The Breviary


A breviary is a Catholic priest’s daily companion, the spiritual sourcebook he turns to each day as part of his commitment and vocation. More than just ink and paper and binding, it’s a physical, tangible connection to centuries of learning, devotion and belief, and yet very much something of the present, the now connection he has to God. And as such, it is a very intimate sort of possession.

The breviary in the photograph above belonged to my biographical subject, Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM, and I found it in his archives at Friedsam Library, among the belongings he left behind when he departed this earth. There were actually three, but this is the one that caught my attention—and imagination. I believe it’s his first—it’s inscribed with the address of Holy Name College, in Washington, DC, where he completed his priestly training. The other breviaries appear to be newer, with later publishing dates, and strike me as gifts, perhaps, that were never used much.

But this breviary has been used, a lot. The leather cover has been worn down to the thinnest, softest of skin, the original gold lettering almost completely scrubbed away. The pages are dog-earned, and thumb-printed and it’s pretty grimy. And yet, so many days of heavy use went into this little book, which he carried, no doubt, within the folds of his brown habit. This is the clue to, or perhaps the truth of, his own  private spirituality: The faith he took very seriously, conscientiously, and rigorously. To me, this worn book is a beautiful little thing.

This breviary has another significance, this one relating to his famous friend, Thomas Merton. Merton—before his Trappist days, when he was simply a lay English instructor at St. Bonaventure—asked Irenaeus to explain the breviary to him, and how it was used. I’m imagining that this is the book Irenaeus used to show him. Maybe not, though: Merton had purchased one on his own, and was baffled by it. Still, it’s a strong token of their friendship, and the prayers and liturgy Merton would have learned in this exercise presaged the strict Liturgy of Hours he would follow in the Trappist order, as a monk. Maybe it was the most important thing Irenaeus did for his friend Tom, explaining the mysteries of the Divine Office in his own inimitable, cheerful, casual way, in a way we know for certain “straightened” Merton out (because he says so). Perhaps this is something more important than the founding of Merton’s first archive (which was an accidental, casual kind of thing he more or less fell into), planting that early seed of contemplation that would later blossom into so many books and articles and poems and letters, that in turn went on to influence and touch so many other people.

I feel privileged to be writing the biography of such a special man. I feel privileged to have known him, and to have worked in his library. When I find myself rebelling against the strictures of writing non-fiction and longing to go back to my novels, I try to remember this. I hope that it will contain a very essential kind of truth.



In recent weeks, I have had new language students from Switzerland and Brazil, in addition to those from Japan and Germany, and this is only serving to kick up my desire to do some serious travelling. But in our current constrained economic state there seems no possibility of that, so I simply have to listen wistfully as my pupils wax rhapsodically about their respective homelands. I’m going to try looking into some kind of teach-abroad-gig thing, although I don’t think, with my current writing project,  I can commit to anything more than a month or six weeks.

But the idea of living in another country is powerfully appealing right now, and not just because of the mess in Washington, DC. At this stage in my late-middle-age life, I realize there is not much time left to see as much of the world as I would like. I’m resigned to probably never making that journey to Antarctica (I know, it’s absurd, but for some reason I’ve always I want to see it, walk among the penguins) Don’t think I’m going to make it to Madagascar or Kenya to see amazing animals and flora on their home turf. I’ve been watching snippets of the Trans-Siberian Railway trip online (where the outskirts of Moscow look surprisingly like NYC, complete with ‘Co-op City’ type towers in the background) because I don’t think I can pull that one off, either.

I would like to get back to Europe at least one more time before I die, and maybe half a dozen times if possible. I would like to return to my grandfather’s island in Denmark again, where I spent a blissful summer many years ago just after graduating college, and renew old ties with my many cousins there. I’ve been to Denmark and Germany, Austria and Italy and Ireland, but now want to see all the rest of the countries, particularly Poland and western Russia where a big chunk of my DNA is from: Big blue lines on my chromosomal chart, with that glowing dot of Ashkenazi right in the middle.

I envied my daughter’s daring visit a few years ago to Israel, via Moscow to Tel Aviv. I would do it! I dream of a RTW trip that would take me to at least four continents. I’ve even planned it out, on paper, tacked to my bulletin board: I’d go west, first flying south to see the Galapagos and Easter Island (and maybe my new student’s homeland of Brazil, now that I’ve heard how wonderful it is) then skipping over to Fiji, New Zealand, Australia (a train across the interior from Sydney to Perth), then up to Singapore; Maldives, Reunion and Cape Town, then north to Napoleon’s Saint Helena (Yeah, I know, another one of those crazy places I need to see); Cape Verde and Senegal (I have nieces with DNA from that area), Morocco and Gibraltar and Spain and Portugal, and if I’m not too tired, I’d hit the Azores on the way home. It does make me a little exhausted, just typing all that. Still wanna do it.

But this year it is simply more Western New York state and Kentucky/Tennessee for me, which, while enticing in their own way, leave me yearning for more.

There is something immensely satisfying about getting to a spot you’ve only read about or dreamed of. For many years, I had this yearning to drive all the way to the very tip of Cape Breton Island, which is about as far north-east as  you can drive without taking a ferry. I checked it out, learning that last road north is gravel and steep and recommended only for all-terrain vehicles. A few summers ago we actually did it, my husband and I, and it was just as amazing and astonishing and wonderful as I’d hoped. And yeah, we broke the car doing it, the old Chevy (it clattered and clanged all the way back down the Cape Breton highway), but it was somehow worth it. And then there was the marvelous one-lane mountain road we took on Maui, the one that voided our rental car agreement. But still worth it, for views that most people will never get to see.

I suppose hidden in my DNA is some kind of explorer’s or discoverer’s gene, maybe the consequence of being descended from Greenland whalers and Genghis Khan’s sons. But for now, I have to be the armchair traveler for a while, or classroom traveler, experiencing the world through my beloved students, and that’s okay, too. For now…

Old fiction

My husband and I share a mania for vintage books, and no trip or vacation is complete without stopping at a used bookstore or two. We often stop at estate and garage sales just to see what we might unearth, and I recently came upon a trove of mid-twentieth century novels sitting under a table. Not high literary grade, but probably Book-of-The-Month club offerings, A.J. Cronin, Kathleen Windsor, Frank O’Hara, that sort of thing. I wondered: Does anyone read these kinds of books anymore? Are there any academics out there, studying them for clues about life and society in the middle of the twentieth century? In a world where there are four and a half million Kindle books alone, all of very recent vintage, who’s reading the old stuff? Yet some of that old stuff is pretty good.

These are the sort of ‘adult’ books I grew up reading, once I made the switchover –at the tender age of twelve or so—from kid’s chapter books to the grown-up stuff. Hate revealing my age, but I was 12 in 1968, so the books in the Adult Reading Room of the library were mainly from the 1940s and 1950s, and earlier. I read Gone With the Wind when I was junior-high-school age, loved it but thought it was the most deliciously wicked book I’d ever read! Then I got to Forever Amber…! But a large part of my education about adult life—and some of the trickier and difficult aspects of it, such as love and the man-woman thing—came from these books, so is it any wonder I’m as weird and out-of-step with modern life as I am?! I’m a literary anachronist.

Then came the Fiction stacks at my college. When I wasn’t working the circulation desk out front, I was dispatched to the back stacks to put away books, and found myself lingering in Fiction, which was the weirdest collection of literature on earth, or so it seemed to me. How this section came to be was this way: All of the top-notch literary novels studied in classes were catalogued (under the old Dewey-decimal system) into the 900s; New Books in a shelf out front, and the old, old, unclassifiable fiction—ancient best-sellers, alumni-donations, alumni authors, and maybe stuff other students left behind in their dorm rooms—was set on these shelves. Of course, I was drawn to it like a moth to a lightbulb. I still remember the musty, faintly acrid smell of the books, the flaking pages rimmed with sepia, gold printing on leather covers worn away into invisibility. But it was here I discovered Sigrid Undset and her crazy medieval trilogies; Rumer Godden, Anais Nin (but her relatively chaste diaries only, none of that Delta of Venus stuff at a Catholic college!); Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, a few forgotten classics mingled in with some truly atrocious work by nobody noteworthy at all. I think it was here that I acquired some discernment, and learned to tell quality from drivel.

I guess in old books, I find people I still recognize, the consolation that humans really don’t change so much over the years, despite the Internet Revolution, technology and all that nonsense. We still long and yearn for things just beyond out grasp: for love or wisdom, recognition or power; we wonder why we’re here and what the purpose of life is. Maybe that’s what keeps me haunting the books sales and second-hand stores: that somewhere is a musty, neglected old book that will have all the answers.

Leroy’s problem

When I was a small girl growing up in my grandmother’s house, I would sometimes try to imagine myself at my grandmother’s age. But I couldn’t; it seemed unimaginable. I simply could not see myself with white hair and wrinkles and working in factory, which is what I thought all grandmothers did. But now that I’ve reached the age she was then, I can tell you what it’s like. It’s pretty weird sometimes.

So there I was, shopping for Easter dinner last week, at the meat case trying to figure out how much pork would feed eight people or so, when I hear an oddly familiar crooning:

Leroy boy is that yooooooo….

I stood there, with a 8-lb. ham in my hands, as a deluge of adolescent memories washed over me, a big salty wave: Cruising about in a hot car, the radio blaring, laying in a two-piece on the beach under the hot sun, baking… And as the rest of the inane lyrics floated along—We’ve got to get you a woman!—I felt the same puzzlement I felt back then. Like, what the heck was Leroy’s problem, anyway? How would getting him a girl help? And pity the unlucky dame who got stuck with him…

It took me longer to identify the singer: Todd Rundgren, one of the few rock stars I ever saw in person, because, believe it or not, he toured and came to St.Bonaventure to play when I was there. Old Bona’s could be a pretty cool place now and then. We had been so enamored of him, we girls of First-Floor Falconio (we didn’t have sororities, so we had to identify with our actual location on campus), that we adopted another of his song-titles as our motto: Hello it’s me. Which was lame compared to our co-motto, reflecting our ground-floor status: Climb right in!

Then came that aggravating line:  …they may be stupid but they sure are fun…  “Yeah, like guys are never stupid,” I actually muttered aloud, addressing the ham. Startling a well-dressed woman beside me, about my age. “Oh come on,” I said to her. “Don’t tell me you don’t remember this silly song!” She edged away from me without comment.

What do these supermarkets think they’re doing, playing these crazy old songs from our long-ago past? Do they think it’ll make us mellow out and buy more stuff? The worst is when you’re standing in the checkout line, and there’s Carole King belting out that mournful and soulful, Will you still love me, to-morrrrr-ow  and the crushing, still-fresh but decades-old memory of a romance gone sour assaults you while you’re trying to arrange canned goods on the belt.  Doesn’t matter how lengthily and happily married you are now; the sting of it comes rushing back. Hearing Leroy’s dilemma again was absolutely no help in picking out that Easter ham, I can tell you. But at least I’m still here, after all these years—no white hair (thanks, Lady Clairol),  not working in factory… and, still physically able to climb into a first-floor dorm room if I had to.

Guest blogger: Sr. Christina Neumann

I pleased to present my latest guest blogger, Sister Christina Neumann, who writes a semi-weekly blog of her own for her Franciscan community (and you know how I love Franciscans, of every variety!) out in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Her blog is titled “The Franciscan Fiat” and here’s the link:   Enjoy!

Niches, Old and New

I’ve been a Franciscan Sister now for over ten years.  Before I entered the convent in Hankinson, North Dakota, I had graduated with a BA in written communication. 

Having perceived a call to religious life during my college years, I had visited several communities, had graduated and done a bit of work.  Finally, I found the Franciscan Sisters in Hankinson and, when visiting the provincial house in Hankinson, I felt like I had found “my niche.” 

I visited and stayed with the Sisters, and entered the formation process to join them. 

Over time, our Sisters have filled various niches.  Our Congregation, officially the Franciscan Sisters of Dillingen, dates back to 1241 in Dillingen, Germany when the count and his son the bishop gave a group of women a house near the parish church and with it one lot of land, a cabbage patch and a meadow where they could live a life of work and prayer.  Since that time, our Sisters have been involved in any number of activities, including healthcare, education, social work, pastoral care, etc. The main intention, though, was to “serve God, their Creator, peacefully, devoutly, and zealously for the benefit of all the faithful, giving praise and honor to the Blessed Trinity.”

Actually, when exploring communities of Sisters, a variety in apostolates was something that definitely attracted me.  I was not a nurse or a teacher explicitly.  It seemed that my interests and gifts would better correspond with a community that did not have a narrow focus.  During the course of time, I’ve done various things “in the convent,” from housekeeping to library work to receptionist duties.  The list goes on…

Having a background in communications and some computer knowledge, I was asked to set up a webpage for the assisted living facility where I serve.  This has lead into my involvement in public relations using email, our website, and social media. Thus it was that, late in 2014, I suggested to our home’s administrator the idea of starting a blog.  With her “go-ahead,” I launched “The St. Anne’s Scoop,” covering topics related to our facility and of interest to seniors.  A couple of months later, after consultation with our Sister Superior, I began “Our Franciscan Fiat,” chronicling daily life and offer faith-filled reflections from the perspective of a Franciscan Sister serving in the 21st century Midwest.

It is interesting to me that, although I’d stepped back some from writing for a while, I have returned to this “niche.” Maybe my background in communications was just part of God’s plan for where He wants me to serve today. Beyond the writing, I very much enjoy my other work here, including receptionist duties, sacristy work, and filling in as a care aide.  

Blogger’s update

Not all my posts can be lyrical and soaring. Sometimes I just have to sit back and take stock, and let my readers know what I’m up to.

Of course, I’m working on a biographical project now, but I don’t want to say too much about it at this early stage. Still don’t know exactly which way it’s going to go, although the research I’ve done so far is pointing me in a good direction. I will occasionally reference it here from time to time, but I won’t be obnoxious about it. I also don’t want to give too much away before the thing gets published.

I’m still teaching business ESL part-time and that’s going well, but looking forward to a day when I can devote myself to writing full-time. I thought I might chronicle my return to ‘traditional’ publishing, but to be honest, it’s not going so well, and I’m afraid it’s just going to turn into a big rant. I’m finding academic publishers are no easier to work with than the Big Five. This week I took the daring step of contacting some literary agents, which I didn’t think I wanted to do, but I feel like I need some help and support. In the years I’ve been away from traditional publishing, it doesn’t look like things have gotten any easier for the writer. Or perhaps I should say, trad publishers haven’t seemed to have learned anything from getting their ass kicked by Amazon and Kindle.  Still treating writers like crap. And there’s so many more of us now…we’re like the pond scum of the publishing hierarchy. No glory or prestige in being a writer today!

But the Persistent Writer will keep on writing, as always. March was a very good month for books sales, my best ever in the six years I’ve been doing this, but I did have to spend some $$$ on promotion and marketing. Now I’m just going to let it all slide for a few months while I work on the new project. And enjoy spring, which I think is finally here in the Northeast…Not ruling out snow for Easter!

Guest blog alert: I have a very interesting guest, a very different type of writer lined up for Holy Week, which, to my alarm, is coming up fast. That one will appear on foot-washing day, Holy Thursday so my own next blog won’t be until after Easter Sunday. Happy holidays (and holy-days) everyone!

In a cabin named Sophia

I spent a few nights last week in a tiny cabin on a mountainside in western New York state, in the care of three very kind Franciscan friars who also fed me and let me pray with them. My particular cabin was named Sophia, so I dwelt, for a short while anyway, within Female Wisdom. And it was indeed very inspiring, once I learned to get away from my own anxious thoughts and worries and got used to dealing without TV, Internet, the phone and other distractions.

Mount Irenaeus—yes, named for my biographical subject, which helps show the extent of his influence and effect on others–is not the sort of place you might stumble upon accidentally while driving around the Southern Tier. You have to want to go there, and you need to get very good directions. The last three or four miles or so are on dirt roads going uphill, a precarious proposition during a rainstorm. But somehow I got there.

I had just one tidy room, with a tiny kitchen and bath, and a bed, and the most amazing view in the world: Nothing but woods and wilderness. There were big windows and a sliding door leading to a deck, so awakening to that view was amazing, even when the sky above was gray. It was utterly still, except for the birds beginning to awaken for spring. So quiet and so far from the world: It was a writer’s heaven. And I did get quite a bit done.

At five thirty pm, I hiked up to the main house and we all had a few glasses of wine together then a convivial dinner, very informal, no brown robes. I was their only guest, a rather rare thing. And we talked, and talked and talked. One of the friars, Father Louis, had known my uncle, Father Edward Halloran, and I was delighted by that, it was good to talk about him again.  They pointed out the picture of Father Irenaeus that hung in a hallway, looking very much as I remember him, and I suddenly thought of him zipping by the circulation desk while I was working, running up and down the spiral staircase beside it. He was so alive and vital back then, it seemed impossible that one day I would be staying at a retreat memorializing him, part of his legacy.

The younger friars—said one of the older friars—do not really know who Irenaeus is. And so few friars these days! What will happen to the Franciscan order? Maybe my book will make him real again, and more than just the name of a mountain retreat.