Thursday, April 29, 2021

April 27-29: Only Day Dreaming, John F. Kennedy, Better Versions of Ourselves

 Merton on daydreaming . . . 

The strange thing about this light was that although it seemed so “ordinary” in the sense I have mentioned, and so accessible, there was no way of recapturing it. In fact, I did not even know how to start trying to reconstruct the experience or bring it back if I wanted to, except to make acts of faith and love. But it was easy to see that there was nothing I could do to give any act of faith that peculiar quality of sudden obviousness: that was a gift and had to come from somewhere else, beyond and above myself. 

However, let no one think that just because of this light that came to me one day, at Mass, in the Church of St. Francis at Havana, I was in the habit of understanding things that clearly, or that I was far advanced in prayer. No, my prayer continued to be largely vocal. And the mental prayer I made was not systematic, but the more or less spontaneous meditating and affective prayer that came and went, according to my reading, here and there. And most of the time my prayer was not so much prayer as a matter of anticipating, with hope and desire, my entrance into the Franciscan novitiate, and a certain amount of imagining what it was going to be like, so that often I was not praying at all, but only day dreaming.

I'm a big believer in daydreaming.  Not just as a way of killing time or avoiding work that you don't want to face.  I think daydreaming is an essential part of any day.  I get some of my best ideas for my job when my mind starts to wander around my skull.  For instance, last October, I daydreamed about introducing two-time U. S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey for a reading at the library where I work.  Last Saturday, I introduced two-time U. S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey for a reading at the library where I work.

Daydreaming pays off.

Of course, making dreams come true takes work.  A lot of it.  Especially if you're shooting for the stars.  When John F. Kennedy stood before Congress in May of 1961 and said, ".We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. . ."--he was the ultimate daydreamer.  And a whole bunch of people rolled up their sleeves and figured out a way to make Kennedy's daydream a reality.  It only took eight years, and Neil Armstrong was taking his one small step.

Some daydreams are small and easy.  I've been daydreaming about Taco Bell all afternoon.  I can make that happen if I want to.  Other daydreams require the effort of orchestrating a moon landing.  Publishing a book of poems.  Winning the Pulitzer Prize.  Winning the Nobel Prize.  Big daydreams.  Hard work.

Today, I spent a great deal of time grading papers.  It is the end of the semester, and I am buried in essays.  It's my own fault.  I take a lot of time responding to students' work.  Not because I'm lazy.  Because I want my students to know that I care about them and their success.  They are daydreamers, too.  In fact, daydreaming is their primary motivation.  Every day they show up for class, they are dreaming.  Of graduation.  Of careers in medicine or law or forestry or cannabis distribution.  Those visions are what drive them.  They are seekers of happiness and fulfillment.

Ultimately, that's what all daydreams are about--happiness.  We choose our daydreams--and, generally, they don't involve misery or grief or disappointment.  If you daydream about losing your job or home or spouse, then you are probably in need of some sort of psychiatric medication.  No, in daydreams, we become great heroes or lovers or writers or poets or athletes or leaders.  We become better versions of ourselves.

I am a poet.  In my daydreams, I'm a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.  I'm also a contingent college English professor.  In my daydreams, I'm a tenured college English professor.  I'm a blogger.  In my daydreams, I'm the first blogger to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.  These versions of myself make me happy.  They motivate me.  Because. as President Kennedy said, we dream of these things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . ."

And now, with the ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of his fingers on the keyboard, Saint Marty ends this daydream, one blog post closer to a trip to Stockholm and the Swedish Academy.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

April 22-24: Something I Have Never Forgotten, Wrapped in Darkness, King Kong

Merton experiences a spiritual revelation . . . 

When I went back to Havana, I found out something else, too, and something vastly more important. It was something that made me realize, all of a sudden, not merely intellectually, but experimentally, the real uselessness of what I had been half deliberately looking for: the visions in the ceiba trees. And this experience opened another door, not a way to a kind of writing but a way into a world infinitely new, a world that was out of this world of ours entirely and which transcended it infinitely, and which was not a world, but which was God Himself. 

I was in the Church of St. Francis at Havana. It was a Sunday. I had been to Communion at some other church, I think at El Cristo, and now I had come here to hear another Mass. The building was crowded. Up in front, before the altar, there were rows and rows of children, crowded together. I forget whether they were First Communicants or not: but they were children around that age. I was far in the back of the church, but I could see the heads of all those children. 

It came time for the Consecration. The priest raised the Host, then he raised the chalice. When he put the chalice down on the altar, suddenly a Friar in his brown robe and white cord stood up in front of the children, and all at once the voices of the children burst out: 

Creo en Diós...” 

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth...” 

The Creed. But that cry, “Creo en Dios!” It was loud, and bright, and sudden and glad and triumphant; it was a good big shout, that came from all those Cuban children, a joyous affirmation of faith. 

Then, as sudden as the shout and as definite, and a thousand times more bright, there formed in my mind an awareness, an understanding, a realization of what had just taken place on the altar, at the Consecration: a realization of God made present by the words of Consecration in a way that made Him belong to me. 

But what a thing it was, this awareness: it was so intangible, and yet it struck me like a thunderclap. It was a light that was so bright that it had no relation to any visible light and so profound and so intimate that it seemed like a neutralization of every lesser experience. 

And yet the thing that struck me most of all was that this light was in a certain sense “ordinary”—it was a light (and this most of all was what took my breath away) that was offered to all, to everybody, and there was nothing fancy or strange about it. It was the light of faith deepened and reduced to an extreme and sudden obviousness. 

It was as if I had been suddenly illuminated by being blinded by the manifestation of God’s presence.

The reason why this light was blinding and neutralizing was that there was and could be simply nothing in it of sense or imagination. When I call it a light that is a metaphor which I am using, long after the fact. But at the moment, another overwhelming thing about this awareness was that it disarmed all images, all metaphors, and cut through the whole skein of species and phantasms with which we naturally do our thinking. It ignored all sense experience in order to strike directly at the heart of truth, as if a sudden and immediate contact had been established between my intellect and the Truth Who was now physically really and substantially before me on the altar. But this contact was not something speculative and abstract: it was concrete and experimental and belonged to the order of knowledge, yes, but more still to the order of love. 

Another thing about it was that this light was something far above and beyond the level of any desire or any appetite I had ever yet been aware of. It was purified of all emotion and cleansed of everything that savored of sensible yearnings. It was love as clean and direct as vision: and it flew straight to the possession of the Truth it loved. 

And the first articulate thought that came to my mind was: 

“Heaven is right here in front of me: Heaven, Heaven!” 

It lasted only a moment: but it left a breathless joy and a clean peace and happiness that stayed for hours and it was something I have never forgotten. 

Merton experiences an epiphany here.  A vision of God's presence in the world--a light that is both completely ordinary and completely transcendent.  It's available to everybody.  I suppose all you have to do is open yourself to it, the way Merton does at this moment he's describing.

Most people aren't that open to this experience.  I know I'm not.  Most days, I keep my head down, blinders on, focused on myself and my problems.  That pretty much describes the human condition.  Instead of seeing the light, I see the dark.  

Merton, himself, admits that this divine vision he experiences is fleeting.  He simply can't sustain it.  I suppose it's like striking a match.  The flame springs up, blue and brilliant, then settles down, gutters for a minute or so, and disappears into smoke.  And what Merton is left with is an intense physical memory of God.  But it sustains him for a long time.,

Tonight, I'm sort of wrapped in darkness.  Like a blanket around my shoulders.  Just like Merton can't shake the light of God's grace from his eyes, I can't quite shrug off these shadows.  Instead, I'm sitting here trying to make friends with them.

That probably sounds crazy.  I mean, who wants to invite darkness to take a seat on the couch next to you?  Really, though, that is the only way I know how to overcome these feelings.  By living with them, talking with them, trying to understand them.  Sort of like what Hemingway wrote:  "Write the best story you can and write it as straight as you can."

You don't need to ornament the dark.  Ascribe all kinds of big words to it.  Darkness is simply the absence of light.  And it's also what comes before sunrise.  My darkness comes from a kind of aloneness.  Being surrounded by people, yet unable to talk about the big hairy ape that's stalking my thoughts.  (Yes, that's a King Kong allusion.  Stick with me.)  There are things in life that are difficult to put words to.  Because if you put words to them, it makes them real, and, if they're real, then you have to deal with them.  And who wants to deal with a 40-foot tall gorilla?

You just have to wait out the darkness.  Stay in the cave until the sun shows up, however long that takes.  Get used to the monkey.  Maybe find out it's not all that frightening.  Tame it.  Maybe take a trip to the Empire State Building with it.  Visit the Statue of Liberty.  Take in a Broadway show.  Maybe Hamilton.  

Sometimes the things that frighten us the most turn out to be angels instead of monsters.  Or maybe God, putting you to the Job test.

Saint Marty is sitting in his dark living room, ready for anything--Job or Kong or angel or God.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

April 21: Fly Away Like Birds, Chipped Coffee Mug, "Instructions on What to Do with a Broken Heart"

Merton writes the first real poem of his life . . . 

Down in the village I bought a bottle of some kind of gaseosa and stood under the tin roof of the porch of the village store. Somewhere in one of theshacks, on a harmonium, was played: “Kyrie Eleison, Kyrie Eleison, Kyrie Eleison.” 

And I went back to Santiago. 

But while I was sitting on the terrace of the hotel, eating lunch, La Caridad del Cobre had a word to say to me. She handed me an idea for a poem that formed so easily and smoothly and spontaneously in my mind that all I had to do was finish eating and go up to my room and type it out, almost without a correction. 

So the poem turned out to be both what she had to say to me and what I had to say to her. It was a song for La Caridad del Cobre, and it was, as far as I was concerned, something new, and the first real poem I had ever written, or anyway the one I liked best. It pointed the way to many other poems; it opened the gate, and set me travelling on a certain and direct track that was to last me several years. 

The poem said: 

The white girls lift their heads like trees,
The black girls go
Reflected like flamingoes in the street.

The white girls sing as shrill as water,
The black girls talk as quiet as clay.

The white girls open their arms like clouds,
The black girls close their eyes like wings:
Angels bow down like bells,
Angels look up like toys,

Because the heavenly stars
Stand in a ring:
And all the pieces of the mosaic, earth,
Get up and fly away like birds.

I really love this Merton moment--him feeling divinely inspired, like he's taking dictation from God.  Finishing dinner, going back to his hotel room, and typing this poem out without correction or struggle.  I have experienced moments like this myself, but they are rare.

They are gifts from a Higher Power, I suppose.  They certainly don't come from any way of writing a poem that I know.  Sometimes I sit down with my journal and free write, but the results aren't ever finished lines of poetry.  Rather, they are word shards that, through hard work and a lot of glue, may be pieced together into something that resembles a poem.  Possibly diamond faceted.  More likely, an old, chipped coffee mug.

Last night, I attended a poetry workshop led by a good friend of mine.  He took us through several writing exercises, and my results were pretty rough.  No surprise there.  However, I did write something that I really like, and I worked it into what I think is a new poem.  Not divinely inspired.  But not something that holds coffee, either.

Saint Maty thinks that it has the potential to get up and fly away like birds.

Instructions on What to Do with a Broken Heart

by:  Martin Achatz

Call your PCP. When they ask
why you need to see the doctor,
say, Something is wrong with my heart.
You will get an appointment
within an hour or two, or be told
to go to the ER, call an ambulance.
Follow whatever instructions
you receive. When you find yourself
staring face-up at a physician, she will
ask you to rate your pain on a scale
from one to ten, ten being the worst
pain you have ever felt in your life.
Tell her your pain is Pi, a number
infinite and unrepeating. You may
end up in an OR or hospital room,
surrounded by submarine sounds,
sonar pings. They may cut you
open, or just watch you for a while,
tell you that you're fine, send you
home. None of this will cure
a broken heart. Here is what
will do that: 

a bed, a body
next to you, 
an arm, a hand 
that reaches out,
touches you, 
doesn't move
for the rest
of the long, 
long night.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

April 20: La Caridad, Pilgrimage, Natasha Trethewey, Verdict

 Merton on a pilgrimage . . .

In Camagüey I found a Church to La Soledad, Our Lady of Solitude, a little dressed-up image up in a shadowy niche: you could hardly see her. La Soledad! One of my big devotions, and you never find her, never hear anything about her in this country, except that one of the old California missions was dedicated to her. 

Finally my bus went roaring across the dry plain towards the blue wall of mountains: Oriente, the end of my pilgrimage. 

When we had crossed over the divide and were going down through the green valleys towards the Caribbean Sea, I saw the yellow Basilica of Our Lady of Cobre, standing on a rising above the tin roofs of the mining village in the depths of a deep bowl of green, backed by cliffs and sheer slopes robed in jungle. 

“There you are, Caridad del Cobre! It is you that I have come to see; you will ask Christ to make me His priest, and I will give you my heart, Lady: and if you will obtain for me this priesthood, I will remember you at my first Mass in such a way that the Mass will be for you and offered through your hands in gratitude to the Holy Trinity, Who has used your love to win me this great grace.”

The bus tore down the mountainside to Santiago. The mining engineer who had got on at the top of the divide was talking all the way down in English he had learned in New York, telling me of the graft that had enriched the politicians of Cuba and of Oriente. 

In Santiago I ate dinner on the terrace of a big hotel in front of the cathedral. Across the square was the shell of a five-storey building that looked as if it had been gutted by a bomb: but the ruin had happened in an earthquake not so very long before. It was long enough ago so that the posters on the fence that had been put up in front of it had time to get tattered, and I was thinking: perhaps it is now getting to be time for another earthquake. And I looked up at the two towers of the cathedral, ready to sway and come booming down on my head. 

The bus that took me to Cobre the next morning was the most dangerous of all the furious busses that are the terror of Cuba. I think it made most of the journey at eighty miles an hour on two wheels, and several times I thought it was going to explode. I said rosaries all the way up to the shrine, while the trees went by in a big greenish-yellow blur. If Our Lady had tried to appear to me, I probably would never even have gotten a glimpse of her. 

I walked up the path that wound around the mound on which the Basilica stands. Entering the door, I was surprised that the floor was so shiny and the place was so clean. I was in the back of the church, up in the apse, in a kind of oratory behind the high altar, and there, facing me, in a little shrine, was La Caridad, the little, cheerful, black Virgin, crowned with a crown and dressed in royal robes, who is the Queen of Cuba. 

There was nobody else in the place but a pious middle-aged lady attendant in a black dress who was eager to sell me a lot of medals and so I knelt before La Caridad and made my prayer and made my promise. I sneaked down into the Basilica after that, and knelt where I could see La Caridad and where I could really be alone and pray, but the pious lady, impatient to make her deal, or perhaps afraid that I might get up to some mischief in the Basilica, came down and peeked through the door. 

So, disappointed and resigned, I got up and came out and bought a medal and got some change for the beggars and went away, without having a chance to say all that I wanted to say to La Caridad or to hear much from her.

As with any pilgrimage--whether to a cathedral or Walt Disney World--the build-up is generally better than the actual experience.  The mind has a way of gilding everything with gold.  Merton has waited several days to make it to the the shrine of the Queen of Cuba.  Has thought about what he was going to say and do.  Instead, he finds himself hounded out of the church by a poor woman trying to make a few cents. 

I have not been on a pilgrimage these last seven days.  Several times, I have sat down with my laptop to tap out a blog post, and instead I found myself waking up at one o'clock in the morning with a blank computer screen glowing in my face.  Best laid plans.  However, I have not simply been napping on my couch.

For the last several months, I have been preparing for an appearance by two-time U. S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey at the library where I work.  Trethewey has been one of my favorite poets for a very long time.  Ever since I read her first book--Domestic Work.  One of the first things I did when I was hired at the library was draw up a dream list of authors.  Authors I respected and loved and obsessed over.  Trethewey was at the top of that list.

Then I sent an e-mail to Trethewey.  A polite, gushing, fanboy e-mail.  That was last October.  After a couple months, I received a response from Trethewey's agent, saying that Natasha (yes, I can call her Natasha now) had gotten my message and was interested in doing a reading.  I nearly fainted.  

After negotiating terms, doing some fundraising, and about 500 more e-mails, I found myself this past Saturday in a Zoom meeting with Natasha, talking about teaching and weather and politicians and poetry.  If Merton, on his pilgrimage to the shrine of the Queen of Cuba, was tragically disappointed by his experience, I was transported by my encounter with Trethewey.  It was almost religious for me.  I'm not kidding.

Even now, four days past the event, I still feel like I've just returned from Lourdes or something.  Just basking in the memory of Trethewey's words and spirit.  She said profound things about race and gender and memory and language.  And today, on the eve of Derek Chauvin's conviction for the murder of George Floyd, I am experiencing the power of Trethewey's message even more strongly.

Traveling through a country stitched together with racial violence and injustice.  Trethewey gives me hope tonight.  So does the Chauvin verdict.  And isn't that what pilgrimages are all about--hope?

Maybe Saint Marty is a pilgrim.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

April 12-13: Very Good Catholic, Place to Belong, Home

 Merton is a stranger in a strange land, and finds himself home . . . 

At Matanzas I got mixed up in the paseo where the whole town walks around and around the square in the evening coolness, the men in one direction and the girls in the other direction, and immediately I made friends with about fifty-one different people of all ages. The evening ended up with me making a big speech in broken Spanish, surrounded by men and boys in a motley crowd that included the town Reds and the town intellectuals and the graduates of the Marist Fathers’ school and some law students from the University of Havana. It was all about faith and morals and made a big impression and, in return, their acceptance of it made a big impression on me, too: for many of them were glad that someone, a foreigner, should come and talk about these things, and I heard someone who had just arrived in the crowd say: 

¿Es católico, ese Americano?” 

“Man,” said the other, “he is a Catholic and a very good Catholic,” and the tone in which he said this made me so happy that, when I went to bed, I could not sleep. I lay in the bed and looked up through the mosquito netting at the bright stars that shone in upon me through the wide-open window that had no glass and no frame, but only a heavy wooden shutter against the rain.

Merton, visiting Cuba to recuperate from an operation and rest before entering the monastery, finds himself in a group of Cubans from all stations of life.  Intellectuals and communists.  Marist Fathers students and University of Havana students.  The one thing that unites them all--their faith in God.  Despite being a foreigner in the country, Merton is filled with the peace of belonging.

I think that's what everyone is looking for, every day:  a place to belong.  I lived in Detroit when I was a young child.  For most of the rest of my life, I have made my home smack dab in the middle of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, except for a short, three-year stint in Kalamazoo.  Four apartments.  One house.  I've taught at two universities.  Worked in a book store.  An outpatient surgery center.  A cardiology office.  Two hospitals.  As a plumber's apprentice.  A housekeeper, cleaning operating rooms and birthing rooms.  I've been an organist at five different churches, four different Christian denominations.  Now, I work for a library.  I've been with the same woman for over thirty years.  Have a beautiful, 20-year-old daughter, funny 12-year-old son, and the cutest puppy in the world.

As the song goes, it has been a long and winding road.

And I don't think I'm done yet.  I have lived the life of a pilgrim, constantly searching for what Merton describes in the above passage.  A place where I look up through mosquito netting at the bright stars and feel completely content.  At home.  

Of course, my parish priest--and one of my best friends who's a Methodist minister--would tell me that the home I'm searching for isn't physical at all.  Merton would probably agree with them.  It's a spiritual thing.  A God thing.  It's what Paul encountered on the road to Damascus.  What Moses met on Mount Horeb.  What Buddha found beneath the Bodhi tree.  What Muhammad discovered in a cave called Hira.

But I'm not Merton.  Or Paul or Moses or Buddha or Muhammad.  My road is still a little unclear to me.  I try to treat everyone in my life with love and kindness every day.  I fail every day.  I try to be a good Christian every day.  And fail.  Good husband.  Fail.  Good father.  Fail.  I think that the only thing I've really perfected in my life is my ability to be imperfect.  

Here is what I call home tonight:

  • My son, who let me kiss him on the forehead before he went to sleep.
  • The peanuts I'm eating.
  • My daughter, who brought me a cup of ice water before she went to bed.
  • A picture of my sister who died of lymphoma about six years ago.
  • My puppy, who forced herself into my lap and insisted on being held close to my chest.
  • Books of poetry stacked on the table beside me.
  • My wife, in all the complicated messiness of our thirty years together.
  • Rain tapping against the window behind me.
All of the things on this list are ephemeral.  Could disappear tomorrow.  Yet, at this moment, they are what make me feel like I'm exactly where I should be.  Like I belong.  

Mother Teresa said, "If you want to change the world, go home and love your family."

Saint Marty tries to change the world every day.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

April 10: Mother of God, Second Dose, My Puppy

Merton travels around Cuba . . . 

Often I left one church and went to hear another Mass in another church, especially if the day happened to be Sunday, and I would listen to the harmonious sermons of the Spanish priests, the very grammar of which was full of dignity and mysticism and courtesy. After Latin, it seems to me there is no language so fitted for prayer and for talk about God as Spanish: for it is a language at once strong and supple, it has its sharpness, it has the quality of steel in it, which gives it the accuracy that true mysticism needs, and yet it is soft, too, and gentle and pliant, which devotion needs, and it is courteous and suppliant and courtly, and it lends itself surprisingly little to sentimentality. It has some of the intellectuality of French but not the coldness that intellectuality gets in French: and it never overflows into the feminine melodies of Italian. Spanish is never a weak language, never sloppy, even on the lips of a woman. 

The fact that while all this was going on in the pulpit, there would be Cubans ringing bells and yelling lottery numbers outside in the street seemed to make no difference. For a people that is supposed to be excitable, the Cubans have a phenomenal amount of patience with all the things that get on American nerves and drive people crazy, like persistent and strident noise. But for my own part, I did not mind any of that any more than the natives did. 

When I was sated with prayers, I could go back into the streets, walking among the lights and shadows, stopping to drink huge glasses of iced fruit juices in the little bars, until I came home again and read Maritain or St. Teresa until it was time for lunch. 

And so I made my way to Matanzas and Camagüey and Santiago—riding in a wild bus through the olive-grey Cuban countryside, full of sugar-cane fields. All the way I said rosaries and looked out into the great solitary ceiba trees, half expecting that the Mother of God would appear to me in one of them. There seemed to be no reason why she should not, for all things in heaven were just a little out of reach. So I kept looking, looking, and half expecting. But I did not see Our Lady appear, beautiful, in any of the ceiba trees.

No, I have not been travelling around Cuba like Merton.  That is not the reason for my long absence from blogging.  I haven't been seeing visions of Out Lady floating above Lake Superior.  Although that would be really cool.  And I haven't "taken a break" from social media, as people do every once in a while for various reasons.  Nope.

The explanation for why I haven't written a blog post in nearly a week is simpler (and lamer) than that:  I've been tired.  From long days of working and teaching and grading.  Trying to be a good father and husband and friend.  Plus, I find Holy Week emotionally taxing, too.  There's something about all the ritual and reading of the gospel crucifixion narratives in the liturgy that sort of wipes me out.  And then, two days ago, I got my second dose of COVID vaccine.  That pretty much did me in for yesterday and most of today.

Those are my excuses.  Even saints need time to recharge.  And Jesus.  After he did things like heal a bunch of lepers or feed a crowd of five thousand people, he would always sneak away for some alone time.  I assume to recharge his God batteries.

I'm sitting on the couch in my living room right now, listening to birds sing outside.,  It's approaching dusk, and there's a whole lot of feathery conversation going on in my yard.  Spring has arrived in my little corner of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  The other evening, as I was walking my puppy, I heard an orchestra of peepers.  The sound sort of cracked me open like a tulip bulb.  

As I said, these last seven days have not been filled with heavenly visions, despite the Easter season.  But I did receive one particular message that I believe was heaven sent.  You see, I struggle with dark moods all the time.  My life situation has been challenging these last couple years.  I do my best to battle these moods, but, sometimes, they get the better of me.  

The other morning, I woke to rain and thunder.  A early spring downpour.  Since Easter Sunday, off and on, I'd been battling darkness.  The sound of those bullets of water striking the windows was almost painful.  I didn't think I was going to be able to pull myself together enough to go to work or school.  I said a little prayer as I brushed my teeth:  "God, help help help help please help."  (I say versions of this prayer often.)

After getting dressed, I went to my puppy's kennel and unlatched the gate.  She came roaring out of the kennel, dervished on the floor a few times, and then threw herself on her back and looked up at me.  I laughed out loud.  For the first time in days.

It was a heavenly vision.  Just as much as Jesus appearing to the apostles in the upper room.  Or the Virgin Mary popping up at Fatima or Lourdes.  I got the message.

Usually, when I pray, I'm very specific.  I think I know exactly how God should answer my prayer.  I know this is the height of hubris.  Pretty much I'm tapping God on the shoulder and telling him how to do his job.  It doesn't hurt anything to pray for a banana split if you want a banana split.  However, God might just send you Cobb salad instead, because that's what you need.

My puppy, lying on her back in front of me, was the vision of surrender.  She was showing me her belly, looking up at me with complete trust.  She knew that I was going to give her exactly what she needed.  A treat.  A full body rub.  Or a spin around the house so she could empty her bladder.

That's what my prayer was that morning.  Me, flopping on my back and staring up at God.  My puppy gave me that theological insight.  And I found myself lighter.  Almost happy.  Because I knew God was going to give me exactly what I needed to make it through the day.

The darkness I've been feeling this last week hasn't completely abated.  But, I have found some inner peace.  That peace is simple, too.  It's a recognition of grace.  Waking in the morning and knowing that God is going to be there to open the door.  Let in light.  Take me for a walk.  Give me a treat.

Marty--patron saint of good dogs.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

April 4: Easter Sunday, Chocolate for Breakfast, "Easter Bread"

Here we are.  Easter Sunday.  Actually, Easter Sunday night.  

My twelve-year-old son woke us up early this morning, sneaking into our bedroom and whispering, "Happy Easter!"  I love the fact that he still gets excited about Easter baskets and is sort of on the fence when it comes to the Easter Bunny.  He doesn't take any chances.

So, we had chocolate for breakfast.  Of course.  What else would you eat on Easter morning?  Then an Easter egg hunt.

After that, we put on our Easter bonnets and went to my wife's church.  The whole family.  I think that it was the first time we have all been together at a worship service since the pandemic began.  Christmas time, we were under quarantine.  So, it was kind of a miraculous moment, sitting in a pew with my wife and kids.  (Disclaimer:  we attended the service because the church practices social distancing and requires facemasks and does contact tracing.  I am still very aware that we are in the MIDDLE of a pandemic, not at the tail end or out of a pandemic.)

Lunch at my family's house.  Ham and cheese and Easter eggs and homemade Easter bread (the kind my mother used to make).  And a long visit with my sisters.  We haven't really been together since Thanksgiving, when I helped them put up their Christmas decorations.  My sister, Rose, who has Down syndrome, is very confused all the time now.  She suffers petit mal seizures every morning.  There's no way to control them, and they have really affected her physically and mentally.  I'm not really sure if she even knew who I was.

She smiles all the time.  Is happy all the time.  That was good to see.  Another Easter miracle.

I ended the evening watching O Brother, Where Out There?  Haven't seen that movie in years.  I had forgotten how wonderful it was.  The Coen brothers, George Clooney, and Homer.  Three more Easter miracles.

Now, I'm thinking about the chaos of the coming week.  Trying to prepare for it in my head.  Lots of work ahead in the next five days.

The tomb is open and empty.  Light has returned.  There's ham and Easter bread in the fridge.

And Saint Marty got to hug his sister Rose today.

An Easter poem . . . 

Easter Bread

Easter Sunday

by:  Martin Achatz

My mother made it on Holy Saturday
In her bowl as green as Easter grass.
She'd mix water, salt, sugar, flour,
Shortening and yeast, fold it
With her hands, over and over,
Until dough took shape, white
As my winter skin. Then she kneaded,
Pushed and pounded, picked it up,
Slammed it down on the kitchen table,
Made the room shake with violence,
Sounds like sledges and spikes,
Holy, Easter sounds. After she was done,
My mother left the bowl on the counter,
Draped with a towel. She waited
For the dough to leaven, the yeast
To work like prayer, make the dough
Rise higher and higher, swell, stretch
Like a pregnant womb. My mother
Returned, kneaded, punched
It into submission, broke
Its will, began the process anew.
As night fell, the dough rose and rose.
Some time after I went to bed,
My mother sliced loaves, and baked.
On Easter morning, I woke
To the aroma of fresh bread.
Resurrection, sweet and warm
As the wren.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

April 3: Holy Saturday, Easter Vigil and Jimmy Stewart, "Vigil"

Usually on Holy Saturday night, I get home a little before midnight from church.  Then, I help the Easter Bunny with the baskets and hiding the eggs.  By the time I get to bed, it's well past 2 a.m.

For the second year in a row now, all my Easter preparations are done early.  Last year, there were no Easter Vigil Mass due to the pandemic.  This year, the Easter Vigil took place at another church where I'm not an organist.  So, after working at the library this morning, stopping by Walmart to buy one last batch of Easter candy, I came home and did . . . practically nothing.  I took a nap in the middle of the day.  Then, I watched the film Harvey with my son, and he loved it.  After that, I picked up some pizza for dinner.  Went for a four-mile walk with my puppy.  Watched A River Runs Through It, this time pretty much by myself.  Finally, just before my son went to bed, my whole family played a couple rounds of a card game called Notable Novelists--one of my son's favorites.

After my son went to sleep, the Easter Bunny came knocking on the door, and I helped the big hairy guy with the Easter baskets.  Now, after taking another short nap on the couch, I'm typing this blog post.

All of that may not be all that interesting to most of my disciples.  However, it was a remarkable day for me.  Nothing was normal, and yet it was one of the most normal days I've experienced in a long while.  And that was a miracle.  A normal, everyday miracle.

One of my favorite moments at the Easter Vigil Mass occurs right at the beginning.  All the lights in the sanctuary are turned off.  To represent the darkness of the tomb, I suppose.  Then, at the back of the church, a fire is kindled.  I can see the light from the fire flashing against the walls, licking up to the vaulted ceiling.  And then, after some prayers and chanting, the light is passed by candle to every person in the church.  One-by-one, candles start flickering in the darkness until, by the end of the process, the entire church is a sea of candles.  I watch this all from the choir loft.  The light of Easter has arrived. 

For me, tonight, the light of Easter was watching an old Jimmy Stewart movie with my son.  Eating stuffed crust pepperoni pizza.  Strolling along a lake with my dog.  Playing cards with my family.  Filling pink and blue baskets with chocolate.  All those moments were filled with miraculous light.

At my wife's church, on Easter morning, people greet each other by saying, "He is risen!"

Saint Marty can say tonight, "He is risen indeed!"

A poem for this Holy Saturday . . . 


1 day until Easter

by:  Martin Achatz

When my grandmother died, my dad
Sat by her bed all night, recited
Rosaries, listened as her breaths
Became lighter, lighter, the space
In between, longer and longer,
Like waves on the beach of Kesennuma
The day before the tsunami, soft
Swells and troughs breaking on sand.
Hiss. Silence. Hiss. Greater silence.
My dad kept vigil, waited for the dawn,
The last wave, the greatest silence.

The night before my wife gave birth
To our daughter, the hospital room
Was filled with family, friends.
We took turns holding my wife’s hand
When the pain overcame her,
Preparing her body to deliver new life.
Outside, snow tore through darkness
As we kept vigil, waited for sunrise.

This Holy Saturday, I will go to church
After night falls. In the black pews,
I will wait for the priest to light
The first fires of Easter, for the flame
To pass from candle to candle
Until the walls, pillars, ceiling
Of the sanctuary flood with light.
I will go with my daughter,
Keep vigil with her, wait
For the church to bloom
With bells and incense and hymns,
Psalms of deserts and seas,
Hunger and manna.
I will sing with her, loud,
Joyful songs, calling all the children
Out to the playground, under the stars,
To slide, to clap, to dance, to shout,
To swing so high their feet
Kick the last breath of night
To the first cry of the morning.

Friday, April 2, 2021

April 2: Good Friday, I Commit My Spirit, "Good, Bad, and Ugly Friday"

Yes, I am stepping away from Thomas Merton for the next few posts, which seems strange since we are currently in one of the most important seasons of the Christian calendar.  But, after living with Merton for over a year now, I understand one thing about him--he did things his own way.  So, I am just following in his footsteps.

Today is Good Friday.  I went to church this afternoon, played the pipe organ for the service.  Of course, the Biblical account of Christ's passion was read.  And the moment that always moves me the most comes immediately after this passage:

Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit."  When he said this, he breathed his last.

At that point in most Good Friday services I have ever attended, everyone gathered bows their heads.  Some kneel.  And a prolonged moment of silence follows.  It's a silence that's filled with the grace of this world and the next.  The silence when I saw my sister breathe her last breath.  When my father stopped thrashing on his hospital bed, calmed, and seemed to see something beautiful.  And I am struck mute by it, throat closed, choked by . . . thankfulness?  Sorrow?  Hope?  I'm not sure.

All I know is that I'm in deep and can't surface for breath.

Saint Marty wishes all his disciples a good, bad, or ugly Friday.

Good, Bad, and Ugly Friday

2 days until Easter

by:  Martin Achatz

I used to think I’d be struck
Deaf and blind if I stepped outside
Between noon and three o’clock
On Good Friday. My family would
Unplug radios and TVs,
Let the phone ring and ring,
Never answer, in case Satan
Was calling to tempt us to eat
Meat or chocolate or jellybeans.
For those three hours, we lived
As ancient Israelites, I thought,
Unable to depend on any modern
Luxury that made life easier.
I ignored hunger, nausea,
The urge to pee or defecate, use
A flush toilet, while Jesus hung
On the cross for me, forgave
Me for finding the Playboy
Under my brother’s mattress,
Sneaking into the bathroom
To see those secret woman
Places Saint Joseph never knew.
At exactly 3:01 p.m., I went
Into the backyard, breathed
Air purged of sin, clean
As salt waves in the Pacific.
I was a chalkboard washed
Of math problems, spelling lists,
Ready for new lessons,
New vocabulary. Not words
Spray-painted on gas station walls
By people who wandered
The streets during the sacred
Three hours. No. Holy words
The nuns taught me in religion class:
“Suffering,” “sacrifice,” “redemption.”
In three days, I’d meet Jesus
At Dairy Queen, split a vanilla malt
With Him, talk about all
The things I’d done. The good.
The bad. The ugly. The beautiful. Tell Him
Of my suffering, sacrifice on Friday,
All for Him, only for Him.
Give Him the whipped cream,
The maraschino cherry.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

April 1: Holy Thursday, Poetry Workshop, "Last Suppers"

 Greetings all of my loyal disciples!

Yes, I am still alive.  It has been a long week, heading into a long weekend.  I have found myself feeling overwhelmed by life in a lot of ways.  But, Holy Week usually does that to me.  I find the whole Triduum emotionally exhausting.  In fact, it starts on Palm Sunday for me, with the reading of the Biblical narrative of Christ's passion.

This time makes me reflect.  Take stock.  Often, I find myself lacking in a lot of ways.

Many years ago, as a Lenten practice, I wrote a poem a day, from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.  It was a fool's undertaking, but I managed to see it through to completion.

Saint Marty is still a fool.  And he's still taking stock.

Last Suppers

by:  Martin Achatz

3 days until Easter

Details from Andrew Caldwell and Honesto General

For years as a child, I hoped, prayed
My last night would be cataclysmic
And holy, a meteor roaring
Out of the heavens to smote me
As I descended church steps
Onto sidewalk, Jesus lingering
On my tongue. My parents starved
Me before mass, Body of Christ not allowed
To mingle with grilled cheese or Milky Way,
Holiness absorbed as fast as
An atomic flash. My mother told me
If I got killed by a bus immediately
After communion, I would go straight to heaven,
The host my get-out-of-Purgatory-free card.
If I ate only holy wafers,
I could be like Padre Pio, who bled
From his hands and feet for 50 years,
Tasted the flesh of Christ in his mouth
When he died, warm, thick as the lentil soup
John Belushi consumed his last night,
Or the French onion Julia Child ate
The day her soufflé finally fell.
Custer stuffed himself with buffalo
Steaks, beans and molasses,
Roasted wild corn and prairie hen,
All fresh kills, prepared by his chef
Before Little Bighorn. Marilyn Monroe
Ordered gazpacho, chicken breasts
As full as her own ample cleavage,
Layered taco dip, meatballs, refried beans,
Veal parmigiana. Ginsberg made
Fish chowder, stored two gallons
In his freezer before his last howl.
John Lennon noshed on corned beef.
John Kennedy, first Catholic president,
Breakfasted not on the Eucharist,
But soft-boiled eggs, bacon,
Toast, marmalade, orange juice,
Coffee on the morning he rode
To Dealey Plaza. Martin Luther King,
Had fried chicken, Louisiana hot sauce and vinegar,
Black-eyed peas, collard greens, cornbread,
As he stood on the mountaintop,
Saw the Promised Land, his dream.
On Good Friday, Lincoln ate
Mock turtle soup with oxtail,
Roast Virginia fowl with chestnut stuffing,
Baked yams, cauliflower drenched
In cheese sauce. He carried his cross
To Ford’s Theater, was set free
Next morning, Holy Saturday. Jesus consumed
Grilled tilapia, jugs of red wine,
White and red grapes, olives, dates,
Melon and lamb, pit-roasted
And dipped in wild honey.
His friends got drunk, sang songs,
As He broke bread, passed the cup.
They had no idea what was coming,
The meteor bearing down on them
As they descended the stairs, stomachs full,
Into the hungry streets.