.

As many wags has said, drugs won.

Although the lady does not believe in State sponsored health care, we at least agreed that if money is to be spent it is wiser to spend it on healing than punishment.

I love it when affectionate opponents agree.



Read Full Post »

Owen White, who sometimes comments here, is asking a number of people 10 questions, including me. The questioned comprise a pretty wide swathe of  humanity: from a monarchist monk to a socialist, with lots of contemporary Orthodox and Catholic writers and thinkers, including a representative or two of  the emerging New Catholic Left, which is nothing like your mother’s Catholic Left. What all these folks do have in common is an abhorrence of capitalism, the economic system from Hell. Here are my answers, along with Owen’s introduction, which I have filed away for days when I feel alone and misunderstood. Though the Trollope comment is not accurate at all. Clerks spend their days indoors with forms and numbers and bureaucratic nonsense. Carriers are outdoors most of the day and the work is physical and often grueling, just about the coolest working class job around, quiet,solitary, clean, plus you work even in inclement weather. Owen has promised to answer the ten questions himself, which I will publish here. You can see his other interviewees here, on the sidebar:http://theochlophobist.blogspot.com/


Daniel Nichols. Writer. Painter. Iconographer. Postman. Daniel blogs at Caelum Et Terra (he will hit his 10 year mark in January!). Prior to that he edited and wrote for the physical Caelum et Terra journal, which is where I first encountered his work. I was working at Loome Theological Booksellers in the 90s, and my good friend Chris Lentz, a manager there, had every copy of Caelum, all of which I devoured, cover to cover, over the course of a few months.

Trying to make the Leftist sentiments I was raised with fit into a “faithful to the magisterium” American Catholic ideological framework, I looked to Catholic agrarianism as a potential way out of the godawfulness I saw in those camps influenced by the likes of Neuhaus, Fr. Fessio, and Tom Monaghan. I had gone to the occasional Chesterton Society meetings, and had met a lot of self-proclaimed distributists via my position at Loome’s, but it was very obvious that none of those folks had a damn clue what farming life or even working American life was like. Most of them were very poorly read as well. Hell, the head of the Chesterton Society in the U.S. was there in MN, a frequent visitor of ours at the store, and I still chuckle when thinking about this guy who lived smack dab in the middle of the suburb that is home to the Mall of America, and made his very much not untypical middle class life work by being a lawyer for some super rich rancher who was suing the U.S. govt because the Air Force flew over his ranch, this Chestertonian guru having on the side (and later as his bread and butter, thanks EWTN) a hobby preaching to American Catholics about the wonders of guilds and the agrarian life. But that sort of thing was not at all anomalous — I heard so many times in those circles men who had zero working class life experience wax on regarding how guilds needed to replace unions and how Social Security and all the apparatus of the nanny state was actually hurting the working classes, and so forth.

But with Daniel I found a voice that wasn’t like these. Someone who actually knew something about actual work, and actual farming. He wanted that agrarian dream to work too, and the history of the in print Caelum could be said, among other things, to be a maturing realization that agrarianisms and the like were simply not going to provide a way out of our late modern, late capitalist existential and religious and social predicaments. Daniel laid it all on the table. He still does.

Daniel, on his blog and others, and on social media, serves as a prick to the consciences of middle class (and wealthier) American Catholics who want to rest in their petty and determinedly ignorant addictions to movement conservative Paul Ryan / Raymond Arroyo and/or libertarian Acton Instituteish patronizing tropes regarding what working people in America need to do and have done for them in order to thrive. He is that rarest of birds – an actual working class person who has lived the life he was supposed to (big batch of kids, etc.) by conservative and trad Cath standards, someone who understands First Things / EWTN neo-Catholicism, and can speak that language, but yet has the real working class knowledge and life experience to speak to the bullshit that is that aggregate of “believing” American Catholic answers to social ills and political and economic policy postures. And the integrity of his life and his writing is not as easily dismissed as it is ignored.

One of the most compelling, interesting, and exemplary posts that brings out the milieu Daniel is great at cultivating is his now famous (and in some circles infamous)  NFP post and thread. It might take you some days to read all (as of this writing) 770 comments, but it is worth the read if you are at all interested in American Catholic ideology and experience regarding birth control.


Both sides and all sorts of experiences present their cases and their stories and their arguments, and the result is such that anyone who comes away from it feeling triumphant and confident about their beliefs about ABC and NFP and the like must be either a blazing idiot or demon possessed.

Daniel has been a thorn in my side on occasion, and I in his on perhaps more occasions. I tend to be sympathetic, in principle if not in immediate advocacy (for tactical reasons) to old Leftist “solutions” to certain problems. Daniel tends to stress mercy and non-violence and all that jazz. I suppose we are good for each other in any number of ways. Daniel has become a friend, one I trust, and one whose life narrative and writing I hold in very high regard.

And that he is a postman gives him all the more charm, especially as he so often writes of his working life, particularly the walks and conversations he has. I like to think of Daniel as a radical, working class Trollope (who worked for the Royal Mail as a bureaucrat and inspector) for our generation.

Here are Daniel’s answers to my 10 questions:

1. A friend offers to make all social/vocational/financial arrangements in order that you may spend 3 months in the location of your choosing. Anywhere in the world. Where would you go, and during what season?

DN: Family legend says that before my father’s family were in Ireland, where the name was ‘Nicol’, they had come from the Isle of Skye, in the Scottish Hebrides. Irish genealogy generally hits a dead end in the 18th century, but there is a Nicolson clan on Skye and I generally trust oral tradition. The place has always seemed magical to me, so Skye beginning in very early Spring.

2. A friend who has suffered considerably in recent years asks you to recommend a novel that you found moving, and/or which helped frame how you view human life. Which novel would you recommend?

DN: I am not aware of a novel that formed me in any great way. I would suggest instead to read the gospel of John.

3. You may have any (living) musician or group of musicians in the world come perform a concert at the location of your choosing for you and your friends and whomever else you would invite. What musician(s)at what venue would you choose?

DN: Are Fleet Foxes still together? If so, that would be great, and the venue would be my friend Will Hoyt’s farm in the eastern Ohio hills. Before they are all fracked up.

4. If you had to work with your hands in order to make a living(trade, craft, manual work of some sort) what tactile vocation would you like to do?

DN: I would paint, as I do now, except make a living at it. And I once sculpted in stone, and loved it, though I would want to use sharper chisels than I did.

5. Describe a garden, or a field, or a forest that was or is important or notable in your life.

DN: Five minutes from my house there is a state nature preserve, the Jackson Bog, around 90 acres of fine low wooded hills and ponds and fen, which has been a source of sanity for me through the years.

6. You may have a meal and drinks with any living person on earth with whom you have never had a conversation. Name the meal, the drinks, and the person.

DN: I would do what I do now, stop at the Wooster Brewery for an IPA after work and strike up a conversation with whoever is sitting next to me. The clientele is so diverse there that it is nearly always fascinating.

7. Name a painting that has moved you (and perhaps tell us why).


DN: The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, at San Marco’s in Florence. This mural is at the top of the stairs, and the serenity and the purity of color is breathtaking, not captured at all in reproductions.

8. A student tells you that she plans on memorizing one poem, and intends to recite that poem at least once a week for the rest of her life. She asks you for your recommendation for said poem. What poem do you recommend?

DN: ‘The Waking’ by Theodore Roethke, my favorite poet; the second poem with this title that he wrote, the one that begins ‘I wake to sleeping and take my waking slow’.

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

9. Describe your ideal quotidian evening? [Nothing special, but as you like things to go.]

DN: A quiet evening, uninterrupted, with my bride. With eight kids this pretty much never happens.

10. You are on a nose-diving plane that is obviously going to crash,bringing about your certain death. You intuit that you have between 30 and 60 seconds before you lose consciousness. What words come to mind during this last bit of time you are alive?

DN: Dear God.

Read Full Post »

Burnt Straw II



So Sam had a check up yesterday.

Sam, who is an almost preternaturally happy baby, started crying hard as soon as he saw the doctor in her white coat approach him. He associates such things with suffering.

The doctor said Sam is all but healed, though his skin is still red. He will have no scars, the doctor said. She wants to see him in a month.

And we walked out of the hospital with our child.

I thought of my recent wrestling with ‘God’, my asking why.

And I felt bad. I became acutely aware that we were walking out of the hospital with a living baby, one who can walk and is starting to talk. I thought of the many parents who have walked out of Akron Children’s Hospital, their children’s bodies left behind.

When I got home I happened upon a story about the pope. Francis was commenting on the reading from the Book of Job in the Roman liturgy for the day. He noted how Job’s prayer in the first reading sounded like  a curse.

“He had lost all patience and he says these things. They are ugly! But he was always accustomed to speak the truth and this is the truth that he feels at that moment,” said Francis, and he noted how the prophet Jeremiah  had cursed the day of his birth.

“But is this man blaspheming? This is my question: Is this man who is so very alone, blaspheming? Is it blasphemy when Jesus complains – ‘Father, why have You forsaken me?’ This is the mystery.”

The pope also made some remarks about not overdramatizing your situation, about remembering those with much greater sufferings.

So maybe the guy bitching about his broken smart phone needs to remember my scalded baby. Just as I, walking to the car from the hospital with my baby sleeping on my shoulder, needed to remember  the parents who have made that same walk with no child in their arms.

But it is not blasphemy to chafe under the load of circumstance. Nor to speak the truth as you know it, even to the Absolute.

So long as you remember the conclusion of the Book of Job.

Which, okay, is maybe a little too much, but the part before Job gets it all back and then some is profound.


Remember last fall, when I wrote of the destruction of two huge trees, an oak and a maple, on my route? The man who owns the house had previously cut down a row of evergreens that ran along the border of his property.

He was not done. This past summer he cut down two of the three remaining smaller trees in his yard. He also removed all the large shrubs around his house and replaced them with small boxwoods, surrounded by gravel. I had to touch them to make sure they weren’t plastic.

His lawn had been pretty weedy, and so he cleared it of old grass and reseeded it. Apparently he chose one of the cheaper landscape companies, because when the grass sprouted it was obvious that there were a lot of weeds in the seed. No doubt when he called to complain he got a recording saying that the number had been disconnected.

So now his house sits surrounded not by the lush lawn he had intended but by a weedy mess. It sits as if in a wasteland.

I wish I could say that I feel bad for him.

Though actually I do feel bad for him. His wife died a couple of years ago, age 60 or so. If I have a package for him he always answers the door in his bathrobe. He rarely leaves the house. I just wish his grieving had not resulted in the death of so much beauty.

I also, later in the fall, reported that the largest tree in my 25 mile commute, an ancient white oak, had been cut down. For a long time there was just a big area of sawdust to mark its place. Then one day with a shock I saw that the place where the big oak had been had been paved over.

If it had been me I would have left the stump as a sort of monument.

To pave it with blacktop seems a sort of blasphemy. But then I have always revered trees. After women and babies and small children they are probably my favorite creatures.

If there is anything good that came from the deaths of these old trees it is that my mourning over a beech tree, one of my favorites on my route,  that had been trimmed of all its lower branches is mitigated. Sure, its glory is diminished. But at least it lives and is still beautiful…

Photo by Ritva Kovalainen

Read Full Post »