Paul Elie, on Thomas Merton, on Conversation

“…Here was a book that achieved the kind of dialogue to which he had aspired ever since reading I and Thou:  not reformulated thought, but the “spontaneous elucidation of what we do not yet know” ; not thought about what is already known, but “what will come to be known in our saying it to someone who will reply”.   ”

from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own:  An American Pilgrimage”, by Paul Elie.   Farrar, Straus, Giroux, NY.   2013.  page 357.

This is Paul Elie talking about Merton’s reaction to Walker Percy’s novel “The Moviegoer”….but now that we’ve mapped out all the literary references, the money phrase is “what will come to be known in our saying it to someone who will reply”.   The remote cause of the insight is Martin Buber, “I and Thou”.

 Great description of what happens in what I’m calling, in this blog, Conversation. Capital C.

David Bentley Hart: On whether a secular civilization is possible

All civilizations to this point have grown up around one or another sacred vision of the cosmos, which has provided a spiritual environment and a vital impulse for the arts, philosophy, law, public institutions, cultural revolutions, and so on. Whether there will ever be such a thing as a genuinely secular civilization – not a mere secular society, but a true civilization, entirely founded upon secular principles–is yet to be seen.

What is certain is that, to this point, most of the unquestionably sublime achievements of the human intellect and imagination have arisen in worlds shaped by some vision of transcendent truth.  (page 6).

  • David Bentley Hart, ‘God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss”.  Yale University Press, 2013.








Scenes From My Father

Scenes From My Father

Fathers, seek out your children every day and give them a gift. Here are some gifts from my father.

My first memory of dad. I’m not yet 4 years old. Dad lost his mother and younger brother in a terrible accident, which he witnessed. Strong hands are under my arms from behind and they hold me up to look down through glass at my grandmother and my uncle in their caskets. His voice is in my ear, explaining to me that they had an accident, and what the bruise on their foreheads meant. Something bad had happened, but my dad was stronger than the bad. It was a calm, matter-of-fact voice, and it felt like, in the middle of a house full of whispering adults, he was thinking of me, and had the confidence in me that I would be able to understand and process it. He treated me like a big person. No moral, no lecture, but years later I realized what he gave me that day: Bad things happen, and you can face them straight on.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward…I’m 6 or 7 now. I’ve apparently thrown a rock through the window of the dentist office down the street, and dad tells me we’re going to have to go make it right. He knows the dentist and has talked to him and we have a meeting scheduled (he knows everybody.) We walk together down the street. I apologize and offer to pay for the window glass out of my allowance, on an installment schedule. The dentist thinks for a minute, and decides the offer is acceptable. He shakes my hand and says he is impressed that I did the right thing. A long time later, I understood that day’s gift: you sometimes do bad things, but you make them right.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward, I’m 10 or 11. It’s my birthday. Dad comes home with a present for me – a pair of boxing gloves. I hadn’t asked for them. I still don’t know where he got the idea, but he had boxed in high school and I’d heard him talk about it. He put the gloves on with me and taught me how to stand, move my feet, and jab with the lead hand. I can still see his lead glove, I can still feel my head snap back from his jab. The neighborhood kids boxed in the backyard that summer. What were the gifts of that day? Where to look, where not to look. That it’s not going to kill you to get hit. Never start a fight, but if he won’t have it any other way, hit first, hard, straight, and watch his feet.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward…I’m in my late teens. Dad seeks me out and says “come with me, I want to show you something.” We load into his car and drive quite ways to an old rundown hotel. I follow him up dark, smelly stairs, to a dark room, and he goes in and fishes out someone we knew who had gotten into a dark, dark place. We loaded the prodigal into the car and off to a safe, warm place. It was clear to me that wasn’t the first time Dad had rescued him. As we drove home, not many words, just “Son, I wanted you to see that.” Just like that. Just like when I was four, he had the confidence to show me something ugly and how one does the right thing, and trust me to grasp it. What was the gift that day? Men go into the dark to save the weak, even if the weak one is at fault.

Fathers seek out their children to give them gifts.

Fast forward, to about a month ago. Dad is in the nursing home, and I’m visiting. Some of the aides had not kept to a schedule of medication or something, and he had cornered one of them and was giving her a hard time. He never liked it when anyone made a commitment but didn’t keep it. This aide was gracious and apologetic but he just wouldn’t let it go. He made her and everyone else in the room uncomfortable. She was able to work her way out with promises to do better. I was bothered, and thinking about what to say to him, but before I could, and after she was gone for a few minutes, he turned to me and said “Was i too hard on her?” If you knew Dad, you know that wasn’t easy for him. But I could see in his eyes he was sincere. So I said “Yes, you were rude, and you hurt her feelings, and you should make that right.” I expected a fight. But he thought for a minute, then said “You’re right, I was wrong. I’ll make it up to her when she comes back.” And he did. And that, in all fairness, was probably hard for him. The gift that day? Sometimes we fight when we don’t need to.

Sometimes I’ve fought when I didn’t need to.

There is so much more to tell if I had more time. He gave me a love for the names of plants, flowers and trees and somehow that became a playing in the sounds of words and a love of poetry. He taught me how to sharpen a knife, make a whistle from a twig. i saw him suffer through sickness for years, unable to eat most foods, to work to support his family. He noticed and greeted everybody, especially the waitress, the clerk at the counter, the janitor, the old men sitting on the courthouse steps. He picked up hitchhikers and brought sketchy characters home to live in the spare room. He taught us, I hope, there are no little people.

Fathers give gifts.

Fast forward…to about a week ago. We moved him into the hospice house and got him settled in bed. He had a minute here and there when his thoughts were clear but mostly, not. As evening wore on and we just sat with him, just being together, he began to talk, stronger than we had seen in days. We realized he was preaching. Not quite clear-headed; he wasn’t with us, he was somewhere else, leading a service, complete with special music and some sort of dedication of the church building. We thought it was a momentary confusion, but he leaned forward, looking off and up, gesturing, and building to a conclusion, like we had heard in his sermons all our lives. He hadn’t had that strength for a long time, and he went on and on and on — Dad could go on. We didn’t know what to do with him. But he wasn’t upset and didn’t seem to be hurting himself, he was just…elsewhere. Then, the invitation. In a loud, clear, impassioned voice – “come to Jesus!” “Come to Jesus!” His voice was bright, clear, urgent, and he was looking out over the congregation back to the distant pews where the preachers’ kids and other sinners hide. It’s a custom for teachers, at the end of their careers, to give The Final Lecture. We were hearing Dad’s Final Sermon.

After that, he settled back, and his strength failed quickly. He would lapse into silence, and sleep the next few days, until he woke this last Monday into the arms of his Savior. The last earthly sentences he would ever speak were an invitation to come to Jesus. Because, in his heart of hearts, dad was: an evangelist. If you knew Dad longer than 5 minutes, you knew that.

Who are we, really? When reason fails, when youth and strength are gone, what is left? Isn’t that when the undisguised heart shows its passions? What does your heart really, really want?

What Dad really, really wanted, wants tonight, is for each and every heart to hear the voice of a loving father. Come to Jesus. Come to Jesus.

Thank you Dad, for all these gifts.

Note: Written to honor my father and read at his funeral.


The hawk on the wire faces away from the road, but looks back at me over his shoulder.  That posture is, by now, an icon of the large raptors:  the curved neck, the eye and beak somehow more forceful because twisted back toward us.   “I will regard you, but not seriously enough to turn my body.   I point my glorious beak in your general direction.  I may turn toward you but I may not.  I can see more of you than you can of me, and I am studying your nostrils for any quiver of fear.  I am Hawk.”


The water must have come up high in the drainage ditch – nearly flooding over the blacktop – then froze at the surface, then went back down, fast.  As the stream dropped away, the icey surface layer stayed, suspended in mid-air by the weed-stalks.  From my car, at slow country speed, I notice the glass sheet hovering mystically above the empty ditch.  As if some waterskin had been molted, in place, by the creek, before it slithered into the river.


Four or five deer in the headlights, walking away from the road into the pasture.   They all crane necks to glance back toward the light.   Hooves lift lightly over corn stubble.  A hint of blowing snow in the headlight.

I remember some scene from a Christmas card:  deer and other creatures from the wild wander into the frame where the Nativity has for a moment caught their attention,  taught them to talk, and lightened their hearts from all fears.   They’re in Narnia and the King is finally walking the land.

Memory shifts.  I’m a teenager, running through backyards after dark on vacation, in mischief but only slight mischief.   That year, that last year when my daily bread simply appeared, by magic, as it always had.

Back to now.  The deer look together at me, look away, together, then move together out of frame away into the treeline.   I wish for them that life is not sudden death on the highway, or the bullet tearing arteries in mid-chew, but rather heart failure in sleep.   Lord, let their hearts just stop in your time, in a dream of clover, an hour before the herd stirs at dawn, and take them one by one to decorate your creche.


Even the Firs Glance Up

Geese form lines in a grey February sky.
The sky is the color of a goose feather.
Pools in the fields are the color of a goose feather.
Last year’s corn is stubbled at the edges of pools.

The geese can read the signs.
From a thousand feet up their lines
etch deep into the cornfield pools.
Starlings watch their own pictograms
form, melt, and re-form toward the name of spring.
Each bird is simple as a child, but the flock is literate and savant, and this is a wondrous thing.

As the sun sets, a cold rain drives in.
Cold, but not too cold for the twitching roots.
Even the stiff firs stretch, and glance up.