Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009

What good can one person do? (When All Else Fails)

For 22 consecutive days in the spring of 1993, Sarajevo Opera cellist Vedran Smailovic dressed in his tuxedo at midday. Carrying his black cello case and a straight-backed chair, he made the perilous journey from his apartment to a downtown street. It was there that 22 of his closest friends had died when a Serbian artillery shell landed in their midst. The Bosnian War had filled local soccer fields with hastily dug gravesites. Most markers bore the death dates, 1992 or 1993.

Unable to stop the madness that had ripped apart the former Yugoslavia, Smailovic honored the memory of his friends and defied their killers by doing the only thing he was good at. Placing his chair in the middle of the street, he took out cello and bow—musician and instrument melding into a single defiant force. Eyes closed to the surrounding destruction, he rendered the mournful Adagio in G minor by Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni.

On one of those days, at the end of his lonely concert, he opened his eyes and saw the American singer and peace activist Joan Baez standing reverently at his side. They embraced, brother and sister united in a seemingly futile cause. As Smailovic packed his instrument and prepared to leave, Baez hesitated, then sat in his empty chair. Closing her eyes, she sang a heartfelt “Amazing Grace,” whose lyrics echoed Albinoni’s funereal mood. As her crystalline voice pierced the bystanders’ hearts, she blotted her tears with her sleeve.

Often, my daily tour of the world, via electronic and print media, leaves me feeling powerless to address humanity’s wide-ranging ills. Rather than yield to the despair of my littleness, I take courage from the example of those who offer what small gifts they possess to the cause of peace. Vedran Smailovic, now known worldwide as “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” played music. At any moment, he could have been targeted by snipers and gunners in the nearby hills. Playing the cello in the street was his statement that honoring life and beauty is more powerful than bullets. Joan Baez contributed by “being there” at the nadir of Sarajevo’s suffering. Powerless to do more, she offered the people her gift of song.

My daily challenge is to do something to make a positive difference in the world, even if it seems insignificant amid the deadening weight of the day’s headline stories.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

House of Faith

Dr. Gregory House (Fox TV’s House) displayed unaccustomed bedside kindness as he sat alone with elderly patient. The brilliant doctor had come in person to deliver a fateful message: “Your condition is not only terminal, you have only hours to live.” The gentleman listened, stunned. He had hoped for better news, one of House’s patented last-minute, life-saving diagnoses. The light in his eyes dimmed, as he refocused on another kind of future. Finding his voice, he grappled for a compass, “What happens, Doctor, you know . . . after?” House looked into the dying man’s eyes and proclaimed with certitude, “Nothing.”

Like House’s patient, I too wonder what happens, “you know . . . after.” Like House, I am certain I know the answer, but my certitude is a humble one, not based on first-hand, or scientific knowledge. But neither is House’s certitude based on knowledge. He has no more evidence (defined as “something offering proof”) to support his “nothing” than I do to support my “something.” In the absence of hard evidence, both House and I are left with one and the same option: Faith. Conviction without proof. The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews (11:1) states it better than anyone, before or since: “Faith is . . . being certain of what we cannot see.”

All human beings, be they brilliant doctors or street people, share a common lot when faced with the “after” question. We are all believers, staking our claims, sight unseen. Only our conclusions differ. We are like the aerialist who makes a dramatic leap from the safety of the secured platform, believing . . . hoping, but not knowing that the partner’s timing will be perfect and that a pair of strong hands will snatch the tumbling, free-falling believer and swing both of them home to the safety of the opposite platform.

In similar fashion, we lept into birthed existence from our mothers’ wombs. Entering an alien world, we have spent our years trying to make sense of this way of being we call Life. We strive for meaning individually and at the peril of making mistakes and unhealthy decisions.

I take comfort in sharing faith with Dr. House and all who agree with him. We are one in our imperfect understanding. Neither of us knows what comes next, or whether there even is an “after.” I am no Pollyanna. Daily reports of murder, rape, greed, and the horrors of war offer ample room for doubt. “Nothing” presents itself as a welcome option by comparison. 

Yet, I take my chips and place them with confidence on the ‘Yes’ side of “anything after?” freeing myself to imagine and hope for a benevolent God who loves all human beings and waits to welcome them, no matter how they bet. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Little Night Music

"Sing, Papi."

I obeyed and, in a near whisper, sang the refrain of "Springtime In the Rockies." Every night for three weeks this past summer, I repeated this command performance in the pitch-dark stillness of my two-year-old grandson's bedroom.

When it's springtime in the Rockies,
I'll be coming back to you,

little sweetheart of the mountains,

with your bonny eyes so (true).

Once again I'll say I love you.

and the birds sing all the day,

when it's springtime in the Rockies,

in the Rockies far away.

Why "Springtime in the Rockies"? Call it a resurrected legacy, the only song I remember verbatim from my early childhood. Once in a while, my dad would pull out his black acoustic guitar and sing to my sisters and me. I don't know if he included the verses. All I remember is the refrain. Dad had a wider repertoire, of course, consisting mostly of Italian ballads, but "Springtime" burrowed into my brain, waiting decades for an opportunity to regift.  

Oddly, I don't remember singing "Springtime in the Rockies" to my two daughters. Somehow, this lovely melody only resurfaced, when my grandson was born. The refrain speaks of undying love and a steadfast pledge ("I'll be coming back to you") that endures across great distances and monumental obstacles. My twangy rendition seemed to soothe him, as I cradled  him in the crook of my elbow, and he nestled against my chest.  It's been our "thing" ever since, our unique point of contact. 

If I ever doubted the importance of "our song," my grandson gave me the answer one night. I sang and sang and sang the refrain, but he couldn't say goodbye to our day in the park, feeding ducks and swinging "up to the sky." Weary of repeating myself, I switched gears, making up some dumb song of my own. 

Out of the darkness came a tiny, but decisive, instruction: "No, Papi, 'Springtime.' "

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Listen to Easy Gibson's rendition on YouTube.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Wonderful Highway Accident

When Esther and I are planning a trip north to Arcata (Humboldt County) to visit our grandson (and his parents), I go to the library and pull three books-on-CD off the shelf. I do my best to pick something well-written and entertaining, but frankly it's a crapshoot. Whoever said you can't tell a book by its cover blurb was right. They all sound like the greatest things ever published.

In August of this year, I went through my usual routine. This time, I selected two novels, plus one nonfiction book I thought might have potential. But biblical nonfiction? As we approached the Benicia Bridge, northbound, Esther chose a novel--no surprise--and popped it into the CD player. By the time we reached Petaluma, we had both decided it was soooo boring. Trust me, that one which shall remain titleless didn't dance with the stars.

Somewhere in the Highway 101 portion of the Sonoma wine country, she inserted Disc 1 of the second novel. Clunker #2! After a couple of discs, we scrapped it. Two down and, with only the biblical nonfiction book in our entertainment bag, the several-hour drive ahead looked longer than ever.

"What the heck?" we said in desperation and opened up Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler. Another loser? Not at all. For the rest of our drive to Arcata and all the way back to our home, we sat mesmerized as the youthful author related his personal quest to find out just who this man was who is claimed as common ancestor by the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

This Jewish author's excitement for his subject and his great respect for all three traditions made listening to the book an inspirational learning experience. Though a lifelong student and practitioner of religion and the Bible, I had one "Wow!" moment after another. Several times I had to turn off the CD and exclaim, "That's really good stuff!"

Since returning home, I have purchased my own copy of Abraham and am now reading Feiler's Where God Was Born: A Daring Adventure Through the Bible's Greatest Stories. My reaction to this book is the same except, instead of having a steering wheel in my hand, I carry a yellow highlighter to capture my many "Wow!" moments.

Finding author Bruce Feiler was one of the highlights of my summer, and it all resulted from an "accident" on Highway 101.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Finding Faith in a Rock

Can't help it, I'm a church mouse. What else would you expect from a cradle Catholic with parochial grade and high school, seminary college and graduate theology education? Don't answer that! I know all the horror stories. Through it all, I'm both a survivor and an embattled believer. After all these decades, when I enter my parish church, Christ the King in Pleasant Hill, California (USA), a welcoming voice inside me still says, "You're home, Al."

While visiting several Baltic countries, Germany, Poland, and Russia this past July, Esther and I toured many Christian churches and cathedrals, mostly Orthodox or Protestant (only a couple of Catholic churches made it on our itinerary). Almost all of these edifices--some quite magnificent--felt like museums and art galleries. They demonstrated little evidence of a pulsing, 21st century faith. By that I mean real people engaged as a faithful, supportive, difference-making community. With one, wonderful exception.

As soon as I entered The Rock Church in Helsinki, Finland, my heart said, "The Lord is here." Architect brothers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, designed the church and built it (1968-1969) by blasting it out of solid rock. Natural light brightens the inside through 180 panes of glass between the dome and the walls.

This was the only sanctuary in which I wanted to park my spirit and breathe the faith of its resident community. I thought it had to be a Catholic Church (pardon my bias), because I had that same "I'm home" feeling I get at CTK.

Several young men were setting up for a prayer service. I asked one of them, "What denomination is this church?"

"Lutheran," he said, seeming puzzled that I had to ask.

I wasn't surprised as much as I was impressed. In the lobby/vestibule of the church, I found a table with religious articles laid out, I suppose for sale. I was unprepared for my next surprise: the selection of devotional materials. The table monitor had spread an array of rosaries across the surface, along with books and pamphlets promoting devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

I couldn't help myself. I said to him, "I'm surprised to see rosaries being offered in a Lutheran church." It was his turn to look at me with puzzled curiosity. "We have great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary," he said with a warm smile. 

I stayed for the inspiring prayer service conducted--in English--by a young man and several musicians. About that time, Esther came to drag me away. "The bus is leaving!" she said in an all-too-familiar tone. I didn't say it, but my heart echoed the words of the 12-year-old Jesus in Luke 2:49: “Why were you looking for me? Do you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
What I said was a macho, "Do you really think I'd have missed that bus?"

Copyright (c) 2009 by Alfred J. Garrotto

Saturday, August 1, 2009

With My Own Eyes

Of the many books I read during the past year, the late Henri J. M. Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming has had the most enduring impact. The author described how he became interested in exploring the deeper meaning of the gospel parable of the loving father and ungrateful son (Luke 15:11-32). In the course of his reflection, he came across Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's 17th century depiction of that graced moment when the wastrel son kneels at the feet of his father to beg reconciliation. This family circle also includes an elder, "faithful" son faced with the sudden reappearance of his despised sibling.

When Nouwen learned that the original painting was on display in St. Petersburg's Hermitage State Museum, he traveled to Russia. His desire was to study the masterpiece, meditate on it, crawl inside the main characters of the scene.

To accomplish his goal, Nouwen obtained special permission to pull up a chair and sit opposite the painting. This he did for hours, under the watchful eye of a grumpy room monitor, who was unused to having her tourists linger for more than a glance and a "Wow!" before moving on to view room after room of treasures collected by Catherine the Great (1729-1796) .

While meditating, Nouwen easily identified with the weak-willed prodigal. Next he turned in spirit to the older son and found himself again in the taken-for-granted good boy. Only when the author turned his gaze to the father did he understand the essential lesson of Jesus' parable. Yes, we are like the younger son . . . the older son, too. But, our call as human beings is to be like the father, whose love is so indelible that it eliminates any possibility that his ungrateful son will be welcomed home. This unconditional love is our model and our goal.

After reading The Return of the Prodigal Son, I added the Hermitage to my list of "must see" places in the world. Little did I know the opportunity would come so soon. Desperate for passengers, Princess Cruises offered a cut-rate trip to the Baltic Sea. Seeing a two-day visit to St. Petersburg on the itinerary pushed my wife and I to sign on.

On the morning of July 9, 2009, as we headed for the Hermitage, I approached our tour guide, Natasha. "Is there any possibility that I could see Rembrandt's 'Return of the Prodigal Son'?" I asked. "Of course," she said and kept her promise. We entered the Rembrandt exhibit and there I was, staring at the floor-to-ceiling painting with my own eyes. I stood close enough to touch this 350-year-old canvas, but I'd have suffered the scorn of that no-nonsense woman in the nearby chair. And who knows what else? Access to the painting was so free that I was able to take the above photograph, as long as I didn't use flash. Too soon, our tour moved on. I envied Nouwen and the time he had to absorb not only the painting's beauty but its essence.

According to the Rembrandt Prints website (, "Return of the Prodigal Son is considered one of the most moving paintings in religious art because of its profound insight and sympathy for human affliction. A boy weeps as he kneels at the feet of his father who forgives him and welcomes him home." I could not have said it better.

Later, in the museum shop, I purchased the 16" x 12" print on canvas that now hangs on the wall over my workspace. I reminds me of the kind of father I am called to be--and want to be.

[See also my post of July 2, 2009, below.]
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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Vacation or Crash Course in 20th c. History?

I took this photo on July 13, 2009, at a still-standing portion of the Berlin Wall that faces the former Eastern Zone. Although the inscription was a recent addition to the colorful graffiti, I found its simple message appropriate and moving.

Esther and I spent 13 days in Northern Europe. Our vacation turned into a crash course in 20th century European and Russian history. In addition to having the privilege of touching the Wall, we also stood at the shipyard gates in Gdansk, Poland, where Lech Walesa and his brave coworkers, founded the Solidarity movement and demanded justice for dock workers and their families. The Communist authorities severely persecuted the strikers. What the regime didn't know in the late 1970s was that their punitive response marked the beginning of the end for a brutal system of government that expected to impose its will into the future, without end.

Although I'm still processing the thoughts and emotions experienced in our travels, I can say that I learned three important truths:

1. Ordinary, seemingly powerless people can change the world by standing up for what they believe.

2. Leaders who use power to oppress their people are nothing more than paper tigers. Their "absolute power" is a fiction. They can oppress only until people wake up and say they've had enough.

3. The human spirit cannot be crushed for long. Good will overcome evil in the end. Just not soon enough to prevent untold suffering. Sadly, someone needs to put his or her life on the line--as Jesus did--to expose the emptiness of evil.

Nov. 9, 2009, will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall and reunification of Germany. There will be a mammoth celebration in Berlin. My heart will be there, too, celebrating the triumph of freedom and praying for all in the world who still suffer under oppressive regimes. May they find courage to expose the paper tigers cowering beneath the use of savage force.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Deja Vu: For the First Time

After living through World War II, the Cold War, and the fall of Communism, I will soon be visiting some historic places that will seem familiar. Yet, I've never been there. This year's vacation will take us to Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Gdansk (Poland).

Berlin. One of the two most significant cities of my early youth. The other being Tokyo. From 1941-1945, they represented everything evil in the world. Over the years I have become a WWII "buff." I devour almost any fiction I can get my hands on related to those years. Among my favorites are Jeff Shaara's (unfinished) trilogy (The Rising Tide and The Steel Wave). I'm taking with me on the trip Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield (2008). Now, I'll have an opportunity to tour Berlin and see some of its historic sites for myself.

St. Petersburg. Having lived with the (former) Soviet Union from 1945 to 1989, I will finally get to set foot in Russia. Apart from the historical significance of this land in my lifetime, I have a personal spiritual interest in visiting what used to be Leningrad. The Hermitage museum houses Rembrandt's painting, "The Return of the Prodigal Son." The master's rendition of the scene in Luke 15:21-24 is stunning. During the past year, I read the late Henri M. Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. I've always loved this parable--as most everyone does, religious or not--but I never understood it as thoroughly as I do now, after reading Nouwen's rendition. Before writing the book, he traveled to the Hermitage and spent hours before the painting meditating. I won't have that kind of time or access, but I am eager to see this masterpiece in person, even briefly.

Gdansk. Can't wait to be in the place where Lech Walesa founded the Solidarity movement. Brave dock workers challenged the all-powerful communist regime in Poland. Though suffering greatly for their resistance, they played a major role in toppling one of the first cards that brought down the entire USSR and its satellites. At the end of every Mass for decades, Catholics the world over prayed for the conversion of Russia. Few of us thought that in our lifetime we would witness Communism's demise. I don't know if "conversion" is quite the right word to use, but the fall of the Berlin Wall was a milestone on the world's timeline and my own, too.

Sounds heavy, doesn't it. Esther and I do plan to have fun, along with absorbing all the historic significance of these places.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Interview With Cover Artist Douglas M. Lawson

In my search for cover art for The Wisdom of Les Miserables, I found a close up of church doors with beautiful inset stained glass. The church appeared to be European and date from the 19th century. That works, I thought. The grain of the oak doors spoke of solidity, maturity, and--yes--wisdom. Then, I stumbled upon a piece of art that captured in a much deeper way my vision of the book's soul. The art was titled, “Val,” and the artist, Douglas M. Lawson, was someone I already knew. What I didn’t know was whether he would consent to let me use this work for the cover of my book. I was just as thrilled when he said yes, as he was to have me ask. Now, I want you to get to know him.

AJG: Doug, how do you feel about having “Val” on the cover of a book?

Lawson: I'm elated. It’s an honor.

AJG: You’ve titled the work, “Val.” Can you explain what that means or refers to?

Lawson: “Val,” is short for heart-valve. It’s an interesting coincidence that your book is about Jean Valjean and that you were drawn to the picture. We are looking into a cutaway of a human heart. The shape of the heart, in this case, is that of a broken human being, as Jean Valjean was. If you look closely below the heart and to the right, you will see the outline of a dove—a symbol of wisdom, peace and love.

AJG: Exactly what the book is about. What is it that you try to express, not just in this work, but in your art in general?

Lawson: I want to express many different shades of human emotion—happiness, sadness, anger—and spirituality, as well.

AJG: How would you describe your artistic style?

Lawson: I don’t like to describe it in words. Rather, I am attempting to combine the surrealist ethos with abstract expressions.

AJG: What are your goals as an artist?

Lawson: To have my work published, to become more involved with video production and animation.

AJG: What media do you work with?

Lawson: I use Photoshop, Illustrator, and Video Studio. Although I am left-handed, I do most of my computer work with a right-handed mouse.

AJG: Can you tell us what you are currently working on?

Lawson: A music-video featuring Johann Sebastian Bach’s little fugue in G minor.

AJG: I understand that you have an interest in writing. Can you tell me something about that?

Lawson: I’ve started an advice book: Never Bet on a Horse Named Glue...and Other Logical Choices.

AJG: I love it already! Can’t wait to see it in print someday. Thanks, Doug, for sharing with us and for making “Val” available to me. No more suitable piece of art exists to accompany what I am trying to express in The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean.

By the way, I have my eye on another of Douglas M. Lawson’s works for a second WLM book. You can e-mail the artist at

Copyright (c) 2009 by Alfed J. Garrotto

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Primal Wound

One of the life-changing books on my list (see post of May 4, 2009) is The Primal Wound, by Nancy Newton Verrier. From the author I learned a very important truth about the dynamic of adoption. The original abandonment/relinquishment experienced by a subsequently adopted child inflicts a lifelong and indelible wound whose pain will never go away.

This message was hard to accept. I had convinced myself that my wife and I could love away that pain and heal the wound by applying the balm of our total commitment. Verrier's insight resulted in great relief for all of us. Once we stopped blaming ourselves for the residual hostility coming our way, we were free to love without self-blame. We let our daughters be themselves and deal with their individual primal wounds. They have both grown into very wise and loving young women. Their dad, too, grew in wisdom along with them. Thanks, Nancy Newton Verrier.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Waiting for the Apocalypse

Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family
by Veronica Chater

Reviewed by Alfred J. Garrotto

At the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholic husband and father Lyle Arnold feels abandoned by his Church. For him, it no longer exists, except among the few champions of orthodoxy like himself scattered across the globe. Veronica Chater’s memoir, Waiting for the Apocalypse, details with raw and sometimes bleeding honesty the life of a young girl trapped within a family ruled by religious rage and paranoia.

While Lyle is the perfect storm at the center Apocalypse, he is not its heart. That role belongs to Veronica “Ronnie” Chater, who relates this saga from ages 10 to 18. Ronnie’s pull-no-punches observations about the emotional chaos in her home ring true in every regard. She echoes in real-life experience the young female voices in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The Kingsolver women tell of a sojourn into the heart of spiritual darkness with their Lyle Arnold-like missionary father. Unlike Kingsolver’s characters, Ronnie’s experience is not buffered by fiction. It is her story as she and her (ultimately) eleven siblings suffered it. She begins with a child’s-eye version of the Arnolds’ nemesis, Vatican II and its liturgical reforms (embodied in the despised Novus Ordo):

"Nobody died, or broke the law, or went to jail, but ten years ago, in 1962 (the year I was born), a meeting was called and it lasted three years, and the pope [John the XXIII] ordered the priests to 'open their church windows wide to let in the fresh air.' But instead the Smoke of Satan entered, and muddled everyone's brains, making them modern and sinful and prone to divorce. And now Catholics everywhere are behaving like Protestants, which was only one step away from being atheists, which was no different from being communists."

The adults in Ronnie Chater’s life lack sufficient psychological and spiritual maturity to help her interpret the meaning of the Vatican Council in any reasonable way. Instead, her former Highway Patrol officer dad drags his wife Martha and their growing family (no sinful birth control for them) in search of what, if anything, might remain of their once and beloved Catholic Church. Their quest takes them from the San Francisco Bay Area to Portugal where Dad believes, without research, that a remnant of Christ’s Church must still exist. Lyle’s reasoning: Portugal is home to Fatima, the only remaining Holy City, a true believer’s last hope.

" 'Fatima is my Weltanschauung,' Dad once said.

"Weltanschauung means 'world outlook' in German, but so much more. When Dad said Weltanschauung, he clenched his fist around the word, and pulled it to his chest, and I knew what he was talking about.

"Your Weltanschauung is the bone structure of your body of knowledge. It is the frame that carries the muscle, meat, and blood of your inner wisdom. It is the vessel that contains your essential being. Without a Weltanschauung what are you? A vegetable with reflexes. You might as well sell your soul."

Lyle Arnold discovers that the long reach of satanic reform has infected even the site of the Virgin Mary’s early 20th century apparitions. So, it's back to Northern California, where dad and family ally themselves with the diaspora, scattered families holding fast and true to the original Church founded by Christ and destroyed by Pope John XXIII and his immediate successor Pope Paul VI. Desperate to protect his family from the Smoke of Satan and lurking Communism, Lyle prepares for war—literally. A firearms expert and enthusiast, he keeps an arsenal of weapons in the house. Like his heroes the medieval crusaders, he is prepared to employ violence, even holy homicide, if necessary, to take back the Church that the Council and unfaithful popes have ripped from his life.

In one of her most revealing passages, Veronica Chater says of her too-silent, father-enabling mother, "Mom isn’t really all that torn up over Vatican II. What she really cares about is our family." Ronnie’s story left me with a lingering sadness for all of them. "Religious" as they were, I never sensed any deep spirituality. Form smothered substance. The Hebrew and New Testament Scriptures played no formative role in Lyle’s prayer life and moral choices. Nor was there room in his fretting, plotting spirit for contemplation of the unfathomable mystery and movement of the Holy Spirit at that pivotal moment of human and church history. While searching for the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, Lyle Arnold failed to comprehend the daily miracle of his own amazing children. Finally, in his desire to save them from Satan he drove them away from God.

Veronica Chater’s amazing prose and her gift for storytelling pulled me through the pages, as she exposed one family secret after another. I felt like a Peeping Tom, hiding in a corner of the Arnolds’ lives, observing events, listening to conversations I had no right to overhear. But, I am enriched and grateful to her for letting me inside a religious process and phenomenon that I had previously observed only from the outside.

lfred J. Garrotto lives and writes in Contra Costa County (CA). He is the author of four nonfiction books and five novels. His most recent book, The Wisdom of Les Miserables: Lessons From the Heart of Jean Valjean (2008), offers a series of meditations drawn from themes in the Victor Hugo classic. He is also a freelance writer/manuscript editor and serves as a lay minister in a Roman Catholic parish. He blogs at and is on the web at Contact him at

Monday, May 4, 2009

"Born to Win" by Muriel James

In my next few posts, I'll talk about how the books I listed as "life-changing" made it to that category.

In 1972, I moved from Southern California to the San Francisco East Bay town of Lafayette. I was beginning a new phase of my life as Director of a Catholic retreat and spiritual growth center. About that same time, I discovered Transactional Analysis ("I'm OK, You're Ok"). It made a great deal of sense and helped me understand my life and how I got to be the (often confused) person I was.

Also located in Lafayette was one of the founders, or at least, chief proponents of TA, Muriel James. She was a world-renowned therapist and author of the international bestseller, Born to Win (over 4 million copies sold). She was also ordained minister (a fact I learned only later in my life). I attended some of her workshops and found her to be one of the wisest persons I had ever met. At our center, we often drew on principles of TA, which integrated well with Catholic Christian spirituality. I resigned my position at the retreat center in 1979 and lost touch with Muriel.

Fast-forward 17 years to 1996. By this time I was writing professionally and had published three nonfiction books, with another--my first novel--on the way. Feeling the need to associate with other local authors, I joined the Mt. Diablo Branch of the California Writers Club. Among the many personal and professional contacts I made, one was a particularly great surprise and joy. Muriel James was also a member! This second phase of our relationship gave us an opportunity to get to know each other as friends and colleagues. I saw another side of her--a writer of great energy and enthusiasm. For the 13 years of our renewed friendship, she has always been working on four or five books at the same time. I could only handle my manuscripts sequentially. Well into her ____ties, Muriel is still an occasional participant at Writers Club luncheons.

I would love Muriel no matter what, for her humility, kindness and loving spirit, but it doesn't hurt that she loves everything I have published, fiction or nonfiction. Muriel James--mentor and model to me in so many ways. And it all began with Born to Win.
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Life-Changing Books

A friend asked me recently, "Of all the books you've read, which ones changed your life?" The question stumped me. Although I read on average 30 books a year (many of you must read more), I couldn't come up with a list on the spot. Oh, I could be glib and say that every book I read changes me in some way, but that wasn't the intent. So here goes. These are a few of the books that played a significant role in shaping who I am today. They are not in chronological order.

Born to Win, by Muriel James

The Public Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Archbishop Goodier, S.J.

Servant Leadership, by Robert K.Greenfield

Intimacy, by Shirley Gehrke Luthman

The Primal Wound, by Nancy Newton Verrier

The Reed of God, by Caryll Houselander

The Life You Save May be Your Own, by Paul Elie

and (of course) Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

St. Judas Iscariot: A Reflection on “Spy Wednesday”

A deep sadness fills me when I reflect on Judas’ betrayal of his friend Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t know the moment at which this chosen disciple gave up on hope, when the light in his creative imagination flickered and died. But it had by the time the band of brothers gathered for what turned out to be their final supper together. Judas had read the political and social signs (all negative). He peered into his future for possible outcomes if he stayed with Jesus. He saw trouble, even the likelihood of violent death. Somewhere along the path of his young life, Judas had forgotten the words of Yahweh spoken through Isaiah the prophet. “[He] pronounced my name before I was born . . . . I am important in the sight of Yahweh.” 1

Judas no longer believed he was “chosen,” both as a Jew and as one of those few handpicked by Jesus and destined to change the world for the better. He could imagine no good could coming from his association with Jesus and the other men and women who had bought into his message. Having given up on the greater power of unconditional love, he snuffed his inner light, then his life.

Still, I canonize Judas. I have an insight into how this unfortunate story really ended. Beyond the door of death, he rose to new life. Welcomed by his all-forgiving Lord (“. . . they know not what they do”), the humbled Judas took his gifted, if undeserved, place in heaven. I see him spending eternity interceding for those still alive who have lost hope, who cannot imagine they are loved without condition. St. Judas Iscariot is patron saint of bridge jumpers, ODers, suicides by police, and others whose spiritual vision ends at the tips of their noses. In their last hour, the restored apostle is at their side urging them, “Don’t despair of God’s love. You are important. Your light is still meant to shine.” Some do listen and choose life. Others don’t and find it, as St. Judas Iscariot did, only in the next.

Harvesting the Depth and Riches of My Life

What are my thoughts about Judas Iscariot being the apostle in heaven that he never was on earth?

How important am I to God?

How will I let myself be light to those around me today?

1. Isaiah 49:1-6

The Phantom Promise

With a single act of generosity and kindness, Bishop Myriel in Victor Hugo's classic novel, Les Miserables, set in motion a cascade of good deeds that blessed the lives of countless people. Easily lost in this act of profligate kindness is the phantom promise that haunted former convict and petty thief Jean Vajean for the rest of his life.

I've attached to this post a YouTube segment from the stage production. In it the bishop tells Valjean that, like it or not, "I have purchased your soul and given it to God." The price? Six heirloom silver plates and two silver candlesticks. The bishop did not ask Jean Valjean if his soul was for sale. With some holy sleight of hand, he purchased the rights and transferred the deed at once in perpetuity to the Lord. Jean Valjean stood agape, an uncooperative bystander at the sale of his immortal soul, his life here on earth and hereafter.

This catalytic event sets the entire novel in motion. Composer and dramatist Boublil and Schonberg captured all the tenderness and mystery of this scene. I invite you to watch and listen as the bishop exchanges a family treasure for Jean Valjean's soul. Phantom Promise