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Zenyatta (LA Times photo)

I’ve been traveling again—this time to Louisville, Kentucky, where I spent several days following in the footsteps of Thomas Merton.  More on that next week.  But I also spent a day touring some horse-related sites (for if you’re in Kentucky, horses loom large).  So a few thoughts on those horses today.

First, I think I may be nearly the last person in America to catch Zenyatta fever.  If you’re one of the clueless as well, let me give you some background.  Zenyatta has been called the greatest racing filly/mare of all time, winner of 19 consecutive races.  Last week, she lost her 20th and final race, though she came within a few inches of winning.

“People who didn’t know anything about horse racing became fans because of her,” said the jockey of the horse that beat her, sounding almost sorry that he was the one who helped end her phenomenal winning streak. 

I’m writing about Zenyatta because when I was in Kentucky, I finally got it about horses.  I know the exact moment when it happened.  On a tour of a horse farm, I was standing by the side of a paddock, watching a stallion run in the sunshine.  He was clearly doing it for the joy of the movement, and he was so beautiful and so strong and so graceful that the breath caught in my throat and I couldn’t help but look at him and marvel.

Later I asked my guide how they identified promising race horses, how they knew that this one might have the right breeding and the right body, but no spark, and that this one may not have the best credentials but still had potential.  “When they’re foals, you watch them play,” she explained.  “The ones who might become winners just love to run.  That’s what you watch for.  You pick out the ones that love to run.”

So I think that’s part of what appeals to us about Zenyatta.  There are so many sports that are tainted by greed and doping and bad sportsmanship (and certainly horse-racing has some negative elements too).  But when you see a truly amazing horse compete, you get a sense for the joy behind their movements, because it’s clearly something they do for the sheer love of it. 

And if I could wax poetic for a moment, isn’t that what we all want?  To do something that requires all our strength and heart and breath, something that taxes us and brings us out of ourselves?  Perhaps when we watch a racehorse like Zenyatta we get a glimpse of what that feeling is like.

Really, the one consolation of her losing is that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to her.  And that is another lesson she teaches us, is it not?


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In Honor of Ben Hill

Today being Veterans Day, I want to tell you a little bit about the veteran I am remembering today—someone I never met, but a man who has been an invisible presence for me ever since I visited the National World War I Museum in Kansas City last March (I wrote about the museum here). 

Ben Hill was a farmer’s son from northeast Iowa who died on a French battlefield during World War I.  If he would have come home from the war, he would have become my grandfather.  Instead, Ben’s fiancée married his brother, and because of that twist of fate I am different in some unknown, but perhaps significant, way.

When I toured the museum, it was in a display on trench warfare that Ben came most vividly to my mind.  By 1917, 35,000 miles of trenches crisscrossed the Western Front, places of misery for those who lived, fought and died in a half-underground world.  Standing in a replica of a narrow trench with the sound of exploding shells above me, I could hear a recording of a letter sent home by a soldier.  It was then that I began to glimpse what it must have been like for Ben to go from the quiet of rural Iowa to that twilight world of fear, violence, and disease.

After I returned home I began to do some research, and with the help of several kind officials I learned that Ben had been a member of Company F, 58th Infantry, of the Army’s Fourth Division, and that he was killed in the Battle of the Marne on August 7, 1918.  After his death, his body was returned to a quiet country graveyard not far from where he had grown up. 

Last month I visited his grave, for I wanted to pay my respects to someone I had never met, but who now lives as a presence—however faint—in my life.  Until I visited the National World War I Museum, I had never given a second thought to him.  But today I want to tell you about him, to honor his life and his sacrifice. 

Perhaps you have someone like Ben you are honoring today too.  We should be grateful, should we not?

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August storm

Do not give up then, but work away at it till you have this longing.  When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing.  You don’t know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast reaching out towards God.  Do what you will, this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God, and stop you both from seeing God in the clear light of rational understanding, and from experiencing his loving sweetness in your affection.  Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after the One whom you love.  For if you are to feel the Presence and see God in this life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness. 

                     The Cloud of Unknowing  (14th century, author unknown)

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Galician Coast, Spain

You may have success in life, but then ask yourself — what kind of life was it?  What good was it if you’ve never done the thing you wanted to do all your life or went where your heart and soul wanted to go?  When you find that feeling, stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.

                       Joseph Campbell

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A Truly Ecumenical Initiative

It’s Friday, folks, so here’s a story that should warm the heart of anyone who supports ecumenical dialogue.  Credit for the breaking news goes to Newsbiscuit.

In a surprise twist to the search to discover the origins of he universe Pope Benedict and the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams are to be fired at one another at the speed of light in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern.

James Gillies, Cern’s Director of Communications, told reporters that the two church leaders were almost ready to travel to the French-Swiss border. ‘They have been praying together and wishing each other a safe journey before they meet again head-on in the middle of the 27km-long circular tunnel.’

Cern’s director-general Rolf Heuer said ‘Both His Holiness and the Archbishop claim to know something of how our universe began, so by smashing their heads together at a tremendous speed we hope that we will at long last get a final answer.’

He said that the toss of a coin would decide which end of the tunnel each would be fired from. Steve Myers, Cern’s director of accelerators, said he was optimistic the two church leaders would reach the speed of light. ‘Although the two are rather bulky and not the idea shape for this, I hope that the 1.2 trillion electron volts and the 1,200 superconducting magnets will do the trick. We shall just hope and pray and increase the voltage until we get the required acceleration.’

Rolf Heuer said that though the two human projectiles would be smashed into billions of particles, he expected them to re-appear for services and mass the following day. ‘They have both spoken with certainty about the existence of God, and so we are giving them this chance to prove it scientifically. The experiment is in essence quite simple. We shall just be asking Dr Williams to remove his glasses.’

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Is there any happiness more jubilant than the conception of a much-longed for baby?  I don’t think so.  And that’s why I want to share this poem with you, one written by a dear friend, Rebecca Christian, about her newest grandchild.  The baby is yet to be born, but oh, how much happiness this little one has already brought!

Six Sonograms

There’s an eerie beauty
in the way you float
features Picasso-esque
in grainy black and white


a determined kick in one
a playful wave in another
your ear cocked to water music
the glub of hearts, hers and yours


already such a journey—
from beyond the beyonds
to this oceanic purgatory
of yawns and sighs and stretches


between forelife and life
let us not muse now of after
for by the sucking of your thumbs
something lovely this way comes



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St. Augustine, Worcester College Chapel at Oxford

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!  You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.  In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created.  You were with me, but I was not with you.  Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.  You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.  You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.  You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.  I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.  You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

                      St. Augustine, The Confessions

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