Tuesday, May 31, 2016

People you need to know: Ruth Burks

Please click on this link: 


Reading her story will be time well spent.

As long as there are people like this in our world, there is hope. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Personal remembering

           During the spring semester of 1979, I took my first set of comprehensive exams. There was a huge screw-up. My advisor had failed to do her job – this happened with all three sets of comps – and when I arrived to take the four-hour exam, she had left no questions for me. The other two examiners had left questions for me, but none had been run through the system for approval. The administrative assistant – another doctoral student – went through the roof. She got on the telephone to the advisor, the chairman and the dean. They told me to start with the questions that were there and to wait for the advisor to show up with her questions later.

            All this worked to my advantage in a way. When you took comps, you could fail one set and take them again. The chairman assured me that if I did not pass, they would not count it at all and it would not appear on my record. As it turned out, I did not do as well as I would have hoped, but I passed the written exam and the oral handily.

            At the same time, I began drinking more heavily. I did not drink hard liquor outside of community recreation time, but my drinks began to be larger and stronger. One Sunday evening I wound up drinking such a large martini that I simply went to bed instead of going down to dinner. I also began to have wine with the evening meal, and when most of us gathered around ten in the kitchen for a final snack before bed, I joined those who had a glass of wine. It helped me relax, I told myself. This was another step on a dangerous road.

            About this time, one of the students came out of the closet. He was already a priest, ordained for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, when he entered the Carmelites. He was also coming up on his solemn profession and was spending his final year in simple vows in the Washington house. He already had his degrees, so he spent his time working outside the community on helpouts and taking a program in counseling.

            That winter the local PBS stationed aired the documentary, Word is Out, which consisted of interviews with 26 gay men and women about their lives. Most of the community watched it. A few days later, this priest-student took the opportunity in the student meeting to tell us that, with the knowledge and permission of the superiors, he was working with Dignity, a Catholic group founded in 1972 to support and encourage LGBT Catholics. After we had digested this information, he went on to tell us that he was gay himself. The discussion was open and friendly, and although it had been a bit of a shocker, I don’t think anyone was too agitated about it.

            But it opened the door to further self-examination on my part.

He later got in a little trouble when a photograph of him celebrating Mass for the Dignity group showed up in the national press. Since he was still a priest of the Archdiocese, he was called in and told he had to stop his public association with Dignity. This was before Dignity had been completely denounced by the hierarchy, but things were in the wind. There had been a brief moment of openness in the American Catholic Church, highlighted by the formation of Dignity, New Ways Ministry and a few other initiatives like them. When Rome got wind of it and realized that these groups were not simply going to toe the party line but were actually in favor of working for equality for LGBT people in society at large and – horror of horrors! – in the church, the red Prada shoes came stamping down.

 With all this drama in the background, including passing another set of comps that my director screwed up, I was moving rapidly towards my own ordination to the priesthood. Although [my best friend in the community] Steve and I had entered Carmel the same year, he had taken a couple of years out to work on his philosophy doctorate, so I got ordained first.

At about this time, too, I was approached about becoming a member of the Institute of Carmelite Studies, a group in the Washington Province dedicated to scholarly study of the tradition. I was very interested in the work they did, and since Steve was a member, it would be another thing we did together. It also meant I would get to see him in Washington at meetings twice a year after I returned to my own province.

This was quite an honor, because the policies of the Institute at that time only opened membership to friars of the Washington Province. They were happy to change the policy so that I could join, but all that had to go through a process of approval by higher ups. I did become a member, but I do not recall if that took place before or shortly after my ordination. My membership in ICS would become a big factor later in this story.

Finally ordination day came, May 30, 1979. [Thirty-seven years ago today.] There were any number of minor dramas associated with it, but the event itself went smoothly. I was ordained at Mount Carmel Center and celebrated my first Mass there on May 31. Steve and two priests from Washington had come for the occasion. Following ordination, I made a tour of the monasteries of nuns and friars in the province, celebrating Mass and being made much of. Steve went along to help with the driving, which made the long trip even more enjoyable. [The photo at the top was taken at my first Mass at the Discalced Carmelite nuns' monastery near Houston a few days after my ordination.]

We had a great time and I returned to Dallas to take up my new assignment at Mount Carmel Center. I was no longer a student – although my doctoral work was on-going – but now I was a member of the staff.

            A day or two after I got back, Anthony called me to his office to talk. There were now four priests in the community, and he thought that we should drop the formality of calling one another “Father” all the time. We would just go by our first names when talking with one another. I agreed, but I must confess to a little resentment. For years I had been looking forward to being “Father Michael.” For most of those years, I had been “Brother Michael.” Now, I was going to be just “Michael” again. It seemed a bit unfair. See how petty I can be?


Tom was a Green Beret and was wounded while serving as a medic in Vietnam. My brother was a medic in the Air Force, was stationed in the Philippines, and was flown in and out of Vietnam countless times. My friend Lee and other people I know (or knew) also served during that painful time.

When Tom kept a blog, every Memorial Day he posted a list of men he knew who were killed in the war. Since he no longer maintains the blog, I want to keep their memory alive by mentioning them by name here
"Among the 58,178 who died in Vietnam …

TERRY ALBRIGHT – Marine Corps – PFC – Age 21;
DENNIS CALTON – Army – 1LT – 196th Light Infantry Brigade – Age 23;
ANDREW CHICANTEK – Marine Corps – LCPL – Age 18;
RAYMOND CHURCHILL – Army – SGT – 25th Infantry Division, Age 19;
ROBERT CRAWLEY – Army – SP4 – 9th Infantry Division – Age 22;
ERROLD FARRAR – Army – SGT – Special Forces – Age 22;
RONALD HAGEN – Army – MSGT – Special Forces – Age 39;
ROBERT HASZ – Navy – AN – Age 21;
LELAND JOHNSON – Air Force – A1C – Age 21;
JOHN KAZANOWSKI – Army – CAPT – Special Forces – Age 31;
THOMAS KLEMP – Army – SP4 – 1st Infantry Division – Age 19;
CLAYTON LUTHER – Army – PFC – 1st Infantry Division – Age 19;
GUADALUPE MARTINEZ – Army – SFC – Special Forces – Age 32;
RONALD NEUBAUER – Army – CAPT – Special Forces – Age 29;
THOMAS NEWMAN – Army – 1LT – Age 24;
MICHAEL PROTHERO – Army – PFC – 101st Airborne Division – Age 19;
HECTOR RIVERA-COLON – Army – SFC – Special Forces – Age 30;
WILLIAM ROEGLIN – Army – SGT – 4th Infantry Division – Age 20;
ROBERT SCHELL JR – Army – SP4 – Special Forces – Age 22;
JEROME SCHUETT – Marine Corps – PVT – Age 19;
RICHARD STEIN – Army – SP4 – Age 20;
MURREL THOMAS – Army – SSGT – Special Forces – Age 37;
KENNETH WORTHLEY – Army – SSGT – Special Forces – Age 22."

Sunday, May 29, 2016


I am reading a lengthy anthropological essay about speculative thought in the ancient Near East. It was originally written in the 1940s and I am sure some/much of it is outdated. But it only cost a dime on the used book table at the library, so what the hey?

It got me to thinking about the idea among many peoples about the power inherent in a person's name. In ancient Egypt, the name was in fact a part of the soul. A person's ren (rn -- 'name') was given to them at birth, and Egyptians believed that it would live for as long as that name was spoken. This explains why efforts were made to protect it and the practice of placing it in numerous writings. For example, part of the Book of Breathings, a derivative of the Book of the Dead, was a means to ensure the survival of the name. A cartouche (magical rope) often was used to surround the name in hieroglyphs and protect it, as in the illustration.

Conversely, the names of deceased enemies of the state, such as Akhenaten, were hacked out of monuments in a form of damnatio memoriae. [Sometimes, however, they were removed in order to make room for the economical insertion of the name of a successor, without having to build another monument.] The greater the number of places a name was used, the greater the possibility it would survive to be read and spoken.

I suppose we don't have quite the same notion, but I am struck by the apparent conviction among celebrities (perhaps because their essence is tied up in their notoriety) and politicians (sadly, the two groups have pretty much coalesced) that any publicity is good publicity. We are witnessing a political campaign -- not only at the presidential level, although most obviously there -- where most of the energy is devoted to keeping a name before the public. Little discussion of actual issues takes place, few specific proposals are mentioned except those that elicit a big reaction, pro or con. If people are still saying the name, then the campaign is alive and well. 

I admit this is one reason I refuse to mention some people by name in my blog. It is my little magical contribution to destroying them. (I know, neither rational nor kind. We all have our foibles.)

Scary stuff, boys and girls! Talk about your Book of the Dead!

Saturday, May 28, 2016


What makes a place feel like home? (And I am not asking for interior decorating tips!) And how long does it take?

My mother has lived where she is now for about fifteen years and I have visited for a week every year. But that house was never home to me. Even though the town was home to my grandparents and to many aunts, uncles and cousins, and I spent many holidays and summer weeks there in my childhood, it was not home except for my first three years. Of course, now it has changed so much that it doesn't bear much resemblance to the town of my memories, although our house on Willingham Road is still there and my grandparents' house is still there. Both are inhabited by strangers. I haven't been inside the house on Willingham since 1953 or in my grandparents' home since 1979.

The longest I ever lived anywhere was on Southwood Drive in Huntsville, Texas. My parents build the house and we moved into it the summer before I started first grade. I lived there all through my school years. I went off to university and my parents and brother moved into our lake house about fifteen miles south of Huntsville. They rented the house on Southwood for a year or two and then sold it around 1970. It passed through several owners, suffered a fire and finally was torn down completely. The houses on either side are still there, and people I went to school with live in them, although they did not belong to their families when I lived there. Where our house stood there is just a seven-acre lot, overgrown with trees and shrubs. I can still make out the long driveway in the Google Earth photo, but that is the only sign. (I know, I expected someone to have put up a plaque,  too.)

I lived in the same dorm at Michigan State for four years, including a senior year in an apartment in the dorm building. But East Lansing was never home. I was at home on the campus, but it was not home. At that time, home was still somehow in Texas. I say somehow because I never considered the lake house to be my home, even though that had become the place I came on holidays and summer breaks from Michigan State. Huntsville was my emotional home, since my best friends still lived there and I worked there when home in the summer.

Once I entered the monastery, I transferred to a new place on average every three years. What made all those places seem like home was that I was home in the larger Carmelite community. The routine of the day would be similar, even the furnishings in my room would be similar to the other places I had been. But home took on a larger and less local meaning. Home might be in East End, Arkansas or Dallas or Washington, DC or Boston or Hubertus, Wisconsin. Any and all.

When I left the monastery and moved to my apartment in Chicago, and later into the apartment I shared with Tom, I felt at home. Chicago was a big home, with lots of places to go and things to do. I knew plenty of interesting people, learned how to work the public transportation system, knew my way around and felt safe in spite of the city's reputation for violence. 

And I felt at home with Tom from the beginning. To some extent, home is where he and the cats are. We lived in the house on Berry Road almost ten years, and that was home. But I never sank deep roots. Tom's roots were already deep in that soil where members of his family had lived for over a century and a half. It was easier for me to pull up and come to Madison than it was for him. I was used to putting down shallow roots.

And here in our apartment, which I do think of as home, I still wonder about home. At some level I wonder how long we will stay here. I wonder how long the state of Tom's health will allow us to stay here. We chose this place over some others because we thought it would provide better long term possibilities, things that will make it easier for him to get around when the pulmonary fibrosis begins to manifest. That may be years down the line. It could be next year. But I don't think of us being here forever.

Home, the cliche has it, is where the heart is. My heart has been in many places physically, and much of my heart is in places I have never been -- with Steve in Nairobi, with Michelangelo in Brooklyn, with  Lee in San Diego.And with some of you in places I have never seen and probably never will.

I guess home can be a very big place.

Which is not a bad thing at all.

Seminarian in Dallas

            When the community finally gathered at Mt. Carmel Center late in August of 1974, there were six of us, two priests and four students. That was a small number, but we had hopes that the following year there would be more students as novices made their professions.
            That, sad to say, was not to be. Before the first month was out, Rene decided to leave. I was not too surprised, because he did not seem all that happy in the monastery. He was an outgoing, cheerful guy, involved with all sorts of church-related things. But the regimen at Mt. Carmel Center included a full community prayer schedule and daily Mass, and theology at the University of Dallas was very demanding. That did not leave enough time for Rene to do everything else he wanted, and so he moved on.
            As I say, the life at Mt. Carmel Center was regimented. Our daily schedule looked almost the same as the one at Marylake, except that instead of working peacefully in the garden for three hours a day, we were taking graduate theology courses. I was a compulsives student anyway, and Russell soon found that his grades went up when he followed my routine.
One of our friends at the diocesan seminary told me one day that he had had a nightmare the night before.
“I dreamed I was a Discalced Carmelite,” he started, which encouraged me. I was hoping he might want to join the community. But then he continued, “It was awful. All I did was pray and study, pray and study.” As it turned out, he dropped out of the diocesan seminary a year later anyway.
Russell and I were studying theology. Although he had spent a year at the International College in Rome, Russell had spent most of the time trying to learn Italian and studying Latin. So we both began theology at the beginning. Richard was taking a couple of philosophy courses, but he was not at all interested in studies.
As I said, Russell and I studied a lot. Since we were in the same classes, we used our half-hour commute to and from school to review lectures and to prepare for exams. As a result, we were always at the top of every class when exam time came. Russell had struggled with studies before, but finding the discipline he needed reinforced by the routine of the house, he did quite well.
The University of Dallas was a diocesan-owned Catholic university. It had probably 2,000 students or so. It had an excellent academic reputation, but it was also considered quite conservative both philosophically and theologically. The local diocesan seminary, Holy Trinity, was adjacent to the campus and seminarians took their academic courses at the university.
I was at UD from 1974 until 1977, obtaining my MA in theology summa cum laude and an MDiv, the professional degree normally required for ordination. Most of the students in my classes were seminarians, and they were generally conservative and not terribly interested in the academic part of the program. All they talked about was getting ordained and becoming pastors of their own parish, where they looked forward to being a king in a tiny kingdom. The very fact that this was their image of the priesthood gives you an idea of what it was like.
The Carmelite students were considered wildly liberal by many of our classmates. This was so far from accurate that it is hard to explain. We were quite traditional by most measures, kept a full liturgical life up at home, wore our habits most days to school and so on.
I think what made us suspect was that we were not misogynists and we hung out with lay students. Having been founded by a woman, St. Teresa, and being close to our cloistered Carmelite nuns, we felt comfortable around women religious and had a great respect for them. Having worked alongside the Holy Ghost Sisters in San Antonio and the Daughters of Charity in Dallas, we knew how hard they worked, how committed they were to the service and education of the poor and how spiritual they were. As for the laity, the Carmelites also have a lay branch, consisting mostly of married men and women who seek to follow the spiritual tradition of Carmelite prayer  while working and raising families. We took these people seriously.
Many of the seminarians, on the other hand, huddled in the safety of their clerical world, sneered at religious women who were trying to find their way in a changing world, and distrusted the laity whom they intended to teach and judge. There were a lot of nice guys in the seminary, of course, and a number of them were people we wished would consider joining Carmel. At least one exceptionally nice and normal seminarian went on to become a bishop. But the majority were not what you would want to have running your parish or hearing your confession.
This rather fancy hotbed of reactionary ultra-conservatism was also, as I learned later, a hotbed of another sort as well. There was a strong gay subculture, often consisting of the most theologically conservative seminarians. The Diocese of Dallas was forced into bankruptcy a few years after I had left Dallas due to a few highly publicized pedophilia cases. The cases had been handled in the usual inept way such things were dealt with in the 1980s, with bishops and chancery officials covering up everything they could and vaguely threatening the families of children who had been abused.
            One of the priests who got in trouble in Dallas had been a classmate of mine 
at the University. NOT a friar, but a seminarian studying to be a parish priest for Dallas. He was a staunch archconservative as well. It is obvious that some priests of all stripes were acting out in terrible ways. Unfortunately, parents often trusted the most conservative priests and thus allowed them access to their children in a way that in hindsight was disastrous. The poor parents then found themselves accused by bishops in court of not taking good care of their children by keeping closer watch. Because the bishops were keeping no watch at all, of course. 
[If I sound cynical about this, it is because my decision to leave the priesthood later was influenced by my outrage over the way the scandal had been handled by the bishops. I wound up counseling victims and families who were seriously hurt by pedophilia, and it horrified me to think that their needs had been taken so casually. The Diocese of Dallas, after the seminarian mentioned above was ordained a priest and got in trouble molesting young brothers, responded by covering it up and then paying to send him to law school so that he could become a lawyer.]

Getting back to the Carmelite student community, Richard decided to leave when his vows expired in March of 1975. I really missed him, but Russell and I got along very well. The sadder thing was that for the first couple of years we were at Mt. Carmel Center, none of the novices made profession, meaning that our community remained just two priests and two students. We had some locals who came to Morning Prayer and Mass with us each morning, which was a help. It kept things from being too confined.
Fr. Philip was chaplain to the cloistered nuns across the way and celebrated Mass for them every morning. That meant that Anthony celebrated Mass and preached every morning, even weekdays. He was an excellent homilist, most days simply doing a sort of lectio divina exercise out loud, commenting on a few verses of the readings of the Mass for that day. It would have been better, of course, to have had more variety, but it was what it was.
Anthony’s idea for Mt. Carmel Center was that it be more than a retreat center, that its programs would serve as adult education in the theory as well as the practice of spirituality. His favorite model was what he called a study-retreat, where participants shared in the community’s prayer schedule which was supplemented by lectures and discussions on the Carmelite writings, especially those of Teresa, John and Therese.
His idea proved popular, and had there been more room to accommodate participants, he might even have made money. As it was, there was very limited actual private space for non-community members, and this hampered Anthony’s efforts to get the Center on its feet financially. It had to be subsidized by the province, and the presence of the students helped the province members accept that fact.
The programs also provided excellent on-going formation for the students, who attended many of the classes and interacted with the guests. It also gave us a chance to practice a bit of ministry ourselves, giving brief presentations and getting lots of experience of reading and helping lead worship services. After a year at Mt.  Carmel Center, I felt comfortable speaking in front of large groups and had some skills in putting together conferences and spiritual reflections for groups.
After a couple of years, two more students arrived at Mt. Carmel Center, shortly before Russell was ordained and moved on to his first assignment. I was there with them for a year before I graduated from the University and was sent to Washington, DC to begin doctoral studies at the Catholic University of America.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Home again

I made it safely back to Madison yesterday afternoon. I am still sniffling and that is slowing me down some today. I have put off working out until I feel better. Instead I am doing  laundry, banking, shopping, answering phone calls that came in my absence, scheduling an oil change. All that  wonderful stuff. Thunderstorms rolled through around breakfast time, but that seems to have moved on to the east. It will be warm and humid today, though, and I plan to stay inside where it is cool and dry. 

This is not only the end of the month but the end of a semester here in Madison, where the University of Wisconsin looms large. As a result there are moving vans parked in front of many of the apartments. I doubt we have any undergraduates living in our complex, but a lot of the young families have that graduate-student look about them. This may also account for the large number of our neighbors who are from India.

The oddity of the morning was a conversation with the woman who schedules volunteers for the library. One of our volunteers died while I was away and they are looking for people to take her spots. She worked Saturdays, noon until two, not the most popular time slot. I called to say I would take one of the spots, but the volunteer coordinator is so talkative that I could hardly get a word in. I offered three times to take one weekend a month, but she just kept talking about how she was sure I had a Baltimore accent -- something I have never been accused of in the past -- and how charming Tom was on the phone when she called and on and on and on. I finally extricated myself from the conversation without any commitment on either side about when or whether I will work on a Saturday. She seems to be filling the slots pro tempore and has them covered until the end of June. I promised to call back.


Ciudad de Mexico -- 1974

[After completing some philosophy courses in San Antonio following my first profession of vows] I ran across a poster for a six-week Spanish-language program in Mexico City, the Instituto Cultural Tenochtitlan. Although I had some knowledge of Spanish, the Carmelites in Oklahoma were heavily invested in Mexican-American parishes. All the students needed to become fairly fluent in the language. I took the information to my superiors, and to my delight and surprise, they decided to send me and Brother Rene to the program. We would live with the friars at the Santuario Nacional de Nuestra SeƱora del Carmen, across from Chapultepec Castle and about a forty-five minute walk to the school. Rene was Mexican-American, but his parents had raised the kids to speak English. He had no trace of an accent and claimed he did not speak Spanish all that well. So the two of us made out plans and the summer began to look more promising. I would be in Mexico for most of it, and after we got back, I would head for Dallas and my new life.

That was the first of three summers that I spent in Mexico studying Spanish. It was a great experience, and my Spanish improved significantly. After ordination, I was able to celebrate Mass, give homilies, hear confessions and even preach ten-day retreats in Spanish. I was often complimented by native speakers on my accent, because I had a good ear. The Mexican friars, many of whom had studied at the monastery in Washington, DC and spoke good English, were great. I got to know the City pretty well, traveled into the countryside on a few occasions, forced myself make my Mental Prayer in Spanish, read novels and lots of comic books in Spanish and before the end of the summer, my dreams were in Spanish. Total immersion is clearly the way to go.
After I had been in Mexico about five weeks, I ran to catch a bus just as it pulled away from the curb. I jumped and hung onto the still-open door, finally pulling myself into the crowded interior. At that moment, I knew I had adjusted to a new culture. I no longer thought it odd that there were ladies carrying live chickens in string bags on the bus. I knew that a mordida might look like a bribe to someone from Texas but it was viewed as a tip in Mexico. I found myself giving directions to lost American tourists. It was a good thing, as Martha Stewart would say.
Rene and I had taken the train down and back, and that was an adventure in itself. On the way down, I had felt crowded and a bit stunned. When the train arrived in Mexico City, four hours late, we stepped off into chaos. We had no idea who we were looking for, we had no telephone number, we had no sign. In Mexico, priests and religious cannot wear Roman collars or habits outside the monastery, so we did not even have that clue to help.
Then a middle-aged man with a huge smile walked up. “Carmelitas?” he asked.
“Si, si,” we almost shouted. It was Padre Agustin, the prior, come in person to pick us up. When we got back to the monastery and met the community, I heard one of the friars ask Augustin how he had found us.
“I just looked for two good boys,” he laughed.
The day after we arrived, Rene and I walked past the Bosque de Chaputlepec to find the school we were attending and to let them know we were there. After taking care of that, I was ready to head back to the monastery. Rene, on the other hand, wanted to do some exploring. He stopped a woman and asked her how to get to the Zocalo, the main square downtown. Although his Spanish was quite good, she looked a bit frightened of us and just shook her head. We walked along a ways and then saw a bus with ZOCALO on it. We went to get in line, and lo and behold, the lady we had asked was right ahead of us. When she saw that we really had only wanted to know how to get somewhere, she thawed a little. She and Rene managed to get a seat in the bus and I hung onto the overhead railing.
It felt like I was hanging on that rail forever, and the aisle became more and more crowded. I got pushed further and further back, but I kept my eye on Rene. After a long time, he turned around and signaled to me. I thought he meant to get off at the next stop, but all he intended was that I start fighting my way towards the door. Our stop was several blocks ahead. Meanwhile, the summer afternoon rain storm had started. I got off the bus, looked back and saw Rene waving from the window. All I could do was keep walking through the rain, with no raincoat, no hat, no umbrella and hope that I could catch up to him.
At the next stop, Rene and the lady he had been sitting with got off the bus. They ran two blocks back to find me, and then she led us into a shelter in a nearby Metro station. She told us then how to take the Metro to where we wanted to go, blessed us and walked back into the rain to catch another bus.
I was amazed. A total stranger had gotten off a bus, run two blocks in the rain, found us shelter and helped direct us to where we wanted, then gone back out into the rain to wait for another bus to take her home. I tried to imagine a random New Yorker doing it for a lost Mexican and couldn’t manage. We may have just lucked out and found the one great ordinary person in Mexico City that day, but I immediately decided I was going to like it there. And I did.