Thursday, October 6, 2016

festivals, bike rides, and trepassing

The weather is just beginning to cool off in Pensacola, and the annual Greek Festival signals a new season.  It is one of my favorite times of year on the Gulf Coast.  I returned from Ireland last Friday, it was one of the best trips of my life and I'll post some thoughts in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, a piece from my retreat last month at Manresa, in Convent, Louisiana. 


South Louisiana is largely a landscape of endless sugar cane fields.  Solomon Northup's harrowing account of slavery in similar fields will forever color my view of them.  Somehow, land can carry the scent of many years past.  Every September, I find myself on a long run along the banks of the mighty Mississippi.  The Jesuits were the first spiritual teachers to suggest to me that imaginative powers could be used for good!  My imagination has historically gotten me into trouble.  Many of these runs have found me accompanied by my favorite writer, Thomas Merton, and fully colored by divinity.  

But on one particular rainy Saturday during my retreat, I decided to take my bike out as far as I could stand it.  And after more than a few miles, I found myself bored and hot.  One or the other may be tolerable.  Combined, they beg for change.  I spied a road down off the levee which seemed like it might hold something interesting.  So off I went.

The Manresa House of Retreats is arguably the flagship of American Jesuit retreat houses.  It is truly a magnificent spot.  Greek revival architecture gives a timeless feel to the place and the otherworldly and grand St. Mary's Hall was constructed with the aid of slaves in 1842.  Everything is impeccably well done.  So to go from such a stately scene into rural Louisiana poverty is particularly striking.  But the thing that hit me the most was an old run down mobile home with a prominently displayed "NO TRESPASSING" sign.  I have always found the thought of a trespasser finding such a sign compelling to be comical.  As if one might say, yes I intended to trespass until I saw that sign!

And it seems that those who have the least objectively desirable (or available) property to be stolen are somehow the most protective of it.  I think of one desperately poor client of mine who once took out his wallet to get his driver's license.  It was literally chained to his pants.  He was, of course, consulting our firm about the possibility of filing for bankruptcy.

But the no trespassing sign had the affect of bringing to mind the all too often election of another kind of poverty.  Not a poverty of geopolitical or economic circumstance.  Or even a poverty of indifference of some sort.  But a jealously guarded spiritual poverty. 

One of the most oft reproduced paintings in the Christian tradition is that of the third chapter of the book of Revelations.  Aside from that text as a whole being nearly completely lost on me, the artist's image is that of the Christ knocking on a door that all too clearly has no outside door handle.  The occupants must make the affirmative steps of opening the door from the inside.

For many years I had equated bad religion with the need to keep spiritual doors closed.  I had a canned stump speech that I could rattle off without much thought.  Exhibit A almost always invoked the lunacy of the Spanish Inquisition and the insanity of the Crusaders evangelizing by death and conquest.  For more recent evidence, parasitic televangelists made for easy targets - plundering the slender means of hapless widows and the weak minded.  These narratives were embedded in my psyche as veritable no trespassing signs.

One of the staple tort cases for law students involves a spring gun that was rigged by a property owner to indiscriminately kill trespassers.  We can do this in our own way, even if we are not foreclosed to the idea of faith and spirituality.  We rig intellectual and spiritual spring guns to ensure there are no unwelcome trespassers which may challenge us.  As much as this is a legal error, it is also a grave spiritual error.

Many of us resultantly live spiritually impoverished lives.  There may be little appreciation for the absolute mystery that constitutes the Master Painter.  A deeply vibrant spirituality is often the product of a lifelong exploration rooted in curiosity.  In our own ways, we elect to hold onto spiritual poverty.  Sometimes out of a lack of awareness and often due to something of a spiritual anemia.  We need to leave the doors wide open in what may feel like a scary spiritual neighborhood.  This may be accomplished by the comparative study of another faith or tradition and practices which are foreign to us.  Or by looking to God in the text of great literature and poetry, or contemplating the rising of the sun on a pilgrimage.  Whatever it is, the Divine calls us to fling the doors open and invite trespassers of a different kind.

When I'd had all I could handle of the outward leg of my bike ride, it was time to turn home.  And as I did, I crossed Highway 44 and made a stop at St. Michael's.  It is a small church, but unlike so many today, its doors are open and unlocked.  As I left my Cannondale by the front door, it occurred to me that maybe it was crazy for a church to be wide open in the middle of the day.  Or for someone like me to leave my bike there where it could be easily stolen.  But I was all but overwhelmed with this sense that if someone needed my bike that bad, they could take it.  Hadn't the priest in Les Miserables offered all of the church's silver to the thief?  Perhaps we've had trespassing all wrong.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

swim, retreat, and beauty

It has been a busy several weeks!  We relocated home base and spent the weekend unpacking endless boxes and more accumulated junk than I realized that we had.  I might keep moving regularly if only to necessitate the purge that comes with that change.  Transitions are a test in gracefulness.  Not exactly my strength.  Three thoughts on this sunny August day, as has become customary:

1.  I had the opportunity to swim in the Gulf a couple of weeks ago along a deserted stretch of beach.  Ominous storm clouds were out in the distance and I could see dolphins not far from where I was.  As I stood in the surf and looked around me, it occurred to me that I could have just as easily stood there a million years ago just as I was.  There was nothing artificial about the moment, nothing man made.  No electronics.  No schedule.  Time stopped.  It was a baptism of sorts, an immersion in the present.

2.  I depart for Manresa on Thursday.  I am already imagining the last couple of miles before St. Mary's Hall comes into view.  It is a homecoming every time I go.  There is my Saturday night walk to the chapel and my Sunday morning vigil in a private area.  My walking meditation between an alley of oaks done only once a year.  And a couple of runs along the banks of the Mississippi, where someone usually runs with me courtesy of imagination.  I am grateful to get to be there in that space again this year.

3. I am slowly working my way through John O'Donohue's writing on beauty. It is incredibly rich.  Beauty has always seemed an unnecessary luxury.  I am starting to see that it is at the essence of the spiritual life. I am making my belated trip to Ireland next month and I am excited to see the wild countryside he has written and spoken of. 

A small piece from O'Donohue:

"Beauty dwells at the heart of life.  If we can free ourselves from our robot-like habits of predictability, repetition and function, we begin to walk differently on the earth. We come to dwell more in the truth of beauty." 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

summer, movies, and murder trials

Summer is in full swing!  

A quick excerpt from the writing project which is occupying most of my pen time.  Grace & Peace!
There are occasions when I don’t have the energy to allow a poem or prose to reach me.  But a good movie can almost move me in ways that other art sometimes can’t.  Call it spiritual spoon-feeding, but The Shawshank Redemption taught me powerful lessons on beauty and endurance.  Casablanca taught me that we can release people and ideas when we are ready and that fresh starts often come in completely inexplicable forms.  The lovely French film, Intouchables, taught me that subtitles are worth it sometimes.  And the Italian masterpiece, Great Beauty, taught me that one doesn’t have to wait until the age of sixty-five to stop doing things one doesn’t really want to do.
Several of the most memorable movie scenes from my youth come from the Rocky franchise.  Each film is anchored by a pinnacle fight in which Rocky is matched against some beast who by all appearances can’t be beaten.  I would cover my eyes when the coach would lean over Rocky’s bloodied face and give him water, dry his brow, and maybe cut his eye to relieve the traumatic swelling.  I resented the coach.  Why wouldn’t he just grab Rocky by the shoulders and say, “Come on kid, we’re getting out of here!”  Why would anyone stand by and let such brutality go forward when they had the power to stop it?
Life can feel an awful lot like that ring.  Always moving your feet, dodging, hustling.  Trying to stay in the fight and endure for another round.  Oftentimes a terrifying opponent is giving you a run for your money.  But if you’re lucky enough, you’ve got a team of people around you to help steer you in the right direction and maybe even a good coach to encourage you when the odds feel completely overwhelming. 
 And truth be told, I’m usually out there in the ring fighting myself than anyone else. But I’ve come to see that like Rocky’s coach, God always has an eye on me in the ring.  But that doesn’t mean that I am magically going to get pulled out of the fight.  A few bloody noses helped this finally sink in.  It might be the same reason that I couldn’t appreciate tragic literature or the Psalter until I’d lived a little.  Your heart has to have been stomped on before the blues make much sense.
My childhood faith experience is probably typical.  Lukewarm at best, to the fault of none other than perhaps being too materially comfortable.  I grew up in a military family.  My stepfather raised me like I was his own.  My mother taught me how to have a conversation and really listen.  She was also an untreated alcoholic for many years.  I was blessed with a mostly stable home life and consistent Republican theology, all while the Cold War loomed as an ominous backdrop in the formation of my sense of justice and grace.  Pull the electric chair switch quickly, don’t make them suffer for God’s sake.  Ronald Reagan held a place second perhaps only to St. Paul.      
My dad laid a green flight suit just about every night alongside black leather flight boots.  Lumbering strategic bombers gliding overhead were a thing of comfort.  We moved every few years and I learned good manners and how to fit in quickly. One of the great things about growing up on base housing is that young military couples efficiently produce children.  There were always kids to play with and I organically related to military culture.
The Cold War did not officially end until I was a middle schooler.  Up to that point, it was understood that Lucifer himself had birthed the communist Russian people.  Mind you, I never even met a Russian until I was an adult.  And it is also probably noteworthy to mention that my dad chastised me more than once for frequently insisting that I be the commanding general in our neighborhood play battles.  A boy on a military base knows what it means to be a sergeant or a general.  But I also remember being drawn to God at a very young age and praying fervently to whatever it is that holds the cosmos together.  I regularly edged myself to the corners of my bed as I fell asleep to make room for angels. How does a kid like that end up as a lawyer?
            One significant turn occurred in my living room in the early 1990s.  The Air Force had relocated us to a small Illinois town not far from St. Louis. One concession was that I would be starting high school as a new student just like everyone else. Not showing up in the middle of the school year was a small grace.  And Belleville was big enough for a new Walmart.  My freckled face was glued to the television screen as a white Bronco dodged traffic on a distant California highway.  And while I couldn’t tell you the difference between a cornerback and a smokestack, everyone knew who OJ Simpson was.  The famous football player was by all appearances responsible for the gruesome murder of his beautiful ex-wife and Ronald Goldman.    
             The Simpson trial was all the rage and seemed to consume the entire school year. Nearly everyone was drawn into the legal battle playing out in the national media.  There were detailed descriptions of defense strategies and the judge's influence in the case. Simpson huddled with a small army of intense lawyers.  The once powerful athlete exuded a mix of confidence and angst.  That case singularly introduced me to the law.  At least, what I thought the law was.  It seemed obvious that only a crazy person would take on a big case without a lawyer. 
Nearly twenty years since then, I’ve practiced law for a while and I’ve seen a few things.  I remember not understanding why old people always seemed so exasperated when they said things like, “twenty years ago I did so and so; I cannot believe that much time has passed."  I understand now.  Furthermore, my opinion on what constitutes being old has changed. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016


aloof magisterials
or merely stilted listlessness?

fear and pain, etched on theses faces

a woman, congenitally defective
hands and feet
gnarled, open toed shoes
asks for help, painfully

a chirping child
in a long line over my left shoulder

tapping feet
hushed conversations
crisp shirts
dirty blue jeans

and I was wonder
what has brought me to this place of suffering?

a smile or a nod
gratefully received

what if this same awareness
and stillness were carried into the day

what might happen?
and then

"all rise" 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

spring, actors, and eugenics

It's been a wonderful space of time in Pensacola.  New beginnings, spring is approaching, and its just warm enough to drop the boat in the water with a sweater or jacket.  A couple of thoughts on this cool March morning, as has become customary.

1.  I spent several days in Sarasota with friends a couple of weeks ago.  Among the things we did, I was able to observe an acting class at the Venice Theatre. I was expecting a largely technical experience, i.e., inflect your voice this way, and stand that way.  Move your body in such and such a way.  It was just about anything but this.  Some of the most well known trial advocacy experts, Gerry Spence among them, pound into the heads of lawyers the need to connect emotionally with juries.  I was intrigued by the similarities in the manner in which the acting students were told they had to connect with audiences.  I never expected to hear the class being instructed on trust.  The most fascinating exercise involved having students face each other and repeat the following phrase, "I could be hurt by you."  I was overwhelmed with the recognition that this is so often what we are too guarded to really say to one another.  How often is it that lovers, family members, social factions, find it nearly impossible to articulate what they'd say if they could; "I am afraid," or "I could be hurt by you."  We are perhaps most authentic when we can let our guard down and say what is below the surface of polite conversation. 

All of this has been in the backdrop of working through Along the Way, by Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez.  Among a variety of discussions, the book masterfully depicts the role of emotional intelligence in interpersonal relations and the curious and unique vocation of acting.  It's been a well timed exploration for me.

2.  I listened to an eyeopening podcast this morning on the American eugenics experience, which largely focused on the incredible U.S. Supreme Court case of Buck vs. Bell.  Though I was familiar with the case, I was stunned to learn that it had been cited by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals as binding authority on sterilization due process as recently as 2001.

Accomplished jurists bear no immunity to the fear of the "other."  It seems evident that the present battle cry of certain conservative pockets ("us vs. them") is reminiscent of the same forces behind the American eugenics movement.  Most shameful perhaps being our recent collective knee jerk reflex in this country to Syrian refugees, which certainly seems to resemble our dismal response to Jews seeking to flee Europe around the time of the Second World War.

3.    I'll leave you with some fitting words from Robert Frost.

An ant on the tablecloth
Ran into a dormant moth
Of many times his size.
He showed not the least surprise.
His business wasn't with such.
He gave it scarcely a touch,
And was off on his duty run.
Yet if he encountered one
Of the hive's enquiry squad
Whose work is to find out God
And the nature of time and space,
He would put him onto the case.
Ants are a curious race;
One crossing with hurried tread
The body of one of their dead
Isn't given a moment's arrest-
Seems not even impressed.
But he no doubt reports to any
With whom he crosses antennae,
And they no doubt report
To the higher-up at court.
Then word goes forth in Formic:
"Death's come to Jerry McCormic,
Our selfless forager Jerry.
Will the special Janizary
Whose office it is to bury
The dead of the commissary
Go bring him home to his people.
Lay him in state on a sepal.
Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
This is the word of your Queen."
And presently on the scene
Appears a solemn mortician;
And taking formal position,
With feelers calmly atwiddle,
Seizes the dead by the middle,
And heaving him high in air,
Carries him out of there.
No one stands round to stare.
It is nobody else's affair
It couldn't be called ungentle
But how thoroughly departmental