The State of a Soul in Sin

A house looks fine from the other side of the street.
Maybe a little paint peeling round the window panes.
On the sunlit side of curtains drawn
you cannot see the squalor:
rooms in disarray, doors left ajar
by robbers come and gone,
black mold advancing up the baseboards,
dim, damp air heavy with remorse.

Nobody looks at the skirt of a cassock.
Elderly wax-stains, and worse, kiss holy ground.
The towel for the priest’s ablutions
is used for a week, then discarded
into the purgatory of a spin cycle on high.

Peace is a precious and a passing thing,
like cleanness, or a well-ordered home,
and she is stalked by one who hates,
who slips in by an unlocked door
to rage, rampage, overturn the furniture—
more than just a violent and unwanted rearrangement,
a reminder:
one is never quite secure.

But the worst is not the robbery.
The worst is the aftermath, days or hours
spent keeping up appearances: every door and window
shut tight against the sun,
the air inside dull, languid,
lifeless: spark stolen,
leaving nothing now but a slow
and irreversible
decay.

Sometimes I pray for Him to be gentle with me.
More often I say: crash into me and break me!
In your mercy wound me!—burn me up in love!
After all, what housekeeper is gentle with ceiling rot?
What sacristan with stubborn stains?
Water alone is not enough to cleanse the sins in me!—
No, not water only, but water, and fire, and blood!—

Yet He is gentle.
The robber darkens every doorstep,
prowls under every window,
waiting for the least opening
to rape and ravage and devour—
But the shepherd, ah! He calls,
stands at the door and knocks
as long as it takes (He knows I am ashamed)
until at last I timidly let Him in.
And He sets about at once
opening the curtains, letting in the light,
setting the furniture right,
and chopping vegetables, I imagine, for stew:
a hearty meal to share, with a hearty hug
and a tender look of love.

Monday of Holy Week

Time, seasoned with love, melts away
the circling days
in one standing now:

“Anima Christi,” I write in a notebook
on a secret page near the heart,
“sanctifica me,” I pray—without knowing
in the least what I have asked.

We hold burning candles. A white-robed friar prays.
Flickering light from the living flames
and headlights passing by.

One night, you are dying.
We gather at the teen center to pray.
I say, “it’s the sorrowful mysteries on Tuesdays.”
—”Well, it’s the glorious today.”

Another time, a hill.
It must have been 3 a.m.
We were all cold faces and dizzy with laughing.
There were castles on the mountains and the sky
was mostly stars.

Another time: a chair.
Empty, except for me.
It was a holy hour even though I was alone.
And when I ran out of praying I said
“you are my father, now.”

Living moments, eternal thrumming
throbbing moments!
Did we know the love coursing through them
when we lived them the first time?

Now I know. Like I know this carpet.
I lie too close to make out the pattern
but I can see the knots in it and smell it
and know that I am lying where you stood
and where my brothers have walked and lain,
‘hurled down from a horror of height
to the heart of the Host’—as someone said,
someone who knew you, as I do:
father to me, and brother, beloved,
my first, fast, last friend.


This is day 41 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent. 

St. Joseph

It is a miracle to be a man and stand
with one foot on earth, another in heaven,
as you do, when you join your hands
and pronounce the words that rend the veil.

A soul is not a small thing.
It is more real than the universe
and you hold it in your hands.

When the finite meets the infinite we expect
the world to burst, like a balloon filled too full.

What we get instead is a morsel of bread
lifted high above that stone
where Love bled and died.


This is day 39 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent. 

St. Cyril of Jerusalem

Every day is a polyphony, a song for many voices,
and though I do not always sing my part
I cannot help but notice
grace notes in the score: a little
ornamentation, a bléssed
anticipation
of something yet to come

as when a brother asks at midnight
me to take him to Portland at noon:
a trill—a rest—I say: ‘yes.’
Grace comes pouring in.

“In vain is your earlier rising.”
Very well—so I sleep in.
And “what is the point of your praying?”
he asked me once over lunch—
a lunch, it must be said, that came premade,
unasked-for (at least by me),
sheer brute white bread being, apples
utterly immutable in their crisp cold haeccitas.

I pass the question on over another lunch
which, it must be said, breaks the Friday fast—
though this fact goes unremembered, like so many of its kind
(“uncomfortable truths” maybe, or
“inconvenient laws”)—and once asked
like a rock thrown in a pool
it dredges up an answer from the depths,
familiar because it rose to my lips too:

First that we pray because he loves us
to pray, like the bridegroom loves his bride
to play—the violin, perhaps, and so she plays
haunting sonatas, repeating certain phrases
he loves, and so she loves to return to,

Second that we pray, not to get or to gain
(whatever we may think)—but to become,
to enter into the dialogue or the symphony of love
and to be overcome! like the ocean overcomes
a sandcastle moat in the sand.

And by our endless asking
and our craving and pursuit
and our impatience and intemperance—
we do not notice—grace bears fruit
in us, shapes us, makes us new.

It is a channel, even if it is narrow,
even if it is dry and drowned in leaves.
Its name is “open.”
Its name is “yes.”

And so we pray:
the Angelus at 2:00, morning prayer at noon,
the Office of Readings in a sunlit sanctuary
where in a distant corner wizened women kneel before you
chanting softly in a very foreign tongue,

tiny prayers, beautiful blackbird-heartbeat phrases,
grace notes in traffic or in elevators
or whenever my eyes meet yours
in some unfamiliar face,

long prayers, hopeful prayers,
talking to you where others can listen,
you who speak when I forget my part
(she who responds with a “yes” or a “Jesus”
whispered with a mothering love),

simple prayers, Spirit prayers:
clarity, courage, comfort,
Lord show her she is beautiful
and beloved in your heart!—

silent prayers. Prayers like the ringing of the silence
after the bells. Silence speaking, saying
“friend, carry me to them.” And so I go
unto the altar of you who give joy to my youth.

How can one day or one song or one lifetime
or one still and silent moment
be so filled to overflowing?

A paradox—like chance is a paradox—
overflows when it is called providence.


This is day 38 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent. 

St. Patrick

Shape me, God, and form me
like the tide shapes her shoreline,
like the flame reforms the wick.
Let me be your monstrance:
and never veiled in sackcloth
but radiant with your presence close within.
Let me be the gospel
by which your love is preached
to friend and stranger:
and let me not be selfish,
never jealous, never vain,
nor yet resentful—but Easter in me, Love!
Let your fire be no more an ember
but a living flame that leaves
no trace of me: but only in me, You.


This is day 37 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent. 

Fifth Wednesday of Lent

Sometimes I lack peace
from the first moment of the day,
like waking up to find
you’ve been robbed.

And I go from room to room
talking, but not speaking,
seeking, but not finding
in that hateful drought.

I go back, like a stiff-necked people
to the land I was enslaved in.
Like a dog returns to its vomit,
so go I to grace’s grave.

I would drive to the ends of the earth
to touch your face and hear “be healed.”
(I do drive—if only an hour,
but still arrive too late.)

How often I’ve chased you! how often I strive
to beat my heart into shape,
to be your tabernacle
and feel you rest in me—

yet do not rest in you! not even when
I hear your voice so clearly:
“adoption is your heritage,” you said,
“our Father’s great inheritance.”

Yet little by little, despite
my spendsavor self’s resisting,
sunlight caressing black ice
cannot fail to melt, to crack it.

A blessing in a bookstore.
A brother’s humble prayer.
A car ride filled with laughter
to the supper of the Lamb.

What I would not give for faith
that triumphs over darkness
but also over dryness
and the restive morning fog!

And yet. “Patience,” you tell me,
and “surrender.”
For mercy triumphs over judgment,
even mine.


This is day 36 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent. 

Fifth Tuesday of Lent

I am told the salt shaker goes to the north of the pepper,
facing toward Mt. Hood.
I do not know why, but I suppose
this is how it must be,
as our churches should face east
because we strain
like kids at a parade
to be the first to catch a glimpse
of the rising Son,
as we Christians should face out and upward,
never down,
but always toward one another’s faces
and toward Yours.


This is day 35 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent. 

Fifth Monday of Lent

I am like a pair of headlights on a lonely lane,
bright eyes fixed on the middle distance.
What lies beyond the radius of my gaze
is only darkness. I know where I have been,
but the destination and the very route I take
and each stop along the way—
and how many seats are filled in me? and to whom
is given the captaincy?—
I fancy I know from day to day,
but my only clues are the scenery,
the ease of the roads or the rough terrain,
the gentle hand of the driver at the helm
or the violent turns when another takes the wheel.


This is day 34 of LABIA MUNDA, a series of forty poems during the forty days of Lent.