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           The Christian life is a revolutionary life because the Christian assumes a critical distance from the world and in spite of all contradictions, keeps saying that a new humanity and a new peace are possible and they cannot come about without us …

                                Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands 



“How do you get your news?  Paper?  TV?  Internet?”

Well-meaning interlocutors who go around with this question on their lips assume too much.  They assume, for instance, that the person they’re interrogating actually wants to “get the news.”  They also overlook a circumstance that even the most obtuse among us can hardly have failed to note:  namely, that, sooner or later, the news is going to “get” you whether you want it to or not.

“Getting” the news is not the problem.  The real challenge is finding some forgotten corner of the universe where it might be possible, even for a single blessed moment, to escape the news.

The news, in all of its diverse forms, has in our day become what Blaise Pascal called a diversion.  A diversion, said Pascal, is something we pursue because it prevents us from facing the truth about ourselves.  “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance,” he wrote in his Pensees, “men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”  Provided it serves to block these unpleasant thoughts, a diversion can be as petty, as silly, or as random as you please:  “Men spend their time chasing a ball or a hare; it is the very sport of kings.”

Diversions such as the news keep us so busy that we never notice the vanity of the world, the vacuity of our daily existence, or the bankruptcy of our own moral and spiritual condition.  As long as our attention remains riveted on the results of the election, the score of the game, updates about the missing Malaysian airliner, or the latest exploits of Lindsay Lohan, we don’t have to remember that we have no idea who we are, why we’re here, or what we’re supposed to be doing.

Pascal saw all of this clearly.  What he may not have foreseen was the advent of a day when the tables would be turned and our diversions would start pursuing us.

Such is the current state of affairs.  In many of its details – particularly the frenetic pace of the chase – it is unprecedented.  But it’s not altogether new.  Far from it.  Even in the 1840s Thoreau had begun to feel the suffocating effects of its approach:


            Hardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, “What’s the news?”…  After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast.  “Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe,” – and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark un-fathomed Mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.

                                    Henry David Thoreau, Walden


“But the rudiment of an eye.”  One wonders about the appropriateness of Thoreau’s word-choice here.  A “rudiment” is an “elemental beginning;” whereas we, the victims of the modern media barrage, have only a “vestige”.  We can hardly see anything anymore – hardly anything, that is, except what they want us to see.

It was in an attempt to cultivate within himself something more than this mere “rudiment of an eye” – to develop a deeper and subtler inward sensitivity to real truth – that Thoreau withdrew to Walden Pond.  As he put it, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  In other words, he went to the woods to achieve that critical distance from distraction and diversion without which it is impossible to see what must otherwise remain unseen.  He went to the woods to escape the news in order that he might become new.

This kind of distance is of paramount importance to all who wish to follow the Pilgrim Path.  It is, in fact, the second of our distinctive Pilgrim values.  Jesus knew all about it.  That’s why “He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16).  He forsook the world that He might see the world for what it really is.  He separated Himself from the world that He might love it with a pure and deathless love.

We can do the same if we care enough to put our minds to it.  If and when we do, we will make a surprising discovery:  it is only in turning off the “news” that we prepare ourselves to receive, reflect, and embody the very Best News of all.

The Sword of Paracelsus: Faces, Part 2

Sword & Stone 2 001

“Honey, what on earth’s the matter?” blurted Moira with a look of deep concern when Eny stumbled into the dining hall on the upper terrace of the church’s Christian Education complex.  “And why are you so late?  I’ve been worried sick!”

“It’s okay, Mom.  I’m fine.  Really.”

Moira, in a white apron and with her auburn curls restrained beneath a black hair net, stood behind a row of tables just outside the kitchen door.  She and a couple of other women in similar attire were ladling vegetable soup from a stainless steel tureen into Styrofoam bowls.  On the other side of the tables were ranged the patrons of the afternoon meal program:  a long line of unkempt, unshaven men in soiled denim and worn corduroy, some with red or blue bandannas around their heads, some barefoot, all of them dragging canvas duffle bags or carrying big packs on their backs.  Scattered among the predominantly male crowd were a handful of dowdy old ladies in baggy dresses and tough-looking young women in jeans and faded tank shirts.

“How often have I warned you about the kind of people who walk the streets of Hollywood?” scolded Moira as a tattered old man flashed a toothless grin and mumbled a few words of thanks for the soup.  “You can’t dawdle out there the way you used to.  We’re not in Santa Piedra anymore!”

“I told you, I’m okay,” protested Eny, joining her mother behind the table and taking down an apron from a hook on the wall.  “Something happened on the bus, that’s all.  Something weird.”

“Weird?  In what way?”  Moira looked intently at Eny over the tops of her wire-rimmed spectacles.  She reached over and laid a hand on her forehead.  “Are you running a fever?”

“No, Mom.  But there was this man on my bus …”

“What kind of a man?”

“He stopped a couple of bullies from picking on me.  I’m not sure why.  But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that he looked a lot like Simon Brach.”

Moira bent down and took her daughter gently by the shoulders.  “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a hundred times.  Simon’s gone!  This is an unhealthy obsession.  You’ve got to forget about Simon.  That’s why we came down here in the first place—to get away from all that.”

Eny pulled away from her mother and slipped the apron over her head.  “That’s not exactly true,” she said.  “The real reason we came here was to—”

She stopped short.  There was music in the air.  Stunning music.  Glorious music.  Music of a kind she had never expected to hear in this dim auditorium, with its dingy green tile floor and pale yellow walls.  Someone was at the baby grand piano at the front of the hall, reeling off the most amazing sounds she’d ever heard, sounds she didn’t think any instrument capable of producing, sounds like rivers of liquid gold rippling over stones of polished silver.

Standing on tiptoe, she strained her eyes to see who it was.  Hunched on the piano bench sat a small, thin figure, his bony fingers leaping and racing over the keyboard, his arms and hands flailing to keep pace with the furious rise and fall of the notes that were flying up from the hammers and strings like streams of sparks from a tongue of flame.  Most of his face was hidden beneath the shadow of a broad-brimmed hat.

“That’s Chopin,” commented Moira, noticing her daughter’s interest.  “The Fantasie Impromptu.  It was a favorite of my dad’s.  Second only to ‘Paddy Fahy’s #14.’”

But Eny wasn’t listening to her mother.  Her attention was focused entirely on the diminutive person at the piano.  Without realizing what she was doing, she leaned across the table to get a better look at him, upsetting the soup tureen and sending bowls and spoons clattering to the floor.  She did not hear Moira’s cry of protest, for she was possessed by a burning, unreasoning desire to gain a clearer view of the pointed chin and crooked nose that peeked out from under the broad-brimmed hat as the player swung his head from side to side.

At last the music rose to a climax.  It fell like a wave on the shore and gently ebbed away like the flowing tide.  With the final notes still ringing in the air, the wiry little pianist jumped to his feet and bowed deeply.  As he did, something flashed upon Eny’s eye—an odd something dangling from his waist—something like a drawstring purse or a lumpy old leather satchel.

She blinked and stared.  Then she looked again.  Was it possible?  Could a bag man from the Boulevard actually turn out to be one of the Fir Bolg of the Sidhe?  It sounded crazy.  Then again, after her experience on the bus she felt ready to believe anything.  Either way, she had to know for sure.

In an instant she was out from behind the table, leaping over bags and backpacks, ducking under arms and between legs.  Politely but persistently she elbowed her way through the crowd until she came to the rows of tables in the middle of the hall where some of the patrons were already eating together in groups of twos and threes.

Picking out a pathway between the tables, Eny followed it straight to the front of the auditorium.  She began to run, stumbling over chairs, bounding against unwary patrons, excusing herself and apologizing profusely every step of the way.  As she neared her goal she became aware of two bearded men standing in her path, directly in front of the piano, their heads bent together in earnest conversation.

“Excuse me!” she cried, bearing down on them like a runaway train.  “Can I get through, please?”

Eyes wide, mouths gaping, they parted like the Red Sea before her and she plunged ahead without hitch or pause.  But as she passed between them, her foot caught the toe of a boot and she pitched forward violently, her hands slapping the floor with a loud smack that could be heard all the way across the room.  Stunned, she got up on her knees and wiped her stinging palms against the front of her apron.

“What’s the hurry, girl?” said one of the men, taking her by the arm and helping her to stand.  “Are you hurt?”

But Eny didn’t answer.  Her eyes were fixed on the empty piano bench.

The flashy little pianist was gone.


The Sword of Paracelsus: Faces, Part 1

Sword & Stone 2 001

Eny stopped writing and glanced up from her notebook as the bus bounded over a pothole and rumbled through the intersection at Hollywood and Highland.  Someone in the seat behind her had tapped her on the shoulder:  tap … and then again, tap … ever so lightly.  Or so she thought.  She turned to see who it was.  The seat was empty.

Eny shook her head.

They must think I’m a complete idiot.

With a cool eye she scanned the rows of seats between her own and the back of the bus.  The corners of her mouth turned upward in a grim smile.  Inaiah and Randall.  Just as she had suspected.

Inaiah and Randall were a pair of troublemakers from her algebra class.  The same pair who had apparently entered into a dark and solemn pact to make her life as miserable as possible.  They were sitting about five rows back, staring innocently out the window at the imposing façade of the Egyptian Theater.  Eny aimed a smirk in their direction.  They didn’t seem to notice.

Without a word, she tucked a loose strand of coppery hair behind her ear and went back to her poem:


        L. A. in the barren heat

            Inclines my soul to bleak defeat …


No, she thought.  She bit her lip and squinted at what she’d written.  Inverting the pencil, she scrubbed it out and tried again—


     L. A. in the autumn heat—

                     Withered dreams, barren street …


Thok!  Something small but hard and forceful, like the fillip of a flicked fingertip, struck her directly on the back of the head.  She spun around just in time to see the two boys duck down in their seats, showing her only the tops of their inverted baseball caps.  Sounds of muffled laughter rose above the low growl of the bus’s engine.  Eny shot an inquiring glance at an elderly woman in a shawl and frumpy purple dress sitting two rows behind her.  The woman returned her look with a non-committal shrug.

Once again she attempted to concentrate on her rhymes:

     Pierced by the pitiless glare on glass

         Of cars and buses as they pass … 


Splat!  Starting violently, she dropped the notebook and reached up to touch the back of her hair.  In disgust she flung the spit-wad out the window and wheeled fiercely on her assailants who were now laughing and jeering openly.  The old woman, who was busy searching for something in her bag, appeared not to have witnessed the assault.

Eny felt her neck stiffen.  Her jaw clenched and a burning clot of red-hot anger welled up behind her eyes.  Desperately she fought to remember everything her father had ever told her about self-control.  Turn the other cheek, she thought.  Trembling with the effort, she reined in her fury, faced forward, and returned to her composition for the third time:


     My thoughts stray to another world

        In comfortable gray encurled …  


“Aaak!” shrieked the old woman.  Dink! went the bell telling the driver that a passenger wanted to get off.  Once more Eny looked back over her shoulder.  Apparently somebody’s aim had gone astray.  The old lady, with a distressed expression on her face, was cursing and pawing the back of her neck.  Reaching into her backpack, Eny found an unused tissue and offered it to her.  As she did, the brakes squealed and groaned, the driver pulled over to the curb, and a tall, lanky man in a hooded sweatshirt stood up at the back of the bus.

She was not prepared for what happened next.  With one big-knuckled hand the tall man gripped Inaiah by the shoulder.  With the other he seized Randall by the scruff of his collar.  Yanking the pair to their feet, he drove them to the front of the bus and escorted them down the steps just as the door hissed open with a whoosh.  It was all over in fifteen seconds.

Eny craned her neck and tried to get a better look at the man as he stood there on the pavement with the two culprits firmly in hand.  The soup kitchen, she thought—perhaps that was where she had seen him before.  He had his hood drawn up over his head, so it was difficult to be sure.  But as the bus pulled away he turned and gave her a momentary glimpse of his face—a narrow, craggy face with deep-set, sky-blue eyes.  At the sight of it, she gasped and caught her breath.  Then the bus lurched forward and the vision was gone.

Stunned and speechless, she stumbled off the bus at Gower Street and moved numbly up the sidewalk.  She had no explanation for the strange event she’d just witnessed.  Nor could she account for the emotions it had stirred in her.  She felt certain that she did not know the man who had delivered her from her tormentors.  And yet …

The more she thought about it, the more her brain began to reel.  As if in a daze she walked the two blocks north to the Presbyterian Church.  Its tall brick tower, which reminded her strongly of the shattered tower of St. Halistan’s, loomed above her in the shimmering heat.  And as its shadow fell across her path another vision rose up before her mind’s eye:  a vision of storm and wind and darkness, of giants and flying ships, of lightning and thunder and a gallant figure wielding a glittering sword.

This vision hung in the air during the time it took to draw two long breaths.  Then it dissolved like smoke.  As it faded, Eny saw a big black crow flutter down from the top of the tower and alight upon a windowsill just above her head.  It cocked its eye at her and croaked loudly.

Hitching up her backpack, she picked up her feet and ran as fast as she could to meet her mother at the soup kitchen.

(To be continued …)

*  *  *  *  *

The Sword of Paracelsus: Second Journal Entry

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Day 49


If, when my bones are found crumbling to dust in this lightless hollow beneath the earth, someone should happen to come across the pages of this unhappy history lying scattered among my blasted and bleached remains; if, I say, someone should take the trouble to read what I have written here, his first inclination may be to ask how a wretch in my position could possibly have produced such a record under such conditions.  The Morrigu, of course, has not been so accommodating as to provide me with pen and paper. 

The explanation is simple.  Ingenuity answers every need; and need, in turn, spurs the needy to invention.  Nothing comes from nothing; everything arises out of opposition, conflict, and hunger.  This, as Boehme writes, is the universal principle behind the Primal Essence.  This is the creative role of the Astringent in the unfolding of the fabric of the cosmos.

To state it plainly:  I have contrived to make ink by depriving myself of water.  Every other day I mix half my ration of the precious fluid with a drop of my own blood and some of the soot that still lies beneath the blackened hearthstone of an ancient fireplace in the corner of my cell.  My paper, too, is compounded of water and fibers from various sources—my own rotting garments, bits of straw picked up off the floor, and shreds of my ragged bedding.  Pens I have managed to whittle out of splints of wood chipped from the bedstead.  My knife is made from an iron bracket that once held the bed-frame to its legs.  This rude tool I have painstakingly whetted and sharpened against the stones of my prison wall.

With a similar implement of my own design I have at last initiated the slow, almost imperceptible process of chipping away at the walls themselves.  The reader who chances to stumble upon this sad account of my life underground may well laugh at the naiveté of my plans for escape.  If so, I can only respond that he does not know what it is like to lie where I am lying now.  The human soul cannot live without hope.  Idle hands soon wither and die.  At any rate, time is of no concern to him who no longer senses its passage.  And so I have no reason not to continue as I have begun—dig, dig, digging the pasty mortar out of the dime-thin spaces between the slimy stones …


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                          O world invisible, we view thee,

                           O world intangible, we touch thee!

                                 (Francis Thompson, “In No Strange Land”)


Sadly, vision – the first of our Pilgrim Values – has been almost entirely co-opted and corrupted by salesmen, CEOs, motivational speakers, and corporate “leadership” gurus. In their hands this priceless treasure has been transmogrified into something closely resembling “visions (or delusions) of grandeur” – a glitzy but hollow shell of its former self, stuffed with such empty kosmic values as self-aggrandizement and lust for success. Suffice it to say that this kind of “vision” has no place in the Pilgrim life.

The vision we have in mind is a matter of seeing, pure and simple. To be more precise, it’s a way of seeing. Before you can be, you have to be able to see.

To a certain extent, this vision is the result of conscious choice and persistent practice. But at an even deeper level, it’s a gift:

“Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:16, 17).

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).    

Pilgrim vision is granted to those who are willing to stand in the place of the passive receiver.  The starry-eyed and the agenda-driven, blinded by plans and ambitions of their own, know nothing about it. Once appropriated, it can be cultivated and developed in a number of ways. But whatever shape it takes, it is always a thing of primary importance. For as goes the vision, so goes the rest. In a very real sense, it’s the tail that wags the dog. As Jesus put it, “The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, when your eye is good, your whole body also is full of light. But when your eye is bad, your body also is full of darkness. Therefore take heed that the light which is in you is not darkness.” (Luke 11:34, 35)

   Scottish lore tells of a woman who was gifted with the fabled “second sight.” This rare and highly coveted ability was bestowed upon her in exchange for a favor she had done – not altogether of her own free choice – for the fairy-folk. It seems that on a certain evening a strange woman clad all in green appeared on her doorstep with a beautiful child in her arms.

   “Will you nurse my baby until I return?” asked the fairy (for such indeed she was).

   The woman stared for a moment, completely at a loss. Then she heard her own voice saying, “Yes. Certainly I’ll do that.”

   A year passed. During all that time, the woman never lacked for anything: all her physical and material needs were miraculously and abundantly supplied. At last the fairy returned.

   “You have been kind to my child,” said she. “Come with me now, and I shall show you my house.”

   The woman followed her through a shaded wood and up a sunny green hillside. Near the top of the hill the fairy lifted up a turf in the bank, revealing a wooden door. She opened the door and the two of them entered.

    “What do you see?” asked the lady in green.

   The woman squinted in the dim light. “Not much,” she said. “A bare chamber. A dirt floor.”

   From her belt the fairy drew forth a goblet containing a green liquid. She poured three drops into the woman’s left eye.

    “Look again!” she said.

    The woman did. Before her lay a spacious and beautiful country; away and away it stretched into the dim blue distance. There were green hills fringed by trees. Crystal streams flashed in the bright daylight. A broad lake shone like burnished silver.

   For many years afterward the woman retained this capacity to see what other mortals were entirely unable to discern. Only the fairies could have given her such a gift. Only they could take it away.        

Pilgrim vision is like that. It’s a kind of second sight. It is not about “chasing dreams,” hatching “visionary” plots, or cooking up grandiose schemes for self-advancement. It has nothing to do with aiming for ever greater heights of success, power, and wealth. On the contrary, vision is the rare ability to see the unseen; and having seen it, to order one’s steps according to the radically different pattern of reality revealed in the light of that bright but invisible world.


The Wing of the Black Crow

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The Wing of the Black Crow


The wing of the black crow

                   Sails silent down the sun-blue sky.


At rest he sits, head downward-cocked,

                   Upon a barren, thorny branch;


He utters raw and raucous notes;

                   He lifts his glossy, glinting pinions,

                   He dives into the sun,


                   And diving makes his blackness jump,

                             A flash of jet,

                             A somber star,

                   To sing bright his Maker’s praise

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The Sword of Paracelsus: News from the South, Part 3

Sword & Stone 2 001

When George was gone, Morgan went back to Eny’s letter:


I know this is hard for you, Morgan, but you’ve got to accept it.  I know you’re dealing with issues of your own.  You have reasons for wanting to find a way in.  I realize that.  I’d help you if I could, but I can’t.  I’m under geis.  I made a vow, a promise.  I’ve got to keep that promise now that you-know-who has the Stone.  Everything depends on it.  Even my dad and Rev. Alcuin agreed that this was the best plan.  Somehow you’ve got to see that too.  What if She were to come back to Santa Piedra looking for me?  It makes me shiver just to think about it.   

Even here, in the middle of the big city, far away from St. Halistan’s and the Cave of the Hands, I’m always looking over my shoulder.  I get nervous every time I see a crow.  I cry a lot and don’t sleep much.  Worst of all, I haven’t picked up the fiddle since we got to L.A.— it just isn’t the same without Simon.  But I know that I’m in the right place.  At least for the time being.  It’s too dangerous at home.  And if I were to go—you-know-where—well, that would be like handing myself over to the enemy.  I can’t do that. 

Got to close.  It’s late, and there’s school in the morning.  Write me.  I’ll write again as soon as I can.  Remember that I’m your friend forever.



Gently, carefully, Morgan folded the letter, sliding the crease between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand.  For a brief moment he held it to his nostrils, hoping to catch some faint hint of his friend in the scent of the paper.  Then, replacing it in the envelope, he pulled his backpack out from under the table, slipped the letter into a concealed pocket deep inside the bag, and zipped it shut.

After that he sat for several minutes with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands, staring steadily at the long blue bundle at his feet.  Reaching down, he lifted it into his lap.  Slowly he unwound the flannel wrapping.  Gripping the hilt with his right hand and resting the blade on his left palm, he held the sword up to the light of the desk lamp.

But what was this?  Squinting narrowly at the blue blade, he noticed now for the first time that it bore strange markings.  He blinked and looked again.  Slowly he shifted he sword in his hands, deflecting the glare and studying it closely in the changing angle of the light.

He had not been wrong.  There could be no mistaking it now.  Three long, straight lines ran lengthwise down the shining steel, crossed at intervals by perpendicular hatch-marks.  And on the curved crossguard was an inscription in an unfamiliar alphabet—

Ubi Soror et Sponsa 001

Morgan let out a low whistle.  Lightly he ran his fingertips over the strange letters.  They were engraved deeply and solidly into the silky smoothness of the glittering gold.  Somehow it gave him a sense of profound satisfaction just to touch them.  They spoke to him of permanence, antiquity, and power.

Turning the sword over, he discovered yet another inscription written in the same outlandish alphabet on the obverse side of the crossguard.  It was shorter than  the first one—


He stared at the alien characters until his eyes were sore.  Again and again he turned the sword in his hands.  How was it possible that he hadn’t  seen these odd engravings before?

And then it occurred to him:  never once since the sword had fallen into his possession—not until this very moment—had he taken time to study it closely.  Yes, he was familiar with its shape and size.  He had hefted its weight and even witnessed the stunning release of its powers.  He was acquainted with it in a general way.  But he did not yet know it intimately.

The reasons were obvious.  When he had wielded it on the night of the Battle for the Stone, it had been in the midst of darkness, terror, and tremors of the earth.  When he had heaved it up to strike the rock at the rear of the cavern, his thoughts had been intent upon a single goal:  that of opening a door into the Other World.  The rest of the time—two long months—he had kept the miraculous thing hidden away in its flannel graveclothes, fearful of discovery, anxious to protect it from prying eyes.

Now his mind flew back to the anguish of that bleak afternoon in the Cave of the Hands.  Again he saw himself lying on the barren floor of the silent and dripping chamber.  Again a nameless and powerful longing swept over him.  A determination to find his father at any cost gripped him by the throat.

But then another thought flashed across his mind—an inspiring, energizing thought.  These inscriptions, this writing, these unknown words—perhaps they held the secret he was seeking.  Perhaps they could provide him with the key that would unlock the power of the sword and subject it to his will.  Suddenly he felt sure of this.  There was not the slightest shred of doubt in his mind.  All he had to do now was learn to read the ciphers.  And what could be simpler?  Hadn’t his father been a linguist?

His heart pounding, Morgan wrapped up the sword and stowed it away.  Then he rose, crossed the room, and pulled down five or six ancient volumes from the bookshelves on the opposite wall.  In a cloud of dust he dumped them in a heap upon the workbench.

Then, seating himself in the chair, he began searching for the key to the unknown language.


The Sword of Paracelsus: News from the South, Part 2

Sword & Stone 2 001

“Ah.  I see you got it!” said the broadly grinning figure on the threshold.  “That’s good.”

George Ariello, resident caretaker and head custodian of St. Halistan’s Church, was leaning into the room from the bottom step, one hand on the door-jamb and the other mopping his brown forehead with a red bandana.  “I brought it over as soon as the mail came.  Figured you’d come straight here as soon as school let out.  What’s the matter?  You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”

Morgan felt the hot blood rush up his neck and into his cheeks.  “Nothing’s the matter.  You startled me, that’s all.  And yes, I got the letter.  Thanks, George.”

He was sitting at a scarred and battered workbench in the corner of his new retreat:  the big janitorial closet adjoining the electrical room in the church basement.  George had offered him this space soon after the fall of the tower, and Morgan had spent most of the summer lugging boxes down the stairs and getting things organized.  Three rows of unfinished pine shelves along the west wall held everything that remained of his father’s books and alchemical equipment:  pestles and mortars, alembics and cucurbits, hermetic jars and several coils of copper tubing.  The workbench and office chair were gifts from Rev. Alcuin—overflow from the clutter in the minister’s museum-like office.

The “dungeon”, as Morgan called it, had taken some getting used to.  Compared with his old lab in the tower it was dark, damp, and mildewy.  Mops and buckets stood clustered around an antique washing machine in one corner, filling the air with a wet, musty smell.  Like everything else at St. Halistan’s, the walls were made of the speckled granite quarried in the coastal hills around Santa Piedra more than a century before.  So old and permeated with ground moisture was the mortar between the stones that it had long since begun to crumble away into moldy paste and dry dust.  There were no windows, and the door at the bottom of the basement stairs was the only way in or out.

All things considered, the “dungeon” was far from ideal.  But it was his, and Morgan had to have a place of his own.  There were, after all, certain things that couldn’t be done—and some things that couldn’t be kept—at home.  Especially with his grandmother in the house.

George, who was still hanging in the doorway, cleared his throat.  “I was just wondering,” he said.

Morgan looked up at him and raised an eyebrow.

“Wondering why she sent it to my address.”

“I don’t know.  Why?”

“It’s just that I don’t hear much from either one of them.  Most of the letters that come to my house are for you.  I’m not surprised about Moira, of course.  But I hadn’t counted on losing contact with Eny.  I let them go south because it seemed the right thing to do.  The Reverend said so, too.  But they haven’t called or anything in over a month.”

Morgan shrugged.  “Maybe she thinks you’re busy.  Maybe she’s busy.  Maybe she sends my letters to your address because she thinks I don’t spend much time at home.  Maybe she doesn’t want my mom to be bothered.  There could be a lot of reasons.”

George shrugged.  “Maybe so.  You don’t spend much time at home.”  He turned to go, then ducked back through the doorway.  “Everything okay over on your side of the wall?  Between you and your mother, I mean?”

Morgan nodded.  “Just a little crowded right now.”

George gave a short, hoarse laugh.  “And me right next door, with more room than I know what do with.  Funny, isn’t it?  I used to say I said I’d give anything to be rid of that woman.  But it’s no fun living alone.”

Morgan shifted in his chair.

“So just remember what I told you, Morgan.  Mi casa es tu casa.  If you need some space, you’re always welcome over on my side.”

“That’s nice, George, but I’ve got all the space I need.  Thanks to you and Rev. Alcuin.”

Even as he spoke, Morgan saw George’s gaze drop.  Suddenly he had an uncomfortable feeling that the custodian’s eyes were probing the shadows beneath the old workbench.  With a swift involuntary movement, he moved his chair to block up the exposed space.

George frowned.  “What you got there?”


“There.”  He inclined his head towards the workbench.  “Under the table.  The long blue thing.”

“Oh, that.  Nothing.”


“Well, not exactly nothing.  Something for school.  My … gym class.”

George grinned. “First time I’ve known you to show any interest in gym class.  What is it?  Looks too thin for a baseball bat.  Besides, this is football season.”

Morgan hesitated.  “It’s a fishing pole.”

George looked doubtful.

“Seriously.  I signed up for a fishing class.  Third period.  Down on the Point.”

George’s thick black eyebrows arched upward.  “Fishing?  For P.E.?  Never heard of that before.”

“Sure.  They offer all kinds of Phys. Ed. electives now.  Bicycling, weight training, bowling, fencing.  Fishing.”

George shook his head.  “I guess schools nowadays are more progressive than I thought.”

With that, he turned and climbed back up the stairs . ..

(To be continued)

The Sword of Paracelsus: News from the South, Part 1

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September 23,  _____

Hollywood, California


Dear Morgan,

Hollywood isn’t what you think it is.  It isn’t what anybody thinks it is. 

Sure, there’s the Walk of Fame and the Chinese Theater.  There’s the Pantages, and the Hollywood Sign, and the Capitol Records Tower (Mom says it looks like a big stack of pancakes with a needle on top).  Down on the Boulevard you can see people selling maps to Stars’ homes, and every once in a while a big double-decker bus rolls by full of gawping tourists.  I guess some people find it exciting.  But when you live here you can’t help noticing the grunge around the edges of the glitter and glitz.  And behind it all, down the alleys and up the side streets, back in the neighborhoods where the real people live—well, that’s a whole different world. 

It’s a world where men sleep in dark stairwells wrapped in dirty blankets.  Where bag ladies in heavy overcoats stalk the streets pushing shopping carts filled with all their worldly possessions.  It’s a place where hollow-eyed kids sit on the broken doorsteps of empty houses and play behind chain-link fences in parking lots littered with broken glass.  It’s a land of noise and neon where almost everywhere you go somebody comes up and asks you for money.  That’s the real Hollywood. 

I still can’t get used to the sidewalks.  They’re covered with black spots, like a leopard’s skin—blotches of discarded chewing gum.  The medians are all dirt and asphalt and weeds, and most of them are thick with cigarette butts and beer bottles.  Some of the walls are so loaded down with graffiti that they seem to be crumbling under the weight of it.  And there are metal bars on all the windows and retractable padlocked gates, like steel accordions, on every shop front. 

Mom and I are staying with my aunt Grania in her apartment on the south side of town.  She’s the reason we came to L.A.  We knew she’d take us in, and it seemed like a good place to be anonymous.  Grania’s nice, but a little scatter-brained.  She says she moved here to break into “the Industry.”  So far she’s been in a couple of stage plays at the local “Actors Co-op.”  She spends the rest of her time waitressing at a Thai restaurant.  We don’t see a whole lot of her.

There’s a meal program for the homeless every afternoon in one of the big Sunday school rooms at the Presbyterian church.  A sort of soup kitchen.  Mom volunteers .  Sometimes I stop by after school to help her serve.  You see some interesting characters there.  Up close and personal, too.  Most of them don’t smell very nice. 

School is kind of scary.  The kids are tough and unfriendly—gang-bangers, some of them.  It’s hard to connect.  I’m new, and nobody wants to talk to me.  A few of the girls make fun of my blue eye. 

I eat alone at lunchtime, out in the sun.  The “cool” people get all the shady spots.  I guess September must be the hottest month of the year in Southern California.  My dad used to say that the folks up north want to secede from the south and start a new state of their own.  I’m beginning to see why.    

No, you’re not bothering me.  I’m always happy to hear from you, but I do wish you’d stop begging me to come home.  You already know why I can’t do that.  As for the other idea you mentioned, I’ve told you a hundred times why I can’t even discuss the possibility of going back to—well, you-know-where.  There’s no way in the world that I can take you there.  Not now.  Not ever.  Not even if I wanted to.  Please don’t ask again.   

I’m not angry with you, Morgan.  I hope you’re not angry with me.  I never asked for any of this to happen.  It wasn’t my idea …  


Morgan looked up at the sound of footsteps descending the stairs.  Shoving the blue bundle under the table with his foot, he tossed the letter aside and swiveled in his chair to face the door …

(To be continued)


In Babylon

Babylon 001

In Babylon


From Eden to the land of Nod

Cain went under the curse of God,

            The man who knew no pity;

And having slain his brother found

An unoffending spot of ground

            And builded him a city.


Then brick on brick and stone on stone

He raised a tower of his own,

            Full fit to be a prison;

Now walled within he stands despising

This bondage of his own devising

            And wonders how it’s risen.


Now glass and girders, steel, cement

Assail the stars and firmament

            Till he has near forgot them;

Now earth, air, water, hills, and trees

Become the chattel (he believes)

            Of those who’ve paid and bought them.


In Babylon where rivers run

Hot as serpents in the sun,

            Cold as souls of misers,

Upon the ladder’s lowest rung

My people’s harps and hearts were hung

            As prey for advertisers.


And they were taught with deft aplomb

To scale the heights; they clawed and clomb

            And nearly touched the heavens.

So sapped of all humanity

And flush with fell urbanity,

            They eat their bread with leaven


Where bleak barrages pounce from perches

Over streets, and cable searches

            Homes with hooks and talons;

Where baited pleasures lead the lured

Down precipitous paths insured

            By congressmen and felons.


 In Babylon did Genghis Khan

Turn profits on the White House Lawn,

            Then ringing up the churches

He called a meeting of the Board

To barter for their Golden Hoard

            And hanged them by their purses.       


In Babylon where I was born

My wings were clipped, my locks were shorn,

            And I was made the target

Of researchers and analysts

And celebrated panelists

            Who put me on the market.


And now that I’ve been marked and sold

It seems my story’s all been told

            For those who’ve ears to hear it;

So marvel not nor weep for me

But get thee to a nunnery

            Or lose both soul and spirit.

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Clean Sea Breeze

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       I went up to my study. The familiar faces of my books welcomed me. I threw myself in my reading-chair, and gazed around me with pleasure. I felt it so homely here. All my old friends–whom somehow I hoped to see some day–present there in the spirit ready to talk with me any moment when I was in the mood …

George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish)



Is there a way to get up out of the narrow canyon of our immediate historical situation and command a more sweeping view of the Pilgrim Path?  Has some genius been able to perfect a means of time-transport after all?

C. S. Lewis thought so.  But the contraption he had in mind didn’t consist of cranks, gears, tubes, diodes, or optical fibers, nor did it have anything to do with traversable wormholes.  It was a simple affair:  a thing made of ink and sheets of paper bound together between cloth-covered boards.  He was thinking of booksold books in particular.

“The only safety,” says Lewis in his essay On the Reading of Old Books, “is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (‘mere Christianity,’ as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.  Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.  It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.  If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

Why tie ourselves down to such a troublesome and constrictive rule?  Simple:  it’s practically the only way to break free of a sweet, seductive, and subconscious slavery to the prejudices of the time in which we live.  As Lewis went on to say:

Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period … None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.  Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already.  Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.

To a significant degree, our investigation of the Pilgrim Path will be centered around things found in old books.  “Old” is, of course, a relative term.  If you use the phrase “back in the day” to refer to events five years past, you may think an “old” book is one published prior to 1990.  We will almost certainly be referring to some of these more recent examples of “ancient” literature in coming installments:  to Lewis, for example, and Ellul, and authors such as G. K. Chesterton, A. W. Tozer, Simone Weil, Malcolm Muggeridge, Brennan Manning, and Henri Nouwen.

On other occasions, however, we’ll reach much further back:  to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, for instance, or to Pascal, George MacDonald, William Blake, Henry Vaughan, John Owen, the Venerable Bede, and old John Bunyan himself.  Sometimes we’ll appeal to writers even more antiquated than that, like the prophets and apostles and early church fathers.  There’s no telling how far we may go in our attempts to escape the numbing haze of contemporary thought.

Our goal in so doing will be to get at the heart of the most basic Christian values.  Some of these values will bear familiar names:  faith and love, hope and vision, meekness and beauty and perspective.  Others, like autarkeia and apatheia, have a more foreign ring about them.  Still others may shock and dismay – anarchy, for instance, and weakness, and death.  But they all have one thing in common:  when boiled down to essentials, they stand diametrically opposed to the assumptions and values of the kosmos.

Sound intriguing?  Then stay tuned …

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