Honoring Mary Oliver and Hildegarde von Bingham

Friday, September 18 — “you had better get / your eyes checked / or, better, still, / your diminished spirit”

How many encounters could I remember if I worked at it, when someone took the trouble to tell me, bluntly and lovingly, to pay attention to the way I was not paying attention? — An old Lakota grandmother when I was just 24, her eyes alight with humor, knowing that I was just young. An older Jesuit telling me that I’d pushed too hard, this new priest daunting the congregation unnecessarily. An atheist scholar friend observing that when I spoke the first time at MIT, “the authority from which you spoke did not include the people in the room.”

This list is long and deeply refreshing, the people who took the trouble to be allies to me. Their voices run as deep as those of people who worked to be precise when telling me I was beautiful. Mary Oliver writes of clouds to remind us of our allies, when scolding or celebrating, our pilgrim selves.

These utterly a-typical weeks of fear and anger, of anger and fear, of face masks and handwashing rituals, a close friend observed a week or two ago, create a context for work and ordinary life that she describes as “haphazard.”

Nevertheless, every now and then Mary Oliver just smacks me . . . . to get my attention and helps me pay attention to the depths in my life.  Yours too, perhaps.

Have a blest weekend,


john sj

The Monument to Joe Louis, aka “The Fist”

Today’s Post – Mary Oliver: “The Fist”

There are days
when the sun goes down
like a fist,
though of course

if you see anything
in the heavens
in this way
you had better get

your eyes checked
or, better, still,
your diminished spirit.
The heavens

have no fist,
or wouldn’t they have been
shaking it
for a thousand years now,

and even
longer than that,
at the dull, brutish
ways of mankind—

heaven’s own
Instead: such patience!
Such willingness

to let us continue!
To hear,
little by little,
the voices—

only, so far, in
pockets of the world—
the possibilities

of peace?
Keep looking.
Behold, how the fist opens
with invitation.

Mary Oliver
“The Fist” by Mary Oliver.
Text as published in Thirst: Poems (Beacon Press, 2007)


Hildegarde von Bingham
Feast Day: September 17

Marjory McNichols Wilson
Fine Art & Design Studio


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The voice of God – Mary Karr “The Voice of God”

Every so often, a poet taps on the window of my imagination and catches my attention.  I had not encountered Mary Karr before (b. January 16, 1955); now I am wondering why.

Have a blest September Monday,


john sj

Today’s Post  “The Voice of God”

Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you
could be cured with a hot bath,
says God from the bowels of the subway.
but we want magic, to win
the lottery we never bought a ticket for.
(Tenderly, the monks chant, embrace
the suffering.) The voice of God does not pander,
offers no five-year plan, no long-term
solution, nary an edict. It is small & fond & local.
Don’t look for your initials in the geese
honking overhead or to see thru the glass even
darkly. It says the most obvious crap—
put down that gun, you need a sandwich.

Mary Karr


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September 11 – “Talking with the Sun” & “The high plains of Pine Ridge, SD”

September 11 – Mary Tobacco & Joy Harjo

This week ends with bright September sun & its crisp wind gusts.   For me, today’s morning stillness stirs memories of two great native women, soul friends both Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and Mary Tobacco.    Mary, a Lakota tribal leader on Pine Ridge, and Creek poet Joy Harjo are soul friends.   They share a love of land and sky, an intimate understanding of the beauty and fatigue of poverty often marked with racism but also with the deep harmonics both women can hear as they live more and more closely with earth and sky.  Last May, Mary told me playful stories about the way her children honored her on Mothers’ Day (i.e., cleaning the trailer house and helping with the next steps in building a new one-acre garden with its rich promise of vegetables for the summer season).

Anya at the new garden’s edge  May 9, 2020

Mom and the kids


Joy Harjo  “Talking with the Sun”   (in  Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings).

How does a grandmother carry her fourth granddaughter out into the sun on a rainy New York Times Square morning?  You could read the poem with pauses.   Or you may imagine driving along SD highway 18 as the sunset shows off a front being pushed East by a storm’s energy.

Have a blest weekend,


john sj


Today’ Post   Joy Harjo  “Talking with the Sun”

I believe in the sun.
In the tangle of human failures of fear, greed, and
forgetfulness, the sun gives me clarity.
When explorers first encountered my people, they called us
heathens, sun worshippers.
They didn’t understand that the sun is a relative, and
illuminates our path on this earth.

After dancing all night in a circle we realize that we are a
part of a larger sense of stars and planets dancing with us
When the sun rises at the apex of the ceremony, we are
There is no mistaking this connection, though Walmart
might be just down the road.
Humans are vulnerable and rely on the kindnesses of the
earth and sun; we exist together in a sacred field of

Our earth is shifting.  We can all see it.
I hear from my Inuit and Yupik relatives up north that
everything has changed.  It’s so hot; there is not enough
Animals are confused. Ice is melting.

The quantum physicists have it right; they are beginning to
think like Indians: everything is connected dynamically
at an intimate level.
When you remember this, then the current wobble of the
earth makes sense.  How much more oil can be drained,
Without replacement; without reciprocity?

I walked out of a hotel room just off Times Square at dawn
to find the sun.
It was the fourth morning since the birth of my fourth
This was the morning I was to present her to the sun, as a
relative, as one of us.  It was still dark, overcast as I walked
through Times Square.
I stood beneath a twenty-first century totem pole of symbols
of multinational corporations, made of flash and neon.

The sun rose up over the city but I couldn’t see it amidst the
Though I was not at home, bundling up the baby to carry
her outside,
I carried this newborn girl within the cradleboard of my
I held her up and presented her to the sun, so she would be
recognized as a relative,
So that she won’t forget this connection, this promise,
So that we all remember, the sacredness of life.

Joy Harjo: Poet Laureate  June 19, 2019
Born‎: ‎May 9, 1951 (age 68); ‎Tulsa, Oklahoma

Highway 18, c. 3.9 miles from Mary Tobacco’s home

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Friday, August 28 – “We live in exhausting times”

Aug 28 – learning to be welcomed

The large bulletin board on our second floor, next to the copier, the fax, our snail-mail boxes, and the car keys, creates a public space for the 18 Jesuits who live here to stop and see what one or another of us has pinned as a new message wanting our attention.   In that public space, we read messages of overwhelming violences swirling in the world — floods and hurricanes and fires leaping past the tools and energies of the people fighting to contain them,  out of scale weather, with its out of scale violence, seems to echo out of scale anger and fear in public voices.  We live in exhausting times.

The national conversation about immigrants in the U.S.  is fraught with competing languages — “immigrants,” “refugees,” “criminals.”  Pope Francis has used the public voice that follows him wherever he goes in the world to call attention to the women and men who have had to leave their home places – –  where they had learned to create a home for raising their children, a place to cook for one another, a place to sleep safely.  Francis repeatedly calls attention to the appalling numbers of people who have been forced to wander the roads of the world without the securities of what is called “home,” (a common estimate runs to 60,000,000); Francis compares them to Joseph, Mary, and their child when they fled soldiers seeking to kill them.

His more disturbing challenge, perhaps, is the call to pay attention, to risk the knowledge of these people seeking a home.  On a day in last August, my Jesuit brother Tom Florek let us know of a gathering in our Fitness Center, a next step in “Strangers No Longer,”  (i.e. gatherings of immigrants with native-born citizens who try to get better at being welcomed by people other than oneself).  The Pope does not ignore the dangers that immigrant travelers risk when they have lost their place of cooking, welcoming, sleeping and playing.

Have a blest weekend,

john st sj


Today’s Post:  “what they did yesterday afternoon”

they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered

                                Warsan Shire



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August 26 – “There is good news” Mark 1:15

August 26  – –  “being surprised”

When I pray from Mark or Matthew or Luke (i.e., the three “synoptic gospels”),  it helps me to treat the evangelist like a poet, to allow the surprise buried in the text to stop me in my tracks,  like a strong poem does.

Long ago, when I took a job here in 1980, I wrote this poem based on Mark 1:15. I found the challenges facing the university daunting.   This gospel text, “Repent and believe the good news” began to get my attention, as strong poems can.    A teaching of St. Ignatius, that I ask to grow in “intimate knowledge of our Lord who has become human . . .”  began to challenge me.

“To become human” implies being born in some particular place with its own history.  Jesus was born in one of the world’s meanest, poorest, and most violent places — the Roman Empire’s grinding police state where crucifixion of people who opposed that state became horrors up and down this small country (e.g., as many as 2000 rebel fighters were crucified during one period in the early childhood of the boy Jesus).  Sometimes it took a day or two for a strong man to suffocate to death; crucifixion was designed to intimidate and subdue opposition.

For me that became a deep surprise, taking the teaching of the young man Jesus, “Repent and believe the good news” seriously.  What could the evangelist poet Mark mean?   And that led me, little by little, to notice that where I was born (Marinette, WI, 1939) was a much less frightening place than where Jesus was born.  The place where Jesus was born was more like the lives of immigrant children torn away from their mothers and fathers at U.S. borders the past few years.  It helps, when I read this saying from Mark 1:15, to open into deep, shocking, surprise, like every strong poem.

Not everything about my Catholic faith makes me proud; but this teaching and men and women who have tried to live it often stop me in my tracks, like any strong poem should.  Best to read the poem out loud, with pauses.

Have a blest day,

john sj


Today’s Post  “Repent and believe the good news.”   {Mk 1:15}

Is our main repenting, perhaps, made of believing good news,
that there is news,
something new,
and it is good?

That what we already know is not all there is,
that we must approach the presence of God
knowing we will be surprised,
committed to being surprised
and so to living in a surprise-able way?

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August 24 “I’m a man and that’s what a man does,” Lance Swain said.

Monday, August 24, 2020 – “I left my car so I could help get them out of there.”

Some days the local news can refresh your spirits.   Some days the news can knock you out with wonder and, at the same time, send you on your way laughing with joy.

This local news story we posted on March 25, 2014, from the first year of the “Work Day, Hard Times Poetry List” (1st posted in late September 2013 as the Detroit Bankruptcy was still stirring deep anxieties in the city).

Unlike our usual posts, this is a story, not a poem, unless any piece of writing that sends us on our way with wonder counts as poetry.

Have a blest day,


john sj


Today’s Post

Detroit — Freeing people trapped in overturned cars is getting to be a bit of a habit with Lance Swain.

For the second time in about a month, the Detroit resident has helped rescue victims of rollover crashes on area roads. The latest occurred shortly before 1 p.m. Tuesday as Swain was returning from lunch.

“I was driving down the Lodge near Howard Street and I saw a Jeep on its side,” said Swain, who works for Detroit City Connect, a non-profit agency that helps Detroit area non-profits and the government to work together to solve local problems.

“I pulled up close and asked a bystander if there was anyone inside and he said, ‘Yeah, two people.’ I left my car so I could help get them out of there.”

According to Swain, the victims were two women who were more or less dangling from their seat belts.

“They were conscious but shook up pretty bad,” said Swain, the married father of a 5-year-old daughter and a nearly 2-year-old son. “We got the passenger side door open, and I slid inside. The first lady was the passenger, and I had to undo her seat belt and then I pulled her out.

“But the driver’s foot was stuck and she couldn’t stand up so I couldn’t get her out.”

Pinned and panicky, the driver told Swain she was scared and that her chest hurt.

“I stayed with her; she was holding me,” Swain said. “I told her to breathe, gave her some water and put a scarf around her neck to keep her warm. When the paramedics arrived, they decided to remove her through the rear hatch of the Jeep.”

Swain let down the seats and helped the paramedics remove the woman.

And then he went back to his job at City Connect.

“The funny thing is the same sort of thing happened about a month ago on Grand River,” Swain said. “We were coming back from the Black History Museum and there was a car that had been hit and was on its side. My cousin and I hopped out and did pretty much the same thing for the two people who were inside.

“So when this crash happened on the Lodge it was pretty much like, ‘Let me out of my car and get to work.’ ”

Swain demurs when anyone suggests that he might be a hero.

“I’m a man and that’s what a man does,” Swain said.

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August 19 – G Manley Hopkins “The caged Skylark”

August 19 – G M Hopkins, sj  1844-1889
“or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage”

Recording of lark song:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyo66_EyOtI

Gerard Manley Hopkins, sj, a radical innovator among 19th century poets, chose Anglo-Saxon over Latinate English vocabulary and invented “Sprung Rhythm” to replace  classical traditions of rhyme and rhythm  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sprung_rhythm).  Anglo-Saxon lives closer to the ground than the latinate vocabulary brought by Norman conquerors into English (e.g., the Saxons lost, the Normans won so word-sets like “cow” (Anglo Saxon & spoken in the barn yard by hired hands) contrasts with “beef” (from the French “boef”,  spoken at the table in the manor house).  Hopkins thought Norman influences eroded the power and energy of Anglo Saxon.   The power and sharp edges of his word choices inspired a host of more recent poets to run similar verbal risks.

Hopkins also paid attention to the toll the British Industrial Revolution took on ordinary working people.  In today’s poem, look for startling and inventive imagery, some of it bearing down on the agony of human living;  look for exquisite delicacy in his descriptions of beauty also.   Best to read out loud but, given the challenges of Sprung Rhythm and inventive vocabulary, you may want to set aside some time to read it aloud a few times until you figure out what he’s doing.

Have a blest week.


john sj

Today’s post: The Caged Skylark

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells—
That bird beyond the remembering his free fells;
This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.

Though aloft on turf or perch or poor low stage,
Both sing sometímes the sweetest, sweetest spells,
Yet both droop deadly sómetimes in their cells
Or wring their barriers in bursts of fear or rage.

Not that the sweet-fowl, song-fowl, needs no rest—
Why, hear him, hear him babble and drop down to his nest,
But his own nest, wild nest, no prison.

Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound when found at best,
But uncumbered: meadow-down is not distressed
For a rainbow footing it nor he for his bónes rísen.

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August 17 – University Convocation – David Whyte “Start Close In”

Monday,  August 17,  2020
“the step
you don’t want to take”  David Whyte

Convocation gathers women and men who come to work at our 3 campuses, week in and week out, to take the thousands of small steps that make a university come to life again and again.  In our tradition, today marks the first of those small steps, a day in the August calendar dedicated to beginning again.

David Whyte writes about 1st steps.  Reading this poem on this particular day, gives me a taste of rebirth.  I hope for you too.   We live days of tedious bickering in the U.S. political world, days of alarming anger, days of fear.  Today, our first day convoking one another in the act of “beginning,”  may we find grace in the poet’s words, grace and some surprises, even stunning hope and joy.

Best to read out loud with pauses.

Have a blest day and a blest year,

john sj


Today’s Post:  “Start Close In”

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way to begin
the conversation.

Start with your own
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something

To hear
another’s voice,
your own voice,
wait until
that voice

becomes an
private ear
that can
really listen
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

River Flow: New & Selected Poems
Many Rivers Press

David Whyte b. 1955

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Thursday, August 13 – Confronting Racism among Midwest Jesuits – c. 1965 ff Joe Sheehan, s.j.

Don Doll is the finest photographer that I have ever met and he emailed saying how much he liked what we did in yesterday’s post.  However, as a great photographer might, he added a note to his email that said, “Joe Sheehan deserves a better picture” and here it is.  In the picture, Joe is standing in front of St. Agnes Parish Church in Manderson, SD (the heart of the Pine Ridge Reservation).

Don, thank you for rescuing Joe Sheehan’s image: the picture we had found makes Joe look like he was made of wood.  You have given us the real character of this great man.

john sj

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Thursday, August 13 – Confronting Racism among Midwest Jesuits – c. 1965 ff Joe Sheehan,s.j.

Mary Oliver: “there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own”

“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting their bad advice”

Late during the Lenten season of 1965, the small group of “Province Consultors” met with Pedro Arrupe, (newly named the Superior General of the world wide Jesuit Order) in an O’Hare hotel meeting space to address a crisis.   The current mid-west Provincial’s ham-handed manner threatened to drive much of the younger half of the Province out, enough that a startling number of influential Jesuits wrote to Rome warning that decisive action was needed immediately.   It happened that Arrupe was making his first visit to the U.S. as Superior General.  The small group met all day.   Arrupe asked the consultors whether the situation was as dire as the 50 + letters said.  The consulters said “yes.”   Then, Arrupe asked who in the province might the younger men trust.  A consensus told him “Joe Sheehan, the current Novice Director.”  That same day Arrupe fired the provincial and named Joe, to be announced two weeks later, on Easter.

On Pine Ridge we young Jesuits were 5;  when we read the letter Easter morning, we began dancing around the dining room, laughing with wonder and joy (e.g., one of us wandered around the room in a daze saying “There is a God;  I believe it now, there is a GOD!”)

Hindsight says that Joe paid a high price to meet the crisis;  he began to call Jesuits young and old to face the province’s pervasive but little-recognized racism that had created a cultural assumption that the Rez was a penal colony for outcast Jesuits who had gotten themselves in trouble or who were perceived to be third string minds.   After his tumultuous 6 year term and many battles, Joe took a sabbatical and then asked to return to the Rez, for the rest of his life it turned out.   His hospitality to Lakota men and women and children became legendary.  When he died (cancer, I think), he was buried in the cemetery of Manderson village.   During my sabbatical month there in September, my soul friend Mary Tobacco and I drove the c. 40 miles to visit not only Joe’s grave, but also Mary’s legendary ancestor Standing Bear and Black Elk, life-long close friends.   Black Elk became world famous as a wicasa wakan who John Neihardt interviewed over a long time and published the still-contemporary book Black Elk Speaks.   In recent decades, anthropologist Michael Steltenkamp, sj published a second account, this time by Lucy Black Elk, about her grandfather, Black Elk, who also served as Catholic pastor in Manderson District for c. 40 years.  While Mary and I stood still there for a while, a meadowlark began to sing, somewhere close to Joe’s grave:  “Maybe that’s Fr. Sheehan welcoming us,” said Mary.

I love the accident of this mid-August calendar reminding me of how much I and very many other people owe to Joe’s understated courage and his revolutionary recognition that the racist wounds on Pine Ridge called for a conversion into deep cross-cultural mutual hospitality – standing in that cemetery, near a caucasian priest, a Lakota holy man, and a war leader listening to the meadowlark as a sacred voice telling us that we were all welcome there that morning.

John G. Neihardt (from left), Nicholas Black Elk and Standing Bear of the Oglala Sioux
meet during an interview session for “Black Elk Speaks” in Manderson, S.D., in May 1933.
(Photo by Enid Neihardt; Courtesy of The Neihardt Trust)

Joe Sheehan, sj
Died November 4, 1997

Best to read Mary Oliver out loud, with pauses.  She makes good company for troubled times like the present and would not be surprised by this remembrance of Joe Sheehan, sj, Black Elk, and Standing Bear and the prairie Manderson cemetery where their bodies have come to rest near one another.

Thursday afternoon, alive with gummy, sticky air.  Have a blest day.

john sj


Today’s Post “The Journey”

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.

Mary Oliver
September 10, 1935 – January 17, 2019

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