Tuesday, September 28, 2021

"I Done Done What You Told Me to Do"

 [Solicted for a project on Jesuits and Theater, coordinated by George Drance, SJ]

The title of this reflection comes from one of the grand old Spirituals, which should be no surprise to anyone who has sampled any of my other writings. What amazed me when I discovered this song, just a few minutes before I began writing this piece, is how it could be the drumbeat for a meditation on how one lives one’s vocation – no matter what the circumstance or specifics of the call. Not only could I use this song as a way of thinking about all the moments in my life when I was told to do something by my parents or by teachers, something – anything – that I was either hesitant to do or absolutely paralyzed from doing, I can use this song as a way into understanding how faith has been performed throughout my life.  No; it is not a quirk that I have never been able to imagine doing all sorts of great and fulfilling things. I tell people that I have been most successful when I have been told, “I think you ought to do……” and I say, “If you say so….” I have learned to trust those who see gifts in me that I often overlook.


My sixty years of work in theater is the perfect proof of this being led by faith into and out of a wilderness of discovery and transformation. Within weeks of my entering the Society of Jesus in 1962, Fr. Joseph D. Sheehan, our Novice Master, understood that I would need a forceful intervention in my life if I were to ever break through the overwhelming fear I had of speaking in public. Oh, I had been the drum major for the Beloit Catholic High School marching band for three years in high school. But in almost every other public setting I fell into a traumatic state of confusion and fear. I had to be forced to have my picture taken, to be put behind a microphone to speak. Looking back all these decades, I know why this condition controlled so much of my public life. Racism. I was the only Black person in my high school for three of my four years in attendance. The administrators manipulated me into every publicity photo ever produced. I was always pushed forward for the public view. Even my selection as drum major was racially based. “You have a better sense of rhythm than the other band members,” our band director said. Oh, really? The only Black kid in the school? How sensitive. And how completely wrong – at least in the beginning. By my senior year I could perform as well as any drum major in any of the southern Wisconsin high schools.

Three months after I entered the novitiate, Fr. Sheehan had grown frustrated with having to demand that I answer questions or offer comments in our classes. He called me to his office one afternoon, to “give him some advice,” he said. The novitiate was going to produce a holiday musical. It would be a parody of “The Music Man,” called, “Man, Music.”  And he wanted my opinion as to which novices could be cast in many of the roles in the play. He handed me the cast list. My name was already there. “No.” I was clear. “I will not appear on stage. I cannot appear on stage.” “I didn’t ask your permission,” he said. And truly, the rest is history. I went into the absolute wilderness of the theater and came out of the wilderness, more alive than I had ever dreamed possible. The first enthusiastic laughter and applause for what I was doing told me that I should wade into that water, with faith and gratitude.

During my four years in that building, I acted in seven plays – sometimes small roles; sometimes the lead roles. Crafting costumes and creating choreography when needed, added to my skills set. Soon after I moved on to St. Louis University to begin the formal study of philosophy, theater classes and productions became a therapeutic oasis.  My year of graduate studies at Johns Hopkins pulled me into directing – at the request of the Hopkins undergraduate drama club. I directed three plays (two one-acts and one full-length play) during that one academic year. And on and on.

In all of these years, I learned that the theme for this reflection is about faith. This Spiritual fits how I feel about religious life and priesthood – connecting also with another powerful meditation, “Done Made My Vows to the Lord, and I will go, I shall go, to see what the end will be.”  That was the song Sr. Thea Bowman blessed us with when the community of the Institute for Black Catholic Studies visited her in Canton, Mississippi, the year before she died.

I will go. I won’t turn back. I will trust the truth of the vision of others. I have no idea what the end will be, but when I get farther along the path, I will tell God, the ancestors, my elders and my trusted circle, “I done done what you told me to do.”  That is theater at its most vulnerable and transparent.  We trust the script, the director, the actors, the crew. Faith. And then…. oh, how blessed is the moment when we begin to have faith in ourselves; seeing, finally, within us what those who love and trust us have always seen.

From a production of “Teahouse of the August Moon,” performed at St. Louis University in 1968. The director, Leo Hanson, had to convince me that I could play a 90-year-old village elder of Okinawa. At least one member of the audience confirmed Mr. Hanson’s choice. They asked him who was that retired professor who played the old man. An almost 70-year difference between my age and the age of the character. It does not matter. The Spirit of Wisdom inhabits all of us.

And from the most recent moment of blessing and confirmation: playing Solly Two Kings in the 2018 production of “Gem of the Ocean” at Southern Illinois University. The character fit me better than a costume. An elder taking a young questor on a journey into their history and then turning over the role of guide to the young one.

Teaching? Ministry? Acting and directing? Being an elder? 

I done done what I was told to do.


Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Tomb of Ignatius: Rome 1972



Rome.31 July 1972. Photo: Michael Harter, SJ

Liturgical Dancers: Luis de Tavera & Joseph A. Brown, SJ.

Eucharistic Liturgy: Presider: C. J. McNaspy, SJ. Community: Jesuit Institute of the Arts. 3rd Annual Meeting.

The Tomb of Ignatius:  Rome

31 July 1972


mark it out:  six footsteps.  just under

that.  deep enough for a child

for a child to  hide    and if able to stretch

and turn over    it would touch the walls.

no more room.

not even air would be comfortable beyond

these limits.   and tightly sealed.



see it:    a boat

a covered  gold boat    shaped

to float lightly into the sea    riding

high off to the edge of nowhere

if called.    or sent.



angels everywhere.   pulling the eye

up and around.    pointing into corners where

prayer evaporates and silence lingers.

behind marble clouds and silver folds

bronze curving in and out    the breath

that comes from the holy places everywhere

you look.    can you see it.

now.    mark it.    out.



when the bones have been cleaned they must be

boiled until the last scraps of meat and muscle

collect on top.    boil them in lye for the

best results



results are seldom expected.    even though

you know that plants need water

and rich dirt for successful growth    once

in awhile    a seed has been found

to take root in dust    airless dust

dust that is sealed away from

light    from rain    from everything but


                 (and even some times in forgotten




we were wrong    distracted    fools

after gold to believe that visions

come in silence

                           though a busload of belgian

tourists buying postcards    avès riding

in a wave of mumbled music    timed by

camera shutters and lights locked in

15 minute cycles

                             the vision in that should

have been a clue



that he would have accepted


everything at once

how clear he knew that

not even bernini himself could contain

an italian determined on devotion



little child


who could follow a lame man

who wept more and more as

time slipped him somewhere.

beyond he child.

and back again



called.    or sent.

the eye cannot be held to sliver

lights the perfect draping on an

angel’s thigh

                       it is drawn to wonder

if the dust

has any hidden







it could

it could



something brought us here



mark it.    nowhere.    mark it out.

see.    somewhere.    see it.    dust.

gold and bronze.    tears.    visions

called it.    out.


sent.    sent or called.    called.

and sent.    sent and called.    here.

yes here.    of course here.    he

would know.

                       he knew.    a flame

is always certain.


in darkness.    in silence.    here.

yes here.

               sustenance.    in dust.

in tears.    in tourists.   lights.

and visions.    yes.    mark it.


[Published in The Sun Whispers, Wait: New and Collected Poems. Brown Turtle Press. 2009]

Saturday, June 12, 2021

"After the Flare and Flame"


After the Flare and Flame

 The Road to Emmaus: Luke 24: 13 -32

 We knew it no longer mattered

                                                      how we stumbled

away from the gushing women


our brothers who were no longer ashamed

to weep


If we walked twice the seven miles to home

we would


Anything to exhaust the rage

                                                     before we were crushed

and as empty as he said he found the cave


Burning everywhere    our eyes   our throats

our lungs

                   my skin was dry enough to peel

with the merest touch



What stoked this fire   was fear


Neither of us noticed

                                         or cared

to see the stranger nearly upon us


His first words startled me

reawakening the rage that had


settled like ashes  after the flare and flame


The confrontation took us both into a howling

threatening storm of words

                                                    Until he twisted us free

of the knots that had strangled us  these last

fearful days


How could we be blind


could we not hear the voice that will now

forever  hold us  still


                                       Our hunger shifted

from needing  protective enveloping dark

 into the memory of his mother

handing us bread so many nights


When he broke the bread

                                                he brought us

from the tomb where we had cowered


And now we can do   

                                      as he had done

and will always do


give that bread to all


-- Luke


Dedicated and offered as a gift to a group of men bringing their light into an all-too-shadowy world. For the ordination of newly ordained priests:  Ajani Gibson (for the Archdiocese of New Orleans); and for the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus: Thomas Bambrick; Jeffrey Dorr; Garrett Gundlach; Robert Karle; Aaron Malnick; Hung T. Nguyen; Trevor Rainwater; and Jeffrey Sullivan.


Friday, December 18, 2020

"What Little Hope We Have"

 These demands stab at what little hope we have

left buried in the soil of our prayers    Pay now

go there    stop that   Bow down   die

How like we are to the soon exhausted oil left

sputtering in the darkness

                                             Them   forcing us to register

away from here    when all will be ignored before any

return is finished   step madly into the water    and drown

who will even notice


they have come back


Some dark cloud seemed to cover her as

they came to each of us that morning

 When they left for his forced reckoning

                                                                  I doubted

their place would wait that journey’s close

Nevertheless we left it locked against intrusion

Something between them seemed so trusting and

so calm that they gave us just enough morsels

to sustain us

                                  But now

 there is     yes   there is   oh my   this  

she is holding a child    and he is holding her hand

and the guiding cord for the mule

                                                                  a child

I am going to the road

                                             and so are the others  to see

what is  pulling us into their path    what    yes  oh

yes   she is looking at each of us

                                                            and he too  is holding

us with a gaze so fierce as to begin us humming

just to find our breath

                                               yes   oh yes

a child is here

                                to tell us  

                                                       why the light must flare        


-- Luke

Christmas. 2020                                 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

"My Arms Are Empty"

My Arms Are Empty: A Song of Lamentation
for Ahmaud Arbery
When I saw him die
                                      I no longer
cared about the trembling    the tears
no one  walks these streets    except
the very few
                         and the solitary runners
choke me    I cannot breathe against
the rhythm sorrow beats into my

             I moved into the morning and I will
sit   against this tree
                                        seven days   they say
seven days of tattered shirts    I no longer
care    let the holes be seen   seven
times seven   I have found this place   and I will
         No    I cry   and   no    I whisper
and no one
                       cares that I am
become the Pietà without a child
even that  
                    even that
                                        And I hum   ‘Oh, Mary,
Don’t You Weep”  and she is now
                                                         here with me
saying    No   you will    you must   drain your heart
until the others come
                                    and the others will

This tree is not shelter   not from
the devouring fire    it burns
forever   and our scars
with the rage that cannot sound

when the others come
                                       I will
know that we will
                                  then unclench
our swollen fingers

Our hands will drum our sorrow
into this ground
                                Yes    I see
you glance at me    yes    I am
the one who whispers each
child’s name   if I cannot hold
them to my breast    I will
hold them with my song
live   child   you live
                                     and this
tree and I  will be the place where
no lie can live


Thursday, March 19, 2020

"I Grew to Trust the Dreams": The Feast of St. Joseph

At a time when many people were rejoicing in my ordination to the priesthood, albeit for myriad, sometimes competing reasons, I had to respond to one invitation after another of being asked to “come [somewhere] and say Mass.”  “People need to see you,” was the usual theme of the invitations. In the spring of 1973, the oddest invitation of that ordination year came from a nun who was teaching at the old north St. Louis Catholic grade school, St. Bridget, in the shadow of the Pruett-Igoe Housing projects. The nun asked me to come to the grade school and preside at a Mass for 8th-graders, on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph. The invitation would have been sufficient, in that simple statement; but as is often the case, she could not leave well enough alone. “If you can, please emphasize the role of ‘St. Joseph the Worker’ – most of these children don’t know the value of hard work; since they don’t see many people with jobs.”

It was enough to make me believe in God. Either that or walk away from it all.  So I said, yes.  At the beginning of the homily, I asked the students if they knew why Joseph was a saint.  The usual fidgeting and glancing eyes were the immediate response.  Finally, I said, I think we must understand that many people have focused on the fact that Joseph was a carpenter. But we don’t know any more than that. “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” is all we are told in scripture. We don’t know if he was a great, mediocre or merely competent carpenter. So I don’t think that is the reason for his obvious sanctity.  I think the real reason we honor Joseph with the title of “Saint,” is that, when his girlfriend told him she was pregnant, and it wasn’t his child, he did not panic. He did not reject her. He did not turn her over to the authorities in the temple.  He accepted her. He protected her. Because he listened to the voice of God which came to him in his dreams.”  Further, I said to them, “lots of people will say that many of you don’t know the value of hard work. But I know better. You have seen your fathers and mothers and uncles, aunts, grandfathers, grandmothers and neighbors, get up every day and hustle, one way or another, to bring something into your home. And they struggle, out of love for you and your family. They work as hard as they are able to. But it is their determination to remember that all children are gifts from God that makes us admire them and love them.”

As soon as I was finished with the Mass, a young woman asked me if I was going to come back soon. The nun who had invited me moved as quickly as the wind and came to the front of the room and told the students that she regretted that I wouldn’t be able to come back to the school, since I had such a busy schedule.

Two years later, when I was doing a Mass at St. Francis Xavier High School on the St. Louis University campus a young woman walked up to me and said, “You don’t remember me, but I remember you. You came to our school two years ago and said Mass. I remember what you told us…”

Thank you, Sister.

Today, just before the Feast of St. Joseph ends, I am offering this poem from the past. Like the other poems about Joseph that appear in “The Sankofa Muse” (entries #31 and #39), the poem supplies words from the mind of the most silent of saints.  The dreams, the responsibilities, the spirit-capture that changed his life. And the eyes of the child and the child’s mother:  The man listened beyond what was known and changed his world; and ours.

“I Grew to Trust the Dreams”:  Christmas:  1984
"When he arose, he took the young child and his mother
by night, and departed into Egypt."

there have  been no further dreams no other warnings
no more men who come crowding out the air  pushing
through a cloud of whisperings  no
no dreams come that last poised moment when
I would reach to turn my world towards what
is now
forever shattered
                                        I grew to trust the dreams

this boy  and her  the mother  all I learned
(what  to need  to accept   oh   to carry into hiding)
that night when every child in the world began to die

the dreams   the dreams suddenly vanishing
I cannot be blind to the blood without them
I cannot bind my fear without them
I cannot mute the howling wind
                                                                                when I hold
this child   he grows heavy  I look at him
touch him
                                  press my lips to his eyes   his ears
his hands   his heart

                                                oh  he is my dream  replaced
nightly   every child I see is him and every dream
his life  will be filled with

                                                      the telling of the day
the children began to die

                                                         you must live an anointing
you must bring them back
haunting my dreams  have found their flesh

I feed you child   a sea   a field   a night sky of
children blenching into silence

grow heavy with them                                                  

Sunday, December 22, 2019

But Her Eyes Called to Me

But Her Eyes Called to Me
“And coming forward at that very time, Anna gave thanks to God and spoke
about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem” – Luke 2:38

Over every throbbing ache
                                              in every finger
in my knees and back
                                       I have whispered
tell me why I remain
childless and feared
                                       they will not limn
their concerns or doubts
nod as if my eyes do not see even the glittering
dust that floats when the great veil is disturbed

Oh    I see   but cannot outpace
                                                      my deepest hunger
To know why
                            I am kept
                                                 even the old man will not
cross the barrier of the day
                                                    we bow
as best we can    and wait the interruption
from beyond
                         what grave is yet denied

And then    even my breath
                                               was pulled from me
when I turned

He stood behind   slightly bowed
could not move
                            but her eyes called me

Yes   I know
                        I finally know    I see
what I had not hoped
                                      yet hoped
and hungered for

(I will not say)
                                   I hold now
                                                        little one
shattering the silence    forever

until the last word is
                                    burned clean

I hold you now
                            little one

It is done
                     O God

It is done

-- Luke
22 December 2019