Friday, December 20, 2013

It's Different This Year

Dear Family and Friends,                         
Four years ago today, Francis and I were embarking on the most momentous days of our lives, approaching together his death and transition twelve days later. Last year, because I was writing about that journey, I used the expression “nadir and zenith.” But it’s different this year. I still tear up easily, but I am so filled with gratitude and joy about the second book that this year, joy overcomes grief. It feels as if completing Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – A Love Story is the biggest thing I’ve done in my life. It was like something I had to do before I die. With only one more spiral bound hard copy galley proof to scrutinize, the book will be available early in 2014. 

Two things made a big impact on me in recent weeks: a reflection by the Aramaic scholar with whom I’ve studied since 1996, and, hearing the Portland Symphony Orchestra play Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata # 140 – “Sleepers Awake.”

A few times a year, those who study with Dr. Neil Douglas-Klotz receive from him an online reflection to ponder. (He’s the one whose two biblical chants helped Francis through his final days.) “The Psalms,” he wrote, “mention seven times of prayer, according to the progress of the sun. The stages of the sun through the day can help us remember the preciousness of life and the stages of time passing--birth (morning), full bloom of youth (midday), mid-afternoon (wisdom of maturity), late afternoon/sunset (the day 'nearly over' - reminding us that life in these bodies doesn't last forever), evening (preparing to 'die before we die')”      
It’s clear that at 78, I’m in the evening time of my life. I don’t mind that because aging has its gifts. Then there’s this:

The text of Bach’s cantata based on Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins, calls for the inhabitants of Jerusalem to waken, take up their lamps, prepare the feast, and go out to meet the Bridegroom. In Bach’s 17th-18th century world, faith was simpler; heaven was understood literally then. Even knowing that, and by contrast, a bit about modern scientific views, in hearing the glorious cantata, I felt transported by that Coming it announced. After pondering this for days, I can’t help believing that the desire for life after death, engrained in the human psyche from earliest times, is so strong, that that fact in itself argues in its favor. No one could convince me that love dies with the person who dies.

Francis and I heard Sister Elizabeth Johnson speak at a conference in 2000, about her book, Friends of God and Prophets, A Feminist Reading of the Communion of Saints. She found it hard to face, she told us - what she discovered after extensive research and reflection: “Empirically, the darkness of death is unconquerable.” Death is a genuine end to historical life. Her book concludes: “the only possible response {is} faith in its rawest form. Taking the risk that God will be there. . . . The promise of God is bound to what is empirically the end of all promise.” (p. 220) I give thanks for this gift of faith. Her next chapter “Companions in Hope” builds on faith. That part of my book is underlined even more.

In the earlier years after Francis died, I was tempted to think I just wanted to write my books, and then, “join” him. But then, as expressed in my poem “Widow’s Time,” (from Sing . . . The Poems), I saw that I have additional work to do – rallying to protect the environment for our children, work for peace and justice in the world, and work also, for example, teaching English to Africans. I already love doing that, but for now, it’s on a limited time basis - after mass on Sundays.

 In a sense, the first two stanzas of that Widow’s Time poem allude to what I’ve focused on in the last four years - “not moving on, but in,” and  “crack(ing) open memories’ nuts.” Now, after having written this especially demanding second book, Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – A Love Story, I sense that I’ve jumped over the highest of three hurdles. With the first half of the third book already written – Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – The Uncollected Poems and Journals, the third “hurdle” is the journals. (By the way, I’m in awe at how the poems in the first book continue to speak to me, confirming and revealing as they do - new nuances.)

I’m also in awe at many unexpected developments, two I haven’t  told you about yet. This one I’ll mention now is more personal, not oriented to promotion of the books: I was invited to chant during Christmas Eve mass the ancient Christmas Proclamation from the Roman Maryrology. I did that once before in 1955, in Latin, while in the novitiate in Missouri. It moves me no end to have this privilege a second time - fifty-eight years later! The English text I’ll use is a combination of these two on youtube:  and

 As a friend in CORPUS puts it - Enjoy the wonder and blessings of this Christmas season – and I add Solstice too, with its “long moon.”

With Gratitude and Love,  

Monday, November 25, 2013

Unexpected good developments - Maine Magazine Presents: "Love, Spirituality & Self"

Dear Family and Friends,

In July, I got a message from a Dr. Lisa Belisle asking if I would be willing to be interviewed for her Dr. Lisa Radio Hour and Podcast. She had picked up my first book from our local bookstore, Longfellow Books – Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – The Poems. I immediately said yes because I was just completing Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – The Love Story (which is now at my publisher’s) and such an interview would serve to promote both books, I told her, and the CD of my reading the poems. The radio interview took place in August, but was aired yesterday. Here is the link for this 34 minute radio interview called “Love, Spirituality & Self”:  

Shortly after this interview, I was asked by Sophie Nelson, Assistant Editor of Maine magazine, if I would be willing to be interviewed for that magazine’s “Wellness” column. That’s when I realized that Dr. Lisa’s partner, Kevin Thomas, is publisher of Maine magazine. So I agreed again, for the same reason.
The online copy here -- -- has more photos in it than the actual magazine has (November 2013 issue). The photos were taken by the gifted photographer, Patryce Bok.

Lee Slater, my goddaughter, Rowan’s father, said about Sophie’s “Wellness” profile, “. . . the house of our Love”: “The article captures the essence of you, and your relationship with Francis, perfectly.”
You can imagine how grateful I am for these unlooked-for developments. They will, I hope, incline people to read Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – The Love Story when it comes out early in 2014. It’s not only a love story whose blessing is too rich for me to keep to myself, but there is much in the book about Francis’ last 100 days. I had to tell that story too, to celebrate Francis’ extraordinary patience and inspiring courage in facing his death.
I was very interested to learn more about Dr. Lisa Belisle. She is doing great work in Maine and beyond. Here are two links that lead to information about her -- when she became a doctor: . . . .  and when she started her radio hour podcast:
It was gratifying to learn that the late Hanley Denning of Yarmouth, the founder of “Safe Passage” in Guatemala was Dr. Lisa Belisle’s classmate.

Thank you all for your kindness towards me, and for supporting me and my call to keep writing. I’m now working on the second half of Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – The Unpublished Poems and Journals. 

It’s only six weeks away, now, from the fourth anniversary of Francis’ death on January 3, 2010. Writing has been a healing channel for my grief, but remembering what it was like accompanying him as he embarked on that greatest of journeys, I ask you to pray for Francis’ and my longtime friend, Joe Brannigan, and his wife, Claire, who is a nurse. Claire told me that the fast onset leukemia that surprised Joe is “not amenable to treatment.” I brought them a spiral-bound copy of Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – The Love Story with the numbers of pages listed where they were mentioned, so they could read what I wrote about them, especially Joe, in the first and second chapters. I met Joe when, as a nun, I met Francis, a priest. Francis and I were both newly assigned to Waterville, Maine that same year, that same month. That’s where the love story started, and where the book starts. There's clearly more than coincidence or chance at work here; I call it Providence. Because of it, it’s Thanksgiving for me every day.

You can be sure I also give thanks for the inestimable gift of family and friends whom Francis and I appreciated, and I continue to value - each one of you.

Joyous Thanksgiving to all!

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Francis poem, Pope Francis & The Call That Awakens Us

Dear Family and Friends,

I got a Happy Easter phone call from my brother-in-law a few days ago, so it’s fitting that I do the same, and for additional reasons.  You see, I am currently writing about what Francis said (on this exact day) – three months and three years ago.  It was December 29, 2009. 

The poem I’m attaching feels like the most important poem yet.  But this, one of the 48 additional poems that have come since the publication of Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – The Poems will be published after this prose book is completed - Sing to Me and I Will Hear You – The Love Story.

The poem came after I transcribed audiofiles of Francis’ and my last four (of five) extraordinary dialogues.  I waited three years to listen to those recordings, made possible because Francis’ wonderful doctor, Dr. Devlin, had volunteered his recorder.  This poem provides a short overview of part of what I have been writing about (Francis’ last 100 days) since last autumn.  After that, I’ll go back to Chapter 4 which is only partly written.

Yes, during this celebration of Jesus’ Passover, it’s altogether fitting that I share with you who love him, what Francis said as he made his own Passover – and what he said about Jesus.  So here’s the poem written earlier this month:

The Last Conversations 2009                    
She did not dare -
could not bear
to hear his voice again.

To see,
even just his writing,     
his cursive script –         
that took a lot,
When holding to her face                     
his worn grey sweatshirt             
she could breathe in
the sweet scent of him,             
uniquely his.                                

And the taste of him?         
Oh that - she always has,         
in poems she wrote.          
In prayer.                                            

But his voice?  
His rich and resonant voice?
She’d heard it once,                  
within her ears:               
“I love you, dear” -                     
a visitation                                           
she had called it; a miracle            
become a daily mantra
that sustains her still.    

But now to know his
voice awaited her on audiofiles - she knew
it was time to hear his voice again
kept live through time        
these last three years.

She sat before the monitor,         
snapped on speakers,           
found the file
and paused.

It took three clicks
and there they were:
the files centered on their four
"last suppers."      

It was the week after Christmas.
Hildegard von Bingen's
Canticle of Ecstasy                          
flooded their room.
A dinner tray sat on Francis’ lap.
She offered him a bite,
then took one of her own.   
He smacked his lips
over Tuscan kale.   
“Such feasts given us by friends,”
he said, then wept with her   
at the generous love                                                 
they spent on them,      
sending cards and emails for            
a last
“Message for Francis”
read aloud at dessert.                                         
“The love’s so rich,” she said,                             
it feels decadent.”                                                  
He called their dinners –          
“last suppers.”
The talk turned deep,
her listening, intent.                         
“When Jesus joined in                          
our human condition,” he said,            
sharing his thoughts of
recent days,
“in a way,
we too were raised -
to that
She relaxed, breathing in her gratitude.         
At another last supper
he thanked her for trimming
his hair and beard
that day.                   
“Such a loving experience
we had together!”
he affirmed.
“You injected new energy
and life in me:

It’s not time yet.”

She massaged his legs and arms
as he fell asleep.           

On the day of New Year's Eve 
he wouldn't eat,                     
but then at night he changed his mind.         
 “For my sake?” she asked.
“For us,” he answered.
They were both aware:
this night could be the last          
of all the last suppers they’d held dear.         

So they embraced the little spark         
of which he spoke.
“With patience,” he suggested,
in a weak and scratchy voice,                    
“it might become something bigger.” 
"He had," he said,                                  
"just a very small window
I'm allowed in the world,

But he was not bereft,                   
she was relieved
to hear him say, for he’d wrestled
with some terror –
fear of the unknown,
earlier that week -                              
“not without comfort,” he repeated,
his voice frail.

Hovering on the edge of New Year’s day –
the year into which
he would hardly step
before he left –
the music stopping time
for them that night,
was not a canticle of ecstasy     
but a virtuoso oud player’s
mesmerizing music.                                       

They reminisced.
Seven years before on his 75th birthday,
that music had filled Bella Cuchina,               
the restaurant they’d rented
to celebrate with family and friends.
The occasion, the music, had swept them         
in a transport of joy.
Here now alone, together they relived it.
“That music tears your heart out, doesn’t it?!”   
she said.  And he?

He began to softly sing, 
his pitch, melody
in perfect rhythm
with the master’s own.
His voice grew strong and full,
its signature resonance, once more rich.   
After a pause, before beginning again         
into sing-a-long mode, he said –
“What a melody, huh?!”
Now she’d heard him
heard him singing his joy with her,
on the verge of his dying,
on the brink of his death.

Francis’ faith in Jesus’ resurrection as something mysteriously bestowed upon us all is a faith I cherish as most of you do.  

I’m a member of a small community in our parish which is open to others, for discussion and monthly “Agape” prayer.  Earlier this week two articles were sent around preparatory to that meeting.   Carol Zaleski wrote both of them.  I was deeply moved by this passage from the one entitled “Immortal Dreams”: 

“There are hints in the Hebrew Bible:  ‘If a man die, shall he live again?’ asks the book of Job. ‘All the days of my service I would wait, for my release to come. Then you would call, and I should answer you; you would long for the work of your hand.’  (RSV) It is this call from our Maker and Redeemer that awakens us from death, not some inherent excellence and indestructibility in our souls.”
Here’s the link:  but I’ve copied the whole article below. 

Even if this doesn’t fit in with the Passover theme, our group did discuss this second article I also liked - about prayer.  In fact, this passage quoting Karl Barth moved me to tears:  “But what about foolish prayers, trivial prayers and selfish prayers? Karl Barth is comforting here. “We do not know what proper prayer is,” he admits, and it is actually a sign of our faith that we run to God in prayer with “haste and restlessness.” To do so reveals a trust that we are in communion with God, who intercedes for us with sighing too deep for words, who hears and answers prayers “quite apart from our weakness or strength, our ability or inability to pray.” In prayer, said Barth, we stand beside God as friends.” 

It’s heartwarming that our new pope called himself Pope Francis.  But even more moving to me is his actions, like yesterday’s, which our local paper reported this morning.  The headline reads:  Pope Washes Women’s Feet in Break With Church Law
I like the last few lines of this article which is more complete online:  “Francis responded that it was to ‘help me to be humble, as a bishop should be.’ The gesture, he said, came ‘from my heart. Things from the heart don't have an explanation.’”

What is especially telling is his referring to himself often as “the bishop of Rome.”  In the early church the Pope was seen as the first of all the bishops, exercising “the Petrine ministry,” but he was still mainly “the bishop of Rome.”  It all fits the humility of St. Francis of Assisi, Francis’ patron saint. 

Just one more thing about Pope Francis.  Some of you may be aware that some people are questioning his role during “The Dirty Wars” in Argentina, specifically, some say he didn’t do enough.  (Others, on the other hand demonstrate he did what he could, even at his own risk.)  In any case, I was especially moved by the concluding paragraph of this article – “ Pope Francis: A Modern Passion Play”  By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News  28 March 13

“Readers will decide for themselves what to make of this, but let me share my personal reaction. As an atheist and Jew - and yes, one can be both - I find scriptural arguments for and against liberation theology completely foreign. But I have long valued the political work its adherents do in poor communities. I must also confess a surprising sympathy for the new pope. I can only assume he believes in a just God who knows what he did during the Dirty War. This is the cross Pope Francis bears, and it must be terrifying, an unending crucifixion in his personal passion play. If I could only write that play as a work of fiction.”
(Info about this writer):  A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes on international affairs.

Joyous Easter everyone!