Archive for November, 2014

Black and White and Brown



An hour north of here, in Cleveland, the police last week shot and killed a twelve year old black boy who was wielding a toy gun. True, the gun looked real enough, and the orange tip that was supposed to mark it as fake was missing.

But the policeman jumped out of the cruiser and shot him within two seconds. No warning, no call to drop the gun. No shot to the leg to bring him down. Just shot dead, on sight.


This comes, of course, in the wake of the Ferguson fiasco, and of other high profile shootings of black males by white cops.

The usual reactions entail. A certain sort of white person rallies to the cop,  certain of his innocence and of the criminality of the victim. Most of what is used as ‘evidence’ would convict my sons, or would have convicted me at fourteen.

Black folk, on the other hand, see each new killing in light of their experience as black people, understandably enough for all but the apparently vast numbers of empathetically challenged white people, who can’t imagine why black people are so touchy.

And the pundits punditize about the sorry state of race relations in America, about the racial tension seething just beneath the surface of American life.

Well, maybe.

I have the unique experience of living in two economic worlds. My postal coworkers are comfortably middle class or above. Most of them earn a six figure household income, with spouses working decent jobs, two kids.

I, on the other hand, with one income and eight children can be safely described as working poor these days, though it is something of a shock to recognize this. We live in a neighborhood that was solidly middle class when we moved here seventeen years ago. Today it has declined and many of our neighbors are poor and I am daily reminded of how much better off I am with a decent union job, paid leave and the rest.

Among the comfortable there is palpable racism, mostly born of fear. But among the working poor and lower middle classes around here there is little observable racism. Black and mixed couples and their children do not raise an eyebrow and it is common to see white grandparents with their mixed race children, always beautiful, sometimes stunningly so. This is startling to someone of my vintage, who remembers socially acceptable racism as the norm, not so long ago.

Not that there are no tensions, especially among young men. A couple of years ago my two oldest sons, then 16 and 18, were talking bad about the young black men they knew from school, guys with aggressive and thuggish attitudes. They were using stereotyped language and were little inclined to try to understand what goes into the anger of young black men, which is of course easier from a distance. They were so mad I worried that they were becoming racists. Then the younger formed a friendship and musical partnership with a mixed race kid, and more recently the older one fell in love, hard, with a young black woman he met at work.

This is purely anecdotal, but here in the Steel Belt of eastern Ohio the poor and working class are the least racist segment of society. Working and going to school and  living with other races disarms prejudice, humanizing the Other.

Not to mention the daily complications of struggling to deal with the ‘Justice’ System, the bureaucratic bullshit one must navigate to find some help , and the incredible stress of trying to live  in the capitalist utopia of modern America.


Well, a utopia for the capitalists, anyway.

But sharing a common experience of oppression, recognized or not, of course men and women fall in love, make love and make babies, regardless of color. And grandmas and grandpas lose their prejudice in light of love for their grandchildren.

It is not thus among the affluent. Little League games with the affluent suburb just north of here are illuminative. The Massillon teams are racially mixed and heavily tattooed and pierced. The Jackson crowd is lily white, with the occasional east Asian.

It is little remarked, this lack of racism among what are viewed as a backwards class, all rednecks and hicks. Humanity seems to have trumped race, at least among the marginal, which is the glory of what is left of the working class.

mixedThat and the beauty of the little mixed race children, always surpassing the beauty of their parents.

Which is God’s argument against racism.

This is not to say that America does not have unresolved racial issues, nor to deny that the police are increasingly out of control and hostile, especially to black males. Or that any of that is going to go away soon.

But in one corner of the world love has overcome racism, with beautiful children the proof.


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One of the things that worries me about the current annulment situation in the Catholic Church and the attendant controversy about admitting those in irregular relationships to communion is the prospect of the rise of a sort of gnostic cult in the church of the ‘canonically married’, of those few deemed psychologically integrated and sexually mature and spiritually wise enough to actually be able to achieve a valid marriage.

Or who can afford the price of the annulment.

Conservatives fear the pope is tossing Catholic teaching on marriage , but they needn’t worry. The Church’s praxis has already effectively done that.

What the Church is wrestling with is not the notion of the indissolubility of marriage, but exactly how to deal with people in less-than-perfect situations, especially when everyone knows cases of scandalous annulments.

Dealing with moral imperfectioin shouldn’t be that hard. The Church has long understood that while Jesus calls us to perfection he demands far less. That is why men who make their living from exploiting workers are not forbidden communion, why soldiering and banking and voting against the poor and the enwombed is tolerated.

I say give communion to everyone who approaches, especially the babies. Give it to the nice old ladies who live together and the homeless man and the hooker who sends her kids to the parochial school and the flamboyant black drag queen.

Which I have actually seen in DC 25 years ago at the Latin Mass at St Mary’s downtown, the one where I worshipped with Justice Scalia and Pat Buchanan and tons of Christendom and TAC alumni and street people.

The one with the anti-Jewish conspiracy literature on the table during coffee hour and the glassy-eyed families in suits and long dresses.

For humans defy classification and are full of surprises.

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Where’s the Benedict?


St Benedict in the cave at Subiaco, school of Fra Angelico.


The biggest problem with the “Benedict Option”, besides the source, is that it lacks a Benedict.

And if there is a Benedict in the world today he would not be recognized. This is not medieval Europe or modern India, where seeking the Absolute in solitude is honored. St Benedict would just be another homeless guy living in the woods.

It is going to be really hard for me to follow Jesus soon. Word is, Rod Dreher is writing a book about the B.O. He is probably going to make a good bit of money from what is in essence regurgitated Caelum et Terra stuff I wrote twenty years ago, dumbed down and made safe for bohemian Republicans.

I wrote about creating an alternative culture in the boonies. He writes about Special Christians playing church and eating kale in the suburbs, safely removed from the corrupt world. Or something.

I no longer believe that creating a counterculture is a good strategy. I am skeptical that modern humans are capable of such a project, based on what I have seen. I have come to see that Vatican II’s call to embrace human experience, to transcend moralism and reaction, to engage the culture without compromising the gospel of mercy, is going to be the blueprint for the next phase of the Church’s evolution. And we have a pope who is ushering in this way of Love.

The other major theme behind the journal is one I completely stand by:  the tragedy of the sundering of grace and nature, of technology obliviating primal human experience, of wonder and reason divided, of the poverty of human experience mediated by artifice. The neocons way back when mocked this as ‘holistic’ and it is indeed.

Humans are growing further and further from engagement with the world that ‘God’ breathes into existence with every moment, of Eternity here and now. Alienation has grown as technopoly has triumphed.

I really wouldn’t mind if someone wrote about that.

With a fountain pen.


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Real True Stories I


My grandfather, Earl Nichols, around 1950.


Saginaw County, Michigan, 1955


One of my first memories was a dream.

I was very small. We lived in the flat farmland of Saginaw County, two houses from my Grandma, my father’s mother. My cousins and I called her ‘Ma’ because that is what our daddies called her.

The land was not exactly treeless, but the virgin white pine forest that covered most of Michigan when the French Jesuits had arrived in the 17th century had been wiped out fifty years earlier, and all that broke the monotony was second growth poplar and birch. Great for brambles and berries, but all that flat land looks a lot prettier today, now that the hardwood saplings of my childhood have grown tall.

Most of the land was cropland, though, as this is deep black soil, among the best in the country. My Grandfather and Grandma had moved south to Saginaw County from the Ogemaw Hills fifty miles north, after the War. None of Grandpa’s sons were interested in farming, and from what I have been told, neither was he without his sons to do the hard work. For some years he ran a pool hall in town, while my father, the eldest, ‘stared at a mule’s ass all day’, as he later put it.

No wonder Dad was mystified years later when I lived on a communal farm that used horse power, the real kind. And no wonder my dad, a WWII vet who had to carry heavy packs through rough terrain (10th Mountain), thought I was insane for wanting to spend weeks hiking in the wilderness.

Grandpa had died when I was a baby, in his early 50s, so Dad’s mom had not been long a widow.

I liked to go see Ma, and one of my earliest memories was of the sweet and yeasty smell of her house when she was baking bread. It was white bread, but if those words evoke dead food, all air and chemical vitamins, you have never tasted real home baked white bread. Slathered in butter, before food was ever anything but local.

This was probably 1955, when I was two, and it was a different world, a world only a few years removed from the primitive life my parents had lived as children in clear cut northern Michigan, life without electricity or indoor plumbing, without cars, frigid for much of the year.

To get to my grandmother’s I had to walk through the neighbors’ land. They were Germans, and their son Hansy and I played together. It was only much later, of course, that I realized how strange that was. My father, only a few years earlier, was fighting Germans. I mean, I have a brother in law, a Vietnam vet, who cannot stand to be in the presence of a southeast Asian, even if he knows that they fled the same people he was trying to kill.

But of course maybe winning a war makes you more amicable.

But I remember Hansy’s parents’ rooster.

He was bigger than me, aggressive and frightening.

And those eyes, otherworldly and enraged, circles of malevolence, scared me like nothing else in my small world.

In the dream I was walking to Ma’s, wary as always. I did not see the rooster and was almost across the yard when He suddenly appeared, fierce, fire in his scary eyes, talons, which seemed as big as my daddy’s hands, flying at my face.

And then, out of nowhere, was my father. He had a hoe in his hand and he struck the attacker until he was dead.

And I was delivered.

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November Miscellany


The Thing About November

I walked in the local wood today near dusk. The leaves are all but gone, only a few of the underbrush shrubs bearing tatters of color. The rest of the world was muted, grays and browns and beiges, the sky leaden.

The woods were silent and strange, not a stir in the brush. The fallen leaves on the path no longer rustle, having been broken by the rain and time, softened. I heard a lone cardinal make its one note winter ‘pip’ sound, but the only other thing I heard was a deer, from the sound of it, far off, crashing through the forest.

It is supposed to snow tonight, and I saw a few flurries.

It occurred to me that the grimness of November makes the whiteness of real winter, pure and clean, so much more beautiful, welcome.

To everything a season, and all that.

The Source

Grace does not ‘build on nature’ as the scholastics claim. Nature rises and flowers out of grace.


If I had another daughter I would name her ‘Isis Ebola’. She would probably fit right in with her older brother, Y2K.

Tradition and Idolatry

The so-called traditionalists are sinking deeper into the fever swamp. I have seen essays in various sites proclaiming that Pope Francis is a heretic and the time has come for a schism of the Real Catholics. I myself have been called an idolater on another blog because I really like Francis and see his insistence on the primacy of Love as prophetic, which apparently means he is my substitute for God.


I love Francis for the strange synchronicity of his unlikely pontificate occurring just as I am emerging from a long spiritual crisis which left me with the existential bones of faith: God, Jesus, Love, what Francis calls the encounter with Christ.

Is not blind traditionalism, which absolutizes a relative good, however lovely and satisfying, more akin to idolatry?

Beautiful human constructs – liturgies, icons, all the trappings of worship- are good. Indeed I cannot live long without them. But when attachment to one of them obscures the very heart of the truth that we claim to believe, that God is indeed good and loves us? Or that the ineffable mystery we name as ‘God’ is in fact Love, and we are dear to him, however that may seem hard to believe sometimes? Or that we are all brothers and sisters and that God specially loves the poor and marginalized?


Francis is only recalling us to the primacy of love, with mercy as the center.

Tradition is not static, and neither is love.


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Two Religions


I was raised in two religions. Everyone is. There are always gaps, some greater than others, all infinite, between ‘God’ and any human articulation about God.

The two religions  I was taught were both the Roman Catholic faith, in the years immediately before Vatican II.

The first religion, which affected me deeply, told me about Baby Jesus and the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother and singing angels and saints who could fly and heal. It was big on mercy and love and forgiveness. This was accompanied by the mystery of the Latin Mass, which I served at the altar. It was a rich and sensual religion, and I remember volunteering to serve funeral Masses, not only because I wanted to get out of school, but because I loved holding the censer and watching the smoke rise up from the coals, inhaling deeply.

And miracles were not just long ago and far away. The nuns told us about Fr Solanus, who had lived down the highway in Detroit and healed people and bilocated and read hearts and was also a Tigers fan, like us.

It was a religion rich in mystery, and one incident, when I was maybe ten, illustrates this vividly. I was getting ready to serve at a parish mission, run by Capuchin friars from Fr Solanus’ monastery. I was preparing candles in the sacristy when I looked out the window, which opened onto the twilit parish cemetery. Just then a friar, cowl up, head down, strode past, reading his breviary, silhouetted against the graveyard. It was spooky and impressive, like all good religions.

This religion also introduced me to Mother Mary, whom I loved, as every Catholic child did. I knew that she, and her Son, loved me, and I loved them too. I used to say that I only came to love Jesus when I ran to him at 23, scared to death of evil and sin, needing salvation. But in fact I always loved Jesus, not that he was always central in my thoughts or I tried to do what he said, or even what the Ten Commandments commanded. But I loved him.

His father I was not so sure about. He was the guy Who slew and struck down and smote.

The other religion, as articulated by the Sisters of St Joseph at St Agnes school, told us a lot about this ‘God the Father’, about how He was just, so just that even if we were really really sorry for disobeying our parents or stealing candy or touching ourselves He was not satisfied until we had suffered enough to satisfy His perfect Justice. This was going to be our fate after we died, because hardly anyone had suffered enough to satisfy Him on this earth. Furthermore, in this religion Baby Jesus and the Sacred Heart were replaced by a more pissed-off Christ, the one who is our Judge. However, there was hope. Besides the fact that Mary, who loved us, could intervene, like any mother, and soften her Son’s Heart, the saints had accumulated even more merit than they needed to get into heaven and the Church had a sort of bank account of the surplus stuff. If we said certain prayers we could take time off of  ‘Purgatory’ with the merit of those much holier than us. And so we did, racking up years and decades off of the horrible fiery place, which was presented as a sort of temporary hell. Me, I did not bother with such small potatoes, and went for the ‘plenary indulgences’, which were like a Get Out of Jail card from Monopoly, a game I heartily hated.

Somehow, in spite of this evil human construct, I still was impressed enough with the mysterious stuff to experience overwhelming awe when meditating (yes, that is the word) about God and eternity, sitting in church when I was seven, even though I felt guilty afterwards for not paying attention to the Mass.

I am still sorting out these religions, though I am beginning to sometimes understand  the real one more clearly.

I am not picking on one version of traditional Catholicism. For this all was soon replaced by a very different Roman Catholicism, one with earnest people strumming guitars, with lively tunes and strange ideas. Which in fact were very powerful at first, but did not wear well. But as someone who actually sat by a campfire and sang ‘Kumbaya’, circa 1966, by a riverside near Toledo, on a vocational retreat at the seminary of a missionary order, I have to admit that it was moving.

The first time.

Nor was it so simple to separate the several Catholic religions: that night, lingering in the spare modern chapel, lit only by candles, the Blessed Sacrament on the altar, I profoundly experienced the presence of Jesus.

Every version of the Christian faith distorts the simple reality of God, adds human concepts and fear or reaction to fear.

And that is, perhaps, why I love this pope so much. He seems to never forget that at the heart of all else, before all human tradition or law or respectability there is Jesus, there is God.

And there is Love.

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The Option


Doesn’t Rod Dreher really want The Eggs Benedict Option, where all the Special Christians go off and have church and eat gourmet food?

I know, it is a derivative idea, this notion that the enlightened ought to remove themselves from the corrupt world, one I articulated twenty years ago. And it was derivative then, rooted in an earlier tradition of Catholic Worker farms and Little Ditchling and Graham Carey and the Distributists.

I have long since become convinced that any group of modern Christians that does anything like that will end up creating a disaster. Nor do I believe that is the strategy that is laid out in the documents of Vatican II, which when all is said and done and the last contemporary traditionalist and the last modern modernist are long gone will remain the blueprint for the Catholic Church for the foreseeable future.

And besides, the original Benedict never thought he was retreating to the wilderness to ‘transform western civilization’ or save the world or whatever.

He just wanted to be alone with God.

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The alleged Ms Stoker Bruenig

I don’t know when I began to be suspicious.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, the 23 year old 90 pound whirlwind with the mischievous grin, is suddenly ubiquitous. And I mean she is everywhere: scholarly journals, major magazines, obscure quarterlies, Facebook, Twitter. And when I say she is ‘on’ Facebook I mean that any time I write anything on her timeline, day or night, she instantly ‘likes’ it and usually comments.

I began trying to explain her, even as she dropped details about herself: five minute wedding during a daily Mass (breaking many nerdy hearts), Texan, Klan ancestry, epileptic, only received into the Catholic Church last spring. Oh, and studying for a doctorate. I told myself that she must sleep in only occasional five minute increments. That she must have a lightning fast mind and the metabolism of a tornado.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to believe that any human could do all this when Ms Stoker Bruenig overstepped: she asked readers to send her their street address so she could send them Christmas cards. And if this was not already too much, she then warned that she saw Christmas cards as an excuse to write letters.


No. Way.

‘Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’ may or may not be the name of the cute fourteen year old with the impish grin who poses for the pictures. But whether she is or not there is no way in the universe that she can possibly do all that she does in any 24 hour period. And if I had typed that paragraph on my Facebook page ‘Ms Stoker Bruenig’ would have ‘liked’ it by the time you read this sentence.

I have a theory. Either Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is real and also superhuman or  she  is real and has an ever-growing  team of workers assigned to various tasks. Or maybe this is an elaborate hoax to see how gullible internet users are (‘can you believe they fell for handwritten Christmas letters? Idiots!’) Or perhaps ‘she’ is in fact some sort of highly sophisticated robot.

I know ‘Elizabeth’ will protest that she is indeed human. So I ask her: prove it. Let a team of people film you for 24 hours, never leaving your side.

Nothing else will convince me of your humanity, Miz Liz.

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Halloween was cold and rainy, like most of late October. The winds blew hard and the morning suddenly looked and felt like November, the coldest day so far, the leaves stripped early from most of the trees. A leaden sky bore down on the world all day. I love all weather, except the most extreme temperatures, but I must admit that November is my least favorite month. In Michigan, where I grew up, the sun was a rarity, the sky grey and brooding.

But I must say that the discovery, in the last few years, of Sierra Nevada’s seasonal Celebration Ale has given me something to look forward to with the arrival of the eleventh month. It is an IPA made with freshly harvested, not dried hops, and it is delicious. I just drank my first six pack. Check it out if you are unfamiliar with it:   Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 2011 After the Synod

Let me get this straight. You can be a weapons manufacturer and no one is going to ask you to refrain from receiving communion in a Catholic parish. You can found a corporation of mercenaries and you will be invited to speak at the Acton Institute. And you can receive communion. You can be a multimillionaire politician and take up with an aging Catholic choir girl. get your two previous unions, which you destroyed by your infidelity, annulled and marry your new honey in the Church, no problem. Bishops will attend your reception. If you are a politician who wars against labor and the poor by his votes you can receive. Or one who zealously promotes abortion, a tragic and violent solution to a crisis. Or you can be a businessman who pays his workers poverty wages while living in luxury. And of course if you are a couple who are not obeying church teaching regarding birth control you are not going to be interrogated in the communion line. If you are a former head of the CIA under GW Bush, who has not only overseen a policy of torturing captives but has defended said policy in the Wall Street Journal you not only can receive communion but you will be asked to give the commencement address at a prominent Catholic university, one which touts its Catholicity. And they will give you an honorary doctorate.

So what again is the problem with not asking questions of same sex companions and those in complicated families, of assuming good will of everyone in charity?

Me, I don’t think anyone over the age of seven should ever receive communion. The rest of us are too messy. The Romans communicate everyone who meets the canonical standard but not the most worthy of all, babies and small children.

Rumors of Schism?

It is getting weird, folks, with bishops and cardinals openly criticizing Francis and well-respected commentators like Ross Douthat suggesting that the time is nigh for conservative Catholics to take on the pope, if not  to bolt altogether. They frequently use St Paul’s rebuke of St Peter as a precedent, though that is a strange choice: Peter was rebuked for not being openly supportive of extending a welcome to those who did not observe Jewish law, while Francis is criticized for extending a welcome to those who are in canonically problematic situations. On the plus side, it is nice to see conservative Catholics getting beyond the superpapalism that long marked that corner of the Church, a tendency only too familiar to me.

But to traditionalists who value theological and liturgical constructs that, however beautiful, are mostly human, this pope has opened the door to the opposite, and very protestant error. This is going to be interesting, and could mark the birth pangs of the era of Vatican II, which has only begun.

Apophatic Bumper Stickers, Inc.

I am going produce a line of apophatic bumper stickers. I do not fool myself into thinking that this is going to make a lot of money, but here are a few:






And this one, from Firesign Theatre:


Painting by Guy Stevens

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