Tuesday, October 12, 2021

October 12: Dat Mossel, Mistakes, Laugh Every Day

Merton encounters someone trying to atone for mistakes he's made . . . 

The secular priest with the white hair was more of a mystery. He was a big, bluff fellow, with some kind of an accent which led me to place him as a Belgian. He was not entering the community, but it seemed he had been there in the guest house for some time. In the afternoons he put on a pair of overalls, and went about painting benches and other furniture, and he laughed and talked with the others. 

As he talked, his talk seemed strange to me. In a place like this, you would expect someone to say something, at least indirectly, about religion. And yet that was a subject on which he seemed to be inarticulate. The only thing he seemed to know anything about was strength, strength and work. At the dinner table, he rolled up his sleeve and said: 

“Huh! Look at dat mossel!” 

And he flexed a huge biceps for the edification of the retreatants. 

I found out afterwards that he was under ecclesiastical censure, and was in the monastery doing penance. The poor man, for some reason or another, had not lived as a good priest. In the end, his mistakes had caught up with him. He had come into contact with some schismatics, in a sect known as “the Old Catholics” and these people persuaded him to leave the Church and come over to them. And when he did so, they made him an archbishop. 

I suppose he enjoyed the dignity and the novelty of it for a while: but the whole thing was obviously silly. So he gave it up and came back. And now here he was in the monastery, serving Mass every morning for a young Trappist priest who scarcely had the oils of his ordination dry on his hands. 

We all have done things that we regret, just like the secular priest with the white hair.  And then we have to atone in some way.  Make up for the mistakes we've made..

It has been a long time since I've written a blog post.  Much has happened.  My son turned from a 12-year-old into a teenager.  I celebrated another Saint Marty's Day, about a week ago.  No tapioca, yet.  I did receive some wonderful presents from my family.  Work has been busy.  Insane.  Lots of readings and concerts and teaching and programs.  My wife got a job and lost a job.  Life has been . . . complicated.

I have made mistakes/make mistakes every day.  I get angry.  Despondent.  I stay up too late at night.  Eat too much junk food.  (I just ate a soggy bowl of Lucky Charms.)  I watch horror films right before I go to bed and have terrible dreams.  I let my son watch those movies with me.

But I also got things right/get things right.  I helped my daughter get her car fixed.  I take my son to poetry workshops, tell him he's amazing.  I try to uplift a friend who is facing some major health struggles.  And I try to laugh every day.

That's what I have tonight.  I'm trying to be okay, and I'm trying to get back on track, especially with my writing.

Saint Marty is back.  For tonight.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

September 14: Gone Out of the World, Art Award, "Gratia Plena"

Merton talks about a conversion . . .

I discovered that the young man with black hair, in dungarees, was a postulant. He was entering the monastery that day. That evening, at Compline, we who were standing up in the tribune at the back of the church could see him down there, in the choir, in his dark secular clothes, which made him easy to pick out, in the shadows, among the uniform white of the novices and monks. 

For a couple of days it was that way. Practically the first thing you noticed, when you looked at the choir, was this young man in secular clothes, among all the monks. 

Then suddenly we saw him no more. He was in white. They had given him an oblate’s habit, and you could not pick him out from the rest. 

The waters had closed over his head, and he was submerged in the community. He was lost. The world would hear of him no more. He had drowned to our society and become a Cistercian. 

Up in the guest house, somebody who happened to know who he was, told me a few facts about him, by way of a kind of obituary. I don’t know if I got them straight or not: but he was a convert. He came from a rather wealthy family in Pennsylvania, and had gone to one of the big Eastern universities, and had been on a vacation in the Bahama Islands when he had bumped into a priest who got to talking to him about the faith, and converted him. When he was baptized, his parents were so incensed that they cut him off, as the saying goes, without a penny. For a while he had worked as a pilot on one of the big air lines, flying planes to South America, but now that was all over. He was gone out of the world. Requiescat in pace. 

The young man with the black hair has made a great sacrifice for his beliefs.  Given up everything to follow his faith.  That's pretty much one of Christ's biggest messages in the gospels.  The apostles did it.  Martyrs and saints do it.  Anyone with passion and devotion does it.

Yes, I am still alive.  I offer no excuses.  My life has been busy and complicated these last few weeks.  Pretty much, by the time I get home and sit down on my couch, I want to do nothing more than grab a pillow and take a nap.  And I don't see my life becoming uncomplicated for several months.  So be it.

A couple days ago, something amazing happened.  I was presented and award for Arts Advocate of the Year.  I learned that I had been chosen for this recognition back in July, and I was sort of flabbergasted.  I love art.  All art.  I love artists.  All artists.  Sunday night, I was surrounded by my peeps, and I felt like I really belonged.

I've made sacrifices in my life to follow my heart for sure.  I gave up computer programming.  Been teaching part-time at a university for over 25 years because I love teaching young people about writing and literature and film and myth.  And I've been writing poetry.  A lot of it.

Along the way, I've made some amazing artist friends who have helped me and upheld me through many difficult times in my life.  And I have tried to do the same.  I believe in using my gifts and talents to somehow make the world a better place.  That, I guess, is my motto as an artist.  Art for art's sake is not for me.  Art for kindness and compassion and generosity and change--that's more my style.  Art for the sake of grace.

This past weekend was the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. Watching the ceremonies, I was reminded again of the power of grace, through art, to bring healing into troubled times.  Art reminds us that we are never alone, even in moments of great isolation and pain.  If I can be a part of bringing hope and light into the world through art, even in the smallest of ways, I think my life has meaning.

Saint Marty is one really luck guy.

A poem I wrote for this past weekend's awards ceremony . . . 

Gratia Plena: Full of Grace

by:  Martin Achatz

September 11, 2021

I imagine Van Gogh was, as he stood
in that field in Arles, paintbrush
in his hand, or Gershwin at his piano
while cobalt spilled from his fingertips.
And think of Emily in her room, stitching
her words together as she hummed
“Amazing Grace.” On this day,
twenty years later, after listening
to 2,983 names spoken, violins,
bells, silences, it hangs in the air
like tinseled firefly light. This
is what I know about grace.
It’s in that roll call on this blue
September morning, each syllable
blessed and blessing, from Aamoth
to Zukelman, winged on their way
by music, poem, charcoal rubbed
across paper until letters float
to its surface, like a face
emerging on a Polaroid.

This is grace, what we do
each day to lift each other up, help
each other remember, be remembered.
Painter, piano player, poet,
Mother, father, son, daughter.
All sunflowers. All rhapsodies. All
Angels in the early morning
Stooping, plucking, smiling, flying

August 27-30: Hidden in the Anonymity, Silent Heroes, Pandemic

Merton encounters anonymous heroes at the monastery . . .

When the church had practically emptied after the second round of Masses, I left and went to my room. When I next came back to Church it was to kneel in the high balcony in the far end of the nave, for Tierce and Sext and then None and the Conventual Mass. 

And now the church was full of light, and the monks stood in their stalls and bowed like white seas at the ends of the psalms, those slow, rich, sombre and yet lucid tones of the psalms, praising God in His new morning, thanking Him for the world He had created and for the life He continued to give to it. 

Those psalms, the singing of the monks, and especially the ferial tone for the Little Hours’ Hymns: what springs of life and strength and grace were in their singing! The whole earth came to life and bounded with new fruitfulness and significance in the joy of their simple and beautiful chanting that gradually built up to the climax of the Conventual Mass: splendid, I say, and yet this Cistercian liturgy in Lent was reduced to the ultimate in simplicity. Therefore it was all the more splendid, because the splendor was intellectual and affective, and not the mere flash and glitter of vestments and decorations. 

Two candles were lit on the bare altar. A plain wooden crucifix stood above the Tabernacle. The sanctuary was closed off with a curtain. The white altar cloth fell, at both ends, almost to the floor. The priest ascended the altar steps in a chasuble, accompanied by a deacon in alb and stole. And that was all. 

At intervals during the Mass, a monk in a cowl detached himself from the choir and went slowly and soberly to minister at the altar, with grave and solemn bows, walking with his long flowing sleeves dangling almost as low as his ankles... 

The eloquence of this liturgy was even more tremendous: and what it said was one, simple, cogent, tremendous truth: this church, the court of the Queen of Heaven, is the real capital of the country in which we are living. This is the center of all the vitality that is in America. This is the cause and reason why the nation is holding together. These men, hidden in the anonymity of their choir and their white cowls, are doing for their land what no army, no congress, no president could ever do as such: they are winning for it the grace and the protection and the friendship of God. 

I think that the world is full of anonymous heroes.  People who go about their daily business--praying or nursing or teaching or first responding--without a whole lot of fanfare.  They aren't looking for awards or fame or money.  They have a calling to do what they do, and that's it.  For Merton in this passage, it's the men wearing white cowls, praying deeply,  And he is feeling the call to become one of them.

It has been a long week of teaching and work.  Classes have begun again at the university, and COVID is on the rise in my neck of the woods.  Currently, all the other counties in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are in red on the map.  That means high transmission.  My county remains in orange.  For the time being.  And nobody seems to be doing a thing to control the spread.

School superintendents don't want angry conservative parents pounding on their doors.  Businesses don't want to shut down.  Restaurants want to keep serving food.  Movie theaters want to keep showing movies.  Regardless of the fact that children are going to get sick, and immunocompromised people are in danger.  It's politics and economics versus science, and science is losing.

Of course, science has been losing out pretty much since the pandemic started.  Thus, we have hospitals being overrun again, and medical professionals who are at their breaking points.  There are not enough nurses and doctors and ICU beds to go around.  The silent heroes are tired and fed up with the pandemic of stupidity that's spreading faster than the coronavirus.

Yes, this post is a bit of a rant.  It's also a salute to those people who continue to put themselves in danger to deliver medical care and educations and groceries.  I think everyone could be silent heroes right now.  It's easy.  Put on a mask.  Stop complaining.  Accept the science.  Realize that COVID doesn't care whether you're Republican, Democrat, or a Jedi.  What heroes do is simple:  they don't think of themselves first.  Heroes think of the needs of others first.  For my Christian followers, I believe that was one of the most important messages that Jesus Christ delivers in the gospels.  Over and over and over and over.

So, if you're not wearing a mask, if you're attending school board meetings and screaming about your rights being infringed upon, if you're railing against vaccinations, realize this one fact:  you are NOT a hero or a patriot.  You are a selfish, self-absorbed moron who is perpetuating this pandemic, not bringing it to an end.  Sorry, not sorry.

Yes, Saint Marty is wearing his angry eyes right now.

NOTE:  This post was written a few weeks ago.  I didn't publish it until now because I thought it was too angry.  Perhaps too confrontational.  Now, I don't think it's confrontational enough.  The whole United States is blowing up with COVID again.  So, shut up.  Put your damn masks on.  Get your vaccinations.  Stop being assholes. 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

August 19: Older Version of Myself, Sister's Death, Heart was Going to Explode

A blog post from August 19, 2015 . . . 


And then Ives blinked and found himself standing on the sidewalk beside his wife, across the street from the Church of the Ascension.  On the pavement, just by his feet, was a large piece of canvas, and under it a body, stretched out.   Then the officer lifted off the canvas and shined a flashlight onto the face to reveal the shocked and bewildered expression of his son.

My sister died this morning at 6:27 a.m.

When I saw her last night, she was breathing hard, each intake hitting her chest like a hammer.  I leaned over, said her name and then, "It's me.  Marty."  Her eyelid lifted, and she focused on me.  I told her about my long day of work.  I told her about classes starting next week.  Just before I left, I leaned over and whispered, "You don't have to be afraid, Sal.  You don't."

When I got to my parents' house at around 5 a.m., my sister was surrounded by the people who loved her.  My mother and father, siblings, nieces, nephews, and best friends.  We all stood around her, touched her hands and feet, told her how much we loved her.

Her breaths got slower, the spaces in between longer, and then she was simply gone.

I thought I was prepared for it.  I thought I was going to hold myself together.  I thought a lot of things.  But, in those moments following my sister's death, I felt an incredible emptiness enter me, as if I had been scooped out like a pumpkin at Halloween.  I wasn't prepared.

It has been about twelve hours since that moment.  I am still not prepared for a world without my sister.  For 17 years, I worked with her.  Eight- and nine- and ten-hour days.  I spent more time with her than any of my other siblings, and we knew each other deeply.  Trusted each other deeply.  Loved each other deeply, without having to say it.

There will be no cartoon tonight.  No laughter.

My sister once said to me, "You know, I wish I was as strong as you."

Saint Marty isn't strong tonight.  He's heartbroken.

98 from Bluets

by:  Maggie Nelson

Vincent van Gogh, whose depression, some say, was likely related to temporal epilepsy, famously saw and painted the world in almost unbearably vivid colors.  After his nearly unsuccessful attempt to take his life by shooting himself in the gut, when asked why he should not be saved, he famously replied, "The sadness will last forever."  I imagine he was right.

I miss your smile


I don't often go back to read old blog posts.  They unmoor me, drag me back to older versions of myself.  This version, in particular, is not one that I care to visit often.  But here's the thing--this model of me, from six years ago--was still breathing the same air that my sister had breathed.  It connects me to her for the space of a few paragraphs, a couple hundred words.

I still miss my sister a great deal.  For years, she was the glue that held my family together.  She was generous, kind, full of love.  She wasn't perfect, and she knew that.  But she tried hard to make a difference in the world every day of her life.  Not too many people can say that.

I still struggle with the meaning of my sister's death.  How it all fits into some divine plan.  Now, tonight, six years later, I am no closer to solving that mystery, and I probably never will.  Sometimes, you just have to embrace the ineffable.  Accept the limitations of your understanding.

My sister suffered a great deal the last year or so of her life.  Sometimes, I can still hear her last breaths in the middle of the night.  They stay with me, perhaps as a reminder never to take daily ordinary things for granted.  

Here is Thomas Merton coming to terms with a truth about Communion and sacrifice:

Faint gold fire flashed from the shadowy flanks of the upraised chalice at our altar. 

“Do you know what Love is? You have never known the meaning of Love, never, you who have always drawn all things to the center of your own nothingness. Here is Love in this chalice full of Blood, Sacrifice, mactation. Do you not know that to love means to be killed for glory of the Beloved? And where is your love? Where is now your Cross, if you say you want to follow Me, if you pretend you love Me?” 

All around the church the bells rang as gentle and fresh as dew. 

“But these men are dying for Me. These monks are killing themselves for Me: and for you, for the world, for the people who do not know Me, for the millions that will never know them on this earth ...” 

After Communion I thought my heart was going to explode.

Sometimes, the sacrifices we make in this world are small--the last piece of pizza.  Sometimes, they are huge and unavoidable--your sister with lymphoma of the brain.  And you think your heart is going to explode with love or grief.

Tonight, Saint Marty wishes he could hear his sister's voice again.  The universe made a little more sense with her in it, and it has been a lot darker since she's been gone.

A poem for my sister . . . 

Strawberry Picking

for Sally

You took me strawberry picking
once, drove out to a farm
where we paid to squat in green
beds laced with tongues of red.
I could feel my ears and neck
tighten under the punishing
sun as we filled Morning Glory
ice cream buckets with our
harvest, each berry looking to me
like some vital body part,
an organ or muscle necessary
for life. You sat on your haunches,
fingers staining red, as if you
were some battlefield surgeon
patching up the fallen with only
your hands. Every now and then,
you would lift a berry to your lips,
eat it in a hummingbird moment,
smiling the smile of the freshly
healed at Lourdes, where miracles
are common as empty wheelchairs
or dandelions in a July field.

The days since you’ve been gone,
I see strawberries everywhere,
in a welt of blood on my lip
after shaving, a stop sign,
a friend’s dyed hair,
my son’s sunburned shoulders,
oxygen in the gills of a perch.
Last night, I stood outside, under
ribbons of borealis, watched
them glide between the stars
like garter snakes in a midnight
Eden. The Bible says that, in the cool
of the day, Adam and Eve heard
God taking a stroll through
the garden. There were probably
peacocks nesting in the pines,
a stream talking with moss and stone,
the scurry of mole and spider
in the ferns.

That’s what I believe you heard
in your last moments of breath.
You heard peafowl screams,
brook trout leaps. Grasshopper wing
and corn silk. And you heard
his divine toes in the grass, walking
along. When he came to you,
he couldn’t resist. He reached down,
plucked you from the stem. You were
ripe. Sweet. Ready. He put you
in his Morning Glory bucket, continued
on into the dew and sunlight.