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