Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Learning To Capture The Puzzles

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published October 2, 2008

I once read an obituary of a woman who made a living creating crossword puzzles. She lived, as I remember, in Connecticut. She was obviously gifted. She once told an interviewer that when she went to bed at night, the puzzles would just come to her, like magic, and she would wake in the morning and sketch out what had been given her the night before. She submitted a few to a national paper and they were accepted and so began her career of crafting puzzles. The mazes of clues, lines, numbers and all those wondrous things that are loved by crossword aficionados were hers for the taking, every night when the puzzles arrived like dreams.

Einstein tried to figure out the universe. I have a biography of the renowned physicist, and there are photographs of his equations. They are very complicated, or at least they look that way. In the book it states that the last thing he jotted down, hours before he died, were more mathematical symbols in an attempt to come up with a unified theory of everything. I wonder what he dreamed about at night and if symbols came to him before he fell off to sleep. The book does not say.

Paul Simon once said that images come to him, one such image being a “cross in a school yard,” and he does not know why such an image came, but he wrote a beautiful song that contains that image. And it works.

I like to watch John, our monastery computer technician, our sole tech support person, fix a glitch on a computer. He will sit before the machine and look very peaceful as he considers different approaches to the problem. I have a nice picture of him doing just that, gazing at a screen before he touches the keyboard and deglitches it. In the picture, he has a peaceful look on his face as the myriad possibilities of glitchiness come to his mind. An insight gradually arrives, and his fingers move to the keyboard and soon the problem gives way to a solution.

It seems that all kinds of images, problems, invitations, strange symbols come to many of us. They come as we fall off to sleep or as we sit before a screen. Good things come from them as symbols form songs, intricate word schemes, universal and more modest theories. It also seems that some people are highly receptive to very unusual muses. Like puzzles that arrive near intact in the night, and crosses in a schoolyard that seem to beg for a song about them.

I think a lot of the past when I fall asleep at night, and I most always think of those I love. I draw them close, with a kind of conversation, for I like to hear their voices. My mom and dad are both gone, but I remember what their voices were like. And I like to remember many things about them. I do not know if that is a way to somehow keep them alive in me. Nor do I know if it is some kind of puzzle that I am being prompted to flesh out. Through faith I hope they are near to me—and, in their own way, speak.

It is strange, maybe even a mystery, how wondrous things arrive. All over the world, even in our drowsy reveries before sleep arrives, other things arrive—voices, images, symbols, as if we are being drawn into a vast puzzle of song, of a desire for a unified universe, a cross in a play area, a need to repair a glitch—all coming at once, and then again and again. And so it is in the world that some marvelous things become real and we know a good song or a puzzle or a working computer.

The world is in need of desperate repair. From top to bottom, it seems to be falling apart. Easy solutions are not to be had. What seem to come and ask for a response are small but fascinating things that we can manage. There is a choice in learning to trust them, to write down the puzzles, follow the music, ponder little glitches.

I suppose, and this is just a theory, that God is taking care of the larger picture and sends us things at night to ensure local or provincial maintenance, pleasure and mysteries. It is just a hunch, one that I was thinking about last night, before turning in bed, toward my window, and listening for those I love and miss.

Brother Mark was up here yesterday, in this room where I write. He was talking about writing—he is a good writer—and he is trying to catch moments of the “every day” and ordinary on paper.

“Every moment, every second, is eternal,” he said. And then he smiled. “Yes, something eternal shines through time, through everything.” Then he wondered aloud if he should try his hand at art, at drawing or painting.

And now I wonder if God sent a wish his way, perhaps the night before, or when he was walking before dawn, as he does most mornings. Walking through the eternal, biding time and trying to figure out how to word it, paint it, keep just a bit of it before it passes. Like sitting before the vast and living screen of God’s creation, and putting its glow, its light, to canvas or a writing pad, just because it is beautiful, and it all longs to be sung or written. It whispers at night to be fashioned into something good and to be made well again when it hits a glitch.

Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at